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Fighter jet crashes in harbor

In a photo originally published in The Mining Journal, Major John D. Slattery, Jr. is seen dangling from a tree in woods east of Harvey, as he fastened a lifeline to his parachute harness ring. (Photo courtesy of the Marquette Regional History Center)

MARQUETTE — Fifty years ago today, scores of bystanders witnessed the crash of a fighter jet into Marquette’s Lower Harbor. June 12, 1974, was also a Wednesday.

At approximately 1:35 p.m., eyewitnesses saw a plane smoking downward out of the clouds, the parachutes of the pilot and co-pilot after they safely ejected and the fiery plunge of the fuselage into Lake Superior near the Shiras Steam Plant.

The F-106B Delta Dart fighter jet, callsign Red 3, took off from K.I. Sawyer Air Force Base, approximately 11 miles south of the harbor, at 1:30 p.m. Red Flight was a four-plane formation taking off at 10 second intervals. Red 1, 2, & 4 were all F106A’s (single seat aircraft), while Red 3 was the only F106B (a two-seat aircraft). Major John D. Slattery, Jr., 44, of Boston, MA, was the pilot and Lt. Eric R. Johnston, 25, of Windham, ME, was co-pilot.

The primary mission was aerial combat tactics with radar intercepts scheduled first to reduce the fuel load. The briefing, pre-flight and takeoff were reportedly normal but just three minutes later Red 3 experienced a mechanical failure. The redacted accident report describes “a loud explosion occurred followed by severe aircraft vibrations…Maj. Slattery noted the illumination of the MASTER CAUTION light, FIRE Warning light, and numerous warning panel lights. In addition, Lt. Johnston recalled the HYDRAULIC Low Warning light flashing.”

After brief attempts to restart the engine failed, the crewmen pointed the aircraft towards the lake and bailed out. Red 1 and 2 turned to maintain visual contact with the ejected crew members, noting that both had good chutes. The flight lasted approximately six minutes.

As the rescue crews searched for him, an unidentified boy about 10 or 11 years old approached them, saying “I know where the pilot’s at.” One of the men warned the child not to lie to them. At that, the boy stated, “He’s a major in an orange flight suit, and he’s hanging in a tree.”

Slattery’s parachute had indeed been caught in a tree, leaving him hanging nearly upside down 55 feet off the ground. About an hour after the crash, he was rescued by TSgt. Tommy Miles, a pararescuer from Sawyer and Wayne Trepanier from the Marquette Board of Light and Power.

Johnston reportedly landed in a field adjacent to M-28 where he was picked up by a Sawyer helicopter. While the official reports don’t include this information, a local story maintains that he walked to the Harvey Inn (now the Lake Superior Smokehouse Brewpub on Main Street in Harvey).

Once at the bar, Johnston reportedly asked to use their phone and called the base. Whoever answered the phone, cried “We have an emergency!” and promptly hung up. Johnston called back, exclaiming, “I AM the emergency!” Another local story claims that patrons at the Harvey Inn told Johnston that he looked quite shook up, offered him a drink, and that he was quite inebriated by the time he was picked up.

The aircraft’s canopy, which ejected with the crew, hit a mobile home on Silver Creek Road. The 400-pound piece of debris caused external damage to the exterior and one room of the trailer. Twenty-one-year-old resident, Denise Legaski, was unharmed but quite shaken by the impact. She was treated for shock at the base hospital.

The wreckage of the fuselage was located in the harbor by Marquette Police Department divers mid-afternoon on Thursday. The fighter plane’s engine- which constituted the bulk of the aircraft, its afterburner and landing gear were found close together in 20 to 25 feet of water. Additional wreckage from the jet was later discovered nearby.

Salvage operations were a combined effort between a Navy salvage team and the Army Corps of Engineers who supplied the vessels, including the dredger ship Coleman. Efforts began on Saturday, June 15 but were hampered by the weather. The engine was finally raised on Monday, June 17.

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