Memories rekindled nine years after death of man with local ties

The phone rang and woke me from crew-rest at 0325 a.m.

The voice on the other end said, “Al, Muff is overdue.” The intensity in Maj. John “Cabi” Cabigas’ voice instantly jolted my mind from sleepy fogginess to razor-edge clarity and I asked, “What do you mean he’s overdue?”

Cabi told me that my friend and fellow U-2 pilot, Duane “Muff” Dively as he was known, had made his last scheduled radio check-in before his U-2 reconnaissance aircraft was expected to arrive on final at our deployed location.

However, he never showed up on final and the recovery crew couldn’t raise him on the radio. After about 10 minutes of waiting, Cabi, the U-2 mobile pilot, called to wake me (the squadron commander) and tell me the alarming news.

As I jumped into my flight suit and raced to the squadron operations room in my pickup, my mind ran through all the possibilities. Maybe Dively had experienced radio failure, but then why had he not shown up on final and flown a radio-out approach and landing pattern? Did he have an aircraft malfunction that precluded him from landing? Then why had he not declared an emergency and called us on the radio?

Dively was one of the U-2 program’s most experienced and gifted pilots, no way he could have crashed, right? Had he been shot down? My mind then wandered back to the night before when he had suited up for his combat mission.

During the pre-flight test of his full pressure suit, the life support technicians noticed an air leak in his left “space-suit” glove. Since I was the only squadron pilot who had the same glove size as Muff, the life support supervisor came and asked me if Maj. Dively could use my suit glove as a replacement for his mission.

That was a no-brainer, because a simple glove swap was only a small adjustment for a group of professional warriors intent on doing whatever it took to get high-priority combat missions in the air.

Before moving the suited-up Maj. Dively from the integration room to the pilot transport van, Duane gave everyone the traditional fist bump between U-2 mission pilots and other U-2 pilots and support crew. He then gave a thumbs-up with my glove and set off on his mission.

My mind raced forward to the present real world; I got out of my truck and ran into the squadron.

When I entered the operations room the mood was somber. The Supervisor of Flying, Maj. Gary “Kuma” McCloud, was transmitting on the radio trying to raise the missing aircraft on the expected frequency. After awhile, our hearts sank even further when we received reports from another airborne aircraft that they saw fires on the ground near the recovery route and what appeared to be a crash site.

Our returning combat mission had now changed to a rescue mission. With daytime temperatures quickly soaring to more than 110 degrees, it was critical we recover our pilot before the sun rose high in the sky, if at all possible.

Surviving in such a desert environment would be difficult without cover from the intense sun and extreme heat.

With the crash site being more than 15 miles from the base in a sea of sand dunes, reaching it would be difficult, especially with no access roads to the location. Our only option was to rely on host-nation rescue helicopter support to retrieve our pilot. After a few hours of coordination and rescue mission preparation, the rescue helicopter departed for the crash site then quickly arrived on the scene.

The helicopter pilot relayed progress over the radio as the para-rescue specialist egressed the helicopter and searched through the wreckage for the pilot. All of our hearts pounded as we waited for some kind of good news from the rescue team.

I have never experienced a more intense atmosphere of fear, dread and stomach-churning anticipation than when we waited those few minutes for the status of our pilot.

Then, the terrible news came in from the rescue crew that the pilot was deceased. All of us were devastated. Not a word was spoken for several minutes and the room was filled with cold silence. Eventually, we all regained our composure and each of us began the process of coordinating for the recovery effort and for the resumption of combat operations. We moved about like zombies doing what we had to do, ensuring what had to be done, was done. None of us would ever be the same.

The next few days were a blur. We held a memorial service attended by what seemed like the whole base population. Kuma McCloud flew the next combat mission the following morning and Cabi Cabigas flew the next night sortie.

In the days following the crash, we began to believe that Dively had experienced a catastrophic malfunction that had left his aircraft largely without electrical power. One piece of equipment that we were initially unable to recover was the glove that Duane had borrowed from me to fly the mission.

Evidently, he had removed his gloves for the landing phase of the mission and stowed them nearby in the cockpit, which was a common technique among many U-2 pilots.

Once the aircraft had crashed, the gloves were scattered in the aircraft wreckage and were quickly covered over by blowing sand in the sand dunes. I put out a reward to any of the recovery team that could find the missing glove at the desert crash site.

A few days into the recovery effort, three airmen arrived in my office carrying my glove. Their sun-burnt countenance was a respectful mix of solemnity for the meaning of the situation, and pride in their considerable accomplishment of finding the glove buried in shifting sands. With grateful acknowledgement, I accepted the glove and provided the airmen with their reward of three freshly minted U-2 pilot coins and three firm handshakes.

I believe we all walked away with a treasure that day and that moment is still frozen in my mind as one of the seminal moments of my Air Force career.

The glove was slightly tattered but in otherwise good shape, and after the life-support personnel condemned it as unusable equipment, I kept it in my desk drawer until I brought it home with me at the end of my tour.

The accident investigation board confirmed that after the malfunction, Maj. Dively had continued to fly the aircraft in the darkness of the night. While he was trying to troubleshoot the malfunction, Maj. Dively’s aircraft had impacted the ground and he was fatally injured.

It took months for me to fully understand the actions that Duane took that night in the cockpit in an attempt to correct the malfunction, but it was obvious to me all along that he had intentionally put himself at risk to save the priceless combat asset that he was flying. My respect for him increased as we launched every mission thereafter.

I kept Duane Dively in my mind and the glove in my drawer. Were we doing everything that we could do to avoid a similar mishap? Were the risks that we were accepting on any particular mission worth the mission objectives on that mission? I was always able to answer “yes,” but my experiences in those days after Maj. Dively’s supreme sacrifice changed me.

There has rarely been a day since that I have not thought about Maj. Duane Dively. Everything that I do in my role as a safety professional is based on those same questions about risks and mission objectives.

Every time I am notified of another mishap, my mind goes back to that 0325 a.m. phone call. What is the status of the crew? What do we need to do to recover assets? What caused the mishap? How can we prevent it from happening again?

These are not just routine questions to me. This is not just my job. The experiences I had in the desert all those years ago make it real, important and weighty. Each and every airman we lose in a mishap is a lost family member. They have lives and families and friends, and each one will forever be missed.

I remember one day a few months before Duane’s mishap when he was flying with a new U-2 student in the two-seat version of the aircraft. I was chasing behind their two-seat U-2 in the mobile chase car while the student was attempting one of his first U-2 landings.

After the student made a mess of it, I transmitted on the radio and directed the Instructor Pilot (Dively) to take control of the aircraft. However, before I could get the words out of my mouth, Duane had calmly taken control of the aircraft and let me know that “I’ve got it.”

That was Maj. Dively. No one was calmer, more respected or more heeded than Duane.

He had the situation well under control well before I needed to intervene. He was also one of the very best at training our new pilots to land the difficult U-2 and the student in question eventually went on to become a successful U-2 pilot.

His loss was a devastating blow to the U-2 program, just as the loss of every airman is a blow to their squadron, base and the Air Force.

That is why I am a true believer in safety. That is why I pull out my old U-2 glove every year around Memorial Day. It reminds me of an old friend. It reminds me of how important it is to identify the cause of every mishap and to implement corrective actions in every case to prevent reoccurrence.

The “glove” is always kept near to remind me.

Editor’s note: This article is a reprint of the original version published in the 2014 Summer Edition of “Combat Edge,” a quarterly publication by Air Combat Command. Full permission for this reprint has been granted by the publishers of “Combat Edge,” and by its author, retired USAF Col. J. Alan Marshall, who serves as senior editor, and by the Cleveland Daily Banner, where it also appeared.