Today in History – May 25, 1961 – BGen Barnie McEntire, Jr (SCANG) crashes F-104 in Susquehanna River to avoid hitting city of Harrisburg

25 May 1961 – Brigadier General Barnie B. McEntire, Jr., commander of the South Carolina Air National Guard, is killed when his Lockheed F-104A Starfighter, 56-0853, suffers engine failure on takeoff from Olmsted Air Force Base, Pennsylvania. He stays with the jet to crash into the Susquehanna River rather than risk it crashing into populated areas of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.”(1)

As published in the Columbia (SC) Star “In January 1960, the National Guard Bureau in Washington D.C. announced the South Carolina Air National Guard (“SCANG”) would be the first Air Guard unit in the nation to receive the F-104 Starfighter. The first three F-104s arrived at Congaree Air Base on February 16 and immediately elevated the SCANG to the vanguard of America’s air defense system.

The SCANG’s 157th Fighter Squadron instantly began flying air defense missions 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. The primary purpose was to alert the east coast for possible Soviet attacks. Unfortunately, the high performance yet problematic jet proved once more the latter as several Starfighters crashed because of engine fuel problems.

The SCANG’s commander, Brig. General Barnie B. McEntire Jr., was not happy. Accordingly, he attended a conference at Olmstead AFB in Harrisburg, PA with his second in command, Col. Robert H. Morrell. The purpose of the conference was to identify the cause of so many engine failures and subsequent crashes.

After meeting with USAF officials, BG McEntire departed with the following admonition: “[e]ither do something about it immediately, or you will have some dead pilots on your hands.”

On May 25, 1961, both South Carolina pilots strapped themselves into their F-104s and headed home. Ironically and tragically, BG McEntire never made it.

Instead, he crashed into the Susquehanna River shortly after takeoff. Witnesses stated BG McEntire’s plane was in flames and bearing down on Harrisburg before veering toward the river. When the wreckage was found, the ejector seat was still intact. Taken together, the evidence strongly suggested BG McEntire purposely chose not to eject and instead piloted his F-104 away from Harrisburg. In so doing, he gave his own life to save countless others.

Following this tragic crash, the Air Force Materials Command approved numerous engine modifications for the F-104, including 41 separate items both McEntire and Morrell had requested at the conference. Later that year, on November 10, 1961, Congaree Air Base was renamed McEntire Air National Guard Base in honor of the heroic BG Barnie B. McEntire Jr.”(2)

“Barnie McEntire’s love of aviation began as a teenager when he washed Piper Cubs at Columbia’s Owens Field. After graduating from the University of South Carolina, he entered pilot training in 1939, earned his pilot’s wings in 1940 in the Army Air Corps and began a 22-year military career.

He served in World War II as chief pilot for Air Transport Command’s North Atlantic Division flying B-24 bombers. In 1946, he organized the first South Carolina Air National Guard units. On February 18, 1959, he earned [the] rank of Brigadier General.”(3)

Source (1) Wikiwand; (2) Columbia Star (SC) The F-104 Starfighter; Part Three: The SCANG – August 29, 2014, (3) South Carolina Aviation Association

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