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May 25, 1961: Brig. Gen. Barnie B. McEntire is killed in an F-104 crash
60 years ago, the quiet voice of Brig. Gen. Barnie B. McEntire radioed a distress call to his wingman, Col. Robert H. Morrell, shortly after the pair took off in their F-104 jets from Olmstead AFB in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.
"Bob, I'm having some difficulty,” were the last words of the SCANG's first commander, a man who at his death on May 25,1961, was the youngest Air Guard general in the United States- a mere 42 years old. McEntire was killed moments later, still strapped in the seat of his F-104 Starfighter which crashed into the Susquehanna River.
A Certificate of Valor citation presented posthumously by the Governor of Pennsylvania read in part:
“General McEntire was at sufficient altitude and flying at sufficient air speed that would have permitted him to eject safely from his aircraft. However, the use of this particular runway at Olmstead leads directly to the heavily populated areas of Harrisburg and the West Shore communities. An aircraft abandoned after takeoff on this runway would surely land in these built up areas and result in casualties among the inhabitants. McEntire never attempted to utilize his escape system, but from eyewitness reports, brought his aircraft in for a water landing, which was the only possible place he could land his aircraft without causing injury or death to others. General McEntire, in performing this act of self-sacrifice, saved the nearby community and its inhabitants from possible death and destruction. His thoughts were concerned with the welfare of others and not of himself.”
Ironically, McEntire and Morrell were in Pennsylvania to meet with USAF officials about the F-104’s record of maintenance problems and fatal crashes. It was prescient that McEntire left their meeting that day with these fateful words: “Either do something about it immediately, or you will have some dead pilots on your hands."
Possibly, the general himself was a victim of dilatory bureaucracy. Or perhaps he was merely another statistic of a high performance aircraft which continued to claim the lives of pilots who flew it. Immediately after his fatal crash, an engine modification including 41 separate improved items was approved by the USAF Air Material Command. All of these improvements had been asked for by McEntire and Morrell at the May conference.
On November 10, 1961, Congaree Air Base was renamed McEntire Air National Guard Base in his honor.
Rest in Peace, General McEntire.
Swamp Fox Semper Primus.