AAFD Capt. William Havener and 1974 plane crash wb.jpg

Capt. William Havener, a pilot with the 174th Tactical Fighter Group in Syracuse, was killed in a training accident at then Camp Drum on Oct. 5, 1974, when his plane went down due to mechanical failure. The decorated Vietnam War veteran had a lifelong love of flying. (Graphic by Mike Strasser, Fort Drum Garrison Public Affairs)

Visit to Fort Drum helps to bring closure
to family of fallen National Guard airman

Mike Strasser

Fort Drum Garrison Public Affairs

FORT DRUM, N.Y. (Oct. 24, 2023) – The Around and About Fort Drum series has largely collected histories of well-known memorials, buildings, and sites on post with the focus on highlighting the people, places, and events for whom they are named.

This month’s installment features a little-known event that occurred within Fort Drum’s training area, which only recently resurfaced by a family who sought closure on a decades-old tragedy.

Early this summer, the wreckage of a plane was found in a remote part of the training complex that once served as an Air Force bombing range. Fort Drum Range Branch officials noted that, in the early 1970s, two New York Air National Guard plane crashes occurred – two years apart.

On Oct. 19, 1972, Capt. Richard Monson was killed during a training exercise when his A-37 aircraft crashed into a swampy section of Camp Drum after he completed a bombing run over Range 35. According to reports, search teams struggled for nearly an hour through the rugged terrain to reach the crash site. Two years later, another crash claimed the life of Capt. William Havener, a pilot with the 174th Tactical Fighter Group out of Syracuse, on Oct. 5, 1974.

Havener, son of Paul and Anne Havener, grew up in Munnsville, New York – a small town in Madison County with a population of about 400. His parents owned a dairy farm, and Havener helped to support the family business. He had three younger siblings: two sisters and a brother. At Stockbridge Valley High School, Havener was a stellar student who played baseball, among other extracurricular activities. Although he was tone deaf and couldn’t read music, Havener played trombone in the high school band.

His father, a first-generation German immigrant, was adamant that his son would inherit the farm. Although he loved driving the tractor and baling hay, Havener had no interest in becoming a farmer. This created friction between the two, and Havener’s mother became the mediator.

“She could tell that farming was not going to be his path,” said Havener’s first-born son, William Havener Jr. “For whatever reason, which was a mystery to my family, he got it in his mind that he would become a pilot.”

Havener graduated as class valedictorian from Stockbridge High School in 1961, and he accepted a partial scholarship to attend Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI), in Troy. Other schools, like Syracuse University and MIT, offered scholarships, but he wanted to remain close at home. One of his high school math teachers provided him with additional instruction to prepare him for the difficult engineering courses. His father had health issues at the time, and two farm hands were hired to make up for the labor shortage while Havener was away in school.

Havener majored in aeronautical engineering. He was active in the Christian academic club, the rifle and pistol club, and he played baseball. Since his parents could not afford much financial support, the regular stipend he received from the Reserve Officer’s Training Corps program helped Havener pay for living expenses. He met his wife Sharon through mutual friends at RPI, when she asked him to attend a college dance with her.

They married soon after he graduated in 1965, and they departed for Moody Air Force Base in Georgia, where the newly commissioned Air Force second lieutenant attended flight school. While there, they welcomed their first son in November 1966.

From an early age, Havener had always wanted to be a pilot, and now he had the chance to fly the T-38 Talon – the military’s first twin-engine, high-altitude supersonic jet trainer.

“It was one of the most popular, best-built airplanes that the Air Force ever had,” Havener said. “So in flight school, he trained on the T-38 and the T-37. Eventually, he qualified on the F-4 Phantom, which is what he flew in Vietnam. He loved planes and he loved flying for his country.”

Havener trained on the F-4 Phantom II at MacDill Air Force Base in Florida, and then continued his training at Davis-Montham Air Force Base in Arizona. He was ordered to report to Eglin Air Force Base in Florida, to prepare for an overseas deployment to South Korea.

The Pueblo Incident involved an American spy ship, the USS Pueblo, which was attacked and seized in international waters in the Sea of Japan by North Korean gunboats on Jan. 23, 1968. One U.S. sailor was killed, and more than a dozen others were injured and taken hostage. During 11 months of captivity, President Lyndon Johnson ordered a show of force in the region, with hundreds of U.S. combat aircraft and 25 warships sent to South Korea.

Havener spent three months on the Korea deployment before returning to Eglin Air Force Base. He was permitted to delay his tour in Vietnam for the birth of his son Tim. He arrived in Da Nang in June of 1969, assigned to the 389th Tactical Fire Squadron at Phu Cat Air Base in southern Vietnam.

“The main missions that he flew were close-air combat and air support for the ground forces,” Havener said. “When the troops got into firefights and needed air support, that’s when the Phu Cat pilots were called. And the normal ordnance for an F-4 were 500-pound bombs and napalm, just to get an idea of the firepower they brought.”

Havener endured the ever-present danger of being shot down during these missions, only to suffer the risk of mortar and rocket attacks at the base when he wasn’t flying. Tired of the seemingly endless amount of death and destruction he experienced after two deployments and more than 200 combat missions, he returned to his family at Homestead Air Force Base near Miami, Florida.

“There is always that feeling that you’re not safe,” Havener said. “Not in the air or on the ground. As an Air Force officer, he probably had it a lot easier than most ground troops, but it still took a lot out of him.

“One of my great-uncles got him talking about the war once,” he continued. “And he asked him why he didn’t do another deployment. He said he just couldn’t kill anybody anymore. But he never lost his love for flying.”

Havener was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, the highest flight award in the U.S. military presented to service members who distinguished themselves by single acts of heroism or extraordinary achievement during aerial operations.

His award citation credited Havener’s actions during a two-plane attack on a large, fortified, hostile force. Despite intense ground fire and poor visibility in haze, Havener directed the delivery of ordnance with expert accuracy to destroy four bunkers and six structures, while also producing a secondary explosion and sustained fire on the ground.  

He also earned four Air Medals, the Vietnam Service Medal, the Vietnam Campaign Medal, and the National Defense Medal, among his decorations.

Havener finished out his active-duty contract with the Air Force in February 1973, while stationed at Shaw Air Force Base in South Carolina.

He moved his family to New York after purchasing a house in the village of Chittenango. Havener worked as a co-pilot for Eastern Airlines until he was furloughed during an extensive labor dispute in the airline industry. Afterward, Havener was employed as a design engineer at Singer Corporation’s Link Flight Simulation Division in Binghamton.

“It was a lot better for us after he got out of active duty,” Havener said. “We had a much more stable home life, and that’s what he really wanted.”

They welcomed a new member to their family when Jeff Havener was born in October 1973 in Oneida.

Havener continued to serve his country as a member of the Air National Guard. The 174th Tactical Fighter Group, stationed at Hancock Field, had been assigned a new aircraft – the A-37B – in 1970. A year later, 16 pilots were fully qualified. The A-37 was capable of aerial refueling, which meant that deployments farther away from Hancock Field were now possible and airmen could participate in more extensive training activities.

This was the plane Havener flew during drill weekends as a senior pilot with the 174th – also known as the “Boys from Syracuse.” Camp Drum’s Range 48 was their assigned gunnery range for most of their training, including the routine maneuvers on Oct. 5, 1974, when Havener’s plane went down due to mechanical failure.

“The exercise on the day of his accident, they were dropping practice bombs meant to simulate 500-pound bombs, which was their normal ordnance for combat,” Havener said. “So they were doing that and practicing strafing runs with their guns, and target practice with rockets.”

“When the accident happened, they were on their third pass, and my father was banking to come around for another pass,” he continued. “He had just throttled the engines to full power when the canopy on his airplane fell off. Just the crush of the (G-force), the wind rush and everything else just kept turning the plane, and he crashed into a wooded area.”

In 1976, members of the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) Post in East Syracuse dedicated their memorial park in honor of the late William Havener. His son further honored his father’s memory with a booklet in which family members shared their recollections of the 31-year-old war hero.

“I created that because after college and when I started working, I began having a lot of questions about my dad,” he said. “So I did a FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) request to get some of his military records, and my mom had some of his certificates and medals. I just wanted to know more about his life.”

Over the years, he continued to research his family history. He contacted elected officials to obtain a copy of the accident report to get a better understanding of his father’s accident, which was cited as a result of mechanical failure on the aircraft.

“I understood that there is only so much that can be released, and that the people providing testimonies had to remain anonymous,” Havener said. “That way the full story is documented and that can actually help prevent accidents in the future. But I was glad I could get direct answers about things I had questioned for a long time.”

In June, he contacted Fort Drum officials about a possible visit to the training complex. Range Branch officials worked with Air Force Safety Center Public Affairs to determine the location of his father’s crash site. Jim Moore, Fort Drum Training Division chief, said the discovered plane wreckage was not related to the Havener incident, and further investigation is required.

Havener visited the vicinity of the crash this summer with his wife, his brother, and representatives from the U.S. Air Force and Fort Drum Range Branch. Havener said the experience provided him some closure to the event that happened when he was 7.

“It was good to see the site, physically, because I have the account from the accident report, but I wanted to see where it happened with my own eyes,” he said. “Honestly, it was only this last year that I really wanted to visit the site. I was very glad for this chance and appreciative of everyone who set this up so we could finally do that.”