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Military Plane Crash Story Unearths the Real Facts about Heroic Hamilton Pilot

Rather than ejecting and letting plane explode into east Novato neighborhood, Air Force captain stayed in the cockpit and brought it down on barren hillside.

I stand corrected, and this is a tribute to the Patch model of sharing hyperlocal information.

Novato Patch was contacted by Mike Warner, a former San Marin High student (class of 2007) about a story I wrote about a plane that crashed on Novato’s east side in the early 1970s. Mike donates his time with Matt Cerkel, a Marin Municipal Water District ranger and a local authority on Marin’s military plane crashes. The information Mike and Matt provided Novato Patch has prompted me to amend and correct the original story in the paragraphs below.

As mentioned in the first article, lifelong Novato resident Patti Titman asked us to look into a plane that crashed in the area near her parents’ house in the Atherton/Bugeia area. To the best of her recollection, it occurred sometime in 1971 or ’72 and it was a plane from Hamilton Air Force Base, about seven miles to the south as the crow flies.

As I started my online research, I came upon two crashes that were fairly well publicized at the time, though one was in 1970 and the other was 1964. What didn’t match up was that the crash that was closer to the Patti’s time period was not a jet, but a prop transport.

Early press accounts of that crash stated that the plane went down shortly after takeoff.  However, it was actually four minutes after takeoff, and four minutes was enough time to cover the 18 miles to Schellville, between Sears Point and downtown Sonoma. That’s where the 1970 transport plane crash took place and killed 13 servicemen, not near Bahia. There was but one survivor, Captain George Burk, whose story of survival and recovery is extraordinary and deserves a read.

The crash that Patti Titman recalled coming down in the hills between Atherton Avenue and the Bahia area occurred Nov. 24, 1972. The plane was a jet, just as Patti thought, as did her future husband, Earl Titman, who lived on the west side of town and remembers checking the wreckage with a friend. Earl Titman is now a sergeant with the .

The Air Force had a tight clamp down on the accident site, which may account for the lack of easily searchable information about the incident. The jet involved, an F-106 Convair Delta Dart, was one of the military’s most technologically advanced fighter aircraft at the time. Protection of advanced technologies was paramount then, just as it is today.

Mike Warner, now a Sonoma State student, has a binder of military records that have been opened for public consumption years later. Many have not been made available on the Internet. Excerpts of an e-mail from Warner contains more detail about this particular crash and uncovers the heroic efforts of the pilot that day.

*

“Self Sacrifice: Sacrifice of oneself or one's own interests for the benefit of others. On Nov. 24, 1972, Captain Michael D. Burmeister was a part of training mission leaving from . When his F-106 Fighter lifted off the end of Hamilton's runway no one knew this would be the last time anyone saw him alive.

His aircraft would suffer a mechanical failure resulting in a forced landing just north of the base at 9:55 a.m. The accident report later concluded that the speed brake for F-106 S/N 59-0089 might have come open during flight. This would have caused the aircraft to enter a stall (loss of lift) at a much higher speed. Burmeister’s wing man saw him disappear through the thick overcast shortly after takeoff. Seconds later smoke drifted up through the overcast, and Burmeister’s wing man notified Hamilton of an off-base crash.

It was also concluded the Burmeister had plenty of time to bail out of his aircraft but decided to stay in the aircraft because he knew there were homes just north of the base. Burmeister summoned all of his strength to maneuver the large jet away from home and crashed into a hillside. He was killed instantly by the impact. Debris from the aircraft was thrown over a quarter mile away from the impact site. The engine of the F-106 came down on Bahia Lane.

The Air Force camped for two weeks on Bahia Lane during the cleanup. The property owner who had the jet come down in his backyard remembers being kept from going into his own backyard by two Air Force Security Police (Air Force version of MPs). The Air Force had to keep coming back many times after the initial two weeks as more pieces were found of both the pilot’s body and the plane. Except for the tail section, the plane had essentially exploded into many small pieces.

To this day there is no memorial to 25-year-old Captain Michael D. Burmeister except a small 12-by-6-inch plaque at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo., that marks his grave. He gave his life so that others may continue to live. If it were not for his sacrifice, many more would have lost their lives that day.”

*

Warner adds that some of the people who lived in the house closest to the crash site are still there, but they are wary of pinpointing the location of the crash for fear of treasure hunters and trespassers. For that reason, we won’t get more specific on that impact zone except to say it’s a hillside between Atherton and Bahia.

I’d like to say thank you Mike Warner and Matt Cerkel for your diligence, your willingness to help Novato Patch get the story straight and for paying tribute to those who have served in the military.

Sylvia Barry February 27, 2011 at 08:00 AM
Great job, Michael, for sharing your passion with us and for setting the record straight! Very interesting to learn about this piece of history!
Joe February 27, 2011 at 05:03 PM
Thank you Brent and Tom for getting this story straight and bringing a piece of Novato history to light. We were all wondering why it was so hard to find information about the crash and now we know why. There were also many rumors about what had happened to the pilot, if he died while ejecting or went down with the jet. We never knew about his heroic actions and his sacrifice on that morning for the people of Novato. Thanks again for your hard work in bringing this story to print.
tom keena February 27, 2011 at 05:45 PM
Brent, nice article. I really look forward to my daily PATCH. Several months ago, Matt Cerkel gave an amazing presentation to the Novato Historical Guild membership. He spoke at length as we sat at the Hamilton Museum. Matt is a wealth of knowledge and an excellent speaker. Tom Keena Novato Historical Board
Brent Ainsworth (Editor) February 27, 2011 at 06:04 PM
I agree, Tom Keena, that Matt Cerkel has done some great work to preserve Marin's 20th century history and it's great to see that a young guy like Mike Warner has been inspired to help him. As a military history buff myself, I'm fascinated not just with the plane crashes but with the stories of all local veterans who served. In fact, I'm looking for a volunteer to help me document the stories of military veterans from Novato in a feature called "Old Glory." Search for that on Novato Patch and you'll see some of those stories. If anybody has interest in this, drop me a line.
Jerry February 28, 2011 at 03:57 AM
Great article about a sad story. A 25 year-old hero gives his life to save others and apparently the only recognition he gets is a page long internet article 39 years later. So sad. Life can be unfair.
mark October 02, 2011 at 08:37 AM
I had the pleasure of having dinner with Cpt Michael Burmeister the night before the crash at the Hamilton AFB Officer's Club. " Mike" was departing the nest morning to his home base at KI Sawyer AFB, Michigan when his F106 went down.. By all accounts, Cpt Burmeisters actions were indeed heroic. Two horseback riders witnessed the impact, the fireball nearly blowing them off of their horses and tried to help. Mike was still strapped in the cockpit on impact , but because of the fire the riders were helpless to assist.Unfortunately, Mike's head was decapated from the rest of his body. His F106 Deflta Dart's speedbrake was indeed in the deployed position, causing the aircraft to rapidly loss airspeed, lose altidude and eventually crash into the hillside. Mike's flight suit cuff may have inadvertantly gotten tangled with the speed brake lever, causing in to deploy. No doubt the Cpt. did everything possible to avoid the housing area by going down with his aircraft on the hillside. Rest in Peace my Brother God took you at a young age but you're in a better Place. Mark
James Marshall Berry January 11, 2012 at 06:07 AM
Hi Brent.. I actually know you from the IJ days. I filled the candy machines back in the day. Now I write for a couple local publications in Sonoma. I remember this well, and I delivered the Novato Advance at the time. There were pics and a front page article about this. Too bad the current owners of the Novato Advance have essentially stashed the archives of the history of news in Novato in favor of whatever their crap website is doing. Would be nice if the Patches all over could somehow get all the archives from the small town papers that have been gobbled up and somehow preserve them. That, would be news worth reading. ,
Linda Feis February 23, 2012 at 11:37 PM
I was horseback riding that day. I found the pilots hand. Thats how we knew it was an airforce fighter. I have the original newspaper clipping.
Linda Feis February 23, 2012 at 11:51 PM
Michaels body was in the trees his upper half. He was ripped from the jet because he never ejected. He crashed 15 feet from us a miracle I,m alive....windows and garage doors were blown out of homes. One horse had to be put down due to burns.
Linda Feis February 23, 2012 at 11:54 PM
Can't believe after all these years I find this article. I am bringing the original newspaper article to work tomorrow to show my young coworkers who look at me in disbelief of that day. We were five..I was the one who heard the plane and was yelling to my friends to get out of the way. Felt like I was o the landing strip of a huge airport.
James Marshall Berry February 24, 2012 at 12:27 AM
Wow Linda.. and chance of scanning the clip? Since the Novato Advance got bought by marinscope, none of the old issues are online..I lived in bahia then..I remember hearing about the horseback riders. I was 12.
Linda Feis February 24, 2012 at 12:42 AM
I'll shoot it with my I pad hold on
Linda Feis February 24, 2012 at 12:46 AM
Ok got the photos I can email them ....but to where?
Linda Feis February 24, 2012 at 12:48 AM
Ok sending brent ainsworth the article and wreckage
Tom Ewing April 06, 2012 at 08:01 PM
Is there a chance I can see the article as well? I am in possession of Michaels Airforce academy ring which was given to me by my sister and brother in law who are related to Michaels father.
Pam Wendell April 07, 2012 at 08:11 PM
Linda, How can I get in touch with you? Please emailme: elmoswife@msn.com Thank you so much. Pam
Linda Feis April 07, 2012 at 09:28 PM
Where do I sent it!!!!!
Tom Ewing May 22, 2012 at 10:26 AM
Tvtommy@mac.com Thanks in advance!
judy Leesburg November 27, 2012 at 03:45 PM
Dear Linda, Thank you for sharing these thoughts. After all these years, it is amazing the facts are being known now after all this time. Mike and I were married a short three years but I still feel like I was the luckiest girl in the world.
judy Leesburg November 27, 2012 at 03:52 PM
Dear Mark, I have relived Mike's story so many times through your story. I am so happy he was with you. I miss him today just like it was yesterday. I would like to talk to you sometime. it would be so good to hear your last moments with him. Thanks,Judy Webb Burmeister Leesburg
Linda Feis June 30, 2013 at 09:36 AM
Still wondering why myself or the other horseback riders that day are not mentioned as eye witnesses. One horse had to be put down. Michael B Whelan a Vietman Vet. and icon in Marin county is not mentioned....
Laura Bryon July 30, 2013 at 05:32 PM
Dear Linda, I lived on June Lane from 1970-1980 and as a 12 year old completely remember hearing the crash that morning. My parents were convinced the plane must have crashed in the fog on a landing descent into Gnoss Field. My older brother Brad and I were determined to go find out, so being friends of the Cavelleros we tried to sneak up their driveway to get a closer look but were immediately shooed away and told to go home. The point of impact was just yards away from our school bus stop and the wreckage was visible for days so it was big news for all the kids in our rural neighborhood. We eventually heard about the riders (you!) who had been there and some gory/sad details about the pilot which as curious kids we just couldn't help ourselves, we just had to see it for ourselves! It must have been only a day or two after when my brother and I finally accessed the site (crew had left for the day) and I have never forgotten what I saw: his empty helmet on the ground and a burnt-to-a-crisp flight jacket nearby, tons of strewn metal and jet engine parts, and looking up into the oaks' canopy, a spidery web of parachute strings; so clearly a great loss and yet it remained a mystery for so long. Thank you for personalizing it!
Tom Walsh July 30, 2013 at 09:21 PM
Thank you all for your comments and contributions. It's amazing to see so many connect and reconnect here over both of these tragic events. I am still in touch with Capt. George Burke who I was fortunate enough to meet when we visited the crash site which straddles Sonoma Trust land and the Roche Family Winery. Efforts for a memorial at the site are underway and George plans another visit perhaps next year.

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