David A. Steeves, 1953; from his high school yearbook
David A. Steeves, circa June 1957
David A. Steeves
Air Force Lieutenant with an Heroic Story
David Steeves (1934–1965) was a U.S. Air Force lieutenant and experimental aircraft test pilot. He is best known for an incident in 1957, when he was unjustly accused of giving a Lockheed T-33A trainer jet to the USSR during the Cold War.
Lieutenant Steeves was ordered to fly a jet from Hamilton Air Force Base near San Francisco, California to Craig Air Force Base near Selma, Alabama on May 9, 1957. "Something in the plane exploded" and he blacked out, he said. When he regained consciousness, he ejected from the out-of-control jet, badly injuring both ankles when he landed near the 12,000 ft. level in Dusy Basin, Kings Canyon National Park - a nearly 500,000-acre spread of rugged mountain country east of California’s San Joaquin Valley.
When Steeves failed to arrive at his destination, the Air Force went looking for him but no trace of Steeves or the plane was found. They declared the 23-year-old pilot officially dead. Steeves was down but not out, however. He crawled for 15 days over 20 miles of impassable mountains without food, in freezing weather, down the Middle Fork of the Kings River. "All I had to keep warm with was my parachute, so I wrapped up in it," Steeves said. He luckily found a National Park Service ranger's cabin at Simpson Meadow that had fishing equipment and some canned food. He caught fish and trapped and killed a deer at a salt lick using his .32-caliber pistol and a piece of string. After regaining some of his strength, he tried to cross the rain-swollen Kings River but nearly drowned and lost some of the clothes he had tied around his neck. Then, over fifty days after the accident, Steeves was found by a pack-train guide near Granite Basin and brought out of the mountains on horseback.
"My ankles are still swollen — otherwise I guess I'm okay," the pilot told reporters a couple of days later after being flown to Lockheed Air Terminal (now Bob Hope Airport) in Burbank. The Air Force found him lodging that night at the Knickerbocker Hotel in Hollywood, a stopover en route to a reunion with his wife, Rita, at their home in Trumbull, Connecticut. Steeves became a media sensation of sorts. "He was handsome, smoked pipes and cigars, drove a beautiful Corvette and he was a happy-go-lucky jet pilot — the 'Top Gun' Tom Cruise of his era," said San Diego-area author Eric Blehm, who is writing a book about Steeves. But the fact that the plane hadn't been found left doubts in some minds.
When the Air Force could not find any wreckage, Steeves was accused of giving the jet to Russia or shipping it piecemeal to Mexico. A writer from the Saturday Evening Post accompanied Steeves to the Sierra Nevada later that summer, but the snow had melted and the pilot had trouble finding his trail. The Post canceled a deal for a magazine series, citing inconsistencies in Steeves' story. Henry Holt & Co. canceled a book deal. His marriage fell apart. But what doubters didn't realize was "how these mountains have the amazing ability to hide things," said Blehm, a backpacker for a quarter of a century. "They are so rugged that you could be standing 5 feet away from something and not even see it."
Even though no charges were brought against the lieutenant, he requested discharge from the Air Force, which was granted. After returning to civilian life, Steeves found work flying experimental models of new aircraft and designing his own craft. Steeves moved to Fresno, west of where he ejected. In the following years, he flew over the Sierra again and again on his own, looking for any sign of the wreckage. Steeves was killed 16 Oct. 1965 at the Boise, Idaho airport in the crash of an aircraft he designed.
In the summer of 1977 or 1978, rangers in Kings Canyon National Park reported that Boy Scouts from Los Angeles on a hiking trip in Dusy Basin came across an aircraft canopy. In October the following year it was announced the serial number on it (52-92-32) matched the missing T-33A jet that Steeves had piloted, finally vindicating his story. When his mother and his widow were notified they were elated, because now his children would have good memories of their father.
The rest of the aircraft was never found. One ranger theorized that it "could have gone out over the ocean" and crashed after Steeves bailed out. As of June 2014 no more wreckage had been found.
[Harold W. (6), William (5), Titus (4), John 'Under-the-Hill' (3), John (2), Heinrich (1)]