Out of the sun, packed in a diamond formation and flying as one that day, the
Minute Men dove at nearly the speed of sound toward a tiny emerald patch
on Ohio's unwrinkled crazy quilt below. It was a little after nine on the morning
of June 7, 1958, and the destination of the Air National Guard's jet precision
team was the famed Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, just outside Dayton.
On the ground, thousands of faces looked upward as Colonel Walt Williams,
leader of the Denver-based Sabrejet team, gauged a high-speed pullout. For
the Minute Men pilots -- Colonel Williams, Captain Bob Cherry, Lieutenant
Bob Odle, Captain John Ferrier, and Major Win Coomer -- the maneuver was
routine, for they had given their show hundreds of times before millions of
Low across the fresh, green grass the jet stream streaked, far ahead of the
noise of the planes' own screaming engines. Judging his pull-up, Colonel
Williams pressed the microphone button on top of his throttle: "Smoke on --
how!" The diamond of planes pulled straight up into the turquoise sky, a bush
tail of white smoke pluming out behind. The crowd gasped as the four ships
suddenly split apart, rolling to the four points of the compass and leaving a
beautiful, smoky fleur-de-lis inscribed on the heavens. This was the Minute
Men's famed "flower burst" maneuver. For a minute the crowd relaxed, gazing
at the tranquil beauty of the huge, white flower that had grown from the lush
Ohio grasslands to fill the great bowl of sky.
Out on the end of his stem of the flower, Colonel Williams turned his Sabre
hard, cut off the smoke trail, and dropped the nose of his F86 to pick up
speed for the low-altitude crossover maneuver. Then, glancing back over his
shoulder, he froze in terror. Far across the sky to the east, John Ferrier's
plane was rolling. He was in trouble. And his plane was headed right for the
small town of Fairborn, on the edge of Patterson Field. In a moment, the
lovely morning had turned to horror. Everyone saw; everyone understood.
One of the planes was out of control.
Steering his jet in the direction of the crippled plane to race after it, Williams
radioed urgently, "Bail out, John! Get out of there!" Ferrier still had plenty of
time and room to eject safely. Twice more Williams issued the command: "Bail
out, Johnny! Bail out!"
Each time, Williams was answered only by a blip of smoke.
He understood immediately. John Ferrier couldn't reach the mike button on
the throttle because both hands were tugging on a control stick locked in
full-throw right. But the smoke button was on the stick, so he was answering
the only way he could -- squeezing it to tell Walt he thought he could keep his
plane under enough control to avoid crashing into the houses of Fairborn.
Suddenly, a terrible explosion shook the earth. Then came a haunting
silence. Walt Williams continued to call through the radio, "Johnny? Are you
there? Captain, answer me!"
Major Win Coomer, who had flown with Ferrier for years, both in the Air
National Guard and with United Airlines, and who had served a combat tour
with him in Korea, was the first Minute Man to land. He raced to the crash
scene, hoping to find his friend alive.
Instead, he found a neighborhood in shock from the awful thing that had
happened. Captain John T. Ferrier's Sabrejet had hit the ground midway
between four houses, in a backyard garden. It was the only place where he
could have crashed without killing people. The explosion had knocked a
woman and several children to the ground, but no one had been hurt, with
the exception of Johnny Ferrier. He had been killed instantly.
A steady stream of people began coming to Coomer as he stood in his flying
suit beside the smoking, gaping hole in the ground where his best friend had
"A bunch of us were standing together, watching the show," as elderly man
with tears in his eyes told Coomer. "When the pilot started to roll, he was
headed straight for us. For a second, we looked right at each other. Then he
pulled up right over us and put it in there."
In deep humility, the old man whispered, "This man died for us."
A few days after this tragic accident, John Ferrier's wife, Tulle, found a worn
card in his billfold. On it were the words "I'm Third." That simple phrase
exemplified the life -- and death -- of this courageous man. For him, God
came first, others second, and himself third.
True to his philosophy, John Ferrier sacrificed his life for people he had never
met. If you ever found yourself in a similar situation, would you do the same?