The Real Story

by Brian Melton

I’ve found that the mountains of Amherst County, Virginia are always beautiful–and sometimes dangerous. Sadly, this was proven to be true at the cost of the lives of two young pilots around 1979. Evidence of their passing can still be found in the darkened hollows of Cold Mountain, and their legend lives on in the tales of frightened hikers on the Appalachian Trail.

The sun cascades down over Amherst County, VA, taken from the meadow at Cold Mountain.

The sun cascades down over Amherst County, VA, taken from the meadow at Cold Mountain.

Amherst is situated in central Virginia, just north of Lynchburg and about an hour south of Charlottesville. Part of the county is relatively flat, sloping down to the historic James River on its southern border, but the northern and western parts of the county are dominated by the beginnings of eastern edge of the Blue Ridge Mountains. The famous Appalachian Trail runs through the area, winding its slow way from Georgia up into Canada. This makes the area attractive to hikers, hunters, nature enthusiasts, and others.

“Others” also includes military pilots, who use the mountains and valleys to practice their craft. In almost seven years of living in those mountains, I used to watch them flying by our home on top of the ridge at eye level. I saw F-16s, F-15s, F/A-18s, several V-22s and even Marine 1. Most of the pilots are from the reserve bases closer to the coast, coming inland to get a chance to work with their terrain following radar. Some practice night-flying skills.

An F-4 Phantom

And that, according to the stories, is what killed a pair of young pilots one dark night. The stories aren’t well documented, so there is much room for error, but according to rumor and one Appalachian Trail guidebook, the men were on a routine training mission in an F-4 Phantom when their aircraft slammed into the side of Cold Mountain, between its well-known meadow and Bald Knob. The pilots were killed instantly, and debris was scattered over the mountain, just below the Appalachian Trail. According to one account, one of the pilot’s empty helmets was found lying beside the trail itself, as if it had been set there on purpose.

My interest in the crash was born the moment I read about it in the trail guide. As a history professor who only lived thirty minutes away from the site, I determined to find out more about it. My part-time researches didn’t turn up much. I could find no reference to a crash in that location in any of the available databases or on-line newspaper archives that I had time to search. Still, with book in hand, I decided to see if I could verify the story.

Part of the ECM pod, left as a marker.

Part of the ECM pod, left as a marker.

It was indeed true. I found the site (made easy by a piece of the ECM pod some kind previous hiker had left on the trail itself) on the ascent south, just past Cow Camp Gap, on the right of the trail. The impact must have been dramatic, since mostly small pieces are left now, A few larger pieces of the fuselage are scattered here and there, but they’re very difficult to find in the summer, when the undergrowth covers them up. A disused road at the base of the ridge may have been cut to haul off some of the bigger pieces at the time of the crash. If you are diligent, though, you can find hundreds and possibly thousands of fragments buried in the leaves–including a collection of red and blue wires and circuit boards from what I take to be the same ECM pod mentioned above.

The original, story-starter picture.

The original, story-starter picture.

But the human story doesn’t end there. According to the legends, hikers still sometimes encounter the spirits of the dead pilots, clad in their flight suits, walking along the Appalachian Trail. Apparently their shades seem normal at first sight, though most people would wonder why someone dressed like that would be out on the trail in the twilight. I myself haven’t met them yet…but who knows? Perhaps their story lives on for a reason, and I may yet have a chance.

Here are some more pictures of the remaining wreckage, if you’re interested:

A piece of the fuselage

Much of the plane was shattered on impact.

Much of the plane was shattered on impact.


The abandoned road, probably cut specifically to haul away wreckage at the time of the crash.

The abandoned road, probably cut specifically to haul away wreckage at the time of the crash.

  1. Where can you begin a hike to reach the area of the plane crash? I live in Madison Heights and would love to hike that area with my family and an aircraft mechanic student that is living with us this year.

    • It’s easy. 🙂 The most pleasant (though longer) hike is to start at Hog Camp Gap and head south on the AT. That way you’ll get the awesome views over the back of Cold Mountain as you go. You’ll pass through Cow Camp Gap, and then head on towards Highway 60. As you start to climb Bald Knob (which isn’t bald anymore), the wreckage will be on your right (I don’t remember how many miles in. What wreckage remains is off the trail to the right, done the mountain. Last time I was there (several years now), I tied a red strip of plastic to a tree on the right side of the trail to mark where I started seeing bits and pieces. Also, someone had left a piece of the ECM pod on the trail itself as a marker.

      You can do the hike up from the Long Mountain Wayside on 60 if you like. It’s shorter, but much much steeper, and much less pleasant.

      I hope that helps!

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