AT2 Gerald L. Nesbitt Radio operator. CAC-6, VP-11
On 11 December, 1977, a P-3B Orion, BuNo 153428, of Patrol Squadron 11 (VP-11) took off from Lajes Field, Azores, for a routine patrol of an area that included the Canary Islands. The crew (Combat Aircrew Six, CAC-6) had recently arrived from Naval Station Rota, Spain. One crewman, the radio operator, had wanted to remain in Spain, and so he had arranged for the radio operator of his replacement crew, coming in from Lajes, to swap billets with him. That radio operator was AT2 Gerald L. Nesbitt (Gary) a friend of mine from our training at VP-30, the replacement air group.
Shortly after takeoff, the forward radar went down. The onboard tech and a couple crewmen apparently tried to swap out the components with the aft radar, rather than scrub the mission, and the flight continued towards it’s operational area. Upon arrival, the area was overcast, but the crew elected to descend through the cover, judging from their navigational equipment to be over water.
Why the crew elected to descend without the forward radar being operational is unknown. What is known is that shortly after beginning their descent, the aircraft slammed into a hillside of Pico de Malpaso on the Island of El Hierro, destroying the aircraft and killing everyone onboard.
Gary was a good friend, and was the Radio Operator on my crew at VP-30. We went on liberty together and got to know each other fairly well. When I was assigned to VP-10, and he to VP-11, it meant that we would be close enough to see each other regularly. His squadron, in fact, relieved mine from a split-site deployment to Rota & Lajes in late 1977. My own crew had arrived in Rota, Spain, the day before the incident to deliver Christmas mail and packages to VP-11 from families back at NAS Brunswick. I had hoped to see Gary in Rota, not knowing that he had elected to stay in Lajes and help out a shipmate by swapping crews with him. One of the saddest things I have ever done was on the following day to have to sit with two other men and sort through all the mail and packages to remove those intended for the crew that perished. We brought those back to Brunswick with us to return to their families.
Gary Nesbitt was the sort of person who would go out of his way to help a shipmate. He always had a smile and was a kind, gentle man. His death hit me some weeks afterwards when I was flipping through some pictures and there was one of him and me and some others at Jacksonville. It was a hard blow that took awhile to sort out and put away. There would be other losses in the years to come, but his was the first of a shipmate, and after reading the official report of the investigation, an un-necessary one as their were so many errors made by the crew, and so many chances to simply turn around and fly the mission another day.
The mission commander put the mission ahead of safety of flight considerations, and as a result, the Navy lost a good crew, an expensive aircraft, and I lost a friend whose death still comes to mind these many years later.