Alan Aertker ’70 was inducted to the Nolan Hall of Fame in 2015. He sacrificed his life for the town of Thuine in Germany. Forty years later, Alan and his co-pilot are still celebrated. Below is the translation of the article published in Germany.
“40 Years Ago: Fighter Jet Crashes Near Thuine
Did the US Air Force pilots avoid a catastrophe? – Many questions remain
Did two pilots of the US Air Force give their lives to save Thuine from a catastrophe in 1977? And what caused their Phantom RF-4C to crash in the first place? Questions that today, 40 years later, still remain largely unanswered.
By Wilfried Roggendorf
THUINE. It is 11:44 a.m. on this Thursday in 1977, when the jet of pilot Captain Kenneth “Ken” Seder and his weapon systems operator First Lieutenant Alan “Al” Aertker crashes into a harvested field only a few hundred meters from the village center. Within a short time, the crash site is closed off by the military – first by the Bundeswehr and later also by the US Forces. What the aircraft accident investigators uncover under the protection of the soldiers is still not entirely known today.
Back then, the people of Thuine quickly decide that the Phantom’s crew steered their plummeting air craft over the village to avoid crashing into its center. By then, it was apparently too late for the two officers to save themselves by using their ejector seats. Eyewitness reports from 40 years ago support this theory. According to them, the Phantom “was already shaking and flying extremely low near the hospital above the village”. Others claim to having heard an unusual noise from the airplane, as well as seeing smoke. Even the families of the deceased US Air Force pilots still don’t know what really happened nor what the cause of the crash was.
20 years after the tragedy, the people of Thuine want to set up a memorial stone near the crash site in the Mühlenstraße. Joachim Eickhoff from the missing persons search group “Ikarus” is able to find out the Phantom crew’s names that have been unknown to the people of Thuine. With the help of the US Air Force, Eickhoff connects Günter Buten, then mayor of Thuine, with the pilots’ relatives. The opening ceremony for the memorial stone takes place without the relatives on August 25, 1997. The US Air Force does not send out any representatives on the 20th anniversary of the death of their pilots either.
“The Phantom was already shaking near the hospital” An eyewitness of the crash in 1977
The US Air Force explains that Seder probably suffered a heart attack. Based on the deceased crew members’ injuries, the investigators conclude that the Pilot Seder “was slumped over the control stick, incapable of acting” at the time of the crash. From version C, the Phantom could also be controlled from the back seat – and Seder and Aertker were sitting in such a machine that was configured as a reconnaissance aircraft. The Air Force assumes that Aertker tried to regain control of the Phantom. Jean Aertker, who only gave birth to their daughter six days prior to her husband’s crash, does not believe in this version. On May 19, 1998, she writes to Buten: “I find it very hard to believe that a 25-year-old, otherwise healthy pilot suffers a heart attack during the flight. The reports from the eyewitnesses in Thuine contradict all of the facts from the Air Force accident investigation.”
Around one month after the opening ceremony for the memorial stone, the US Air Force finally sends a representative: Colonel Richard Koczik from the headquarters of US Air Force Europe in Ramstein comes to Thuine for the wreath-laying ceremony. Jean Aertker contacts him. The colonel gives detailed answers regarding the ceremony in Thuine, but makes one thing clear in the beginning of his letter from November 20, 1997: “Please be aware, […] that the official information regarding the accident […] and the physical condition of Ken Seder at that time do not fall under my jurisdiction.”
“The presentation by the Air Force has not convinced me.”
Heinrich Aertker, relative to Cpt. Aertker
Doubts about the heart attack of Seder remain with the Aertker family to this day. The distant relative Heinrich Aertker, who is living in Ahaus, confirms this. “I think this is very unlikely. The presentation by the Air Force has not convinced me.” Heinrich Aertker thinks that the US Air Force is trying to hide something. That’s because the machine that started from the British air force base Alconbury was part of a reconnaissance squadron. Aertker suspects that the flight wasn’t a drill but rather a mission, during which something went wrong.
A memorial ceremony, many of which have been held in the previous years, will not take place on the 40th anniversary of the crash in 2017. “In 2012, when the crash had its 35th anniversary, we held a memorial ceremony”, explains mayor Karl-Heinz Gebbe. However, the memorial stone is still being maintained and reminds people of what happened 40 years ago.”
The debris of the crashed Phantom was found distributed all over the field. Thuine’s mayor, Karl-Heinz Gebbe (small picture on the left), and Georg Kemmer (director of the heritage society) do not know what exactly happened during the crash on August 25, 1977 either. The memorial stone for the pilots that were killed during the crash is being maintained to this day.
Pictures: Johann Hinrich Derr/Wilfried Roggendorf