U.S. military to honour Nanton-area rancher
U.S. military honours Albertan who helped tell ‘real’ story
Albertan to receive medal 34 years after plane crash for helping tell pilot’s ‘real’ story.
In the middle of the night on June 9, 1977, a missile-laden fighter jet on a training mission for NORAD crashed almost right in seven-year-old Reid Moynihan’s backyard.
The F-106 Delta Dart clipped the treetops in a thick forest of the Porcupine Hills and burst into flames before hurtling to the ground on the south end of the Moynihan family ranch.
Military officials were soon at the scene about 35 kilometres west of Claresholm to clean up after the crash and remove the remains of the young American pilot who went down with his jet.
For weeks, no one else was allowed near the site.
Locals knew little about why the fighter jet went down in the southwest Alberta ranchland, and the military wasn’t saying much.
Young Reid’s curiosity burned.
“I felt sorry for the poor fellow that died,” recalls Moynihan, now 41.
“To me, it wasn’t just some old aircraft. This was an interceptor fighter jet with some guy trained to protect Canada and the United States.”
When the military released the scene, a forestry where the Moynihans’ cattle grazed, Reid trekked out to the crash site armed with a pair of needle-nose pliers to pry metal jet fragments from the scorched trees.
It was a site he’d visit often over the next 30 years.
“I was just so curious about it. Nobody really knew anything about it,” he says.
“A fighter jet crashing at the south end of your ranch — it’s always just something in the back of your mind.”
As the years passed, the burned-out trees began growing again, their trunks gnarled from the metal fragments.
Details about the crash remained scant. But conspiracy theories abounded.
One local yarn had it that the aircraft carried a Genie nuclear weapon, Moynihan says.
An online forum, meanwhile, suggested that the Delta Dart involved in the craft was listed as parted out — not as crashed.
Moynihan was gripped by the mystery. He felt the fallen pilot deserved some sort of memorial.
“I was blown away there was no history behind it,” Moynihan says.
“This guy had basically been forgotten.”
The southern Alberta rancher began sleuthing.
He dug up microfiche articles at the Lethbridge library from the date of the crash. He posted detailed messages on Delta Dart online forums. The work began to pay off. Through the library archives, Moynihan figured out the pilot’s identity — Lt. David Denning of Great Falls, Mont.
Newspaper clippings related details from a partially redacted military report on the crash.
The report stated that Denning, who was with the Montana Air National Guard, had been on a NORAD training flight when he was given incorrect orders that dropped him from his cruising altitude to pursue a mock target at roughly 1,800 meters. The target’s true altitude, however, was about 11,000 meters. Denning questioned the order to fly low, but the NORAD base confirmed the altitude. Denning dipped down, and plowed his F-106 Delta Dart into the trees of the rolling foothills, Moynihan learned.
Armed with the information, the Albertan tried to call the Dennings listed in Montana, but didn’t have any luck.
Still, he vowed to bring the pilot’s story to light.
On the other side of the 49th parallel, Chris Denning shared the same goal.
The Montana National Guard state employee had long wondered what had happened to his uncle more than 30 years ago.
The dashing Dave Denning was a car salesman in Great Falls with a passion for flying that he fulfilled through his National Guard air training.
Chris Denning was 17 the day his uncle’s fighter jet went down on the training mission in Alberta.
“Everybody was pretty devastated.”
The family heard a few unofficial details but were never quite sure what happened.
Denning often wondered about the “remote spot in the Canadian mountains,” where his uncle died.
The Montanan was scouring the Internet for information when he came across a post by someone called “ranchoutlaw,” seeking family of the pilot who’d died in the 1977 Delta Dart crash in Alberta.
Denning fired off an e-mail.
The response, from Moynihan, was immediate: an invitation to the ranch to visit the crash site.
“I thought it was just absolutely amazing that many years later there’s still somebody in another country, our neighbours in Canada, who was that interested in honouring an airman from the United States,” Chris Denning says.
Moynihan, meanwhile, was delighted to finally start piecing together the story behind the crash.
Last summer, Chris Denning and his uncle’s three brothers travelled to southern Alberta to spend a quiet day among the trees where the pilot died.
They placed a simple stone headstone in honour of Lt. Dave Denning.
“We spent a good part of the day just walking around,” Chris Denning says.
“It was real quiet, real sombre.”
This week, U.S. military representatives will make the trek to the lonesome swath of trees in foothills of southwest Alberta.
Thirty-four years after the Denning died, officials with the Montana National Guard will pay their respects to the young airman.
Two brigadier-generals will also pay tribute to the Alberta rancher who helped tell Denning’s story.
In a ceremony in Nanton on Wednesday, Moynihan is set to receive a Montana National Guard Patriot medal, a military spokesman confirmed.
Chris Denning is pleased both Moynihan and his uncle will be honoured.
“It helps bring it full circle for me. The military going up there and saying ‘Thank you,’ to Reid — it’s almost like they’re recognizing this occurred, (saying) thank you Canada and thank you Reid for bringing the family here and helping bring closure to this.”
Moynihan says he’s honoured to be recognized by the military.
Mostly, he’s happy to get some answers about a boyhood mystery.
“ There were so many different stories that didn’t make sense and almost were dishonouring. I wanted to find out the truth, I wanted to find out for real,” Moynihan said.
“I felt that I’ve brought his name out. I think maybe I’ve redeemed him in some way.”
Family members Tom, from left, chris and Ken visit the site where Dave Denning’s plane crashed in southwest Alberta.
Lt. Dave Denning was flying in formation with two other F106s when his plane crashed at an Alberta ranch in 1977.