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.”

Pho­tos, cour­tesy, Chris Den­ning

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.

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