On a cool, early spring day east of Fallon, a Navy helicopter hovered over the barren desert conducting a routine combat search and rescue exercise.
According to the National Weather Service records, the temperature hovered slightly above 50 degrees with overcast skies sweeping across central Nevada, and the westerly winds gently pushing across the desert at 11.6 miles per hour. A SH-3 Sea King antisubmarine helicopter assigned to Naval Air Station North Island’s Helicopter Antisubmarine Squad 4 with a crew of five had been flying in an area west of Sand Mountain.
At 12:45 p.m., Naval Air Station Fallon lost contact with the crew.
For some unknown reason, the helicopter crashed and burned in a remote location about 15 miles northeast of the base and 2 mile northeast of Salt Wells. The crash took the lives of Lt. Craig Roberts, 26, of Purcell, Okla.; Lt, Stephen G. Laharre, 25, of Pen Argyl, Pa.; Airman Apprentice Steve A. Staggers, 22, of Buellton, Calif.; Aviation Antisubmarine Warfare Airman John C. Jactibs, 21, of San Clemente, Calif., and Aviation Antisubmarine Warfare Operator 2nd Class Robert W. Hart, 32, of Fort Wayne, Ind. The Bureau of Land Management erected a memorial in the early 1980s in their memory.
An exhaustive internet search and calls to the Navy did not produce any records reporting on the cause of the crash.
Because of the harshness Nevada weather chipping away at the memorial located over the past decades, the BLM, the Julia Bulette 1864 chapter and its outpost Copper Queen 1915 of E Clampus Vitus and volunteers from NAS Fallon decided to replace the small remembrance dedicated to the helicopter’s crew. They held a ceremony on Tuesday, the 44th anniversary of the crash.
“This amazing monument here is a tribute to the airmen,” said John Raby, state director for the BLM. “When we talk about never forgetting of people who died in service to their country, this is what it means, right?”
Raby said the work that others do to preserve history keeps the memory alive.
Jim “Gunny” Utterback, a former Marine helicopter crewman in Vietnam and a member of the Clampers’ Copper Queen 1915 chapter, said the organization was more than willing to help replace the memorial. The Clampers is a fraternal organization dedicated to the preservation of the West’s heritage.
“When the BLM contacted us and asked us to come out here, we came out to look at it in a preliminary survey and determined the plaque was unsatisfactory,” Utterback said.
The longtime Clamper said a new monument would need to last for at least another 40 years. Volunteers recently tore down the original memorial, and the Clampers had the plaque commemorating the airman refurbished.
“We had a couple of brothers bring a jack hammer, and Navy volunteers came out here and helped remove the memorial,” Utterback said.
The remnants of the memorial were then loaded into a dump truck and whisked away.
Utterback said it was an emotional experience placing the plaque on the memorial.
“Many of us are military,” he said.
During the short memorial service in the Nevada desert, Utterback said he had a special feeling for the crew members since he served on a chopper. He then told a story.
“When we came out here, there were six beers sitting at the base of the memorial,” he said.
Prior to the ceremony, plastic holding a six-pack of blue beer cans had been wrapped around the top of a post. Utterback began removing one can at a time and placed five at the memorial’s base.
“We figured that what happened, they had five of six beers, one apiece for each of the air crews,” he explained. “The sixth was a bribe to St. Peter’s so they could all go to heaven. We miss you, but your families miss you more.”
During the re-dedication, Utterback led the assembled guest to a moment of silence. Many either saluted or placed their hands on their heart during the playing of Taps.
Ironically, almost 29 years after the 1978 crash, a SH-60F chopper flying out of NAS Fallon crashed about 9:25 p.m. on May 7, 2007, in a mountainous region 10 miles west of Austin. All five crew members died.
The helicopter struck and then cut a high-voltage transmission line before slamming to the ground. The Navy said the crash occurred in an unpopulated area managed by the BLM. The area was described as rugged, very remote terrain.