Capt. Dale Snodgrass, a well-known figure in the aviation community, died last Saturday in a plane crash near Idaho’s Lewiston-Nez Perce County Regional Airport, leading to a flood of tributes to a “true legend” of the U.S. Navy.
The crash occurred just after takeoff on Saturday afternoon, with eyewitnesses reporting that the aircraft stalled while gaining altitude at a steep angle before spiraling down towards the ground, according to CBS affiliate KLEW in Lewiston, Idaho.
Snodgrass, who began his military career in the 1970’s, was considered one of the greatest fighter pilots ever known, with over 4,800 hours in the F-14 Tomcat in both wartime and during peace, the most of any pilot. Following his retirement from the Navy, Snodgrass was a frequent feature at air shows and became well-known for his low-altitude flybys.
In 2010, author Debbie Gary wrote in an article about Snodgrass for the Smithsonian Institution’s Air and Space Magazine that Snodgrass flew the F-14 just after leaving flight school in 1974, becoming one of the jet’s first pilots.
“He was the first in that category to land it on a carrier, both day and night,” Gary wrote. “In 1978 he attended Top Gun, the Navy Fighter Weapons School, which turns the best pilots into instructors. In 1985, he became the Navy’s Fighter Pilot of the Year. The following year, the film Top Gun turned the viewing public into crazed F-14 fans (Snodgrass did a little flying for it), and (aircraft manufacturer) Grumman named him Topcat – Best F-14 Pilot of the Year.”
Snodgrass told Gary that he wanted to keep flying even after his promotion to Commander Fighter Wing Atlantic, which was him overseeing the Navy’s F-14s.
“I started doing the demos and I liked it so much that I stayed connected to the airshow circuit by hook and by crook from 1985 to 1997—12 years, which was unprecedented in military demo flying,” he said. “Everybody did two, three years.”
Retired Navy F-4 Phantom pilot John Ellis said that “there are some pilots who seem to have a special sense of awareness of where they are at all times. Dale has that particular ability. His flying is smooth and aggressive at the same time. His senses are a little sharper than other people’s. He knows when he is an inch from the ground, when he has wingtip clearance and can roll the plane into knife edge right on takeoff.”
Retired Navy Captain and former NASA astronaut Scott Kelly wrote on Twitter: “I had the pleasure of knowing him and even flying with him in an F-14 with a new flight control system with me in the backseat, which felt oddly appropriate.”
John Cudahy, president of the International Council of Air Shows, added that “Snort,” as Snodgrass was called, “was a talented aviator, an enormously entertaining air show performer, and a longtime advocate for the air show business. His death is a true tragedy for the entire aviation community.”
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