Michigan Aviation Archaeology
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Romulus RF-84F Thunderflash #51-11256, Romulus, MI - 14 September, 1965

A picture of 51-11256 (date unknown) prior to the September 1965 crash

Color picture of Michigan Air National Guard RF-84F Thunderflash- 107th TRS

Pilot- Second Lieutenant Dale Gatzka, Ann Arbor, MI

It was just another Wednesday night for Larry Milantz. It was about 8:30 at night and the Romulus High senior was doing homework at the dinner table when he heard a huge explosion. He ran outside in time to see a jet fall from the sky, less than half a mile from his house. When the plane hit the ground, another large explosion was heard.

Minutes before that, the Shipp family was arriving home and had just pulled into their driveway when William Shipp looked up to see two planes flying overhead. They appeared to be alarmingly close to each other and one of the planes may not have had any running lights on. Just after that, the family heard the first of two explosions and Mr. Shipp called the police.

Second Lieutenant Dale Gatzka, 28, of Ann Arbor, MI and Captain Harry Hepperlen III, 30, of Garden City, MI, both of the Michigan Air National Guard’s 107th Tactical Recon Squadron, were on final approach to Detroit Metropolitan Airport after completing a routine night formation training mission when their RF-84F jets collided. The nose of Hepperlen’s plane apparently contacted the tail of Gatzka’s jet. Unable to control the jet, Gatzka’s plane, # 51-11256, crashed into a bean field where Second Lieutenant Dale Gatzka was killed on impact. The tail of the stricken Thunderflash fell to the ground about a half mile away from the crash site which may explain the two explosions heard by witnesses.

Even though he was missing almost 6 feet from the nose of his plane, Captain Hepperlen was able to make an amazing emergency landing and walked away unhurt.

The official cause of the crash cannot be determined because at the time of this writing, I have been unable to obtain the official crash report (requested in September of 2011), therefore anything written here would be pure conjecture.

Lt. Gatzka was survived by his wife Kayleen whom he’d secretly married in March ahead of their planned August wedding due to his military status and the uncertainties in Vietnam.

Crash site, 1965
(most pictures illegible)



The search for the crash site:

Sunday, September 25, 2011 Dave Trojan and I were searching for the wreck site of a Gee Bee Z that crashed in 1931 when he mentioned that he had met somebody who knew of another wreck site very close to our present location. We decided to try for it after we were finished with the Gee Bee. After an abruptly shortened search at the Gee Bee site (see the Gee Bee story for all the details!) we headed the short distance to Lee Basset’s house. Lee related the story of a mid-air collision between two RF-84F’s from the Michigan Air National Guard that happened almost across the street from his house in 1965. Lee should know, he lived there at the time of the accident, was in the Michigan ANG and knew the pilots involved. The problem arose when we noticed that what was a bean field in 1965 is now an overgrown wooded lot. After fighting the oppressive heat, mosquitoes, and overgrown shrubs and vines (wishing I had a machete!) and stumbling across some defunct “illegal plantings,” Lee was unable to locate the crash site. As it was entirely too overgrown to utilize the metal detector effectively, we had to return to Lee’s house for rest and hydration. Lee then called his son Mark to come over and help. When Mark arrived he explained that we had been looking in the wrong area and we promptly set out again, this time on a well developed trail that went almost right to an area Mark indicated as the crash site. There was a small depression that could be called an impact crater with no visible crash debris, the area was less dense than the surrounding woods and the metal detectors began registering hits immediately. Our first find, as identified by Dave, was a turbine blade that immediately indicated an aircraft crash site. The bent condition of the blade was evidence that the engines were running when the plane hit the ground. We found several other pieces of unidentified scrap aluminum with traces of distinctive yellow paint on them. We left the parts insitu and a small flag in memory of Lieutenant Gatzka’s sacrifice and went back to tell Lee of our findings.

A special thanks to Lee and Mark Basset for their help and hospitality.

Crash site, today


RF-84F Thunderflash

Built by Republic Aviation, the first of the modern jets specifically designed for photo-reconnaissance, the Thunderflash was the first reconnaissance airplane equipped with a combination of standard aerial cameras and dicing camera for close-up photos of individual targets. It was also the first fighter-type aircraft to be equipped with the Tri-Metrogon camera which could take horizon-to-horizon pictures. Unlike its sister ship the F-84 Thunderstreak, the Thunderflash had swept wings and air-intake ducts located in the wing roots rather than the nose, which was elongated and enclosed to permit installation of a variety of camera and electronic systems. It was the first reconnaissance fighter to have a camera control system and a viewfinder for the pilot, who also acted as the cameraman. The aircraft was first tested in February 1952, and 715 of the aircraft were produced.

  • One Wright Sapphire J65-W-7 Thrust: 7,800 lbs
  • Performance: Max Speed: 629 mph, Ceiling: 39,390 ft., Range: 2,000 miles
  • Weights: Gross Weight: 25,399 lbs, Max Weight: 25,399 lbs
  • Dimensions: Wingspan: 33 ft. 6 in., Length: 47 ft. 6 in., Height: 15  ft
  • Armament: Four .50-cal. machine guns mounted in the wings