vaw124 Paul Gallagher, fellow VAW alum,  dropped by a short bit ago to pass along a remembrance of one of the crews we lost in the early ’90s.  See, one of the hallmarks of the E-2/C-2 is the (still) relatively low mishap rate.  Mishaps, and in particular, mishaps that result in the loss of some or all of the crew were relatively rare events.  In the early 1990’s though we had a spate of losses that spiked the rate.  In one relatively short period two aircraft were lost – Closeout 602 (VAW-126) and Bear Ace 603 (VAW-124) – the latter 16 years ago tonight/tomorrow AM…and, well, let Paul tell the story:

I was the Maintenance Officer of the VAW 124 Bear Aces in 1993. Turbo Tom Parker was the Skipper, Billy Wo Wolters was the XO. He was off the ship the night of the mishap at some operational meetings ashore.
The circumstances of this mishap formed in my mind at the time, the intractable opinion that nobody except aviators should ever command aviators. The following facts (to the best of my recollection) are germane:

The Bear Aces were embarked in USS THEODORE ROOSEVELT.   As we departed the U.S. we were right in the path of what would become known as the storm of the century.   As a result, the airwing was not able to accomplish our refresher CQ. The decision was made to push to the Med because we needed to relieve the JFK on time to insure they did not exceed the 6 month deployment rule.

The translant was slow due to extremely rough seas, so we were never able to accomplish any flying enroute, and we were late getting to the Med. There was a great deal of pressure to get us into the Adriatic because of the Bosnia Herzegovina tensions, and the JFK had to get out to make the 6 month timeframe. Once inchopped to the Med we were ordered to steam directly into the Adriatic to replace them without having yet CQ’d. Our CAG Willie Moore and the CARGRU Jay Johnson were known to have strenuously objected, but higher authority only relented to the extent that they allowed us ½ day of flight ops to allow the pilots who would fly our missions the next night one day trap.

That was the circumstance leading up to the mishap. That first night we were scheduled to fly in support of some airdrops of food to starving Bosnians for our first real mission of the deployment, but the night we were to commence the weather was terrible. Once again, we were aware our leadership had requested that we not fly due to our lack of NATOPs qualifications, and the fact that the weather was forecast to be below minimums. Despite the persistent objections of our aviation leadership; at the EUCOM level it was directed we fly the missions – a decision probably made by an Army infantry officer. Bear Ace 603 took off and was in the goo immediately off the deck. As I understood it from others who flew that night they probably never broke out. A couple of airwing pilots who were airborne that night estimated it went above 25,000 ft.

During the recovery Bear Ace 603 made a good approach, but was waved off fairly late for reasons I don’t recall however, it was NOT for technique. They did a shallow climb, reached about 700 feet, nosed over and flew into the sea. The last broadcast from the aircraft while in their fatal descent was a calm acknowledgement of the climb and turn downwind directions from CATCC.

The XO of the Tomcat squadron was head of the mishap board. Their conclusion was that the mishap pilots must have been suffering from debilitating vertigo. There simply was no other explanation.

The crew of Bear Ace 603 was John “Frenchy” Messier, Pilot, Billy Ray Dyer, copilot, Jon “Rooster” Rystrom was the CICO, Pat “Aardvark” Ardaiz was the ACO, and Bob “McFly” Forwalder was the RO. For many years, a day would not go by in which I wouldn’t think of them, now after even more years I’d have to say a couple of days doesn’t go by… you never shake that sadness when something like that happens to the guys in your outfit, I know for the Bear Aces that were there, we never will.

“you never shake that sadness when something like that happens to the guys in your outfit, I know for the Bear Aces that were there, we never will.” Amen Paul – know that there are others who feel the same way too…

And a reminder that those still here can do something good for the families of those we’ve lost…



  1. CDR Tom

    I have been remiss in reviewing the site for awhile, but for some reason this morning, I had a ‘need’ to catch up. Seeing your transmittal of Paul’s recollections shook me – I recall those days with a heavy heart, as we all do. Interesting phenomenon ‘needing’ to come here and remember. Thanks for reminding all of us that freedom is not free, and those guys gave their all doing what they loved to do.
    CDR Tom “Mags” Magno, USN (ret)
    VAW-123 Screwtops 83-86
    VAW-125 Tigertails 92-95

  2. Michael McAlpin

    SJS and Paul,

    Thanks for remembering our shipmates. I was fortunate to have been serving on the C6F staff when Pat’s mother wrote a letter to Admiral Prueher asking for information on where she could charter a vessel to take her to the location where the mishap occurred. Admiral Prueher knew I was a former Bear Ace (he was CAG-8 for a time) and assigned me to escort Mrs Ardaiz from Rome to Korfu, where we met a USNS that was scheduled to transit to Sicily. The route just happened to take us to Bear Ace 603’s final resting place. Once we arrived on station, the ship came to full stop. Mrs Ardaiz, the ships Master, and I held a short service. Incidentally, Pats Father passed away not too long before the accident and his body had been cremated. Mrs Ardaiz brought the Urn with her and committed it to the deep so father and son could be together again.

    I’ll never forget.

    CDR Mike “Stork” McAlpin
    VAW-124 (88-91)
    VAW-120 (91-93)
    VAW-121 (96-99)

  3. Tom, Mike:

    Thanks for stopping by – would like to do the same for the crew of Closeout 602 if you know anyone that has the details.

    ob. Joe Prueher – he is one class individual. He was CO of VA-65 when I was a Bluetail, ‘lo these many years ago and one of the few O-5’s outside the squadron who’d give an Ensign the time of day and a decent post-mission debrief. Wish we had more like him these days…
    – SJS

  4. Mark R. Lichtenstein \

    Linked over from Skippy-San’s site. Thanks for jogging my memory. I remember both events and both crews. I believe Closeout had a hydraulic leak/fire near the boat off of Puerto Rico. All the best to you.

  5. A. Brown

    Lt. Messier was my uncle and I have so many fond memories including showing up at Norfolk when the crew came back from Desert Storm. I’m glad to see he’s still remembered fondly by his shipmates. He helped inspire me to begin a career working for the DoD. If you are in the DC area or still with the Navy, feel free to email me.

  6. Jimmy Lee

    I was a plane captain at the time, Lt Fortwalder was my Division Officer. Not one week before we went to sea, Lt Messier and I had worked out together at the base Gym on NAS Norfolk. I recall that once the accident happened, we started having all sorts of other accidents occur. It was as if the guys in the squadron all felt somehow responsible. Commander Parker decided to have a Captains Call. As we all sat in the ready room, he described the same sequence of events that Mr Gallagher describes above, minus the political underpinnings. He explained that it was none of our faults. After that we didn’t have any more incidents in our squadron, although during that cruise we would also lose AD1 Wall of the Rough Riders COD Crew.

    One thing to remember is that Lt Messier was one of the best, if not THE best E-2 pilot in the community. My time with the Bear Aces was the best time in the Navy, and you never are as close with a group of people than when you go through a crisis like this together.

  7. AT1 Alan Cleland USN (ret)

    I remember being on the Flight Deck that night, during the recovery cycle. It was pitch black you couldn’t see anything fore, aft, port or starboard and even with the yellow lights on, the deck was hard to make out. 603 came in for a good routine approach, but was waived off for a foul deck. Passed over the deck below 50 ft., probably lower. Everything seemed as normal as it can be on a flight deck. Then the announcement on the 5-MC “Plane in the water” Blared out. I didn’t know Lt. Fortwalder, but the others we’re all regular visitors to Avionics, Lt. Messier in particular, we used to practice or French with each other, His was much better than mine. The air was thick that night, and it stayed thick for the rest of the cruise. The Officers lost were all fine men, but my feelings go out to the ones they left behind.

  8. Kris Rystrom Emmert

    Tom and Paul: Thank you so much for this site. As you may remember, I am Jon’s widow. I am showing this site to Taylor, Jon’s daughter who is now 17 years old. We are honored and blessed to have you all remember my precious husband. I am remarried and have the blessing of 2 more children. Jon’s oldest daughter, Jordyn, is a junior in college and both of our girls are honor students with the intelligence, dedication and wit that Jon was so well known for! We love the Hawkeyes and are humbled with the VAW Memorial Scholarship that our girls are able to use to further their education. Love, Kris

  9. AT3 Tom Williamson

    It’s coming up on 20 years since we lost Bear Ace 603. It was a very difficult time for all of us, and we lost some very good men that day.

    I got to know these men through my time in VAW-120, as well as working with them in VAW-124. I was due to be a new father during my Cruise, as was Mr. Forwalder. His son and mine were due to be born on the same week. We had a couple conversations regarding how we felt about missing that event in our lives. If anyone here knows how to get in touch with his son and widow, please let them know that he was very much looking forward to being a new father, and that he was extremely proud. I regret that his son never got to know him, because he was a great man, and would have been an excellent father and role model.

    This event changed my life, and put things into a different perspective for me. The loss of these great men helped me make my decision to leave the Navy, and pursue life as a civilian. I moved my family back home so that my son would be able to grow up around his grandparents. I went on to have two more children, and I am still married to the same woman.

    I have always made it a point to try to live my life as I imagine Rob would have liked to, enjoying the company of his children and his family.

    I wish the families of the crew of 603 peace, and offer you my respect for your sacrifice.

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