HILL AIR FORCE BASE, Utah – A tragedy that claimed the life of a 28-year-old Hill Air Force Base F-16 pilot ultimately ended with a miracle.
On June 22, 2009, Capt. George "Ice" Houghton, originally from Candler, N.C., died when his jet crashed at the Utah Test and Training Range, about 35 miles southwest of Wendover, Nev., during a night training mission.
Assigned to the 388th Fighter Wing's 421st Fighter Squadron at Hill, Houghton's jet went down in a remote area of the UTTR commonly referred to as Baker's Strong Point.
Debris spread for miles from the crash site. Air Force officials combed through the site, investigating the accident and gathering Houghton's personal items.
Devastated by the loss of her husband, Houghton's widow Josie wanted only one thing from the crash site: the pilot's titanium wedding band.
Since pilots aren't allowed to wear rings during flights, Houghton, like many other pilots, kept his in the pocket of his flight suit.
"A couple of days after it happened, I was asked if there was anything specific I might want recovered and I immediately asked for the ring," Josie said.
"In a very tactful and sensitive way, they basically told me, We'll do what we can, but don't get your hopes up.
So I figured it was kind of a lost cause."
Maj. Robert Ungerman, a friend of Houghton's from the 388th Fighter Wing, served as the liaison officer for the Houghton family and was moved by what he said was Josie's one and only request.
"We got some of his stuff from his car, from his desk, his locker and every time we returned something to her, she asked about the ring," Ungerman said. "Throughout the whole process, that's the only thing she asked for and to not be able to provide it was horrible."
Ungerman, according to Houghton, "decided that no
wasn't an acceptable answer to my question" and began organizing a team of volunteers to find the ring.
Paul Nelson, chief of plans for the 75th Air Base Wing, suggested to Ungerman that the search team use the Ogden-based Trails West Artifact Society to join the search team with metal detectors.
"It was truly amazing to see it all come together," Ungerman said of the organization's effort. "There are so many links in the chain that went into this."
On Oct. 17, some four months after Houghton's plane went down, a team of two Hill Explosive Ordnance Disposal personnel, two members of Detachment One of the 388th Range Squadron, six volunteers who were stationed at the base, and the eight members from Trails West all headed to the crash site on a journey to find the ring.
Lt. Col. Sean Keene, Detachment One commander at the 388th Range Squadron, said the search site encompassed an area approximately the size of eight football fields, with the group focusing on a central location within the search perimeter.
As the search team reached the site, the initial enthusiasm quickly turned to pessimism.
"We went down there with the best outcome in mind, but it kind of got discouraging after a while," said Master Sgt. David Czerwinski, a metal detector specialist and ground safety manager at the 388th Fighter Wing. "By about 3:30 p.m., I thought, Oh boy, this doesn't look good.
We just weren't getting anywhere and there was really no sign that things would change."
Czerwinski said he soon realized the metal detectors weren't of much use because the group was "searching for metal in a metal field." In the setting sun of the late afternoon, the team began a desperate attempt to locate the ring using just their eyes.
"It's a bombing range, so there are a million pieces of metal out there," Czerwinski said. "We were trying to isolate just titanium because that's what the ring is made of, but it wasn't working. It didn't look promising at all."
But just after 4 p.m., as the team was about to pack up and quit the search, a metallic cylinder shining in the sun caught Keene's attention.
"I thought I was seeing a mirage or something," he said. "You wanted to find this thing so bad that you almost started seeing things."
Keene picked up the ring and yelled, "I think I found it! I think I found the ring!"
The sudden announcement sent a jolt of energy into the weary search party members.
"Everybody started running up to him (Keene)," said Czerwinski. "I thought he was kidding at first. I was like, Man, that's not something you joke around about.
But it was no joke. The ring Keene found was Houghton's, identifiable by an inscription on the inside of the band.
"Truthfully, when we got out there and started looking, I didn't think there was any way," Keene said. "It was a one-in-a-million chance. A needle in a haystack."
Keene said the search wouldn't have been possible without Marcus Teeters, a civilian with the 388th Range Squadron who helped in the initial crash recovery and was intimately familiar with the crash site.
After the crash, Josie moved from her home in Layton to Florida to pursue a degree in nursing, but she was scheduled to return to Hill for a squadron Halloween party two weeks after the search team found the ring.
"We thought of a bunch of different ways to tell her, but ultimately we thought it would be best to give it to her in person," Ungerman said.
When Josie came back to Utah, Ungerman and his wife invited her to stay at their home.
When she arrived, she found an envelope and a small box on the guest bed.
"In the box there was a chain and then in the envelope there was a letter from the Ungermans saying that if I wanted something to wear with the chain, I should look under the pillow," Josie said. "I looked under the pillow and there was the ring. I looked at it and then sat down on the floor and bawled."
Josie says she wears the ring on the chain around her neck every day, keeping it close to her heart. She says she'll be forever touched by the people who participated in the search.
"I like to say that I've seen the best of humanity throughout this whole ordeal," she said. "There have been some amazing people who have gone to great lengths to let me know he's not forgotten and that I'm not forgotten. And that's something I will always remember."