Celebrated pilot killed in warbird crash


The US Navy pilot whose skill and flamboyance were the inspiration for the film Top Gun has been killed in the crash of a turbine warbird.

Retired navy aviator Dale ‘Snort’ Snodgrass died on Saturday 24 July in a crash near the runway of Lewiston-Nez Perce County Airport in the north-western US state of Idaho. He was flying a SIAI-Marchetti SM.1019, an Italian-made turbine engine military liaison aircraft based on a Cessna L-19 Bird Dog. The Aviation Safety Network reported the crash happened on take-off and he was the only occupant of the aircraft.

Snodgrass, the son of a test pilot, was assigned to fly the US Navy’s F- 14 Tomcat as his first posting after navy flight school. He excelled and was sent to the navy Strike Fighter Tactics Instructor (SFTI) program, known as Top Gun, in 1978. He went on to accumulate more than 4800 hours in the two-seat supersonic jet and in 1985 was selected as navy Fighter Pilot of the Year. He flew 34 sorties in Operation Desert Storm, the first Gulf War of 1991 and, after retiring from the navy, continued as a civilian air show demonstration pilot. He had made 400 demonstration flights in the navy in an unprecedented 12-year career in the position between 1985 and 1997. In civilian life he flew the F-86 Sabre, P-51 Mustang, P-40 Warhawk, F4U Corsair, T-6/SNJ Texan, L-39 Albatros, MiG-15, MiG-17, MiG-21 and F-5 Tiger.

Another test pilot, John Ellis, who flew with Snodgrass in formation aerobatics, described his talent. ‘There are some pilots who seem to have a special sense of awareness of where they are at all times,’ Ellis said. ‘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 take-off.’

He became famous in military aviation as the pilot of a low-level pass in 1988 past the aircraft carrier USS America that was captured by a navy photographer. Unlike the fictional beat-ups in Top Gun, this was an authorised manoeuvre. The foreshortening effect of a long focal length lens made the aircraft appear to be at arm’s reach from the flight deck in a knife-edge pass. On seeing the photograph Snodgrass is reported to have said ‘Make me 50 copies and burn the negative.’