Mid-air disaster: Seventeen US airmen died in Bermuda in 1964 when a US Air Force HC-54 (the model is pictured below left) suddenly banked right and collided with a US Air Force HC-97 (see below right), sheering both its wing and tail section off and sending the two planes careering into the sea off St David’s Head. *USAF photos

When tragedy struck

t was one of the worst incidents in Bermuda’s aviation history, claiming the lives of 17 airmen.

Two US Air Force planes  collided in mid-air off St David’s.

The disaster was caught on film by stunned onlookers on the ground who had been tasked with recording the NASA mission.

In happened in June, 1964 and this summer, half a century later, the families of those who were killed will return to Bermuda to remember their loved ones.

It’s likely to be a highly emotional trip for the 20-strong group, who will drop a wreath at the spot where the shattered debris of the two planes hit the sea.

And for Michael Belter, who was just eight when he lost his father Lowell in the crash, it will provide a degree of closure to an incident that is still shrouded in mystery.

Those who lost family members on that fateful day in 1964 have never been told why the two aircraft collided with such disastrous consequences.

All they know is their loved ones died serving their country and taking part in a NASA mission designed to ensure the safe recovery of lunar capsules and astronauts from space.

Son of air crash victim recalls day his ‘whole life changed’

Families of those killed in one of Bermuda’s worst air disasters will return to the island this year to mark the 50th anniversary of the tragedy.

Seventeen airmen died on June 29, 1964, when two US Air Force aircraft collided in mid-air while conducting NASA operations.

Michael Belter was just eight years old when his father, Lowell ‘Mick’ Belter, a radio operator, was killed on board one of the planes.

Left, Lowell ‘Mick’ Belter with sons Doug and Ken at the front of their Blowwinds home on North Shore.

But the devastating events that took place in the air off Bermuda almost half a century ago had a profound and life-changing effect on the Belter family.

Mr Belter hopes the trip he has helped orchestrate this summer will provide some kind of closure for him as well as the eight other family members that will join him in Bermuda.

Mr Belter, who went on to become an officer in the United States Army, said: “There is a sense that we never got closure after the accident.

“And speaking to others who lost family members in the crash many feel the same way.

“It was a very tough time. I remember people telling me that I was the man of the house now and needed to look after my family.

“I remember seeing the planes on the day they crashed. I was out playing with my brother in the sea and as they came past our home on the North Shore they wing-wagged us and we waved back.

“In those days everyone in the military knew where everyone lived on the island — we were a close community.

How the Bermuda Sun reported the crash. The article contained a quote from a former US pilot who described the crash
as a great blaze of fire accompanied by a massive explosion and a huge atom-bomb-type-mushroom cloud of black smoke.

“But my dad did not come home that night. I was told he was missing after an accident. And the next day it was determined he was dead.

“Suddenly my whole life changed.

“My family had been with the Air Force my whole life, and now we were moving back to Pittsburg to live with my aunt Lil. 

“I don’t remember much about the day of the accident, but I remember a memorial service at the Base chapel and family members coming over to Bermuda to help us move home.”

Mr Belter Snr, his wife, Jayne, and their four children, Michael, Doug, Ken and Johnna, moved to Bermuda in February 1964.

They lived in an old house called Blowwinds on the North Shore of Pembroke, and the children enjoyed the island life.

But soon after the crash the family were forced to leave and return to the US.

Over the past decade Michael Belter has spearheaded a project to find out what went so tragically wrong to cause the mid-air collision in 1964.

He has organized the memorial trip for families and relatives of the servicemen who died and set up a Facebook page called Bermuda Air Collision – June 29, 1964.

Left, the crash widowed Jayne — pictured with her four children, Johnna, Michael, Ken, Doug, without a father.

Mr Belter told the Bermuda Sun: “We hope to have around 20 people in Bermuda for the memorial in June.

“There are nine members of my own family who will be coming, including my wife and my grown-up son and daughter.

“My sister, my mother’s sisters and my mother’s brother also want to be there.

“But there will also be other guys ranging from servicemen who were at the base at the time and remember the sirens going off in the aftermath of the crash to a retired medic who was part of the rescue and recover operation.”

Through his work, Mr Belter has made contact with a host of former US military families that were posted in Bermuda. He has even been in touch with the ground crewman, Bill Martin, who held up the plane so his father did not miss the fateful flight on June 29, 1964.

Mr Belter said: “My father was running late, and the plane should have left without him.

“But one of the ground crew saw him running down the runway with all his stuff and they held the flight up for him. He helped him get on to the flight and put his flight bag on behind him. 

‘Emotional trip’

“I have spoken to Mr Martin and he told me that he thought about letting the flight go without my dad that day, but he did not want my dad to get in any trouble.

“He says he has thought over the years about ‘what if’ he had not done that’.

“I’m looking forward to meeting Mr Martin so we can share experiences and our memories. I’m sure it will be a very emotional trip.”

Michael with his own family in the US.

The group will arrive in Bermuda in June and as part of their trip will charter a boat and visit the site where the planes crashed into the sea to lay a wreath.

Mr Belter has visited Bermuda on three occasions since the 1964 crash and now works as a finance manager for a regional group of power plants in Columbus, Ohio.

He added: “Thirteen of the 17 airmen that died in the collision had wives and children so this disaster had a huge impact on many families.

“My father’s body was never recovered like other servicemen that died that day. And speaking to their relatives they are still haunted by dreams of their loved one being washed up on a beach with amnesia and living a new life.

“We have all been affected in different ways but I hope this memorial trip will provide closure for the families who died 50 years ago, but it will also be a chance for people to reminisce about their time in Bermuda.

“Bermuda will always be a special place in my heart for the fun times an eight-year-old had for about six months to the times I have been on holiday there.” 

Gone... but not forgotten

Seventeen crew were killed on 29 June, 1964:

Major Otto William Boyd, 43, a veteran pilot from San Francisco.

• Major Martin Nisker, 43, from Minneapolis.

• Major John L Mallen from Rochester, NY.

• Major Richard ‘Dick’ F Pendleton, 40, a World War II and Korean War veteran from South Orange, New Jersey.

Captain Donald H. Aungst, 32, from Overland Park, Kansas.

• Captain Charles C Decker from Columbus, Ohio.

• Captain Harry K.L. Lai from Waniawa, Hawaii.

• Master Sergeant Raymond K. Showalter, 44, from Miami, Florida.

• Technical Sergeant Lowell Mick Belter, 32, from Marion, Wisconsin.

• Technical Sergeant Robert A. Kramer, 36, from Dallas, Texas.

• Technical Sergeant Edward Neal Jr, 34, from Chester, Pennsylvania.

• Staff Sergeant Robert A. Maynard, 33, from Huntington, West Virginia.

• Staff Sergeant Albert Roy Everhart, 30, from Ithaca New York.

Staff Sergeant Genero J. Gonzalez, 33, from Gatonia, North Carolina.

• Staff Sergeant Alva H. Rankin.

• Airman First Class Ernest E Chavers from Foley, Alabama.

• Airman First Class Larry W Carleton, 22, from Cherry Hill, New Jersey.

HORRIFIC: Left, the dramatic collision was captured on camera and the Denver Post carried this pictured in their report. Above, the seven who jumped prior to the crash are pictured in front of an HC-97 shortly after the accident. *Photos supplied

• Read more: Report shows cause of the collision remains a mystery