This Navy pilot refused to eject and saved 700 Americans

Logan Nye
May 30, 2023 1:55 PM PDT
3 minute read
navy pilot fighter jet

A U.S. Navy McDonnell F3H-2N Demon (BuNo 133572) in flight near the McDonnell plant in St. Louis, Missouri.


Navy pilot Albert Hickman had every reason to eject but 700 reasons to not. He stayed and piloted his failed plane away from a school.

On December 4, 1959, the schoolchildren of Hawthorne Elementary in Clairemont, California witnessed an impossible and traumatic sight. The Navy pilot of an F3H Demon jet fighter flew low over the school, barely missing the school fence, and then disappeared. Suddenly, a massive fireball erupted from the nearby canyon.

The students, many of them children of Navy service members, didn't know it, but a pilot had just sacrificed himself to protect them.

Navy Ensign Albert Hickman, just 21 years old, practiced carrier landings that morning and then headed back toward NAS Miramar where he was assigned to land. While flying relatively low, just 2,000 feet above the ground, his F3H Demon's engine suddenly gave out.

The F3H flew from 1951 to 1964 and, from 1952 to 1955, was known for its frequent engine issues. After a Congressional investigation, the Navy bought a new engine, the Allison J-71. This improved the plane and its safety record, but it remained a troubled jet nonetheless.

When Hickman's engine failed, he was in an especially vulnerable position. He was flying low over a residential area. He was well within his rights to decide to eject. But he could see neighborhoods and a school ahead of him, and he couldn't know where a pilotless plane would land.

Hickman's heroic decision

We don't know for sure when Hickman saw them, but kids were actively playing outside the school. Hickman stayed in the cockpit and entered a controlled glide designed to maximize his distance. Navy investigators later decided that this likely prevented a catastrophic crash into the school or nearby houses. Even with Hickman carefully piloting the plane, he barely cleared the fence around the play area.

Hickman's decision was not without cost, though. He stayed in the cockpit even as he descended past the minimum altitude for him to eject.

And kids at play reported seeing his cockpit open just before the crash, with Hickman waving frantically to urge them away from his path.

He made it just past the playground and into a canyon just past it but quickly crashed there. The crash killed Hickman immediately and triggered a fire that consumed 20 acres of brush. But Hickman's heroism prevented the death of anyone else. The Navy and the local community quickly credited Hickman with saving everyone in the school, 700 children and staff.

Building of the American Legion post named in honor of Hickman.

The Navy pilot's legacy

Schoolchildren at Hawthorne Elementary School sent thank-you letters to Hickman's parents. And the next elementary school in the area was dubbed Hickman Elementary. A number of other memorials to Hickman, including the name of the local American Legion post and a plaque at Mt. Soledad National Veterans Memorial, honor him.

One of the children saved on December 4, 1959, spoke at the ceremony for the Mt. Soledad plaque. She said:

I was born into a Navy family like so many children in Clairemont at that time. The sounds of jets and sonic booms were everyday occurrences nobody thought anything about it, it didn’t disrupt our lives.

But that day on the playground there was a sound that was out of the ordinary and it caused many of us, including myself, to stop and take note and look up into the direction of the sound. As I did, I saw this jet making a very controlled glide and I could not take my eyes off of it. The reality of it hit me when I saw the fireball and it happened right outside of our playground and as you can imagine chaos ensued.

As an 8 year old child I had one view of that day, but as I have grown older it has taken on a much more profound acknowledgment of what happened that day. A 21-year-old man had the wherewithal and the compassion in his heart and the heroism in his soul, not to bail out, not to save himself but to save a playground at a school filled with children and teachers. There are no words to explain what he did, there’s nothing that I can say to give thanks to his parents for giving birth to a man that saved my life, that saved the lives of my schoolmates.

Hickman posthumously received the Navy and Marine Corps Medal. The community near Miramar, California has suffered other crashes in recent years, including the loss of a Marine pilot in a Hornet crash.


Sign up for We Are The Mighty's newsletter and receive the mighty updates!

By signing up you agree to our We Are The Mighty's Terms of Use and We Are The Mighty's Privacy Policy.