Albert Hickman: The F3H Demon Pilot Who Refused to Eject and Saved the Lives of 700 Americans

Photo Credit: U.S. Navy / U.S. Navy National Museum of Naval Aviation / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain
Photo Credit: U.S. Navy / U.S. Navy National Museum of Naval Aviation / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

Disaster doesn’t just strike in the heat of battle; there are times when things go wrong during training, which put servicemen’s lives in danger. That’s what happened in December 1959, when US Navy Ensign Albert Hickman’s aircraft failed during a routine aircraft drill. Not only did this put his life at risk, it endangered the lives of hundreds of school children and teachers, as well. To save them, Hickman made the ultimate sacrifice.

Who was Albert Hickman?

Aerial view of Naval Air Station Miramar, California
Naval Air Station Miramar, California, prior to it falling under the purview of the US Marine Corps, 1956. (Photo Credit: U.S. Navy / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

Albert Hickman was born in Sioux City, Iowa on April 4, 1938. As a teenager, he attended Central High School, graduating in 1956. Before receiving his diploma, however, he enlisted in the US Navy, showing his eagerness to serve his country. Hickman was assigned to Fight Squadron 21 (VF-121) at Naval Air Station Miramar, California (now Marine Corps Air Station Miramar), where he trained as a naval aviator.

At 21, Hickman was practicing aircraft carrier landings. On December 4, 1959, his life was cut short, after his training took an unexpected turn, endangering the lives of children and teachers at a nearby elementary school.

Albert Hickman chose not to eject

McDonnell F3H-2N Demon in flight
McDonnell F3H-2N Demon, 1956. (Photo Credit: U.S. Navy / U.S. Navy National Museum of Naval Aviation / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

Following his final practice run that day, Albert Hickman was traveling back to NAS Miramar when his McDonnell F3H-2N Demon‘s engine failed. At an altitude of 2,000 feet, the engine compressor stalled and surged, and the aircraft’s trajectory threatened to crash into Hawthorne Elementary School, in Clairemont, California, where children were playing outside.

Hickman was forced to employ a controled glide, in the hopes of maximizing the distance his F3H-2N would cover. Heroically, he chose to stay in the cockpit past the minimum altitude for ejection. Instead, he opened the canopy and frantically waved at the children below, warning them to get as far away as possible while he tried to steer the aircraft away.

Hickman barely cleared the schoolyard’s fence before flying into San Clemente Canyon, approximately 200 yards away. Unable to safely eject, he remained in the fighter as it crashed into the canyon, erupting into a massive fireball. The impact was so large that the surrounding 20 acres of brush became consumed by the fire, which took two hours to extinguish.

US Navy investigators said Hickman likely prevented the aircraft from crashing into the school and the surrounding San Diego neighborhood, saving many. His remains were retrieved from the crash site, and he was buried at Sioux City’s Memorial Park Cemetery

Honoring a brave man’s sacrifice

Exterior of American Legion Post 460
American Legion Post 460 was named for Albert Hickman. (Photo Credit: RightCowLeftCoast / Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 4.0)

While unaware at the time of the sacrifice Albert Hickman chose to make, Hawthorne Elementary School and the surrounding community were extremely grateful for his heroism. He was credited with saving the lives of around 700 children and staff at the school, who wrote “thank-you” letters to his parents.

The community honored Hickman in several ways. In 1962, American Legion Post 460, in Kearny Mesa, was dedicated to him. Nine years later, an elementary school in the Mira Mesa neighborhood was named after the ensign. Additionally, in 1994, a sports complex built on land leased by the US Navy was dedicated to him, while, in 2019, a commemorative plaque was placed at the Mt. Soledad National Veterans Memorial in his honor.

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For his skill, bravery and ultimate sacrifice, Albert Hickman was posthumously awarded the Navy and Marine Corps Medal.

Samantha Franco

Samantha Franco is a Freelance Content Writer who received her Bachelor of Arts degree in history from the University of Guelph, and her Master of Arts degree in history from the University of Western Ontario. Her research focused on Victorian, medical, and epidemiological history with a focus on childhood diseases. Stepping away from her academic career, Samantha previously worked as a Heritage Researcher and now writes content for multiple sites covering an array of historical topics.

In her spare time, Samantha enjoys reading, knitting, and hanging out with her dog, Chowder!