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True Hero: Fighter jet pilot avoids inhabitants in 1956 Robinson crash

Lieutenant Thomas W. Sonnett of Kennedy.

By Janet Gonter

-Robinson Township Historical Society-

On Feb. 19, 1956, two F84-F Thunderstreak’s from the 112th Fighter Group were on a routine training flight out of Greater Pittsburgh Airport, where the group was based.

In one jet was Lieutenant Thomas W. Sonnett of Kennedy Township, a pilot for the Air National Guard and an officer in the 146th Fighter Interceptor Squadron. In the other was Sonnett’s “wing man,” Wilford Pagachnick, with whom he was in constant communication.

They had just passed Beaver Grade Road and were about half a mile from Steubenville Pike, over the old Gormley farm. The two jets were headed for a landing at the airport when Pagachnick noticed something wrong.

“You having trouble?” he radioed his partner.

Sonnett replied tensely, “I think I had a flameout. I’m going to crash it.”

At the time, he was flying at 2,500 feet, high enough to bail out, but he knew that an unmanned plane would almost certainly crash into a neighborhood. He instantly decided to aim for the nearest field to avoid a housing development, but just seconds before reaching the ground, his landing gear clipped some trees.

Ironically, another National Guard fighter pilot, Lt. Clarence Kouche of Bellevue Drive in Robinson, witnessed the incident from the ground. “When he hit those trees, I knew he was in trouble.”

The plane crashed with neither explosion or fire, but wreckage was strewn over a wide area. Kouche and two other witnesses ran to the wreckage and pulled the pilot from the cockpit that was lying on its side. Sonnett was rushed to Ohio Valley Hospital, where he died three hours later.

Sonnett’s wife, Eleanore, and their two daughters had been waiting for him in their new home only a mile from the crash site. Sonnett was just 32 years old.

Because of his quick decision to crash the jet rather than endanger the lives of many on the ground, he died a true hero. He is buried in Saint Mary Cemetery in Kennedy Township.


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