Navy Pilot Honored 60 Years after Jet Crash in Clairemont

Former Hawthorne Elementary student and Clairemont resident Debra Dawson, now of Texas, speaking on September 21st at Mt Soledad National Veterans Memorial honoring of United States Navy pilot Albert Joseph Hickman. (The Clairemont Times file photo)

On September 21st United States Navy Fighter Jet Pilot Albert Joseph Hickman was honored with a plaque on Mt Soledad National Veterans Memorial in La Jolla.

At the honoring of Hickman, American Legion Post #460 Commander Brian Trum recounted the fateful day of December 4th 1959.

Hickman, 21 at the time was participating in carrier landings and returns to NAS Miramar in an F3H Demon Aircraft when the aircraft experienced engine failure at an altitude of a reported 2000’.  The plane crashed into San Clemente Canyon narrowly missing Hawthorne Elementary in Clairemont.  Hickman was the sole fatality and is credited with intentionally piloting the plane away from the school, thereby saving the lives of students and teachers at the school that day, a reported 700 lives.

Also, in attendance at the ceremony was Debra Dawson a then 8 year old student at Hawthorne Elementary playing outside with classmates that day.

Dawson, who now resides in Texas was tearful during her speech, thinking back to nearly 60 years ago.

“This is probably one of the greatest honors that I have ever had in my life, other than giving birth to two beautiful children and being born into a wonderful family. This is my greatest honor.”

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.  Thank you is hollow compared to the gratitude that I feel.  All I can say is thank you Ensign Albert Joseph Hickman for the man that you were, for the hero you were to us that day.”

Hickman was posthumously awarded the Navy and Marine Corps Medal.  The highest non-combat decoration awarded for heroism by the United States Department of the Navy to members of the United States Navy and United States Marine Corps.

Hickman Elementary in Mira Mesa was named in his honor in 1971, The American Legion Post #460 in Kearny Mesa is dedicated to Hickman, as is Hickman Sports Field on Hickman Field Dr in Kearny Mesa.  The playground at Hawthorne Elementary is slated to be dedicated to Hickman at a future date.


The plaque at Mt Soledad National Veterans Memorial is located on the G Wall Row 4 reads:

December 4, 1959 about 12 noon, a U.S. Navy Fighter jet piloted by Albert Joseph Hickman, 21, crashed in a Clairemont Canyon.  The pilot deliberately stayed with the aircraft to avoid crashing into Hawthorne Elementary School saving as many as 700 lives.  In 1962, American Legion Post #460 was dedicated to Hickman.  A new Mira Mesa School was named Hickman Elementary in recognition of his heroism.  During the naming ceremony for Hickman Elementary School in 1971, seven students recited the following:

“H” is for Hickman brave and true, “I” is for the important decision to do what he knew, “C” is for the Children he must have been thinking of, “K” is for the Kindness he showed and the love, “M” is for Mira Mesa where our school will share his name, “A” is for Albert an American we are proud to claim, “N” is for our Nation he served with no shame.”


For more information on Mt Soledad National Veterans Memorial visit: