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Shock and Awe: The Redstone Arsenal aboard Southern Airways Flight 242

Read about the team of top-secret rocket scientists who were aboard Southern Airways Flight 242.

By Clifford Davids

On April 4, 1977, William V. Gudaitis boarded the ill-fated Southern Airways Flight 242 in Huntsville, AL heading for a meeting at Raytheon Co. in Lexington, MA. He was a leading scientist for Redstone Arsenal, and his briefcase bulged with top-secret blueprints detailing a revolutionary new missile design–one that was meant to completely change the existing paradigm. They called it the “Patriot Air Defense Missile System,” and the plans he cradled that day would become the prototype for the next generation of guided missile defense. He did not survive the crash of 242, but the plans he carried did–and Redstone would once again ride triumphant.

Redstone Arsenal has always served as ground zero for the U.S. Army’s missile and rocket programs. Originally built in 1941 as an assembly plant for the manufacturing of conventional and chemical munitions, the Army ultimately chose it to be the dedicated site for developing and then testing all of their rocket systems. Werner von Braun famously arrived there in 1950 to lead the team of scientists that developed the first ballistic missile test rocket. His talented group then crafted the next generation of launch vehicle that sent the West’s first satellite into orbit, signaling the start of the space race that dominated the next decade.

The Marshall Space Flight Center was established at Redstone in 1960, and within eight  years the Marshall team had developed the Saturn rocket and put the first man on the moon. They also developed the space shuttle propulsion system, and managed the deployment of Skylab, the Hubble Space Telescope, and the International Space Station. It is still NASA’s center for rocketry and spacecraft propulsion research and development.

In the 1970’s, Gudaitis and his team designed the much sought after “PATRIOT” Missile System, short for “Phased Array Tracking Radar to Intercept On Target.” Initially used as a replacement for the Nike Hercules and the MIM-23 Hawk defense systems, it currently serves as the U.S. Army’s anti-ballistic missile system. It is modular and highly mobile, and all of its components are mounted on either a truck or a trailer. They say it can be set up by an experienced team in less than one hour.

Redstone Arsenal Airfield (Photo ca. 1967)

By the 1980’s, many of the systems that had been devised there during the 1960′s and 1970′s were being actively deployed. The Gulf War gave the military its first opportunity to showcase their new weaponry in combat with the Patriot Missile System, Remote Piloted Vehicles (drones), and the Multiple Launch Rocket System (MLRS). The enemy was truly overwhelmed by the “shock and awe” during Operation Desert Storm in early 1990′s, and again during The Iraq War a decade later.

So why the Redstone Arsenal history lesson? Because back in the 1970′s, highly confidential documents were often hand-delivered via commercial aircraft. And on April 4, 1977, William V. Gudaitis, Chief of the Patriot Missile Project, was the man carrying the Top-Secret leather briefcase aboard Southern Airways Flight 242. Gudaitis was a seasoned veteran, and had worked for the Army since 1960 helping to develop both the Redstone and Jupiter Missile Systems. Educated at Harvard and MIT, he was not only a brilliant scientist but also an experienced and steady hand on a vital project. He was a family man too–he and his wife Helen had nine children.

The other two men heading to the Raytheon meeting with him were Procurement and Production czar Thomas Mazingo and Major Edward Rosler, who had received the Bronze Star for heroism in Vietnam. All three men perished on that tragic day. The old timers claim that the FBI swarmed all over the 242 crash site in New Hope, GA, looking for a “briefcase.” Others insist it’s an urban legend–and those who really know aren’t talking.

On March 16, 1999, twenty-two years after the crash, Major General Emmitt E. Gibson and Helen Gudaitis led the ceremony at Redstone that honored Gudaitis, Mazingo, Rosler and the six other Arsenal employees who perished on Flight 242. Maj. General Gibson, a member of the legendary West Point Class of ’66 and Redstone’s Commanding General, stood at the podium and spoke of their commitment to family and country. He and Helen dedicated several campus buildings in memory of those nine brave and courageous men who “made a lasting contribution to Redstone Arsenal and to the security of our nation.”

More Dallas-Hiram Patch content:

The Daughter of Flight 242′s Copilot Finally Speaks Out

A Forgotten Hero of Southern Airways Flight 242: Fire Chief John Clayton

Remembering Georgia's Worst-Ever Plane Crash

Visit the Flight 242 Traveling Display

Old Wounds Still Fresh as Plane Crash Anniversary Looms

Jessica Rosler Hitchcock June 10, 2013 at 10:21 PM
Thanks for remembering my father.

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