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Malaysia flight reawakens pain of MacDill plane disappearance

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Published:   |   Updated: March 21, 2014 at 07:44 AM

When Robert Hodgin heard the news that Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 had vanished on March 8, “I immediately got a pain in my stomach.”

For Hodgin, it was the reopening of a deep, psychological wound it has taken a lifetime to begin to heal.

On March 10, 1956, his father, Air Force Capt. Robert Howe Hodgin was in command of a B-47 Stratojet that took off from MacDill Air Force Base, carrying nuclear materials, on a secret mission.

The six-engine jet disappeared somewhere over the Mediterranean Ocean. Despite an extensive search, no wreckage, or any trace of the three men on board, was ever found. The flight remains one of the greatest mysteries in Air Force history and a ceaseless source of sorrow for Hodgin, now a 67-year-old Texas college professor.

News that the airliner disappeared with 277 passengers and 12 crew “stirs up all the issues and angst and pain and heartache you thought you completely dealt with,” says Hodgin, choking back tears. “But you are never completely through of it till you go.”

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Robert Hodgin was 9 and tucked into bed in his home at 3903 Drexel Ave. in Tampa when his father guided the six-engine Boeing jet down the long runway at MacDill and into the night sky.

“He was a happy guy being in that plane,” Hodgin recalls of his father, who “loved flying.” He says he remembers sitting on that plane at MacDill during family visitation days.

Robert Howe Hodgin became an aviator after WWII, left the Air Force after the Korean War but returned to the flying branch after being unable to find satisfying work in the civilian world, says Hodgin.

The B-47, an accident-prone early attempt by Boeing to develop a long-range jet bomber, was one of a flight of four to take off that night, bound for a base in Morocco.

Robert Howe Hodgin, 31, was in command. Air Force Capt. Gordon Insley, 32, was navigator and 2nd Lt. Ronald Kurtz, 22, was the co-pilot, according to one of Insley’s nieces.

The formation was headed on a non-stop flight to Ben Guerir Air Base and everything appeared to be normal, according to the “Department of Defense Narrative Summaries of Accidents Involving U.S. Nuclear Weapons 1950-1980.”

The first aerial refueling linkup went off without a hitch, according to records.

But just before the second refueling, somewhere over the Mediterranean, something happened.

The jet flew into a cloud bank, according to the report, and visibility was poor. The base of the cloud bank was 14,500 and the jet was supposed to link up with the tanker at 14,000 feet.

It never made it.

“An extensive search failed to locate any traces of the missing aircraft or crew,” the report states. “No weapons were aboard the aircraft, only two capsules of nuclear weapons material in carrying cases. A nuclear detonation was not possible.”

The next day, a black limousine pulled up to the Hodgin house, where Robert was with his mother, Lillian and brother, Richard.

“I was the first to witness the officers pull up in my front yard in a black limo then enter the front door of our home with my mother, arms outstretched in denial behind me, screaming ‘NO, NO, NO.’ My heart went numb,” he says. “And I felt utterly lost and powerless. Nothing my 9-year old mind or body could muster would alter what we heard or calm the chaos swirling around us. Hoping, wishing, praying were things I could do in my stunned silence for the many hours, days and months afterward. It was the most traumatic moment of my life.”

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At the time, Hodgin says he did not know that his father’s airplane had vanished, only that he was never coming home again.

For a little boy, it was a devastation from which he would never recover.

“Let me say it this way, pilots back in that era were not home a whole lot,” says Hodgin. “But when he was home, life was perfect and sublime.”

Things didn’t get any easier as the days dragged on into months and the family was finally told that the Air Force has no answers about what happened to his father’s jet.

“I admired him,” says Hodgin. “He was my father, just a good guy. When he was home and his buddies were over, the world was right. The world was centered. It is hard to imagine losing a parent at the age of 9 and never being able to know what happened. That leaves an open wound in your heart,”

For the family, life was a struggle, says Hodgin. His mother, who died in 1987, never remarried.

After playing center on the Robinson High School basketball team “I was 6-foot-8,” Hodgin says he left Tampa “as soon as I could.”

He went to Georgia Military College, then on to the University of Florida, where he earn a bachelor’s degree in business and a master’s degree in economics.

But he could never outrun the pain.

“When you grow up without your father, you don’t know what kind of person you would have become if he had been there,” says Hodgin, “And other than the sheer heart-tugging, gut-wrenching, never being able to see him again and touch him, I used to often wonder what I would have become, what I might have been had he been present my whole life. It’s imponderable. Haunting. I feel that absence and angst.”

He says his brother, who was 5 at the time, became a psychologist.

“He and I talk rarely about that anymore,” he says of the disappearance. “But he made one comment to me about 10 years ago, when just like with the current Malaysian aircraft, you keep praying that your loved one will come back and you keep that myth of return in mind as long as you can, but there comes a day when you have to let go.”

Hodgin says he finally let go when he turned 35, “after three years of therapy and two wrecked marriages.”

“First you have to grieve,” he says. “If you don’t grieve, you can’t grow.”

There was another relationship Hodgin says he had to repair.

“It took most of my adult life to come back to God,” he says, “because there was only one person to blame for losing my father, and that was God.”

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The Hodgin family was comforted, albeit temporarily, when they gathered around a plaque bearing his father’s name at Arlington National Cemetery.

But that didn’t last.

For years, he wondered about what happened to his father, but his search for answers was fruitless.

Sometime in the 1980s, he filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the Air Force, but when he received it, “there was scant information.”

He says he has learned little beyond what was in the Pentagon report on the nuclear mishaps.

“No one was willing to talk,” he says.

He wasn’t the only one searching for answers.

On Dec. 7, 1999, one of Insley’s relatives posted a request for information on the website of the B-47 Stratojet Association.

“I am writing in hopes that you can help me find out information about my uncle. My cousin is in poor health, and she would like to know what happened to her dad, Captain Gordon Madison Insley. He was stationed at MacDill AFB and was a navigator on a classified mission when he disappeared over French Morocco on March 10 or 11th 1956. The Aircraft Commander was Robert Hodgin and the Co-pilot was Ronald Kurtz. My uncle disappeared on his birthday and left behind a wife, a daughter and a newborn son. My aunt died never knowing what happened. Any information or leads you can offer would be a huge help.”

The email contained in the posting is no longer working. Efforts to reach the Kurtz family were also unsuccessful.

Two years ago, Hodgin posted a similar request for information. A man named Robert Brown, who said he was a navigator on a KC-97 refueling tanker stationed at the base where the B-47 was headed, was part of the search efforts.

“We flew search missions over much of North Africa and Southern Spain in KC-97′s,” Brown wrote. “Found nothing.”

MacDill officials say they have no information about the B-47. Air Force headquarters officials had no information about the flight and referred questions to the Air Force Safety Center for a Freedom of Information Act request.

For a while, the families of those aboard the missing B-47 stayed in touch, says Hodgin.

“It was always a brief meeting,” he says. “The pain was so great. It was too much for them.”

Hodgin says he still wants to know what happened, though he has a theory.

“My immediate instinct on hearing the first news of the Malaysian airliner, my mind went to the conclusion that the plane had crashed in the water,” he says. “That’s the best guess for my father’s plane, but no one really knows that.”

As the days drag on into weeks for the families of those aboard the missing Malaysian aircraft, who are gathered in a hotel in Beijing, frustrated and angry as they wait for answers that never come, Hodgin says he shares their pain.

“I have tried avoiding that question,” he says when asked what advice he has for them.

“You pray,” he says, fighting back tears. “There is nothing else to do. You pray.”

haltman@tampatrib.com

(813) 259-7629

@haltman

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