“A B-52 has crashed. We need you and your team to head for Goldsboro, North Carolina immediately.” Countless times, Dick Clarke of Cottonwood heard these or similar words. With a hug and a kiss for his wife Jean and their children, he would grab his already-packed suitcase and head off for the accident site, no matter where it was in the world. Long before CSI Miami and CSI Las Vegas, Clarke was on the job, ferreting out the cause of an airplane accident. He was among the original CSIs – Crash Scene Investigator.
Clarke was born and raised in Fort Worth, Texas. He graduated from high school just after Pearl Harbor. He had a military deferment, but enlisted in the Army anyway so that he could enter pilot training. He received his commission at Williams Field and became a pilot of a P-38 Lightning, one of World War II’s most versatile and effective fighter/bombers. Then it was off to Europe, but not as a fighter pilot. His P-38 was reconfigured as a Droopsnoot/Pathfinder for low-level photoreconnaissance with the task of surveying potential airfield locations for the advancing American Army. It was a dangerous assignment because the Germans were often as close as the Americans were. One time he landed at a reputedly abandoned German airfield only to discover that American tanks were on one side of the runway – and the Germans were nearby.
After the war, Clarke entered Texas A&M from which he received his Bachelor of Science degree in Mechanical Engineering. Following a job with General Electric, he accepted a job with Boeing to become a Technical Representative for their swept-wing B-47 Stratojet bomber. At one point, he participated in an accident investigation, and did so well that he was sent to school to enhance his analysis abilities. This became his assignment until the early 1960s when he was sent first to Huntsville, Alabama and then Michaud, Louisiana as a Systems Engineer on Boeing’s Saturn V Launch Rocket. Next, Clarke moved to Boeing’s Commercial Airplane Division in Renton, Washington, ultimately becoming the Chief Design Safety Engineer for the 707, 727, 737 and 757 aircraft.
Every job he ever held was interesting, but the one he seemed to think about the most was his accident investigation work. An aircraft CSI goes about his business much like a medical examiner who conducts an autopsy. He analyzes the evidence and looks for the clues that caused the failure. It’s tedious work. Was it metal fatigue? Pilot error? Loss of flight control? Was there a design error? “To be a good CSI, you have to be inquisitive,” Clarke said. “And it helps to have flying experience, as well as a maintenance and human factors background.” He had all of these skills, which he applied to the 40 accidents that he investigated.
The Clarkes moved to Sun Lakes in 1988, captivated by the lifestyle. “One of the best things is the people,” he said. “Quality people,” his wife Jean added. “Wonderful, quality people.”
Clarke was a long-time member of the Sun Lakes Rotary Club. His principle activities included the Choices and Dictionary programs for Chandler elementary and junior high students. He and Jean enjoyed biking, golf, tennis, dancing, and bridge.
On December 23, 2015, 91-year old Dick Clarke passed away peacefully, joining his wife who had died earlier in the year.