The Day USN Ensign Hickman Saved Hawthorn Elementary School

December 4th, 1959; Ensign Albert Joe Hickman of Fighter Squadron 121 was returning from carrier practice off the coast of California.  After a successful training flight, Hickman was guiding his McDonnell F3H-2N Demon swept-wing all-weather interceptor through 1500 feet onto final approach for Miramar Naval Air Station when his jet suffered a mechanical causing the single-engine aircraft to lose all power.  

The jet rolled to the right and was bleeding away altitude...Ensign Albert Joe Hickman could have easily ejected from his aircraft from that height, now just over 1 mile from the runway at Miramar, but in the few seconds that passed, now directly in front of his flight path, lay Hawthorn Elementary School, and it's 750 students enjoying their lunch break in the schoolyard.

Faced with only seconds of usable altitude, Ensign Hickman elected to remain in the cockpit of his dying fighter, and with what little airspeed he had left, wrestled the 35 thousand pound jet over the schoolyard fence, with some witnesses claiming he only cleared the playground by a mere 60 feet. Sadly, the F3H impacted a brush-covered hill only a few hundred yards from the playground. Brush fires erupted from the impact site and aircraft wreckage, which were successfully extinguished by the local fire dept. The choice to remain with his aircraft came at a high cost.  The lifeless body of Navy Ens. Hickman, was discovered nearby. He was only 21 years of age.

(San Diego History Center / Union-Tribune Collection)

Ensign Albert Hickman, having only three years since High School graduation, did not survive the crash, but through his selfless bravery, hundreds of children could return to their homes and families at the end of their school day. Ensign Hickman was posthumously awarded the Navy and Marine Corps Medal for non-combat Valor.

If you ever find yourself driving through San Diego, you will find a small school and playground appropriately named Hickman Elementary School, but perhaps the greatest legacy to Ensign Albert Joe Hickman, is the over 700 kids that were able to grow old thanks to the young Ensign's split second decision on that fateful day in 1959.  

In 1960, a ceremony was conducted at the school in honor of Ensign Hickman...student body president Kay Schade, 11, gave a speech that was quoted in the San Diego Union:

"Ensign Hickman not only saved our lives but left us an ideal by which to live. Let us strive to be as brave and courageous ourselves as he was."


The Navy and Marine Corps Medal

The President of the United States of America takes pride in presenting the Navy and Marine Corps Medal (Posthumously) to Ensign Albert J. Hickman, United States Navy, for heroism on 4 December 1959 as pilot of a Jet-Fighter aircraft in Navy Fighter Squadron ONE HUNDRED TWENTY-ONE (VF-121) during a return flight to his home base at Naval Air Station, Miramar, Calif. When his aircraft went out of control as he maneuvered about the station preparatory to entering the traffic pattern, Ensign Hickman elected to remain with his craft in order to steer clear of a populated area comprising a large housing development and an elementary school. Through skillful maneuvering, he succeeded in avoiding the residential and school area, but descended below the minimum ejection altitude, sacrificing his life in the ensuing crash. Through his courageous and selfless action, Ensign Hickman undoubtedly saved many lives.




  • Dean Cardno

    Taking a rough guess (Google maps), Hawthorne Elementary is about a mile south of the approach path to Miramar. If the approach was from the west that could put it on the flight path if, as stated in the article, Ensign Hickman’s plane “rolled right” after the mechanical failure.

  • Andy Newbery

    Who would have a school built on the flight path of an airplane?

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