Starvaggi Transitioned

John Richey –

During the mid 1960’s it was very difficult to recruit flying personnel for the Air Force Reserve. At Pittsburgh we were preparing for a transition from the troop carrier operations in the C-119 to strategic airlift in the C-124. Unit manning for pilots and navigators would double with the change. We utilized every viable recruiting effort; the results were discouraging.

One afternoon I looked up from my desk to see my boss, Lt. Colonel Howard Dye, standing in my office doorway. He smiled as he said: “I have a challenge for you.” Then he told me that the squadron had accepted the application of a navigator who had not flown since 1946. It was my job to qualify and prepare him for the conversion to the new aircraft.

The new man was Captain John Richey. John was a 44 year old entrepreneur who owned several baking and restaurant establishments in the Uniontown, PA region. My initial impression of John was less than enthusiastic. I was to be proven wrong.

John Richey received navigation training and earned his wings by attending the Pan American Airways Flight School in Florida, where he learned oceanic flight techniques in Sikorsky flying boats. Although he had extensive overwater experience during World War II, he had no knowledge of low-level airdrop or current aeronautical operations. It was going to be a big undertaking to bring him up to date.

John’s first task was to check out in the Fairchild C-119 Flying Boxcar. He was a good navigator. He understood basic navigation, albeit that some of his unorthodox habits were beyond current Air Force practices. At low level tactical flying he was totally out of his element, and he struggled to qualify. It took a long time, but he finally passed a standardization evaluation flight and was checked out in the aircraft.

On one of his early airdrop flights John made 911th Troop Carrier history. As he approached the Starvaggi drop zone, near the Ohio-Pennsylvania line, he started his timing to the airdrop release point from a tip of land on a small lake. Unfortunately, he was using the wrong lake. The loadmaster pushed a 200 pound steel drum filled with water out of the airplane when John called “Green light” over the interphone. The parachute attached to the drum opened and the barrel drifted slowly toward the ground.

The Drop Zone Officer, Major Howard Garvin, gasped as he observed the barrel leave the airplane. It was going to hit the ground over a half mile short of the intended impact point. Howard and the drop zone team jumped into their truck and raced toward the descending barrel. They sped toward the Steubenville Pike, then designated U.S. Route 22, a major east-west highway on the west side of Pittsburgh. The parachute was drifting toward the heavily traveled road.

The barrel landed in the parking lot of a restaurant on U.S. Route 22. Howard’s truck roared into their parking lot! He was relieved that it was late afternoon, and the lot was almost empty. The water barrel sat upright in the center of the parking area with the chute draped over several cars. A group of kids were at the scene. “Wow … this is great” they shouted to Major Garvin as he and the drop zone team quickly tipped the barrel to drain the water and struggled to wrap up the parachute and store it in the truck. This done, they hastily departed before anyone in the restaurant was aware of what had happened.

Repercussions were as anticipated. The investigation showed that the aircraft was in an out of low clouds during the low-level route flown prior to the drop. Navigators used a formular called CARP or “computed air release point.” This calculation considers the weight and characteristics of the item to be dropped, the performance of the chutes supporting the load, and the wind effect as it drifts to the ground. Once this is determined a reference point on the ground is selected to position the airplane for the drop. The CARP system works well; but not if the reference point on the planning chart does not match the one selected from the cockpit.

John was required to retrain and qualify again in airdrop. To be safe, I scheduled him to fly with an experienced airdrop navigator during the few months remaining until the C-124’s arrived.

About a month after the water barrel episode, I was working in my office when John appeared unannounced. He grinned at me and said: “You know Bob; I just had lunch at that restaurant. The food and service were terrible! I would have done the owner a big favor if I had put that barrel right through the roof!”

John quickly qualified in the C-124. He was in his oceanic element and presently was upgraded to instructor status. He flew many transpacific routes during the Vietnam War and retired as a Major. He passed away in 2017 at the age of 95.

John Richey was a proud citizen who served the nation with distinction. I am honored to have worked with him.


Almost sixty years have passed, and things have changed.
Starvaggi drop zone has experienced a renewal. This was the abandoned strip mine when it was used as an US Air Force drop zone in the 1960’s.


Route 22 is a highspeed divided highway. The Steubenville Pike is county road T853, and the restaurant is still open. Starvaggi is now “The Pavilion at Star Lake.”
This modern entertainment center sits at the impact point for airborne troops, water barrels, and heavy equipment cargo pallets dropped from C-119s by Air Force Reservists long ago.

However, some things never change. As Major Richey experienced … today’s performers can also have an event that “falls short” of expectations!