Willie McCool was 22,000 feet over Smith Point that day in 1993 when he heard a loud pop. One of the engines on his EA-6B Prowler had stalled, and the plane fell in an uncontrolled spin toward the Chesapeake Bay.
McCool, then a test pilot at Patuxent River Naval Air Station, flipped a switch to begin recovery procedures. The plane kept plummetting. The three crew members with him blanched. Other Prowlers experiencing the same problem in similar circumstances had crashed. One of the crew called out altitudes as the plane approached the 10,000-foot threshold where they would have to bail out.
In the pilot's seat, McCool methodically and calmly went through a series of procedures. Just above 10,000 feet, he regained control of the aircraft. Back on the ground at Patuxent River, he traded high-fives with other crew members.
It was a typical McCool performance. "He was very matter-of-fact, very cool," recalled Navy Cmdr. Nancy Fechtig, who was aboard the plane.
Navy Cmdr. William C. McCool, 41, was among the seven astronauts killed when the space shuttle Columbia disintegrated during reentry Feb. 1. Yesterday, fellow pilots and others remembered the shuttle crew in a ceremony held at what many consider the wellspring of the "right stuff" required of military fliers who hope to become astronauts: the Naval Test Pilot School at Patuxent River.
Fechtig and the other two crew members who rode with McCool in the Prowler that day were among the several hundred mourners who gathered in a gleaming white hangar at the test pilot school.
"It's a loss we feel keenly at the naval air station, and in the entire community," said Capt. Dane Swanson, the station commander.
McCool, who was Columbia's pilot, and Capt. David M. Brown, 46, a mission specialist on the fatal flight, were alumni of Patuxent River, as were almost a third of the nation's 312 astronauts since the early 1960s, among them former senator John Glenn, Walter M. Schirra and James A. Lovell.
Flight operations at the normally busy testing station came to a standstill during the afternoon ceremony, with more than 100 aviators in green flight suits or brown leather jackets filling rows of folding chairs.
An enormous U.S. flag hung from the hangar door, and a NASA T-38 Talon jet was parked to the side of the stage.
Seven empty flight helmets, white with black leather, sat on a table in front of a stage. One by one, representatives from the audience stepped forward to light candles in front of each helmet, ring a bell in remembrance and talk about the life of each of the lost astronauts.
McCool was selected outstanding student of Class 101 in test pilot school in 1992 and subsequently served as a test pilot with the Naval Strike Aircraft Test Squadron, responsible for testing myriad Navy aircraft.
"He was respected, admired and loved by those fortunate to have known him," said Rear Adm. Walter B. Massenburg, one of the speakers.
McCool "was, like the best of test pilots, a wonderful blend of intellect, engineering knowledge and flying skills," Vice Adm. Joseph W. Dyer, chief test pilot at Patuxent when McCool was there, said Thursday. "His enthusiasm was infectious."
Brown, a native of Arlington, came to the test pilot school in 1995 to serve as flight surgeon. He "was a Navy novelty: a jet pilot as well as a doctor," said one of the speakers, Peter Papa, a friend of Brown's.
"He was the only flight surgeon in a 10-year period to be also chosen for flight training," Massenburg told the audience. "That ought to tell you something."
Pride in the base's role in the U.S. space program was clear throughout the ceremony.
Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) addressed his remarks to "all of you who walk the tarmac here, which has been walked by heroes for more than five decades."
Somber test pilots wiped away tears as taps sounded.
Chaplain Rick Gates delivered the benediction: "May this tragedy be transcended by those who dare to dream and hope, and will follow in their footsteps."