Sandy Pyle, a Navy pilot's wife, felt sick as she watched the two cars pull into her neighbors' driveways at the end of December.
A telephone call moments before had told her that her friends -- Cmdr. Walter (Butch) Williams and Lt. Cmdr. Bruce Miller -- had died when their KA6D tanker airplane crashed into the Arabian Sea after takeoff from the aircraft carrier Kitty Hawk.
She knew those two cars carried Navy officers who were about to deliver the word to the wives and families of the two fliers. And in the back of her mind was the knowledge that Williams and Miller were the eighth and ninth officers attached to the naval air station at Whidbey Island here to die in just over a month.
"Four officers got out of each of the cars and simultaneously knocked on the door and I got nauseated," Sandy Pyle said in a recent interview.
"I couldn't cry. I couldn't scream. I sat there and was watching this nightmare unfold before my eyes . . ."
Sandy Pyle was not alone in her mourning.
This close knit Navy town of 12,000 and the air base of 7,000 on Whidbey Island, the second-largest island in 48 states, are still in a state of shock over what somebody here has called Black December.
Last Nov. 28, four Whidbey fliers perished when their EA6B, a radar-jamming plane, crashed into the Indian Ocean. That war plane also was deployed on the Kitty Hawk.
On Dec. 12, another Whidbey-based plane crashed off the California coast on takeoff from the carrier Constellation, killing its two crewmen.
Four days later, a sophisticated EA6B "Prowler" filled with radar-jamming equipment went down over Italy. Three men parachuted to safety but one Whidbey flier was killed.
Then came the Dec. 29 crash of the tanker piloted by Williams.
And in a recent, fifth accident, during what was described as a routine training flight, an A6 attack bomber crashed on takeoff from the carrier Coral Sea in the Philippines. The plane's two Whidbey-based fliers were rescued by helicopter.
The nightmare continued this month, when another Whidbey-based jet crashed near Sun Valley, Idaho, killing two men and bringing the pilot toll to 11. The Feb. 8 deaths prompted Sen. Henry M. Jackson (D-Wash.) to announce he will have his staff investigate the cause of the crashes.
The downed planes were all varieties of the same basic Grumman-made craft. But the base commander, Capt. Weston Byng, says there was no indication of a common denominator between the crashes.
The cause of the accidents, the first fatal crashes of Whidbey-based planes in more than 13 months, are still under Navy investigation.
One of the four squadrons that lost planes had not had a serious accident in nine years, said Cmdr. Gary Johnson, the base safety officer.
Yet tactical Navy flying -- onto and off the decks of pitching aircraft carriers -- has always been a risky job.
"It's the second most dangerous type of flying. The first is crop-dusting," says Byng.
Last year, 74 people were killed in 127 U.S. Navy accidents around the world, Johnson said. Nine of them -- 12 percent -- were the Whidbey fliers killed in those 32 days.
The wives of the fliers stationed at Whidbey are stunned. Some, in the face of rumors about the safety of the planes, have called for grounding the craft. But others are resolute.
Sandy Pyle, for one, said the men must continue to fly.
"There's a mood of cautious relief that this is over now and our prayers is that it will not happen again," she said. "But the men must go on doing what they believe in. They simply can't stop."
Susan Indorf, who is married to a navigator, was philosophical.
"If it's his time to go, that's it . . . I have always felt if my husband were killed in an accident of this type he'd die doing what he wanted to do and what he loved best."
It doesn't help to know that men's lives are in danger even though they aren't in combat.
"In combat, you feel they were doing a job and the job was definable," said Byng. "But when you lose somebody in a training environment with no identifiable mission, that puts more burdent on the survivors . . . It's easier to understand someone dying in combat."
The job's hazards, plus the fliers' frequent separations from family while on sea duty, put extreme presure on wives of fliers, Dianne Reardon, an Oak Harbor psychologist, says.
Reardon, who treats mainly Navy dependents, said the recent string of accidents has left the Navy community here "in a state of intellectual shock." a
"This many fliers -- nobody was ready for that," Reardon said. "They're all in it together psychologically. This thing has happened to the whole Navy community."
Kit McCartney who is married to a navigator, said she has known five military widows, one of whom was widowed twice.
Like others, she said she has learned to plan ahead for the possibility of death, even to making advance funeral arrangements.
"It sounds morbid, but we're forced to sit down and discuss these things each time we change duty stations," she said.
The fliers' deaths touched the town as well.
"This was a shocking experience because of the very personal relationship between the military and the community," said Wallie Funk, editor of Oak Harbor's weekly newspaper, the Whidbey News Times.
"You go off in the corner at times and cry privately," he said "It just broke me up."
Funk was acquainted with five of the fliers and close friends with three of them.
The naval air station is Oak Harbor's primary industry, and base personnel and their dependents are active in nearly every phase of community life.
"We share our pleasures and our sadness, our community problems and our military problems," Funk said.
Oak Harbor has development such rapport with the base that the two have become almost indistinguishable, Funk says. Many Navy people buy property and retire here.
One organization that has helped foster good relationships between the base and the town is the Oak Harbor chapter of the Navy League, a civilian organization.
The local chapter has about 700 members, making it one of the largest in the country, said the Rev. Hugh Miller, an Episcopal minister and Navy League chaplain.
The ties have made the accidents harder to bear. One of the dead fliers was an active member of Miller's church.
"It's been a very personal loss within the family of St. Stephen's Church," he said.
"The human thing is to question why there were so many [accidents] in so short a time," Miller said. "It's just one of those unanswerable questions."