On April 4, 1977, William V. Gudaitis boarded the ill-fated Southern Airways Flight 242 in Huntsville, AL as he headed to a meeting at Raytheon Co. in Lexington, MA. He was a top scientist for the Redstone Arsenal, and his briefcase bulged with top-secret documents that detailed a revolutionary new missile design – one that would completely change the existing paradigm. It was called the “Patriot Air Defense Missile System,” and the plans he carried would soon become the prototype for the next generation of guided missile defense. He did not survive the tragic crash in New Hope, GA but his briefcase did, and once again Redstone would ride triumphant.
Redstone Arsenal has always served as ground zero for the U.S. Army’s missile and rocket programs. Originally built in 1941 as an assembly plant for the manufacturing of conventional and chemical munitions, the U.S. Army ultimately chose it to be the dedicated site for development and testing of their rocket propulsion systems. Werner von Braun famously arrived there in 1950 to lead the team of scientists that developed the first ballistic missile test rocket. Afterwards, his group of top scientists crafted the next generation of launch vehicle that sent the first satellite into orbit, signaling the beginning of the space race between the U.S. and the Soviet Union.
The Marshall Space Flight Center was established at Redstone in 1960, and within nine years the Marshall team had developed the Saturn rocket that put the first man on the moon. They also developed the space shuttle propulsion system and managed the deployment of Skylab, the Hubble Space Telescope, and the International Space Station. It is still NASA’s center for rocketry and spacecraft propulsion research and development.
In the 1970’s, Gudaitis and his team of scientists designed the Patriot Missile System, short for “Phased Array Tracking Radar to Intercept On Target.” Initially used as a replacement for the Nike Hercules and the MIM-23 Hawk defense systems, it currently serves as the U.S. Army’s anti-ballistic missile system. Modular in design and highly mobile, all of its components are mounted on either a truck or a trailer, which enables an experienced fire team to set it up in less than one hour.
By the 1980’s, many of the systems that had been developed at Redstone during the 1960’s and 1970’s were being deployed. The Gulf War gave the U.S. Army an unparalleled opportunity to display their new weaponry, showcasing the Patriot Missile System, Remote Piloted Vehicles (drones), and the Multiple Launch Rocket System (MLRS). They provided the “shock and awe” during Operation Desert Storm in the early 1990’s, and then once again during the Iraq War fought a decade later.
So why the Redstone Arsenal history lesson? Because back in the 1970’s, highly confidential documents were often hand-delivered via commercial aircraft. And on April 4, 1977, William V. Gudaitis, Project Manager for the Patriot Missile Project, was the man in control of the top-secret briefcase aboard Southern Airways Flight 242. Gudaitis was a seasoned veteran who had worked for the Army since 1960, helping to develop both the Redstone and Jupiter Missile Systems. He was educated at Harvard and MIT, and was not only a brilliant scientist but also an experienced hand on a vital project. He was also a family man – he and his wife Helen had nine children.
Two other men flying to the Raytheon meeting with him that day were Procurement and Production czar Thomas Mazingo and Major Edward Rosler, who had received the Bronze Star for heroism in Vietnam. All three men died on that tragic afternoon, along with six other Redstone employees. The old timers in New Hope claim that the FBI swarmed all over the Southern 242 crash site, frantically looking for the missing briefcase. Others insist that it’s simply an urban legend – and those who know aren’t talking.
On March 16, 1999, over two decades after the crash, Maj. Gen. Emmitt E. Gibson and Helen Gudaitis led the memorial service at Redstone Arsenal that honored Gudaitis, Mazingo, Rosler, and the six other Redstone workers who perished on Southern Airways Flight 242. General Gibson, a member of the legendary West Point Class of ’66 and the Arsenal’s commanding general, spoke of their commitment to family and country. He dedicated several of the campus buildings in honor of the nine men, whom he said made “…a lasting contribution to Redstone Arsenal and to the security of our nation.”