By Mark Gutglueck
The rugged and remote San Bernardino Mountains and the highest peak among them were the setting for the death of Dean Paul Martin more than a quarter century ago.
Dean Paul Martin was the son of performer Dean Martin and his second wife, Jeanne Biegger, the fifth of Dean Martin’s seven children, and Jeanne’s eldest son. He attended the Urban Military Academy in Brentwood and at age 13 set off on a career path that emulated his father when he joined Desi Arnaz Jr. and Billy Hinsche in the pop group Dino, Desi, & Billy, which achieved a few minor hits in the U.S. between 1965 and 1968, landing in the Top 30 twice, including their biggest charter, “I’m a Fool.”
At the age of 16, he obtained his pilot’s license.
In his late teens, he began using his given name of Dean Paul instead of the nickname “Dino.” Something of a playboy and a member of the jet set, he flew Lear jets, drove fast cars, and competed as an amateur racer, and dated Candace Bergen and Tina Sinatra. He also was a serious tennis player, competing in a junior competition at Wimbledon, eventually going on the pro circuit and achieving ranking among the 400 best players in the world.
In 1971, he married actress Olivia Hussey, from whom he divorced in 1978. He was married to Olympic gold medalist Dorothy Hamill from 1982 to 1984.
After his years as a teen music idol came to a close, he became an actor. He starred with Ali McGraw in the 1979 movie, “Players,” in which he was cast as a professional tennis player and for which he was nominated for a Golden Globe Award as best new actor of the year. He subsequently starred in the TV series “Misfits of Science,” co-starring Courtney Cox, which aired during the 1985-1986 television season, and was working on a pilot for Fox Television, “A Single Man,” at the time of his death.
Co-existent with his life of privilege, Dean Paul Martin had a serious side, having attended UCLA as a premedical student and working to achieve his instrument rating as a pilot. He was among a coterie of Hollywood luminaries including John Travolta, Wallace Beery, Jimmy Stewart and Wayne Morris, who took flying very seriously.
Inspired by an air show he saw at the age of 26 in 1978, he resolved to be a military pilot but was initially rebuffed. Determined, he flew to Washington, D.C. and personally persuaded Major General John B. Conway, then the director of the Air National Guard, to permit him to enlist.
He attended officer candidate training in Knoxville, Tennessee starting in November 1980 and advanced to Phantom jets, capable of speeds reaching 1,200 miles per hour, which he flew out of March AFB. Martin exhibited patience in getting the status he sought. Because there was a surplus of qualified military fliers in the Guard, he was first relegated to “GIB” status, or guy in the back, tending to radio, ordinance and navigational assignments. He said that experience made him appreciative, after he became a full-fledged military pilot, of what his crew member was enduring.
He was an esteemed pilot and had achieved the rank of captain in the National Guard.
On March 21, 1987, he brought his son Alexander to March Air Force Base to allow him to witness the preparation for his take-off on what was to be a routine flying exercise. With his weapons officer, Ramon Ortiz, 39, aboard, Captain Martin, himself 35, went airborne in the company of two other Phantom craft.
On that last day of winter, the San Bernardino Mountains were covered in heavy snowpack and snow was falling at the windswept higher altitudes, clouding visibility. Shortly after the three planes took off, all three were ordered by air traffic controllers at Ontario International Airport to change course in order to avoid 11,800-foot San Gorgonio Mountain, Southern California’s highest peak. Shortly thereafter, while instrumentation indicated his Phantom was at an altitude of around 11,300 feet, Martin’s plane dropped off the radar screens. It had apparently clipped Mt. San Gorgonio and then streaked into the side of a granite mountain about five-and-a-half miles to the south.
The plane was carrying a large amount of fuel and burned when it struck the ground in an area known as Wood Canyon.
About two feet of snow continued to fall over the next several days, as wind and other conditions hampered the search for the craft, which was spotted by a U.S. Air Force helicopter pilot four days later near the San Bernardino County/Riverside County boundary. The wreckage was reached by searchers on March 25. They found it in “large pieces and small pieces” at the 5,500 foot level. There was no indication that Martin or Ortiz had attempted to eject.
Martin and Ortiz died in a confrontation with Mt. San Gorgonio, where, a little more than ten years earlier, on January 7, 1977, a Lear jet taking Frank Sinatra’s 82-year-old mother, Natalie (Dolly) Sinatra, crashed in a blinding snowstorm at 10,000 feet, 200 feet below a ridge. She was traveling from her Palm Springs home to see her son perform in Las Vegas.
Dean Paul Martin is buried in the Los Angeles National Cemetery, a U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs cemetery in Los Angeles.
Life And Death At 12,300 Feet
By Mark Gutglueck