Herhold: A story of sacrifice by a Mount Umunhum commander

By Scott Herhold

Mercury News Columnist

03/21/2012 04:24:39 PM PDT

From the 3,486-foot peak of Mount Umunhum -- and I was a few hundred feet away Tuesday afternoon -- you get a magnificent view, stretching as far as Mount Diablo to the northeast and to Monterey Bay in the south.

I've been waging a campaign to save the radar tower on the peak because it is a visible bookmark of our past. It is also where airmen lived and served, and yes, died. No story reveals their sacrifice better than an airplane crash May 4, 1970. So forgive a dip into 42-year-old history:

That foggy morning, Maj. Robert "Robbie" Robinson, the commander of the Almaden Air Force Station on Mount Um, made the 85-mile drive to Hamilton Air Force Base near Novato, where he planned to catch a plane to Spokane, Wash.

Capt. Robert L. Robinson Jr. was the commanding officer of the Almaden Air Force Station (courtesy Daryl Robinson)

The 39-year-old major, who had flown more than 100 missions in Vietnam, nearly missed the flight. When he arrived, the plane was taxiing for takeoff and had to be stopped. Robinson hurriedly climbed into the cockpit, replacing a reserve pilot.

About four minutes after takeoff, at roughly 3,000 feet, the plane, a Convair T-29, suffered a massive structural failure. The pilot's side of the cockpit blew in, killing Robinson instantly. The co-pilot crash-landed in a forested area.


Only one man survived of the 14 aboard: Capt. George Burk, who suffered burns over 65 percent of his body and serious internal injuries. Amazingly, Burk recovered and has written a book about it, "The Bridge Never Crossed."

For Daryl Robinson, the 9-year-old son of Robinson, there was no such solace. Daryl returned from a trip to the orthodontist that afternoon to see the flag at Mount Umunhum at half-staff.

As he walked into his house, his tearful mother gave him a hug and told him his father had been in an accident. When Daryl asked if he was OK, she said, "No, he was killed in the crash.'' (See Daryl's account at the document link above.)

"Who can explain why that plane crash happened?" wrote Daryl, 51, who now lives in Colorado. "Only God of course, but he didn't manufacture the aircraft or control the airplane. I just know that Dad died while doing what he loved."

That brings me back to the point of Mount Umunhum. I've written that we need to save the radar tower, which the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District has debated taking down, because it honors a Cold War era easily forgotten.


The tower also represents the service, and yes, the sacrifice, of hundreds of airmen who worked atop Mount Umunhum.

When he died, Robinson was a few months from retirement. He had hoped to work for a commuter airline in Colorado. The night before, he had declined an offer to play cards with a neighbor because he had to catch an early flight.

After his death, a plaque was created for him at the base of the station's flagpole. It has since disappeared. Basim Jaber, the historian of the station, believes the plaque was donated to a New Almaden museum. He's trying to find it.

Meanwhile, we can honor Robinson in a way his son and the airmen endorse. Leave the radar tower alone. It only enhances the view.

Contact Scott Herhold at sherhold@mercurynews.com or 408-275-0917.

2008: Chris Zervos of San Jose and his daughter, Angie, 16, take in the view of the radar tower during a reunion of dozens of Air Force veterans and dependents who lived on top of Mount Umunhum in the 1960s and 1970s. (Patrick Tehan/Mercury News)