GREGORY MCMICHAEL, ENS, USN
Gregory McMichael '86
Date of birth: September 21, 1963
Date of death: April 15, 1987
Greg was killed on April 15, 1987 when the T-34C he was piloting crashed during his "safe-for-solo" flight check near Chumuckla, FL. His instructor, Lieutenant Leo McSherry, also lost.
From "HFM," USNA '87, at http://peepeesoakedheckhole.blogspot.com/2012_10_01_archive.html:
One [Naval Academy Preparatory School] platoon-mate who stood out was Greg. Greg was a short, stocky, powerfully-built black dude straight outta Brooklyn, NY (he graduated from the renowned Erasmus Hall High School in Flatbush, where he was a star wrestler). At that point in my life, I'd never known anyone who was actually from New York (much less Brooklyn), and as such I always assumed (misguidedly) that anyone from there must be a gang member or some sort of badass. Greg WAS a badass, but in a different way. He carried himself with calm dignity and good humor, and while he wasn't an academic genius per se, he had an innate sense of intelligence that surpassed even the smartest students there.
He did something that first week in Newport that impressed the hell out of me and many others, officers and peers alike. On the morning of our third day there, we were marched over to the nearby indoor pool for a swim test, to see who the 'dolphins' and who the 'rocks' were. The test included a leap from a platform suspended 7 meters above the deep end of the pool. Now, I wasn't a strong swimmer, but I could swim - still, I was plenty nervous when I got up on that platform and saw how high it really was over the water. Greg, on the other hand, couldn't swim a stroke. But without a moment's hesitation or the slightest quaver of fear, that guy climbed up the ladder and jumped right in! They had to fish him out of the water, but still… I still consider that to be one of the bravest things I ever saw anyone do in my life, and from that point onward Greg earned my everlasting respect.
At NAPS, Greg was paired up with a roommate named Dave, a corn-fed straight-arrow out of B*mf*ck, Iowa, seemingly as naive and salt-of-the-earth as they come. You'd be hard-pressed to come up with two people more dissimilar than Greg and Dave… but they became inseparable friends there in school, and on weekends could always be found out in town together, chasing the Salve Regina College girls and making liberal use of Newport's many bars (Dave might have seemed like a Midwestern square, but he had a taste for the booze just as powerful as Greg's, if not moreso). Many of their escapades became part of the school lore of that time - bar fights, road trips and hookups with the local chicks. With all of that, both Greg and Dave still managed to get high marks academically, and both were selected for leadership positions within the NAPS Battalion.
Greg and Dave moved on to the Naval Academy; I followed the next year. Although I was a year behind my old NAPS classmates, I still saw a lot of them at school and out in town. At Annapolis, just as in Newport, Greg excelled, eventually reaching the position of regimental commander, one of the top three posts at Navy. He busted his ass there, and finished his years at the Academy with a class ranking high enough to allow him to choose whatever speciality he wanted to pursue. Greg had long had his sights set on becoming a jet pilot, so it was no surprise when he chose Navy Air. I saw him one last time on his final day at Annapolis, in the King Hall mess hall, just before he headed down to Pensacola to begin flight school. I congratulated him on his graduation, and we spent a few minutes reminiscing fondly over the past five years, the places we'd been and all the folks we'd known during that time, many of whom had long ago fallen by the wayside on that long journey. We had a laugh or two, then he had to go. We shook hands and wished one another luck, and that was that. He was off to Florida, while I remained to complete my senior year.
The end of my final year at Annapolis was fast approaching, with Final Exam Week in May almost at an end. Late one afternoon, I was walking back to Bancroft Hall from my Economics class final, using the corridor beneath Michelson and Chauvenet Halls hard by the Ingram Field track, when a classmate caught up with me to tell me the news of the death of a prior year graduate during a training flight down in Pensacola, Florida earlier that day. I asked him if he knew the grad's name, and when he said it was Greg, I stopped cold in my tracks. It felt like my entire body went… numb. I pressed the classmate for more information, but there wasn't much. It seemed that Greg and his instructor were in a jet trainer, practicing touch-and-goes (takeoffs and landings without stopping) at the flight school there, when something apparently went wrong during a landing approach and the plane plunged to the ground. The instuctor survived, but Greg was killed instantly.
It was jolting news, hard to believe.
I stumbled back to my room in a semi-daze, and sat at my desk in silence for what seemed like eons, thinking about everything, while at the same time thinking about nothing. For a good man, a friend, to die just like that, in the twinkling of an instant… it was just unfathomable. After a while the silence got to be interminable and oppressive, so I reached over and switched on the boombox at the corner of my desk, the one I purchased a couple of years early during my Youngster YP cruise. The World Won't Listen began playing in the cassette player - which seemed appropriate, given the circumstances. The music played on softly in the background, and I listened distractedly as I sat there thinking of my old friend…
I was suddenly roused from my contemplation and lethargy when I heard these words coming out of the speakers:
…Don't feel bad for me
I want you to know…
The song was "Asleep" [by The Smiths], one of the quieter, more reflective songs on The World Won't Listen, a song I'd never paid much attention to before (truth be told: I usually just fast-forwarded past this song to get to "Half A Person"). The song consisted of Morrissey singing over a gentle piano ballad, with sound effects resembling wind blowing in the background. In the state of mind I was in at that point, the wind sound could be construed as the sound of someone flying through the air… like a pilot doing his flight training. I continued listening, and heard these lyrics near the end:
There is another world
There is a better world
Well, there must be
Well, there must be
I'm not much for "messages from beyond the grave"… Still, in its own odd way, hearing those lyrics at that time, sounding like a farewell from the dead or dying, was somewhat comforting to me. I was sad that Greg was gone, but maybe he was in a better place… It didn't make everything OK, but still. I played The World Won't Listen and "Asleep" especially several times over those next few days, and in its own small way it helped me come to terms with what had transpired…
All of those thoughts and memories came flooding back, as I stood there that afternoon staring at my friend's name on the wall. Greg has been gone for more than twenty-five years now, asleep under green grass in a quiet corner of Long Island… forgotten by nearly all except for his family and his closest friends, who at gatherings still swap stories about his antics from long ago. He was one of the best of us, and would have gone far in the Navy, had he chosen to stay with it all these years. I could have easily seen him rising to flag rank (Rear Admiral and above) - he was that good, that well-respected, and that driven. I feel that it was a tragedy for the naval service, and possibly the nation, that his life was cut short at such a young age.
But mostly it was a tragedy for his loved ones and for those of us who knew him well. Dave, Greg's best friend, was devastated by his death. He spoke at Greg's funeral, and for a while there I heard that he was sort of drifting through his military career, burdened by grief and loss. But with the passing of time and the support of those close to him, Dave bounced back, and became a successful and high-ranking helicopter pilot. However, he never forgot his old friend and drinking buddy; a couple of years later, when Dave and his wife had their first child, a son, they named him Gregory.
Greg probably never knew how much I looked up to him - shoot, nobody talked about stuff like that, especially in their late teens and twenties; it would have seemed sort of weird. And besides, back then, it didn't need to be said - we were young, and were going to live forever, so there was plenty of time for that later. And now, it's far too late to tell him so. To me, he's not just a name on a plaque on a wall, but someone I knew and admired, and will always remember. And every time I listen to this album, and hear "Asleep", I think of him.
From an email on November 27, 2017:
Greg “Bullethead” was a company-mate and sword-bearer at my wedding. An absolute class act, Greg was both comical and intense in a unique mix that just worked. As someone who was eternally at the bottom of the PE classes, I was able to enjoy being able to do one (and only one!) sport better than Greg – swimming. Greg swam like a helicopter flies – by beating the water into submission. But, like everything else in his life, he overcame that, too. Greg is well-missed. David Driftmier, '86
A brief newspaper article:
Naval aviation has been making heroes since its inception. The early pioneers with their dreams and visions, the veterans and casualties of naval warfare, the men and women of today who maintain, support and fly our aircraft—all share in the glory and excitement of a heritage rich with obstacles conquered and battles won. A heritage of heroes.
Lt. Leo McSherry and Ensign Gregory McMichael of VT-2 enjoyed a full share of this heritage tempered with their private dreams and personal goals before they lost their lives in the aircraft mishap. Two very promising and respected naval officers have joined the long list of heroes in a fashion that neither could choose nor foresee.
McMichael — 1986 Naval Academy graduate from Brooklyn, N.Y. ; poet; weight lifter; Student Naval Aviator. A big glad bear of a man.
McSherry — Instructor pilot extraordinnaire; Instructor of the Year for 1986; Father of three beautiful children; Husband; Saturday Scholars volunteer with local school children; Patrol Plane Commander, finder of Soviet Submarines; Aviation Safety Officer. It seemed he was always in an airplane.
These men were heroes long before April 15—Just ask their mothers, fathers, their division people, commanding officer, their roommates and classmates. Ask McSherry 's children. Death does not make heroes, death takes them from us before we realize we need them most of all. Only time heals the hurt, but we never forget—heroes.
From Captain Brendan O'Donnell, USN (Ret.) on January 12, 2019:
Greg was performing a maneuver at altitude, not in the landing pattern, when he lost control and, through a series of unfortunate circumstances, spun into the ground.
In the weeks that followed, I learned that Greg had been a regimental commander at the Academy, wrote poetry, was a weight-lifter, and had political aspirations - a true all-around man. HIs instructor Leo, in addition to being the reigning squadron Instructor of the Year and Aviation Safety Officer, was the top-ranked Lieutenant out of over 50 assigned to the squadron.
The Navy and the nation lost two of its finest men that day.
He was survived by three brothers and a younger sister, who said:
He was the best big brother a little girl can ever have. He beat everyone that messed with me. He was so loving and caring, protective and funny. He used to take me and my friends to Coney Island and made us get on this bad roller coaster called Cyclone.
I miss him so much. Andrea (McMichael) Stover
His sister, of Tobyhanna, PA, died on June 10, 2017 at the age of 47.