3,000 join to mourn pilot who was killed in Pentagon crash
By By Andrea F. Siegel
Sep 21, 2001 | 3:00 AM
Relatives, classmates, co-workers and friends - about 3,000 of them - crowded into the chapel at the Naval Academy yesterday for a loving and poignant tribute to Charles F. "Chic" Burlingame III, pilot of the hijacked American Airlines plane that crashed into the Pentagon on Sept. 11.
"The service today was phenomenal; it was so very moving," said Perry Martini, a friend of Burlingame's from their four years together at the Naval Academy and president of their Class of 1971.
The huge turnout and fond recollections by Burlingame's brother Brad Burlingame of Los Angeles and close friends made the hourlong ceremony overwhelmingly emotional, said people who attended.
They spoke of his pride in being a naval aviator and fighter pilot, his penchant for neatness and organization, his love for his country and family, his ready offers to help anyone in need and to do what it took to get a job done.
At the family's request, the service was private. The Naval Academy has been closed to the public since the terrorist attacks in New York and Virginia.
Son of a military careerist, Burlingame held the ground near the Pentagon sacred, his relatives said: His parents are buried in nearby Arlington National Cemetery. He was a Navy reservist who served at the Pentagon not far from where his plane left a gaping hole in the building.
"One of the most touching things that Brad shared was that not long after they had finished closing up the affairs of his dad, he wrote Brad a letter, something to the effect that 'Dear Brad, I am grateful for the sacrifices our parents made to allow me to pursue my dreams,'" said the Rev. Bill McKinney, a former classmate and pastor of Mariner's Church in .
This afternoon, in one of the events of its 30th reunion, the class will gather for its first-ever memorial service, led by McKinney, for classmates who have died since they became midshipmen. Burlingame, who helped compile addresses of classmates for the reunion, became the 52nd on the memorial list.
"Obviously, our memorial service has a whole lot new meaning," Martini said.
The reunion will take on a sentiment more somber than celebratory for the class that just lost Burlingame to terrorism: It is to soon have three of its own commanding Navy fleets and will clear metal detectors to watch the Navy-Boston College football game tomorrow.
"We're coming together for a lot of reasons," said Martini, associate director of class giving for the Foundation.
He said some people suggested that a reunion was inappropriate in the aftermath of so many deaths.
"Nothing could be further from the truth, for it is the right time to come together to be among close friends and associations in a common bond that only exists with a Naval Academy class," he wrote for introductory remarks for today's memorial service. "We need to pause and reflect."
"When you go through something like what the nation is going through, and you are a class, and you are losing Chic, there is a real coming together," McKinney said. "It is important we go on, that we talk and share. Life is all about relationships. In one sense, the terrorists would have won if they kept this from happening,"
The Yard, as the waterfront Naval Academy campus is known, has been transformed since Sept. 11 into a secure base where crash barriers and guards attired in fatigues have replaced camera-clicking tourists and their cars.
Three other classes, those of 1942, 1951 and 1976, also are holding reunions this weekend. The alumni association said yesterday that it will go ahead with an invitation-only Saturday ceremony to recognize the five winners of this year's Distinguished Graduate Awards. Access to an Academy parade today honoring them will be limited, although parades in the past have been open to the public.
Sept. 12 would have been Burlingame's 52nd birthday. His wife, Sheri, a flight attendant, was to fly out with him for fun. But he wanted her to stay at their home in Herndon, Va. He wanted her to be there so they could celebrate when he returned, relatives said.
Officials have said that the plane's original target may have been the White House, not the Pentagon.
His brother, Mark Burlingame of Lancaster, Pa., speculated that the erratic course may have been caused by a struggle on the plane, and others believe he was not at the controls by the time it crashed.
"I know he would have done everything in his power to prevent tragedy," said Mark Burlingame. "He was a great patriot. He would have fought to the very end. ... He loved his family. He loved his country, and I know that he died a hero."
Burlingame's father, Charles F. Burlingame Jr., joined the Navy at the age of 17 and had a 23-year military career in the Navy and Air Force. His mother, Patricia A. Burlingame, was a nurse and medical technician, according to their obituaries.
Charles Burlingame attended many Naval Academy home football games.
"He sat next to my in-laws at Navy football games. Even before we flew together, we knew of each other," said Herbert H. McMillan, an American pilot who flew Flight 77 as Burlingame's first officer a number of times and who is the GOP candidate for mayor.
He remembered Burlingame as a gentleman, a "superb leader" who was thoughtful and respectful of his crew and passengers.
Burlingame was among pilots who like their cockpit pristine.
"He had little tiny paintbrushes and he would brush off the instruments. He was the kind of guy - you could tease him about doing it, and he was fine," McMillan said.
A concern for safety
He said Burlingame's skills and safety concerns were beyond reproach - so much so that during one approach to Los Angeles, when controllers told Burlingame to switch from his assigned runway at the last minute, he refused and circled around again.
He used "Gramps" as his call sign.
"He wore these really snazzy red slippers and always played the part," Martini recalled.
"He loved to party," he said.
"He was a go-to guy, the guy you'd go to to get something done," Martini said.
At the Naval Academy, he played the trumpet and he took a fair amount of teasing for not being an athlete - as did his fellow trumpeter Frank Culbertson, who received news of the terrorist attacks and his classmate's death on the space station, which he commands.
After graduation, Burlingame flew F-4 Phantoms out of Oceana and Norfolk, Va. He completed his commitment to the Navy and resigned in 1979, according to an alumni directory.
Asked whether Burlingame saw combat, Martini replied, "No, not until Tuesday."
Sun staff writer Lynn Anderson contributed to this article.