From PEOPLE Magazine Click to enlarge
AT SUNSET ONE EVENING LAST YEAR, Air Force Capt. Craig Button was parking his red Gold Wing Honda motorcycle in front of his rented Fort Clark, Texas, duplex when he heard a bugle call signaling the lowering of the flag piped over a nearby loudspeaker. Though off-duty, he stiffened, turned toward a flagpole on the lawn and raised his arm in salute, standing at attention until the last note sounded.

That image, say Rozetta and Ben Pingenot, Button's close friends and landlords at Fort Clark, captures the true Craig Button. "He was just a well-rounded American patriot," says Rozetta. But since his still-unexplained disappearance on April 2—when Button suddenly peeled away from a training formation in a bomb-laden A-10 Thunderbolt fighter over Gila Bend, Ariz., and headed northeast—the quiet pilot has become the subject of every wild rumor except alien abduction. All of which made the weeks of waiting—until searchers found his remains last week on New York Mountain, about 20 miles from Vail, Colo.—that much more difficult for his mother, Joan, a home-maker, and his father, retired Air Force Col. Richard Button, a veteran of World War II, Korea and Vietnam. Says Colonel Button, 74, of Massapequa, N.Y.: "There have been so many lies."

Still, the mystery of what happened on April 2 remains. The possibility that Button suffered from oxygen deprivation or was affected by fuel fumes is considered remote by Air Force officials. They have also scoffed at the rumor—popular on the Internet—that Button was stealing the plane, an action that retired Air Force aviation expert Col. George Weiss compares to "walking a pink elephant through town." The most likely explanation: Button deliberately committed suicide.

But why? During his parents' March visit to Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Arizona (where Craig had been stationed since February), "we had a wonderful time together, and when we left, he was in good spirits," Richard Button said in a statement issued on April 11. Rozetta Pingenot concurs. Three days before Button's inexplicable action, the pilot wrote in a letter, "Flying is going well. I love the A-10."

For years, Button had pursued his dream of becoming a pilot with fierce single-mindedness. His Texas apartment was filled with models of fighter planes and color prints of World War II fighters and bombers. "He lived and breathed aviation," says Ben Pingenot. "He was following in his father's footsteps." While growing up in Wantagh, N.Y., Button learned to fly before he learned to drive. After graduating from Wantagh High School, he earned a 1990 degree in aerospace engineering from the New York Institute of Technology in Old Westbury, where he also joined the Air Force ROTC program. Engineering Prof. Omer Fettahlioglu recalls him as very serious. "He almost always came to class in uniform," he says, "shiny shoes and all."

In recent years, Button's career plans appeared on course. After four years at Laughlin Air Force Base in Texas, where he was an instructor pilot, he was transferred to Arizona for A-10 training in preparation for an overseas assignment to Germany this coming July. Friends and superiors say the 32-year-old bachelor was looking forward to the move, even joking that he might meet a fraulein.

Socially shy and unfailingly polite, the flier led a quiet life. In 1991, during training at Williams Air Force Base near Mesa, Ariz., Button, a volunteer Big Brother, spent time every weekend with his Little Brother, Rey Meza, now 19. At Fort Clark he whiled away free time on his porch listening to Beethoven or Mozart. In the end his landlords were his best friends. "He regarded us as surrogate parents," says Rozetta, who notes that Button rarely drank and I never smoked. They remain baffled by I his flight. "Everything he did was with a great precision," says Rozetta. "He wasn't rushed, impetuous. He had his life planned." He intended, she says, to stay in the Air Force as long as possible and then to work as an airline pilot. "I don't care what I fly," he often told her, "as long as I fly."

DAN JEWEL
JOSEPH HARMES at Laughlin AFB, AMY ROFFMAN-NEW in Phoenix, LINDA KRAMER in Washington, MARIA EFTIMIADES in Massapequa and VICKIE BANE in Vail

  • Contributors:
  • Joseph Harmes,
  • Amy Roffman-New,
  • Linda Kramer,
  • Maria Eftimiades,
  • Vickie Bane.