In the summer of 1983, Captain William Howard Hughes, Jr. of the U.S. Air Force (USAF) was on an assignment to undertake joint work with European colleagues. After he’d finished the project, he took a two-week vacation. His peers in the U.S. expected him back at work on August 1. But he just didn’t show up.
Details about Hughes’ childhood and family background are sketchy, but we know he was 31 in 1983 so he must have been born in 1951 or 1952. Hughes joined the USAF in 1973 when he would have been in his early twenties.
He was based in Alabama and then gained more qualifications at the Air Force Institute of Technology. The institute is graduate school based near Dayton, Ohio at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. Students at the school, which was established in 1919, can study everything from management to engineering.
By 1983, Hughes was working at the Air Force Operational Test and Evaluation Center (AFOTEC) and had been since 1981. The center is located at the Kirtland Air Force Base in New Mexico, near the city of Albuquerque. This is one of the most sensitive – and secretive – of all American air bases.
The reason for the secrecy is that the Kirtland base is one of the locations that houses a unit of the Air Force Global Strike Command. This is the military organization which would facilitate any deployment of nuclear weapons in the event of a war.
Kirtland Air Force Base also includes the Air Force Materiel Command’s Nuclear Weapons Center. Staff there are tasked with the maintenance and updating of America’s nuclear weaponry. So the Kirtland base is a key element in U.S. defenses and, understandably, security is a pressing priority.
As we saw earlier, Captain Hughes worked at the Kirtland base with AFOTEC. According to its website, the center is responsible for “testing, under operationally realistic conditions, new systems being developed for Air Force and multi-service use.”
The center at Kirtland employs some 600 staff, a mixture of civilian and military personnel. The website describes the staff as “Leading edge operational testers dedicated to advancing America’s warfighting capabilities.” So Hughes was not just any old USAF captain – working at Kirtland, he was at the heart of the organization’s weapons research and development.
Indeed, when Hughes disappeared in 1983, it was reported in the Albuquerque Journal newspaper that he had “top secret security clearance.” Precise details of exactly what he was working on back then have never been revealed. But we do know that it involved areas of potential intelligence and security sensitivity.
Back in 1984, the Albuquerque Journal reported that the Pentagon had said that nothing Hughes knew “could compromise national security.” That’s a flat denial. But it’s easy to see how there could have been anxiety about potential damage Hughes could wreak if he’d defected – or been abducted.
But the Pentagon, along with everybody else, had no idea where Captain Hughes was in 1984. So they’d be hardly likely to admit that he had dangerously sensitive information even if that was the case. What we do know about Hughes’ work was that he was involved in working with NATO.
NATO, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, is a military alliance of 29 nations including the U.S. that was founded in 1949. During the Cold War, it was the group of nations that stood in opposition to the Warsaw Pact which comprised the communist nations. Even after the Cold War ended in 1989 with the fall of the Soviet Union, NATO continued to be an important military alliance for America.
And a 2018 press release from the USAF Office of Special Investigations seemed to contradict the idea that Hughes’ disappearance had no intelligence implications. The release stated, “At the time of his disappearance, Capt. Hughes had a Top Secret/Single Scope Background Investigation clearance, but only had access to U.S. Secret and North Atlantic Treaty Organization Secret information.” That sure sounds like he did have access to important information.
In his work with NATO, including his spell in the Netherlands in July 1983, Hughes was helping to develop the Airborne Warning And Control System (AWACS). The purposes of this system would have included command control, surveillance and communications. Even to a layman, that sounds pretty sensitive in intelligence terms.
We know that Hughes went to the Netherlands on July 18, 1983. We know that he returned to Albuquerque because he spent a day running around various banks and withdrawing no less than $28,500 from 19 branches. And we know that he didn’t show up for work as expected on August 1. Questions to colleagues and friends threw up a blank, as did enquiries to U.S. and foreign law enforcement.
Investigators found his car at Albuquerque Airport. They also searched his home in Albuquerque at the 1900 block of Chandelle Loop NE. Mysteriously, there they found written lists of things to do when he got back from Europe. He’d even catalogued books he planned to read.
There were suspicions that Hughes might have defected to the Russians. In fact, his family believed that he might have been abducted. In a May 1984 article in the Albuquerque Journal his sister said, “We do not feel he disappeared voluntarily.” And, in 1986, a reporter called Tad Szulc wrote in the Los Angeles Times newspaper about Hughes’ “apparent defection.” In any case, Hughes had been officially labelled as a deserter in December 1983.
And then the trail went completely cold, until the story exploded into the public arena again in June 2018, almost 35 years after Hughes’ baffling disappearance. A man going by the name of Barry O’Beirne, and possessing a passport with that name, was quizzed by the U.S. Department of State’s Diplomatic Security Service.
Diplomatic Security Service agents were investigating a possible passport fraud. When they questioned O’Beirne, he confessed to being William Howard Hughes Jr., the man who had deserted from the USAF in 1983. His only explanation was that he had been feeling depressed. Having created a false identity, he told investigators he’d spent the intervening 35 years living in California.
Hughes was arrested in California. Charged with desertion, he is now being held at California’s Travis Air Force Base in Fairfield. The USAF Special Investigations Unit’s Linda Card told the Albuquerque Journal, “They [AFOSI investigators] said at this point there’s no indication that he had any classified information, or that he gave any classified information.” But she added, “Until we have the whole story, we don’t have the story.” We await Hughes’ trial with bated breath…