FHP trooper honored 50 years after collision with Navy plane took his life

The Florida Highway Patrol honored one of its own Wednesday, naming a stretch of Interstate 4 through Polk County after Trooper John Hagerty, who was killed in the line of duty nearly 50 years ago.

Hagerty patrolled what was then a fairly new highway. Interstate 4 was opened in sections from 1959 through the mid-1960s.

Trooper Hagerty patrolled from the sky in a small, single-engine Taylor Cub aircraft. Family members say he loved it.

"To be up in the sky, watching over everybody and keep them safe," said his daughter-in-law, Brenda Hagerty. 

Trooper Hagerty's love for flying turned to tragedy March 18, 1970.

Hagerty's aircraft collided with a Navy jet, mid-air.

"They had been buzzing them, on and off, for a few days," Brenda said.

A pair of low-flying A-7 fighters, based in Jacksonville, were on their way to the Avon Park Bombing Range when one of them hit Hagerty's little Cub and cut it in half.

"Troopers were there very quickly," said retired highway patrol lieutenant Larry Parrish. "And it came over the radio that John didn't survive."

Parrish says in 1970, people were focused on the Vietnam War. Hagerty's loved ones wonder how folks would react to the crash, were it to happen today. 

"There was a lot of news and this was probably a blip on the screen," said Parrish, "But it wasn't to us. It was really important to the FHP."

At the FHP office in Lakeland, a highway marker was unveiled in remembrance of Hagerty's service.

"It's way too long," said Melony Bell, a state representative. "We should have done this many years ago."  

John Hegarty's late son became a law enforcement officer, as did his daughter-in-law, Brenda, who retired from the California Highway Patrol.

"It's a law enforcement family," she said.

That's why she traveled to Lakeland to see her late father-in-law honored - nearly 50 years after he lost his life over I-4.