Call Sign 2.0: Phoenix
Idaho roper Todd Hornbuckle had a brilliant career as an Air Force and Navy pilot before a failed engine in 2016 forced an emergency landing in 2016 with his daughter aboard. She survived unscathed while Hornbuckle suffered severe, life-altering burns. Now, his roping is helping him rise from the ashes.
Retired Navy Capt. Todd Hornbuckle, on Iceman, turns a steer for reigning world champion heeler Junior Nogueira at Charly Crawford’s 2022 American Military Celebration. | Courtesy AMC/Click Thompson

According to Egyptian legend, only one Phoenix existed at a time and, at the end of its long and beautiful life, it would build a nest atop the Temple of the Sun, set it aflame and, after being consumed by the inferno, rise from the ashes anew. 

Retired Navy Capt. Todd Hornbuckle, 48, is the great-grandson of 2014 Wyoming Cowboy Hall of Fame Inductee Richard “Dick” Quay Hornbuckle. As such, the younger Hornbuckle has Douglas, Wyoming, roots in the family’s working ranch, and learned to ride and rope as the day’s work demanded. He entered a few jackpots, too, under the tutelage of his Uncle Kirk, but pursuit of the ROTC program in college put Hornbuckle on a military path, and he went decades without swinging a rope while his aviation career took him to 70,000-foot heights.

“I was selected to be an instructor pilot right out of flight school, in Del Rio, Texas,” Hornbuckle said. “I flew the Air Force’s primary jet trainer, and then I went through the instructor pilot schoolhouse again to become an instructor in the T-38—a small fighter-type aircraft very similar to an F-5, which most people would recognize as the fake migs that are used at the end of the first Top Gun.”

Hornbuckle in a space suit, required for flying the U-2 in the background.

Shortly thereafter, Hornbuckle—real call sign “Horny” (to his wife Tamara’s chagrin, he notes)—was selected to pilot the U-2 after an intensive and thorough interview process that involved a week of in-air tests alongside aviators from the Navy, the Marines and the Coast Guard.

“The U-2 is the highest manned plane in the world,” Hornbuckle explained of the aircraft that was recently used to photograph the Chinese spy baloon. “We flew in a space suit above 70,000 feet.”

Hornbuckle deployed in the Operation Enduring Freedom years and, from his stratospheric position in a plane designed to provide intelligence instead of dog-fighting maneuverability, played a role in some of the military’s most important missions of the time.

“One night, I was flying a mission over Afghanistan, and I got to my Joker Fuel,” Hornbuckle said, explaining the term signified, in this case, it was time for him to turn the plane home. “Mission Command [asked] if I could stay longer. … They said, ‘This is for No.1.’”

Hornbuckle then understood that, despite the well-communicated and unique challenges of operating a fuel-deprived U-2, he was playing an active role in the search for Osama Bin Laden. 

“At the time, it [reminded] me how important our mission was and how, as a U-2 pilot, you don’t always know what’s going on because there’s a lot of players in the mission [from] different organizations.”

Mission Control later released Hornbuckle from his post and he returned to base without incident, which is more than he can say for his final Air Force flight, in which he executed a windy, island landing that inspired a celebratory crowd at the hangar that day and, if it isn’t used as textbook instruction for U-2 students today, is undoubtedly documented in the oral annals of legendary aviation feats.

Having returned stateside, Hornbuckle began training with Delta Air Lines within a few months and landed his first commercial passenger flight at the age of 32. 

“I flew internationally out of JFK in New York,” he said of his Delta assignment. “Two years after that, I got hired by a Navy Reserve unit in Kingsville, Texas. That job was teaching in the Navy’s advanced fighter trainer, the T45, called the Goshawk. And that mission and job was incredible. It was so much fun.

“My favorite part of that job was a role we called The Bandit,” Hornbuckle continued. “We would take up two students on their graduation hop and they would fight against me, their instructor, for 30 or 40 minutes. Then, you got to bring them home for their graduation.”

When then Navy Reserve Squadron Cmdr. Hornbuckle wasn’t instructing, he was still flying for Delta, as well as raising his son and daughters with Tamara, who worked in the administration office at a Corpus Christi children’s hospital. In 2016, he and daughter Madelynn took off from Corpus Christi and were bound for Austin to watch her brother in a cross-country meet. They were flying a light aircraft called, ironically, a Sundowner. 

Reports show that on Oct. 1, about one half-mile from their destination, Hornbuckle called in that the engine had quit. 

“It was a moment of just terror and anger, really. I’d flown over 350 combat hours deployed all over the world, done carrier landings, flown in a U-2, flown international; just had a pretty broad aviation experience and, then, my worst predicament was going to come with my 7-year-old daughter sitting right next to me?

“There was this moment of being indignant about it,” Hornbuckle remembered. “Like, are you kidding me? But that quickly turned into, ‘It’s time to go to work because the next 60 seconds to 90 seconds are going to determine whether we live or not.’”

Images of the wreck suggest that no one should have lived. Having used whatever momentum the plane had to avoid powerlines in their path, Hornbuckle was forced to land between the trees, which ripped the wings from the body of the aircraft. The Sundowner slid to a stop at a barbed wire fence and was immediately engulfed in flames.

 “I grabbed my daughter and balled her up in my lap and covered her, and then kicked out the door and threw her out,” Hornbuckled recalled. “That pretty much used up all the time for me to get out before it got bad and, so, by the time I got my 6foot, 185-pound body out of there, um, it was like standing in a bonfire.”

Hornbuckle suffered third-degree burns or worse on more than 50% of his body, but that didn’t stop him from carrying Madelynn to the road, where they were met with first responders. Hornbuckle, shoeless, passed out.

Madelynn, 7, with her dad not long before Surviving their crash. 

Madelynn, 14 now, doesn’t carry a single scar. Hornbuckle, though, spent the following 30 days in San Antonio’s burn unit and, over the seven years since, has endured 34 surgeries.

“I was kind of quiet for the first three or four years after my accident,” Hornbuckle revealed. “I was just kind of caught up in the recovery from it and the surgeries and lots that goes into that.”

During that time, the Colorado non-profit Vail Veterans Program sent the Hornbuckle family to Black Mountain Ranch. Considering his ranching roots, Hornbuckle chafed  at the idea of a guest ranch, but resigned himself to trying it out. There, he met his old friend the roping dummy and made a new friend in avid roper Chris Collins. 

“He sees me swinging this rope and he goes, ‘Hey, you’ve done this before,’” Hornbuckle said. “I told him my story and he says, ‘Let’s get you roping again.’ 

“Fast forward to Friday night, and there’s me, roping live steers in front of the guests. I don’t know if I turned any or not, but I sure had a blast.”

The event was a sign to the rest of the family, too.

“It was so good for my wife and kids when they saw that,” Hornbuckle explained. “For them, it was like, ‘Okay. Dad’s gonna be okay.’ They went from knowing me as, like, flying fighter jets and a U-2 pilot one day and, the next, I’m in and out of a hospital bed for a year-and-a-half. I think they had started to wonder, ‘Are we ever going to get our dad back?’

“When they saw that, I think they were like, ‘Okay, he’s back,’ and that’s what happened to me, too,” Hornbuckle said. “I came home from that trip and realized, if I can do that, I can do anything I used to do.” TRJ

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