Talking Proud Archives --- Military

Look mom, I lost my tail! We gotta bring this Buff in anyway

On January 10, 1964, Boeing civilian test pilot Chuck Fisher and his three man crew lost their tail, the tail of their B-52H Stratofortress that is, at about 14,000 ft. over northern New Mexico's Sangre de Christo Mountains. Their mission was to shake, rattle and roll this big beast at high speed and low altitude to record sensor data on how such a profile affected the B-52's structure. They did their job. The vertical stabilizer blew off. Six hours later and after a lot of engineering on the ground and in the air, Fisher brought his B-52 home, with the coveted data. Many crews put their lives on the line to make this aircraft be the threat it was and is. Those who lost their lives must be looking down from Heaven in wonderment that the old beast is still one of the most feared weapon systems in the world.



April 28, 2007

You can see a
video about this flight at You Tube. It is worth watching.

The incredible flight of aircraft Nr. 61-023

The opening photo tells the story. That is B-52H Stratofortress long range bomber tail Nr. 61-023 airborne over the US with most of her vertical stabilizer sheared off, rear landing gears down for stabilization. Believe it or not, this Boeing test flight crew brought their bird down safely, but it "weren't" easy.

The B-52 has long held the nickname, "Buff," which stands for "Big Ugly Fat Fellow," with the understanding that few in the Air Force ever used the word "fellow."

Early on in her career, the B-52 experienced turbulence-induced structural failures, which we will talk to later. The B-52 was designed for high altitude, high speed penetration of Soviet airspace to drop nuclear weapons on specified, high value targets. However, several years after the aircraft had been designed and was in production, the Air Force came to realize that the Soviets had fielded such a sophisticated, layered and interconnected air defense system with radar controlled surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) as the cornerstone that it decided the B-52 would have to go in at low altitude and high speed. The B-52 was not designed for that. But that was the assigned mission, so testing was needed to find fixes.


A B-52 from the 320th Bomb Wing (BW), Mather AFB, California, flies by Palm Springs on a low level mission through the Saline Valley in October 1988. Photo credit: Brian Lockett. Presented by Goleta Air & Space Museum.

It was widely known that a low altitude, high speed flight profile would put enormous stress on the aircraft's structure. That would be especially true when flying near mountains and up and down their ridges and valleys, which is what would have to be done when penetrating the Soviet Union in a nuclear attack.



Jim Goodell, a Boeing test pilot, tells that John Rutherford, a colleague, would take the B-52 over to the Rockies, start at the bottom of a 10,000 ft. ridge at 325 knots, and hump over the top at about 200 knots, with the crew wondering if he would run out of speed before he made it over. But making it over the top was just one problem. Going down the other side, especially if it is the leeward side, presented other tough challenges. There's a lot of science behind what is referred to as wind rotors. We will simply say that if your aircraft gets caught in one, the pilot has his hands full. If his aircraft were not made to withstand this kind of turbulence, then it gets even worse.

As we will describe later, the Air Force early on experienced tail sections and stabilizers breaking off, her enormous wings were experiencing considerable fatigue, and aircraft were crashing and crews were being lost. As a result, the Air Force tasked Boeing to conduct aggressive low-altitude testing.

We'll discuss some Boeing test flight experiences later, but first we want to concentrate on Chuck Fisher's B-52H No. 061-023. The USAF loaned this aircraft to Boeing to conduct the test flights. Boeing outfitted her with 20 accelerometers and over 200 sensors to measure and record stresses on the airframe.

Boeing test pilot Chuck Fisher and a crew of three were tasked to take 023 out for a shakedown flight, and get the structural recordings needed to evaluate what to do to enable this aircraft to fly the profile it would have to fly to take down the Soviets.

While over Colorado on January 10, 1964, Fisher was flying at 500 ft. and hit turbulence. The tests had been running smoothly prior to that, so he aborted this part of the flight plan. The crew took a short lunch.


Sangre de Christo Mountains west of Mora, New Mexico


Alpine Valley, Sangre de Christo Mountains, Taos, New Mexico. Presented by Living Designs Group.

Fisher then climbed to 14,300 ft. looking for smoother air. Speed was reported at 350 Knots Indicated Air Speed (KIAS). At about that altitude, he hit severe clear air turbulence that rattled the aircraft all over the sky. Fisher was about five miles east of the Sangre de Christo Mountains in Mora, New Mexico, not far from southern Colorado.

James Pitman, the Boeing navigator, said this:

"When this event occurred it was so violent that I was literally picked up and thrown against the left side of the airplane and over the navigator's table."

Fisher commented:

"I had the rudder to the firewall, the control column in my lap, and full wheel input and I wasn't having any luck righting the airplane. In the short period after the turbulence I gave the order to prepare to abandon the airplane because I didn't think we were going to keep it together."

Immediately after the severe turbulence, the jet rolled hard right and almost went out of control. Fisher said this:

"It required about 80 percent left wheel throw to control the aircraft by the time things had settled down."

Fisher descended to 5,000 ft. and advised the crew to prepare for bailout. Then, almost miraculously, he regained control. He climbed back up to 16,000 ft.

Fisher was flying, but he was experiencing a lot of stability problems. He knew he had problems, but he did not know the full extent what they were.

Much like we have seen done when there are problems with space flights, Boeing's Wichita plant assembled the pros, civilian and USAF, into an Emergency Control Center (ECC) to figure out what to do. Wichita launched one of its F-100 chase aircraft to conduct a visual check. In the mean time, Fisher would have to keep his aircraft aloft and give the ECC as much information as he could provide.


Dale Felix (left) and Jim Goodell after structural demo flight. Presented by Jet Bombers. Inset is Dale Felix later in life, part of a team to restore a B-29 nicknamed "Doc" after the Disney character in Snow White. Presented by the B-29 "Doc" Restoration Project.

Dale Felix, the tall guy in the photo above, was the F-100 pilot for this ride. He was an old B-29 hand at Boeing who learned to fly all the aircraft in the company's flight test inventory. He would later become Chief of Boeing Wichita Flight Test.


After marrying up with the beleaguered B-52, Felix reported that Fisher had lost his vertical tail. This explained a lot. It meant he had lost his vertical fin and rudder, which, in turn meant he had no directional stability. The aircraft could have rolled or gone down. Fisher put down the rear landing gear to add some stability and flew the rest of the flight in that configuration. Note the tail stub that remained. That turned out to be helpful.

The engineers and pilots worked the problem for six hours while Fisher and his crew kept the aircraft in the air. A USAF B-52 on a routine training flight launched to test various flight configurations the beleaguered test aircraft might use to land.


Eaker AFB, Blytheville, Arkansas, 1986. The B-52 pads are in the upper right. The base was closed in 1991. Presented by SAC.com.

A plan emerged. Winds were high at Wichita so it was scrubbed as a landing site. Instead, Eaker AFB, Blytheville, Arkansas was selected. It hosted the 97th Bombardment Wing (BW) flying the B-52G and KC-135A tankers, so the airfield and support people and equipment were suited to the job of recovery. Winds at Blytheville were calm, and the area was sparsely populated should there be a crash. Furthermore, Fisher could take a southern route to Blytheville that would avoid having to deal with the down-slope winds off the Rockies.

The plan called for the following: transfer on-board fuel to different tanks to account for the lost weight of the vertical stabilizer and adjust the center of gravity accordingly; change engine settings for descent and landing from those normally used; apply only a small amount of air brakes; set landing speed at 200 knots.


A KC-135 tanker with engineers aboard launched to serve as an airborne control center and escort aircraft.

On approach to Blytheville, Fisher lowered the front gear. You will recall he much earlier lowered the rear gears to add stability. The front gear coming down made the aircraft yaw but everything settled down once the gear was fully extended.

Fisher landed the aircraft safely. And with that success, the engineers were able to get the recorded structural data to develop solutions long term solutions.

These recordings showed that a gust hit the aircraft with a hurricane force. We have seen one report that said the gust was 81 mph. A Boeing memorandum of January 24, 1964 purportedly said the following:

"... flown through an area containing the combined effects of a (wind) rotor associated with a mountain wave and lateral shear due to airflow around a large peak ... Gust initially built up from the right to a maximum of about 45 feet per second (TAS), then reversed to a maximum of 36 feet per second from the left, before swinging to a maximum of about 147 feet per second from the left followed by a return to 31 feet per second."

Our calculation of 147 feet per second is about 100 mph.

Fisher would later recount, as reported in Aerospace Safety, April 1964:

"As the encounter progressed, a very sharp- edged blow which was followed by many more. We developed an almost instantaneous rate of roll at fairly high rate. The roll was to the far left and the nose was swinging up and to the right at a rapid rate. During the second portion of the encounter, the airplane motions actually seemed to be negating my control inputs. I had the rudder to the firewall, the column in my lap, and full wheel, and I wasn’t having any luck righting the airplane."


B-52H 61-023 with full vertical stabilizer sketched in. USAF Museum Archive photo. Presented by US Read.

Ray Lahr, a graduate engineer from USC and former Navy WWII pilot, commented on Fisher's crash. He said that the B-52 design caused the vertical stabilizer to be placed more forward than usual, causing the entire fuselage to be a stabilizing force in a feathered arrow effect, a good thing in this case. Furthermore, he added that the entire stabilizer did not break off, which allowed enough lateral stability to make a constructive, positive difference.

We have seen one report that reflects the importance of Chuck Fisher bringing his Buff in safely. This report said that the data showed that turbulence would over-stress the rudder connection bolts, causing a rudder and then a tail failure. This report said the bolts were strengthened which fixed the problem.


Boeing B-52H Stratofortress 61-023 of the 2nd Bomb Wing based a Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana carries tail code LA. She participated in the USAF’s Red Flag Exercise at Nellis AFB, Nevada, February 1-3, 2000. Presented by the Goleta Air & Space Museum.

Fisher's B-52H Nr. 61-023 remains in service with the USAF. It is presently assigned to the 20th Aircraft Maintenance Unit, Barksdale AFB, Louisiana, where it is kept mission capable for the 20th Bomb Squadron. Staff Sergeant Michael Rochette is her current crew chief, and loves his bird. that's what Chuck Fisher said, even after this flight:

"(The B-52) is the finest airplane I ever flew."

Birth of the B-52 Stratofortress, the Buff


First B52 Built at Boeing, Wichita, Kansas. Production of the aircraft was moved to Wichita from Seattle in about 1956. Presented by Jet Bombers.

In 1951, after considerable design and strategic planning turmoil, the USAF chose the B-52 jet design and ordered 13. The USAF did this after ordering the B-47 Stratojet medium range jet bomber, shown below.


B-47 Stratojet. Presented by Aerospaceweb.

The B-47 started entering the inventory in 1952. By 1956, the Strategic Air Command (SAC) would have over 1,300 B-47s assigned and another 250 RB-47 reconnaissance aircraft. The B-47 was SAC's front-line strategic bomber until the B-52 came into the inventory. The B-47 was phased out in 1966. The B-52 flies and fights to this day.

General Curtis LeMay, known by old warriors as the man who led the ferocious bombing campaign against Japan's home islands in WWII, and the man who built SAC into the world's most potent nuclear force, stood squarely behind the development and fielding of the B-52 even though under a great deal of pressure to stop the program. He was much like General of the Air Force Hap Arnold, who babied the development of the B-29, saving it for the Pacific and LeMay to use to take down the Japanese empire. LeMay had the same thing in mind for the Soviets with the B-52.


For security reasons, the XB-52 is covered with acres of tarpaulins before its rollout from Boeing's Plant 2 final assembly area. Presented by Boeing.


Shrouded in tarpaulins and a veil of secrecy, the XB-52 is rolled out on November 29, 1951, and moved quickly through the rainy night to the flight-test hangar. Presented by Boeing.

The first B-52, a XB-52, secretly rolled out of Boeing's Seattle plant under the cover of darkness and a tarpaulin in November 1951 and was moved immediately to the flight test hangar.


The YB-52 prototype followed the XB-52 in March 1952. Both had a bubble canopy similar to that on the B-47 This kind of canopy was needed because of the tandem seating arrangement (one behind the other) for the pilot and copilot. USAF photo. Presented by search.com

General LeMay changed the design from a tandem seat cockpit to the pilot and copilot sitting next to each other, side-by-side. That meant elimination of the canopy and re-design of the cockpit.


The pilot and copilot sit next to each other at the controls in the upper flight deck. The Electronic Warfare Officer (EWO), a trained navigator also trained in EW, sits behind the pilot. There is a spare seat behind the co-pilot. All these positions had upward-firing ejection seats. The navigator and radar navigator sit side-by-side in the lower deck, fondly known as the "Black Hole" or "Hell Hole." They had downward-firing ejection seats. The above graphic was presented by FAS.


The first B-52A is rolled out at Boeing's Seattle plant on March 18, 1954. In order to clear the hangar doorway, the plane's 48-foot-high tail had to be folded down. U.S. Air Force photo. Presented by Promotex Online.


Final assembly building for the B-52 at Boeing's Wichita, Kansas plant. The Seattle plant, after manufacturing nearly one-half of the B-52F productions, transferred all B-52 engineering responsibility to Wichita in 1958. Photo courtesy of Boeing.

The first B-52A flew in 1954. SAC received its first B-52Bs (production version) in 1955. Three bases were operating with them by the end of 1956: 93rd Bomb Wing (BW) Castle (California), 42nd BW Loring (Maine) and the 99th BW Westover (Massachusetts). The B-52 was to be SAC's "Long Rifle."

Low altitude testing, Boeing

New aircraft, of course, always receive a lot of flight testing after deployment. The tests work out the bugs, and test upgrades and integration of new equipments and armaments. The B-52 is among the most tested aircraft ever, given how she has been able to adapt to so many mission changes and adjustments and to so many new armament systems.


B52H Test Crew. Presented by Jet Bombers. We do not know who is who in this photo. But Jim Goodell has identified several of the test pilots in the B-52 test program: Ray McPherson, Jack Funk, John Rutherford, N.D. Showalter, and Chuck Fisher. We believe Dale Felix is third from the left; we believe Ray McPherson is second from the right. Cindy Hendrickson has identified her father, Jim Pittman, second from the left. Erik N. Funk has identified his father, Jack N. Funk, fourth from the left, orange flight suit, holding a checklist and WAC chart. Funk was Chief of Flight Test at Boeing Wichita in the early-mid 1960s. He flew the first H Model (fan engine) in this country.

It was already known with the B-47 that both aircraft were going to have to fly into the Soviet Union at high speed and low altitude. The most significant structural modifications that had to be made to the B-47 were those associated with the requirement to fly fast and low. That requirement emerged because of the rapid advance of Soviet surface-to-air missile (SAM) technologies

Boeing pilots flew a lot of test flights during Boeing's low-level test program. Jim Goodell, a B-47 and B-52 test pilot for Boeing, has written that many of the flights were at about 300 ft. above the ground. Goodell has a most interesting paper,
"Flight Testing Jet Bombers," which is available on the web. He wrote this about low level test flights:

"The first flights precipitated a lot of secondary structural failures. For example some of the skin on top of the horizontal stabilizer would occasionally peel off. It was found that the windshield got all bugged up so the pilots could not see out. I don’t think that problem was ever solved."

But the most serious problem was structural punishment to the aircraft. The punishment was intense.

One pilot, Jack Funk, said it was like "flying in formation with a bunch of loose parts." Funk had considerable experience investigating the effects of gust and draft velocities on aircraft, including the loads on the vertical tail of jet bombers flying through rough air.

Turbulence was the big issue, encountering wind gusts that exceeded design criteria; for example, Goodell mentions gusts recorded up to 80 ft. per second. That's about 54 mph. The aircraft was designed for 55 mph gusts in turbulence. You will recall that the sensors recorded gusts at 81 - 100 mph during Fisher's flight.

Walter J. Boyne, an Air Force captain at the time he flew the B-52, then a highly respected airpower historian, said this about the B-52 in turbulence:

"It gave you a very good ride at altitude. The wings flexed. Turbulence was readily dampened. But at low level ... it was like being hammered. You'd really get thrown around in your harness. You'd get knocked around. The aeroplane responded to more than one gust variation at a time and hence was never in synch. If the B-47 was a truck, the B-52 was an eighteen-wheeler. Put it this way: the Buff pounded along while the B-47 cleaved the air. The spoilers took some getting used to. It wasn't like having conventional aileron control."

A test aircraft out of Seattle crashed near Burns, Oregon on June 23, 1959 when the horizontal stabilizer failed and the aircraft dove into the ground, killing all aboard. There was no time to eject because they were so low. The navigator's seat ejected downward anyway, so he never had a prayer. The navigator on this flight was Gerald Green. The rest of the flight crew was: Lewis E. Moore (pilot); Joseph Q. Keller (2nd pilot); Neil Johnson (flight engineer); and Charles K. McDaniel (fight engineer).This particular aircraft had flown multiple low altitude missions at speeds up to 400 knots and the crews reported considerable turbulence

Most of the test pilots grew anxious after this crash, because they knew they were beating up the airframe at these speeds and altitudes. They figured it was just a matter of time before there would be a catastrophic structural failure. They also had to fly without terrain clearing radar. The pilots tried to navigate by looking out the window, but they were going too fast, so the crew had to rely solely on the navigator's instruments. Looking out the window to navigate was no way to run a railroad anyway, since the attack profile against the Soviet Union was all-weather, day-night, low altitude, high speed.

Boeing soon developed a fix for the horizontal stabilizer but had to run the aircraft through the hoops to be sure.


They set a course running from south Texas to North Dakota running along the eastern border of Colorado (red arrow). The yellow box on the map highlights the general area of the Rocky Mountains. The down-slope or leeward winds to the east of the mountains can cause airplanes of all kinds a lot of turbulence problems, especially if operating at low altitudes, so this was a route that would engage those winds. The test run altitude would be 300 ft, and speeds would start at 300 knots and slowly work up to 400 knots. Following several flights, Boeing felt satisfied that the fix for the horizontal stabilizer was in; well, as satisfied as they could be at the time.

Flight training and operations, USAF

The B-52 got off to a rocky start for the Air Force. There were, of course, many normal "teething troubles." There were, however, serious problems with the fuel system, imperfect water injection pumps, faulty alternators, and deficient bombing and fire control systems.


B-52 cockpit, photographed at the Strategic Air and Space Museum. Photo credit: Mike Dunn.

Of course, this was a complicated aircraft, very demanding to fly. Only the most experienced crews could fly her initially. The logistics tail also was not complete. It was a challenge, because the aircraft had to be dispersed to many air bases, so a lot of duplicative equipment and parts had to be deployed to each base. Further, like the air crews, the maintainers had a lot to learn to keep them ready.

That said, a 93rd Bomb Wing (BW) Castle bird (Nr. 53-0384) exploded mid-air in February 1956 near Tracy, California. The Air Force found a serious component failure with an alternator flywheel. It failed during flight, resulting in an uncontrollable fire which caused the aircraft to break-up. In response, the USAF rejected 31 of the first 78 aircraft.

In September 1956, another Castle bird (Nr. 53-0393) exploded midair, killing five. Here again, problems with the electrical system seemed at the heart of the problem. Then in late November 1956, another (Nr. 52-8716) crashed soon after take-off on a night mission, killing ten. We believe a total of 19 crew died in these three mishaps.

Despite these setbacks, the USAF kept going. General LeMay kept the pressure on Boeing and his bomb wings, but also had to worry about public opinion. The aircraft were running about $8 million a copy at the time, this aircraft was to be a major part of the answer to potential nuclear war with the Soviets, and we were losing aircrews. So LeMay had eight B-52s fly non-stop around the perimeter of the North America (16,000 miles) in November 1956. The mission was a success, cause enough to worry the Soviets.


The B-52B was the first production model to enter full military service. In 1957, these three B-52Bs made a record-setting non-stop flight around the world. The planes were assigned to Castle AFB in California. Boeing Company photo. Presented by Promotex Online.

Then in January 1957 the 93rd Bomb Wing (BW) at Castle flew three B-52Bs non-stop around the world (24,325 miles) to demonstrate the aircraft and crews could do it. They were led by "Lucky Lady III." They set a world record at the time of 45 hours. By October 1957, SAC B-52s and their crews began full-time flying alert against the USSR.

The Soviet Union was on notice. The Soviet reaction was to keep working to improve her air defense missiles and fighters. The Soviets decided early on to make air defense among their top defense priorities, the air defense force, called PVO Strany, became a separate and equal branch of service, not part of the air force, and efforts were expedited to develop and field a sophisticated, layered and interconnected air defense system with radar controlled low, medium and high altitude surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) serving as the cornerstone. The SAM became a higher Soviet priority than the fighter. The Soviets already had the most dense anti-aircraft artillery (AAA) system in the world as the result of WWII.

As a result, the USAF decided the B-47s and B-52s would have to fly into the Soviet Union at low altitude, high speed, all weather, day or night. The demands on the aircraft changed from the original requirement to operate at a tactical altitude of 35,000 ft., speed of 450 knots, to altitude 500 ft. above the ground at speeds up to 400 kts. Doing this in any kind of weather and during night would be a major challenge.

We're not exactly sure when this decision was made. We believe it was made in 1956 or 1957, as the B-52Es were being produced. We do know that in November 1958, SAC initiated its "Big Four" modification program, also known as "Modification 1000," for all operational B-52s except the early B models. The first objective was to modify the aircraft to enable it to fly all-weather, low altitude (below 500 ft.) interdiction.

All B-52C through H models had to be modified with new terrain avoidance radar, an improved radar altimeter, increased cooling capacity for sustained low level flight, modified equipment mounts, a general strengthening of the aircraft's structures, and an advanced electronic countermeasures (ECM) suite. Low level flight training was to begin right away. The aircraft began their modification processes in 1961. We understand this program was completed in 1963.

We do not know whether aircraft 56-0591, a B-52D, had been modified before she took off from Larson AFB, Washington, on June 23, 1959. Whatever the case, she experienced a horizontal stabilizer turbulence-induced failure at low level and crashed. Larson AFB, Washington, at the time was the Air Materiel Command Flight Test Center for B-52s. We have not been able to get details on this crash, but assume it was an early Air Force test of low altitude high speed flying for the Buff.

At low altitude, the B-52's jet engines lost considerable efficiency. The air is heavy and warmer than at high altitude, and the force of gravity is stronger. So the engines have to work harder. The aircraft would have to fly slower than at higher altitude. Range was also reduced. It was estimated that this low-level flying would accelerate structural fatigue by at least a factor of eight, which would require costly repairs to extend service life.


B-52 callsign "Felon 22", 334th Bomb Squadron, crash debris near Monticello, Utah. Photo excerpted from "the Last Flight of Felon 22," by Jim Stiles. Presented by Canyon County Zephyr.

On January 19, 1961, B-52 callsign "Felon 22" out of the 334th Bomb Squadron (BS) at El Paso crashed due to a turbulence-induced structural failure near Monticello, Utah, between the Abajo Mountains to the west and the Rockies to the east. That was just a day before JFK was to be inaugurated.

Capt. John P. Marsh was the pilot. The crew had flown the length of New Mexico, entered Utah and encountered heavy turbulence. The aircraft buffeted and the skipper disengaged his auto-pilot. Felon 22 drifted 23 miles east of its intended course. The aircraft experienced a "violent bump," and Marsh began ascent to 40,000 ft. According to an USAF report, his aircraft began "a descending roll of about 410 degrees, a short period of wings level, nose-down flight, and then a violent spin." At about 7,000 ft., the aircraft exploded mid-air. Three managed to bail out, two survived, one died of exposure.

Another, just a week later, on January 24, 1961, suffered wing fatigue failure near Goldsboro, North Carolina. There was a wing fuel cell leak that caused the aircraft to lose 37,000 lbs. of fuel in two minutes. In turn, that caused a fire and explosion that resulted in a structural failure of the aircraft's right wing at 8,000 ft. Two nuclear weapons fell to the ground. Five of eight crew survived.

This led to a "High Stress" re-winging program that was integrated with efforts already underway to beef up the overall structure.


A black slate marker honoring the seven crew members who died in the B-52 crash on January 24, 1963, rests next to one of the largest remaining sections of the airplane on Elephant Mountain, Maine. Pieces of the wreckage still lie scattered over the mountain, now owned by Plum Creek Timber Co., which has put the site off-limits for any future salvage efforts. Photo credit: John Patriquin. Presented by Press Herald.

On January 24, 1963, an
USAF B-52 (Nr. 53-0406) was launched from Westover AFB, Massachusetts to conduct low-level flight training. The crew was handpicked to see how the Buff would perform at low level. Lt. Col. Dante Bulli was in command. The crew flew at about 100 ft. above the ground and suddenly hit turbulence as it approached Elephant Mountain near Greenville, Maine. We have seen a report that says her airspeed was 280 knots, outside temperature on the ground 14 degrees below zero, and winds gusting to 40 knots.

Col. Bulli tried to climb out of the turbulence. As the aircraft turned upward, a loud explosion-like noise occurred and vibration shook the tail section. The aircraft went into a 40 degree right turn with the nose pointing down. Bulli tried to level the aircraft, could not do so, and ordered ejection. Peter Pratt, who lived in the area, said:

"The stabilizer shaft broke...The stabilizer is still over on the northeast side of the mountain."

In short, the vertical stabilizer broke off and fell to the ground about 1.5 miles from the crash site.

Only three crew got out: Bulli and Capt. Gerald Adler survived, though Adler was badly broken. The copilot, Major Robert J. Morrison was killed when he hit a tree while parachuting to the ground a mile away. The aircraft was simply too low. Lt. Col. Joe R. Simpson, Jr, Maj. William W. Gabriel, Maj. Robert J. Hill, Capt. Herbert L. Hansen, Capt. Charles G. Leuchter, and TSgt. Michael F. O'Keefe could not get out of the aircraft in time, and perished.

On January 30, 1963, another (aircraft 57-0018) tail snapped off in high turbulence near the Sangre de Christo Mountains, Mora, New Mexico. Four survived, two died.


Buzz One Four's massive tail, standing four stories tall, was wrenched off the B-52 in violent turbulence, landing miles from the bomber's crash site in Maryland in 1964. Presented by Salisbury, Pennsylvania Historical Web Site.

On January 13, 1964, an Air Force mission flown by the 484th Bomb Wing (BW) from Westover, callsign "Buzz One Four," experienced excessive turbulence in very bad weather.

The pilot, Major Thomas W. McCormick, changed altitudes from 30,000 ft. to 29,000 ft. and then to 33,000 ft. trying to get out of the high jet stream winds, which at times were smoking along at 167 mph. Finally, the tail was ripped off from the superstructure near Cumberland, Maryland. McCormick ordered his crew to bail out. Only McCormick and his copilot, Robert C. Peedin survived. McCormick, shown in this photo stepping into a Maryland State Police car following his rescue, had to spend the night huddled in the frigid mountains of western Maryland.

Air turbulence

In a report issued by the
National Center for Atmospheric research in February 1997, turbulence for fliers was described as "a chaotic state of the atmosphere that extends over meters and kilometers." The report said that as of that time, over 43 percent of weather-related aviation incidents were due to turbulence. Pilots face their most challenging and dangerous situations when flying through turbulence over or near mountainous terrain.

Vietnam experience

During the Vietnam war the B-52s had wing spar cracks that were measured and checked to see that they had not gotten larger after being loaded with bombs before each flight and as long as things hadn’t changed were sent off to fly their missions? The crews were not told which airplanes had the defects.