Friday, April 17, 2009

B-52D #55-098 and KC-135 #59-1523 Meet Over Montana

During the Cold War, the men of the Strategic Air Command manned two of the three parts of the Nuclear Triad (SAC Bombers and ICBM Crews). Aircraft and crews spent a certain amount of time on Alert, that is, waiting for the klaxon to sound so they could run to their aircraft and go drop warshots on the Soviet Union. After their stint on alert, they would have some time off for crew rest, then they would be called upon to practice parts of their missions a few times a month. These would be things expected of them if they were ever called to war. If they had ever been called upon to fly to the Soviet Union, they could expect to do long range navigation, air refueling, and radar bombing, among other things. Their training, likewise, included such things.

A normal training mission might include a take off from the home base, a high altitude navigation leg, air refueling, a mock-radar bombing run, sometimes on our own cities, then a low altitude navigation leg, followed by a few pilot proficiency touch and goes. Larson AFB, just on the edge of Moses Lake, Washington, became a SAC base toward the last part of its time as an active military base. B-52s of the 327th Squadron of the 4170th Strategic Wing of the 18th Division of the 15th Air Force were stationed there. Men at Larson had the same missions as B-52 men everywhere.

In the early morning hours of December 15th, 1960, pilot Captain Thomas J. Campbell and his crew began preflight briefings which ended with a ride to the flight line and final preflight of B-52D #55-098. the ground crew would likely have been working on it since sometime around midnight. With the successful start of all eight J-57 turbojets, the bird, call sign Smite 15, taxied to the end of the runway for take off.

Departure was at 0850 PST for what was described as a "Combat Crew Training Mission." This included a rendevous with a KC-135 for inflight refueling in the "Bart's Rock High Altitude Refueling Area." This area would appear to be near the Canadian Border over North Western Montana. Refueling, in this case, would probably have been a few practice hook-ups and transfer of a minimum amount of fuel, since the B-52 had 194,000 lbs of fuel aboard at takeoff, enough for 16 hours of flight. The planned mission was for only about 8 and 1/2 hours.

Using the onboard radar suite, the Electronic Warfare Officer or the Radar Navigator made contact with KC-135 #59-1523 at a range of 60 miles. The KC-135 had flown out of McChord AFB, Washington, having departed at 0820PST. The KC-135, call sign Shore 11, had a fuel load of 126,000 lbs aboard, and, according to the DD Form 175, could have remained airborne for 10 hours.

When the range between the two aircraft was 6 miles, Smite 15 was directly behind the Shore 11. Altitude was 31,000 feet ASL. When the range had closed to 1/4 mile closure rate was determined to be excessive. Captain Campbell closed the throttles to prevent an overrun. He was not successful. The B-52 collided with the KC-135 from behind. It would appear, after examining the report photos, that the B-52 hit the flying boom and possibly the lower rear fuselage of the KC-135 with its right wing.

On board Shore 11, the boom operator established visual contact with Smite 15 at 1/2 mile. At 1/4 mile Smite 15 climbed out of the boom operator's field of vision. He cautioned Smite 15 to slow closure rate. The next visual contact the boom operator had was immediately pior to impact.

After separation and damage assessment, Smite 15 was considered to be airworthy and the crew immediately set course for Larson (Bad enough that the pilot suffered a mid-air collision, but having to land at another base surely seems like it would have lowered the pilot's chances of flying again...though this is only conjecture. It is possible, given SAC's standards, that the pilot would have suffered that fate anyway, there is no record of that in this accident report, however.). Descent, approach, and landing were normal. Near the end of the landing roll, at a speed of about 20 knots, however, disaster struck. The right wing separated from the aircraft in the vicinity of the damaged area. This separation provided fuel and ignition sources for the fire that subsequently destroyed the aircraft. All personell successfully evacuated the aircraft, though some injuries were suffered.

Shore 11 had begun its return to McChord AFB when the crew was instructed to land at Fairchild AFB. A T-33 was scrambled to do an inflight damaged assessment. Approach and landing were made without incident. All men aboard Shore 11 were uninjured by the escapade.

Here is the crew list for this mission:

B-52D #55-098

Captain Thomas J. Campbell, Instructor Pilot. (He is listed as sustaining minor injury.)
Captain Clifford L. Fonsess, Co-pilot. (Minor injury.)
Major Wayne D. Waller, Aircraft Commander. (He is listed as sustaining minor injury.)
Major David Kisong Eum, Electronic Warfre Officer. (Spelling is in question as the report is difficult to read. He is listed as sustaining major injury.)
Major Leonard Carmell, Radar Navigator.
Captain Glen M. Bird, Navigator.
Captain Robert W. Covarrubias, Navigator
First Lieutenant Basil Ciriello, Instructr Navigator (I-N is what is listed, and usually stands for Instructor Navigator, yet, given this man's rank, it would appear he was either from one of the "NEW" SAC crews or in some other way different. If someone knows for sure, I would appreciate an e-mail.)
Captain William C. Lane, Navigator. (It seems there were a lot of navigators on this ship, though the R-N was also probably the bombadier. Still if anyone has some clarification for this drop me an e-mail.)
Master Sergeant Henry W. Olschner, Gunner. (The tail gunner was physically separated from the rest of the crew on all B-52 models until the advent of the B-52G. In case of bail out, he would have jettisoned the tail turret and stepped out into space pulling his ripcord. He is listed as having sustained major injuries)

KC-135A #59-1523

Captain Warren H. Williams, Instructor Pilot.
Captain Charles L. Buechele, Pilot.
First Lieutenant Eugene A. Hendricks, Copilot.
Captain Jack W. R. Peters, Instructor Navigator.
First Lieutenant John C. Hall, Navigator.
Technical Sergeant Charles E. Cade, Instructor Boom Operator.
Staff Sergeant Martin W. Gunder, Boom Operator.

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