A fateful B-52 flight back in Jan. 24, 1963 has been said to have helped the B-52 Stratofortress become one of the longest serving aircraft in U.S. military history. As the 50th anniversary of that fateful flight approaches, many are remembering the flight and how it helped carve the history of one of the most celebrated planes for the United States air force.
The fateful flight nearly 50 years ago helped engineers identify a deadly structural weakness in the plane, and more importantly allowed it to be fixed to make the B-52 into the powerhouse it is today. The B-52 has more recently been used in Iraq and Afghanistan, and there are no plans on retiring the aircraft anytime soon.
On Jan. 24, 1963 a B-52 crew took off from Westover Air Force Base in Massachusetts, and training on terrain avoidance radar systems, which was designed to help the plane fly at treetop height to deliver a nuclear strike. Low flight was necessary to avoid detection by enemy radar. However, such low flying, it is now known, caused the aircraft, which has a wingspan of 185-feet, to suffer structural fatigue.
The crew decided to take a route over Maine, and early on everything was going to plan and seemed like any other routine flight mission. However, as the B-52 approached rural Greenville, 150 miles from Portland, gusts of wind from the 4,000 foot high mountains caused moderate turbulence to the plane.
The turbulence got worse, and the pilot now recalls: "The instrument panel was vibrating so badly that I couldn't read the dials. I couldn't interpret the radar returns because it was juggling so bad. It was the worst turbulence I had ever encountered," according to The Associated Press.
The turbulence got so bad that a loud explosion took place, which was the vertical stabilizer breaking off. That caused the pilot to lose control of the plane, and within seconds he had ordered the crew to evacuate the plane.
The B-52 went down quick, and crashed into the mountainside, killing six of the crewmen who were unable to get out in time. A seventh crew member, who had managed to escape the aircraft died after slamming into a tree, according to AP.
The pilot managed to escape through his ejection seat, and his parachute caught in trees, leaving him dangling 30 feet above the ground.
Another crew member's parachute failed to deploy and he crashed down through the trees into an area of deep snow - saving his life by softening his landing, although he still suffered broken ribs and a fractured skull.
The two survivors were stranded in freezing conditions of more than 20 below for more than 20 hours in the wilderness of the North Woods. They were finally rescued by crews operating helicopters, and using snowshoes and snowmobiles to reach them.
The pilot eventually recovered from the ordeal and went on to continue piloting B-52s, and is now a retired Air Force Colonel living in Nebraska.
The other survivor suffered frostbite and was unconscious for five days following the incident. He eventually had to have his leg amputated as it was gangrene and spent 14 months in hospital. He retired as a captain from the Air Force, and went on to become a lawyer and a city councilman in California.
That crash in Maine, as well as another in New Mexico after that, helped engineers modify the aircraft and make it more reliable. The crashes revealed a fatal weakness in the design of the plane, which was not originally made for low-level flying.
The pilot was Lt. Col. Dan Bulli, and the other survivor was navigator Gerald Adler.