ELEPHANT MOUNTAIN, Maine — Flying low over snowy terrain on a Cold War training mission, Lt. Col. Dan Bulli’s massive B-52 bomber hit turbulence that shook the plane so violently that he couldn’t read the gauges. Pulling back on the yoke and depressing the throttle, he tried to fly out of the severe wind. Then there was a loud bang.
Moving at about 325 mph, the unarmed bomber banked, nose down, toward the unforgiving winter wilderness below. Unable to control the plane, Lt. Col. Bulli signaled for the crew to eject. They had seconds to save themselves.
Today, the B-52 Stratofortress is a legendary aircraft, one of the longest-serving in U.S. military history, even flying missions in Afghanistan and Iraq. The planes will remain in service for years to come. But it would not have become the workhorse it is without one disastrous flight 50 years ago next week, and a similar one six days later in New Mexico, that helped to underscore a deadly structural weakness.
“When you’re flying combat aircraft, you’re pushing your aircraft to the edge” to simulate combat, said Jeff Underwood, historian for the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force in Ohio. “It’s very dangerous and the air crew knows it.”
The fateful flight originated on Jan. 24, 1963, at Westover Air Force Base in Massachusetts. The crew was learning to use terrain avoidance radar, designed to help the pilot fly at treetop level to deliver a nuclear strike. Radar advances by the Soviets forced the aircraft with a 185-foot wingspan to fly low to the ground to evade detection, causing unexpected structural fatigue, Mr. Underwood said.
The crew had a choice of two routes, one over Maine and the other over North Carolina. Maine was selected because of better weather.
Lt. Col. Bulli, now 90, was an experienced pilot with 9,000 flight hours, responsible for overseeing proficiency of other B-52 pilots and crews.
Others, including two instructors, joined the flight. Capt. Gerald Adler, a navigator, took the seat of the electronic warfare officer, one of only three on the plane that ejects upward during an emergency, along with the pilot and co-pilot. Remaining crew had to eject downward or bail out.
The flight started out as routine. Powered by eight jet engines and capable of carrying up to 70,000 pounds of conventional munitions, the B-52 approached rural Greenville, 150 miles from Portland. Gusts coming off the 3,000- to 4,000-foot-high mountains buffeted the plane with moderate turbulence, Lt. Col. Bulli recalled. Eventually, the turbulence became extreme.
“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,” the pilot said.
After hearing what sounded like an explosion — he later learned the vertical stabilizer had broken off — Lt. Col. Bulli had just seconds to determine whether the plane was still flyable. Unable to control the aircraft, he ordered the crew to bail.
The B-52 crashed into a mountainside, killing six crew members who couldn’t escape. A seventh, the co-pilot, died after slamming into a tree.
Coming at the height of the Cold War, the flight showed that risks and sacrifices even outside of combat were significant. The crash left nine children without fathers and six women without husbands, Capt. Adler said.
“People who’re killed in peacetime are often forgotten. Memorial Day events often forget them. Veterans Day events often forget them,” said Capt. Adler, 81, who lives outside Davis, Calif.
But the crashes in Maine and New Mexico helped to make the B-52 the reliable aircraft it is today by revealing a fatal weakness in an aircraft that wasn’t designed for low-level flying: The vertical stabilizer snapped off under certain conditions.