Residents recall B-52 crash, nuclear scare

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SOMERSET, Pa. (AP) - Nearly 50 years ago to the day, strong winds and faulty mechanics hurled five U.S. airmen to the earth from above southern Somerset County.

Had fate been a little more cruel, half of western Maryland, and possibly your hometown, would have been reduced to ash.

The plane that night was a B-52D bomber, the most powerful combat aircraft in U.S. history at the time. It was a $7-million intercontinental bomber, an eight-engine craft of the Strategic Air Command.

Its payload: two thermonuclear weapons, each a 9-megaton monster.

“This was the biggest (nuke) that was ever deployed, so to speak, during the Cold War,” said Jim Borgardt, physics professor at Juniata College.

According to Borgardt, the result of nuclear detonation would have looked something like this: a fireball 2 miles in radius from the crash; a giant shock wave a mile beyond the fireball; and thermal radiation in a 20-mile radius from the crash site.

Put simply, everyone within 20 miles of the crash probably would have been killed.

“A lot of people are going to die not from the (explosion), but from untreated third-degree burns,” Borgardt said.

The B-52 crash fortunately did not end with a nuclear explosion. Borgardt said one reason is that the bombs were separated from their detonators.

“Most of these (bombs) had a number of redundant safeguards for obvious reasons.”

Still, many of those who survived what-could-have-been said they will never forget the night the bomber crashed on the mountain.

The date was Jan. 13, 1964. Flight Buzz One Four, a B-52D bomber, left Westover Air Force Base in Massachusetts at 12:28 a.m. The destination for the plane and five crew members was Turner Air Force Base in Georgia. Estimated arrival time was 3:15 a.m.

But the bomber never made it to Georgia, where it was ironically scheduled to receive repairs. Instead, the B-52 ran into a blizzard above the mountains of southern Somerset County.

Maj. Thomas W. McCormick, 42, asked for and received permission from the Cleveland Air Traffic Center to adjust altitude for the wretched conditions. It wasn’t, however, enough to save the flight.

Declassified U.S. Air Force documents conclude that “excessive turbulence” exploited “fatigue cracks and weld defects” in the rear bulkheads. This shock yanked out the bolts connecting the tail to the fuselage, ripping the 47-foot tail from its bearings. The tail then struck the horizontal stabilizer and sent the plane veering out of control

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