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February 16, 1956 – The First Fatal Crash of a B-52 Bomber

Posted February 16, 2008 12:01 AM by Steve Melito

On this day in engineering history, a B-52 Stratofortress exploded in mid-air near Tracy, California, claiming the lives of all five crew members. The widely-publicized failure of this subsonic, jet-powered, strategic bomber threatened the future of a fleet of Boeing-built aircraft which U.S. Air Force Chief of Staff Nathan Twining billed as "the long rifle of the air age". The crash near Tracy, California also captured the attention of Congressional critics who objected to the B-52 bomber's $8 million (USD) price tag, then a sizable sum for a military program. Today, this once-maligned aircraft is described by aviation historian Meg Greene as "the most cost-effective bomber in American military history" – a true bargain bomber.

The B-52 Enters Service

On June 29, 1955, the first production-quality B-52 bomber entered service with the 93rd Heavy Bombardment Wing at Castle Air Force Base (AFB) near Atwater, California. Although this Strategic Air Command (SAC) wing did not become operational under March 12 of the following year, B-52 crews trained regularly during the winter of 1956. Operations were complicated by a lack of spare parts and inadequate ground facilities, however. Ramps and runways groaned under the weight of the mammoth aircraft while leaks and icing plagued the fuel system. Even worse, the Pratt & Whitney J57 engines required frequent service.

To minimize maintenance problems, the USAF staffed Castle AFB with a Sky Speed team of 50 maintenance contractors. Nevertheless, routine checks took as long as one week per aircraft. Then, even before the first B-52s became operational in March of 1956, a fully-manned B-52 Stratofotress exploded in mid-air. Called before Congress, SAC commander General Curtis LeMay testified that a "serious component failure" with an alternator flywheel had caused the crash. Eventually, the Air Force rejected 31 of the first 78 B-52s that Boeing built, grounding its entire Stratofortress fleet on several occasions.

Aerospace Engineering and Public Relations

Fortunately for Generals Twining and LeMay, Boeing and Pratt & Whitney promptly addressed a range of problems with the B-52 Stratofortress. Although a second B-52 crashed in the spring of 1956, the Stratofortress that dropped an H-bomb over Bikini Atoll on May 21, 1956 proved the aircraft's prowess. Then, on November 27, 1956, a series of B-52 bombers landed in Baltimore after completing eight non-stop polar flights, the longest of which lasted 32.5 hours and covered 17,000 miles non-stop. One part military strategy and one part public relations, Operation Quick Kick helped build the B-52s reputation as, in the words of Meg Greene, "the safest ship in the air fleet".

Resources:

http://cr4.globalspec.com/blogentry/4070

http://www.airpower.au.af.mil/airchronicles/apj/apj94/sum94/baker.html

http://books.google.com/books?id=PqGEXuzFS6QC&pg=PA10&lpg=PA10&dq=b-52+expensive&source=web&ots=f7U6w8RB9R&sig=6vcoeShal2ZwB-SZglGwQAbCHa0

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Castle_Air_Force_Base

http://cgi.ebay.com/Cold-War-Era-Boeing-B-52-Stratofortress-Pin_W0QQitemZ260211929549QQihZ016QQcategoryZ156441QQcmdZViewItem

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Guru

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#1

Re: February 16, 1956 – The First Fatal Crash of a B-52 Bomber

02/16/2008 4:45 PM

Nice piece Moose. I knew a guy that flew an SR71. He said he'd trust it to Mach 10. I wonder what the Russian equvalent to the 52 was? Is it the B 1 that is now the preimer manned bomber? Think I'll watch Dr. Stranglove again.

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#4
In reply to #1

Re: February 16, 1956 – The First Fatal Crash of a B-52 Bomber

02/19/2008 8:36 AM

Thanks, Transcendian. Good to hear from you again. Are you still in contact with the guy who flew the SR71? If so, I'd love to interview him for CR4. With regard to your question, I believe that the B-2 is now the USAF's premier manned bomber. The Air Force is already thinking about its next-generation bomber, though.

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#2

Re: February 16, 1956 – The First Fatal Crash of a B-52 Bomber

02/17/2008 11:13 AM

Another is said to have crashed in Gram, Washington state. We call it the crater and it used to be a 4 wheel drive playgroung. The local lore is that a B52 did a 600mph nose dive into the ground creating the crater. Never thought to verify the facts.

Last I heard it's all houses around it now. But it was a big enough hole that one side was used for shooting practice.

Brad

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#5
In reply to #2

Re: February 16, 1956 – The First Fatal Crash of a B-52 Bomber

02/19/2008 8:37 AM

I'll do a little digging on the Web, UV. Thanks for the information.

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#3

Re: February 16, 1956 – The First Fatal Crash of a B-52 Bomber

02/18/2008 5:22 PM

Blogs like this bring back a lot of memories. I was stationed with the 93rd at Castle from '80 -'86. We had a double wing of BUFFS and tankers doing a crew training mission. Lots of 12 hour days and hard work but good duty.

In Nov. '82 I was on the line when the G model #2597 landed in heavy rain and blew a hydraulic line in the front wheel well. The crew egressed safely and then the plane exploded and burned to the ground. That was a sight to remember.

Three weeks later we were up Mather on MITO launch when ops got a G on water up behind an B-52H. The G's J57 turbojet on water injection was faster than the TF-33 the H used. 6482 was about to run up the rear of the H model hard and fast when the co-pilot chopped throttles and flooded out due to water. The pilot did a masterful kick and slew as he lost the bird, but he got it away from a rush hour intersection full of cars and that saved a lot of lives.

To answer Trancendian's question about the Russian equivalent... the TU-95 Bear. Although a turboprop engine...it was the backbone of the the Russian fleet for a long time and is still in service. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tupolev_Tu-95

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#6
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Re: February 16, 1956 – The First Fatal Crash of a B-52 Bomber

02/19/2008 8:38 AM

Great to have you with us, Switchman. Thanks for sharing those stories of your own.

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#8
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Re: February 16, 1956 – The First Fatal Crash of a B-52 Bomber

02/21/2008 2:10 PM

Moose,

It took me a few days of digging for this link in my old beast of a home PC.

You may find something of interest. Mr. Baugher has compiled a very good list of serial number, as well as having a ton of decent links to peruse.

http://home.att.net/~jbaugher/

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#9
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Re: February 16, 1956 – The First Fatal Crash of a B-52 Bomber

02/21/2008 2:28 PM

Thanks, Switchman! I'm like a kid at Christmas here. This is a great website and a real treasure trove. Look for more blog entries about military aviation in the weeks and months to come.

Best,

Moose

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#7

Re: February 16, 1956 – The First Fatal Crash of a B-52 Bomber

02/19/2008 5:32 PM

it's something how bad something can start out, on the verge of cancelation, only to turn out the be one of the best ideas so far.

Also as equally interesting, is how the concept was conceived and derived, basically over the weekend.

Such as some of the side notes;

The pilot and co-pilot side by side configuration was not due to design efficiently. but solely to impress LaMay, because of his old fashioned favoritism that the pilots should be sitting side by side like the bomber pilots in WWII.

or carving a conceptual model that same week end.

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#10

Re: February 16, 1956 – The First Fatal Crash of a B-52 Bomber

05/01/2008 10:03 PM

I was station at Parks AFB CA. (in the Air police squadron) at the time of this crash

and pulled duty guarding this crash site.

Jim

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#11
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Re: February 16, 1956 – The First Fatal Crash of a B-52 Bomber

05/02/2008 8:07 AM

Good to hear from you, Jim. I hope you'll come back to CR4 and register. I would enjoy learning more about your experience at Parks AFB. - Moose

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#12
In reply to #10

Re: February 16, 1956 – The First Fatal Crash of a B-52 Bomber

06/06/2009 1:01 AM

Jim,

Can you tell me what you had to do and what you saw? I have personal interest in this crash.

Jan

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Anonymous Poster
#13
In reply to #10

Re: February 16, 1956 – The First Fatal Crash of a B-52 Bomber

02/25/2010 10:11 PM

I lived in Tracy when this occured. I was 14 years old. The plane crash if i remember right was close to the Tracy Defense Depot. I was laying on the couch watching t.v. and heard this rumbling noise and it shook the house.. We lived about 4 miles from the crash site. After hearing this noise for what seemed a long time and probably wasn't, I went outside ans saw huge pieces of metal tumbling down.. And i saw parachutes too. The news said that there were four crewman that perished and four that survived. Later the Tracy Press said that 100,000 dollars worth of windows were broken in tracy. I remember when my brother took me out there in a day or two. Indeed there were military guards watching over the crash site.. Maybe i saw you Jim. on that day in 1956. My Brother was particulary affected by this.. He was in Tracy on leave from the Air Force. He was stationed at Geiger field in Washington. The site of yet another B-52 crash although many years later.. Dan

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#14
In reply to #13

Re: February 16, 1956 – The First Fatal Crash of a B-52 Bomber

04/17/2010 4:15 PM

I too was living in Tracy when this occurred. I was 19 years old. It is amazing how something like this can be indelibly etched in the memory. I remember being amazed when a couple B 52s overflew the wreckage. They were low and at that time I had never seen a plane that size. The B 52 is an aircraft that even today makes me want to stand up and salute.

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Anonymous Poster
#15

Re: February 16, 1956 – The First Fatal Crash of a B-52 Bomber

06/17/2010 10:54 PM

My grandfather Harold Korger was a radar observer on this flight. He bailed out and survived the crash. Tara

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Anonymous Poster
#16
In reply to #15

Re: February 16, 1956 – The First Fatal Crash of a B-52 Bomber

08/02/2010 6:46 PM

I too was in Tracy at the time of the crash, although I would not be born for another 3 weeks. I'm told that my parents were chatting with our next door neighbors when the neighbor - a pilot and partner in a local flying service - said "there's something wrong with that plane." They stepped outside and looked, just in time to see it explode in the sky south of town.

Some 10-12 years later, our family was camping on the Oregon Coast when a man stepped up and asked if we were from Tracy... he'd noticed the license plate frame on the car. Telling him yes, he then asked if my parents remembered the B-52 that exploded. He had been one of the crew that managed to bail out.

It's a small world.

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#18
In reply to #15

Re: February 16, 1956 – The First Fatal Crash of a B-52 Bomber

09/23/2018 6:39 PM

Hello,

My father, James K. Fredricksen, was on that ill-fated flight. He had given his seat to your grandfather, Major Korger.

Janice Fredricksen Naber

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#17

Re: February 16, 1956 – The First Fatal Crash of a B-52 Bomber

02/13/2012 10:41 PM

I wanted to pass along a very interesting story that my father told me. His name is Tom Suitts and he was scheduled to be aboard the infamous flight that crashed over Tracy, CA., on 2/16/1956. Just after receiving his flight issued helmet and preparing to board, a car pulled up and out jumped a fellow airman and informed my dad that he was being bumped from the flight. That airman did not survive. My father said that the airman's parachute was soaked with jet fuel and caught fire as he was ejected from the plane.

I believe that it was my lucky day as well as my father's...I was born November 27th, 1956!

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