A Huge and Heavy Bomber
The B-36 Peacemaker, a heavy bomber built by Convair (Consolidated Vultee Aircraft Corporation) in Fort Worth, Texas, was designed during World War II (1941-1945). However, the first operational aircraft, the B-36B, didn’t fly until July 1948. Assigned to the U.S. Air Force, Strategic Air Command, it replaced the World War II era Boeing B-29 Superfortress and was the first bomber with intercontinental range specifically designed to carry nuclear bombs.
The Peacemaker, built at a cost of $3.5 million each, was a huge aircraft, 160 feet long with a wingspan of 230 feet, and was initially powered by six Pratt & Whitney R-4360 Wasp Major 28-cylinder radial engines. In 1949, the aircraft was modified with the addition of four General Electric J47 Turbojet engines to improve its performance by increasing maximum altitude and speed. With a cruising speed of 225 mph and a service ceiling of 42,500 feet, the Peacemaker could carry a hydrogen bomb 30 feet long and weighing 43,000 pounds over 8,000 miles without refueling. On missions, the aircraft normally carried a 15-man crew, but on training and proficiency flights, the number of crewmen often varied. The Air Force replaced the B-36 Peacemaker between 1958 and 1959 with the Boeing B-52 Stratofortress, America’s first all-jet, swept-wing heavy bomber.
A Routine Training Flight
At approximately 3:45 a.m., Tuesday, April 15, 1952, B-36B-10-CF Peacemaker No. 44-92050, attached to the 57th Air Division, 92nd Bombardment Wing at Fairchild Air Force Base (AFB), was taking off from the new, 10,000-foot runway 23 for a routine training flight. The plane was scheduled to conduct seven practice bomb runs at the Yakima Firing Center in Yakima County. But, according to a Civil Aeronautics Administration (CAA) air traffic controller in the tower at nearby Geiger Field, the aircraft never got far off the ground. The B-36, which had a very low rate of climb because of its size and weight, flew for a short distance and then crashed onto an empty field and exploded into flames. “Immediately after it hit, there was a series of bright flashes, apparently caused by the wing tank exploding. One flash was brighter than the others, and it may have been caused by a magnesium flare,” the CAA official said (Seattle Post-Intelligencer).
Of the 17 airmen aboard the B-36 for the training mission, only two escaped from the burning wreckage, by crawling through the broken Plexiglas nose of the aircraft. The survivors were rescued by firefighters from Fairchild and rushed to the base hospital. They were suffering from severe burns and other injuries.
Sergeant Harold Bolak, Washington State Patrol, remarked: “I don’t see how those guys managed to get out alive. All I could make out of the burning wreckage of the bomber was its motors. The rest was just so much twisted metal. I couldn’t recognize another part of the plane” (Seattle Post-Intelligencer).
Saturated with 21,000 gallons of aviation gasoline, the wreckage burned for more than two hours after the crash, scorching a five-acre circle around the crash site. While firefighters worked to extinguish the conflagration, detachments of Air Police cordoned off the entire area to protect the classified documents and equipment carried aboard the bomber.
The Cause: Pilot Error
An Air Force crash-probe team, commanded by Brigadier General Richard J. O’Keefe, director of Flight Safety Research, was immediately dispatched from Norton AFB, San Bernardino, California, to begin sifting through the wreckage, looking for clues to the accident. They needed to find out why the giant bomber plummeted to the ground just seconds after becoming airborne.
The Air Force Board of Inquiry determined the crash was caused by pilot error. During the maximum-weight takeoff, the pilots apparently discovered that the elevator trim was set incorrectly, keeping the plane’s nose down. Rather than abort, Captain Cecil F. Alldredge, the aircraft commander, made the decision to continue, confident the trim could be corrected during the takeoff roll. The corrective action, however, came too late, and the pilots lost control. The plane continued on the ground 520 feet past the end of runway 23 before becoming briefly airborne. After reaching an altitude of approximately 50 feet, the aircraft struck the ground 75 feet to the right and 3,314 feet past the end of the runway and tore through the airfield perimeter fence, coming to rest 450 feet off the base. The debris field extended an additional 1,000 feet.
Captain Alldredge, it turns out, was also in command of the first B-36B, No. 44-92080, that crashed at Fairchild AFB on January 29, 1952. That plane landed short and struck a snow bank at the west end of the runway, shearing off the landing gear. The aircraft skidded down the icy runway and off into snow drifts 2 feet deep. The fuel tanks ruptured, and fire broke out on one wing. Fortunately, the 12-man crew, consisting of nine airmen on a check flight with three Convair representatives, escaped without serious injuries. The deep snow hindered firefighters from reaching the plane quickly and bringing the flames under control. The main tanks, containing 10,000 gallons of aviation gasoline, exploded, and the wreckage burned for 12 hours. The $3.5 million aircraft was a total loss.
- James Breedlove, Airman Second Class, Donora, Pennsylvania
- Walter L. Campbell, Master Sergeant, Chetek, Wisconsin
- Cecil F. Alldredge, Captain (aircraft commander), age 32, Taft, California
- John Q. Boyd, Captain, age 30, Jackson, Georgia
- Francis J. Brozowski, Technical Sergeant, age 35, Spokane, Washington
- Martin Gordon Cohn, Staff Sergeant, age 23, San Francisco, California
- John E. Daly, Captain, age 31, Spokane, Washington
- Earl K. Davis, Staff Sergeant, age 32, Spokane, Washington
- Melvin H. Emley, First Lieutenant, age 29, Saratoga, California
- John C. Gafford, Staff Sergeant, age 23, Indian Mound, Tennessee
- Arthur L. Hulshizer, Captain, age 27, Cedar Rapids, Iowa
- John J. Knaub, Second Lieutenant, age 27, Marysville, Pennsylvania
- Wilbur W. Knox, Jr., Airman Second Class, age 21, Lawndale, California
- Herbert D. Merman, First Lieutenant, age 27, Ogden, Utah
- Albert E. Nelson, Captain, age 32, Filon, Michigan
- Earl G. Soderbeck, Captain, age 45, Edina, Minnesota
- Charles E. Sykora, Jr., Airman First Class, age 19, Ellwood, Indiana