On March 29, 1954, a huge U.S. Air Force B-36 crashes while practicing takeoffs and landings at Fairchild Air Force Base in Spokane County. Of the 10 crew members aboard the aircraft, seven are killed and three survive the accident. It is the fourth and last crash of a B-36 at Fairchild AFB during the years it is in service there (1951-1958).
Large, Powerful, Slow
The B-36 Peacemaker was the largest land-based bomber in the world. Built by Convair (Consolidated-Vultee Aircraft Corporation) in Fort Worth, Texas, for the Air Force, the aircraft had a wingspan of 230 feet, was 163 feet long, and powered by six Pratt & Whitney R-4360 Wasp Major 28-cylinder radial engines, with the propellers 19 feet in diameter. Although the B-36 was designed during World War II (1941-1944) to replace the Boeing B-29 Superfortress, the first operational model didn’t fly until July 8, 1948.
Although the Peacemaker had great range, 8,715 miles, it was relatively slow and considered obsolescent in the new era of jet-powered aircraft. To improve performance, the Air Force added four General Electric J47 Turbojet engines mounted in two outer wing nacelles, increasing the aircraft’s speed and altitude. Assigned to the Strategic Air Command (established in 1946) the B-36 was supposedly capable of delivering 72,000 pounds of conventional bombs or a nuclear bomb to any country in the world and return without refueling, making it a major deterrent to enemy aggression. For a major piece of military hardware, the Peacemaker had a relatively short life span, only 10 years. The B-36, which never saw combat, was replaced between 1958 and 1959 with the Boeing B-52 Stratofortress, America’s first swept-wing jet bomber. During missions, the B-36 normally carried a 15-man crew, but on training and proficiency flights, the number of crewmen aboard often varied.
At approximately 5:45 p.m. on Monday, March 29, 1954, B-36B-1-CF Peacemaker No. 44-92032, attached to the 92nd Bombardment Wing, 325th Bomb Squadron, at Fairchild Air Force Base (AFB) had just lifted off from Runway 23 when the aircraft suddenly made a sharp turn to the right and crashed just off the runway. The plane barely missed an American-LaFrance, Model O-11A, fire-rescue truck on standby at taxiway 10, narrowly missed several B-36 aircraft on the flightline, plowed through a new, unoccupied building, hit a ditch, flipped upside down, and exploded into flames. The wrecked bomber came to rest near the 10th Antiaircraft Artillery and Wherry housing project.
Of the 10 airmen aboard the B-36 for the training mission, seven were killed and three survived the accident. The survivors, all members of the cockpit crew, escaped through the pilot’s hatch and crawled through the burning wreckage to safety. Firefighters found the men in the debris field suffering from burns and other injuries and rushed them to the Fairchild base hospital. Witnesses to the crash said it was unbelievable anyone could have escaped the accident alive, but the hospital reported that the survivors were in good condition.
Fortunately, the B-36, which carries normally carries over 20,000 gallons of aviation gasoline, didn’t have that much aboard for the training mission. But, because of the magnesium used in its construction, B-36s burned fiercely. Although fire trucks smothered the flames with fire-retarding chemical foam in a relatively short time, the plane was a total loss. The wreckage was so hot that the bodies couldn’t be removed for three hours.
Two firefighters were injured while fighting the blaze and hospitalized. Airman First Class Charles L. Johnson suffered flash burns on his face and Staff Sergeant Elmer D. Jackson suffered a broken left forearm after being struck by a wheel strut when a tire exploded.
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 the arduous task of sifting through the wreckage, looking for clues to the cause of the accident. Fortunately, the cockpit crew survived the crash and was able to provide valuable information to the investigators. The pilots said immediately upon becoming airborne, the ship unexpectedly swerved to the right, the landing gear hit some maintenance stands and crashed.
Colonel Phillip Main, commander of Fairchild AFB, said the investigation team determined the accident was caused by a mechanical malfunction which made the B-36 lose directional control at takeoff. Although not stated, it was known that the variable-pitch propellers, which also provided reverse thrust for breaking on landing, sometimes reversed on takeoff or while in flight -- with fatal consequences. Another unstated possibility was a malfunction of a control surface, such as the ailerons, controlling roll, the rudder, controlling yaw, or the elevator, controlling pitch.
No Fun to Fly
The preceding B-36 accident at Fairchild (the third) occurred on Saturday, February 26, 1954, when B-36B-15-CF Peacemaker No. 44-92069 crashed on the end of Runway 23 as it ran up its six Wasp Major radial engines and four GE J-47 Turbojets for takeoff. When an alert flight engineer detected a fire in one of the radial engines, the takeoff was aborted. The main landing collapsed, however, rupturing a fuel tank, and the ship burst into flames. Twenty airmen, aboard the bomber for a training mission, scrambled to safety unharmed. The aircraft, equipped with 16, 20mm, cannons, was fully loaded with ammunition which continued to explode as firefighters poured chemical foam onto the fiercely burning gasoline. The bomber was totally destroyed in the mishap.
Generally, the crew’s opinion of the B-36 ranged from love to hate. The ship’s size made it prone to accidents and fires were commonplace in its six radial engines. In an interview for The American Experience episode “Race for the Superbomb,” broadcast on PBS in January 1999, Brigadier General James V. Edmundson (1915-2001), commander of the 57th Air Division at Fairchild AFB from 1952 to 1954, remarked: “Well, the B-36 really wasn't much fun to fly. It's a gigantic thing. They used to say it was like sitting on your front porch and flying your house around. It was big on the outside and small on the inside. Very cramped for the crews. And the missions were long.”
During the years the B-36 was in production, Convair built 385 Peacemakers. While in service (1948-1958), approximately 10 percent of the aircraft were written off or destroyed in non-combat related accidents. The remainder were retired between 1958 and 1959 and eventually cut up and sold for scrap. Today, only four Peacemakers survive and are on public display at the Castle AFB Museum, Atwater, California; the Strategic Air and Space Museum at Offutt AFB, Ashland, Nebraska; the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force, Wright-Patterson AFB, Dayton, Ohio; and, the last B-36 built, at the Pima Air and Space Museum, Tucson, Arizona.Survivors
Walter M. Keller, Captain (aircraft commander/pilot), Long Island, New York
Leroy B. Ross, First Lieutenant (first engineer), Houston, Texas
Virgil L. Westling, Major (pilot), Marquette, Kansas
Willard Daniels, Airman First Class, age 22, Gilmore Lake, Minong, Wisconsin
Heyward B. Davis, Master Sergeant, age 37, Plant City, Florida
George W. King, Airman Second Class, age 21, Hustonville, Kentucky
Rodney A. Paulson, First Lieutenant, age 29, Ames, Iowa
Frank Rea, Master Sergeant, age 28, Ozone Park, New York
James E. Ryan, Staff Sergeant, age 30, Kansas City, Missouri
Richard S. Scalia, Airman First Class, age 21, Waltham, Massachusetts