On June 24, 1994, a giant U.S. Air Force B-52H Stratofortress crashes at Fairchild Air Force Base, Spokane County, while rehearsing maneuvers for an air show, killing four airmen. The accident occurs as the aircraft, making a steep banking turn at low altitude, stalls and plummets to the ground, exploding into a fireball. The bomber, known as “Czar 52,” is Fairchild’s last remaining B-52H.
The B-52 Stratofortress
The Boeing B-52 Stratofortress was America’s first long-range, swept-wing heavy bomber. Introduced in 1954, it replaced the World War II era Boeing B-29 Superfortress and was primarily designed to carry nuclear weapons. Prior to the advent of intercontinental ballistic missiles, the B-52s, flown by the U.S. Air Force, Strategic Air Command, were the country’s first line of defense against surprise attacks during the Cold War. Built in Wichita, Kansas, the improved B-52H was the final model in the B-52 series. It was a large aircraft, 40 feet high, 159 feet long with a 185-foot wingspan, and powered by eight Pratt & Whitney TF33 turbofan jet engines. The aircraft could carry 35 tons of bombs or mixed ordinance 8,800 miles without in-flight refueling.
B-52s were used extensively during the Vietnam War, the Persian Gulf War in 1991 and over Afghanistan in 2001. The Stratofortress originally carried a six-man crew consisting of an aircraft commander/pilot, copilot, navigator, radar navigator/bombardier, electronics warfare officer, and tail gunner. But in 1991, the General Electric M61 "Vulcan" 20mm cannon was removed and the gunner position eliminated, reducing the crew to five. However, on training and proficiency flights, the number of crewmembers often varied.
Fairchild's Evolving Mission
Fairchild Air Force Base (AFB) was originally built in 1942 to repair Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress and B-24 Liberator bombers during World War II (1941-1945). In 1947, the facility became a Strategic Air Command (SAC) base and home to the 92nd Bomb Wing. With the end of the Cold War, the Air Force changed Fairchild’s mission from a SAC base for B-52s to a base for Boeing KC-135 Stratotankers.
On July 1, 1994, Fairchild became the nation's largest aerial refueling facility and home to the 92nd Air Refueling Wing. B-52H Stratofortress, No. 61-0026, call sign “Czar 52,”was the last of seven B-52s at Fairchild and had been reassigned to Minot AFB in North Dakota. But the aircraft had been retained temporarily so Spokane area B-52 flight crews could stay proficient in their specialties while being relocated to other SAC bases.
Their Last Flight
At about 2:00 p.m. on Friday, June 24, 1994, Czar 52 and a KC-135 Stratotanker took off from Fairchild AFB to practice maneuvers for an air show scheduled for Sunday. The B-52H was under the command of Lt. Colonel Arthur A. “Bud” Holland, age 47, chief of the 92nd Bomb Wing’s Standardization and Evaluation Branch. His copilot was Lieutenant Colonel Mark C. McGeehan, age 38, commander of the 325th Bomb Squadron. Lieutenant Colonel Kenneth S. Huston, age 41, the 325th Bomb Squadron’s operations officer, took the position of radar navigator and Colonel Robert E. Wolff, age 41, vice commander of the 92nd Bomb Wing, joined the flight as a safety observer.
Czar 52 was flying in tandem with the KC-135, slowly circling the airfield and making flybys down the runway. Occasionally, the bomber climbed steeply to 1,000 feet, then executed a “wingover” and descended, its eight jet engines dramatically trailing smoke. At 2:16 p.m., the pilot of the KC-135 finished practicing his air-show maneuvers and landed his aircraft. Czar 52 continued flying down the runway at low altitude and executed a missed-approach or “go-around” maneuver. Approaching the runway’s end, the plane climbed steeply and banked left into a tight 360-degree turn around the back of the air traffic control tower. The aircraft started to level off at an altitude of about 250 feet, then suddenly banked so steeply that the wings became vertical. At this point, Czar 52 stalled and plummeted to the ground, exploding into a giant fireball.
Before the aircraft hit the ground, it was flying at approximately 170 miles per hour, Czar 52 narrowly missed a three-story brick building housing the Air Force Survival School where some 300 students, instructors, and staff members were enjoying a farewell party for Squadron Commander Lieutenant Colonel Kent Reedy. About 50 people, including children, were outside on the school grounds, watching the planes practice. The tip of the left wing clipped a set of power-transmission lines before hitting the ground, disrupting electrical service to the base's air traffic control tower and several dozen homes near Medical Lake. The bomber crashed in an area only 50 feet from the base’s underground nuclear weapons storage area, scattering wreckage over five acres. Fortunately, no one on the ground was killed or injured.
Fighting Fire, Finding Remains
The Weapons Storage Area, a top-secret facility, was guarded by a detachment Air Force Security Police. An armed patrol was immediately dispatched to the crash site, just outside their perimeter fence, to establish a security cordon. Within minutes, emergency crews and rescue teams were on scene to fight the fire. It took them nearly three hours to extinguish the flames from the crash. As they dug through the wreckage, a pervasive pall of toxic black smoke, stinking of aviation fuel and burned rubber, hung in the air. Pockets of fire continued to erupt as oxygen reached volatile hot-spots in the rubble. The only recognizable piece of the Stratofortress remaining was the skeletal frame of the tail section, looming over the devastation.
It took rescue workers nearly five hours, sifting through charred debris, to find the remains of the aircraft's four crew members. The precise locations where the bodies were discovered were marked with orange safety cones. Once the fire and rescue teams were finished, the crash site was secured by Air Force Security Police to await the arrival of accident investigators from other bases. Because of the mishap, Colonel William Brooks, commander of the 92nd Bomb Wing, canceled the 1994 annual open house, Fairchild’s last event as a B-52 base.
Mourning and Asking Why
On Saturday, June 25, 1994, Air Force accident investigators combed through the blackened wreckage, looking for clues to why the 89-ton bomber crashed. Since B-52s weren’t equipped with flight-data recorders (known as the “black box”) like commercial aircraft, the investigation centered around radio transmissions between the pilot and the air traffic controller, the flight plan, the plane’s maintenance records, and the personnel records of the four crew members. But they also had evidence not available in most accidents -- private videotapes of the bomber in flight and making its final run. All the videotapes were confiscated by the Air Force Security Police, except one that escaped detection. It aired on KREM-TV in Spokane while the wreckage of the bomber was still burning.
At 10:00 a.m. on Tuesday, June 28, 1994, there was a memorial service at Fairchild for the four airmen killed in the crash of Czar 52. Held in an airplane hangar, the service was attended some 500 people, including Washington State Governor Michael E. “Mike” Lowry (b. 1939). Ironically, the sortie was to be the last flight assignment for Lieutenant Colonel McGeehan, who had been transferred to the Pentagon to work in the B-1 bomber acquisition program, and Colonel Wolff, who had also been assigned a desk job.
Foley and Dicks Beg To Differ
Meanwhile, two high-ranking congressmen, Speaker of the House of Representatives Thomas S. Foley (1929-2013), a Spokane Democrat, and U.S. Representative Norman D. Dicks (D-Bremerton, b. 1940), the No. 2 man on the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, were asking questions about the fatal accident. Dicks had been involved in a similar accident at Fairchild AFB in March 1987 when a KC-135 Stratotanker, flying in tandem with a B-52, crashed while practicing maneuvers for an air show, killing six airmen and a civilian spectator. As a result, Congress mandated the Air Force to institute regulations prohibiting the use of large aircraft in dangerous maneuvers for display purposes. Air Force Secretary Sheila E. Widnall assured the two congressmen the B-52 was only engaged in a local training mission, practicing routine takeoffs and landings; no aerobatics were involved.
But U.S. Representatives Tom Foley and Norm Dicks begged to differ, saying eyewitness accounts and a videotape of the crash appeared to indicate otherwise. They asked Secretary Widnall to review the Air Force’s promise to Congress not to use heavy aircraft, such as bombers and tankers, in risky maneuvers for air shows. She immediately responded by letter, calling the assertions “speculative.”
Rules developed by the Air Combat Command state that heavy aircraft normally perform only straight, level flyovers during air shows, by no more than four aircraft, over a fixed point, and not involving aerobatics or aircraft demonstrations. “When B-52s perform flyovers, Air Force regulations specify a minimum altitude of 500 feet above ground level and a maximum airspeed of stall plus 30 percent. Additionally, B-52 technical orders and standard-operating procedures specify the use of no more than 30 degrees of bank angle when turning. Normal climb is 6-8 degrees,” Widnall wrote (The Seattle Times). She said investigators were studying the accident, looking for causes that could range from mechanical failure to pilot error to weather conditions. Secretary Widnall admitted later, in a confidential follow-up letter to Congress, that normal operating procedures had been exceeded.
Hot-Stick Let Loose
On September 28, 1994, the Air Force Accident Investigations Board released the results of its investigation which blamed the accident on the pilot, who had been practicing unauthorized and unsafe maneuvers. Lieutenant Colonel Holland was known as a dangerously aggressive flier, considered so undisciplined that many crewmen refused to fly with him. But with 22 years in the Air Force and phenomenal 5,000 hours flying B-52s, his superiors often turned a blind-eye to his infractions of flight safety rules, letting him off with verbal reprimands. On the day of the crash, Holland ignored the safety rules again. During a practice flight for the Fairchild air show, he flew too low and banked too steeply, resulting in the deaths of four high-ranking Air Force officers and the loss of a $54 million aircraft. The board also criticized Fairchild’s chain-of-command for approving the aerobatics and permitting Holland to continue flying, despite a three-year pattern of reckless behavior and “poor airmanship,” and recommended disciplinary action.
Assigned to Fairchild AFB in 1988, Lieutenant Colonel “Bud” Holland had a reputation in the Strategic Air Command as a “hot-stick,” a highly skilled pilot who pushed aircraft to their limits. At the 1992 Aerospace Day at Fairchild, he made a low-level runway pass, then put his B-52 into a steep climb and “wingover” before a huge crowd of spectators. The aerial maneuver, known as a "hammerhead," gives the audience a top view of the aircraft as it appears to be flying on its side. It caused so much stress on the plane that the fuselage popped 500 rivets and fuel flowed from the vent holes on top of the wing tanks. On another occasion, Holland put his B-52 into a “death spiral” over one of his daughters' high school softball games. A former crew member claimed Holland often talked about “rolling” a B-52 in flight, something that had never been done. Yet, his superior officers made him an instructor and put him in charge of evaluating all Fairchild’s B-52 pilots.
The Courage of Lt. Col. McGeehan
In March 1994, Lieutenant Colonel McGeehan, commander of the 325th Bomb Squadron, complained to Colonel William Pellerin, the 92nd Bomb Wing’s flight operations officer, that Holland had thrice nearly crashed a B-52 at a bombing range near Yakima by flying too low over a ridge, and demanded Holland be grounded. Pellerin overruled him, giving Holland only another verbal reprimand. When Holland was subsequently assigned to pilot Fairchild’s last B-52H for the 1994 air show, McGeehan refused to allow any of his subordinates to fly with him.
So McGeehan, the only officer who tried to stop Holland, ended up as his copilot. Lieutenant Colonel Huston also volunteered his services and Pellerin, who thought it would be a “choice sortie,” wanted to go too. At the last minute, Lieutenant Colonel Wolff was assigned to replace Pellerin, who had been called away. By happenstance, Colonel William Brooks, Fairchild’s commanding officer, also planned to be on the flight, but didn't board the plane.
Brooks and Pellerin
In December 1994, Lieutenant General Thomas Griffith, commander of the 12th Air Force, decided that only Colonel Pellerin should be court-martialed for the crash of Czar 52. He was charged with three counts of dereliction of duty: Failure to obtain proper approval for the air show maneuvers, failure to ensure a safe routine, and failure to ground Holland after repeated violations of Air Force safety regulations. Colonel Brooks, who had seen the dangerous maneuvers performed and approved the flight plan, was not charged.
According to the prosecution, Pellerin had flown the maneuvers a week before the crash and recommended they be approved by Colonel Brooks even though they violated both Air Force and Boeing safety standards. (Only Air Combat Command headquarters in Langley, Virginia, had the authority to approve maneuvers by a B-52, or any aircraft, outside its normal operating requirements or limitations.) He also failed to investigate numerous complaints about Holland’s reckless flying and to remove him from flight status. Each charge carried a maximum penalty of six months in prison, forfeiture of pay for six months, a fine and a dishonorable discharge from the Air Force, with the loss of pension and benefits.
Elizabeth Huston, Lieutenant Colonel Huston’s widow, complained that the Air Force was using Pellerin as a scapegoat for the accident, claiming Holland was actually encouraged to perform aerobatics with B-52s. She said previous Fairchild base commanders had permitted such dangerous maneuvers for years. “Bud [Holland] flew the exact same maneuvers the year before at the air show,” she recalled. General James Richards III (Fairchild’s commander from August 1992 to August 1993) “patted him on the back and said ‘Way to go, Bud’” (The Spokesman Review).
John J. Nance, an Air Force Reserve Lieutenant Colonel, commercial airline pilot, and aviation-safety expert, said the Pellerin case was an example of the military’s institutionalized tradition of protecting high-ranking officers. “The Air Force ... forms a protective shield over the chain of command. The brotherhood demands the leadership be protected. It blames an individual to avoid blaming the system,” Nance said (The Spokesman Review).
On Friday, May 19, 1995, Colonel Pellerin pleaded guilty to the first two counts of dereliction of duty; the third count, failure to ground Holland for safety infractions, was dismissed. In exchange for his guilty plea, he received a written proffer from General Griffith regarding the limits of his sentence. On Monday, May 22, Colonel James Van Orsdol, the judge advocate presiding over the court-martial, accepted General Griffith’s sentence recommendation. Pellerin, who had an outstanding 25-year career in the Air Force, was given an official reprimand for his personnel file and fined $7,500.
A Dishonorable, Demoralizing Message
John Webster, an editor for The Spokesman Review, wrote: “The U.S. Air Force has shot down its own credibility. Divide $7,500 by four lost lives and don’t count the plane. That’s how seriously the U.S. Air Force takes the hot-dogging that caused a B-52 to crash near a nuclear weapons storage area outside Spokane. ... But the Air Force let [Colonel William] Brooks escape accountability. It sent a dishonorable, demoralizing message to its rank and file: When things go well, commanders get the glory. When things go badly, underlings get the blame -- yet nothing stern enough to signify a wish for change.”
Colonel Brooks, approved by the Senate for a promotion to brigadier general, turned over command of Fairchild AFB to Brigadier General Gary Voellger on July 1, 1994, when the base officially became an air-refueling facility. Brooks, who was not charged in the accident, was scheduled to become Commander of the Second Bomb Wing at Barksdale AFB, Louisiana, but his assignment later was changed. Instead, he was appointed Deputy Director for Reserve Readiness for the 12th Air Force at Davis-Monthan AFB in Tucson, Arizona. Brooks retired from the Air Force in April 1995 with full benefits.