On December 12, 1957, a giant U.S. Air Force B-52D Stratofortress crashes shortly after takeoff from Fairchild Air Force Base in Spokane County. Of the nine airmen aboard, eight are killed, but one, the tail gunner, miraculously survives the accident with only minor injuries. The crash is the first for a B-52 at Fairchild since the aircraft arrived at the base on March 27, 1957.
First Line of Defense
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 B-36 Peacemaker 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. The Stratofortress, a large aircraft, 156.5 feet long with a 185-foot wingspan, was powered by eight Pratt & Whitney turbojet jet engines. Fully loaded with fuel and bombs, the B-52 weighed 450,000 pounds. At cruising speed of 526 mph and an altitude of over 46,200 feet, the aircraft could fly more than 8,000 miles without refueling.
The bomber normally carried a six-man crew consisting of an aircraft commander/pilot, copilot, radar bombardier, navigator, electronics countermeasure officer, and tail gunner. Each position was equipped with an ejection seat for emergency parachute escape. Except for the tail gunner, all the crew members sat in the nose section of the bomber. On training and proficiency flights, the B-52s often carried additional crewmen.
At approximately 4:00 p.m. on Thursday, December 12, 1957, U.S. Air Force B-52D Stratofortress, No. 56-0597, from the 92nd Bombardment Wing, was taking off from Runway 5 at Fairchild Air Force Base (AFB) on a routine training mission. According to eyewitnesses, as the aircraft left the runway, it made an abnormally steep climb to an altitude of approximately 2,000 feet. Fire started coming from the jet engines and pieces of metal began flying off the engine cowlings and mounts. The aircraft stalled, executed an abrupt, right wingover and appeared to level off. But, at an altitude of approximately 500 feet, the plane nose dived and crashed in a stubbled wheat field one mile west of the base. Exploding jet fuel sent a large column of smoke into the sky, attracting scores of curious onlookers.
Fire fighting and crash-rescue equipment from Fairchild AFB rushed into the area, followed by ambulances and other vehicles carrying Air Force security officers to safeguard equipment and documents classified Top Secret. The Washington State Patrol and Spokane County Sheriff's Department blocked all roadways surrounding the scene of the crash to all but authorized personnel. Newspaper reporters and photographers were temporarily banned from the area, but the Fairchild's Public Information Office gave them information as it became available. The Air Force declined to say whether the crashed B-52 was carrying nuclear weapons.
The impact of the crash almost disintegrated the aircraft, with wreckage strewn for hundreds of yards. The largest remaining pieces were the tail section and the aft portion of the fuselage housing two of the four main landing gear dual-wheel assemblies. Although pieces of the wreckage were burning, the fire was mostly confined to an area where thousands of gallons of jet fuel had spilled. Wearing heat-reflective, asbestos suits, firefighters drove into the fields and smothered the hot spots with chemical foam. Occasionally, one of the bomber's eight tires exploded, sending everyone ducking for cover.
Rescue workers and firefighters worked throughout the night, trying to locate the bodies of the victims. Of the nine crewmen aboard the B-52, four managed to eject from the falling aircraft, but none survived the low-altitude bail-out. Four died, trapped inside the burning the wreckage. The tail gunner miraculously survived the crash and was found sitting in the open field some distance from the burning plane. As bodies were recovered, ambulances transported them to the morgue at Fairchild Hospital for identification.
The Survivor's Story
The lone survivor was Technical Sergeant Gene I. Graye, age 25. He told reporters he had great faith in the pilots and didn't ever think about the plane crashing. "But as soon as the plane started into a dive, the captain ordered us to bail out. I pulled the turret jettison handle. The turret went and I pulled my safety belt loose. I had one hand on the ripcord, but I couldn't get out of the aircraft. The next thing I knew, I was in the aircraft on the ground. My left foot was caught. I tried to get it loose, but I couldn't.
Everything was pretty blank then for a few minutes. I don't remember getting out of the aircraft, but I do remember running and stumbling over the ground. I don't remember hitting the ground, but I do know that for what seemed like a long time, I was upside down in the aircraft," Graye said (The Spokesman-Review). Sergeant Graye was held overnight at Fairchild Hospital and then released after being treated for minor injuries.
On Friday, December 13, 1957, the Air Force brought in heavy cranes and lifted the larger pieces of the aircraft onto flatbed trucks. All the wreckage was collected and transported to a hangar at Fairchild AFB for a detailed inspection. The tail section was sent to the Boeing Aircraft Company in Seattle where the cause of the accident would ultimately be determined.
At 10:00 a.m. on Saturday, December 14, the Air Force held a memorial service for the eight victims of the tragedy in hangar 4040 at Fairchild AFB. The service, conducted by Major Frank E. Wiley and Major Jack P. Dalton, base chaplains, was attended by more than 4,000 persons, mostly Air Force personnel in uniform. Afterward, a flyover, the traditional Air Force memorial salute, was made by a formation of Boeing B-52s from Fairchild and Washington Air National Guard Convair F-102 Delta Daggers from nearby Geiger Field (renamed Spokane International Airport in 1960).
On Thursday, December 19, 1957, Major General Joseph D. Caldara, director of flight-research safety for the Strategic Air Command (SAC), announced the results of his 53-man team investigating the mishap. It was caused by faulty wiring in an electric motor controlling the horizontal stabilizer which controls the climb, making the aircraft to do the opposite of what the pilot intended. It was the first time faulty wiring had caused a B-52 to crash and it was likely they would never learn how it happened or who, if anyone, was responsible. There was no indication of sabotage. All SAC bases were alerted to inspect the wiring on their B-52s.
One of the victims was Colonel Clarence A. Neely, commander of the Strategic Air Command's 92nd Bombardment Wing at Fairchild AFB. He had assumed the position of wing commander in June 1956. It was Colonel Neely who had flown the first B-52 Stratofortresses to Fairchild on March 27, 1957. He was survived by his wife, Frances, and son, Martin, age 12.
- Ralph Romaine Alworth, Major, age 38, Oilton, Oklahoma
- Douglas Earl Gray, Captain, age 33, Guthrie, Kentucky
- James Dennis Mann, First Lieutenant, age 33, Mountain View, California
- Clarence Arthur Neely, Colonel, age 42, Rockford, Illinois (92nd Bomb Wing Commander)
- Thomas N. Peebles, Captain, age 33, Carson, Virginia
- Douglas Franklin Schwartz, Captain, age 37, Minneapolis, Minnesota
- Herbert Henry Spiller Jr., Captain, age 32, Lowell, Arkansas
- Jack Joseph Vainisi, First Lieutenant, age 26, Oakhill, Illinois
- Gene I. Graye, Technical Sergeant, age 25, Augusta, Kansas