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U.S. Air Force B-36 Peacemaker crashes at Fairchild Air Force Base, killing 15 airmen and injuring two others on April 15, 1952.

HistoryLink.org Essay 9478 : Printer-Friendly Format

On April 15, 1952, a giant U.S. Air Force B-36 Peacemaker crashes and burns while making a predawn takeoff on a routine training mission from Fairchild Air Force Base in Spokane County. Fifteen airmen are killed and two are critically injured in the accident. It is the second major crash of a B-36 at Fairchild AFB in less than three months.

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.

Survivors

  • James Breedlove, Airman Second Class, Donora, Pennsylvania
  • Walter L. Campbell, Master Sergeant, Chetek, Wisconsin

Casualties

  • 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

Sources:
Daniel Ford, “B-36: Bomber at the Crossroads,” Air and Space/Smithsonian, April-May 1996; “Scene ‘Most Terrible’ in Fireman’s Memory,” Spokane Daily Chronicle, April 15, 1952, p. 1; “B-36 Didn’t Sound Right to Son of Air Force Man,” Ibid., April 15, 1952, p. 1; “Two Members of Crew Survive; One in Critical Condition,” Ibid., April 15, 1952, p. 1; “Investigating Committee Probes Fatal Air Crash,” Ibid., April 16, 1952, p. 5; “15 Die, 2 Safe in B-36 Crash Near Spokane,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, April 16, 1952, p. 16; “15 Killed in B-36 Crash in Spokane,” The Seattle Times, April 15, 1952, p. 1; “Partial List of Crashed B-36 Crew,” Ibid., April 15, 1952, p. 9; “Big B-36 Crashes, Burns at Spokane,” Albuquerque Journal, January 31, 1952, p. 7; “Bomber Hits on Snowbank Near Runway,” The Long Beach Independent, January 30, 1952, p. 7; “B-36 Crash Reports and Wrecks,” Goleta Air and Space Museum website accessed August 2009 (www.air-and-space.com); “Convair B-36B,” “Convair B-36D,” “Convair B-36 Peacemaker,” National Museum of the U.S. Air Force website accessed August 2009 (www.nationalmuseum.af.mil/factsheets); “Military: Fairchild AFB,” Global Security.Org website, accessed September 2009 (www.globalsecurity.org/military/facility/fairchild.htm).


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B-36 crash, Fairchild Air Force Base, April 1952
Courtesy Spokane Daily Chronicle


U.S. Air Force B-36 bomber, ca. 1952
Courtesy United States Air Force


 
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