Above & Beyond: Fire and Ice

Above & Beyond: Fire and Ice

After the B-52D crash was solved, over 200 “cause unknown” aircraft losses were attributed to the same condition. (Courtesy Leonard R. Scotty)
Air & Space Magazine

On Tuesday, February 11, 1958, the temperature at Ellsworth Air Force Base in South Dakota was 15 degrees below zero. I was an electronic countermeasures officer; my crew was making its first flight as a combat-ready crew, with no instructors on board. But I remember the day for a far more significant, and much sadder, reason.

Five other crewmen and I took off in a brand-new B-52D: the pilot, Captain Melvin Rudd; copilot, Captain Verle Rusk; navigator, Captain John O’Connell Jr.; radar bombardier, First Lieutenant Kenneth Kaeppler; gunner, Technical Sergeant Oscar Orrs; and a ground crew member. The mission was about six and a half hours rather than the usual 12 to 16 hours because of a fleet-wide problem in the fuel transfer systems, limiting the fuel available to only that in the wing tanks.

At the time, Strategic Air Command evaluated its units on various criteria, one of which was on-time takeoff. We were on final approach for landing when we got a call from the control tower, telling us that another aircraft, which had less than five minutes to be on time, was waiting to take off. Could we go around? Rudd said okay and advanced the throttles while Rusk raised the landing gear.

We were at about 500 feet and halfway down the runway when two of the inboard engines flamed out. “Get those engines restarted,” Rudd said, and with some difficulty, Rusk did.

Rudd declared an emergency. A series of engine failures and restarts ensued. Rudd tried to keep the aircraft flying and re-enter the landing pattern, and Rusk struggled to keep the engines running. We managed to get back to final approach but could barely maintain flying speed and altitude. The ground control radar operator kept warning us that we were dangerously low. Rudd said that when the stall warning sounded, he would tell Rusk to drop the landing gear.

About a mile and a half short of the airfield, Rudd called, “Gear down.” The airplane stopped flying and hit the ground. I raised my eyes and said, “Your will, not mine.” We rolled over hill and dale toward the perimeter fence and the guard station at the main gate. On the way, an engine pod went through a building that housed radio equipment.

A railroad cut lay between us and the airfield. When the front landing gear went into the cut, the nose hit the far side. The aircraft broke in two at some point, and the tail section ended up at right angles to the rest of the fuselage.

We came to a stop. Neither Rudd nor Rusk could open his overhead escape hatch. I don’t know if the hatches were jammed or the guys didn’t realize how heavy those things are. As for me, first I tried to get up without opening my seat belt. Then I tried to get up without getting out of the parachute harness and survival kit. I stood on the seat and pushed the escape hatch up with difficulty. All I saw was flame.

I headed for the front of the aircraft. On the way, I could see that the lower deck was engulfed in flame, and there was a crack in the floor on the left side, through which I also saw fire. In the meantime, Rusk had gotten his window open and was trying to get out it. Rudd and the ground crewman were following. I didn’t think I had time to wait for them. I went back to my seat, grabbed the end of the escape rope, and pushed the hatch up but not off so it would shield me from the flames. As I went out and let the hatch fall closed, it caught my pants leg. I hung upside down for a moment, and realized that I hadn’t thrown the rope out to slide down on—I still had the end. I made a choice comment and began kicking free of the hatch.

Meanwhile, Orrs had jettisoned the tail turret and took off running, still wearing his parachute. The footprints in the snow went from the turret to the fence and picked up again on the other side; the gate guards caught up to him about a half-mile down the line.

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