I got loose, and the weight of the hatch dragging on the rope allowed me to slide down without injuring my legs. I was not wearing gloves, so my hands got burned, but at the time I didn’t realize it.
I don’t know how much fuel was left in the wing tanks, but the forward body tank behind my seat had 12,000 pounds of fuel as ballast. It seemed to take the fire crews forever to get to us. I remember crying, and screaming for them to get Kaeppler and O’Connell out. I didn’t know at the time that Kaeppler had been killed when the nose smashed into the railway cut and that O’Connell had died in the flames. Three men doing maintenance work in the building struck by the engine pod had also died.
Rusk managed to get out his window, and Rudd followed head-first and landed on Rusk’s back. The ground crewman could not get his parachute off, and broke either the chest strap or the buckle to get free. He too went out the right window, his parachute dangling behind him by the leg straps.
A medic got me into an ambulance and began to treat my hands. Rusk and I were taken to the hospital; Rusk was kept overnight for observation. I was sedated while each finger was bandaged. It looked like I was wearing very thick gloves.
Three days after the accident, Kenneth Kaeppler was buried at a national cemetery north of Rapid City. I had someone bring me a uniform from my apartment. The shirt sleeves had to be cut from bottom to top so I could get my bandaged hands through. The coat was draped around my shoulders, and my overcoat went over that. It was another bitterly cold day, near 20 below zero. The only thing I remember about the burial was crying when the volleys were fired. My squadron commander, Lieutenant Colonel Charles Kammer, put his arm around my shoulders and held me tight.
On Saturday, when my bandages were changed, the surgeon tried to bend my fingers. He decided that if I was ever to have a chance to use my fingers, they must be fully bent under the bandages: my left thumb was tucked in and the fingers wrapped around it. Then the hand was bandaged. My right hand was also bandaged in a fist, but the thumb was mostly exposed.
I was allowed to go home for the day on Monday. At lunch time, I looked for something to eat. I had cans of soup in the cupboard, but the only can opener I had was the kind you clip to the top of the can and then twist the handle. I fumbled with the opener, which really required two hands to operate. It was painful, but I kept at it until I got the can open and the soup in a pot. It took about 25 minutes, and it was and still is one of my proudest moments. When the bandages came off for good after three and a half weeks, my fingers worked properly.
After a month off to fully heal, I returned to work on a Monday morning. As I was standing in the electronic countermeasures office, Captain Bob Ballard ran in—he was scheduled to fly in a few minutes and his wife had just had a miscarriage. “Give me your stuff and I’ll go for you,” I said. I got a flightsuit, boots, and a helmet out of my locker and met the crew at base operations. We flew a routine mission, during which the pilot, Captain Ivan McFadden, made numerous comments about what a smooth landing he was going to make. When we landed, McFadden allowed the front gear to touch first, which is an automatic ticket to bounding almost uncontrollably down the runway. He was mortified, and kept apologizing over the interphone. I said, “Hell, Mac, that was better than the last landing I had.” He responded, “You must have crashed [pause]…. You son of a bitch, you did crash.”
The next day, I caught hell for making the flight. Since it had been more than six weeks since I had flown, regulations said I was unqualified to fly without an instructor.
Investigators eventually determined that the crash had been caused by fuel icing, a previously unknown condition in which jet fuel absorbs water vapor from the atmosphere, and at low temperatures the water condenses as ice in the fuel lines. On the B-52, three fuel strainers were installed in each engine pod. Only the first and third strainers had bypass valves to compensate for clogging. The second filter had no bypass. The fuel filters recovered from our B-52 were all clogged with ice. Over 200 previous “cause unknown” aircraft losses were then attributed to fuel icing. The immediate fix was to remove the filter element from the second strainer. Some time later, the Air Force installed fuel heaters in the B-52s’ main tanks.