A B-52 Mid-air Collision

Life on a military base is routine and somewhat predictable. An accident, especially on a large scale is anything but routine.

On September 8, 1958, two B-52 collided about 1,000′ above the eastern approach to the runway at Fairchild Air Force Base in Spokane, Washington. The time of the crash was about 1730 hrs (5:30 PM) Pacific Time.

From two crews of nine men each, only two crew members survived ­ a tailgunner and a weapons officer. Sixteen men joined the “Ghost Squadron” that day! Tomorrow will mark the 30th anniversary of that tragedy.

I was a witness to that mid-air collision and I will never forget it!

An Air Force Brat since WWII with a flying father who was fortunate enough to survive flying in three wars, I have always loved airplanes and flying (I have a private pilots license). Of course our family was always aware that the Base Chaplain could knock on our door at any time to inform us that my mother was now a widow ­ thank God it never happened! Several of my friends had lost fathers to anti-aircraft, fighters, groundfire and accidents, but I was a lucky one.

On September 7, 1958, the day before, we drove through Fairchild Air Force Base for the first time. My father had just been transferred from Turner AFB in Albany, Georgia, and was to report on the 10th. He had been flying the KB-50’s and KC-97’s; this was to be his first experience as an inflight refueling technician (boom operator) in jets ­ the KC-135.

Since there was no room at the base guest house, we had to rent a motel room at Airway Heights, a little community at the end of the base. The next afternoon I was watching television near the door of the motel room when I heard a truck make an emergency stop. I stooped over and looked out the door just in time to watch the planes collide. I knew what was going to happen and I screamed for my father, as though I thought he could have stopped it. Then they hit!

There was the crunch, followed by an explosion and fire. The nose (from the wing forward) on one plane fell off while the other plane slammed into the ground. The bomber with the missing nose became tail heavy and started to climb with her eight engines screaming like banshees, then stalled and fell off on it’s left wing. It hit the ground with engines at full power.

My next thought was the crews. I counted eight parachutes, seven of them were on fire. The ‘chutes had opened automatically when the men were blown out. My father, in the meantime, told us to stay put and he drove the car to the site ­ when he got there to check three men, he threw up and was back at the motel within ten minutes. There was simply nothing he could do.

Needing to do something, my brother and I spent hours searching the area for the papers that had drifted down, many of which were marked: ‘Secret’ or ‘Top-Secret’. These we turned over to the Air Police.

The survivors? Well, the tailgunner had heard over the intercom, “We¹re going to hit!” He ejected with no injuries. Ironically, he was the sole survivor of a B-52 crash the month before which had killed the base commander and six other crewman. (He quit flying after the collision).

After he landed in his parachute, he went into the wreckage and pulled out a Major, the Weapons Officer which were the only other survivors. The Major spent over a year in the hospital and although he retained his mental faculties, he spoke and walked in slow motion. I had met him about two years after the crash.

After 30 years, I have finally written the story down. Writing it has gotten a bit off my chest, but it is also a way of paying tribute to the eighteen flyers aboard those bombers ­ the 16 killed, the tailgunner who risked his life to save others by pulling a severely injured crewmember from a burning aircraft and the weapons officer who would never be the same. At 8:30 PM Eastern Time tomorrow (September 8), I want to be alone in my thoughts, thinking of them.

The cause of the crash? It was quite simply, Ground Control Approach (GCA). GCA cleared a plane which had been shooting touch-and-goes to land. GCA “thought” the other plane was ten miles out and cleared that one too (it was actually less than half that distance). Thus, both planes tried to land on the same runway at the same time and it didn¹t work.

The scapegoat was a 1st Lieutenant, a fighter pilot, attached to Fairchild who had been assigned as ³Tower Officer² and was on a legitimate coffee break in the Base Operations Cafeteria at the time of the crash.

The fighter pilot, who knew nothing of control tower operations, was court-martialed and drummed out of the service for an accident of which he was totally innocent. The responsibility, first, was with GCA, the control tower operators and pilots/copilots of both aircraft.

This is but a small portion of my memories as a Military Brat. My thanks to the reader for bearing with me.


Editor’s Note: This article first appeared on Military Brats Online. Richard P. Roberts lives in Binghamton, NY, SFC, U.S. Army (Ret.).

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  1. I was an Airpoliceman at Fairchild and remember the crash quite well.My wife and I were on Sunset Highway somewhere when I saw the sky turn red out by the base.I thought the base was on fire,so we rode out around airway height and saw the crash.One of the wheels and strut fell in front of a gas station(can’t remember the name)real close to the highway.I did guard duty for I can’t remember how many days and nights.Very sad time.

  2. I was playing outside our house in base housing when the first accident (when the wing commander ??? was killed) happened. The way  I remember it (or thought I heard it as a very young kid) was the tailgunner rode it in when something malfunctioned and he couldn’t get out.

    We rotated out shortly there after to McConnell

  3. I saw these two planes collide when I was 4 years old. I was playing in my yard in duplex housing on Sunset Highway. I was very young but I have a very vivid memory of the tragedy. The neighbors were pointing to the sky and gasping. Just as I looked up they hit. A wing fell off and black smoke billowed. I was petrified. Everyone was screaming and I don’t remember much after that. The plane parts and bodies landed across the highway. My father was stationed at Fairchild AFB and he lost a buddy or two in the wreckage. He also helped with the clean up. I have only flown once in my life but will be flying to Colorado in a few days from my home in South Carolina. I will never forget that horrifying sight. I have my Xanax again. 

  4. My father, R.W. Crump, son of Homer W. Crump (Captain), told me of my grandfathers passing many years ago.  My son, Henry (7) was asking about, “Grandpa Robbie’s father” so I told him the story i knew.  Luckily, in this day and age, i was able to, “look it up on the internet”, and learned so much more than i previously knew!  I never knew that my grandfathers plane had collided w/ another B-52!  On this day, the day after 30 men/women have died serving their country in Afghanistan, I am more proud of my grandfather, and my kids great grandfather, than ever, for the sacrifice he made for our great country!

    amy (crump) miller

  5. I wanted to let you know my father is the tail gunner who survived the collision and finished his service with the air force flying over 3000 hours before being honorably discharged due to diabetes. He is still with me at 81 years old.


  6. I was a freshman in high school at the time and lived at 8543 Elm St., not far from the runway.  My father was an aircraft commander and was in the air and due to land about that same time.  He was in the next plane to land that afternoon just minutes behind the the collision.  I was in the front yard at the time.  The next hour was very difficult as we thought there was a good possibility dad’s plane was involved.  

    As I recall, the air traffic controller at the last second called the one plane to turn off, unfortunately, he called the wrong one and put them on the collision course.

    This is not the the only accident I remember but the one I recall the best as my father was in the air nearby at the time.

  7. This event occurred so long ago it has been forgotten by many.  I just learned of it yesterday when talking with my father-in-law who was stationed at FAFB, and who working on the outer marker that day.  Does anyone remember where (any landmarks or anything else) tha would identify the exact location where the collision occurred, and where the debris field was located?  It is such a terrible thing, and now there is a proposal to build a casino in the vicinity of where it sounds like the accident occurred.

  8. My dad, Clifton Wright, was stationed at Fairchild.  I was 6 years old when this crash happened and have vivid memories of it.  The shock from the crash rattled our base housing duplex and knocked things off the walls.  I remember seeing the fire and wreckage and it seemed like it was spread out for miles, though I know the site couldn’t have been that large.  My dad told my mother stories of cleaning up the debris field and the sad, tragic things the men saw.  I will never forget that experience and how heartbreaking it was.

    I also remember another crash at Fairchild that was actually near our house.  I think it might have involved a hospital transport plane, but not sure because I was so young when it happened.

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