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.).