An ejection seat that could answer questions about the crash of a military plane nearly 50 years ago on Elephant Mountain will be moved off the mountain this week by a team of state forest rangers.

Maine Forest Service District Ranger Bruce Reed, who found the ejection seat last fall on an overgrown logging road on the mountain near Moosehead Lake, will lead the recovery mission Thursday morning.

The state says it is certain that the seat, which has been hidden in the woods, was part of the Air Force B-52 that crashed on Elephant Mountain and killed seven crewmen on the afternoon of Jan. 24, 1963. The seat was found about a half-mile from the crash site.

Only two crewmen survived the crash. The pilot, Lt. Col. Dante Bulli, and Capt. Gerald Adler ejected from the bomber. The co-pilot, Maj. Robert Morrison, was killed when his parachute hit a tree. Bulli now lives in Omaha, Neb., and Adler lives in Davis, Calif.

“I hunt in that area quite a bit and I just happened to be coming down the mountain when I spotted it,” Reed said Tuesday. “The seat was lying upside down in the middle of the road. I had a pretty good idea of what it was, but it was kind of eerie finding something like this in the middle of the wilderness, knowing what happened almost 50 years ago.”

Reed said he returned to the logging road last weekend, marked the GPS location of the seat and took photographs.

Reed plans to take a team of four rangers to the site, where they will protect the ejection seat — it weighs about 85 pounds — from further damage by wrapping it in helicopter cargo netting. It then will be moved by sled off the mountain. The seat will be taken to a local snowmobile club, which has been involved in preserving the crash site and collecting artifacts.

Reed believes his discovery will generate a lot of interest, especially since there is some uncertainty about which crewman was in the seat when it ejected.

“This piece has a lot of history and meaning to a lot of folks,” he said. “There is some evidence to suggest that whoever was in that seat when it hit the ground was still alive.”

The B-52 Stratofortress-C left Westover Air Force base in Massachusetts around noon on Jan. 24, 1963. It was on a low-altitude training mission when it encountered extreme turbulence as it approached Elephant Mountain, whose elevation is more than 2,600 feet.

During the turbulence, the plane’s vertical stabilizer detached and fell to the ground.

“We were climbing out of the turbulence when I heard what sounded like an explosion at the rear of the plane,” Adler said Tuesday night in an interview from his home in California.

Bulli gave the order to eject. Adler said the accident report says he ejected about five seconds before the plane started to hit treetops. The impact shredded the aircraft, spreading debris over a large wooded area.

Adler said his ejection seat was recovered in 1993 and is in the care of the Moosehead Riders Snowmobile Club. A third ejection seat is in storage at the Maine Air Museum in Bangor.

“The seat (that Reed found) could only have been used by Bulli or Morrison,” Adler said, because no one else had time to eject from the plane.

Pete Pratt, the snowmobile club member who is in charge of preserving the crash site and caring for its artifacts, said he plans to figure out whose seat it was by contacting the manufacturer. The seat’s identification number could indicate where it was in the plane.

“Now that we’ve got that third seat, we need to find out who it belonged to,” Pratt said.

The snowmobile club rides to the crash site each January to honor those who died. A corner of the clubhouse is devoted to the event with photographs and news articles from 1963.

Pratt said more than 7,000 people visit the crash site each year.

Adler has returned about six times. The wreckage field, which covers several acres, is largely undisturbed. Visitors can drive into the crash site on an 8-mile gravel road.

The site is accessible via a short hike from the road.

“(The site) brings back not only my memories of what happened that day, but it also brings to mind that we lost seven crewmen, who left behind six widows,” Adler said. “I think often of the terrible loss that was for their families.”

The crash site has been turned into a memorial, and improvements are being made for the 50th anniversary of the crash next year.

Staff Writer Dennis Hoey can be contacted at 791-6365 or at: [email protected]