March 18, 2010

Ride will honor victims of B-52 crash

— The Maine Snowmobile Association and local snowmobile clubs have scheduled the annual snowmobile ride to the site of a B-52 crash on Elephant Mountain to the last day of public hearings for Plum Creek's development plan on Moosehead Lake.

The snowmobile groups will rally in support of Plum Creek's plan at 9 a.m. at Greenville High School in preparation for the 10 a.m. hearing being held by the Land Use Regulation Commission. The rally is sponsored by the Maine Snowmobile Association and local snowmobile clubs.

The annual snowmobile ride to honor the victims of the crash of B-52 in 1963 will take place at 1 p.m., leaving from the clubhouse of the Moosehead Riders Snowmobile Club.

''It just so happens that Jan. 19 is the last day of the hearings, and we are wrapping everything together to take advantage that we will have people in the area,'' said Tom McCormick, president of the Moosehead Riders. ''We will ask all snowmobilers at the rally to join us for the annual ride. I am hoping we have a lot of people. We've had so much snow this year.''

For nearly 30 years, the Moosehead Riders Snowmobile Club has worked to honor those involved in the crash of a B-52 on Elephant Mountain.

On a frigid winter day on Jan. 24, 1963, a U.S. Air force B-52 out of Westover Air Base in Massachusetts was on mission flying extremely low to the ground -- an average of only 500 feet above treetops and granite cliffs.

This special mission called a ''Terrain Avoidance Flight'' was the first of its type on the East Coast. The assignment was to practice low-level navigation to avoid the newest Soviet radar at a time when the Cold War was really heating up.

When the B-52 encountered turbulence about 3 p.m., the pilot, Lt. Col. Dante E. Bulli, attempted to fly above it. Following the maneuver, a loud noise sounding like an explosion was heard and the pilot ordered the crew to eject. Seconds later, the plane crashed into Elephant Mountain.

The navigator, Capt. Gerald J. Adler ejected from the plane first, followed by Bulli and the co-pilot, Maj. Robert J. Morrison. Morrison died when he hit a tree while parachuting. Also dying were the six men still in the plane when it crashed.

Adler and Bulli were the only survivors, spending 20 hours in temperatures that reached 30 degrees below zero before they were rescued at 11 a.m. the next day.

Military personnel, game wardens, Maine State Police, Civil Air Patrol and townsfolk used dog sleds, a new Scott Paper Co. bulldozer and snowmobiles to plow themselves through 5 feet of snow to the crash site. Bulli and Adler were airlifted to a hospital by a helicopter..

Nearly 30 years ago, Fred Worster, a retired military pilot and the president of the Moosehead Riders Snowmobile Club, wanted to honor those aboard the B-52 and give the club a project that reached out to the community. The annual memorial ride began.

The snowmobile clubhouse has a corner devoted to the event with photos and newspaper write-ups dating back to 1963. One of the plane's engines is in the front yard of the clubhouse as a visual link connecting the club and the catastrophe.

''We are tied to the crash site as a club because snowmobiles were tied so directly to the rescue. Back then, they had wooden skis and one-lungers that barely made it in the snow,'' McCormick said.

Each year in January since the 1970s, the club has been making the 12-mile pilgrimage up Elephant Mountain for a ceremony that includes representatives from the Maine Air National Guard, the American Legion, the Civil Air Patrol, Maine Warden Service and members of the snowmobile club. There is a color guard, the laying of a wreath, the reading of the names of those who died, a prayer by a military chaplain and the playing of taps.

The site, which is still littered with twisted chunks of aluminum, pieces of landing gear and other remains of the plane, is owned by Plum Creek Timber Co. Plum Creek has improved the foot trail up to the site so that people can experience this time capsule in the Maine forest. The company prohibits any salvaging of the pieces of the wreckage.

The memorial crash site is connected to Plum Creek and snowmobilers, many of whom are concerned about what will happen to recreational access if Plum Creek's Plan is rejected by LURC.

''There is serious concern among our community about recreational access in the north woods. Motorized recreation is being left out of the picture in the future along with hunting and trapping,'' McCormick said. ''There is a push towards elimination of recreation in the north woods. We respect Plum Creek for what they have done for snowmobilers, and they will not change access for us -- which is unrestricted access -- the way Maine has been forever.''

While there is likely to be plenty of snow for those traveling to the rally by sled, it should be noted that many trails across the state have deep water holes because of recent warm weather and the heavy snowfall this season. Caution should be used while on the trails because of the amount of water you could encounter.

Cathy Genthner is a registered Maine Guide and licensed by the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife to guide snowmobile trips. She is the owner of River Bluff Camps in Medford, located off of ITS-83.

Cathy can be reached at

riverbluffcamps@maine.rr.com

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