January 14, 2013

B-52 flight, 50 years ago in Maine, led to key safety changes

Six men died when the vertical stabilizer snapped off in low-level turbulence.

By DAVID SHARP The Associated Press

(Continued from page 1)

Gerald Adler
click image to enlarge

Gerald Adler, the navigator of a B-52 that crashed in remote Maine woods in 1963, holds a model of the legendary bomber at his home in Davis, Calif.

The Associated Press

Dan Bulli
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Col. Dan “Dante” Bulli of Omaha, Neb., was the pilot of a B-52 that crashed on a Maine mountainside 50 years ago.

The Associated Press

The two survivors remember a strange sense of quiet, interrupted only by wind whistling over the mountainside. Neither remembers the sound of the plane hitting the mountain.

Not knowing the fate of the others, or each other, Adler and Bulli settled in for a frigid night in shoulder-high snow. As darkness descended, the temperature plummeted, eventually reaching more than 20 below.

Their fight for survival wasn't over.

For 20 hours, they waited.

The region where the plane crashed remains wilderness, part of the vast North Woods that inspired naturalist Henry David Thoreau. Rescuers had to use helicopters, snowshoes and primitive snowmobiles to reach the wreckage.

"This is still the last frontier east of the Mississippi. There are fewer people living in Piscataquis County per square mile than anywhere east of the Mississippi," said Greenville police Chief Jeff Pomerleau.

Eventually, the survivors were found. Adler had severe frostbite. He was unconscious for five days and eventually his leg was amputated because of gangrene. All told, he spent 14 months in a hospital.

He later left the Air Force as a captain to start a new life as a lawyer and city councilman in California.

After recovering, Bulli continued to fly B-52s. At one point, he returned to Maine to serve at Loring Air Force Base. He retired, as a colonel, to Nebraska.

Coming at the height of the Cold War, the flight showed that risks and sacrifices even outside of combat were significant. The crash left nine children without fathers and six women without husbands, Adler said.

"People who're killed in peacetime are often forgotten. Memorial Day events often forget them. Veterans Day events often forget them," said Adler, 81, who lives outside Davis, Calif.

But the crashes in Maine and New Mexico helped to make the B-52 the reliable aircraft it is today by revealing a fatal weakness in a jet that wasn't designed for low-level flying: The vertical stabilizer snapped off under certain conditions.

Fifty years after the crash, much of the debris remains on Elephant Mountain. Torn pieces of riveted metal. Wing chunks with hydraulic tubes dangling. Parts of the fuselage. Bundles of wire. Wheels and strut assemblies. The 40-foot-tall vertical stabilizer remains where it landed, 1½ miles from the other wreckage.

About 10 miles away, at the clubhouse for the Moosehead Riders snowmobile club, newspaper clippings, Bulli's parachute and Adler's ejection seat are on display. The club has held ceremonies for 20 years at the site and will hold this year's on Saturday, ahead of the anniversary. Pomerleau has taken over organizing the remembrances from another club member, Pete Pratt, who helped keep memory of the flight alive for years.

Pratt has been to the crash site a hundred times, but it's still an emotional experience. Tears welled in his eyes on a recent visit.

"It's a very solemn place," said Pomerleau.

"You think of the families, the wives who lost their husbands... . There's so much to absorb."

 

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