Let’s face it, seagulls are pretty damn annoying in the best of times. Now, we have an even better reason to dislike “sky rats.”
On May 18, 2016, a B-52H Stratofortress with the 5th Bomb Wing was forced to abort its takeoff run. According to a report by NBCNews.com, the plane later burst into flames and was a total loss. The reason behind the destroyed plane was finally uncovered by an Air Force investigation.
According to the investigation report, seagulls killed a BUFF – and it’s not the first time the military’s lost a plane to birds.
The accident report released by Global Strike Command noted that the crew observed the birds during their takeoff run, and the co-pilot felt some thumps – apparent bird strikes.
Then, “the [mishap pilot] and [mishap co-pilot] observed engine indications for numbers 5, 6, and 7 ‘quickly spooling back’ from the required takeoff setting. The MP also observed high oil pressure indications on the number 8 engine and a noticeable left-to-right yawing motion. Accelerating through approximately 142 knots, the [mishap pilot] simultaneously announced and initiated aborted takeoff emergency procedures.”
The crew then tried to deploy a drag chute. The chute – and the plane’s brakes – both failed, though, and that caused the B-52 to go off the runway. The crew carried out emergency shutdown procedures and then got out of the plane. One suffered minor injuries, but the other six on board were not injured.
Bird strikes on takeoff have happened before. One of the most notorious bird strike incidents took place in September 1995 when a Boeing E-3B Sentry was hit by two Canada geese on takeoff from Elmendorf Air Force Base in Alaska. The plane crashed after briefly going airborne, killing all 24 personnel on board.
Another one took place in 2012, when Air Force Two absorbed a bird strike, according to a report by the London Daily Mail.
The military makes a big deal out of when a rifle goes missing, not to mention when a nuke disappears.
In spite of the fact the program is designed to be “zero defect,” here are seven examples of doomsday devices wandering off (including a few where they never came back):
1. 1956: B-47 disappears with two nuclear capsules
The first story on the list is also one of the most mysterious since no signs of the wreckage, weapons, or crew have ever been found.
A B-47 Stratojet with two nuclear weapons took off from MacDill Air Force Base, Florida on March 10, 1956 headed to Morocco. It was scheduled for two midair refuelings but failed to appear for the second. An international search team found nothing. The US military eventually called off the search.
2. 1958: Damaged bomber jettisons nuke near Tybee Island, Georgia
The interceptor pilot ejected, and the bomber crew attempted to land with the bomb but failed. They jettisoned the bomb over the ocean before landing safely.
Since the plutonium pits were changed for lead pits used during training, the missing bomb has only a subcritical mass of uranium-235 and cannot cause a nuclear detonation.
3. 1961: Two nuclear bombs nearly turn North Carolina into a bay
On January 24, 1961, a B-52 carrying two Mark 39 bombs, each 253 times as strong as the Little Boy bomb that dropped on Hiroshima, broke apart in a storm and dropped both of its bombs.
One survivor of the crash, the pilot, was able to alert the Air Force to the incident. The first bomb was found hanging by a parachute from a tree, standing with the nose of the weapon against the ground. It had gone through six of the seven necessary steps to detonate. Luckily, it’s safe/arm switch, known for failing, had stayed in the proper position and the bomb landed safely.
“You might now have a very large Bay of North Carolina if that thing had gone off,” Jack Revelle, who was in charge of locating and removing the weapons, said. The other bomb’s switch did move to the “Arm” position but, for reasons no one knows, it still failed to detonate, saving tens of thousands of lives.
4. 1965: Loss of Navy plane, pilot, and B43 nuclear bomb
A Navy A-4 Skyhawk was being moved aboard the USS Ticonderoga during a military exercise December 5, 1965 when it rolled off its elevator with a pilot and a B43 nuclear weapon loaded. The plane sank quickly into waters 16,000 feet deep.
The status of the weapon is still unknown. The pressures at that depth may be enough to detonate the weapon and the waters were so deep that it would’ve been hard to detect. If the weapon is still intact, it would be nearly impossible to find as very few vessels can make it down that far.
5. 1966: B-52 crashes into KC-135, four thermonuclear bombs are released over Spain
On January 17, 1966 a B-52 was approaching a KC-135 for refueling when the bomber struck the tanker, igniting a fireball that killed the crew of the KC-135 and three men on the B-52.
The plane and its four B28 thermonuclear bombs fell near a small fishing village in Spain, Palomares. Three were recovered in the first 24 hours after the crash. One had landed safely while two had experienced detonations of their conventional explosives. The explosions ignited and scattered the plutonium in the missiles, contaminating two square kilometers.
The fourth bomb was sighted plunging into the ocean by a fisherman. Despite the eyewitness account, it took the Navy nearly 100 days to locate and retrieve the weapon.
6. 1968: B-52 crashes and a weapon is lost under the Arctic ice
Like the Palomares crash, the January 21 crash of a B-52 resulted in four B28 bombs being released. This time it was over Greenland and at least three of the bombs broke apart.
Investigators recovered most of these components before realizing they had found nothing of the fourth bomb. A blackened patch of ice was identified with parachute shroud lines frozen within it.
Recovery crew speculated that either the primary or secondary stage of the bomb began burning after the crash and melted the ice. The rest of the bomb then plunged through the Arctic water and sank. The weapon is still missing, presumed irrecoverable.
7. 1968: The sinking of the USS Scorpion
The USS Scorpion, a nuclear-powered attack submarine, was declared presumed lost on June 5, 1968. The loss was especially troubling for the Navy since the boat had been following a Russian research group just before its disappearance.
At the time it was lost, the Scorpion was carrying two Mark 45 antisubmarine torpedoes (ASTOR). The wreckage would not be found until October 1968. The USS Scorpion is still on the floor of the Atlantic under 3,000 meters of water and the cause of the sinking remains unknown. The torpedo room appears to be intact with the two nuclear torpedoes in position, but the Navy can’t tell for sure.
Recovery of the torpedoes would be extremely challenging, so the Navy monitors radiation levels in the area instead. So far, there has been no signs of leakage from torpedoes or the reactor.
The service selected Collins Aerospace, part of Raytheon Technologies, to design and develop a new wheel and brake for the bomber, and to retrofit 77 new brake and wheel combinations, including spares provisioning, the company said Wednesday.
To increase the brakes’ wear life, the company will use its carbon heat sink material known as DURACARB, which provides “increased thermal absorption” as the aircraft slows and brakes on the runway during a landing, explained Matthew Maurer, vice president and general manager of military programs, landing and mechanical systems.
“Today, the aircraft uses the steel brake, and we’re going to be replacing that with a carbon brake,” Maurer said in an interview Monday.
The new brake-wheel combination “is going to allow for longer intervals between brake overhauls or longer intervals between inspections on the wheels,” he added. “We anticipate being through the design and development phase and supporting flight testing by 2023, and then [retrofitting] the fleet by 2026.”
Air Force maintainers will work alongside engineers to learn how to change or update the system; Maurer said the service will run the schedule, choosing which bombers will receive the first upgrades. Collins did not publicize the cost of the contract award.
The Air Force already uses the DURACARB system on the C-130 Hercules, F-16 Fighting Falcon and F-15 Eagle. The new wheel is rated for 12,500 miles, a major upgrade from just 1,500 miles for the B-52’s current brake system, Maurer said.
The Air Force is also nearing a decision on procuring new B-52 engines.
Three companies are in the running to replace the engines: Pratt & Whitney, which is a Raytheon Technologies’ company; General Electric; and Rolls-Royce. But while the Air Force issued a request for proposal, or RFP, last May, it has delayed issuing a contract award.
In 2019, lawmakers insisted that service officials nail down contract specifics before they would provide funding. That year, the Air Force estimated it would spend around $1.3 billion through 2024 on work related to the re-engining.
The RFP stipulated a total of 608 engines for its 76-aircraft fleet.
While officials have said there has been no delay, the service has still not committed to an official award date.
Gen. Tim Ray, head of Air Force Global Strike Command, said in February that it’s “too early” to determine whether the award will be announced in June – the original projected contract announcement time frame.
“We should have this summer the answers back from the competitors to be considered,” Ray said during the Air Force Association’s virtual Aerospace Warfare Symposium. “And so then, from that process, we’ll go from there.
“This is not being [dragged] out,” he said, as reported by Defense News. “It is on time. In fact, it is several years early.”
He said that digital prototyping, or simulating parts via computer models, has begun on the companies’ side, which could shorten the engine production time.
The planes are among the oldest in the Air Force. Three generations of airmen have flown the B-52 in combat, from Vietnam to Afghanistan; the final bomber rolled off the production line in 1962.
The B-52 has been prominent in missions such as Operations Desert Storm and Iraqi Freedom, as well as the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
Affectionately known as Big Ugly Fat Fellow, or BUFF, B-52s have been on rotation for the service’s Bomber Task Force, or BTF, missions over the past year, part of the Pentagon’s larger “dynamic force employment” strategy.
As reported in detail in the last few months, only two US Air Force B-52 Stratofortress bombers have been restored out of the “Boneyard,” at the 309th AMARG (Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Group) at Davis-Monthan AFB, Arizona, to be returned to front-line service: “Ghost Rider,” tail number 61-0007, and “Wise Guy,” tail number 60-0034.
Both aircraft had been retired and put on long term storage, where they were supposed to remain to be cannibalized for parts needed by other B-52Hs.
However, the plans changed and both BUFFs have been resurrected. After being mothballed for seven years in the desert “Ghost Rider” returned to service in 2015 with the 5th Bomb Wing at Minot AFB, North Dakota. The second, “Wise Guy,” spent 10 years in the desert before being resurrected late last year.
The two “Lazarus” aircraft were regenerated at the Tinker Air Force Base’s Oklahoma City Air Logistics Complex, and it’s there that they are currently undergoing PDM (Programmed Depot Maintenance).
PDM is a complex process, that each Stratofortress bomber undergoes every four years. The airframe is stripped of its paint, so maintainers can assess if there are leaks or repairs are needed on the outer skin of the aircraft.
Then, the aircraft is almost completely disassembled and each part is inspected and all defects are fixed before they are rebuilt, repainted, carry out several Functional Check Flights before they are sent back to their home stations.
The aircraft return to active service as if they were almost brand new.
While “Ghost Rider” is currently undergoing routine PDM, “Wise Guy” is undergoing the heavy maintenance as the final part of a three-phase process to resurrect the aircraft and return it to the 5th Bomb Wing at Minot AFB, so that the number of B-52 bombers mandated by Congress is brought back to full strength at 76 aircraft.
The two B-52H Stratofortress bombers were parked nose-to-nose at the Oklahoma City Air Logistics Complex, Tinker AFB, Oklahoma, on February 26, 2021, and this provided the opportunity to shoot some interesting photos that you can find in this article.
On January 10, 1964, Boeing civilian test pilot Chuck Fisher and his three man crew launched from Wichita, Kansas, for a mission aboard B-52H serial number 61-0023.
The aircraft was involved in a test mission whose purpose was to examine the effects of turbulence at varying altitudes and airspeeds. In other words the aircrew would shake, rattle and roll the Stratofortress bomber at high speed and low altitude to record sensor data on how such conditions could affect the plane’s airframe.
This kind of testing was done because new tactics required the B-52 to fly a different flight profile than the one it was originally designed for. In fact, the Stratofortress bomber was designed to fly at high altitude and high speed (near supersonic).
However, as the Russian air defenses advanced in their ability to hit high-flying targets, so the best method to defeat the emerging Soviet threat was considered to be a high-speed low-level penetration, whose stress on the airframe required additional testing.
For the test, the Air Force loaned 61-0023 to Boeing that installed 20 accelerometers and 200 sensors to record the stresses on the airframe. The first part of the test went as expected: The crew flew some of the test patterns to measure the effects of turbulence on the jet, then aborted one portion of the flight due to turbulence becoming too strong for what was needed for the tests.
At that point the crew took a short lunch break, heading to smoother air. As the B-52 was climbing to 14,300 feet it hit CAT (clear-air turbulence) over northern New Mexico’s Sangre de Christo Mountains. The crew would later describe it as a giant force that picked up the plane and hit it.
“When this event occurred it was so violent that I was literally picked up and thrown against the left side of the airplane and over the nav table” said James Pittman, navigator.
“I had the rudder to the firewall, the control column in my lap, and full wheel input and I wasn’t having any luck righting the airplane,” said Charles Fisher, instructor pilot. “In the short period after the turbulence I gave the order to prepare to abandon the airplane because I didn’t think we were going to keep it together.”
Immediately after the severe turbulence, the jet rolled hard right and almost went out of control and it required about 80% left wheel throw to control the aircraft by the time things had settled down.
Although the vertical fin and the rudder had been sheared off by a gust of turbulence, the aircrew didn’t know the full extent of the damage until later.
Based on the sensor readings, the gust hit the B-52 at 81 mph (130 kmh)! This left the plane with only a small stub of metal protruding from the fuselage to serve as the vertical tail. The first assessment was carried out by the aircrew of another B-52 that was vectored to intercept 61-0023.
Later an F-100 would scramble to chase the injured B-52 to Blytheville Air Force Base, Arkansas, an airfield chosen because it was in a less densely populated area and located so that the aircraft would not need to cross the Rocky Mountains which would have subjected the BUFF to additional turbulent conditions.
For the next six hours Boeing Engineers and Air Force pilots on the radio would work together to find out the possible ways for safe landing the aircraft.
According to the US Air Force records, “the crew along with Boeing engineers decided that a combination of altering the center gravity by moving fuel on board, changing the engine settings, and small amounts of airbrakes could give the crew the fighting chance it needed. The plan worked, and gave the pilot a small additional measure of control as the jet crept along at a little more than 200 knots.”
The crew was instructed to land at Blytheville AFB. The pilot would fly a final “flaps-up” landing.
“Arriving at Blytheville we lowered the rest of the gear,” said Fisher. “The front main gear made flying kind of tricky when it came down it made the airplane yaw but once it finally was down we were in good shape.”
The worn-out crew landed the jet safely. Saving the plane also saved the data recorded on it with information the that would help engineers understand why the tail failed and also teach future crews about the limits of the B-52.
Still, three days later, another B-52, a D model, tail number 55-0060, flying as “BUZZ 14” was lost after the vertical stabilizer broke off in winter storm turbulence. The incident, also known as the Savage Mountain B-52 crash, is particularly famous because the aircraft was carrying two live, 9 mega-ton B53 thermonuclear bombs.
The pilot, Maj. Tom McCormick, copilot Capt. Parker Peedin, navigator Maj. Robert Lee Payne, and tail gunner Tech Sgt. Melvin E. Wooten all managed to actuate their ejection seats and egress the aircraft into the black, freezing sky.
Maj. Robert Townley may have been pinned inside the B-52 by G-forces as the crash accelerated out of control and he struggled with his parachute harness, his ejection seat may have malfunctioned or he may have been knocked unconscious in the bone-breaking turbulence. He never got out. His body was discovered more than 24 hours later. The two bombs were found “relatively intact in the middle of the wreckage” and removed two days later.
Back to 61-0023 and its tailless landing, despite the damage, the aircraft returned to active service and flew with the US Air Force until 2008, when it was retired at the 309th AMARG (Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Group) at Davis-Monthan AFB, Arizona, where it can be found on the so-called Celebrity Row, stored with the PCN/Inventory No. AABC0481.
The airframe 61-0023 was the first B-52 to be retired at the “Boneyard” (a place, from where, Stratofortress can also be resurrected, as demonstrated by “Ghost Rider” and “Wise Guy“!).