A Cold War Tragedy

The crash of B-36D 44-92071

  A sad fact of military service is the ever present possibility of death, even during peacetime.  This can occur during training, or during an exercise.  In the case of this B-36 it happened during a simple ferry flight from Carswell Air Force Base to Biggs AFB.  What should have been a very routine flight ended in the death of nine servicemen.

    44-92071 had been built as a B-36B-5-CF, leaving the Convair factory at Fort Worth in 1949.  She was later converted to B-36D standard with the addition of jet pods and other details.  For several years she served with the 7th Bombardment Wing based at Carswell AFB.   On the morning of December 11, 1953 she left Carswell  for a little over a three hour ferry flight to Biggs AFB and a transfer to the 95th Bomb Wing. 
Unfortunately that appointment would not be kept.  That flight ended approximately four and a half miles southwest of Biggs at the 5,200 foot elevation on the west side of the Franklin Mountains.

    That flight had departed Carswell at 12:15 CST (1815 GMT) and crashed at 14:37 MST (2137 GMT).  Those times are drawn from the USAF crash report.  While the takeoff  was established from logs at Carswell, the crash time was based on loss of contact with the aircraft at 2137 Zulu.  The flight had been uneventful until placed in a holding pattern of Salt Flats, Texas for fifteen minutes due to weather conditions at El Paso, Texas.  From that point on weather would play a determining factor.   Rather than restate the evidence a copy of the
crash report provides the best sequence of events and postmortem of the accident.

The wreck site today.

    I first visited the wreck site in 1976 and returned maybe three to four times in the next six years.  For the next twenty something years work and family took priority and it was not until May 27, 2008 that I was able to make a return visit.  During those intervening years I discovered that the mountains had become steeper and there was less air then there had been before.  There were also a lot more rocks and gravity had become stronger.

    Wives are not interested in this sort of adventure, so a friend and I had agreed to make the climb.  As afternoon temperatures can already approach 100 F we met at Village Inn (does that make us Village idiots?) for breakfast at 0600 and started our climb.  The wreck is located about a quarter of a mile North of Ranger Peak and a couple of landmarks make it rather easy to find, the easiest to locate is a rock that looks like a thumb.  This is just above the site and with a pair of binoculars one of the main gear can be seen.

    The starting point is roughly 4,200 feet in altitude and the final site is about 5,200 feet.  That is "only" a thousand foot change in elevation.  It is also a difficult climb and not one for someone in poor physical shape.  It is hard enough for someone in mediocre shape.  Arduous would be an overstatement, but it is a trying climb.  A winding dirt road leads to the base of a gully that runs directly up to crash site.  From there up it is just plain old fashioned work.  From this point up we started finding bits and pieces, eventually becoming bigger pieces.   We reached the wreck about an hour, or so after starting the climb and discovered that not much had changed in the three decades since my first visit in 1976.  There is still a good deal of debris scattered about: Landing gear, prop blades, a J47 engine and many small pieces.  Still evident are areas of slag left from burned aluminum and magnesium.   After the crash the only intact portions of the B-36 were the outer wing panels outboard of the  engines and the tail.  Those portions were destroyed by the Air Force in early 1954, but a great deal still remains.

    We had planned the hike so as to allow most of the climb to be shaded by the mountain and that plan worked fairly well, the sun only striking us well after we reached the wreck.  As the sun climbed over the mountain the temperature rose rapidly, so we started our decent.  While not quite as desperate as Riddick's race against the dawn across the surface of Crematoria, there was a natural urge to get out of the (now) hot sun.  Even the snakes stayed inside their burrows that day.  Managing to avoid the yucca, Spanish dagger and prickly pear and most importantly not taking a tumble, we were back at the car by 1000.

    The crash occurred on an cold overcast day when the mountain tops were covered by clouds, morbidly referred to as cumulogranite by many in aviation.  There were snow flurries recorded by the weather service and undoubtedly the wind was blowing.  As the accident happened in mid afternoon and the sun would set around 1630 MST the first personnel most likely arrived after dark.  On a day like that helicopters would not have been practical which meant a long cold climb in the dark, though witnesses reported that the fire from the crash burned off the overcast directly over the crash.  The climb might have been partially lit by the fires that burned for hours.

Those men killed in the service of their country that day were:

Lt. Col. Hermen Gerick            Aircraft  Commander
Major George C. Morford       Pilot
Major Douglas A. Miner          Navigator
1st Lt. Gary B. Fent                  Flight Engineer
M Sgt Royal Freeman               Radio Operator
A/1c Edwin D. Howe                 Gunner
A/2c Frank Silvestri                  Gunner
1st Lt James M. Harvey            492nd Bomb Squadron Staff Flight Engineer
1st Sgt Dewey Taliaferro           Passenger

B-36 over El Paso prior to crash

    2071 is shown just moments before the crash.  The right wing is dipped as the airplane turns more towards the north east.  By this point the B-36 is below the overcast with the terrain rising rapidly ahead of it.  (I have seen this picture in the past but have never seen credit as to the individual that took it.  While researching the crash reported in contemporary newspaper accounts I discovered the same photo on the front page of the El Paso Times from 12 December, 1953.  The photo was taken by John Vernon.)

Area where B-36 crashed

    This image gives a clue as to the terrain the site is located in.  The orange lens flare in the right center of the photo is just slightly to the left (north) of the impact area.

    This is a support inside the wing for the cooling duct for one of the R-4360s. 

B-36 main gear in B-36 crash area B-36 main gear in crash area B-36 main gear at crash site
B-36 brake discs/B-36 crash B-36 main gear bearing race crash site

    The piece most easily identified from the ground is one of the main landing gear.  From a distance I saw the shine off of the chrome portion of the Oleo strut and thought that it still appeared pristine.  However, when I actually climbed up to the gear it was apparent that the fire had discolored the metal.

B-36 main gear support Main gear strut B-36 wreckage

    I believe that these are all components of the main gear(s).

B-36 nose gear

    The nose gear was tossed down into one of the ravines in the area.  The mount for the nose wheels is sheared off giving a good indication of the force of impact.

R-4360 collector ring B-36 exhaust collector B-36 fuse panel

    Many steel and stainless steel parts are still present including exhaust collectors and shrouds for the R-4360s.  There are also numerous small parts like the fuse panel in the last photo.

Broken B-36 props Shattered B-36 props
Smashed B-36 props

Most of the propellor blades are still present, a few still attached to their hubs.  These were the earlier round tipped prop blades.

J-47 engine J47 engine
J47 engine

    One of the J47s is easily found.  It is a good question as to where the other three went.  Anyway, the jets were not operating at the time of the crash, all damage being caused by impact.  The thing that looks like a Tiki Torch is an insect trap. 

Slag debris from B-36 crash Melted aluminum from B-36 crash B-36 brake pad in debris field

    The areas of burned aluminum/magnesium were mentioned above.  The lump is a chunk of melted aluminum and the rusty piece in front of my shoe is a brake pad.

Splined shaft in crash area

    A couple of unidentified parts are these splined shafts.  Both are cracked attesting to some pretty strong forces.

Terrain wher B-36 crashed

    This photo (hopefully) gives some impression of the ruggedness of the area.

Mt Christo Rey

    The view is a good one from this area.  The first photo shows the dirt road that we followed to the gully leading to the crash.  The area we parked at is behind the white water tank to the right.  In the background is the Rio Grande and New Mexico beyond.  The second photo is of Mt. Christo Rey about 2 1/2 miles ESE of the crash.

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Created 05-28-08

Updated 02-21-2012

Clifford Bossie