B-52B tail number 53-0382
I have an envelope framed and hanging on my office wall, it is addressed to my Grandmother, the return address is in Japan. In the lower left corner are the words ‘Navy Day 1945’, they are below a picture of my Dad’s ship, CL 65, the USS Pasadena, a Cleveland class cruiser. The postmark is November 7, 1945. Dad had not met Mom but, in three years they would marry on November 7th. Dad left the Navy, met Mom, they married and he joined the Air Force.
Dad’s ship battling kamikazes off the coast of Okinawa WWII
November 6, 1957, my parents began their day, Mom getting their four children, ages 8, 7, 5, and 2 ready while Dad prepared for his drive to Castle AFB for a scheduled training mission, he was checking out in the B-52B. Dad had already flown the N3N, Aeronca, T-6, B-25, B-29, B-50 and the B-47. He wanted to stay in the B-47 and fly as an aircraft commander, but SAC had determined that they needed ‘highly experienced’ co-pilots in the B-52. The needs of SAC trumped my Dad’s desires.
Dad in the right seat of a B-52
Mom took time away from her children to beg my Dad to stay home, she did not want him to fly, she had a dream that his jet had crashed. He laughed and left for work. Mom was in the back yard hanging clothes on the line when she saw a column of black smoke rising from nearby Castle AFB, she walked into the house and sat next to the phone, waiting for it to ring. She did not have to wait long.
Dad’s flight was in the traffic pattern, he was finished for the day. A student aircraft commander was flying from the left seat while the IP, Major Donald G. Prieve, monitored from the right. Dad was standing between the pilots near the ladder that led to navigators’ compartment. The EWO, a Lt on his second B-52 flight, occupied his seat which was behind Dad, and directly below an escape hatch.
They were turning final when another B-52 declared an emergency and, as they had for years, the firefighters began their response, fire trucks began to roll.
It was a routine touch and go, as the big jet settled on the trucks the gear handle popped up and the gear began to retract, the laws of physics began to work against the crew, mechanical linkage twisted the mains as they tucked into the jet’s belly, the bomber began to swerve sideways. Taking control of the aircraft, Major Prieve firewalled four throttles on one side, then used differential thrust to keep the aircraft sliding straight. His actions kept the jet from rolling up in a ball of flames but the crew was not out of danger.
Witnessing the accident, the firefighters raced towards the flames.
Concrete chewed through the bottom of the fuselage, the IP wrestled with the jet, Dad looked down into the Nav compartment and could see sparks and flames filling the room. He grabbed both pilots by their shoulders and told them there was a fire in the Nav compartment. The jet slid to a stop.
My Dad never swears, he NEVER swears. He turned to the Lt EWO and said ‘open the hatch’, the EWO was frozen in position with a blank look on his face. Dad yelled ‘open the God Damned hatch’. The EWO did not move. Dad was a big man, he reached over the EWO and threw the hatch open while the EWO fumbled with his lap belt. Scrambling up from below, the Navs stepped on the EWOs lap and went out through the escape hatch. I believe the pilots used their escape ropes but I am not sure.
Everyone was out of the cockpit area except for Dad and the EWO and the EWO was not making any progress with his lap belt so Dad released it, grabbed him and threw him through the hatch on to the top of the jet (Dad was big but I think adrenalin helped him throw the EWO through the hole). Following the EWO out my Dad assessed their escape routes. The preferred option was to run down the wings and make the short jump to the ground. Flames made that a bad idea. The other option was to remove their parachutes, lie face down on the fuselage and slide, feet first, over the edge, a long drop. The jet was burning, fuel was hemorrhaging everywhere, an explosion covered a silver suited firefighter in burning fuel, the force of the explosion knocking him down and rolling him into the growing sea of firefighting foam. The foam extinguished the flame covered his suit.
My Dad decided they did not have time to remove their parachutes and directed the EWO to lie on his belly and slide, the slid together. The weight of their chutes pulled them backwards as they fell, they hit the ground on their heels and fell back on their chutes, the impact crushed Dad’s heel and a fractured his back.
Dad knew he was hurt bad, he thought of all the stories he had heard of people who ignored pain and forced their bodies to respond. It did not work, he could not get up. Recognizing Dad’s plight, Major Prieve ran back into the flames, grabbed Dad and pulled him to safety, saving his life for the second time. As they reached safety, Dad asked the IP if the gunner had gotten out. The IP said he did not know, dropped Dad and ran to the back of the jet. The fuselage had twisted, binding the gunners escape hatch, trapping the man inside. Grabbing a fire axe the IP cut his gunner out, saving him for the second time.
Thanks to the quick thinking and incredibly bravery of Major Prieve, nobody died. The fire chief pulled his men off the jet and let it burn, electing to contain the fire.
Dad’s hospital bed was next to the firefighter who had been blown off his feet. He looked at Dad and said that no one would ever get him up in one of those jets. Dad responded that he would rather run from a burning jet than run towards one. They both laughed.
Dad was released from the hospital and was home in bed. I was young but I can remember the accident board arriving, walking into my parents’ bedroom and closing the door. Dad had nothing but praise for Major Prieve. Had it not been for him I would have grown up without a father. My Mom would have been a single Mom with four kids in 1957 three thousand miles from the town she grew up in. My life would have been different.
The accident was eventually blamed on maintenance. The cable that ran to the gear required periodic lubrication, it was a very difficult task. Some were signing it off with little or no lubricant applied. Without proper lubrication the cable began to bind, it became a ‘spring’ under tension. The jet touched down and the minor jolt was enough to jar the downlock lever, the tension was released and the gear handle popped up. You know the rest.
Dad retired as a Lt Col. After flying the B-52 he went on to fly the U-3, C-97, KC-97, HU-16, T-33, C-47 and the T-39. As a side note, the U-3 was used by SOS students to get flying time and flight pay while attending class. The first time my Dad flew the aircraft the other pilot did not feel he knew enough about it to let my Dad fly. The second time my Dad flew it, having never touched the controls, he was the IP. His student had to show him how to start the aircraft. A little different from today’s Air Force. Dad lived for 52 years after Major Prieve saved his life, he is buried in Arlington National Cemetery, Mom will join him there.
Michael Bennett 1/18/2017