LONDONDERRY — There are several ways to begin this story, but I suppose it should start on Jan. 24, 1963, with the uneventful takeoff of a B-52 from Westover Air Force Base in Massachusetts.
The unarmed bomber slipped free of the runway and climbed to a low-cruise altitude, then headed north on an unusual training mission.
When it reached the sparsely inhabited area of Moose Lake near Greenville, Maine, the pilot, Lt. Col. Dante E. Bulli, commanded a harrowing descent toward the rugged mountains so his nine-man crew could focus on the mission objective: to fly the massive jet tight against the ridges and explore the use of terrain-following to avoid radar detection.
As the bomber flew low, it was buffeted by wind and turbulence.
Lt. Col Bulli and his crew worked to maintain control while the lumbering jet thrashed against the mountain air. As the massive aircraft fought the turbulence, an internal bolt sheared and the vertical stabilizer broke free, sending the bomber into a catastrophic diving turn.
Just 10 seconds later, the B-52 slammed into Elephant Mountain, mixing timber and aluminum into a tangled mess.
Somehow the pilot and one navigator managed to eject an instant before impact and survived alone through a bitter cold night as temperatures dropped to –30F. They were rescued by a ground team the next day, but the remaining seven members of the crew perished in the crash.
Until 1963, the concept of flying heavy jets down low amid the terrain was untested, but the United States was locked in a Cold War with the Soviet Union, and it was essential for the Air Force to find new ways to evade Soviet air defenses.
At that point in history, the Soviets had developed radar and missiles that could identify and hit a high-flying aircraft, and that capability put U.S. strategic aircraft at risk if they ever needed to break through the USSR air defenses.
The flight of the bomber from Westover AFB was the first B-52 assigned to fly within the radar ground clutter, and the broken bolt caught everybody by surprise.
With the help of local volunteers, the military quickly combed through the wreckage and eventually identified the cause of the failure. Engineering studies followed, and then the military retrofitted the entire bomber fleet and developed standards that would eventually make low-level flying almost routine.
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My interest in this story begins in the mid-1980s, when I was a newspaper photographer based in upstate New York and was given a chance to fly several missions in B-52s.
The first of those required ultra-low-level flight over Nebraska as part of a competitive exercise that pitted bomber crews from all over the country against one another in terrain following and bomb delivery.
By that point, 30 years after the crash of the B-52 on Elephant Mountain, the equipment and skills needed for low-level flight had been perfected and, although not entirely safe, a considered routine had been developed that pretty much assured success, at least for my peacetime training flight.
And so on a chilly winter morning in the mid-1980s with sunrise still an hour distant, I traded the security of the a blue van parked on the ramp of Griffiss Air Force Base for the adventure of a simulated nuclear bombing flight low over the fields of Nebraska.
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I was outfitted in a gray helmet, a fireproof green Nomex flight suit, ill-fitting combat boots, and Air Force–issued cotton thermal underwear, a precaution I was assured was necessary in case we encountered fire or needed to bail out into the frigid Nebraska winter.
My feet clanged against a short metal ladder as I followed the pilot into the tiny navigator's station in the belly of the jet, then climbed a second ladder to the equally claustrophobic flight deck proper.
Together, we checked a parachute rig positioned at my station, and then I slipped into my seat as the rest of the six-man crew brought the jet to life.
I quietly reviewed the emergency procedures we had briefed the previous day, and then checked my oxygen system, flipping three solid switches while sweeping the mask to my face, which effectively jammed high-pressure oxygen into my lungs. I plugged my helmet into the audio panel and listened to crew chatter until it was time for my check-in.
While waiting, I assembled the cameras I would be using through the eight-hour flight and listened to the strange sounds of the old bomber being configured for flight. When the jet was ready, the pilot began a slow taxi to the runway, and then pushed the eight throttles forward.
The jet shuddered with the thrust, then rolled forward, building speed and reluctantly breaking free of the concrete. We climbed high and headed west.
Once we neared the operations area in Nebraska, the planned descent to near-ground level was abrupt. The aircraft bounced through the air just a few hundred feet above the surface without any pretense of calm or normality. The engines roared behind me, and my seat jostled every which way.
The interphone became a non-stop party line as the six crew members called out directions and as the experienced pilot pitched and banked to avoid detection by ground radar. When our simulated weapons launch was complete, we climbed back to the higher en route airspace, where air traffic controllers fit our bomber into the flow of commercial jets carrying tourists and businessmen.
We landed back at Griffiss AFB in the early afternoon, and left the jet in the hands of a maintenance crew on the same ramp where we had begun the journey before daybreak.
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I'm thinking of the two flights now after spending an hour on Elephant Mountain exploring the debris field where the Westover jet broke apart in 1963.
The near-routine low-level flights I enjoyed in the 1980s would not have been possible without the efforts of the crew that piloted the ill-fated B-52 on that experimental mission.
Their willingness to challenge the unknown began a process that led to my flight so many years later, and to the hundreds of thousands of low-level flights conducted since then.
That early flight has been memorialized on Elephant Mountain as a way of honoring the crew and remembering the beginnings of what would one day become an essential wartime piloting skill and an almost routine event.
Following the crash, most of the debris was removed for inspection, but much of it has since been returned to the mountain and now lies quietly amid the dirt, sticks, and trees where it came to rest in deep snow 50 years ago.
Visitors are encouraged to walk solemnly through the landscape, imagining the final instant of the flight as the jet slammed into the earth and broke apart.
Large chunks of twisted metal remain scattered over a wide area, some now partially buried in dirt and leaves. Wire harnesses hang from a tree, and tiny scraps of aluminum scrape underfoot, drawing the attention of visitors exploring the massive debris field.
A well-worn path winds through the debris field, but more debris lies off the path beckoning visitors to slip off trail and explore the magnitude of the destruction and the sudden finality of the flight.