10 January 1964

Boeing B-52H-170-BW 61-023
Boeing B-52H-170-BW Stratofortress 61-023. (U.S. Air Force)

10 January 1964: This Boeing B-52H Stratofortress, serial number 61-023, flown by Boeing test pilot Charles F. (“Chuck”) Fisher, was conducting structural testing in turbulence near East Spanish Peak, Colorado. The other crew members were pilots Richard V. Curry and Leo Coer, and navigator James Pittman. Dick Curry was flying the airplane and Chuck Fisher, the aircraft commander, was in the co-pilot’s position. Pittman was on the lower deck.

The bomber was carrying two North American Aviation GAM-77 Hound Dog cruise missiles on pylons under its wings.

The Boeing B-52 Stratofortress had been designed as a very high altitude penetration bomber, but changes in Soviet defensive systems led the Strategic Air Command to change to very low altitude flight as a means of evading radar. This was subjecting the airframes to unexpected stresses. “Ten-Twenty-Three” (its serial number was 61-023, shortened on the vertical fin to “1023”) had been returned to Boeing Wichita by the Air Force to be instrumented to investigate the effects of high-speed, low-altitude flight on the 245-ton bomber.

Flying at 14,300 feet (4,359 meters) and 345 knots (397 miles per hour, 639 kilometers per hour), indicated air speed, the airplane encountered severe clear air turbulence and lost the vertical stabilizer. Several B-52s had been lost under similar circumstances. (Another, a B-52D, was lost just three days later at Savage Mountain, Maryland.)

East Spanish Peak (left), 12,688 feet (3,867 meters) and West Spanish Peak, 13,626 feet (4,153 meters), Sangre de Cristo Mountains, Colorado. (Footwarrior)
East Spanish Peak (left), 12,688 feet (3,867 meters) and West Spanish Peak, 13,626 feet (4,153 meters), Sangre de Cristo Mountains, Colorado. (Footwarrior)
Charles F. Fisher. (Argenta Images)
Charles F. Fisher. (Argenta Images)

Chuck Fisher immediately took control of the B-52. He later reported,

“As the encounter progressed, a very sharp-edged blow which was followed by many more. We developed an almost instantaneous rate of roll at fairly high rate. The roll was to the far left and the nose was swinging up and to the right at a rapid rate. During the second portion of the encounter, the airplane motions actually seemed to be negating my control inputs. I had the rudder to the firewall, the column in my lap, and full wheel, and I wasn’t having any luck righting the airplane. 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.”

A Boeing report on the incident, based on installed sensors and instrumentation aboard -023, said that the bomber had

“. . . flown through an area containing the combined effects of a (wind) rotor associated with a mountain wave and lateral shear due to airflow around a mountain peak. . . Gust initially built up from the right to a maximum of about 45 feet per second [13.7 meters per second] (TAS), then reversed to a maximum of 36 feet per second [11 meters per second] from the left, before swinging to a maximum of about 147 feet per second [44.8 meters per second] from the left followed by a return to 31 feet per second [9.5 meters per second].”

Fisher flew the bomber back to Wichita and was met by a F-100 Super Sabre chase plane. When the extent of the damage was seen, the B-52 was diverted due to the gusty winds in Kansas. Six hours after the damage occurred, Chuck Fisher safely landed the airplane at Eaker Air Force Base, Blythville, Arkansas. He said it was, “the finest airplane I’ve ever flown.”

Boeing B-52H-170-BW Stratofortress 61-023, "Ten-Twenty-Three", after losing the vertical fin, 10 January 1964. (Boeing)
Boeing B-52H-170-BW Stratofortress 61-023, “Ten-Twenty-Three”, after losing the vertical fin, 10 January 1964. (Boeing)

61-023 was repaired and returned to service. It remained active with the United States Air Force until it was placed in storage at Tinker Air Force Base, Oklahoma, 24 July 2008.

Charles F. Fisher and the Boeing test crew with B-52H Stratofortress 61-023. (Boeing)
Charles F. Fisher at left,  and the Boeing test crew with B-52H Stratofortress 61-023. (Boeing)

The B-52H is a sub-sonic, swept wing, long-range strategic bomber. It has a crew of five. The airplane is 159 feet, 4 inches (48.6 meters) long, with a wing span of 185 feet (56.4 meters). It is 40 feet, 8 inches (12.4 meters) high to the top of the vertical fin. Maximum Takeoff Weight (MTOW) is 488,000 pounds (221,353 kilograms).

There are eight Pratt & Whitney TF33-PW-3 turbofan engines mounted in two-engine pods suspended under the wings on four pylons. Each engine produces a maximum of 17,000 pounds of thrust (75.620 kilonewtons). The TF-33 is a two-spool axial-flow turbofan engine with 2 fan stages, 14-stage compressor stages (7 stage intermediate pressure, 7 stage high-pressure) and and 4-stage turbine (1 stage high-pressure, 3-stage low-pressure). The engine is 11 feet, 10 inches (3.607 meters) long, 4 feet, 5.0 inches (1.346 meters) in diameter and weighs 3,900 pounds (15,377 kilograms).

The B-52H can carry approximately 70,000 pounds (31,750 kilograms) of ordnance, including free-fall bombs, precision-guided bombs, thermonuclear bombs and cruise missiles, naval mines and anti-ship missiles.

The bomber’s cruise speed is 520 miles per hour (837 kilometers per hour) and its maximum speed is 650 miles per hour (1,046 kilometers per hour) at 23,800 feet (7,254 meters) at a combat weight of 306,350 pounds. Its service ceiling is 47,700 feet (14,539 meters) at the same combat weight. The unrefueled range is 8,000 miles (12,875 kilometers).

With inflight refueling, the Stratofortress’s range is limited only by the endurance of its five-man crew.

The B-52H is the only version still in service. 102 were built and as of 27 September 2016, 76 are still in service. Beginning in 2013, the Air Force began a fleet-wide technological upgrade for the B-52H, including a digital avionics and communications system, as well as an internal weapons bay upgrade. The bomber is expected to remain in service until 2040.

Boeing B-52H-170-BW Stratofortress 61-023 taxiing at Minot Air Force Base, North Dakota. (Senior Airman Cassandra Jones, U.S. Air Force)
Boeing B-52H-170-BW Stratofortress 61-023 taxiing at Minot Air Force Base, North Dakota. (Senior Airman Cassandra Jones, U.S. Air Force)

© 2016, Bryan R. Swopes

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3 thoughts on “10 January 1964

  1. Bryan-

    I am developing a website based on a review of turbulence-generating atmospheric phenomena I conducted for NASA a few years ago. I am asking your permission to use excerpts from your piece on the B-52 that lost most of the tail fin.

    Also, do you know anything about this case? On 30 January 1963, a B-52E of the 6th Bomb Wing from Walker Air Force Base, New Mexico, crashed in snow-covered mountains in northern New Mexico after turbulence tore off the vertical fin.

    I have found multiple references to it, but no details.

    -Dean

    1. Yes, Dean, please go ahead and use the excerpts. I have not researched the 1963 B-52E accident, but I know there were quite a few structural failures to B-52s caused by turbulence. (1963 Elephant Mountain, B-52C; 1964 Savage Mountain, B-52D; 1964 East Spanish Peak, B-52H, just to mention a few). I’ll look into the New Mexico crash and if I find anything, I’ll get back to you.

      Thanks for visiting my blog. I hope that you found other posts of interest.

      Bryan

    2. A friend of mine lost his father, the co-pilot on this one….also turbulence related

      Jun 23, 1959 at 1200 LT
      Type of aircraft: Boeing B-52 Stratofortress (30252)”> Boeing B-52 Stratofortress
      Operator: United States Air Force – USAF (since 1947) (31252)”>
      Registration: 56-0591
      Flight Phase: Flight
      Flight Type: Training
      Survivors: No
      Site: Plain
      Schedule: Seattle – Seattle
      MSN: 17274
      YOM: 1956
      Location: Burns (18093)”> Burns
      Oregon (15575)”> Oregon
      Country: United States of America (13436)”> United States of America
      Region: North America
      Crew on board: 5
      Crew fatalities:
      Pax on board: 0
      Pax fatalities:
      Other fatalities:
      Total fatalities: 5
      Circumstances: At 11:05 a.m. on Tuesday, June 23, 1959, Tommy’s Tigator took off from Boeing Field for an experimental low-level flight test. Five employees of the Boeing Airplane Company were on board the B-52D: Lewis E. Moore, commander/pilot; Joseph Q. Keller, copilot; Gerald G. Green, navigator; Charles K. McDaniel and Neil Johnson, flight-test engineers. The aircraft had been making test runs over Eastern Washington, Oregon, and Idaho since April 10, 1959, and was loaded with special electronic equipment for measuring stresses on the airframe and flight surfaces. The bomber was scheduled to fly at lower than 500 feet above the ground on an elliptical course from The Dalles, Oregon, to Malheur Lake, Burns, and back to Walla Walla, Washington, at near maximum speed of 638 miles-per-hour. At 11:30 a.m., Tommy’s Tigator radioed that it was over The Dalles and preparing to descend for the low-level test flight. No further reports were heard from the pilot after it passed the checkpoint. Leslie Heinz, a lineman for the Harney County Rural Electric Cooperative, was an eyewitness to the accident. He was working with a crew on power lines in a remote area approximately 35 miles west of Burns and three miles from the crash site. At about 12:00 noon, he spotted the B-52 flying southeast approximately 300 feet above the desert floor when it suddenly crashed. The aircraft disintegrated on impact and all five crew members were killed:
      Crew:
      Lewis E. Moore, pilot,
      Joseph Quentin Keller, copilot,
      Gerald G. Green, navigator,
      Neil Johnson, flight engineer,
      Charles Kenneth McDaniel, flight engineer.
      Source: http://www.historylink.org/File/10063
      Causes: The investigation by Air Force and Boeing experts concluded the accident was caused by the catastrophic failure of the horizontal stabilizer (tail plane), affecting the B-52’s longitudinal stability. The plane was not designed for the excessive turbulence of high-speed, low-level flight and began to disintegrate. Minus the horizontal stabilizer, the nose of the plane pitched sharply upward and it stalled, struck a knoll and exploded. At an altitude of 500 feet, there was virtually no chance for the crew to escape.

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