By Wally Kennedy
JOPLIN, Mo. —
When Mildred Hill saw the uniformed officers walking up the sidewalk to her home, she knew what was about to happen.
She would be told that her husband, Maj. Robert E. Hill Jr., a B-52 navigator, and six other members of his crew had been killed in a training mission near Greenville, Maine. Three airmen ejected from the plane. Two managed to survive.
Their unarmed bomber, which was on a Cold War mission to see whether the massive Stratofortress could evade low-level radar and deliver a nuclear strike, went nose down into a snowy wilderness. The crash would expose a flaw in the design of the bomber’s 40-foot-tall rear stabilizer.
Thinking back to that moment 50 years ago today, Mildred Hill said: “I knew what they were there for. I think about them walking up that sidewalk at this time every year.”
On Wednesday in Osborne Memorial Cemetery, their only daughter, Bobbie Hill, placed flowers on her father’s grave, something the family has been doing faithfully for the past 50 years.
The crash left Bobbie, who was 14 at the time of her father’s death, and eight other children without fathers. Six women lost their husbands.
Mildred Hill, now 86 and living in rural Joplin, said: “He was somebody everybody liked. He loved flying more than anything. He’d rather fly than eat. He always said there was nothing quite like it.”
The crew, stationed at Westover Air Force Base in Massachusetts, had a choice that day of a route over Maine or the Carolinas. The men chose Maine because of better weather.
The B-52, with its 185-foot wingspan, was designed to penetrate Soviet airspace at around 35,000 feet and drop nuclear weapons. When the Soviets implemented a new air defense system with radar-controlled surface-to-air missiles, the Air Force decided that the B-52 would have to penetrate Soviet airspace at altitudes near 500 feet and at high speed to stay underneath the radar. The B-52 was not designed for that kind of operation.
One such flight already had taken place over the West Coast. This would be the first low-level flight, using terrain-following radar, in the eastern U.S.
“They were the top crew,” Mildred Hill said. “That’s why they were on that flight.”
While her husband was stationed for six years in Massachusetts, she got an opportunity to tour a B-52.
“It’s a monster,” she said. “You don’t have that much room inside. It’s all plane.”
The B-52 departed from Westover at 12:11 p.m. on Thursday, Jan. 24, 1963. It was scheduled to return to Westover at 5:30 p.m.
Over the central part of Maine, the plane descended to 500 feet, where it encountered severe turbulence. The plane shook so violently that the pilot could not read his gauges. Pulling back on the yoke and pushing forward on the throttle, the pilot tried to pull out of the wind. Next came what sounded like an explosion at the rear of the plane. The vertical stabilizer, the tail of the plane, had broken off.
The bomber went into a 40-degree right turn with its nose down. Unable to control the plane, the pilot signaled for the crew to eject. Only three crew members in the upper flight deck had seats that ejected upward. The lower-deck crew members had to eject downward. Hill, who was on the lower deck with five other crew members, had neither the altitude nor time to eject before the plane crashed into the west side of Elephant Mountain at 2:52 p.m. that day.
A navigator who was operating as electronic warfare officer ejected first. He was followed by the pilot and the co-pilot. The co-pilot suffered fatal injuries, striking a tree a mile away from the main crash site. The pilot landed in a tree. He survived the night in his survival kit sleeping bag. The navigator’s parachute did not deploy upon ejection. He hit the snow-covered ground before separating from his ejection seat with an impact estimated at 16 times the force of gravity. His fall was buffered by a tree and 5 feet of snow on the ground. He suffered a fractured skull and three broken ribs.
50 YEARS LATER
Much of the debris from the crash remains on Elephant Mountain. Each year for the past 20 years, members of the Moosehead Riders Snowmobile Club, near Greenville, have conducted ceremonies in remembrance of those who lost their lives.
“They go up there every year on their snowmobiles and put flowers where the plane went down, and they say each of their names,” Mildred Hill said. “One of the survivors talked to me several times after the crash and sent me all of the information about what happened. He has visited the site at different times. I have never been there.”
On May 25, a memorial service marking the 50th anniversary of the crash will be held in Greenville. Mildred Hill said she will not be able to make that trip, but Robert Hill’s sister, Opal Faye Boyd, of St. Louis, and five of her children are planning to attend.
Boyd, 71, said: “There are so many stories about all of this. I have a lot of questions. I hope one of the survivors is there. I always wanted to tell them not to blame themselves.”
Boyd said in a phone interview that it did not surprise her when her brother’s B-52 crashed. She said he had told her about times when the plane, while in flight, “would shimmy and start vibrating.”
“He was just 38,” she said. “We never dreamed anything like that would happen. I know he was happy when he died. He was doing what he loved and what he believed in.”
Mildred Hill said she sensed before the flight that her husband was concerned about something.
“I think he knew his time was up,” she said. “He made a point of telling me that the car was paid off. I always wondered why he would tell me that. I think he felt something was going to happen.”
About her brother, Boyd said: “He loved to fish. He loved to drink beer with my dad. He loved Mama’s chili. He was a fun-loving guy. He never walked. He always ran.
“I flew with him once. He rented a Piper. He took my dad up, and he took me up. It was an open cockpit. I just loved it. He flew over my grandparents’ house at Fourth and Comingo, and tipped the wings.
“You will never know how much I missed him. There were just the two of us.”
THE ASSOCIATED PRESS contributed to this report.
THE B-52 THAT CRASHED IN MAINE was the second B-52 to experience a similar structural failure. After extensive testing by Boeing, it was determined that turbulence would overstress the plane’s rudder connection bolts, causing first a rudder failure and then a tail failure. The bolts were strengthened throughout the fleet, which fixed the problem.
TODAY, THE B-52 is one of the longest-serving aircraft in U.S. history, seeing recent deployment in Afghanistan and Iraq.