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.