B-47 Stratojet crash

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A B-47E Stratojet bomber aircraft from the 384th Bomb Wing (SAC), 545th Bombardment Squadron, Little Rock Air Force Base exploded while flying at 15,000 feet over Little Rock on March 31, 1960, killing three members of the crew and two people on the ground in Pulaski Heights. The B-47 was heading for Houston where it would have conducted routine radar bombing practice.

Residents at first thought the resulting explosion was a sonic boom, a tornado, or a Russian nuclear strike. Remembered witness Dale Harris, "It was such a terrific explosion that it almost knocked me out of bed. ... I thought the whole city was on fire. That's what it looked like. All you could see was smoke and fire. I thought we might have been bombed. I wasn't sure if it was over, either."

The explosion scattered wreckage over a wide area about 6 AM in the morning. Debris was recovered in a line from the Little Rock Country Club to North Little Rock's Riverside Elementary School. The crash made a deep crater at the intersection of Maryland and Summit streets. Two homes and an apartment building collapsed in the impact and resulting fire. More damage was reported in the Colonial Court area. The nose of the aircraft was found in Allsopp Park. One hundred and sixteen homes were damaged, as was the First Church of the Nazarene. Onlookers looted a damaged Stacy's Grocery and Safeway store on Battery Street.

Killed in the explosion were Captain Herbert Aldridge, Lieutenant Colonel Reynolds Watson, Staff-Sergeant Kenneth Brose, and civilians Alta Lois Clark and James Hollabaugh. One crew member Lieutenant Thomas Smoak survived, parachuting to safety.

Smoak later recalled the events that led to the crash: "I didn't sense anything was wrong. I was writing on a clipboard keeping track of statistics that you keep with an airplane during flight. I finished what I was doing, and I looked out the window to relax for a minute. But what I saw surprised me. We were in a deep, descending turn. Much to my surprise, it was a gentle descent. I didn't even feel it. You always feel a turn, but for some reason, I didn't feel this turn. The first time I knew something was wrong was when I noticed that the horizon was at a crazy angle. Since Aldridge was flying the plane, it was up to him to correct the problem. He was a highly experienced pilot. He'd been in World War II, the Korean War and had been my teacher. All I could see was the back of his helmet. It appeared as though he was looking down. He could have been looking at charts, bombing ranges or many other things. The plane was on autopilot. I yelled through our radio, 'Hey, what's going on?' He didn't say anything. His response told me he was working on the problem. If I had been sitting next to him, I could have seen what was going on. But I was behind him. I knew we had to get out of this quick, but I never thought it was a serious problem. I never thought we were going to die. I just knew we were supposed to be going straight and we weren't. I still didn't panic. I never thought we were going to crash. I was watching intently what the pilot was doing from where I was sitting. He was the expert. He was the professor.

"I could feel the G-forces as he was handling the controls. In that process, the airplane either was overstressed and broke apart because we were so heavy, or it simply exploded. I don't know what happened. It happened so fast. We were literally sitting on the tanks. Anytime you have a fire on an airplane, you're in trouble. But in this case, I was sitting in the fire. Once it exploded, I couldn't see anything. I was dying. It was a horrible experience -- I was burning alive. I did not try to pull the ejection seat. You're trained to do that in your sleep. You pull up your right hand and pull the handle. You can do this in seconds. But I wasn't thinking. I was dying. I was burning alive and praying to God that it would be over with soon. The only thing I thought was this is how you die in an airplane. It's too horrendous, especially when you realize there is no way out. There is no 'What's the next emergency procedure?' because there isn't any. You're screaming at the top of your lungs as you die. ... [Aldridge] did pull his ejection seat, which blew off the canopy covering us, and he was out of the airplane."

A second explosion ejected Smoak from the plane. "I felt great. It was so quiet and still, and I was so glad to be out of that thing. The first thing I did was look around for my friends, but I didn't see any other parachutes. I was devastated. Then I looked up and saw that part of my parachute was gone and the rest of it had holes in it that were burning. It looked like a piece of paper that a child would fold and cut, except it was burning. I realized that I was descending too fast and, once again, I went from thinking that I had no more real problems to realizing I was going to die. It was a devastating moment. Fire and dying, then out and safe. Now, I was going to die again. Because my chute had so many holes in it, I couldn't control it. I could see the downtown area, I saw the river. I passed all that. I was over an area of residential homes. I had no control. I was just there for the ride."

Smoak fell into the yard of Jimmye Lee Holeman, a registered nurse, at 500 North Martin St. Remembered Smoak later, "She had two trees that went between her driveway, and I went between them. She came and helped me, brought me a blanket and cared for me." Smoak's recovery from burns took two years.

The Air Force reported that the B-47 was worth $1.87 million dollars. Total damage on the ground came to $2.15 million. The cause of the accident was determined to be pilot error. The Strategic Air Command report summarized the accident as follows: "A B-47 was climbing after takeoff in day VFR weather. There had been an extended period of no interphone communication, during which the copilot had been concentrating on receiving 'Noah's Ark' traffic. At about 15,000 feet, the copilot suddenly realized that the aircraft was in a very steep left bank, that the nose was well below the horizon, and that the airspeed was excessive. He pulled the throttles to idle, punched the interphone button and shouted at the aircraft commander. Almost immediately, the nose came up, the wings leveled, and the aircraft disintegrated. In the cockpit section, which had separated intact from the rest of the aircraft, the copilot tried to eject, but the clamshell initiator pin had not been removed. The copilot then unfastened his seat belt. The canopy blew off at about 10,000 feet. The unconscious copilot was thrown out at 4,000 feet and his parachute opened automatically. The aircraft commander ejected at 2,000 feet, but his parachute had been fused by fire and he died upon impact. The fourth man was found near the wreckage and did not survive. The navigator was killed in his position. The falling wreckage killed two civilians and caused serious damage to property."

References

  • "Air Force Jet Bomber Explodes Over City: Three Airmen Dead, Two Civilians Killed as Wreckage Falls on Homes," Arkansas Democrat, March 31, 1960.
  • Sandy Davis, "Survivors Recall the Day a Bomber Crashed in LR," Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, March 31, 2000.
  • Casey Munck, "Jimmye Lee Holeman: A Special Patient Fell from Sky into Her Care," Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, April 18, 2003.
  • Bill Lewis and Patrick J. Owens, "Flaming Debris Hits in Heights and West Side," Arkansas Gazette, April 1, 1960.

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