B-36 Crash – Franklin Mountains 1953

EL PASO, TEXAS – Nine human lives, the largest intercontinental bomber in the world and a 7,000-foot urban mountain range fuel a $4,000,000 Cold War mystery.  Lost in a horrendous crash into the Western slopes of the Franklin Mountains during a dust storm-infused early-season blizzard in December 1953, the wreckage of a U.S. Air Force B-36D was shredded across the steep terrain as the booming explosions echoed between the mountains on each side of the Rio Grande flowing through the Pass of the North.

Only known photograph of B-36 circling over Central El Paso before the crash

A thorough investigation was undertaken by the Air Force, finally wrapped up in January 1954 with an official full Accident Investigation Report submitted by the Inspector General’s Office.  The report contains some interesting information, among that being medical reports, citizens who witnessed the final low path over downtown and back into the clouds, statements by air controllers of the final radio communication between the ground and the aircraft, and a few grainy photographs and maps used as evidence during the investigation.  Tragically, the conclusion was “pilot error”, and an unfamiliarity with the geography of the El Paso region.  But, then, how many cities have a 7,000-foot mountain range running right down their center?

Cover Page of Accident Investigation transmittal and conclusions.

Cover Page of Accident Investigation transmittal and conclusions.

Crash Site photo from USAF Accident Report showing the burn scar across the flanks of Mount Franklin from the crash.

B-36D Crash Site photo from USAF Accident Investigation Report showing the burn scar across the flanks of Mount Franklin from the crash.

Pieces of the giant plane and other artifacts, still strewn across the rugged mountainside at about the 6,000-foot elevation, bear testament to a terrible tragedy that took place during the height of the Cold War.  This aircraft was designed for one purpose: to deliver huge nuclear warheads to Russia from bases within the continental United States.  It could fly without refueling for nearly two days, and held a record of sustained non-stop flight on a mission that lasted 45.3 hours.  The huge bomber’s nickname was the “Peacemaker”…as in carry a big stick.   It could load one of the immense Mark 17s, a 40-Megaton Thermonuclear (Hydrogen) bomb that would not fit into the B-52 years later without modifications.  The technology was cutting edge for the time, the first of its kind.  The airframe was made of magnesium with an aluminum skin.  It weighed over 400,000 pounds without bombs.  Before the advent of intercontinental ballistic missiles, this aircraft was the only way to assure our national security by carrying our most potent weapons to the edges of the Soviet Union, where it would fly just outside of their radar zones in constant rotations of weaponized air crews and their huge planes.

The crash site is a good day-hike (two to three hours up  and one or two hours back) from the top of either Stanton Street, where a Historical Marker was just dedicated in honor of the 60th Anniversary of the accident, or O’Keefe Street in West Central El Paso.   You can also wind your way by foot from the end of Kenyon Joyce off of North Stanton Street, up through the North Palisades Canyon and on to the crash site just under the crest ridge of the Franklin Mountains, behind Crazy Cat Mountain.  You’ll find a pyramid-shaped rock along the Jeep trail running along the toe of the steepest slopes…one used by the El Paso Electric Company to service their big transmission lines over the mountain.  Turn uphill at that big rock marker and scramble up the deep water courses, which become canyons, staying away from the lechugilla-infested high sides of those canyons.  This will be an unmarked, boulder-strewn, steep, windy climb for the next hour or so.  You’ll come across big pieces of the struts and frame of the aircraft soon, as the terrain gets steeper – some flat surfaces approaching 60% grades at times.  Take care.

Location of the crash site on the West slopes of the Franklins

If you look carefully, many artifacts lie scattered amongst the rock and cactus.  Large pieces of landing gear frame, propellers, engines, titanium turbine blades, small pieces of plexiglass from the windows, wire, instruments, and hunks of aluminum skin…some melted into droplets stuck to the rocky slope testifying to the raging fires of the crash.  In the photo below, the slight warping bend and discoloration of a Major’s gold oak leaf collar insignia probably bears mute testimony to the horrific impact which played out at the time of the crash!  The bent titanium jet turbine blades you might spy or the huge broken and bent landing struts all speak to the immense forces as the plane stuck the rocky slopes.

Two officer insignia, a Lt. Colonel and a Major, and a titanium jet turbine blade recovered from the crash site.

It began with a routine ferry mission from the Strategic Air Command Base in Fort Worth (Carswell) to the SAC Base at Ft. Bliss (Biggs Field), located in the flat desert plains spreading out from the Northeast side of the Franklin Mountains in El Paso.  In command of this Cold War pre-ICBM nuclear delivery system: Lt. Colonel Herman Gerick.  By his side, Major George C. Morford as Co-Pilot, from Pennsylvania.  Though the record reflects a huge number of flying hours experience between the flight crew, nothing in the accident investigation report mentions anything at all about the aircraft commander or crew’s background except for one slight reference in the Medical Report of Lt. Colonel Gerick about the possibility of “emotional stress or trauma” from the accident he was involved in six months earlier in England.  More on that strange British B-36 accident with this same crew in February 1953 will appear in a later chapter.

Suffice to say, this Friday afternoon flight to El Paso to bring in a new B-36D for Biggs AFB seemed normal…until they hit a typical West Texas winter dust and snow storm moving down into the high desert from the Rockies. The crew’s plan for a night of fun in El Paso’s sister city of Juarez at the Dog Track or the Kentucky Club would never happen. Their friend, 1st Sgt. Taliaferro who hitched a ride on that fateful flight with them to the Border Town for a good time that Friday, would never see his new daughter born just a month later in January 1954.

To help set the scene of the moments before the crash as the B-36 approached El Paso from the east, sit back, relax, close your eyes, and listen to a “radio play” recreation written by David Etzold based on the actual transcripts of the accident investigation and produced by Capstone Productions, depicting the drama of the final few moments of communication between the crew of AF5003 (the flight number assigned to this B-36D ferry flight) and ground controllers in El Paso on that fateful winter day:

 

 

Mk-17m Thermo Nuclear Bomb designed for B-36 delivery

Cockpit view of B-36E at Wright Patterson AFB

Should you wish to take a 360-degree virtual tour of the forward cabin or cockpit of the B-36, please click on this link:http://www.nmusafvirtualtour.com/media/062/B-36J%20Engineer.html

B-36 Forward Cabin layout and detail, note two levels within the cabin.

B-36 Forward Cabin layout and detail, note two levels within the cabin.

Actual photo of snow storm descending over the Franklin Mountains, taken one hour before the crash from the Downtown Federal Courthouse roof on 11 December 1953 1:30pm

Actual photo of snow storm descending over the Franklin Mountains, taken one hour before the crash from the Downtown Federal Courthouse roof on 11 December 1953 1:30pm

It ended tragically with a confused few moments of radio chatter, the surge of the jet booster engines roaring at the tip of the wings, and the groan of the airframe against the pull of the flaps trying to avert disaster as the rocky mountainside suddenly appeared and rushed at the wide-eyed crew out of the blanket of snow and dust that had hidden it from their view. It was over before they could do much.

Map used in Accident Investigation to plot probable path of AF5003 based on witness Statements.

Accident Investigation map of flight path over Downtown El Paso just before the crash.

George Saucedo at one of the first large wreck pieces encountered on the hike.

INHL Director Multhauf illustrates the massive scale of the front landing strut, with the steep terrain and West El Paso in background.

INHL Director Multhauf illustrates the massive scale of the front landing strut, with the steep terrain and West El Paso in background.

Jim Davison and Chris Multhauf examine a propeller and other big pieces of the wreck at the main impact site…note red crosses painted on rock in background.

One of the B-36D jet engines, with the titanium turbine blades shown closest to camera.  Note the blades are bent in a direction indicating the turbine was spinning upon impact.

One of the B-36D jet engines, with the titanium turbine blades shown closest to camera. Note the blades are bent in a direction indicating the turbine was spinning upon impact.

Dave and strut from landing gear looking out over West El Paso

Liam Etzold, Joseph Perry and David at the wreck site with B-36D jet engine.

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Joseph Perry and piece of landing gear strut on rugged slope.

Left wing B-36 propeller assembly.


Left wing B-36 propeller assembly.

 

Yellow-painted tip of B-36 propeller in the left-hand canyon.

Yellow-painted tip of B-36 propeller in the left-hand canyon.

Melted aluminum covers the gears of one of the B-36 propeller shaft assemblies.

Melted aluminum covers the gears of one of the B-36 propeller shaft assemblies.

Hand drawn diagram used in the accident investigation, showing the wreckage dispersal across the steep flanks of Mount Franklin

Hand drawn diagram used in the accident investigation, showing the wreckage dispersal across the steep flanks of Mount Franklin (West is up, North right).

 

IN MEMORIAM:

Aircraft Commander Lt. Col. Herman Gerick, and seven members of his regularly assigned Select Combat Crew:  1st Pilot Major George C. Morford; 1st Navigator Major Douglas P. Miner; 1st Flight Engineer 1st Lt. Cary B. Fant, Jr.; 1st Radio Operator M/Sgt. Royal Freeman; Gunner A/1C Edwin D. Howe; Gunner A/2C Frank Silvestri; Flight Engineer 1st Lt. James M. Harvey, Jr.; and one passenger, 1st Sgt. Dewey Taliaferro

Invitation to 60th Anniversary Memorial by El Paso County Historical Commission 14 December 2013

60th Anniversary Memorial invitation from El Paso County Historical Commission

On a crisp, clear Saturday morning on December 14, 2013 families of two of the lost airmen, Sargent Dewey Taliaferro and Major George Morford, gathered in El Paso with members of the El Paso County Historical Commission and interested citizens to honor the nine who perished sixty years earlier in service to their country.  Here were two lovely ladies, the widows of these two lost airmen, supported by scores of their children, grandchildren and other close family, gathering at the El Paso Community Foundation in Downtown El Paso to memorialize the crew and their mission, and to later dedicate the new Historical Monument installed at the end of North Stanton Street near the entrance to the Camelot Condominium.  One family, the Taliaferro’s were from the Fort Worth area, the home of Carswell Air Force Base and big aerospace plants.  The other family, the Morford’s, came all the way to El Paso from Pennsylvania for the event.  A Military Color Guard from the U S Sargent’s Major Academy at Fort Bliss presented the flags, silence was observed for a moment and the pledge of allegiance began the Memorial Program.

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Bernie Sargent introduces the program at the Memorial in the Foundation Room.

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The Family of Major George C Morford, from Pennsylvania

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Mrs. Dewey Taliafero and her family at the Memorial Program.

Taliaferro Family-Historical Society Memorial 14 Dec 2013-LR

B-36 Historical Marker Unveil 1-LR

Bernie Sargent, President of the El Paso County Historical Society, helps unveil the new monument.

B-36 Historical Marker Unveil 2-LR

Mrs Taliaferro reaches for her husband’s engraved name as Mrs. Morford and her son admire the newly dedicated marker.

El Paso County Historical Society Marker dedicated to the El Paso B-36D Crash of December 11, 1953

El Paso County Historical Society Marker dedicated to the El Paso B-36D Crash of December 11, 1953

Dewey Taliaferro and David Etzold 14 Dec 2013

Grandson of Sargent USAF Dewey Taliaferro, the unlucky passenger who hitched a ride on the fateful flight to El Paso that Friday afternoon…with the author.

Please take a moment to watch this Capstone Productions video of the actual 60th Anniversary Memorial and Commemorative Event from December 14, 2013 at the El Paso Community Foundation …and later at the Dedication of the Historical Monument placed at the top of North Stanton Street, all sponsored by the El Paso County Historical Commission:

 

The directors and officers of the International National History League (INHL) wish to offer this record of that fateful flight as a testament to the bravery and dedication of these, and so many other, service men and women who have perished in the line of duty for this country.

INHL Logo Globe Grey-Preserving the Past

~ by Dave Etzold on July 8, 2012.

17 Responses to “B-36 Crash – Franklin Mountains 1953”

  1. Great pictures and information!!!!

  2. Mr. Etzold, thank you for the copies related to the December 1953 B-36 crash.

  3. This is a great story and thank you for highlighting it. My sister was born this same date and celebrated her 60th yesterday! When we spoke by phone, I mentioned the B-36 incident to her. She was also surprised as neither of us knew about it. She told me that our mother often mentioned that it had snowed the day of her birth, but never said anything about the plane crashing.

  4. Thank you very much for all the hard work and effort that made this possible I know the families appreciated everything that has been done to honor these men. I am the great-granddaughter of First Sgt. Dewey Taliaferro. I am the wearing yellow in the picture above. One of my many cousins in this picture was born December 11, 1998. We can’t thank you enough for reaching out and finding us, bless you all.

  5. I was a 4TH grader at San Jacinto elementary school during that fateful day. The B-36 had a very deep throated engine drone unlike any other aircraft. We heard the drone so loud it appeared to be just above the roof of our school. It shattered the windows in our school. A few minutes later we saw a flash through the blizzard coming from the mountain. A few seconds later we heard the terrible BOOM ! I knew somethng terrible had occured. When I got home, I lived on Myrtle St., I found out what had happened. I cried uncontrolably.

  6. Dewey Taliaferro was my uncle. I am so pleased that my family was able to attend this dedication. Thank you for writing such an enlightening piece.

  7. Thank you again for this. Words can’t express how much this and the ceremony meant to our family. It was a pleasure to meet you and your wife along with all the other people involved. God bless you.

  8. This was a wonderful and bittersweet experience. Thank you, David for participating in this amazing story.

  9. I’m Dewey Taliaferro 1st grandchild & Words cant not express what I feel in my heart, our family has truely been blessed to have taken this trip with my Grandmother. I was not sure what to expect when we arrived in El Paso, but it was behond my wildest dreams. My cup she is full with joy and tears I”m so thankful to those who have taken the time to put all this together. I cant wait to go back and hike the mountain top to the site.

    A big thank you to Lus who hike’s this every year/day and lays flowers at the site, she is our angel and I truley beleive God put her in our path with the help of my grandfather to tell us all is good and to bring Grandmother and his family back to him, even if it took 60 years to get there.

    This is the best Christmas Gift our family will every have. Thnak you again!!!

  10. So sorry we did not know about the memorial. We surely would have been there. Royal Freeman was my brother.

  11. Here’s a Youtube link to Jackson Polk’s 57 minute video of the dedication ceremonies in downtown El Paso and at the historical marker on Stanton street. Thasnks, Jackson!

  12. Thanks Mr. Etzold for that thorough blog. My wife was a ten-year-old living on Mobile Street in El Paso on the day that the accident occurred. She heard the noise, and later could see the scarred crash-site from her house. She has often spoken of this over the years- – -she later moved with her family to Canutillo, Texas where her parents had the Upper Valley Medical Clinic. We were married 51 years ago in Anthony, Texas and I graduated from Texas Western College (now UTEP) – - -we have been back there a couple of times. Isn’t there a large “A” on the mountainside now, (For Austin High)??
    Thanks again.

  13. Royal Freeman was my husband, James Freeman’s, uncle. He died before James was born, but we are naming our son, who will arrive in late March, after him. His name will be Andrew Royal Freeman. We would like to put a high resolution photo of the Historical Marker in our son’s room. Could you please email one to us? Thank you!

  14. i don’t know why but i am so obsessed with this incident and cant get over it IT’S SO INTERESTING!

  15. I lived in the upper Valley area most my life now have moved, I have always been shown the scar or as I like to put it the debris field on the mountain and told different stories about it and it’s finally been answered for me and others I’m sure, thank you for going this, bless the men of this flight and my condolences to the families and friends.

  16. The plane crash occurred 5 days before my 5th birthday. Our family lived in the 3400 block of N. Kansas St. (later renamed Stanton St.). I remember being able to see the orange glow of the burning crash site from our back yard on the evening of that fateful day. In later years, I often glanced up at the charred area of the mountain side, recalling the flaming image forever burned into my memory. I’ll never forget the sadness of December 11, 1953.

    • Thank you for remembering this tragic event and the people who were lost. We, as their families appreciate every kind thought.

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