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.
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?
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 tough day-hike (two to three hours up, and one or two hours back down) 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…the 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.
If you look carefully, many artifacts lie scattered amongst the rock and cactus. Remember that this area is now part of the largest urban state park in Texas, the Franklin Mountain State Park and artifacts are protected. 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 at work as the plane stuck the rocky slopes.
It all 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:
If you would like 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 the two levels within the forward cabin.
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.
“Bad things happen when you run out of airspeed,
altitude and ideas all at the same time”
In December 2014 we received communication from Richard Tenglin, a retired military Flight Surgeon who has participated in similar accident investigations and has researched this particular El Paso B-36 crash extensively.
HIS ASSESSMENT, QUOTED BY PERMISSION:
“We have, since 1953, incorporated much “human factors” into accident investigation. Such would have made the report in 1954 much more accurate, I suspect. I spent many hours at the Franklin crash site when I was in El Paso. It is one of too many testaments to what happens when fallible humans involve themselves with complex machines and unforgiving natural forces. I’ve been there, read the report….and I know what happened….I think.
LTC Gerick ran a B-36 out of fuel over England in February 1953 after he missed 3 (IIRC) GCA (Ground Control Approach) tries. [His fuel gauge indicating empty, LTC Gerick ordered his crew to bail out as he set the auto-pilot and planned to ditch the huge plane in the English countryside. Ironically, the tanks had more fuel than indicated and the plane flew on for several dozen miles, almost crashing into a small village. No one was injured in that incident, thankfully, but one can imagine the accident left him and his crew quite spooked. Some of that crew were on the fateful El Paso flight in December of that year. -DFE] One has to wonder if he felt the guidance from the ground was not good….even in bad weather, GCA landings would not have been a problem for an experienced pilot. He’d done many before.
So on that fateful day over El Paso, he was (inappropriately some say) handed off from El Paso flight control to Approach Control at Biggs Airfield. The controller told him to take a heading of 370 degrees! Gerick responded that there was no such heading, and the controller corrected himself and said 10 degrees.
Now…..here’s a stressed pilot who lost an aircraft 10 months ago due to (possibly) bad ground guidance….and now he gets an incorrect heading from ground personnel at Biggs. That would not have done much for his confidence for attempting another landing in bad weather.
The B-36 was a notoriously “wet” aircraft, and it was wet out. I suspect he lost his radio coms about that time and went to orbit SW of town to try to fix the problem.
Now, here’s another failure of the official report……it states he crashed while on approach to Biggs field. Nonsense. The aircraft was flaps up/gear up…….the report states this……that’s not landing configuration. I’d bet he decided he’d had enough of El Paso and decided to head up to Alamogordo…..but preflight brief probably didn’t include the “local terrain hazards” part (as PIC, his responsibility) and he plowed into the mountain in the clouds.
Bottom Line: I think the Official Report failed to fully account for the impact the problems with ground flight control personnel in England had on LTC Gerick’s mind as he attempted to bring the aircraft into Biggs AF in the face of more bad ground guidance, again in bad weather, and failed to understand that the aircraft was not on approach to Biggs AF…..that, when he headed north out of his orbit SW of town, this had likely become an aborted mission due to bad ground guidance, weather, and faulty equipment.” -Richard Tenglin, Retired Flight Surgeon.
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.
December 14, 2013 – EL PASO: On a crisp clear Saturday morning, families of two of the lost aircrew, Sargent Dewey Taliaferro (pronounced “Tolifer”, the family informed me) 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, widows of two of those lost airmen, supported by scores of their children, grandchildren and other close family. We gathered at the El Paso Community Foundation in Downtown El Paso to memorialize that crew and their mission, and later, to 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. Special guest speaker was the retired Commanding General of Fort Bliss, General James Maloney.
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.
Skilled Radio Controlled (RC) modelers recently released a video of the flight of a scale model B-36 RC Plane which we feel captures a glimpse into the stunning combination of mechanical coordination and artistic balance this behemoth represented, the largest flying machine of its time: