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 accident investigation was undertaken by the Air Force, finally wrapped up in January 1954 with a 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 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.
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.
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. S
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 with them to the Border Town for a good time that Friday, would never see his new daughter born a month later in January 1954.
Listen to a “radio play” recreation of the final few moments of communication between the crew of AF5003 and the ground controllers in El Paso on that fateful day, here:
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.
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.
On a crisp, sunny Saturday morning December 14, 2013 families of two of the lost airmen, Sargent Dewey Taliaferro and Major George Morford, gathered in El Paso to memorialize and 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 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.