Fifty-six years ago this week, a USAF/Boeing B-52H Stratofortress landed safely following structural failure of its vertical tail during an encounter with unusually severe clear air turbulence. The harrowing incident occurred as the aircraft was undergoing structural flight testing in the skies over East Spanish Peak, Colorado.
Turbulence is the unsteady, erratic motion of an atmospheric air mass. It is attributable to factors such as weather fronts, jet streams, thunder storms and mountain waves. Turbulence influences the motion of aircraft that are subjected to it. These effects range from slight, annoying disturbances to violent, uncontrollable motions which can structurally damage an aircraft.
Clear Air Turbulence (CAT) occurs in the absence of clouds. Its presence cannot be visually observed and is detectable only through the use of special sensing equipment. Hence, an aircraft can encounter CAT without warning. Interestingly, the majority of in-flight injuries to aircraft crew and passengers are due to CAT.
On Friday, 10 January 1964, USAF B-52H (S/N 61-023) took-off from Wichita, Kansas on a structural flight test mission. The all-Boeing air crew consisted of instructor pilot Charles Fisher, pilot Richard Curry, co-pilot Leo Coors, and navigator James Pittman. The aircraft was equipped with 3-axis accelerometers and other sensors to record in-flight loads and stresses.
An 8-hour flight was scheduled on a route that from Wichita southwest to the Rocky Mountains and back. The mission called for 10-minutes runs of 280, 350 and 400 KCAS at 500-feet AGL using the low-level mode of the autopilot. The initial portion of the mission was nominal with only light turbulence encountered.
However, as the aircraft turned north near Wagon Mound, New Mexico and headed along a course parallel to the mountains, increasing turbulence and tail loads were encountered. The B-52H crew then elected to discontinue the low level portion of the flight. The aircraft was subsequently climbed to 14,300 feet AMSL preparatory to a run at 350 KCAS.
At approximately 345 KCAS, the Stratofortress and its crew experienced an extreme turbulence event that lasted roughly 9 seconds. In rapid sequence the aircraft pitched-up, yawed to the left, yawed back to the right and then rolled right. The flight crew desperately fought for control of their mighty behemoth. But the situation looked grim. The order was given to prepare to bailout.
Finally, the big bomber’s motion was arrested using 80% left wheel authority. However, rudder pedal displacement gave no response. Control inputs to the elevator produced very poor response as well. Directional stability was also greatly reduced. Nevertheless, the crew somehow kept the Stratofortress flying nose-first.
The B-52H crew informed Boeing Wichita of their plight. A team of Boeing engineering experts was quickly assembled to deal with the emergency. Meanwhile, a Boeing-bailed F-100C formed-up with the Stratofortress and announced to the crew that most of the aircraft’s vertical tail was missing! The stricken aircraft’s rear landing was then deployed to add back some directional stability.
With Boeing engineers on the ground working with the B-52H flight crew, additional measures were taken in an effort to get the Stratofortress safely back on the ground. These measures included a reduction in airspeed, controlling aircraft center-of-gravity via fuel transfer, judicious use of differential thrust, and selected application of speed brakes.
Due to high surface winds at Wichita, the B-52H was vectored to Eaker AFB in Blytheville, Arkansas. A USAF/Boeing KC-135 was dispatched to escort the still-flying B-52H to Eaker and to serve as an airborne control center as both aircraft proceeded to the base. Amazingly, after flying 6 hours sans a vertical tail, the Stratofortress and her crew landed safely.
Safe recovery of crew and aircraft brought additional benefits. There were lots of structural flight test data! It was found that at least one gust in the severe CAT encounter registered at nearly 100 mph. Not only were B-52 structural requirements revised as a result of this incident, but those of other existing and succeeding aircraft as well.
B-52H (61-023) was repaired and returned to the USAF inventory. It served long and well after its close brush with catastrophe in January 1964. The aircraft spent the latter part of its flying career as a member of the 2nd Bomb Wing at Barksdale AFB, Louisiana. The venerable bird was retired from active service in July of 2008.