Half a century has passed since the crash of a nuclear-armed B-52 bomber in Garrett County that left three of its five crew members dead, but some among us haven’t forgotten.
Maj. Robert Lee Payne and and T/Sgt. Melvin F. Wooten bailed out, but died of injuries and exposure, and Maj. Robert Townley’s remains were found in the aircraft. Maj. Thomas McCormick and Capt. Parker “Mack” Peedin ejected and survived, but have since died.
Their sacrifices helped change the way America thought about its Cold War nuclear deterrence program, which dictated that a dozen of our bombers be kept aloft for 24 hours at a time, seven days a week.
The crash on Big Savage Mountain wasn’t an isolated incident. It helped to convince officials of the risks posed by flying nuclear-armed aircraft around the country. It also contributed to changes that ultimately resulted in the B-52 bomber becoming one of the safest, most reliable and long-lasting airplanes ever made in this country or anywhere.
The B-52 is the third in a line of legendary Boeing bombers that have contributed to keeping America safe for decades. The B-17 Flying Fortress helped defeat Germany during World War II. The B-29 Stratofortress brought that war to a close by dropping atomic bombs on Japan and served with distinction early in the Cold War. The B-52 Superfortress served America with distinction during the Cold War and in Vietnam and the Gulf War. It has been a mighty symbol of our strength.
The jet-powered Superfortress was born with a fatal flaw, however: a structural weakness in the tail section of an aircraft that was designed to fly at 50,000 feet, but not at low levels.
Two B-52s had crashed almost exactly a year before the Savage Mountain tragedy, in Maine and New Mexico, killing most of the crew members. Another B-52 suffered a similar failure in Colorado only three days before the Garrett County crash, but its crew was able to land.
The B-52 was designed in 1952 and flew for the first time in 1955. The latest variant remains in active service and is expected to still be flying 30 years from now. Its crew members take pride in the fact that they are flying an airplane that in some cases is older than their parents.
When that bomber and her crew crashed in a storm in our neck of the woods, residents of the area turned out to help rescue the survivors. A few months later, thousands of our citizens attended the dedication of a memorial.
If something similar happened today, we have no doubt that our people would react the same way.