Tragedy to be marked on Old Timers Day
This Boeing B-52B Stratofortress bomber, “City of Turlock,” flew for the 93rd Bombardment Wing, 330th Bomb Squadron, at Castle Air Force by Atwater. It is the same model as a plane that crashed by Madera on Sept. 17, 1956. The 93rd Bombardment Wing trained combat crews in flying the B-52.
Almost 60 years ago, a subsonic jet bomber left Castle Air Force Base near Atwater shortly after noon for a routine inspection flight and equipment test. It would never fly back.
Two hours later, two explosions destroyed the Boeing B-52B Stratofortress in mid-air five miles south of Madera, near State Route 99 and Avenue 10 1/2. Five of its seven airman died and the bomber’s wreckage demolished a home.
The Grub Gulch Chapter #41-49 of E. Clampus Vitus, a social and historical society, plan to erect a granite memorial at Courthouse Park to mark the tragedy in time for its 60th anniversary on Sept. 17.
“We hope to dedicate the monument on Old Timers Day,” said member Harold Johnson.
Pilot Mike Rhodes of Madera obtained a copy of the Air Force crash report thanks to the Freedom of Information Act. Though “the report is about a foot thick,” Rhodes said, the cause of the accident wasn’t officially declared in it. The Aviation Safety Network notes its crash followed an in-flight fire.
The long-range bomber joined the Air Force fleet on June 28, 1956. Because this was during the Cold War between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, it served with the 15th Air Force under the Strategic Air Command. It was part of the 93rd Bombardment Wing, 330th Bomb Squadron, at Castle Air Force Base, Rhodes said.
The 93rd Bombardment Wing was the B-52 Combat Crew Training Wing and would make numerous record flights, according to commentary by Gerry Asher on Flickr. One of those would be the first non-stop jet flight around the world in B-52B bomber Lucky Lady III at the start of 1957, a year after the accident by Madera.
Debris from that crash would demolish an empty house and kill several animals. “Gloria and Dorothy Smith ,young daughters of the Vernon Smith family, were nearly hit by wreckage while working in a cotton field … Major Benjamin Ostlund, ship commander and pilot, and Capt. William Vetter, pilot, both ejected to safety,” said Rhodes.
Tech. Sgt. Raymond Riggs (tail gunner) and Master Sgt. John Brown (engineer) bailed out, but were killed after their parachutes failed. Capt. Leroy Campbell (navigator), Capt. G. Dick Richardson (radar operator) and Tech. Sgt. Harvey Fullbright (engineer) remained within the bomber and died on impact, Rhodes shared from the report.
A total of three B-52 bombers, including Madera’s falling star, stationed at the same base would crash in 1956. Changes in equipment, procedures and the plane’s airframe design were made in an effort to prevent another incident, Rhodes said.
John Rieping and Tami Jo Nix contributed to this article.