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Plane crash victims honored in ceremony

E. Clampus Vitus Chapter No. 41-49 Humbug J.J. Skeen pours whiskey along the top of the granite monument, a gesture of respect for the five airmen who perished when a B-52 bomber crashed south of Madera on Sep. 17, 1956. The pilot and the co-pilot parachuted to safety. (Donald A. Promnitz/The Madera Tribune)


A granite memorial has been unveiled in Memorial Courthouse Park, dedicated to the victims of an aviation accident that occurred 60 years ago.

The memorial, which was erected by Grub Gulch Chapter No. 41-49 of E. Clampus Vitus, was unveiled Saturday next to the Courthouse Museum.

“On this, the 60th anniversary of the worst air disaster in Madera County history, we honor the Air Force crew members who flew the B-52 Stratofortress that crashed in Madera County,” said chapter “humbug” J.J. Skeen, as a flyover took place.

Removing the sheet, Skeen then proceeded to pour a measure of Jack Daniel’s whiskey along the top of the stone, a gesture of respect for the fallen.

Made from granite provided by the Raymond Granite Co., it bore the names of the seven airmen of the B-52 that crashed five miles south of Madera on Sept. 17, 1956.

The jet, which had been stationed at Castle Air Force Base, hit the ground east of State Route 99 and south of Avenue 10 1/2. Vehicles were struck by the burning pieces of the bomber, and blocked the South Pacific Daylight train on the railroad tracks. The crash also destroyed a house, and killed several farm animals.

Of the seven members of the crew, five perished. Tech. Sgt. Raymond Riggs, tail gunner, and Master Sgt. John Brown, engineer, died when their parachutes failed to open. Captain Leroy Campbell, navigator; Capt. Dick G. Richardson, radar operator; and Tech. Sgt. Harvey Fullbright, engineer, went down with the plane, and were killed in the explosion. The pilot, Maj. Benjamin Ostlind, and the co-pilot, Cpt. William Vetter, were able to parachute to safety, and survived the accident.

To this day, it is unclear was caused the wreck. The next year, her sister ship, the B-52 “Lucky Lady III,” would become the first jet aircraft to fly nonstop around the world.

“I don’t know if a lot of people know this, but about two years ago, we ended up renaming this park, and it’s now Memorial Courthouse Park,” said Madera County District-3 Supervisor Rick Farinelli. “I think this is an outstanding first memorial that we had since we renamed the park.”

Farinelli, who was only a child when the accident occurred, still remembers seeing the wreckage on the ground.

“It brought back a lot of memories, because I was 6 years old. I lived on Avenue 12 and Road 23,” Farinelli said. “When this happened, my dad got us all in the car, and we went down to see what happened with this big explosion. I remember it today — all the pieces, everything that happened, and the military was already there, saying ‘stay away,’ because they wanted to find the pieces to find out what happened.”

Also present for the unveiling was Sandra Chad, the daughter of Cpt. Vetter, who thanked E. Clampus Vitus for their honoring of her father, and his comrades. Chad came in from Oklahoma to attend the ceremony.

Vetter had served in the Army Air Corps. in the Pacific Theater during World War II. Following the war, he participated in the Berlin Airlift of 1948-9, served in Korea, and was part of the refueling mission for the first nonstop flight around the world. After the 1956 crash, he remained in the military, and retired in 1974 with the rank of Lieutenant Colonel, and flew, but was forever haunted by the accident that killed his five crew mates. He passed away in 2001.

“They served our country with distinction, they served our country with honor,” said Col. Reed Drake, commander of the 144th Fighter Wing of the California Air National Guard in Fresno, who came to honor the men who perished. “Our gathering is just one small spark in the flame of pride that burns right here in Madera, today, and every day.”

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