Requiem for a B-36 -- Page 2

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B36_cockpit.jpg It was a December afternoon, a few weeks before the Christmas of 1953.  A light snow had fallen over the the high desert of El Paso, and settled over the rocky summit of Mt. Franklin, the 7,176 foot crag that transects the city.

Lt. Col. Gerick was flying a routine ferry mission from Carswell Air Force Base to Biggs Field.   He was assisted by Navigator Douglas H. Minor, Radio Operator Royal Freeman, 1st Pilot Maj. George Morford, and Gunner Edwin Howe.  During their approach into El Paso that cold afternoon, they encountered haze that limited visibility to a few miles.  Gerick thought he spotted Biggs Air Force Base, but was unexpectedly warned away by the air traffic controller.  He had accidentally homed in on the wrong airport -- the city municipal airport about five miles south.  Gerick was given a confusing set of instructions -- including a recommendation to turn his heading to "370 degrees." Gerick replied "There is no such heading," and asked to make a visual approach.  Gerick was given permission to swing around to the west and circle in for another run at the airfield.  He banked his plane to the right and circled low over the town, through the valley cut through the mountains by the Rio Grand -- the valley Spaniards named "The Pass of the North."    Flying though the blowing snow that filled the mountain pass, Gerick didn't realize it, but as he finished the turn, the fog-shrouded peak of Mt. Franklin would be looming directly in front of him.

Nobody will ever know what was going through Gerick's mind that afternoon, but it is possible he was remembering another terrifying episode. A year earlier, the same five man-crew had flown a B-36 all night from Canada across the North Atlantic into England and attempted to land in a dense fog at Fairford -- but repeatedly missed the approach.   Exhausted by their long flight from Labrador, the crew ultimately ran out of fuel and were forced to ditch the plane.  They parachuted to safety, and the empty aircraft sailed away -- coasting for 30 miles before finally crashing near Lacock in Wiltshire, and provoking outraged editorials.

Eight months later, the same five men were together again, riding the wings of a new B36, with three additional crew and a passenger -- a total of nine.    The crash survivors must have recognized the eerie similarity with the danger they were facing now  as they anxiously looked out the windows searching for the airfield in a thickening snowstorm.  Records show that approach control ordered them to climb immediately to an altitude of 8000 feet.  Radio officer M/St. Royal Freeman never responded.   Perhaps it was because the doomed crew had one other piece of bad luck.  Inspection of the wreckage suggested in violation of regulations, the radar was turned off.

Witnesses ran out of their houses and took photos as the flying skyscraper roared over their neighborhoods, and felt the earth tremble as the bomber struck the mountain at an altitude of 5200 feet -- hundreds of feet below the crest.  The B36 impact traveled 675 feet along the mountain, crashing into a canyon and erupting into a magnesium fireball. There were no survivors.

The Air Force noted $4,084,266  for the loss, and wrote a report that blamed pilot error for the crash.  The accident report was supposed to be signed by four officers, two of which were "experienced B-36 pilots."  One of the pilots -- Lt. Col. Artist H. Prichard, Jr. -- never signed.   Maybe it is because he believed Gerick -- the pilot who had so recently saved his crew from another crash -- was simply struggling to follow confusing orders from two different airports.  Or perhaps Prichard held his signature because was haunted by something else --  the knowledge of how Lt/Col. Gerick must have felt during his last seconds of life as he saw the rocky cliff materialize from the mist, and remained frozen at the stick.



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