Ripped Off: The Story of No. 61-023

BARKSDALE AIR FORCE BASE, La. -- It looks like any other B-52 sitting on Barksdale's parking apron but serial No. 61-023 has a past that is almost beyond belief. 

42 years ago this jet was used for a flight test to examine the effects of turbulence at varying altitudes and airspeeds. The flight was supposed to be routine. However, it almost turned tragic after the jet lost almost the entire vertical fin, leaving the crew in a life or death fight to regain control. 

A changing mission
The Air Force was seeking answers for the losses aircrews were taking as the mission of the B-52 was changed. Originally, the B-52 was designed to fly at high altitude at near supersonic speeds. Over time, Russian air defenses advanced and this caused the Air Force to change tactics. 

A high-speed low level penetration into Russia was seen as the best method to defeat the emerging threats that crews were facing. 

However, the new tactics put the B-52 into a mission it wasn't originally designed for. This placed the jet in unfamiliar territory and testing needed to be done. 

The experiment
The Air Force loaned serial No. 61-023 to Boeing in order to conduct tests on the feasibility of the new tactics. 

The BUFF was loaded with 20 accelerometers and over 200 sensors so the stresses on the plane could be recorded. 

The test flight was flown on January 10, 1964 and the experiment was going well. The crew had flown some of the test patterns to measure the effects of turbulence on the jet.

They aborted one portion of the flight due to turbulence becoming too strong for what was needed for the tests. 

The crew took a short lunch and proceeded to smoother air - then the problems began. 

The incident
As the B-52 was climbing to 14,300 feet it hit clear-air turbulence. The crew would later describe it as a giant force that picked up the plane and hit it. 

"When this event occurred it was so violent that I was literally picked up and thrown against the left side of the airplane and over the nav table" said James Pittman, navigator. 

"I had the rudder to the firewall, the control column in my  lap, and full wheel input and I wasn't having any luck righting the airplane," said Charles Fisher, instructor pilot. "In the short period after the turbulence I gave the order to prepare to abandon the airplane because I didn't think we were going to keep it together." 

Immediately after the severe turbulence, the jet rolled hard right and almost went out of control. 

"It required about 80 percent left wheel throw to control the aircraft by the time things had settled down," Fisher said. 

Although they knew the jet had just taken a tremendous hit, the crew wouldn't know the full extent of the damage until later. 

The reality was the vertical fin and the rudder were sheared off by a gust of turbulence. 

This left the plane with only a small stub of metal protruding from the fuselage to serve as the vertical tail. Sensors would later show the gust hit the jet with a hurricane force of 81 miles per hour. 

A team effort
Air Force air crews and Boeing engineers were alerted soon after the incident. A B-52 was vectored toward serial No. 61- 023. The SAC crew was able to radio a damage report and maintain radio contact with the Boeing aircrew. 

Later an F-100 would scramble to chase the injured BUFF to Blytheville Air Force Base, Ark. 

For the next six hours Boeing Engineers and Air Force pilots would work together to help bring the jet back safely. They tested possible solutions and tried to come up with any idea that might save the crew. 

The crew along with Boeing engineers decided that a combination of altering the center gravity by moving fuel on board, changing the engine settings, and small amounts of airbrakes could give the crew the fighting chance it needed. The plan worked, and gave the pilot a small additional measure of controlas the jet crept along at a little more than 200 knots. 

The crew was instructed to land at Blytheville AFB. This would spare them from crossing the Rocky Mountains which would have subjected them to turbulent conditions. Also, the base had calmer winds and a less densely populated area in case the plane went down. 

The pilot would fly a final "flaps-up" landing. 

Attempting to put the jet in a by-the-book landing configuration could have broken his fragile grip on the crippled jet. "Arriving at Blytheville we lowered the rest of the gear," said Fisher. "The front main gear made flying kind of tricky when it came down it made the airplane yaw but once it finally was down we were in good shape." 

The worn-out crew landed the jet safely. Saving the plane also saved the data recorded on it. The priceless information the crew preserved would help engineers understand why the tail failed and also teach future crews about the limits of the B-52. 

42 Years Later
Serial No. 61-023 is still in service and defends the United States. The plane is assigned to the 20th Aircraft Maintenance Unit where it is kept mission capable for the aircrews of the 20th Bomb Squadron. 

The men and women of the 20th AMU perform all the maintenance and conduct the inspections which keep the 45-year-old jet in the air. 

Staff Sergeant Michael Rochette is the current crew chief for serial No. 61-023 and isn't shocked about the jet's past. 

"I am not surprised it is still able to fly," said Staff Sgt. Rochette. "It's too well built to go down."