Revisiting the crash of Felon 22

byLee Bennett & Gray Wangelin

Feb 01, 2012 


(Editor’s note: It was 51 years ago that a massive B-52 Stratofortress exploded over Monticello and crashed in Dry Valley.

This week, local residents Lee Bennett and Gray Wangelin take a closer look. They have years of experience and expertise in archaeology, engineering, aeronautics, local history, and curiosity.)

When Capt. John Marsh filed his flight plan on Thursday, January 19, 1961, he anticipated a routine eight-hour night flight for training purposes. He and the six men who made up his flight crew were assigned to the 334th squadron of the 95th bomber wing at Biggs Air Force Base near El Paso, TX.

They were part of the Strategic Air Command (SAC), America’s airborne monitoring and initial attack force during the Cold War. Capt. Marsh’s flight was designated Felon 22.

The 31-year old Capt Marsh had been an Air Force pilot for six years. His co-pilot that day was 1st Lt. Thomas Stout, 32 years old, and a pilot for five years. As was common for SAC pilots, both men had already logged flight time in each of the preceding weeks that January.

Capt Harold Bonneville was the bombardier for the flight, 2nd Lt. Jerome Calvert was navigator, and 1st Lt. Ivan Petty was the electronic weapons officer on the crew. Sgt. David Forsyth was the tail gunner and Sgt. Lionel Terry was the crew chief. Marsh, Stout, Bonneville, and Petty had ejection seats; Forsyth and Terry did not.

Their plane was a B-52 Stratofortress manufactured by the Boeing Company. Before production of the B-52 ceased in 1962, Boeing had produced 744 of them in eight different models designated A through H.

Capt Marsh’s bomber was one of 50 model Bs made by Boeing. Its serial number indicates that construction began in 1953 and about two years later it was ready for flight tests. It was turned over to the Air Force in the spring of 1956 at a cost of $14.43 million, one of 35 Stratofortresses delivered that year.

It was a massive flying machine, with eight turbo jet engines mounted on swept wings that spanned 185 ft. The plane was just over 159 ft long with a 48 ft tall vertical stabilizer (rudder) at the tail. Its rather uncomplimentary nickname was BUFF, standing for “Big Ugly Fat Flyer.”

As part of the pre-flight process that Thursday, Lt. Stout calculated the weight of the plane, fuel, and cargo for the night’s flight. The bomber itself weighed 171,165 lbs and carried 986 lbs of oil, while the crew added 2,160 lbs.

The plane carried 970 lbs of chaff, a reflective material that could be dropped through the bomb bay doors to confuse enemy radar. But the biggest load was 211,000 lbs of fuel carried in the wing and fuselage tanks, sufficient for an 11-hour flight. As a reference, about three or four highway tanker trucks would be required to carry that amount of jet fuel.

Lt. Stout listed no ammunition, bombs or rockets in his calculations. The loaded plane weighed 387,503 lbs, about 32,000 lbs under its operational capacity.

As Lt. Stout handled those details, Capt. Marsh wrote up his flight plan. From El Paso, TX he would take the B-52 west for 20 minutes, then make a long northwesterly run toward Malad City, ID. From there he routed them toward Lewistown, MT.

About 4-1/2 hours into the flight, Capt. Marsh anticipated turning southward to fly over South Dakota on his way back to Biggs Air Force Base. Eight hours after take-off the crew would be back on the tarmac. Capt. Marsh’s check of the weather indicated high clouds at 38,000 ft, 10-mile visibility, no stormy weather, but moderate clear air turbulence.

Felon 22 lifted off from Biggs Air Force base at 7:15 p.m. and flew westward to Deming, NM before turning northwest for Malad City, ID. Twenty-five minutes after take-off Capt Marsh reached his cruising altitude of 36,000 ft, leveled off, and put the plane on autopilot.

The flight went as scheduled until it passed over the Gallo Mountains in west central New Mexico, where the plane turned slightly east of its planned course. At 6:02 p.m. the plane hit turbulence over Naschitti on the Navajo Nation and the autopilot clicked off.

As Felon 22 flew over Monticello, UT at 6:18 p.m., Capt. Marsh started a climb to 40,000 ft.; they were traveling about 475 mph. One-half minute later there was a sharp lurch followed instantly by a loss of rudder control when the vertical fin on the tail snapped off.

The plane’s nose dropped as it made a full clockwise roll before briefly righting itself. At this point Lt. Stout and Lt. Calvert ejected from the bomber, and Sgt. Terry forced his way out of the plane and opened his parachute.

Before the rest of the crew could do likewise the plane began to spin violently. The centrifugal force of the spinning plane made it impossible for the remaining crew to get out, while simultaneously tearing the plane apart.

As it disintegrated the nearly full fuel tanks exploded. At 6:19 p.m. on January 19, 1961 the last big pieces of Felon 22 slammed into Dry Valley, spraying burning fuel and scattering debris over a wide area.

The burned bodies of Capt. Marsh, Capt. Bonneville, and Lt. Petty were found by local rescuers soon after the crash. Lt. Stout and Lt. Calvert managed to walk out to the highway and were transported by locals to the Monticello hospital for treatment of minor injuries. Sgt. Forsyth’s body was found a short time later on the pinyon-covered hillside west of Peters Canyon.

Sgt. Terry was not located for several hours and the circumstance of this delay continues to foster emotional debate. He managed to live for a while after landing, but was not able to outlast the argument between the Air Force and the county sheriff about who should look for him.

The local response to the disaster was impressive, and totally consistent with the character of the residents of San Juan County. Soon after the explosion, local residents began to travel to the crash site. Debris covered a large area, but the bulk of the wreckage was on and near “George Rock”, just west of Church Rock in Dry Valley.

At the time, the highway was approximately 100 yards west of its current location, bringing passing vehicles in very close proximity to the wreckage.

The local search and rescue volunteers mobilized to begin an intensive search, but the search was canceled soon after military officials arrived from Hill Air Force Base. It was several critical hours before local residents were allowed to resume the search. The body of Sgt. Terry was discovered soon after the search resumed. Many local residents felt that Terry could have been saved if the search was not delayed.

Of course, local residents were not aware of the cargo that was carried on Felon 22. Whether or not the flight contained nuclear weapons is still a topic of debate. Regardless, the danger represented by the enormous explosion was great.

The debris field was about 11 miles long and three miles wide, extending from just east of Monticello to the crash location in Dry Valley. The military cordoned off Peters Canyon and parts of Dry Valley, excluding local law enforcement, the search and rescue team, and gawkers from the crash scene.

From the parts and pieces collected by Air Force investigators, technicians conducted forensic tests to determine the cause of the accident. They were able to rule out failed welds, poor maintenance, an on-board fire prior to break-up, mid-air collision, metal fatigue, pilot error, and instrument malfunction.

They verified that the pre-flight calculations made by Lt. Stout were correct. The reason for the loss of the rudder, however, is not available in the redacted (censored) version of the crash report that is made available to the public.

In 1962 the Navy Weather Research Facility asked Dr. Elmar Reiter of Colorado State University to look into the role that air turbulence may have played in the crash of Felon 22. Dr. Reiter noted that Capt. Marsh reported moderate to severe turbulence and a lot of haze at 36,000 ft and began to climb to get above it.

Dr. Reiter found the horizontal upper level winds were “rather light, barely reaching jet-stream speeds” and that vertical wind shear was not excessive. He concluded that Felon 22 flew into the interface between the jet stream and a body of warm air where pressure waves created sufficient shear to break off the vertical tail fin.

Dr. Reiter’s findings also illustrated that scientists were just beginning to study wind shear, and that pilots did not have the data needed to determine if dangerous pressure waves might be present along a flight path.

The loss of the vertical tail fin (rudder) was an accident not unique to Felon 22. A review of B-52 crashes listed by several web sites suggests that this same part snapped off on two B-52s in January 1963, and twice in January 1964.

Clear air turbulence was implicated in each of these accidents. Incredibly, the crew of one January 1964 flight was able to successfully land their tail-less bomber; all the other accidents resulted in crashes and fatalities.

 SOURCE: San Juan Record




Just past sunset, the crew of a B-52 Stratofortress,

assigned to the 334th Bomb Squadron of the 95th Bomb Wing at Biggs Air Force Base, El Paso, Texas, took off on a planned eight hour, "round-robin," operational training mission. The flight was assigned the mission call sign, FELON 22. On board were: Capt. John P. Marsh (pilot), 1Lt. Thomas A. Stout (co-pilot), Capt. Harold S. Bonneville (radar navigator), 2Lt. Jerome R. Calvert (navigator), 1Lt. Ivan G. Petty (electronic warfare officer), Tsgt. David A. Forsythe (gunner), and Ssgt. Lionel A. Terry (flight engineer)

FELON 22 covered the length of New Mexico and entered Utah near the Four Corners. Its turnaround point, Bismark, South Dakota, was still three hours away when the big jet began to encounter heavy turbulence. The stiff winds buffeted FELON 22 and Capt. Marsh disengaged the auto-pilot. The plane drifted 23 miles east of its intended course and Marsh initiated a climb to 40,000 feet, hoping to find calmer air above. The crew was just north of Monticello, Utah.

On the ground, Gene Schafer had just walked out of his father’s house on 400 South in Monticello and was in the process of reaching for his car’s door handle, when he saw a flash. Schafer turned around and, in the next instant, "saw the whole sky light up like sunrise."

Almost 80 miles north, just south of Crescent Junction, San Juan County Sheriff Max King was heading home from a convention in Salt Lake City. As he later told the San Juan Record, "I noticed a bright blue light in the sky south of me. I was sure it was no normal reflection, star or anything man-made. When the light exploded into a ball of fire, I called the Moab Sheriff’s office and asked if they had seen a ball of fire in the sky."

They had not; in fact, very few people had seen the flash in this remote section of high desert, but it had surely happened. The B-52 had exploded in mid-air, ten miles north of Monticello. According to Air Force reports, FELON 22 "experienced a violent bump," as it began its climb to 40,000 feet, "followed by a descending roll of about 410 degrees, a short period of wings-level, nose-down flight, and then a violent spin." At an elevation of 7,000 feet, the plane broke apart. The left-wing engine caught fire and the entire plane erupted in flames. The main impact point was just off US Highway 160, near Church Rock, but the debris field was later determined to encompass an area two miles wide by more than 11 miles long.

Sheriff King ordered all available law enforcement personnel to the crash site. According to King, "Many local people who had seen the flash of light or heard the explosion, were already at the scene of the wreckage" when he arrived. One of them was Gene Schafer who had arrived at the crash site within 30 minutes of the explosion. "As I came down Peter’s Hill, you could see fires burning all over the hillsides," Schafer recalled. "At the main impact site, the fire was real almost looked like burning phosphorus. A man, another bystander, was standing real close to it and I said, ‘You might want to step back from that.’ Just a couple minutes later, that fire exploded and spewed gobs of flame all over the place."

The cockpit and most of the fuselage impacted near Church Rock and as the fire subsided, officials found the bodies of four crew members. Incredibly, three crew members had managed to jump free or eject from the disintegrating B-52 and open their parachutes.



 SOURCE: San Juan Record