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A Secret Reconnaissance Mission Ends in Disaster

Burgoynes Cove, Trinty Bay

Date Last Modified: April 2, 2016

On the night of March 17, 1953, General Richard E. Ellsworth and his crew took off from the Canary Islands on a mission to test North American air defenses. The mission took a tragic turn when a change in weather conditions pushed the plane off course. Early in the morning on March 18 the enormous B-36 Peacemaker aircraft crashed into a mountain on the western side of Trinity Bay just north of the community of Burgoynes Cove. All 23 crew members were killed.

 

The wreckage of the crash still exists today and remains as a memorial to the men who lost their lives that day and to the dangers they faced even during times of peace. Just a short drive and hike from the community of Burgoyne's Cove, the area offers stunning views and a valuable piece of history we should not forget.

Mission

In order to test North America's defense systems, multiple RB-36H Peacemaker reconnaissance aircraft from the 28th Reconnaissance Wing out of Rapid City Air Force Base in South Dakota took off from the Canary Islands and attempt to enter the continent undetected. The planes were set to maintain a 500 foot altitude to avoid detection and once they entered the continental US they would climb to 40,000 feet and proceed to designated targets.

 

On the night of March 17, 1953, these aircraft took off in 15 minute intervals en route to North America. The mission commander, General Richard E. Ellsworth was in the first plane to leave and was the only person in the air force who knew when the mission started.

 

In order to navigate to the United States in total secrecy, the pilots would use sextons, a navigation instrument, and would have to rely on weather forecasts which meant they weren’t able to be given updates if anything changed. 

The Aircraft

The aircraft he was flying originally began its life as a B-36D Peacemaker which was designed in WWII to drop bombs on Nazi Germany. The plane which had been deemed an intercontinental strategic bomber had six 3800 horsepower radial piston engines and four General Electric turbojets that were capable of propelling the plane 696 km/h and provided it with a range of over 10,000 kilometres. Having been originally designed as a bomber it could carry up to 86,000 lbs. of weaponry and contained sixteen 20mm cannons in the nose and six turrets along its fuselage.

 

The aircraft that Ellsworth was flying was specially modified for reconnaissance missions (hence the R in the name of the aircraft). The forward bomb bay was equipped with a pressurized camera compartment that held seven people who operated it.

The Crash

The men were fully aware of the weather conditions that were expected over there 23 hour missions but cloud cover along the way prohibited the use of sextons to measure if they were on the correct route. An unexpected change in a low pressure system meant they wrongfully estimated the amount of side wind causing them to deviate north.

 

Late on the night of March 17, the aircraft didn’t come ashore in Maine but in Trinity Bay. Flying too low to clear the mountains, the plane impacted the barren hilltop and created an enormous debris field. All 23 men on board died upon impact. 

Rescue

Nearby, people nearby just waking up in the morning heard the large explosion and soon after saw the fireball and light created by the crash. They quickly formed a rescue party and hiked through the deep snow for 2 hours before reaching the summit. Disaster waited for them. The plane had cut a 250 foot debris field into the hillside which completely mangled the fuselage and wings of the aircraft. Small fires burned around the site and it soon became clear that no one had survived.

 

The men quickly rode to a small community on Random Island and telephoned the RCMP in Clarenville. Shortly after, word reached the Canadian Air Force base in Gander which sent two planes to the site. Medics parachuted down and were updated on the situation by the first responders.

 

In order to transport the bodies a clearing was cut to land a US Coast Guard helicopter which transported the bodies to the nearby community of Monroe where they were placed on board a US PBY Coast Guard Seaplane and brought to Torbay Airport. Here hearses awaited them to transport them to the American Base at Fort Pepperell.

 

Rescue Plane Goes Missing

Sadly enough this was not the last disaster to happen this day. After Ellsworth and his crew didn’t show up with the rest of his squadron, a B-29 Superfortress of the 52nd Air Rescue Squadron out of Harmon Air Force Base in Stephenville was sent on a mission to locate the aircraft. After being unsuccessful in locating the aircraft it made its way back to Harmon. The plane and its 10 crew members never made it back and were later to be classified as missing.

 

The plane was never found and so the cause of the crash remains unknown.

Today

The hike to the site is just off the road to a slate quarry a couple of kilometres past Burgoyne's Cove and is a terrific, relatively easy hike that awards you with spectacular views at the top. After about 40 minutes of walking you come across the first piece of debris. Another 5 minutes is the next piece and another couple after that you will find more and more.

 

Once you get to what you think is the top you see part of the wing and pieces to an engine. Over the crest of the hill is disturbing to say the least. In a small gully on top of a bog, thousands of pieces of bent metal and fuselage lay piled up. It is then you forget about the beautiful scenary of Trinity Bay and realize just what you came across.

 

Pieces of the wing and engines are clearly seen and the tail section remains relatively intact. On top of a nearby hill, a plaque stands in memory of the men who died there. The plaque was placed on the site on August 3, 1993 by the 103rd RU Flight Engineering command.

RB-36 Crew Members

RB-36H Crew Members:

General Richard E. Ellsworth

Capt. Stuart Fauhl

Capt. Harold Smith

Capt. William Maher

Capt. OF Clark

Capt. JH Pruit

1st Lt Edwin Meader

1st Lt James Pace

Major John Murray

Major F. C. Wright

1st Lt James Powell Jr.

A/2C Robert Nall

1st Lt Clifford Bransdor

M Sgt Jack Winegardner

A/2C Morris Rogers

T Sgt Walter Plnski

A/1C Burse Vaughn

S Sgt Ira Beard

S Sgt Robert Ullom

A/2C Phillip Mancos Jr.

A/2C Keith Hoppons

A/1C Theodore Kazik

T Sgt Jack Maltsberger.

B-29 Crew Members

B-29 Crew Members:

Capt. FRANCIS XAVIER QUINN, Dorchester, Mass.

Capt. WILLIAM A ROY, San Antonio, Tex.

First Lt. RODGER D. NULL, Venice, Cal.

First Lt. ROBERT W. ERRICO, Bronx, N.Y.

S/Sgt. DAVID E. KIMBROUGH, Roswell, N.M.

Cpl. DAVID E. RASH, Beaverton, Ore.

A/1C ROBERT J. MONTGOMERY, Mountain Grove, Mo.

A/3C MICHAEL KERR, JR., Chisholm, Minn.

A/3C SAMMY O. JONES, Akron, Ohio.

A/3C JAMES E. COGGINS, Allston, Mass.

Sources

Exerts from The Daily News March 1953

Under the Radar by: Tom Drodge

Hike into History by: Susan Flanagan The Telegram Nov. 5, 2008

Aircraft Safety Network Database