I piloted the B-52D aircraft, number 56-676, now on display, several times while stationed at Fairchild AFB, Washington from 1954 to 1964. My first fight with it was on February 19, 1958. After that, according to my records, I flew it another 17 missions, for a total of 18 flights.
I have no memories or record of anything out of the ordinary happening during any of these flights, but as they say you only remember those flights or occasions that are “exciting.” So let me relate a story of a happening in another B-52 while flying at Fairchild.
My crew and I were flying a night training mission when an unexpected incident happened that was a most unexpected flying experience. To fully appreciate this, have you ever been unexpectedly whomped across the chest with a club or a two by four? While at night? While at 36,000 feet? Or while piloting a B-52 eight engine jet bomber? Well I was, and it is something I will never forget! In airplane jargon, it is called an EXPLOSIVE DECOMPRESSION. It is an incident that can’t be enjoyed. No crew member ever wants nor looks forward to having this happen. This condition is explained and demonstrated during on-the ground training all flight crew attend, but you are really never ready. N o one thinks it might happen to him. What happened affected all persons aboard the aircraft that night in pretty much the same way, but here is how it affected me.
On Sep. 5, 1958 we were flying B-52D bomber number 56-668 on a night proficiency training mission. We departed our home base of Fairchild AFB, WA shortly after dark, and had completed several hours of training. About midnight we headed to our assigned refueling area in southern Idaho to join a KC-135 tanker aircraft and practice night in-flight refueling. By now it is black, stars were really sparkling and the air was cold and crisp. This was just another training mission. We were doing what we trained for and had done many times before.
The time arrived for us to rendezvous with the KC-135 tanker aircraft. We went through the preparatory phases, descended to the proper altitude and made visual contact. All went well. We spent our scheduled time practicing maneuvering into position, hooking up and taking on fuel. At the end of our scheduled time we separated from the tanker. We started climbing on a westerly heading to an assigned altitude near 40,000′ to continue training. Following normal procedures, all crew members had their oxygen mask securely fitted to their faces. When passing 36,000 feet, it happened! All of a sudden I felt as if I had been hit across the chest with a 2×4. Instantly the air in my lungs greatly expanded and forced its way from my body. My oxygen system regulator immediately went to the pressure mode and was forcing oxygen back into my lungs, making normal breathing impossible. At the same time, the moisture inside the aircraft condensed into a very dense fog. Although the flight instrument panel was less than two feet in front of me, I could not see it. It didn’t take a rocket scientist to figure something was wrong. But what?
After several seconds the fog cleared and the flight instruments were again visible. We were still climbing. All instruments were normal except one, the one showing cabin pressure. It should be showing a pressure altitude of around 8,000 ft., instead it was showing something like 37,000ft. As the crew checked in on interphone, a member on the upper flight deck reported that the “escape hatch” for his ejection position was missing. This is a hatch about four feet long and nearly three feet wide. It had become unlocked and was missing from the aircraft, leaving a rather large hole! When it flew off, the pressurized air inside the aircraft escaped in an instant, which created a strong sucking force taking out everything that was nearby and loose. Some insulation paneling around the hatch was torn off and gone, as were several other objects. The person sitting in the seat below this now-open hatch had his helmet and oxygen mask torn from his head. We still had control of the aircraft, we’d just lost pressurization. We descended to a lower altitude, returned to our home base, our excitement over.
What happened? To fully understand, you must know the B-52 Ds were equipped with five ejection seats. Three are on the upper deck which eject upward, and two on the lower deck that went downward. This was the method a crew used to exit the aircraft in an emergency while in flight. All crew members wore a parachute at all times during flight. Getting into the ejection seat you made several connections, mating you and your parachute with this life saving device. The seats had two arm rests, each of which contained a “yellow” handle. When you brought the right handle to the “UP” position, the hatch above or below the seat left the aircraft. Raise the left handle and the seat shot from the aircraft through the opening. When the crew member who regularly sat in that seat got out to perform other duties, another crew member took his place and proceeded to “buckle” in. While doing this, he inadvertently activated the right handle, beginning the ejection sequence and causing the hatch to leave the aircraft. Had his seat belt not been securely fastened he would have been sucked from the aircraft. Not a happy prospect. Had he activated the second handle, he and the seat would have ejected from the aircraft. Luckily, it was not a major incident. No one was injured. A rancher found the panel and returned it some months later.
This is one memorable episode in the nearly fifteen years I spent as an aircraft commander/instructor pilot flying SAC bombers. These incidents, which cause a time of adrenalin-pumping concern, are the ones most vividly remembered!
Francis H. Potter
Col. USAF Ret.