Rediscovering a B-52 bomber crash in a N.H. swamp 60 years ago

  • Wreckage found recently in Fremont at the site of a B-52 crash in 1959 is shown.

  • Wreckage found recently in Fremont, N.H. at the site of a B-52 crash in 1959. The accident will be examined by investigator William Kolias in 'It Fell From The Sky,' a presentation at the Aviation Museum of New Hampshire on Thursday, Oct. 17 at 7 p.m. and again on Saturday, Oct. 19 at 11 a.m. Family members of the crew will be present as Kolias unveils new findings about the Cold War-era crash. The presentation is included with museum admission of $10 per person; $5 seniors 65+, veterans/active military, students under 13. Members and children under age 5, free. The Aviation Museum of N.H. is located at 27 Navigator Road, Londonderry, N.H. For more info, visit www.nhahs.org or call (603) 669-4820. —Courtesy

  • The site of a B-52 crash in 1959 in Fremont, where wreckage was recently discovered, will be examined by investigator William Kolias in “It Fell From The Sky,” a presentation at the Aviation Museum of N.H. Courtesy photos

  • Wreckage found recently in Fremont, N.H. at the site of a B-52 crash in 1959. The accident will be examined by investigator William Kolias in 'It Fell From The Sky,' a presentation at the Aviation Museum of New Hampshire on Thursday, Oct. 17 at 7 p.m. and again on Saturday, Oct. 19 at 11 a.m. Family members of the crew will be present as Kolias unveils new findings about the Cold War-era crash. The presentation is included with museum admission of $10 per person; $5 seniors 65+, veterans/active military, students under 13. Members and children under age 5, free. The Aviation Museum of N.H. is located at 27 Navigator Road, Londonderry, N.H. For more info, visit www.nhahs.org or call (603) 669-4820. —Courtesy

  • Wreckage found recently in Fremont, N.H. at the site of a B-52 crash in 1959. The accident will be examined by investigator William Kolias in 'It Fell From The Sky,' a presentation at the Aviation Museum of New Hampshire on Thursday, Oct. 17 at 7 p.m. and again on Saturday, Oct. 19 at 11 a.m. Family members of the crew will be present as Kolias unveils new findings about the Cold War-era incident. The presentation is included with museum admission of $10 per person; $5 seniors 65+, veterans/active military, students under 13. Members and children under age 5, free. The Aviation Museum of N.H. is located at 27 Navigator Road, Londonderry, N.H. For more info, visit www.nhahs.org or call (603) 669-4820. —Courtesy

Monitor staff
Published: 10/16/2019 6:21:59 PM

Before reading a newspaper article in 2017, William Kolias knew little about the massive B-52 bomber that crashed in Fremont in 1959, about eight miles north of his childhood home.

The write up piqued his curiosity and jogged a memory he had when he was five and his father rushed out of their Plaistow home to go see a big plane crash. His father never got close to the wreckage that was spread out across a swamp and started a small forest fire.

Determined to find out more, Kolias went to work, scouring official documents and interviewing the witnesses and family members of the crew.

The more Kolias discovered, the more holes he found in the story.

“There was still a lot of mystery surrounding this event,” he said.

All eight crew members were ejected from the stricken bomber that took off from Westover Air Force Base in Chicopee, Mass., on its way to the Canadian Air Force Base in Goose Bay, Labrador.

The pilot, U.S. Air Force Capt. George Kusch, was the last to eject from the plane at 14,000 feet.

“He came in within seconds and a fraction of an inch of losing his life. He almost didn’t make it out of the aircraft,” Kolias said.

All of the crew ejected from within the clouds and never saw the ground until they were a few hundred feet away, Kolias said.

Through his research, Kolias plans to present the last harrowing moment of the airplane and put it in context of the Cold War. The presentation, titled “It Fell From The Sky,” will be given at the Aviation Museum of New Hampshire on Thursday, Oct. 17, at 7 p.m. and again on Saturday, Oct. 19, at 11 a.m.

Even though the entire crew survived the crash, all of them have since passed away. Four family members of the crew – some from as far away as Idaho – will come for the presentation and travel out to the crash site on Friday, including the 85-year-old widow of Sgt. Merrel Hethorne, the electronic countermeasures officer aboard the military bomber. She will be taken by ATV to the crash site, where the wreckage of the doomed B-52 can still be seen.

Kolias felt putting the crash into the context of the Cold War – when the United States and Soviet Union were amassing huge nuclear arsenals in a show of military might – would help reveal how significant it really was. For the U.S., the newly developed B-52 was a crucial part of the nation’s defense. Any vulnerability in its deployment might have grave consequences if exploited by the Soviets, according to the Aviation Museum.

“It was not something the military wanted on the front page,” Kolias said.

The crash

From what Kolias has been able to piece together, high in the sky on Aug. 10, 1959, the giant plane with a wingspan of 185-feet suffered a mechanical defect common to the C-series B-52 plane. A fiberglass radar enclosure under the flight deck gave way, causing the plane to lose altitude and making it nearly impossible to control.

Kusch ordered the seven crew members to eject, but he stayed with the plummeting aircraft until the last moment, trying to ensure that it did not hit a populated area, Kolias said.

The plane changed its direction dramatically before the crash from north to east, evidence that Kusch was trying to get the plane over the ocean to avoid civilian casualties, Kolias said.

The plane came down in Fremont’s unpopulated Spruce Swamp, causing a fire that burned about four acres of land. Kusch landed by parachute in the yard of a nearby home while U.S. Air Force crews sealed off the area and spent two weeks removing most of the wreckage, according to the Aviation Museum.

Kolias said it’s clear the airplane began breaking up during its descent. He thinks the tail broke off several thousand feet above the ground, causing the rest of the plane to disintegrate and lose its fuel in a massive fireball in the sky.

“It looks like someone put this aircraft through a metal shredder going 450 miles per hour 800 feet above the ground,” Kolias said of the debris strewn across the swamp.

While pieces of the wreckage can still be seen, Kolias said nothing more than 10 square feet was ever found.

Eyewitness accounts of the crash are rare as well. The area where the crash occurred – right off Route 125 near the Brentwood/Fremont town line – was rural 60 years ago and the cloud cover was 200 feet above the ground that day.

Two people said they heard a large roar and saw a flaming mass come down behind the trees. Everything Kolias has learned points to an aerial breakup of the plane.

Kolias said he found no evidence the plane was carrying nuclear weapons when it went down.

Telling research

Kolias said many of the documents he received from the government during his research were still heavily redacted decades after the crash.

“I wouldn’t call it a cover up. At the time, the local newspapers carried it but it died out and went away,” Kolias said. “I think the fact that these aircrafts were having issues wasn’t something the government wanted out there.”

Kolias, whose career has included stints as a firefighter, EMT, pilot and master electrician, eventually hopes to publish his findings, and also hopes to work with Matthew Thomas, president of the Fremont Historical Society, to have a state historical site marker placed near the crash site.

Kolias would also like to see Kusch honored for his bravery and his attempts to avoid any casualties on the ground.

Attending the presentation will be the elderly widow, Shirley Hethorne of Idaho, who will be accompanied by her daughter Becky Hethorne, a resident of Dallas, who was born shortly after the crash.

Also on hand will be Ellen Kinsner of Delaware, the daughter of Capt. Kusch, who will attend with her husband George.

“Part of our mission is to tell the stories of New Hampshire’s aviation history, and this is a missing part of the record,” said Jeff Rapsis, the museum’s executive director. “It’s great that Mr. Kolias has taken it upon himself to put the pieces together in a program that weaves together aviation, history and the personal stories of the people who were involved.”

If you go

The presentation at 27 Navigator Road in Londonderry is included with museum admission of $10 per person; It’s $5 for seniors 65 and older, veterans/active military, and students younger than 13. There’s no charge for members and children younger than age five.

For more information on the upcoming presentation, go online to nhahs.org or call 669-4820.




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