Program coincides with 50th anniversary of B-52 crash in Maryland

GRANTSVILLE, Md. — Rick Lewis, a retired New Germany State Park ranger, will display an ejection seat from the cockpit of the B-52 bomber that crashed on Big Savage Mountain in 1964 and present the events that led up to the crash during a 50th anniversary program.   

“Having a B-52 bomber crash in our area is unusual. A lot of people have memories of that time and like to share bits and pieces of memory that they have,” said Lewis.

There were four ejection seats — two that ejected upward and two that ejected downward, according to Lewis. The ejection seat that will be on display was given to Lewis after a tornado in 2000 blew it out of the tree where it was lodged.     

On Jan. 13, 1964, a B-52D Strato-Fortress carrying two unarmed thermo-nuclear bombs and a five-member crew crashed on private property in the Savage River State Forest area during a snowstorm. The B-52 nuclear bomber was flying from Westover, Mass., Air Force Base to Turner Air Force Base in Albany, Ga., according to an article written by Dan Whetzel in Mountain Discoveries magazine.

Four of the five crewmen bailed out at 31,000 feet while the fifth member wasn’t ejected and his remains were found in the wreckage, according to the Jan. 15, 1964, edition of the Cumberland Evening Times.

Maj. Robert E. Townley, 42 of Gadsden, Ala., the radar navigator, and Maj. Robert L. Payne, 41, of Tulsa, Okla., the navigator, died following the crash. Townley was found dead in the nose of the aircraft and Payne, who bailed out of the plane and landed in a tree, walked about three miles after the crash and died from exposure, according to the newspaper article.

Tech. Sgt. Melvin Wooten, 27, of Rapid City, S.C., a gunner who was severely injured by a piece of the disintegrating plane, landed in a field known as Dye Factory and was later recovered at the edge of the Casselman River, according to Whetzel. Wooten’s ejection seat is on display at the Frostburg Museum, according to Lewis.

Two other airmen, pilot Maj. Thomas W. McCormick, 42, of Yawkey, W.Va., and co-pilot Capt. Parker C. Peedin, 29, of Smithfield, N.C., survived.

The men and the plane’s wreckage were scattered over three counties in Maryland and Pennsylvania. The plane’s nuclear payload remained intact despite the crash.

The cause of the crash was directly related to the convergence of two storm systems that created increasing turbulence, which caused McCormick to request a lower altitude at 29,000 feet, according to Whetzel. As the aircraft encountered violent turbulence, the tail fin snapped off, hurling the metal bulk into the left horizontal stabilizer and tail gunner’s pod. The right wing of the unbalanced plane rose, causing the aircraft to roll onto its back and descend in a lopsided spiral, according to Whetzel.

In 2009, several inmates of the Western Correctional Institution cleared a 3- to 4-foot path to the crash site for a proposed memorial. The memorial to this day hasn’t been erected due to issues with private property, according to Lewis. There was a discussion about erecting plaques instead but nothing has been decided yet.

Prior to retiring, Lewis was asked to provide a program on the B-52 bomber crash. Lewis, who has conducted numerous programs, will present “Bomber Down,” a special 50th anniversary program, on Saturday at 5 p.m. at the Lake House at New Germany State Park. There is no charge for admission to the program.


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