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The rush to cover crash of a B-52 in Western Md.

The Baltimore Sun

In the early hours of Jan. 13, 1964, phones began ringing at state police headquarters in Cumberland with callers reporting hearing loud explosions as a major blizzard was sweeping with a vengeance into the state from the Ohio Valley.

Frances Green, a farmer's wife, told The Sun that she had been awakened by "a great rumbling, like thunder."

"I looked out the window, and the sky was blood-red," she said. "I ran to the door and then light was dying down, and then there was another rumbling, not too loud, and a flash of fire."

It was 1:40 a.m.

Nearly 140 miles away in downtown Baltimore, the phone rang on John Woodfield's desk at the Associated Press office then located at 210 N. Calvert St.

Woodfield was working the night desk when a call from the Cumberland Times-News informed him that a plane had crashed somewhere near Grantsville.

"I called the Washington bureau to see if the Federal Aviation Administration could confirm. They called back to say that a check with the FAA and the Pentagon confirmed that a B-52, armed with two atomic weapons, had indeed crashed somewhere in the mountains of Western Maryland and the crew had bailed out," said Woodfield, 77, who retired in 1991, after 19 years as AP bureau chief in Baltimore.

"I called my bureau chief to see what he wanted to do, and he instructed me to contact our photographer Bill 'Smitty' Smith and head for Cumberland. That was easier said than done, since we were in the midst of a major blizzard, and snowdrifts had caused the state police to close Route 40, which in those days was the only road to Western Maryland," recalled Woodfield from his home in Forest Hill the other day.

Woodfield and Smith trudged through snow-covered streets to Camden Station, where they planned to catch an early B&O; passenger train for Cumberland that morning.

"It was dubbed the milk train because it stopped at every whistlestop to pick up milk cans for a dairy in Pennsylvania," recalled Woodfield, adding that "the only passengers beside myself and Smitty was a group of Strategic Air Command officers also en route to Cumberland to investigate the crash."

This was the second air accident Woodfield had covered in little over a month. On Dec. 8, 1963, he was sent to Cecil County to report on the crash of Pan American World Airways Flight 214. En route from Puerto Rico to Philadelphia, the plane was struck by lightning and crashed near Elkton, killing all 81 aboard.

It was also apparently a bad time for B-52s.

On Jan. 24, 1963, a B-52 Stratofortress on a training mission from Westover Air Force Base in Chicopee, Mass., lost its tail during heavy turbulence and crashed into Elephant Mountain near Greenville, Maine, killing five crewmen.

Flight Buzz One Four lifted off the ground, also from Westover, at 12:28 a.m. Jan. 13, 1964. The ill-fated 250-ton B-52 had embarked on its final "airborne alert training mission," which would take it from Massachusetts over Western Maryland to Turner Air Force Base, its home base near Albany, Ga.

Aboard were a crew of five, including the plane's pilot, Maj. Thomas W. McCormick. A little more than an hour later, things began to go wrong as the plane flew over Garrett County at 30,000 feet.

It was 1:32 a.m., and the B-52 was flying directly into one of the worst storms of the winter.

"Cleveland, Buzz One Four, ah, we're experiencing, ah, light turbulence, our present position and, ah, occasionally moderate, ah, no problem," McCormick told air controllers.

"Buzz One Four, Cleveland, roger," replied Cleveland Center.

More turbulent winds engulfed the plane and its pilot requested a change in altitude two minutes later, to 29,000 feet.

"Out there in the dark, along an axis that ran roughly from Tennessee to Cape Cod, a southbound wedge of dense arctic air was grinding into a wall of warm, unstable weather, creating a storm that raced in from the west," wrote reporter David Wood, in a 1996 account of the disaster for Newhouse News Service.

"But that wasn't all. A jetstream wind accelerating to 167 mph was slamming into the storm from the southwest, igniting a rolling, high-velocity explosion that was blasting sheets and shards of wind in all directions, like shrapnel."

McCormick radioed Cleveland for permission to go to 33,000 feet as he tried to control his plane, which was now caught in the grip of howling winds.

Clearance was given for the plane to go to 33,000 feet.

At 31,000 feet, there was a garbled radio transmission "stating something about bailing out," reported Cleveland.

Finally, the tail was ripped from the plane's superstructure by the winds, and the craft began its final death roll while McCormick screamed, "Bail out," to his crew on the intercom.

Six minutes had elapsed since he had radioed Cleveland.

Co-pilot Capt. Robert C. Peedin and McCormick were the only survivors. The dead included bombardier Maj. Robert L. Townley, navigator Maj. Robert Lee Payne and tail gunner Tech. Sgt. Melvin Wooten.

"I encountered extreme turbulence, the aircraft became uncontrollable and I ordered the crew to bail out," McCormick later told the AP. "I then bailed out myself after I was sure that the other crew members had bailed out."

Arriving in Cumberland, Woodfield and Smith needed to get to the crash site.

"Smitty was the type who could get whatever was needed, when needed -- you just didn't ask where it came from. Somehow or other, he persuaded the National Guard to give us a four-wheel-drive jeep with chains on all four wheels," Woodfield said.

He recalled arriving at the wreck site and learning that the body of the bombardier was still in the wreckage.

"The poor guy had ridden the plane down," he said.

The pilot and co-pilot had managed to make it to isolated farmhouses after they bailed out.

"I was sitting on a piece of the wreckage talking to one of the SAC investigators when I asked him if the plane was indeed carrying atomic weapons. He assured me that this was the case, so I asked what happened to them. 'You're sitting on them,' he replied."

Woodfield added: "I was concerned about radioactivity, but I figured if he wasn't bothered, I shouldn't be, either."

After a few days, as the story wound down and the atomic weapons were removed, Woodfield rented a car and drove back to Baltimore.

"I'll always remember that trek to Cumberland in the blizzard and the wreckage of that B-52," he said.

The plane's tail, which stood four stories tall, was found miles from the crash site. Other remains of the B-52 were bulldozed under or trucked away.

A lonely stone cross standing alongside Poplar Lick Run, near where the plane came down, deep in the woods, recalls the life of navigator Payne.

fred.rasmussen@baltsun.com

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