Former commanders at Fairchild Air Force Base allowed a B-52 to practice dangerous maneuvers over bunkers with nuclear weapons before the bomber crashed and burned last June.
As the giant plane slipped from the air, the pilot may have managed to steer clear of the nuclear storage area, avoiding an even larger tragedy, some witnesses told Air Force investigators.
“My best guess on it is that he knew he was not supposed to overfly the (weapons storage area) and he was pulling hard to avoid it,” said Capt. Clem Countess, a B-52 pilot who witnessed the crash last June 24.
Others said the B-52 was beyond the control of Lt. Col. Arthur “Bud” Holland when it crashed.
Col. Michael McConnell, chief investigator of the accident, said suggestions that Holland was trying to avoid the weapons area or the nearby Survival School in the final seconds before the crash were “pure speculation.”
The plane hit the ground and exploded some 50 yards beyond the fence of the storage area, killing Holland and the three others on board.
Had the crash occurred inside the weapons area, the resulting explosion would almost certainly not cause the nuclear warheads to detonate, weapons experts said. The storage facilities are designed to withstand shocks and the warheads have extensive safety devices to prevent unplanned detonation.
One former Fairchild official, Col. William Pellerin, faces court-martial on charges stemming from the crash. His trial could start on June 6.
Investigators say Pellerin, the base operations commander, didn’t get proper waivers and approval for the unsafe maneuvers, which included steep climbs, sharply banked turns and low passes over the base.
None of those charges, however, are directly related to the fact that the flight plan took the bomber over the base’s Weapons Storage Area at low altitudes.
Fairchild’s B-52s and KC-135s were not normally allowed to fly low over that area, investigators were told.
Holland’s take-off took the plane over the Weapons Storage Area in a steeply banked 360-degree climbing turn. When he was finished practicing for the upcoming air show, he again made a turn over the restricted area.
It was during that turn that the plane rolled until its wings were perpendicular to the ground, stalled and crashed.
McConnell, the chief investigator, criticized both Pellerin and the wing commander, Col. William Brooks, who approved the unsafe maneuvers.
Brooks has not been charged in the accident, although Air Force sources say he will be kept from further promotions.
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