Greg Staples remembers hearing a big “thump” as he was sitting down to dinner on a late summer evening in 1958 with his mother, brother and grandmother, who was celebrating her birthday. They looked out a window from their home on Fairchild Air Force Base and saw a B-52 on fire and ejection seats.
He and his brother didn’t pay much attention to the schedule their father kept as a B-52 navigator, but their mother did. “She was on the front porch, screaming his name,” Staples recalled recently.
Maj. Donald Staples, a World War II veteran who had flown 25 missions over Europe, was aboard Outcome 54, which was coming in for a landing at Fairchild. Another B-52, designated Outcome 55, had just finished a “touch-and-go” landing and was coming around for its final landing. Both were on training missions.
Outcome 54 was scheduled to practice an instrument approach; Outcome 55 was practicing visual flight landing. About 2 miles from the runway, over the town of Airway Heights, the two mammoth bombers collided, then exploded, sending a torrent of airplane pieces raining down. The two planes had 16 crew members between them; 13 died.
The nation’s new B-52s had only arrived at the West Plains the year before, and with them their new air and ground crews. Some, like Donald Staples, were World War II vets. He flew in B-17s over Europe, survived a major crash in which he suffered a broken back and severe neck injury, and recovered and finished his required 25 missions before coming home. He stayed in the military after the war and had flown on B-47s before training on B-52s. He brought his family to Fairchild that spring.
Others, like 1st Lt. Reggie Frazier, a younger navigator who was next to Staples on Outcome 54, were part of the Air Force’s new generation. Frazier, 26, grew up in Spokane, and his family was still living in Lincoln Heights when he was assigned to Fairchild a few months earlier. He moved back in with his family rather than live on base.
He left the morning of Sept. 8 for a training flight, and his brother Larry recalls hearing and then seeing a B-52 fly overhead that evening on approach to Fairchild. The family was pretty sure it was Reggie’s plane. About an hour later, they heard about a crash on the television, and his mother was frantic. About 9 p.m., a group of officers knocked on the door to tell the family the young lieutenant was dead.
“It was the first time I’d ever seen my father cry,” recalled Larry Frazier, who was 21 at the time.
Joe Martella, who would later become mayor of Airway Heights, was standing at the Shell station along U.S. Highway 2 when he saw the planes collide and break apart. A big piece of one of the bombers was headed toward the Buckhorn Tavern, which at about 6 p.m. was full of people stopping on their way home from the base. The crippled plane veered off, missed the tavern and crashed into an empty lot. The Buckhorn’s dishwasher, Jim Duffy, rushed out of the kitchen and pulled some people from the wreckage.
“It got so close and was so hot it burned the shirt off my back,” Martella recalled recently. “I’m still amazed it missed the Buckhorn.”
Although the planes came down on open land and no one on the ground was killed, the crash was among the worst accidents on or near Fairchild in the history of the base. But at the height of the Cold War, when the Strategic Air Command kept the crews of its large fleet of nuclear-capable bombers sharp with training missions as well as bomb-laden air alerts, crashes were much more common than today.
An investigation board determined the cause of the collision was human error and that basic flight procedures hadn’t been followed. Outcome 55 had switched off its instruments in preparation for its final landing, and Outcome 54 hadn’t switched its instruments on. Outcome 55 was ordered by the tower to go up and to the right, while Outcome 54 was supposed to follow procedures and go down and to the left. Instead, both planes pulled up to the right and into each other.
Staples recalled his family was quickly moved off base and probably would have moved to Los Angeles, where his mother was from, if she hadn’t found an affordable house on 21st Avenue. He graduated from Lewis and Clark High School and Washington State University, went into the Air Force and became a KC-135 pilot. His first assignment was at Fairchild, where he pulled alert duty in the same building his dad had used 20 years earlier. But by then, no one at Fairchild remembered the 1958 crash.
“Folks out there are much more transient,” he said. His last assignment also was Fairchild, and he stayed in Spokane after he retired.
In 2008, Martella called Fairchild, which by then was a KC-135 base and no longer home to the giant bombers or their crews, to find out what it was doing to mark the anniversary of the crash. Nothing, he was told. When he asked to whom he should complain, Martella said, he was told to call the newspaper, which wrote a story about Airway Heights residents’ recollections of the crash.
Now, family members of some of the crash victims, led by Staples and Frazier, are working on plans for a monument to the two crews in Fairchild’s Memorial Park, which has monuments to mark several more-recent accidents. They plan a simple granite slab with the names of all crew members and a silhouette of a B-52. It would also carry the old SAC slogan “Peace is Our Profession” and a dedication to “the heroes of the Cold War.”
Staples has talked to Tresko Monuments about securing the stone, and plans are being made for a concrete slab that would anchor it in the park. The estimated cost is from $7,000 to $8,000, said Frazier, who now lives in Tacoma. They’ve set up a GoFundMe account to help collect donations.
They’ve contacted the local chapter of the Air Force Association and other veterans groups, and are searching for other family members of the victims or survivors. On Tuesday, the design and its possible site in the Fairchild park were reviewed by base civil engineering. On Thursday, Col. Ryan Samuelson, commander of the 92nd Air Refueling Wing, called it “a good and appropriate endeavor.”
As the base approaches its 75th anniversary next year, it’s appropriate to reflect on the legacy left by the men and women who served there, Samuelson said.
“As airmen, we are proud of our past and memorializing those who died defending this nation is just one small way we can say ‘thank you’ and that we will not forget their sacrifices,” he said in a statement. The time that has passed since the crash shouldn’t keep the base from honoring those men, and he’d support memorializing others who “paid the ultimate sacrifice” while serving at Fairchild.
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