The following is my account of an incident that I experienced as an Auto-Track Radar Repairman in the USAF. Names were either modified or omitted for the usual reasons.
I was a Sr. Airman assigned to the maintenance shift at Detachment 1, 1CEVG La Junta, Colorado. Det 1 was one of many sites across the states that aided in the training of pilots for the purpose of improving bombing skills and threat evasion. We accomplished this by acquiring and tracking military aircraft as they’d attempt simulated bomb runs over a virtual war zone consisting of rancher’s silos and farm houses.
The TSQ-96 was a Vietnam era radar system but still up for the task in this, the early 1980’s. In charge of the 96 and my immediate supervisor was a rather portly Staff Sergeant that reminded me of a Jersey wise guy in fatigues, maddeningly abrasive though decidedly intelligent.
Sgt. Deniro stood beside the scoring easel stirring his coffee as I rifled through the night’s work orders. With a signature tap, tap, tap of the spoon against the rim of his cup, a call came over the operations radio.
It was between two and three AM and the range had been closed for several hours but this pilot, probably now oblivious to earthbound activities, had hoped for one last bit of bomb scoring credit before returning to base.
Deniro gave him the bad news and with a grumble, the pilot announced that he’d be conducting a camera attack only…T/A, meaning Terrain Avoidance. It wasn’t until sometime later that I’d realize the tragic irony of his innocent declaration. The Sergeant bid him well and we continued about the business of radar maintenance.
The hours passed as I busied myself, per Jersey mandate, with the tedium of randomly replacing tubes in control panels in the hopes of magically resolving the reported problem. That’s right…I said tubes! Our shift normally ended at eight when we’d be greeted by the first operational shift and the admin staff but today would prove to be unlike any other.
Uncharacteristically two hours early, base Commander Lt. Colonel Hoffmayer appeared in the dayroom quickly followed by our Captain and XO. We soon learned that the entire staff of 100+ was called in to assemble at the remote facility for an emergency dispatch.
It seemed that Denver ATC had reported that we likely had a “BUFF down on range”! A BUFF is an acronym we used to describe the massive profile of a B-52 bomber, Big Ugly Fat…uh…Fellow.
We were to discreetly head to the crash site in our personal vehicles and set up a perimeter around the likely carnage keeping an eye out for classified materials and repelling any curious onlookers until security forces arrived from nearby Petersen AFB. I immediately teamed up with my best bud Dan Delgado and another friend as we piled into the cab of his 1970’s Ford F-150.
Flanked by the dry and desolate plains beyond the Arkansas Valley we drove at 57 MPH smoking an LA style spliff provided by the ever ready Airman Delgado. As the weed took effect, I began pondering the ominous significance and probable certainty that I may have been one of the last people to hear the pilot’s voice before he died.
Suddenly, my maudlin musings were interrupted by the whine of Buck Sergeant Allan Dobbins’ ultra-compact whizzing by us at 75 MPH, emergency lights flashing. Dan shook his head, “What part of discreet don’t you understand Dobbins?”
Dobbins had a way of going against the interpersonal grain like that, alienating others with his assertions of self-importance. In the months to come he would take on the role of Detachment Judas but for now he was simply edifying his less than stellar reputation.
We pulled in to the makeshift roadside parking lot and joined our NCOs as they gave us individual sectors to maintain. From this vantage point, the only indication of something amiss was the tell-tale column of smoke beyond the rise just ahead.
As I crested the plateau, the full force of the scene struck me in all its surrealistic horror. The enormous airborne warrior had slashed a path a quarter mile long through the midst of the rocky landscape flinging tons of shrapnel, earth and sagebrush in its wake. The smoke arose from various places along the debris field no doubt fed by literally hundreds of gallons of impact-cast jet fuel setting a tone reminiscent of Milton or Dante.
I wandered over to my temporary assignment wide eyed and openly awed by the twisted grandeur before me. The field itself was unremarkable in appearance, a gently sloping plain unbroken by natural obstructions save one large mound of stone near the center. I shook my head as I wondered how in the world this could have happened when my gaze fell on that lone mound.
Upon inspection I saw what appeared to be a massive chunk taken out just below the summit, a smooth semi-circle of rock inexplicably absent. It was as if a ravenous Titan descended upon the desolate scene only to sink his teeth into the indifferent monolith for reasons known only to him. This was the likely point of initial impact and the resultant field of nightmares beyond was the horrific legacy that brought eight lives to their end. I’d been told that the standard crew of a combat B-52 was six which led many to speculate on the presence of the other two. Were they on official assignment or just along for the ride? I never came to know that answer but I suppose it doesn’t matter in the scheme of things. They were soldiers just like us and their families grieved regardless of the particulars.
Preoccupied with the drama before me, I hadn’t thought to look down at my own patch of responsibility. To my surprise, I had been standing mere feet from a colossal sheet of camouflaged metal thrust into the desert terrain by the momentum of the aircraft’s death throes. Apparently I had been oblivious to the fact that I had been keeping company with one of the Buff’s tail fins. Since it was neither remains nor classified, there was no reason to report it at that time so I returned to witnessing the epic event but with renewed solemnity.
Word got around in relative quick time as local pilots began circling the crash site. They were quickly dispatched when the region was declared a civilian no fly zone just in time for military helicopters to arrive on the scene. Making the grandest of entrances was the double-propped Chinook, a personnel/cargo helo. Even from my distant perspective, the landing was imposing in its spectacle. As the rotors powered down I could see the distinctive berets of a flight of MPs disembark, our replacements. Soon they were followed by a smorgasbord of officers of varying ranks and affiliations. They were easily distinguishable by their hat brims’ display of golden reliefs, unofficially referred to as scrambled eggs.
As quickly as it began, our roles in this saga had come to an end. Once the MPs had established their own perimeter our NCOs sent us back to the road to finish our day as we saw fit.
Though the event had passed and our parts had been played, the impact of that day remained long after. I had been spared much of the anguish from my assigned vantage point but others were not so fortunate. Scott Haute, a horn-rimmed friend with a rather cynical wit but good natured disposition had been paired with the Detachment medic. It became his duty to hold the large evidence bags while the medic mournfully placed remnants of crew within for later identification. A self-dismantling bomber shows little mercy to human flesh when driven by high speed force merging with an immovable object. As you can imagine, the process took many bags and many repetitions to complete their work.
Others would report of finding flight boots in the field that were not empty and disembodied hands still clutching their station controls. I cannot testify whether those statements were truth or macabre attempts at titillation over a few beers and blaring music but I can attest to the sincerity of the despondent look in their eyes as they conveyed them.
One man in particular comes to mind though sadly I can’t recall his name. He was a tall strapping fellow that reminded me of a refined Jim Brown. Amiable enough he was soft spoken and respectful though a bit stiff in his social skills. His sector was the final resting place of the tattered remains of what was once the cockpit. The following day his demeanor became tentative, silently performing his tasks brandishing what could only be described as a thousand yard stare! His laugh became forced and unnatural along with his delivery in conversation. It took months before the manic lights finally dimmed in his eyes but to our grateful delight, he emerged a better man than when he first encountered that tumultuous prairie.