|Captain Charles McClead, (right) Radar Intercept Officer on the ill fated F-101B is shown in a Bangor Daily News photo at left, shortly after walking out of the woods on November 15th, 1962. McClead returned to the site on a Maine Aviation Historical Society crash site hike in June 2001. He is shown on the right giving an oral history of the mishap before hiking in.|
|The following article originally appeared in the November 2000 Atlantic Flyer. It was later republished in two parts in the MAHS Dirigo Flyer under the title "Maine in the Cold War".|
| MAYDAY AT 45,000 FEET!
DURING THE GREATEST CRISIS OF THE COLD WAR, SEVERAL SMALL MAINE TOWNS WERE
DRAWN INTO A DESPARATE SEARCH FOR A MISSING WARPLANE AND AIRCREW.
Peter J. Noddin
The First Line of Defense
Early on the afternoon of Wednesday, November 14, 1962, two F-101B "Voodoo" jet interceptors took off in formation from Dow Air Force Base in Bangor Maine, and climbed through the low gray overcast. For several minutes the roar of their Pratt and Whitney J-57 engines could still be heard, fading away toward the northwest. To local residents, these were not unusual sights and sounds over a city with an Air Force base that was home to Strategic Air Command bomber and tanker squadrons, an Air Defense Command fighter squadron, and an Air National Guard fighter squadron. . But never since World War Two had the operational tempo at Dow been so high or drawn so much attention from the citizens of the region.
For several weeks now, the nation had held its breath in fear that a nuclear war between the superpowers was going to become a reality at any moment. The Cuban Missile Crisis was still the top national news story and the United States Military was at its highest level of alert ever during the Cold War. The Soviet Union had backed down within sight of the U.S. naval blockade and begun to dismantle the intermediate range nuclear missile sites in Cuba, but Fidel Castro was threatening to shoot down U.S. Air Force reconnaissance planes that were monitoring the disarmament. Medium range bombers and tactical missiles in Cuba still posed a serious concern.
In an age when the manned nuclear-armed bomber formed the main strategic deterrent to world war, Maine played an important role in the Strategic Air Command's operations. B-52 bombers stationed at Loring Air Force Base in Limestone and at Dow Air Force Base normally sat armed and ready with crews in their alert facilities, waiting for the klaxon to sound, signaling that the unthinkable had begun. In recent years, Presque Isle Air Force Base had been the home of the first nuclear armed strategic missiles aimed at the Soviet Union- SNARK cruise missiles.
The increased readiness that came with the crisis had several armed B-52s from each base flying 24 hour long missions requiring multiple air to air refuelings. Besides this around the clock "airborne alert", extra bombers sat armed and ready at the alert facilities on base and dispersed to civilian airports around the country.
Less well remembered are the protective elements of the Air Defense Command that existed in Maine at the time. The "Bangor Air Defense Sector" included radar sites and interceptor squadrons throughout northern New England. Radar installations throughout the sector fed their data to the Semi-Automatic Ground Environment, "SAGE"sector block house in Topsham, where the most sophisticated computers of the day sorted and displayed all tracked aircraft. Controllers could direct interceptor aircraft or air defense missiles to hostile aircraft through data links. Supersonic jet interceptors of the Air Force's "Century"series stood alert in special hangars at Dow and Loring Air Force Bases. These planes carried nuclear-armed unguided "Genie" rockets, as well as high explosive armed radar guided or heat seeking "Falcon" air to air missiles. A squadron of BOMARC, long range, radar guided surface to air missiles operated from a launch facility near Dow. The U.S. Army also provided a last ditch air defense of Loring Air Force Base. Four batteries of Nike Hercules short-range surface to air missiles, which could be armed with conventional or nuclear warheads, formed a protective ring around the base.
A few years earlier, routine intercepts of off course or overdue airliners and cargo aircraft had given way to interception of Soviet bombers and reconnaissance aircraft probing the air defense identification zone off the Maine coast. Never before had a shooting war in the skies over North America seemed so likely.
The two-plane flight that had just taken off from Dow was on a routine training mission. Both planes carried a pair of GAR 2A Falcon heat seeking missiles so that they could be diverted to an active air defense mission if an unidentified aircraft was picked up by SAGE while they were airborne. This was a standard practice in the Air Defense Command. The lead plane, "Yankee Papa 20" was piloted by 29 year old Captain Douglas Roe, with 27 year old Captain Charles McClead, Radar Intercept Officer (RIO), in the rear seat. Captain Roe had recently been transferred to the 75th Fighter Interceptor Squadron and had completed his transition training to fly the F-101B interceptor. This intercept was the last of his "qualification" flights needed to become alert ready.
Today's mission involved a simulated "snap-up" delivery of an AIR-2A Genie nuclear rocket against another F-101B that had taken off earlier and would simulate an incoming bomber at high altitude. Then Roe and McClead would intercept a T-33 trainer simulating a low-level intruder and dropping chaff to confuse their aircraft's radar system. Captain Earl Grenzebach Jr. would follow in "Yankee Papa 21", with Captain Art Aspinal in the rear seat as his RIO, to evaluate their performance.
Captain Roe was also scheduled to fly a second training mission that evening.
The two engine F-101B, along with the F-106 "Delta Dart" formed the backbone of the Air Defense Command's manned interceptor force. At 67 feet long, with a forty-foot wing span, the "Voodoo", known unofficially by those who flew them as the "One-O-Wonder", could fly at nearly mach 2, and had a maximum range of just under 2000 miles. The transition from first generation jet all-weather interceptors like the F-89 "Scorpion", F-94 "Starfire", and F-86D "Sabre Dog" to the supersonic centuries that was occurring at this time was nothing short of remarkable. Pilots, like Captain Roe, were transitioning from planes that might break the sound barrier in a steep dive and hold together if pulled out gently, to aircraft that could easily cause a sonic boom if an adequate rate of climb wasn't maintained on take-off (much to the woe of many homeowners near Air Force bases).
The 101's on-board radar and fire control system could locate aircraft in darkness or foul weather and engage them with up to four missiles that could be carried on a rotary missile door in the belly of the aircraft, two outside and two inside. The normal "combat" armament for an F-101B was two GAR-2A heat seeking Falcons; and two AIM-2A nuclear armed Genies. Pilots sometimes discussed measures to disable Soviet bombers by ramming into them with their fighter if they were out of missiles and attacking planes were still present. Pilots talked about hitting the bomber's cockpit or tail with the belly of their plane to force it down and still give their fighter a chance of survival. Such desperate measures were warranted by the destructive power of a single nuclear-armed bomber.
The F-101 series of fighters did have one "goblin" in their handling characteristics, as did most of the first and second generation of jet fighters. The F-101 had a tendency to suddenly "pitch up" in flight without warning. This was caused by turbulent airflow from partially stalled swept wings at high angles of attack, and during high G maneuvers, creating a loss of lift on the horizontal stabililators of the 101's "T" shaped tail. If it couldn't be brought quickly under control it would develop into a flat oscillating spin from which no recovery was possible. The F-101 autopilot system had been retrofit with a pitch inhibitor which included a warning system to alert the pilot when the plane approached stall conditions that could lead to a "pitch up". The flight envelope of the F-101 was defined by the pitch up hazard, rather than stall parameters and pilots were trained to apply full down stabilator and deploy the plane's drag chute at the top of one of the vertical oscillations in the first 6-8 seconds of departure from normal flight, to get the nose down and regain control.
"The 101 was a good interceptor" McClead later related, "but an evil beast, in that it was hard to fly and it took a good pilot to fly it."
Soon after take off, Yankee Papa 20 was in contact with the SAGE controller and received data link information showing the target aircraft inbound over northern Maine. The pilot turned north and accelerated to supersonic speed over the vast forest north of the base. As they approached Lincoln at 35,000 feet, Captain McClead acquired the other F-101B on his radar and had Captain Roe make a set of turns to set up the proper angle for a 110 degree beam attack as guided by the fire control system. At 20 seconds to go to the calculated missile firing point, the pilot pulled the plane up into the steep "snap up"climb designed to allow him to shoot down a bomber at a much higher altitude and give the fighter time to escape damage from the nuclear fireball.
With extra fuel drop tanks, the maneuver put the plane at near stall conditions through most of the climb. The tanks fitted to the aircraft that day were unstreamlined "ferry" tanks rather than the streamlined tanks normally used for supersonic flight. The tanks also created an aft center of gravity since no ballast was in place in lieu of the 820 pound Genie rockets.
While still about five miles from the target, the pitch up warning horn sounded in the cockpit and Captain Roe flattened out his climb slightly to avoid the danger.; As the plane made the transition to subsonic flight, Roe fought to complete the intercept and keep the aircraft from departure. As the firing point was reached, he lost what had been predestined by the aircraft's balance and configuration to be a hopeless battle.
Captain Grenzebach, in Yankee Papa 21, saw the plane suddenly go nose up and snap roll to the left. The sudden stress from the uncontrolled maneuver caused the right wing drop tank to separate from the aircraft. The pitch up, combined with the sudden change in the aircraft's balance due to the loss of the tank, sent Yankee Papa 20 into a bizarre twisting cartwheel through the sky. The pilot deployed the drag parachute in an attempt to get the nose down and regain control. Despite this, the plane entered a flat spin. The sleek fighter capable of flying faster than the speed of sound essentially became a falling rock.
Grenzebach saw the plane enter the clouds at 38,000 feet and knew he could not follow it down further due to solid overcast and a snowstorm below. As Yankee Papa 20 was seen the last time for three days, he could only squawk emergency and make a frantic "mayday" call to alert Dow of the aircrew in serious trouble.
The flight had lasted only about 20 minutes.
Within an hour, a convoy of Air Force vehicles left Dow and was escorted by state troopers north on U.S. Route 2 toward the area. The convoy included ambulances, a mobile kitchen, a fuel truck, trucks loaded with bunks, as well as trailer mounted search lights and boats. Major J.W. Henderson, Provost Marshall at Dow, led the search team numbering about 40 Airmen. Considering the radar fix at the time of the mayday call, Henderson decided to set up the search headquarters at the elementary school in the small town of Medway, near Millinocket. Classrooms became bunkrooms and offices for planning the search. The gym became a chow hall and Air Force cooks took over the kitchen. Outside, technicians rechecked spotlights, boat motors and other equipment to ensure their readiness if needed for the rescue.
An HH-43 "Huskie" rescue helicopter arrived in the area from Loring Air Force Base but was unable to conduct an effective search because of the heavy snowstorm that was to last for over 48 hours and dropped nearly three feet of snow on the region.
Personnel canvassed the local area interviewing hunters coming out of the woods and police officers who might have seen or heard something. Some hunters volunteered as guides and went with Airmen in four wheel drive military trucks to scour the woods roads in the area, hoping that the aircrew had found a road and were trying to walk out of the woods. Several "listening posts" were set up in wilderness areas to wait for distress shots from the downed officers.
Both Roe and McClead had served in the arctic and had winter survival training. If they weren't critically injured, they had an excellent chance of surviving the raging snowstorm and falling temperature.
As darkness set in, clues began to filter into search headquarters. As with any incident of this type, much of it was well meaning but frivolous. Shots and explosions were heard, flares and parachutes were seen at points throughout the region. Two pieces of information that collaborated, however, caught Major Henderson?s attention. Mattawamkeag Police Chief "Stu" Campbell reported that hunters staying in a remote cabin on the east side of Macwahoc Ridge had heard a loud impact and explosion at about 2:30 pm. Several people at a camp at Molunkus Lake, just west of the same area had seen something fall from the sky to the east and saw what they thought was a parachute through the falling snow. They estimated the impact point as somewhere near Lower Henderson Brook, between U.S. Routes 2 and 2A, near the small Aroostook County village of Macwahoc. Several others in the area reported hearing an explosion about the same time. Based on this information, he decided to move search headquarters east to the Community Center in Mattawamkeag, in the early morning hours, and focus the search effort near Lower Henderson Brook.
By Thursday morning, the Air Force search team was augmented by State Police, Game Wardens, Civil Defense personnel, Civil Air Patrol volunteers, local policemen, firemen, guides and hunters. The small towns of Mattawamkeag and Macwahoc took on the look of a small military base as resources continued to pour in. A field next to a roadside motel was turned into a helicopter staging area and nearly everyone who could pitched in some way.
This scene was not at all a strange one to the residents of Mattawamkeag. A few years earlier, in December 1959, the Air Force had set up a search base in the same building during a 14 hour search for two B-52 bomber crewmen who had ejected from their plane after a mid-air collision with the KC-97 tanker that was refueling them. The crewmen were located from the air near Medway the next morning and were rescued by helicopter. The planes had both made safe emergency landings at separate Air Force Bases. In December 1953, an F-86F "Sabre" jet fighter from Dow had crashed just outside of town. The pilot safely ejected and walked to a woods camp. The Air Force had set up operations in town while they investigated the accident and recovered sensitive equipment from the wreckage.
Early Thursday morning, a Civil Defense worker posted in a pickup truck on Route 2, north of Macwahoc, saw a man in a flight suit walk out of the woods and flag down a passing vehicle. Captain McClead was driven to the search headquarters to debrief with Major Henderson, then transported to Dow for a thorough medical examination.
Captain McClead was uninjured and in good spirits after spending a night in the snow covered woods. He stated that after vain attempts to recover the aircraft, he and Captain Roe had decided to abandon the aircraft at 10,000 feet. The procedure for doing this from a two-seat fighter was for the canopy to be blown off by one of the crew and for the RIO to eject first. The pilot would wait several seconds after the canopy was gone to give the RIO time to get clear so that the rocket from his own seat would not burn the RIO. McClead said that he ejected at 8000 feet indicated altitude. The spin had had him pinned against the left side of the cockpit and the negative G forces had him straining against his straps up off his seat. After several frantic seconds of difficulty reaching and arming the ejection mechanism, his automatic ejection seat had worked flawlessly. He had separated from his seat and his chute had automatically opened. Seconds later he had seen a flash and heard the aircraft impact on a wooded ridge below him. His chute had snagged a tree and he swung feet first into the trunk..
He had not seen Captain Roe's parachute through the clouds and snow, but felt sure that he had safely ejected.
Once on the ground, McClead had checked the gear in his survival kit and set out toward a chainsaw that he could hear in the distance. Encountering a thick wet swamp and realizing that it would soon be dark, he wisely decided to make camp for the night. He could hear the aircraft burning and heard several secondary explosions. On the way back to his parachute, he walked to within sight of the burning wreckage hoping to link up with Captain Roe. He set up a "teepee" type shelter with his parachute canopy but did not build a fire, deciding that it was better to stay dry than get wet while building one. In the morning, after a reasonably comfortable night with periodic sleep, a lull in the storm allowed him to move toward highway noises and find an old woods road that he followed about two miles to Route 2.
Continued bad weather prevented a helicopter air search of the area from locating the wreckage, but ground teams backtracked McClead's route to his campsite and fanned out looking for Captain Roe and the crash site. The ground searchers had to wade through three-foot snowdrifts that obliterated McCleads tracks in the thick woods. By early evening, the snowstorm turned to freezing rain, adding to their misery. At 7:30 p.m. the last of the teams shuffled into headquarters, empty handed, for a hot meal and needed sleep to prepare for an all out effort again at daylight.
By Friday morning, 35 additional Airmen from Dow arrived to bring the total ground search force of military and civilian personnel to over 100. A second helicopter had arrived on site, along with Civil Air Patrol planes and a Navy P-2V "Neptune" patrol bomber. A mobile command post was set up at a weigh station on Route 2 a short distance from where McClead had walked out.
Searchers lined up along Route 2 near Lower Henderson Brook and marched through the woods on line to Route 2A. At times the woods was so thick that visibility was limited to a few yards. Other teams searched areas on both sides of the roads. By afternoon, the weather was clearing enough to allow a somewhat effective air search. Regardless of the magnitude of this effort, everyone headed back at nightfall with neither the plane nor the pilot being located. The strain of the three day effort was showing on the faces of the Airmen, public safety professionals and volunteers, but there was still a pilot out there somewhere who may need help. His chances of survival grew smaller each day, especially if he was injured.
There was, however, one glimmer of hope. Captain McClead had returned to the search and during a helicopter flight that afternoon he spotted what he thought was the ridge face where he had seen the aircraft impact. Plans for Saturday morning included a more extensive air search, made possible by improving weather, another all out ground "grid" search and six Airmen being lowered from a helicopter into the area pointed out by McClead.
Saturday, November 17, 1962 dawned relatively clear, allowing the Air Force to conduct air search operations in a manner that they were accustomed to. By 9:30 a.m. the six man team that had been lowered into the woods by cable from the helicopter radioed to report that they had found the aircraft wreckage on the bank of Lower Henderson Brook a short distance from McClead's campsite. Everyone converged on this point.
The crash site was an eerie scene. The area smelled of jet fuel and burned plastic. The plane had hit the ground coming straight down in its flat spin and had blown a thirty-foot diameter crater, fifteen feet deep, in the side of the ridge. One engine and some debris were in the crater. Pieces of the aircraft were scattered for nearly 300 yards. Pieces of aluminum, plastic, wire and rubber hung in tree branches all around the crater. Pieces of the jet engine turbines had cut down small trees as they flew through the mixed forest. Molten aluminum "ingots" created by the intense fire surrounded the crater.
The site also offered hope that Captain Roe would still be found alive. Captain McClead's ejection seat was laying about forty feet northwest of the crater, a testimony to the fact that the aircraft had descended straight down. Captain Roe's seat was about twenty feet southwest of the crater and, like McClead's had been mechanically fired by its occupant.
Over the next hour, however, hope began to fade. The pilot's helmet was found in the snow forty feet away. Of course, aircrew sometimes lost helmets during the ejection/descent process. McClead had. But Airmen assigned to investigate the crater closely soon discovered human remains among the fire-damaged debris. Captain Roe had apparently ejected too late. Altimeter lag in the flat spin could have meant that the 8000 feet indicated when they started ejection was actually only 4000-5000, and he may have had similar trouble to McClead reaching the ejection mechanism. His parachute had not been able to deploy in time.
By the end of the day, a tired and frustrated search group demobilized. Air Force personnel loaded into vehicles and headed back to Bangor. Aircraft flew back to their home bases and civilians returned to their regular jobs knowing that they had pulled together and given their all to the effort. Air Force Security Police moved in to secure the site for a few days so that investigators could complete their work and munitions specialists could ensure that no dangerous missile debris remained.
REMEMBERING THE COST
Captain Roe left behind a wife and son in Brewer, as well as an extended family in his hometown of Phoenix, Arizona.
Captain McClead went on to serve with two more ADC squadrons and flew in F-4s in Viet Nam. He later settled in Maine, and continued to fly in F101B's for several years with the 132nd Fighter Interceptor Squadron of the Maine Air National Guard.
Captain Grenzebach, the instructor pilot following the stricken aircraft, later flew F-105 "Thunderchief" tactical bombers in Viet Nam. In 1967, Colonel Grenzebach was shot down over North Viet Nam and declared missing in action.
Major Henderson would lead another urgent search into the snowy frozen Maine woods just two months later. A B-52C bomber from Westover Air Force Base in Massachusetts suffered a structural failure and crashed near Greenville, Maine. Two of the nine crewmen aboard were rescued alive from sub-zero temperatures in the snow filled wilderness.
The towns of Medway, Mattawamkeag, and Macwahoc would never be drawn into such a search again. Between 1950 and 1963, however, a total of 11 American and Canadian military aircrew died in accidents in Maine's Katahdin Region. Many more died in other areas of Maine, especially along the coast and in northern Aroostook County. Thousands died around the world during the Cold War era due to accidents or hostile action. They were serving their country and preparing for a day that fortunately would never come. They were preparing to defend the United States and a way of life that most of us take for granted from an unthinkable attack.
Looking back with 20/20 hindsight, in an era where a single Air Force plane crash is national news, and the Cold War has ended, it is easy to forget the seriousness and earnestness with which these young men served. They were risking their lives to protect their families and their hometowns so that we could eventually live without the constant fear of nuclear war. They had to serve, fly and push the limits as if at war at all times, and their deaths are certainly no less honorable than if they were the result of enemy action in a shooting war.
The site of this crash in 1962 is now more accessible than it was then. A gravel logging road passes within 100 yards of the crash crater, which is now filled with water and easily mistaken for a natural pond. A perfectly round opening still exists through the overhead trees where the plane came screaming down in its death spin. One engine and hundreds of small pieces of metal debris, unrecognizable to anyone who does not know the story of the Mayday at 45,000 Feet, are scattered around the crater and along a 300 yard pattern to the bank of the brook. Two large sections of the fighter's wings were removed and sold for scrap metal during a wood cutting operation in the late 1960?s. In recent years, since the road was built, the aircraft canopy was removed from its resting-place a few hundred yards away. Captain McClead?s ejection seat has also disappeared from the site during this decade.
A white cross, informational plaque, and American Flag are maintained at the crater by the Maine Aviation Historical Society as a memorial to the sacrifice made by Captain Douglas H. Roe on that cold snowy November afternoon. It informs those who stumble onto the wreckage about the historic significance of the site. It also serves as a reminder those who visit of a time when nuclear war seemed almost certain. A time when a few small Maine towns rose to the occasion and came to the aid of those who took the risks and often paid the price of being the first line of America's defense. A visit to this or any other crash site of the era cannot help leaving a person with a deep respect for our cold warriors and a newfound understanding that freedom is not free!
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