January 24, 2021

The Age of Flying Fortresses Over Northern Michigan

Fifty years ago, this week, an aviation tragedy occurred over Little Traverse Bay — a B-52 bomber with nine men onboard crashed into Lake Michigan.
By Patrick Sullivan | Jan. 2, 2021

 There was a time when the roar of a B-52 in the skies around Little Traverse Bay was a regular occurrence. Suddenly, a flying fortress designed to carry nuclear warheads would pass overhead with a rumble that stirred people to their bones.

The massive warplanes routinely flew training missions over northern Lake Michigan, and the military used the newly built Big Rock Point nuclear power plant as a target in simulated bombing training.

The odds of one of these behemoths crashing – much less crashing into Big Rock, causing a nuclear disaster – might have seemed scant until Jan. 7, 1971, when a B-52 Model C did crash into Little Traverse Bay, with nine men aboard, just five miles and just moments before the plane was due to fly directly over the nuclear power plant. 

UNLIKELY THINGS OVERHEAD
When, in the early 1970s, Richard Wiles moved to Petoskey to take a job teaching high school history, the planes were a part of life in northern Michigan and took some getting used to.

The B-52 Stratofortress warplanes, massive bombers with four jet engines under each wing, would conduct regular low-altitude training missions that took them over Little Traverse Bay and the surrounding countryside at altitudes of under 700 feet.

Driving between Petoskey and Charlevoix one day, Wiles said one of the planes crossed over the highway as it followed its training route just as he drove by.

“You can’t fathom what it must be like to have a B-52 over your car at 300 feet,” said Wiles, who in retirement has become an avid local historian.

The reason the planes flew so low was because of a development that took place a decade earlier in the Cold War. The B-52s were designed and built for high-altitude missions – they were capable of delivering bombs from 50,000-feet, high enough to avoid being shot down or tracked by enemy radar – but that was no longer an option.

In 1960, the United States Air Force Strategic Air Command had to rethink its strategy when the Soviet Union shot down a U-2 spy plane flying over its territory at 60,000 feet. The stopgap solution was to develop plans to fly the B-52s low, out of sight of the radar.

Unfortunately, Wiles said, the planes were never designed for low-altitude flight, and by 1970, the country’s fleet of B-52 had reached retirement age.

Nonetheless, use of the aging planes didn’t slow down as they were needed to conduct low-level bombing missions to prepare pilots and flight crews in the event the Cold War ever turn hot and the United States needed to launch a nuclear attack.

“All of a sudden these things were obsolete unless they could fly at 500 or less, and they were not made to fly at low altitude,” Wiles said.

The military began using northern Michigan as a warplane training ground in the early 1960s, when USAFSAC established the Bay Shore radar bomb scoring site just outside of Petoskey. The planes used radio signals in order to conduct simulated bombing runs so that they could be scored for accuracy. One of the simulated bomb targets was Big Rock Point, not far from the radar station.

A FATEFUL DAY
At just before 2pm on Jan. 7, 1971, an ill-fated and unnamed B-52 and its crew of nine took off from Westover Air Force Base just outside Springfield, Mass. and the plane headed northwest.

Four and a half hours later, after the crew had reached Lake Michigan and had successfully completed three of four planned simulated bombing missions, staff at the radar station in Bay Shore lost contact with the plane as it was preparing to complete its final training mission. Communication, which during training exercises like this had to be constant, just completely shut off.

This should have been a disturbing development – the plane’s commander, Lt. Col. William B. Lemmon, had recently undergone a flight evaluation and passed with excellent scores and was determined to be the kind of pilot any crew could depend on.

The weather was wintery in northern Michigan that evening but otherwise unremarkable, Wiles said. The skies were cloudy but not stormy.

Nonetheless, at 6:30pm that dark evening, the sky suddenly lit up as if the sun suddenly decided to make a reappearance.

“People who heard it said it was just the most deafening roar and they looked up and they thought the sun was rising in the west,” Wiles said. “It was a deafening boom heard all around the bay. A lot of people thought the nuclear plant had been hit or that it had just exploded.”

David Miles, a Charlevoix native and the director of the Charlevoix Historical Society, said he was traveling in Europe in 1971, but he said he talked to a man several years ago who witnessed the explosion light up the sky and who was still astonished by what he saw. “It lit up the sky and he wondered ‘What on earth?’ for the rest of the day,” Miles said in an email.

“I was not living in Charlevoix at the time, but I remember later being told of the shock and horror that the town experienced since the plane blew up only a few miles from town,” Miles said. “Charlevoix of course received international news coverage, and the phone wires were burning for days from people all over the country, both those wondering ‘are you okay?’ and those wanting more information.”

A HORRIBLE LOSS OF LIFE
The plane crash was a sudden event – one moment the B-52 was flying toward Big Rock Point, and the next, it had crashed into Lake Michigan – and it brought with it an incredible explosion that lit up the dark, winter sky.

There was no time for the crew to send out a distress signal; the violence of the crash was so immense that no human remains were ever recovered. Tens of thousands of gallons of jet fuel exploded as the massive plane crashed into the water.

The US Coast Guard launched the first recovery effort over the night of the crash, using boats and helicopters to search Little Traverse Bay and its shores. Little debris was recovered. That was followed by more extensive searches in the coming days by various military units who determined that the wreckage area spanned 2,400 yards by 1,600 yards. The crash site was six miles from Bay Shore and five miles north of Big Rock Point.

As January progressed, the winter weather turned more severe, and search efforts were put off until May.

Wiles said that the Air Force initially told the families of the lost crew that pilot error had been the cause of the crash, but that once wreckage could be recovered from the lake in the spring and summer, a careful examination of the debris caused a reconsideration of that initial conclusion.

The official cause of the crash was deemed to be metal fatigue on the aging airplane which caused the B-52’s left wing to break off without warning midflight.

“For training, they overused the planes,” Wiles said. “The left wing just popped right off.”

Upon the 40th anniversary of the crash, Wiles thoroughly researched the tragedy and composed a white paper for the Petoskey Public Library; he said he managed to track down family members of five or six of the crew members. Wiles said many of them had not heard that the cause of the crash had been changed from pilot error to metal fatigue.

For each of the crew members and their families, Wiles said, the tragedy was compounded by the fact that each of the lost had risked their lives in the Vietnam war and survived, only to be lost while training at home.

“The worst part was, these nice guys had all gotten back from Vietnam, from the hot war, only do die in a cold war,” Wiles said.

A historical marker near the beach northeast of Charlevoix just off US-31 memorializes the men who were lost on that day.

THE AGE OF SONIC BOOMS
Northern Michigan had an ambivalent relationship with the radar scoring station and the thousands (Miles estimates over 10,000, over the course of the program’s existence) of roaring training flights it brought to the region’s skies. The area’s conservative politics tended to support the military, especially at the height of the Cold War, and the region’s economy was boosted by the SAC outpost that brought skilled jobs to an economy that often struggled.

But there were downsides.

Miles said that for years, many fighter planes much smaller than the B-52s, such as supersonic jets, also took part in the training exercises. When some of those missions were completed over the coast of Charlevoix, some hotdog pilots took the opportunity, every once in a while, to have some fun over Lake Michigan. Sonic booms became a regular occurrence.

While Miles was touring Europe in the early 1970s, his mother sent him a letter once complaining of the commotion that resulted.

“I received one that she had been writing when one of these overflights shook the house to its foundations. The stationery showed a heavy ballpoint line going off the edge of the page, with the notation next to it ‘damn jets!’” Miles wrote. “The impact of those sound waves was so powerful that they cracked downtown store windows.”

After the terrible crash of Jan. 7, 1971, the training flights continued for 13 years, though Miles said military brass put an end to the sonic booms following bad publicity.

Not only were residents bothered by the sonic booms, but there was also concern, even before the crash, over the devastation that would be caused should one of the planes crash into the Big Rock nuclear plant. A Dec. 6, 1967 article in the Charlevoix Courier, headlined “'Buzzing’ of Jet Liners Irks Big Rock Employees,” described the anxiety workers at the power plant experienced as a result of the frequent, low-flying bomber raids over their nuclear facility.

After the January 1971 event, despite the now very real (though statistically unlikely) risk that a training mission could result in a nuclear catastrophe if a military plane crashed into Big Rock, the flights continued, nonetheless. At first, Wiles said, the mood in northern Michigan soured against the training exercises, but that concern slowly faded away.

“The Air Force threatened to pull out and economics got in the way, and people shut up,” Wiles said. “Economics overruled common sense. And they kept flying for another 13 years.”

REMEMBERING THE LOST
The men who died when a B-52 Model C bomber aircraft crashed into Little Traverse Bay on Jan. 7, 1971: 

Lt. Col. William Lemmon, 39, pilot
1st Lt. Douglas Bachman, 35, copilot
Maj. John Simonfy Jr., 39, navigator instructor
Maj. Donald F. Rosseau, 37, electronic warfare officer
Maj. Gerald W. Black, 32, navigator
Capt. John Weaver, 27, navigator
Capt. Joel Hirsch, 26, electronic warfare officer
1st Lt. Dennis Ferguson, 25, navigator
Tech. Sgt. Gerry M. Achey, 33, gunner 

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