Flight Engineer Don Maxion was one of seven crew members to successfully bail out of the B-36 before it crashed into the sea. The pilot, Dave Franks, stayed at the controls too long. Another crew member was never rescued. Image rendered by Gary Fabian.
Survivor recalls crash of B-36 Bomber off San Diego
The San Diego Union - Tribune - San Diego, Calif.
August 25, 2002
By Mark Sauer
It was a warm and carefree summer day, the sky clear and blue from here to the wild yonder as the B-36 bomber descended toward a routine landing at Lindbergh Field.
The flaps were down and the airport in sight when the eight-man civilian crew, returning from an eight-hour test flight, felt a massive shudder. Seconds later the intercom came to life:
"Dave, we have a problem," said Walt Hoffman, a flight engineer who somehow managed to keep his voice calm. "The No. 5 engine has fallen off the wing and we have a fire."
Pilot Dave Franks, who'd spent thousands of hours flying B-24 Liberators, Catalina Flying Boats, Navy transports and Convair 240s, suddenly had a life-and-death decision to make.
Milestone military anniversaries are commonly observed, from San Diego to Saigon, Normandy to North Korea. Many are somber, like Pearl Harbor Day and Sept. 11; some are joyous, like VE Day (Victory in Europe).
Yet few people took note this month of the 50th anniversary of the day an Air Force Convair B-36 simply fell apart on final approach and crashed into the ocean a few miles off Mission Beach.
Don Maxion remembers, though.
The 76-year-old retired flight engineer feels a kind of duty to tell what happened on that day so long ago. That's because he's the only one left who lived through it.
On a recent sunny morning, Maxion sat in his aerie of a house atop Mount Helix and in a quiet, firm voice told about a bomber going down, of the scramble to survive, and of the two men who didn't make it.
And he spoke reverentially about how it could have been much worse if a hero hadn't been at the controls.
"I loved my job. We all did. We felt so fortunate to be doing something we loved with guys we respected and liked so well, and to get paid for doing it," Maxion said. "We really were like a family up there.
"But this changed everything."
"You know, I still have my parachute," he added with a wry smile. "The kids, when they were little, used to use it as a tent in the back yard."
The B-36 -- the largest bomber ever built by the United States -- never dropped a bomb in anger. Yet many still regard the enormous plane as a main reason the Cold War never turned hot, hence the nickname, "Peacemaker."
Early in 1941, dark days when Europe was dominated by Germany and Britain's very survival was in doubt, the Army Air Force decided it needed a long-range bomber the likes of which the world had never seen.
This airplane would need to take off from U.S. bases, fly 5,000 miles at 300 mph at a ceiling of 35,000 feet, drop its 72,000-pound bomb load on targets in Europe and return home without refueling.
Consolidated Vultee, forerunner of Convair with plants in Fort Worth, Texas, and San Diego, won the contract with its design for a bomber with a 230-foot wingspan, length of 162 feet and height of 47 feet.
That's bigger than the intercontinental B-52 Stratofortress, which replaced the B-36 and is still in use today.
With World War II raging, production of the B-36 was put on hold because the need for conventional bombers was too great. The first B-36 was not delivered until 1948.
The big plane spent a decade as the backbone of the U.S. Strategic Air Command, constantly airborne with an atomic payload ready for a bombing run on a moment's notice.
When production ceased in August 1954, more than 380 B-36s had been built at a cost of $3.6 million apiece.
By the time it was declared obsolete and taken out of operation in 1959, the B-36 had gone through several modifications and upgrades at Convair's San Diego plant, with each new design requiring extensive flight tests.
It was such a flight that Don Maxion and his seven buddies from Convair were completing on Aug. 5, 1952, when the engines of their B- 36 inexplicably caught fire and fell off.
The aircraft they flew that day, the B-36D-25-CF 49-2661A, was the 121st B-36 built at the Consolidated Vultee plant in Fort Worth.
Originally a B model, it had been sent to San Diego for conversion to a D. Essentially, four jet engines were added (two on each wing) to the six existing 3,500-h.p. reciprocating (piston- driven) engines.
Maxion, then 26, was one of four engineers aboard (in addition to two pilots, a radioman and radar technician). He was the youngest member of the San Diego-based crew.
Tests that day included a simulated bombing run over Plaster City, a desert outpost near El Centro.
That was exciting, Maxion said, because of an automatic-pilot maneuver in which the giant plane dropped its bombs and turned and twisted at a seemingly impossible angle, roaring heavenward to escape the faux mushroom cloud.
They also did a high-speed run 500 feet above the ocean's surface and an emergency landing-gear drop, in which a crew member had to climb out into the massive wing, without a parachute and in the open air, to ratchet out a pin holding up the gear.
"First time for me was scary," said Maxion. "Second time was even scarier because I knew what to expect. But I'd done the parallel bars and rings in high school, so I knew I could handle it."
When Walt Hoffman reported the missing engine and fire, pilot Dave Franks stood and looked over the right wing.
Then he yelled "bail out" over the intercom.
Next came Hoffman's voice again: "The right wing is on fire and the No. 4 engine is falling off the wing."
The giant bomber was heading southeast along the coast; it was just over La Jolla at an altitude of about 2,500 feet. Franks banked the airplane 90 degrees, a hard right turn that carried it away from the heavily populated beach communities and out over the ocean.
In the next day's Evening Tribune, Capt. J.D. Baker, pilot of an Air Force training plane that was slightly above and a mile behind the stricken B-36, described what he saw:
"Flames shot out of one engine; soon the burning engine fell out of the plane and there was an explosion. The whole right wing was wrapped in flames."
Franks reiterated his order to bail out and the crew wasted no time.
Maxion said his job was to open the left forward emergency hatch by the main landing gear. The crew had been warned not to bail out of the plane there if the landing gear was down and the No. 3 engine was running; there wasn't enough clearance.
"But we had no choice," Maxion said. "There was no time to get to our bailout position," the emergency hatch by the nose gear.
Roy Sommers, the radioman, jumped out first, followed by Maxion.
The crew typically did not wear their parachutes or bulbous "Mae West" flotation devices during long test flights over land because they were hot and uncomfortable.
But crew members slipped into their parachutes quickly. Some also strapped on their Mae Wests, but Maxion didn't bother. He leaped out the hatch -- the only time he has ever jumped from a plane -- and concentrated on counting.
"We had been trained to count to 10 and then pull the rip-cord," Maxion said. "I got to about 2 and yanked on it. Roy Adkins (the co-pilot) later told me I missed the landing gear by a couple of feet, with a better margin for the engine propeller."
Airplane parts rained from the sky as Maxion slowly descended. Metal panels large enough to decapitate a man went whizzing and whistling by, like a scene out of "The Wizard of Oz."
In an attempt to steer clear of the debris, Maxion yanked hard on one side of his parachute risers, but gave that idea up when the chute momentarily collapsed.
He watched in shocked disbelief as the B-36, now a disfigured hulk of fire and smoke, spiraled into the ocean. Hundreds of people watched from the shore as the plane hit the water in a tremendous explosion, sending a mushroom cloud of smoke and water skyward.
"Flames went up 20 or 30 feet when the plane struck the water," said Clifford Dodson, who watched from his porch at 5131 W. Point Loma Blvd.
Drifting down toward the sea, Maxion realized he had no flotation device and would wind up several miles offshore. He got rid of his heavy oxygen bottle and high boots.
He hit hard and went deep underwater. By the time he reached the surface, his parachute was sinking fast. Maxion disentangled himself from the chute, slipped out of his jumpsuit, tied the legs together and used it as a crude buoy. The water was cool, but not cold, and the swell was gentle.
A Coast Guard helicopter came by before long and plucked Maxion and Roy Adkins, the co-pilot, out of the water in a sling, winched them aboard and flew them to the Naval Hospital in Balboa Park.
June Maxion, who was at the couple's Robinson Street apartment with their three young children, said she got a call from a supervisor at Convair.
"I was desperate to know if Don was all right," June said of the man she married 55 years ago. "People in the neighborhood started coming by, the phone kept ringing and it was all over the radio.
"I called the Naval Hospital and said I needed to talk to my husband right away. I just had to hear his voice."
Word came quickly that one by one the other fliers had also been rescued. "I thought everybody made it. A few guys had some scratches, but nobody was really injured," Maxion said.
"But then we learned three guys were still missing."
One of the missing, radioman Roy Sommers, got picked up by a passing fishing boat, was dropped off at a nearby pier and hitchhiked home, carrying his sopping parachute, Maxion said.
But Walt Hoffman and Dave Franks, the pilot, didn't make it. Their bodies were never found.
Maxion and his mates speculated that Hoffman may have gone to the back of the aircraft to retrieve his Mae West and couldn't get back to the emergency hatch in time.
But everyone agreed Franks stayed with the plane till the last possible moment to make sure all crew members got out and the plane was well clear of land.
"Dave just waited too long," Maxion said. "I truly believe he gave his life to save us.
The spot where the B-36 went down is more than three miles off Mission Beach in about 250 feet of water. Local fishermen, most of whom are too young to remember the B-36 crash, call it "The Airplane Hole," and know it as a great place to catch rock cod.
Determined to learn what caused the huge plane's engines to fail, the government sent Navy divers down day after day in the weeks following the crash.
In pressurized suits weighing hundreds of pounds and breathing a mixture of oxygen and helium, the divers searched the silty bottom and retrieved sections of engine, fuselage and wing in an attempt to piece together what had happened.
The B-36 had been plagued by minor engine fires, which crews generally had been able to extinguish in the air. Discarding several other theories, Maxion said, officials traced the fire to the engine alternators.
"The alternator housings were made of magnesium," the engineer explained. "The failure of the alternator could have started an uncontrollable magnesium fire. But they were never certain."
Maxion and the other surviving members of the flight-test crew were given the option of transferring to jobs on the ground. They opted to keep flying, though Maxion said he added some equipment next time, including shark repellent and flares.
He remained close to his fellow B-36 fliers for many years, Maxion said, even when work took them to opposite compass points on the globe.
"Roy Sommers was the last one. We were buddies forever; he died eight years ago. Our wives still have lunch together regularly," Maxion said.
"When you fly that often with guys, risk your lives together and come through something like that, well, you'll never have friends like that again in life.
"I still miss those guys very much."