- Local investigator William Kolias to report fresh findings on nearly forgotten Cold War-era N.H. aircraft disaster
- All crew survived by parachuting to safety; family coming to New Hampshire to share stories, visit crash site
LONDONDERRY, NH — What caused a huge B-52 Stratofortress to crash and explode in a swamp in Fremont, NH, 60 years ago?
The plane’s eight-man crew all survived by bailing out shortly before the Cold War-era bomber dropped out of the New Hampshire sky on Aug. 10, 1959.
Within a few days, the U.S. Air Force quickly removed most of the wreckage from the crash site in Spruce Swamp in Fremont.
Since then, little light has been shed on the dramatic loss of the bomber, which fell to earth just west of busy Route 125.
Later this month, investigator William Kolias of Newton will present findings of a year-long effort to tell the full story of why a huge military aircraft came down in the Granite State, and why military officials were so tight-lipped afterward.
Kolias, an amateur investigator, will discuss his research in “It Fell From The Sky,” a presentation to be given at the Aviation Museum of New Hampshire on Thursday, Oct. 17 at 7 p.m. and again on Saturday, Oct. 19 at 11 a.m.
In addition, several family members of the plane’s crew will be on hand to add their personal recollections to the record. On Friday, Oct. 18, Kolias plans to lead family members on a visit to the crash site, where artifacts from the lost B-52 are still to be seen.
“Although no lives were lost in this incident, I hope this helps give some closure to people who have lived with this all their lives,” said Kolias, a resident of Newton and owner of a trucking company.
Kolias eventually hopes to publish his findings, and also hopes to work with Matthew Thomas, president of the Fremont Historical Society, to have a state Historic Site marker placed near the crash site.
The B-52 crash and the crew’s survival was front-page news when it happened on a quiet summer day in 1959. Stories were carried of crew members landing by parachute in nearby Candia and then being led by a five-year-old boy to a farmhouse.
The crew’s survival, however, was preceded by real drama high over the Granite State: the B-52C, on a training mission out of Westover Air Force Base in Chicopee, Mass., began shaking and breaking up at 34,000 feet over New Hampshire.
With the giant plane losing altitude and nearly impossible to control, U.S. Air Force Capt. George Kusch, flight commander, ordered his seven-man crew to bail out via parachute at 14,000 feet.
Kusch stayed with the stricken aircraft until the last moment, trying to ensure that it did not hit a built-up area.
He succeeded. The plane came down and exploded in Fremont’s unpopulated Spruce Swamp, causing a fire than burned four acres. U.S. Air Force crews sealed off the area and spent two weeks removing most of the wreckage, although many smaller pieces were left behind and can still be seen today.
The aircraft was written off, with the crew going off to other assignments. The Air Force attributed the crash to loss of control following disintegration of the plane’s nose-mounted radome: case closed. The crash wasn’t exactly forgotten by local residents, but as years went by it became a curious footnote to town history. Many recent arrivals to Fremont have no idea it happened, Kolias said.
Kolias himself was unaware of the crash until last year, when he came across an article about it in the Carriage Towne News, a local paper.
“It piqued my curiosity,” recalled Kolias, whose varied career has included stints as a firefighter, EMT, pilot, and master electrician. “There were too many pieces missing.”
For Kolias, mere curiosity turned into an obsession. In his varied lines of work, “if you come across something that you can’t explain, you find out about it, because it could have the potential to kill you,” he said. “So you don’t like mysteries.”
He also felt the lack of a complete record of what happened was an injustice to all who were involved: the crew members, their families, the townspeople, and the American public.
Kolias scoured newspapers, only to find conflicting information in contemporary accounts. He filed requests for reports under the Freedom of Information Act, receiving documents still heavily redacted nearly six decades after the accident. He reached out to Thomas at the Fremont Historical Society, which maintains a display about the crash with several artifacts recovered from the site.
Assembling the record, Kolias began to put the accident into its Cold War context: it happened when the U.S. and the Soviet Union were fighting for any advantage as each built massive nuclear arsenals and deterrence systems. For the U.S., the then-new B-52 was a crucial part of the nation’s defense. Any vulnerability in its deployment might have grave consequences if exploited by the Soviets.”It was not something the military wanted on the front page,” Kolias said.
Kolias began visiting the crash site and analyzing the pattern of the remaining wreckage. He began seeking out the crew members, only to find that all eight had since died; instead, he began interviewing family members about any memories that were shared over the years.
“This brought out wheelbarrows of extremely valuable information, and the personal stories that go with it,” Kolias said.
Family members have become so involved in Kolias’ efforts that several plan to travel to New Hampshire to attend his presentations and also visit the crash site.
Attending will be Shirley Hethorn of Idaho, widow of Sgt. Merrill Hethorne, the flight’s electronic countermeasures officer. Mrs. Hethorne will be accompanied by the couple’s daughter Becky Hethorn, a resident of Dallas, who was born shortly after the incident.
Also on hand will be Ellen Kinsner of Delaware, the daughter of Capt. Kusch, who will attend with her husband George.
Interest in Kolias’ presentation led the Aviation Museum to schedule it twice — on Thursday, Oct. 17 at 7 p.m., and again on Saturday, Oct. 19 at 11 a.m. — to meet the anticipated demand.
“Part of our mission is to tell the stories of New Hampshire’s aviation history, and this is a missing part of the record,” said Jeff Rapsis, the museum’s executive director. “It’s great that Mr. Kolias has taken it upon himself to put the pieces together in a program that weaves together aviation, history, and the personal stories of the people who were involved.”
The presentation is included with museum admission of $10 per person; $5 seniors 65+, veterans/active military, students under 13. Members and children under age 5, free. For more info, visit www.nhahs.org or call (603) 669-4820.
The Aviation Museum of NH is located at 27 Navigator Road, Londonderry, NH. The museum is open Fridays & Saturdays 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., and Sundays 1 to 4 p.m. For more information, visit www.aviationmuseum.org or call (603) 669-4820.
The Aviation Museum is a non-profit 501(c)3 tax-exempt organization dedicated to celebrating New Hampshire’s role in aviation history and inspiring the young aerospace pioneers and innovators of tomorrow.