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Throwback Tulsa: B-47 jet broke apart, raining debris on east Tulsa in '58

Throwback Tulsa: B-47 jet broke apart, raining debris on east Tulsa in '58

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Mrs. R.L. Sewell was in her Tulsa kitchen when a neighbor shouted to her. She ran outside and saw an airplane wing and two parachutes falling above her.

“I ran back into the house, grabbed up the baby and held her to me when the part hit in our front yard,” Mrs. Sewell told Tulsa World reporter Bill Butler. “I didn’t know what to think, except that I was scared to death.”

What scared Sewell and many others on March 13, 1958, was the explosion and crash of an Air Force B-47 jet bomber, killing one crew member, injuring two others, and scattering debris over a 6-square-mile area southeast of 21st Street and Yale Avenue.

Wreckage had spilled over Sewell’s front yard at 5792 E. 27th St., with one airplane part landing only two feet from where her child lay sleeping. She and the rest of Tulsa felt very lucky that day that no one on the ground was injured.

Mrs. Harold Reavis, of 5833 E. 21st St., said she and a visitor heard the explosion and went outside to look. They were watching as a large burning object fell southeast of them “when – all of a sudden whomp! – right in front of us, this great big motor fell onto the pavement.”

“It scared us to death. We were showered with chat or something from the pavement and it knocked us both down. We crawled back into the house and for some reason we ran into the back yard. Then when it looked like the thing wasn’t going to blow up, we went back out front to look at it.”

Ernie Edmonds was standing at Second Street and Lewis Avenue, when he heard a sputtering noise “and a small report.”

“Then some black smoke began to come out of the plane. There was an explosion, then both black and white smoke and a streak of fire about 50 feet long trailed out of the plane,” Edmonds said.

He said the nose of the airplane went down in a slight dive and then the entire craft blew up, with wings and other parts flying through the air.

Debris was reported from 21st to 51st streets between Yale Avenue and Memorial Drive. The largest chunk – a portion of the rear fuselage and landing gear – landed in a pasture about 200 yards from a home in the 2200 block of Memorial.

The navigator, 1st Lt. William T. Booy, 27, of Kansas City, Missouri, was killed. The nose of the aircraft, where he was riding, crashed behind a home at 7538 E. 26th Place.

The other two crew members were treated for burns at St. John Hospital, now St. John Medical Center.

Union Public Schools teacher George Boevers saw the orange parachutes and was the first to reach Capt. Albert J. Soen, 35, of Wichita, Kansas, who landed in a snowy field southwest of 61st Street and Memorial.

“I helped him walk up to the highway where we waited for an ambulance,” Boevers said. “He was pretty badly burned, but all he asked for was a cigarette.”

A jet engine rammed into the lawn of the home of Bruce Lovelace, chief investigator for Tulsa’s Douglas Aircraft plant, which assembled some of the B-47s. The home at 6720 E. 24th St. was smeared with mud from its roof to its foundation, and plaster fell from interior walls. His wife was inside and said she thought workers were dynamiting for a new school.

“My husband has been so proud of Douglas’ record on plane crashes,” Mrs. Lovelace told a Tulsa Tribune reporter, “and now we have one in our front yard.”

C.J. Massey, of 2157 S. Sandusky Ave., found Capt. John H. Gillick, 32, of Riverside, California, about a half-mile from Soen.

In the emergency room, Gillick mumbled through blistered lips, “She brought me down again. The blessed Mother Mary brought me down again.”

As hospital attendants wrapped both of the pilot’s hands with heavy bandages, Gillick spoke to World reporter Jon Lawrence.

“This is the third time I’ve had to bail out and each time the Lady has been with me. I seem to have lost my dog tags in the scramble but I still have this,” Gillick said, indicating a small silver pendant on a chain around his neck.

The Boeing B-47 Stratojet was a long-range, six-engine, jet-powered bomber designed to fly at subsonic speed at high altitude. Its primary mission was to drop nuclear bombs on the Soviet Union.

The Tulsa-bound plane had taken off on a routine training flight from McConnell Air Force Base in Wichita about 45 minutes earlier. While flying 23,000 feet above Tulsa at about 1:35 p.m. , the jet began making a 45-degree turn. Suddenly, its left wing broke off and the plane exploded and disintegrated.

Superstitious types noted that the plane was No. 0013, one of the first of its type to be manufactured, and crashed on the 13th of the month. In fact, a second B-47 broke up in midair near Homestead Air Force Base in Florida killing four crewmen, also on March 13, 1958.

(Two days earlier, a B-47 had accidentally dropped an unarmed atomic bomb on a house in Florence, South Carolina.)

On May 2, 1958, the Air Force announced it had found a serious structural defect with the sleek, swept-wing aircraft. At least 14 B-47s had crashed in the first four months of 1958, resulting in 34 casualties.

Citing crew safety concerns, the Air Force curtailed low-altitude B-47 training missions – such as the ill-fated Tulsa flight – while the fleet was tested and modified. Those modifications were done at Tulsa’s Douglas plant and at Lockheed’s plant in Marietta, Ga.

Read more Throwback Tulsa stories.

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Debbie Jackson 918-581-8374


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