It was a busy day on April 7, 1961 at the Biggs Airforce Base on El Paso. Crews were busy preparing a giant Boeing B-52 Stratofortress bomber for takeoff. As it was in 1961, the B-52 remains in service today as a deterrent to China and Russia. The bomber, which first entered service in 1951, is America’s nuclear capable bomber born from the Cold War.
Today, there are about 50 B-52’s in service under the Air Force Global Strike Command. They are expected to continue operating until 2050.
On April 7, 1961, the crews in El Paso were preparing the B-52 for a fighter interception training flight. Little did anyone know that on that day the Ciudad. Juarez would be shot down with the loss of two crewmen and others injured.
The Ciudad Juarez was a B-52B belonging to the 95th Bomber Wing of the Strategic Air Command. [see note: 1] It was based at Biggs Airforce Base. On that fateful day, Captain Donald D. Blodgett would command the bomber.
At Kirtland Air Force Base in Albuquerque, two fighter jets also departed on a training mission.
On that cold frigid morning, the two U.S. Airforce North American F-100 Super Sabre fighters were vectored by ground control to intercept the Ciudad Juarez near Albuquerque at 34,000 feet. The Sabre pilots were 1st Lt. James W. van Scyoc and Capt. Dale Dodd of the 188th Fighter Interceptor Squadron.
Both fighter pilots understood the flight parameters of the training mission and although they were using real GAR 8 Sidewinder [see note 2] missiles to simulate attacking an intruder bomber, they believed the training to be safe. The missiles were put on “safe” mode and only the heat seeker was to active while the rest of the missile could not fire.
Or so, everyone believed.
The two Sabre jets successfully intercepted the bomber fives times each time simulating the launch of the missile to shoot it down. On the sixth intercept, tragedy struck.
It was supposed to be the last training intercept mission of the day.
Lt. Scyoc lined up for his sixth interception pass on the bomber, and after hearing the tone signifying a missile lock, he pressed the pickle [see note 3] to simulate a missile launch. To his horror, he felt the unmistakable thump of the missile being released and saw it roar towards the Ciudad Juarez. He only had time to radio, “look out, one of my missiles is loose!”
The little missile did its job. It sheared the bomber’s left wing off as it impacted on the inboard engine pod of the bomber.
The B-52 bomber was flying on autopilot as the missile struck. [see note 4]
The stricken bomber crashed at 12:15 in the afternoon on Mount Taylor, northeast of Grant, New Mexico.
Three crewmen died in the accident and five crewmen survived after ejecting from the stricken aircraft.
A subsequent investigation cleared Lt. Scyoc of any wrongdoing finding that “moisture” caused a short circuit that launched the missile. The missile launchers had been added to the Super Sabre after it had entered service. Today, dummy missiles painted blue are used for training exercises. The training missiles have the heat seeker but do not have an explosive charge nor the rocket engine.
In 1961, another B-52 was christened the Ciudad Juarez in honor of the one accidently shot down. [see note 5]
The GAR 8 Sidewinder missile is named after the Crotalus cerastes rattlesnake common to the deserts of the southeast United States and northern México. It uses a heat sensor on its head to track.
- The air force serial number for the Ciudad Juarez B-52 was 53-0380 manufactured in 1953, manufacturer serial number: 16859.
- The GAR 8 Sidewinder is a heat seeking air-to-air missile. Today it is designated as the AIM-9B
- “Pickle” is pilot slang for activating a switch located on the stick to release a weapon. Although American slang, it is often used by fighter pilots flying American aircraft as foreign pilots use flight manuals and tactics adopted by the U.S. Airforce where the aircraft are generally deployed first.
- The B-52 bomber was designed to fly straight to the target. It has little maneuvering capability and as such it is generally flown on autopilot even when it is the target of an interception mission. The size and limited maneuvering of the bomber makes maneuvers to avoid a missile a moot point.
- El Paso Herald Post, April 26, 1961.