At the end of a Newfoundland trail lies a piece of America's past
The Flanagan children get a closer look at the wreckage of the Convair RB-36H at Nut Cove. Even after more than 50 years, debris litters the site at the end of the hour-long climb. Photo by Susan Flanagan/Special to The Telegram
Burgoyne's Cove Crash: RB-36H 51-13721
In the early morning of March 18, 1953, a huge explosion lit up the sky at Burgoyne's Cove, slightly northwest of Clarenville.
Locals investigated and found that an American bomber had crashed into the hillside at about 800 feet above sea level.
The plane, a Convair B-36, was developed during the Second World War by the United States air force as a long-range strategic - nuclear capable - bomber. All 23 men on board were killed.
Fifty-five years later, the crash site is more or less the same as it was that foggy night. History could not be more immediate. Parts of the plane are still intact.
We chose May 24 weekend to make the pilgrimage to the wreck. Although it's only about 40 kilometres from Clarenville, it took us close to an hour to get from our lunch at Rob's Fish and Chips to the Nut Cove trail as the final part of the dirt road is rough.
Whiskey jacks looking for lunch handouts flitted about the sign marking the crash site trail head. There was still some snow in shaded areas, and the ground proved so slippery in places that I would strongly recommend hiking boots to future visitors so you don't lose purchase and find yourself in a heap of moose poop. The trail will lead you straight uphill for at least half an hour, so if you're not used to hiking you should carry Gatorade and a Power Bar in case you need a boost. There are benches along the way should you need to stop for a rest.
As soon as the path led us out of the trees, pieces of the plane were visible. Debris lay on the ground like sheets of tin foil fresh off the roll.
The B-36 has an R added before its name, indicating that it was used for reconnaissance missions. Instead of a forward bomb bay, the RB-36 had a pressurized camera compartment that held seven people. One report says pictures of a golf course taken from 12,000 metres show recognizable golf balls. I learned later that the RB-36 could be distinguished from other B-36s by the bright aluminum of the camera compartment which contrasted with the dull magnesium colour of the rest of the plane. Hence the reason for all the shiny, clean-looking silver debris.
Within a few feet of exiting the trail, the wreckage was everywhere. I was so taken with the initial pieces of debris that I had to sit at a picnic table to take stock. An entire wing span lay amongst the tuckamore and purple stones on my left. To my right a huge engine had become detached from the rest of the wreckage.
Nicknamed The Peacemaker, this was no small plane. The RB-36 had 10 engines (six piston, four jet; if all were functioning, crew might be heard to say "six turning, four burning"), and the largest wingspan of any combat aircraft (about 77 metres from tip to tip). In fact, the RB-36 was too big to fit in most hangars, and because of its huge wingspan, it was able to attain a cruising altitude out of range of enemy fire.
The RB-36 bombers were designed to use continental North America as their base but be able to fly as far as Russia or Asia to deliver a payload of up to 33,000 kg. The RB-36 could fly almost 10,000 km without stopping to refuel and could stay in the air for up to 50 hours.
As I went to take a closer look at the engine, I thought of the 23 men who met their fate on this hilltop. They were on their way from the Azores to their home base in South Dakota, with a proposed flying time of 25 hours.
They were supposed to fly low over the coast of Maine, but a weather system caused them to arrive over Newfoundland an hour and a half before they were supposed to. Although they had planned to turn on their radar an hour before reaching the coast, they had no idea they had already reached Newfoundland and thus no idea they were about to crash into the hill at Nut Cove.
The crash report states they died immediately upon impact. I wondered if they knew their fate before the crash. Did they realize they were flying too low at the last minute and that it was too late to correct their altitude?
I was still sitting at the picnic table pondering these questions when my children started calling out for me to join them. Hidden in a small valley just a three-minute walk from my table, I could see them standing on the almost-intact tail of the plane. The tail number - 51-13721 - looked as if it had been painted on yesterday.
A plaque attached to the tail section explains the tragedy did not end with the deaths of these men. A Boeing SB-29 Superfortress search and rescue plane was also lost that night. It disappeared into the ocean on its way back from searching for the RB-36H crash site. Eleven more airmen vanished without a trace.
Check out http://www.air-and-space.com/b-36%20wrecks.htm#51-13721 for a report from a B-29 engine specialist expert who was stationed at Harmon Air Force Base near Stephenville at the time.
Air base namesake
The plaque also explains that Rapid City Air Force Base in South Dakota was renamed Ellsworth Air Force Base to honour Brig.-Gen. Richard Ellsworth, who was on board.
The names of the men who died are listed on a plaque affixed to a memorial which sits at the highest point on the bluff. One of the plane's propellers is mounted to the memorial's base as testament to the destruction that took place that winter night.
As incongruous as it might seem, I couldn't help but be struck by the beauty of the view visible from the memorial site. From the crest of the hill, the view of Smith Sound is superb. The day we visited, three icebergs were visible and the sky was moody.
As we made our way down the hill from the crash site, I thought about the fate that met these men, so far from their families.
I was also interested in seeing a complete RB-36 bomber to try to imagine how the pieces on the hill fit into the whole. Because the B-36s were replaced by jet-powered B-52s in 1959, there aren't that many still around.
Interestingly, a second B-36 crash site from February 1953 is not far from Goose Bay, Labrador.
If you happen to be visiting California, you can check out a complete RB-36 at Castle Air Museum in Atwater, southwest of San Francisco on Highway 99.
To reach the Burgoyne's Cove crash site, leave Highway 1 at Clarenville and continue east along Route 230-A towards Bonavista through Shoal Harbour and Milton. Then take Route 232 from George's Brook, through Barton, Harcourt, Gin Cove, Monroe, Clifton, and finally at the end of the road, Burgoyne's Cove.
When you enter Burgoyne's Cove, take a left after the church and the house with all the kitsch in the yard. Follow the signs to Newfoundland Slate Inc. Almost immediately after the road turns to dirt, you take a right, drive 4.5 km (passing the slate plant) until you see a small sign on the left indicating the crash site.
The road is a bit rough at the end. We only went about 30 km per hour for the last three kilometres.