California News

The hunt for the lost B-36 bomber

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

One of the largest military planes ever built crashed nose-first off the Southern California coast in the early days of the Cold War. That U.S. Air Force B-36, and its pilot, sank to the ocean floor never to be seen again, until now.

Captain Ray Arntz and his team spent years searching for the B-36 bomber, which went down in August 1952. The bomber had a crew of eight onboard.

"It was the largest combat operational bomber ever built, and ever to fly in the world," said aviation archaeologist Pat Macha.

The B-36 was stripped down in "Operation Featherweight." However, it was still massive. It had 10 engines, a wingspan of 230 feet and the ability to haul 84,000 pounds of bombs.

The B-36 was nicknamed "The Peacemaker" because it was more of a deterrent to Cold War Russia. It never flew in combat.

The doomed B-36 was on a test flight from San Diego's Lindbergh Field when one of its engines caught fire.

"The pilot instantly realized they were in dire straits," said Macha. "He turned that plane around, headed it out away from San Diego."

"One engine apparently fell off on their way out over the ocean, another engine was on fire on top of that, and the aircraft was going to lose a wing," said Arntz.

Pilot Dave Franks held the giant plane level long enough for seven crewmen to bail out. Many say Franks was a hero.

"By the time the crew was out, he'd lost control of the aircraft and it went straight in. So it cost him his life," said Kendall Raine, who has also been searching for the B-36.

Kendall Raine and John Walker headed out into the water with a video camera. The team studied old charts and reports before they took the dive. They also scoured the ocean floor with sonar equipment to pinpoint a single location.

As the team searched their location for any clues, they found something that looked like the length of the plane's fuselage. However, the divers were looking for objects unique to the B-36 to confirm their find.

The team was able to match up the landing gear on the wreck with the gear they've studied in photographs of the B-36. One of the main landing gear tires measured almost five feet in diameter. The crew also found a 20mm machine gun and two barrels.

Six of the men who bailed out that day in 1952 were rescued. One crew member, Walt Hoffman, was never found. Pilot Dave Franks will always be remembered as the pilot who sacrificed his own life to save an untold number of others.

"To see him with his family or his son and to realize the sacrifice -- He knew what he was risking there, but he did the right thing. Captain of the ship," said Macha.

Captain Ray Arntz and his crew won't reveal the exact location of the wreck, out of fear it would attract commercial dive boats. They say it is a gravesite and should be left in peace.


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