Anatomy of a plane crash
Review: “Wright Peak Elegy” by Alan D. Maddaus
This is personal. When I walked into Mr. Arcarese’s sixth grade classroom at SUNY Plattsburgh’s Campus School that cold grey morning, I was brought to a halt by eerie silence. Some of my classmates wore downcast expressions. Mr. Arcarese, normally a jovial guy, appeared somber. No one spoke. No one made eye contact.
I took my seat and asked the girl in the next row, who lived on Plattsburgh Air Force Base, what was going on. She told me a plane stationed at the base, and its crew, were missing.
The date was Jan. 16, 1962, a Tuesday. I was 13 days shy of my 12th birthday. I remember all of it vividly.
Five days later, the devastating fear was confirmed: Minutes after 2 a.m., a U.S. Strategic Air Command B-47 Stratojet flying at 400 miles an hour during a practice bombing run in wind-driven snow and freezing rain had crashed into Wright Peak’s northwest side just three dozen unforgiving feet below its 4,580-foot summit. All four crewmen died instantly; one was never recovered. Snowmelt months later revealed that wreckage was scattered over a wide area. A 35-foot section of one wing was discovered several hundred feet down the southeast slope of the mountain; it had catapulted over the summit after impact and disintegration. It remains, hard to find, where it fell. Other crumpled hunks still litter the crash site, some embedded in unyielding anorthosite.
All of this and more is recounted in excruciating detail in “Wright Peak Elegy” (Epigraph Books, 2022) by Alan Maddaus. He devotes considerable space to background: the Cold War, nuclear deterrence, training tactics, Gen. Curtis LeMay (way too much), the construction of Plattsburgh Air Force Base and, crucially, the many shortcomings of the B-47. There’s more detail here than this techno-dummy found necessary (does it matter that the plane’s six shattered engines were J47-25s made by GE?), but aeronautical engineers should find it captivating.
The heart of the book is Maddaus’s careful analysis of the crash and its possible causes. Why was the B-47 prone to accidents? Why was this one flying at right angles to, and several thousand feet below, its flight plan? What if it had cruised just a few feet higher and missed the top of Wright? (Any map will answer that one; it would have collided in a few seconds with the taller Mt. Marcy). He suggests that more went wrong than the Air Force officially concluded, then walks us through the frantic but increasingly hopeless search in nasty winter weather.
Nancie Battaglia’s poignant photography injects an aching humanity into the saga. Even when their subject is “just” wreckage, the images’ fine composition and detail connect inanimate cold metal to the lives that were snuffed out in service to their country.
Maddaus describes the memorials to the crew, mostly letting his barebones style express his sentiments. The same with his opinion of hikers who purloined pieces of the doomed aircraft, an activity the Air Force had okayed after it was done evacuating any rubble of national security value.
I admit to being one of those souvenir pickers. Like any curious kid, the following summer I picked up and carted home a crushed, fist-sized piece of something — the base-affiliated father of another chum said it was probably a fragment of fuselage, given its camouflage colors. I don’t know what became of it.
I did, though, pause for a moment at the now-weathered plaque, affixed to a rock face, honoring the lost crewmen at the point of impact. I hope they never realized what hit them. And I wonder about my friends from sixth grade, especially those who may have known someone who knew someone who … I don’t know what became of most of them, either. But I think about what they remember, how they feel nearly 61 years later, they and the wives and children of the victims. I pray they are at peace.
Expanded from a brief notice that will appear in the November-December issue of Adirondac, the magazine of the Adirondack Mountain Club.