Four killed in 1958 crash that stunned Dover AFB. With video of C-133 in flight.

In 1957, the U.S. Air Force introduced a plane that was the largest cargo aircraft in the world, the C-133 Cargomaster, and selected Dover Air Force Base as one of two home ports for the new transport.

On April 13, 1958, one of them, registry number 54-1046, left Dover on a 90-minute evaluation mission. Aboard were Capt. Raymond R. Bern, pilot; 1st Lt. Herbert T. Palisch, copilot; and Tech. Sgts. Marvin A. Aust and Edward L. McKinley Jr., flight engineers. Their flight ended only minutes after it began when the plane suddenly flipped over and dived into a pine forest near Ellendale, just 26 miles from the Dover runway.

Bigger, faster, more advanced

The C-133 came into being in the early 1950s when military planners decided the country needed a large-capacity vehicle for strategic airlift missions. The plane, built by the Douglas Aircraft Company, was completely different from the then-workhorse C-124 Globemaster II: it was pressurized, had a truck-level cargo deck, rear loading doors and a wing mounted above the fuselage, allowing an almost obstruction-free cargo area.

Air Force officials decided to move the C-133 almost directly from the drawing board to the production line without any prototype aircraft being built and tested. Eventually, 50 aircraft were built.

The first C-133 took to the air April 23, 1956, and was subjected to more than a year of tests that revealed several problems, most notable being the plane’s tendency to stall. Exactly why was not completely understood and thus there was no immediate fix to the problem. Instead, recommendations to combat stalls included a warning system to keep pilots out of an unintentional stall and a prohibition against intentional stalls.

The crash

The first C-133 arrived at Dover to great media fanfare in August 1957 with one of the project officers declaring, “It flies like a fighter plane.”

“Usually a big plane handles like a big plane, just as a big car,” Col. Claude W. “Snuffy” Smith said. “But this aircraft makes it easy. It has every new design known to aeronautics, making it a real pleasure to fly.”

The last C-133 to arrive that year was given registry number 54-1046. It would serve the Air Force for only a little more than four months.

April 13, 1958, was a Sunday, so there was very little going on that morning as the sun rose over Dover AFB. Such was not the case for C-133 flight engineers Aust and McKinley. By 6 a.m., they already were on base, preparing for the day’s mission, a routine training sortie. The flight was to last no more than 90 minutes.

By 7 a.m., half an hour after the sun lifted over the Dover flight line, Aust and McKinley already had met Bern and Palisch for a preflight briefing and were well into their preflight inspection checklist. They divided their responsibilities, one man going over the internal systems of the plane, the other examining the exterior.

As the engineers worked out on the flight line, Bern and Palisch were in base operations for their mission briefing. Palisch, the less experienced of the two, had just over 60 hours in the Cargomaster. By comparison, Bern, a senior pilot, had flown the C-133 for more than 585 hours.

Bern was considered one of the best pilots at Dover, with almost 8,400 hours experience in the air dating back to World War II and his training as an enlisted B-17 gunner.

After arriving at the aircraft and completing a preflight checklist with Palisch, Bern started the four turboprop engines and taxied away from the hardstand. Finally, the mission began with a 120-mph trip down Dover’s Runway 32 and a climb into the air on a heading that would quickly put the giant Cargomaster over Sussex County.

The crew of 54-0146 did not make it home that day. A routine mission that was to last an hour-and-a-half ended abruptly just 15 minutes after the Cargomaster left the runway. What happened still is not completely understood.

A maelstrom of flame

With the small village of Ellendale under the approach to Dover AFB, the sight of a C-124 or the new C-133 droning by had become almost routine. But things would not be routine that morning.

At about 8:43 a.m. 54-1046 smashed into the ground, landing upside down in a heavily wooded state forest between Ellendale and Georgetown. Because it did not cut a swath through the thick growth of yellow pines, initial reports concluded the Cargomaster pancaked in. Witnesses said the craft exploded approximately 30 seconds later, 25 tons of fuel immediately igniting the trees and turning the remote pine forest into an inferno.

An Ellendale fireman who saw the plane fall to earth sounded the town fire alarm, bringing its fire company to the scene with firefighting equipment and an ambulance. Firemen from Georgetown and the nearby town of Milton also rushed to the scene and were quickly augmented by more than 100 firemen from as far south as Salisbury, Md., some of whom were on their way north for a training session. Later they were joined by Air Force firefighters, ambulances and wreckers, and security forces who worked to keep back curious crowds.

Scores of people said they had witnessed the plane’s last moments, giving sometimes contradictory reports of what they saw.

Many said the C-133 was circling the area about 2,000 feet above the forest and descending slowly when the engine sounds suddenly increased as if Bern were trying to gain altitude. After several seconds, the Cargomaster rolled over and dropped from the sky. Some said they saw flames before the craft fell, while others thought something might have dropped from the ship before it went down. At the time, Air Force investigators were not able to confirm those accounts.

Firemen fought the stubborn, fuel-fed fire for more than two hours before bringing the blaze under control, taking four hours more to completely extinguish the fire. Workers cut down nearby trees to construct a small road into the site and as night fell, set up strings of searchlights around the perimeter. Air Force security officers put up a 24-hour guard.

Delaware Chief Forest Ranger Oscar D. Bailey said he could tell the plane was in trouble when he spotted it from the yard of his home. Interviewed the year before his death, Bailey said, “It was flying south, counterclockwise, and as I watched the plane it was beginning to circle to the left. I wondered why it was circling at that time in the morning.”

Completing the circle, the 133 headed back north, Bailey said.

“The first thing I noticed was the left wing dropped down about five degrees,” he said. “It moved a little further and the nose dropped down a little bit and then come back up level. It was still headed north.

“All this happened quick. Then the left wing made another dip. As soon as it did that the nose went down and when it did it didn’t come back up.

“It started to roll to the left. As it rolled over, the wingtip kept going down. It was a quarter of the way in the roll and I knew it would never come out because with a plane that big, with the position it was in, that roll would have turned into a dive.

“It turned over, completely over and went straight down.”

Initially, an Air Force spokesman said the front part of the plane, where the crew would have been seated, was partially intact, raising hopes someone might have survived the affect. However, volunteers searched the thickly wooded area in vain. The four bodies were recovered the day after the crash.

Bits of metal from the plane were strewn over a quarter of a mile and the Cargomaster’s four engines were scattered throughout the crash site. The most recognizable piece of the plane was the aft bulkhead, situated under the vertical stabilizer. Searchers initially discovered what was described as a half-molten piece of metal that might have been an identification tag and a shattered pair of glasses.

Over the next two weeks, workers searched for more clues and removed what they could find. Pieces of heavy construction equipment later were brought in to cover up the area and to keep wild animals away from possible unrecovered human remains.

Shock at the base

The destruction of the Air Force’s newest and largest transport plane and the loss of four popular crewmen stunned the population of Dover AFB.

“When it crashed, I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, we just worked on that plane,’” former propeller mechanic Roger E. Greene, now of Eatontown, N.J., said. “Everything had looked good. We couldn’t find anything that we’d done wrong. We sat there and talked it all over, but there was nothing we could find.”

Greene said Air Force investigators combed through the C-133’s maintenance records and his supervisor questioned him about work done on the plane.

“He asked if we’d found anything wrong and I said no, everything was good.”

The formal crash inquiry began almost immediately and all C-133s were ordered back to Dover.

The anxiety over the crash was heightened just 16 days later when a malfunction on another C-133 almost caused a crash as the plane was landing at the base. Following this near-miss, all C-133s were grounded for the next three weeks.

The results of the investigation into the crash of 54-0146 have never been released to the public. The Report of AF Aircraft Accident lists only basic airplane and crew information and what was known of events leading up to the crash. The conclusions of the investigation board still are considered sensitive material.

Most theories about the accident centered on the C-133’s stall tendencies, which during initial flight testing indicated uneven airflow over the horizontal stabilizers made the elevators useless. A fix was ordered to the eighth aircraft and retrofitted to all flying Cargomasters.

Col. (then Maj.) Charles J. Gutekunst was the maintenance officer for the investigation; he flew over the crash site while the aircraft was still burning.

“The accident report did not give the exact cause of the accident, but about six months later, we found what convinced most of the C-133 pilots and maintenance folks that it was the answer,” he said.

While going through a preflight checklist Gutekunst was unable to move the plane’s elevators. He and another pilot followed cables back to the rear pressure bulkhead where they attached to a rod that went through a tube and then connected to other cables.

The rod appeared to be frozen in ice, Gutekunst said.

“We went into the tail cone and found it was all wet in there from rain the night before.”

Knowing that it rained the night prior to Bern’s mission and that his flight plan had taken him up to altitudes where temperatures were well below freezing, Gutekunst theorized the rod on 54-0146 might have frozen, locking up the elevators and causing the stall and inverted roll Bailey and others witnessed.

Gutekunst made a trip to the base salvage area where the pressure bulkhead from 54-0146 was awaiting the scrap yard and had the same section cut out. He then made a trip to the base meat locker.

“We soaked the rod and started moving it back and forth,” he said. “The third time it went through, it froze solid.”

He called some Douglas engineers who immediately recognized the problem. The repair was unbelievably simple: maintenance crews simply cut a one-inch hole in the bulkhead and removed the tube.

Whether this modification could have prevented the loss of 54-0146 never will be known.

“I believe what we found was the answer,” Gutekunst said. “It wasn’t scientific, but it worked.”

The loss of 54-0146 was not the first fatal Dover plane accident and it was not the last. But it was particularly noteworthy because four highly skilled and well-liked airmen died and because the C-133 was considered the largest and most advanced transport aircraft of its time.

The base recovered and C-133s continued to fly from Dover for another 13 years.

In July 1971, Lt. Col. Benn H. Witterman wrote about his own reactions to some of the incidents involving the Cargomaster just as the Air Force was retiring the last of the C-133 fleet.                                                  

A C-133 pilot and later C-133 safety monitor at MATS headquarters, Witterman was on many Cargomaster accident investigation boards.

“The C-133 always did have a flair for the spectacular, especially when it came to accidents,” Witterman wrote. “In most cases, the accidents occurred in a sudden, violent manner that left no survivors and defied investigators to determine the cause.

“Sometimes even a broad guess was difficult,” he wrote.