William Wolters Jr, 08-31-56

Leonard Chapman Jr

Dale Richardson

8 Others

1956 airplane crash clouded by unknowns

11 KILLED: Air Force craft monitored radiation of USSR bombs.

By JOSEPH DITZLER, jditzler@adn.com

Published: July 17, 2007

WASILLA -- The four-engine airplane nose-dived from 12,000 feet in the night sky and slammed into the Delta Islands, a collection of overgrown gravel bars in the Susitna

As it fell, its racing engine awakened a hunter camped nearby. Two explosions followed, then a series of smaller explosions. A small glow reddened the low clouds above the scene.

The next day, pilot Charles Tulin left Merrill Field in his Aeronca Champ with Ken Whitaker of the Anchorage Daily News aboard to survey the crash site.

"I didn't know exactly where it was. We knew it was in the area of Willow, so we flew up the Big Su until we saw a plume of smoke about 30 miles away," Tulin recalled in June. "It was right near the confluence of two streams."

Eleven crewmen died that early morning Aug. 31, 1956, when the aircraft, a WB-50D, an upgraded version of the silver, tubular B-29 Superfortress bomber, crashed for reasons not clear to this day. The plane, based at Eielson Air Force Base, belonged to the 58th Weather Reconnaissance Squadron.

Tulin, now a lawyer in Anchorage and still flying, said he heard no more about the crash for 50 years. In the summer of 2006, Doug Wolters, a retired oil geologist from Centreville, Va., contacted Tulin and spoke to him briefly about his memory of the crash scene.


Wolters was 3 months old when his father, 1st Lt. William Wolters Jr., a weather officer, perished aboard the plane. For 30 years Doug Wolters harbored an obsession, he said, to know what happened to his father and to find and visit the crash site.

"Doug has been on this quest since he was a teenager," said Myron Wright of Anchorage, a photographer and pilot. "And so for all these many years, he's been trying to find information so he could go to that location, just, I guess, to find some closure, which, as we found out, was extremely important to him."

Doug has no memory of his father. What he knows about him comes from his mother and his grandfathers.

"He was a Boy Scout, and a great outdoorsman," Wolters said. "He loved Alaska, loved wildlife, loved the outdoors."

Lt. William Wolters was 6-foot-3, lanky, athletic, a "rugged man," his son said.

A native of New York and a civil engineer by training, the lieutenant planned to finish his stint in the Air Force and then go into business with his father, also an engineer, and his brother, an architect, Doug Wolters said.

Mystery surrounded his father's death, as far as Doug was concerned. Vague reports bordering on myth, always colored by the Cold War milieu in which the crash occurred, filled the void. At one time, Doug said, he thought perhaps the plane was shot down while on a clandestine mission over the Soviet Union.

"I dreamed for years that my father was lost in the woods in Alaska and was going to come out of the woods and find me," he said in a telephone interview from Virginia.


The aircraft on which Lt. Wolters flew, No. 49-315, was christened the Golden Heart, a tribute to nearby Fairbanks, at a June 9, 1956, ceremony outside Birchwood Hangar at Eielson Air Force Base. A small crowd watched as the reigning Mrs. Fairbanks, Marilyn Barnett, broke a bottle of champagne on the nose-wheel landing gear.

The Golden Heart, like other WB-50Ds in Alaska, had two missions. One, weather reconnaissance, and another less talked about at the time: detection of radioactive debris from Soviet atomic weapons tests.

Introduced in 1947, the B-50 bomber was an improved version of the B-29, the aircraft that dropped the first nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki to end World War II. The B-50 had more powerful engines and longer range.

In the mid-1950s, the Air Force further modified several B-50s into the WB-50D by stripping away its armament, equipping it with weather and Doppler radars and other equipment and installing more fuel cells, according to the National Museum of the Air Force in Dayton, Ohio.

Atop the fuselage some had a scoop installed to gather airborne radioactive particles. The scoop held diaper-like filter paper that captured small bits of debris from nuclear weapons detonations. Whenever U.S. authorities suspected a Soviet test had occurred, a WB-50D went aloft to sniff for confirmation.

Bernie Barris, a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel and former weather service navigator, said he's studied this particular crash.

"They were absolutely looking for debris from a specific test," he wrote by e-mail from San Antonio, Texas.

The Soviets detonated a 27-kiloton bomb on Aug. 24 and another 900-kiloton device on Aug. 30, 1956, at their test site at Semipalatinsk in Kazakhstan, according to nuclearweaponarchive.org.

Barris said the Golden Heart was looking for evidence from the Aug. 24 test as the suspect air mass moved toward Alaska. Barris said he's talked with people involved with weather recon flights out of Eielson at the time, including Maj. Russell Eggert, the squadron assistant operations officer.

The Golden Heart on its last flight was on a "Loon Special Mission," a variant of the standing Loon Echo flight path flown routinely by WB-50D crews out of Eielson. That path took the aircraft west past the Aleutians, north over the Bering Sea parallel to the Kamchatka Peninsula to Nome and back to Eielson.

A Loon Special flew the same route looking for a specific air mass coming off the Soviet Union, one probably detected first by a weather recon squadron in Japan, Barris explained by e-mail.

In fact, he wrote, the daily Loon flights looked primarily for nuclear test debris, with weather data a nice byproduct.

AUG. 31, 1956

The Golden Heart taxied for takeoff from Eielson in darkness early Aug. 31, 1956, a Friday, for an expected 12-hour mission.

Capt. Leonard Chapman Jr., a 30-year-old Dayton, Ohio, native, was at the controls. In the right seat sat the co-pilot, Maj. Dale Richardson, 44, of Wood, S.D.

At 2:04 a.m., the four Pratt & Whitney reciprocal engines roared at full throttle. The Golden Heart climbed aloft and headed south. Forty-five minutes later the crew reported reaching 12,000 feet, according to an Air Force report. The flight was "progressing normally."

At 3:02 a.m., the Golden Heart reported being over Talkeetna, same altitude, flying under instrument flight rules, meaning it was probably in the clouds. This "was the last radio transmission to be heard from the aircraft," according to the Air Force report.

At 3:08 a.m., the airplane disappeared from radar screens at the Anchorage Air Route Traffic Control Center. What happened to the Golden Heart has ever since defied explanation.

"Approximately 90 percent of the aircraft was reduced to unrecognizable ashes, molten metal and fragments ranging in size from a few feet long to less than an inch," according to the Air Force report.

Barris, referring to an article on the crash in Air Weather Service Safety Magazine, took note that even though the airplane flight deck practically disintegrated, investigators determined the electrically powered compass was not operating at the time. Without that compass, the autopilot, if engaged, would try to steer the airplane to a nonexistent heading. That, he speculated, could have rolled the airplane into a fatal spin.

"Being still dark, they might not realize in time and would not be able to recover," Barris said.

The Golden Heart plummeted nose-first into three small islands, its 70,000 pounds of aviation fuel, enough for 19 hours, becoming a fireball. The impact zone measured less than 200 square feet, about the amount of space needed to park a Superfortress.

"It looked to me like the wreckage of a light plane, except for the one large piece of wing or tail," wrote Ken Whitaker of the Daily News for that afternoon's newspaper.

No distress call emanated from the crew; the engines, recovered by investigators, appeared to be running normally. The Air Force ruled out weather, structural defects or fire onboard the aircraft prior to the crash. If the Air Force ever determined a cause, it never made the report public, nor would it have to, although anyone flying that model plane would have access to it, according to Barris.

"From everything I have seen and everyone I've talked to, no determination has been made" as to the cause, he said by phone.

The Golden Heart was one of six WB-50Ds involved in fatal crashes, he said. In three of them, the Golden Heart included, he said, "we just don't know. ..."

Find Joseph Ditzler online at adn.com/contact/jditzler or call 257-4200.