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H-bomb incident crippled pilot's career

Palm Beach Post Staff Writer

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Forty-one years ago today, a B-52 bomber and a refueling plane collided over Palomares, a tiny Spanish village on the Mediterranean coast.

The four men on the refueling tanker and three in the tail section of the B-52 died in a mammoth explosion that ripped the clear blue sky that Monday morning, but the B-52's radar navigator, instructor pilot, copilot and staff pilot ejected safely and fell to Earth — along with four hydrogen bombs.

Messinger's mission
Former U.S. Air Force Major Larry Messinger.
Video Messinger talks about his fateful B-52 mission
Video Messinger talks about escaping the B-52 explosion

Family photo


Larry Messinger (left), then an Air Force major, and crew pose with a B-52 in about 1963. A probe of the 1966 mishap assigned no fault, but he says, 'I got bum efficiency reports after the accident.'

Erik M. Lunsford/Staff Photographer


Messinger's wings rest on his Purple Heart. He retired from the Air Force in 1970, after 28 years.

Erik M. Lunsford/Staff Photographer


Retired Air Force Lt. Col. Larry Messinger of suburban West Palm recalls rescue at sea.

Three of those bombs were recovered almost immediately.

"It felt like I was pitched forward in my seat and all hell broke loose all at once," remembered Larry Messinger. "I was able to reach over and pull up on my armrest ejection ... and ejected, but I hit my head on something on the way out, I guess, because I wasn't quite with it at the time. I came to and I was tumbling through the air and I felt something wasn't right."

Messinger, the staff pilot, was flying the B-52 at the time of the collision. He was 44 then, a decorated combat veteran of both World War II and Korea. Today he is 85, the retired owner of an automotive tuneup shop, living quietly in suburban West Palm Beach.

Messinger's short-term memory fails him at times, but when you ask about Jan. 17, 1966, his story is confident, detailed, orderly and vivid. His recollection of the accident is sharp, and his memory of the scapegoating he feels he got from the U.S. government still stings.

"The aircraft commander was a guy named Charlie Wendorf," Messinger began, sitting in an easy chair surrounded by old photographs, books about the incident and newspaper clippings. "He was a captain. I was the major. He was pretty tired and asked me if I could do the second refueling. So he got in the right seat and I got in the left seat, and we got ready."

Under the direction of the Strategic Air Command, the B-52 had left Seymour Johnson Air Force Base in Goldsboro, N.C., the day before on a typical 24-hour airborne alert mission dubbed Operation Chrome Dome. They would cross the Atlantic and Europe, skirt the Soviet Union, then return home. The flight was so long that the plane had to be refueled twice over Spain. The first refueling, heading east, had gone perfectly.

Shortly before 10:30 a.m., Messinger began bringing the B-52 up behind the refueling tanker at about 31,000 feet. Under standard procedure, the man operating the refueling boom would call "Break away! Break away! Break away!" in the event of danger, warning the B-52 to drop back and away.

"And that did not happen," Messinger said with certainty. "There was no breakaway call."

According to the official Palomares Summary Report of February 1975, which assigns no blame for the collision, the boom pilot of a second B-52 that was being refueled about a mile away reported seeing fireballs and what he thought was the center wing section in a flat spin.

By then, Messinger was drifting in his parachute.

"I looked around and I could see that I was over the coast of Spain, but the wind was blowing me rapidly back toward the Mediterranean," he recalled.

After trying unsuccessfully to maneuver his shroud lines, Messinger reconciled himself to a water landing. He took off his flying boots and readied the one-man life raft attached to his flight suit.

"I didn't see any other airplanes or any other chutes or anything," he remembered, "but I did look down at one time after I got stabilized more or less and I could see a great big wide circle in the water where something had obviously hit."

That splash in the water was also seen by fisherman Alfonso Orts, from his boat, the Agustin y Rosa.

Boat reached him after 45 minutes in raft

Of the four crew members who escaped the B-52, Capt. Ivan Buchanan, the radar navigator, was the only one to come down on land, where local residents took him to a nearby clinic. Wendorf, the instructor pilot, and Michael Rooney, the copilot, landed in the sea and were picked up by another fishing boat, the Dorita. Messinger spent about 45 minutes bobbing about in his life raft before the Agustin y Rosa reached him.

"I got up on the top of a swell and I could see Spain on one side and Africa on the other side," he remembered. "Then I'd get on the bottom and couldn't see nothing."

The fishermen offered Messinger a shot of brandy and carried him to the port of Aquilas, where he was reunited with Wendorf and Rooney at the local hospital.

"Then finally a bunch of brass got there from the nearest air base in Spain — Torrejon, I guess it was — and they asked a few questions and wanted to know about the bomb. Well, hell, I hadn't even thought about the damn bombs! All we were thinking about was surviving!"

Each of the four bombs that had fallen from Messinger's plane was loaded with 1.45 megatons of power — about 100 times more than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima at the end of World War II.

None of the bombs was armed, and within 24 hours of the accident, three had been found on land. But this was the Cold War, after all, when Americans lived with the memory of the Cuban missile crisis and the apocalyptic humor of Dr. Strangelove. The notion that an H-bomb was missing, even an unarmed H-bomb, made headlines — for 81 days.

On April 7, the fourth and final bomb was raised from under 2,900 feet of water by an experimental submersible dubbed the Alvin. By then, Messinger was back in North Carolina.

Colleague recalls him as great pilot

"While I was in the hospital at Torrejon, the promotions list came out for lieutenant colonel, and I was pretty high on it," Messinger said. But the promotion didn't come.

During World War II, Messinger flew 35 missions over Germany, including one in which half his crew was killed. During the Korean War, he flew another 35 missions out of Okinawa.

Lyle Patterson, 78, of Longview, Wash., who flew with Messinger in 1951, said, "We were one of the first bomb groups to face the Russian MiGs, and the thing that impressed me about Messinger at the time was how cool he was under fire. I just think he was a great pilot, and I was happy to be on his crew."

Even 41 years later, Messinger's voice tightens with anger when he recalls the aftermath of the collision.

"I was never charged with anything," he said. "The promotion just didn't happen. They just took me off the list, and I got bum efficiency reports after the accident from the people at my home base."

All he was ever told, Messinger said, was that "structural failure" caused the accident. He was never blamed officially, but he ultimately had to fight for his promotion to lieutenant colonel, which he finally won.

"I'm still a little teed off about the whole thing," he said. "It shouldn't have happened that way, but it did."

Max Erwin, 83, was a member of the Defense Department's atomic support agency, responsible for conveying information to the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the president.

Messinger "got a raw deal," said Erwin, now retired and living in Port St. Lucie. "I think he was a scapegoat. The operations on a refueling are a very, very delicate thing, and if you run into turbulence or anything else, it's something you can't help."

In 1970, Messinger retired from the Air Force after 28 years of service. He had flown a full 35 missions in World War II and received a Purple Heart, then flown a full 35 missions in Korea, a military record to make any man proud. And he'd survived a mid-air collision that killed seven others, including three from his own plane. But the memory of the promotion he was denied still angers him, even at 85.

"I'd like to be remembered for the fact that I put in 28 years of good solid service," he said, "and never did anything wrong, and yet I was hung for a few things."

As for the missing H-bomb, on April 8, the day after being hauled from the floor of the Mediterranean Sea, it was shown to reporters, the first time a nuclear bomb had ever appeared in public.