On April 7, 1961, two F-100A Super Sabres of the 188th Fighter Squadron, New Mexico Air National Guard (ANG) soared into the sky to intercept an intruder. The supersonic fighters, piloted by 27-year old 1st Lt. James van Scyoc as flight leader and Capt. Dale Dodd as his wingman, were armed not just with their standard 20mm cannon but also a pair of AIM-9B Sidewinder heat-seeking missiles.
The weather on the ground was terrible with a blizzard raging but guided by their ground controllers the two F-100s climbed rapidly through the heavy clouds and, breaking through into the clear sky beyond, acquired their target flying at 34,000 feet.
A B-52B of the 95th Bombardment Wing, flying out of Biggs Air Force Base, El Paso, Texas – probably the most advanced nuclear bomber type of the time. The aircraft, named Ciudad Juarez, was piloted by Capt. Donald Blodgett and was conducting a training flight.
In fact, the whole episode was just that, training. With the B-52 flying overhead on its own mission, the National Guard unit had thought to practice their intercept and engagement routines against it. As the 188th was part of the United States western defences, tasked to defend against the B-52’s Soviet equivalents, the opportunity to run a drill against one of the United States Air Force’s premium bombers was too good an opportunity to miss.
Capt. Blodgett wasn’t exactly thrilled by the prospect of being the subject of mock attacks by fighters, but his mission was pretty much routine, with the Ciudad Juarez was flying itself on auto pilot at this point. In fact the intercept practice would allow his tail gunner, Staff Sgt. Ray Singleton, to conduct his own practice by targeting the approaching fighters with his twin 20mm cannon. Indeed, the whole affair should have been fairly routine.
The F-100s made five passes of the B-52, approaching from behind so that their Sidewinders could acquire lock, giving off their distinctive growl as they picked up the heat coming from the big bombers eight engines.
The safety protocols were rigorous. Though the Sidewinders being used were live missiles, only the seeker was activated during the faked attack run. With toggle switches on the firing board in the non-firing position and an additional circuit breaker off, the missiles could only lock on, with launch being theoretically impossible.
Additionally, before each pass, the ground controllers vectoring the attack would verbally confirm with the pilot that his weapons were indeed safe. Every safety precaution had been taken, or so it was thought.
Each pass on the B-52 went perfectly as the fighters got lock on and then roared past the lumbering bomber. Approaching for a sixth time, Van Scyoc radioed Dodd and told him this was the last run as their fuel was getting low.
Diving onto the bomber’s tail, he heard the Sidewinder tone as he achieved lock…and was horrified at the distinctive thump and roar as one of his missiles shot from its rail and screamed towards the B-52.
He yelled over his radio: “Look out! One of my missiles is loose!”
But as he gave his warning the AIM-9B slammed into the left-side inboard engine nacelle, blowing the left wing completely off.
On board the Ciudad Juarez, Capt. Blodgett recalled that:
“I heard van Scyoc call “Look out! My missile’s fired.” We were on autopilot and I grabbed the controls just as the missile hit. There was a tremendous shudder and the aircraft banked left steeply. Electrical equipment in the right side of the cockpit caught fire.”
The co-pilot of Ciudad Juarez, Captain Ray Obel, ejected. But because of the sudden explosive decompression caused by this because of the altitude the aircraft was at the crew chief, Staff Sergeant Manuel A. Mieras, who had been sitting on the crew ladder to the lower deck behind the pilots, was sucked up and across the cockpit and out of the aircraft.
Pinned by G-forces from the now spinning bomber, Blodgett desperately tried to hit the alarm bell to order the crew to eject and then ejected himself. The slipstream tore off his helmet and he passed through an explosion as he shot through the sky. Bizarrely, he was then sluiced in jet fuel that put out the fire on this flight suit.
Of the eight man crew of the Ciudad Juarez, five survived – though all badly injured.
Pilot Capt. Blodgett cut his arm badly and fractured his pelvis when he hit the ground hard.
Co Pilot Capt. Obel and ECM operator, Capt. George D. Jackson both broke their backs.
Tail Gunner, Staff Sgt. Singleton was badly burnt.
Crew chief, Staff Sergeant Mieras survived his explosive exit, but his left leg was so severely injured that it later had to amputated.
Captain Peter J. Gineris, navigator, Captain Stephen C. Carter, bombardier, and 1st Lieutenant Glenn V. Bair, electronic countermeasures trainee, did not escape.
The Ciudad Juarez crashed into Mount Taylor, New Mexico.
An inquiry was launched to determine just what had happened. It was found that moisture had condensed in a worn connector plug, causing a short that allowed the Sidewinder to launch.
Launcher rails had been added to the Super Sabres when they had entered service with the Air National Guard and further investigation revealed that almost all these aircraft had the same faulty wiring. This meant that this was literally an accident waiting to happen and Lt. Van Scyoc was cleared of any wrongdoing.
The fault was rectified, and development began of dummy missiles for training that featured only the seeker and not a rocket motor or warhead. But the lesson, which cost three lives and one of America’s most advanced aircraft, was an expensive one.