B-52F-KC-135A Mid-Air Collision

B-52F 57-036 Service Members
*Captain William G. Gutshall, Aircraft Commander
*Major Milton E. Chatham, Instructor Pilot
1Lt Donald Arger, Co-Pilot
*Captain James W. Strother, Radar Navigator
1Lt John W. Mosby, Navigator
*1Lt Gino Fugazzi, Electronic Warfare Officer
Captain Lyle P. Burgess, Instructor Navigator
TSgt Howard L. Nelms, Tail Gunner

KC-135A 57-1513 Service Members
Major Robert H. Imhoff, Aircraft Commander
1Lt William E. Epling, Co-Pilot
1Lt Harold E. Helmick,
Navigator SSgt Paul E. Thomasson, Boom Operator
*Service Members who survived the collision

Historical marker 2606 honors the survivors and those lost in a tragic air collision. On October 15, 1959, airmen assigned to the 4228th Strategic Wing at Columbus Air Force Base, Mississippi executed an airborne nuclear deterrence mission code named STEEL TRAP.

The B-52Fs and KC-135As assigned to this wing were part of the Strategic Air Command (SAC) and would comprise a daily 12 aircraft mission flying various routes towards the northern polar regions or east to the Mediterranean Sea.
STEEL TRAP mission durations for the B-52s approached up to 24 hours. The B-52s remained airborne via KC-135 refuelers flying “racetrack patterns” over selected portions of the bomber’s pre-planned missions.

In-flight aerial refueling technology and capabilities were a recent advancement (early 1950s). A “flying gas station” such as the KC-135A (based on a Boeing 707 airframe) would fly these pre-determined routes and the receiver aircraft such as a B-52 would fly behind the KC-135 to receive fuel. The KC-135’s refueling boom would extend into the offloading aircraft and begin the transfer of thousands of pounds of gas. The distances between each aircraft during this operation were quite close and though a regular occurrence this was still a dangerous operation each time it was performed.

At 31,500 feet above the farming community of Hardinsburg, Kentucky at 6:40 PM (CST) the two aircraft began to refuel and six minutes into the operation both aircraft came into contact with each other. The resulting collision generated an intense fireball seen up to 150 miles away in Cincinnati, Ohio and French Lick, Indiana. Children on a hayride traveling on Highway 261 looked up and observed the two bright explosions. They immediately turned around and went home. Others thought oil exploration wells had exploded generating the intense fireballs on the ground.

The B-52 stayed together long enough for four of the eight crew members to successfully eject. The four surviving crewmembers landed near the village of Glen Dean. Major Chatham and Captain Gutshall were assisted by Mr. Ray Ashey and Mr. Raymond Sosh who brought them to Critchelow’s Store. A local physician, Dr. Walter R. Morris, was summoned to treat Major Chatham’s injuries suffered during the ejection. Captain Strother and First Lieutenant Fugazzi were also transported to the hastily arranged “command post.”

The aircraft remains landed two miles from each other. The KC-135 landed near the farm of Mrs. Ruby Jones and Mr. Briscoll Thurman’s farmhouse. The resulting trench was 75 feet long and 35 feet wide. The main portion of the B-52 hit the ground near the Whitier farm; with other significant wreckage on the Reason Sebastian farm near the village of McQuady. The aircraft portion where the weapons were loaded formed a crater 35 feet long, 10 feet wide, and four feet deep. According to the official accident report: “The weapons survived the accident in remarkably good condition…with no radiological hazards.”

Air Force authorities were immediately notified, and local law enforcement arrived on-scene to assess the situation. News media also appeared to inform the public of this significant national security incident and report the unfortunate loss of the aircrews. Luckily there were zero casualties on the ground though a few close calls. An engine off the B-52 landed 50 feet from where Mr. Sebastian was standing and the predominate wreckage from the KC-135 missed Mrs. Jones farmhouse by about 100 yards. The surviving crew members would spend the night awaiting Air Force personnel to arrive the next morning.

Recovery operations began the next day and lasted three weeks to ensure as much of the aircraft wreckage was collected within the two separate 10,000 square foot areas along a five-mile-long corridor. The small farming communities around Breckinridge Country offered up their homes and businesses to assist. Local resident Tom Tivitt recalls Air Force members temporarily borrowing his car (and returning it with a full tank of gas). Mr. George Phillips remembers other “on-scene personnel” borrowing their living room as a temporary command post. Finally, an Airmen temporarily assigned from Columbus Air Force Base met one of the young ladies from Breckinridge County and married her.

Eventually the citizens of Breckenridge and Grayson County went back to their lives and SAC continued these airborne alert missions (eventually renamed CHROME DOME) until the late 1960s.

Today, many of the “kids” who wore bobby sox and listened to rock and roll music while driving into the night to catch a glimpse of this incident are in their late 70s and yet the B-52 and KC-135 aircraft continued to serve the United States.

The land where the aircraft crashed is located on private property; however, the marker honoring the airmen who flew this mission and were lost is located adjacent to the Black Lick Baptist Church.

Lest We Forget…



15 Oct 1959 Historical Marker Project (Marker Location Reference).pdfpdf / 1.45 MB Download
B52F-KC135A Mid-Air Collision Dedication Program.pdfpdf / 1.04 MB Download


Black Lick Baptist Church 246 Blacklick Church Lane, Falls of Rough, KY 40119