Tragic B-29 Bomber Incident

From 1950-52 I was assigned to New Mexico’s Holloman AFB as a duty pilot, having just graduated from USAF Advanced Flight Training in B-25 aircraft as a brand new second lieutenant.

Holloman had been a B-24 bomber training base during WWII and was closed after the war ended. It was reopened around 1948 as an Air Force Systems Command base from which various kinds of tests would be conducted. From an aviation standpoint, Holloman was ideal as the weather most often was perfect for all kinds of test flights.

The base was situated near White Sands National Park and lay in the flat desert-like plains between two mountain ranges. When I arrived in September 1950, the base still retained the wooden buildings used during WWII, all looking gray and washed-out.

It was a great place for a young pilot to be assigned. There were few other pilots on the base and the flight ramp contained a variety of aircraft including the T-11, C-47, B-26 and B-29, and it wasn’t long before I was checked out to fly all of them, save the B-29 — a large 4-engine bomber used extensively during WWII. It would take a considerable number of flying hours before I would ever be qualified as first pilot, however I was able to fly often as a co-pilot which was not a very demanding job, mainly making the mandatory radio calls.

The incident
There was one B-29 flight on which I was not its co-pilot, and, for me, that was very fortunate. As mentioned, Holloman was utilized for the testing of various systems and one of these was a huge, 10,000-pound bomb called the Tarzon, which could be guided from the B-29’s bombardier’s position in the nose. I’m not sure of the exact date of the incident other than it was in 1951, but I do recall most of the crewmember’s names: Captain Ed Kinchla, pilot; Lt. George Williams, co-pilot; Major Lyle Bishop, bombardier-navigator, and the flight engineer (name unknown).

The flight’s purpose was to fly to 30,000 feet and release the bomb over a designated target area. As mentioned, the bomb could be guided by control inputs from the bombardier-navigator, which would activate fins on its tail. In order to track the bomb’s descent, a magnesium flare would ignite after the weapon left the bomb bay.

Several successful tests of the Tarzon had been completed prior to this one, but on this occasion, something went wrong.

At altitude and at its release point, the Tarzon got hung up in the bomb bay. Major Bishop went the few steps back from his bombardier position and opened the access door to the bay and when he did so, the magnesium flare — which gives off immense heat and light intensity — ignited and directed its flame directly toward Major Bishop’s body. The cockpit filled with fire and smoke, but the pilot, co-pilot and flight engineer were shielded from most of the blast by a partition at backs of their seats.

Survivors
Somehow, the crew escaped the burning aircraft and parachuted to the ground. How they managed that under those conditions borders on a miracle, especially so in the case of Major Bishop who was badly burned.

The crew was picked up and transported to the Brooks Army Hospital burn center in San Antonio, Texas, and a few days later I was able to visit the burn center along with other personnel.

Neither Capt. Kinchla, Lt. Williams nor the flight engineer suffered life-threatening burns, but Major Bishop was another matter — I could not believe that he was still alive. His body was charred and it was a surprise that we were even permitted to see him. The most amazing part of the whole ordeal was how he managed to escape from the plane, open his parachute and make a safe landing; his pain had to be most excruciating.

It’s hard for me to believe that it has been 70 years since this accident took place, as the image of my three comrades lying in their hospital beds at the burn center still haunts my mind.

Over the years, I have tried to ascertain the final disposition of their cases, though it would be a miracle if Major Bishop survived. I have made many Internet searches, but nothing comes up. I may go to my grave never knowing anything more than I do now, but in my estimation there could never be a braver soldier than Major Bishop.         

Editor’s note: If you have information about this incident and what happened to the crewmembers, please contact Norbert Simon directly (nlsimon@sbcglobal.net).