the early evening hours of January 19, 1961, President-elect John F.
Kennedy sat alone in the study of his soon-to-be vacated home in Georgetown,
Virginia. In his lap, a loose-leaf notebook encased the Inaugural Address
of the 35th President of the United States; even now, with the swearing-in
ceremony less than 18 hours away, Kennedy continued to make minor changes
and recited its words aloud, searching for the right cadence and proper
emphasis to frame his words.
He was determined to introduce his presidency with a note of eloquence,
but also of strength. The President-elect was a Cold Warrior, every
bit as much as President Eisenhower, the five star general who was
now about to give up the office of the presidency to the youngest man
"Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that
we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support
any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of
In the winter of 1961, America’s decade-long Cold War with the
Soviet Union could not have been more frigid. The two countries, with
vast nuclear arsenals, maintained a never-ending death stare upon the
other. Already, inter-continental missiles with programmed, pre-designated
targets, guaranteed the annihilation of hundreds of U.S. and Soviet
cities in a matter of minutes. In addition, heavy bombers in both countries
maintained constant alerts. In the United States, hundreds of B-52
bombers, loaded with multiple hydrogen bomb payloads, stayed in the
air 24 hours a day, flying to their fail-safe points near the Arctic
On that cold evening in Washington, Kennedy knew of the global risk
but nothing of the particulars. Within an hour, five men would fulfill
Kennedy’s pledge to "pay any price."
Just past sunset, the crew of a B-52 Stratofortress, assigned to the
334th Bomb Squadron of the 95th Bomb Wing at Biggs Air Force Base,
El Paso, Texas, took off on a planned eight hour, "round-robin," operational
training mission. The flight was assigned the mission call sign, FELON
22. On board were: Capt. John P. Marsh (pilot), 1Lt. Thomas A. Stout
(co-pilot), Capt. Harold S. Bonneville (radar navigator), 2Lt. Jerome
R. Calvert (navigator), 1Lt. Ivan G. Petty (electronic warfare officer),
Tsgt. David A. Forsythe (gunner), and Ssgt. Lionel A. Terry (flight
FELON 22 covered the length of New Mexico and entered Utah near the
Four Corners. Its turnaround point, Bismark, South Dakota, was still
three hours away when the big jet began to encounter heavy turbulence.
The stiff winds buffeted FELON 22 and Capt. Marsh disengaged the auto-pilot.
The plane drifted 23 miles east of its intended course and Marsh initiated
a climb to 40,000 feet, hoping to find calmer air above. The crew was
just north of Monticello, Utah.
On the ground, Gene Schafer had just walked out of his father’s
house on 400 South in Monticello and was in the process of reaching
for his car’s door handle, when he saw a flash. Schafer turned
around and, in the next instant, "saw the whole sky light up like
Almost 80 miles north, just south of Crescent Junction, San Juan County
Sheriff Max King was heading home from a convention in Salt Lake City.
As he later told the San Juan Record, "I noticed a bright blue
light in the sky south of me. I was sure it was no normal reflection,
star or anything man-made. When the light exploded into a ball of fire,
I called the Moab Sheriff’s office and asked if they had seen
a ball of fire in the sky."
They had not; in fact, very few people had seen the flash in this
remote section of high desert, but it had surely happened. The B-52
had exploded in mid-air, ten miles north of Monticello. According to
Air Force reports, FELON 22 "experienced a violent bump," as
it began its climb to 40,000 feet, "followed by a descending roll
of about 410 degrees, a short period of wings-level, nose-down flight,
and then a violent spin." At an elevation of 7,000 feet, the plane
broke apart. The left-wing engine caught fire and the entire plane
erupted in flames. The main impact point was just off US Highway 160,
near Church Rock, but the debris field was later determined to encompass
an area two miles wide by more than 11 miles long.
Sheriff King ordered all available law enforcement personnel to the
crash site. According to King, "Many local people who had seen
the flash of light or heard the explosion, were already at the scene
of the wreckage" when he arrived. One of them was Gene Schafer
who had arrived at the crash site within 30 minutes of the explosion. "As
I came down Peter’s Hill, you could see fires burning all over
the hillsides," Schafer recalled. "At the main impact site,
the fire was real intense...it almost looked like burning phosphorus.
A man, another bystander, was standing real close to it and I said, ‘You
might want to step back from that.’ Just a couple minutes later,
that fire exploded and spewed gobs of flame all over the place."
The cockpit and most of the fuselage impacted near Church Rock and
as the fire subsided, officials found the bodies of four crew members.
Incredibly, three crew members had managed to jump free or eject from
the disintegrating B-52 and open their parachutes.
Or was it only two? There was great confusion and uncertainty in the
moments after the explosion. Two of the crew, 1Lt. Stout and 2Lt Calvert,
reached the ground about a mile from the main impact site, in shock
but with no other serious injuries, and made themselves known to Sheriff
King. Both men insisted that they had seen a third parachute, but King
wasn’t entirely convinced. But, "hearing conflicting stories
as to the number of persons in the plane, seeing another chute, and
taking into consideration that the two survivors might have seen each
other instead of a third person parachuting to the ground, a search
was made with around 150 men taking part until 2:45 a.m. Friday morning." They
found no one.
Four hours later, security officers from Hill Air Force Base arrived
on the scene. Sheriff King offered his complete cooperation and the
service of his volunteers in the search for the missing crew member,
Ssgt Terry, but incredibly, the Air Force refused. Instead they ordered
the civilian evacuation of a huge area surrounding the crash site.
According to Sheriff King, "Security personnel knew construction
of the aircraft and Sgt Terry’s position in the plane and they
felt the odds were slim in him escaping alive. They expected to find
the body in the wreckage."
The Air Force was wrong. King and his volunteers reluctantly withdrew;
local law enforcement continued to search from the air. The San Juan
Record reported that, "Colonel Watts, Biggs Air Force Base, arrived
shortly after 9 a.m. Friday. He said they were not sure if the plane
carried any weapons, classified material or anything that might bring
harm to onlookers or be a detriment to security if they got into the
An Air Force examination of the wreckage indicated that, "the
plane was equipped with five ejectors and only two had been fired...The
Air Force men felt sure it would be impossible for the man to get out
under his own power."
Finally, on Saturday morning, January 21, 1961, local search parties
were allowed to enter the crash area again. Within an hour, they found
the body of the missing man---Sgt. Lionel T. Terry, 25, had indeed
survived the mid-air explosion, had parachuted to safety, but died
of exposure. "Time of his death was not known," according
to the Record, "but reports say his body was still warm and it
was felt he had not been dead more than a few hours...(his) body was
nearly hidden under the low branches of a tree and could only be seen
from a short distance and from the right direction. His parachute was
in a small bundle near the body, indicating that he had pulled it together
in an effort to keep warm." Sheriff King noted that members of
his original late-night search party "came within 150 yards and
three persons came within 50 yards of where the body was later found."
For weeks afterward, the Air Force meticulously removed the wreckage.
For locals, in the aftermath of the crash, expressions of anger and
frustration were heard frequently, especially among those involved
in the search. Why had the Air Force kept them out? Sgt. Terry’s
body had been discovered less than a mile and a half from the crash.
Clearly he was alive and conscious when he reached the ground. He could
have been saved had it not been for the military restrictions.
Speculation focused on FELON 22's payload. Although the flight was
called a "training mission," could the B-52 have been equipped
with nuclear weapons? And how could Colonel Watts, who arrived from
Biggs Air Force Base within 12 hours of the crash, have been uncertain
of possible on-board weapons? Is that why the area was closed? To search
for a missing hydrogen bomb?
The Air Force steadfastly denied that any nuclear weapons were on
board FELON 22. For decades, the rumors of hydrogen bombs were no more
than that. But in 1992, The Deseret News conducted a probe of the crash,
after a Senate study "listed the Monticello crash site as one
of 29 possible nuclear ‘weapons accidents’ sites nationwide." According
to the Deseret News, "A deputy assistant secretary of defense
then testified that 29 accidents had indeed actually involved bombs,
but did not verify they happened at exactly the 29 sites listed in
the Senate study. The official later scheduled but canceled interviews
to clarify whether a bomb was aboard in the Utah accident."
Four years later, an inquiry from a Monticello resident to the Air
Force drew a brief reply: "The information we obtained from several
Air Force Safety Agencies confirmed that an aircraft crashed in the
time frame mentioned in your letter; however, they assured us that
no nuclear weapons were ever aboard the aircraft."
Today, little wreckage remains at the main crash site, which I found
just a few months ago. Three miles south, a part of the wing survives,
almost intact. For years, at the impact point, jet fuel stained the
adjacent sandstone butte, but wind and rain and the passage have time
have finally worn it away. But if you look closely enough, small twisted
pieces of aluminum and fiber-glass litter the sage brush. And bits
of broken black glass, from what was once the cockpit instrument display
panel still survive. Some of the glass reveals letters and numbers
that once gave vital flight data to the crew of FELON 22. Now they’re
incomplete and unreadable–all but one tiny fragment.
As I kicked a crumpled piece aluminum with my foot, I saw a small
glass shard, less than an inch across. One word was clearly visible.
It said: FIRE.