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WHAT HAPPENED TO 52-534? -History & Mystery

Over time there have been multitudes of strange disappearances involving airplanes, ships, people and even civilizations, each of which poses questions no one has been able to answer.

When these disappearances involve the military, they become even more clouded because of the need for secrecy and sometimes, just bureaucratic meddling.

When we think of unexplained disappearances, we naturally think of Amelia Earhart, Judge Crater or perhaps Jimmy Hoffa. The Bermuda Triangle is the area that first comes to mind.

This article deals with an aircraft which regularly flew throughout the infamous triangle without incident, yet met its unknown fate far across the Atlantic.

In the 1950’s MacDill A.F.B., in Tampa Florida, was home to the 305th and 306th Bombardment Wings each with three bomb squadrons of B-47’s Stratojet Bombers and an aerial refueling squadron of KC-97 Stratotankers to serve them.

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As proud members of the Strategic Air Command (SAC), these airmen were charged with providing a deterrent force unequalled in history.

On February 20, 1953, the 306th BW was tested under the combat exercise "Sky Try", which it successfully completed, becoming the first operational B-47 Wing.

One of the most significant flying operations undertaken by the 306th BW was a unit deployment to train overseas. Starting on June 3, 1953, 15 B-47s departed MacDill followed by the same number on June 4 and 5.

306th ARS KC-97s departed on the same dates to Mildenhall RAF Station, England.

The 306th BW deployment of 45 B-47s and 22 KC-97s, was the first jet bomber unit to deploy on a reflex type mission overseas. The Wing established 14 Trans-Atlantic speed records in the process while transporting over 1700 men and one million tons of supplies within four days. A B-47 flew the 3,120 mile route in 5 hours and 22 minutes, averaging 575 mph.

Additionally, unknown to many, these SAC squadrons flew constant ‘picket’ missions along the perimeter of the continental United States, as a show of readiness and vigilance, warding off foreign intrusion.

They remained on constant alert and were charged with keeping at least 1/3 of their aircraft in the air at all times and one third on constant ‘readiness alert’, prepared for instant and devastating retaliation to any threat.

The slow, lumbering KC-97 tankers were vital to keeping the magnificent B-47 bombers in the air and ready. The technology of in-flight refueling, common today, was in it’s infancy in the 50’s and the learning curve was steep.

Accidents occurred, assuredly, but on a much less frequent basis than one would anticipate given the complexity of the operation and the need for such overwhelming numbers of airborne craft.

B-47’s were regularly deployed to bases around the world on temporary duty (TDY) for highly secret reconnaissance missions as well as a ‘show of force’ to our enemies.

It was on one such deployment that our story takes place.

On March 10, 1956, four B-47 Stratojets, belonging to the 369th Bomb Squadron,took off from MacDill Air Force Base in Florida for a non-stop flight to Ben Guerir Air Base, Morocco, just north of Marrakech,on a routine deployment mission.

Each of these bombers carried two capsules of nuclear weapons material. The material was contained in carrying cases insuring that, without proper assembly, a nuclear detonation was not possible.

Because of the distances involved it would be necessary to refuel the bombers, in flight, twice during their journey.

The first refueling went off without a hitch, each of the bombers taking on 35,000 pounds of fuel (about 5400 gallons), from KC-97 tankers temporarily based in the Azores.

The second, and final, in-flight refueling was to take place over the Mediterranean, north of the Algerian coastline.

The four B-47’s began descending through solid cloud cover to begin their second refueling, at 14,000 ft, but only three of them emerged from cloudy sky.

The Boeing B-47E-95-BW Stratojet (SN: 52-534), manned by Captain Robert H. Hodgin (31, commander), Captain Gordon M. Insley (32, observer), and 2nd Lt. Ronald L. Kurtz (22, pilot) had simply disappeared.

When its assigned KC-97 tanker was unable to contact the bomber an intense, immediate search was instituted.

Along with U.S. Air Force searchteams, ships from the Royal Navy abandoned their exercises in the Mediterranean, and troops in French and Spanish Morocco assisted in the search for wreckage of the plane.

A French news agency reported that the plane may have exploded in flight near Sebatna in eastern French Morocco. The Air Force reported that the French position was roughly the same as the last report on the missing plane. A later report said the plane went down southeast of Port Say, an Algerian coastal village near the Moroccan frontier.

The exhaustive search failed to locate the aircraft, its weapons, nor its crew.

Even in the 1950’s communications were at a level that the utter disappearance of an aircraft in flight was highly unusual. No distress calls were intercepted and no indication of mechanical malfunction was received. The airplane, its crew and the two capsules of nuclear weapons material was never found.

The B-47 Stratojet, # 52-534, had just vanished.

The Department of Defense issued a terse, one paragraph report on the disappearance:

March 10, 1956/B-47/ Mediterranean Sea
The aircraft was one of a flight of four scheduled for non-stop deployment from MacDill AFB to an overseas air base. Take-off from MacDill and first refueling were normal. The second refueling point was over the Mediterranean Sea. In Preparation for this, the flight penetrated solid cloud formation to descend to the refueling level of 14,000 feet. Base of the clouds was 14,500 feet and visibility was poor. The aircraft, carrying two nuclear capsules in carrying cases never made contact with the tanker. An extensive search failed to locate any traces of the missing aircraft or crew.

To this day, no explanation has ever been put forth as to what happened, or where the aircraft and it nuclear capsules may have ended up.

I have a particular interest in this story since it happened to an aircraft of which I have personal knowledge and experience. As a member of the 306th Air Refueling Squadron at the time, I had occasionally performed maintenance on this particular aircraft and, to this day, I feel a kinship with its crew and their families.