1-minute hike: B-52 crash site near Moosehead Lake

Difficulty: Easy. The trail leading through the crash site and the side trails through the scattered wreckage adds up to less than 0.5 mile in length and travels over fairly even terrain.

How to get there: From the blinking light at the center of downtown Greenville, drive north on Lily Bay Road for 6.7 miles. Turn right onto Prong Pond Road. Reset your mileage. Drive 1.8 miles and bear right. At 3.8 miles, bear right at a fork. At 5.4 miles, you will see the trailhead on your left. A small parking area surrounded lined by small boulders is on the right.

Information: East of the southern tip of Moosehead Lake (in Bowdoin College Grant West), Elephant Mountain rises 2,636 feet above sea level and vaguely resembles an elephant’s head, sans tusks. No trail reaches its summit, but a short trail leads up to the historic site where a B-52 crashed into the mountain on Jan. 24, 1963, killing seven men aboard.

Nine men of the U.S. Air Force packed into the B-52 and flew out of Westover Air Force Base in Massachusetts just past noon to practice low-level navigation. They planned to return to base at 5:30 p.m. While flying over the Moosehead region, a vertical stabilizer broke off (a structural fault), and 10 seconds later, the aircraft crashed into Elephant Mountain, according to the sign at the crash site.

Two survived the crash; pilot Lt. Col. Dante Bulli parachuted to the ground, breaking his foot on a tree, and his navigator, Gerald Adler, is the only person to survive an ejection from an aircraft without the parachute opening. He landed upright in the snow in his ejection seat, fracturing his skull and three ribs. (The ejection seat can be viewed at the Moosehead Rider’s Clubhouse.) Maj. Robert J. Morrison also parachuted from the aircraft but was killed when he hit a tree. The others aboard didn’t have the time to escape, according to an account of the event by Durward K Ferland, Jr.

Bulli and Adler survived the night, suffering temperatures dipping to -28 degrees Fahrenheit and five feet of snow, before they were rescued. Bulli spent three months in the hospital and went on to fly again. Adler ultimately retired from the Air Force after a long recovery, during which his leg had to be amputated from the frostbite and gangrene that had set in.

On the 30th anniversary of the crash, a commemorative service was sponsored by the Moosehead Rivers Snowmobile Club. For the event, Adler returned to the crash site for the first time. And on May 25, 2013, he was reunited with his rescuer for the first time in 50 years during a Memorial Day event.

According to signs at the crash site, the pieces of the B-52 were once removed from the site, but most of the pieces were later returned to the woods as a memorial, which is open for the public to view from a clear footpath.

The B-52 had a wingspan of 185 feet and was 160 feet long from head to tail. Along the short woodland trail to the crash site, pieces of the plane are scattered on the forest floor, and some pieces are in the limbs of trees. Twisted metal, shredded wheels, rusted machinery components, wires and the partially intact tail cone are among the wreckage.

A sign erected by Plum Creek Timber Company and Moosehead Riders at the trailhead reads: “Please do not remove anything from this site. It stands as tribute to those who served their country and a memorial to those who gave their lives here.”

Unfortunately, visitors have vandalized the site over the years by etching names and dates into pieces of the wreckage.

The site has been designated off limits to all future salvage operations and the area surrounding the crash site is a no harvest zone by order of Scott Paper Company and Plum Creek.

Personal note: I was lucky to visit the crash site on Elephant Mountain for the first time on June 9, 2013, not long after Memorial Day, during which the site was adorned with American flags. To me, the simple gesture of leaving flags among the wreckage displayed the respect many people have for the men who lost their lives at that spot and the U.S. Air Force. While visiting the site with Derek and my (leashed) dog, Oreo, we saw two other groups of visitors. Everyone seemed to speak in quiet voices; and the birdsong seemed especially loud and musical, which was strangely comforting in such a solemn place.

Aislinn Sarnacki

About Aislinn Sarnacki

Aislinn is a Bangor Daily News reporter for the Outdoors pages, focusing on outdoor recreation and Maine wildlife. Visit her main blog at actoutwithaislinn.bangordailynews.com.