The Hawks Mountain B-29 Crash
Vermont's Worst Aviation Disaster
Tom Hildreth


On June 15, 1997, a group of about 75 people gathered on the village green in Perkinsville, Vermont to take part in a ceremony that marked the 50th anniversary of Vermont's worst aviation disaster. This event was held in rememberance of the crash of an Air Force B-29 bomber on nearby Hawks mountain.

VFW Post 771 of Springfield, Vermont, conducted a fitting memorial service, with Post Commander Roger Eastman provided a color guard, rifle squad, and a contingent from the ladies auxiliary.

"FIFI" The only operational B-29
in the world is flown by the
Commemorative Air Force

As the Air Force representative I stepped forward and read aloud the names of the deceased. I spent a moment trying to put the loss of life in historical perspective. I mentioned the need in 1947 for our country to maintain trained bomber crews. Men who would be prepared to fly the fleet of jet bombers then on the drawing boards, and successfully provide a nuclear deterrence for the next forty years. The rifle squad fired a salute that echoed off the forested side of the mountain. As the village green fell into a hushed silence, young Sarah Smith from nearby North Springfield sounded taps.

The Weathersfield Historical Society then hosted a hike to the crash site on the mountain. It was Father's Day, and I learned later that the son of the pilot was among the hikers.

The Hawks Mountain crash first came to my attention when a neighbor showed me a memento he kept in his cellar. The newspaper accounts of 1947 claimed that the military had removed all weapons from the crash site, but my neighbor assured me the twisted and rusted .50 calibre machine gun barrel he held in his hands came from the Hawks mountain crash site. I learned the exact date the bomber went down when reading

Hiker Dave Amidon
holds the propeller shaft
from one of the B-29s
four R-3350 engines

the official history of Grenier Air Force Base, located at Manchester, New Hampshire. A board of six officers led by Maj. John H. Traylor of the 82nd Fighter Wing was dispatched from Grenier tasked with investigating the crash and completing the official Army Air Force Report of a Major Accident. Still, I wondered why a large B-29 bomber would come to such a horrendous end in the hills of the Green Mountain State.

The 43rd Bomb Group (BG) saw extensive combat service in the Pacific during World War Two. The organization was inactivated in the Philippines on April 29, 1946. Six months later, on October 1, 1946, it was activated at Davis-Monthan AAF under the command of Col. James C. Seler, Jr., and assigned to the Strategic Air Command (SAC). The group was comprised of the 63rd, 64th, and 65th Bomb Squadrons (BS), each of which operated ten B-29s.In early 1947 the 43rd BG was assigned tail markings that were comprised of a large black diamond. 4 The 43rd's stated purpose was to train for and conduct long-range test missions. 5

The Strategic Air Command (SAC) was activated on March 21, 1946. The new organization received a mission statement on October 10 that ordered it to "... attain an immediate state of combat readiness and to stand by for immediate operation either alone or jointly with other forces, against enemies of the United States." 1 That this ambitious tasking was to take place amidst massive postwar demobilization was to plague the new command for years. By late 1946 six manned and equipped bomb groups were operational, though earlier plans called for more than twice this amount. 2

SAC conducted its first sizable exercise in July, 1946 when it participated in an atomic bomb test called Operation Crossroads. The 509th Composite Group, a descendant of which can be found today flying B-2 Spirit stealth bombers at Whitman AFB, Missouri, was the Air Force's only Atom Bomb-equipped establishment, and on July 1, 1946 one of their B-29s dropped a nuclear bomb on 72 ships lying off Bikini Atoll in the Pacific Ocean. 3

During November, 1946, the 43rd executed a long-range mission with six B-29s from Tucson, across the Atlantic Ocean to Europe. The bombers deliberately flew along the borders of Communist Eastern Bloc nations in what was the first use of SAC as an instrument of American diplomacy. 6

Although these early operational exercises seemed to speak well of the SAC's ability to perform its assigned mission, many shortfalls existed within the command. Extreme shortages of qualified personnel in critical career fields led

Two hikers look out over
Vermont's Black River Valley
from atop Hawks mountain

SAC commander Maj. Gen. Clements McMullen to adopt a radical cross-training program. McMullen theorized that within a four-year time span a pilot could also be trained to perform the duties of a navigator, bombardier and radar operator. Men in these other three disciplines would learn each others jobs as well. By mid 1948 this plan was abandoned because of its unrealistic expectations. Ample evidence existed that showed it lowered each man's performance in his primary specialty. 7

In June, 1947, Davis-Monthan AAF and its assigned flying units fell under the authority of the 248th AAF Base Unit. The AAF Base Unit plan then in effect was unpopular with flying personnel because it put their skills and resources under the control of a non-rated officer. Later in the year the Hobson Plan was created to alleviate this problem, and at Tucson, the 248th AAFBU was replaced by the 43rd Airdrome (later Air Base) Group. In its essence, the Hobson plan sought to place flying organizations at the top of the command structure to ensure that all other base organizations worked to support the flying mission. 8

At 7:05 AM on Saturday, June 14, 1947, B-29A 44-62228 of the 64th Bomb Squadron, Very Heavy (BVH), took off from Davis-Monthan on a navigational training flight for Andrews AAF, near Washington, DC. At 4:28 PM the aircraft was reported to be 60 miles southwest of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, at which time the pilot requested a flight plan change from CFR to IFR to Bedford AAF, near Boston, Massachusetts.

The aircraft landed at Greater Pittsburgh Airport at 3:07 PM and took on 2,400 gallons of fuel. While on the ground, 1LT. Robert G. Fessler, the pilot, made out an IFR clearance direct to Bedford AAF at 7,000 feet. This clearance was not approved by Army Flight Service, and Fessler changed the clearance to IFR to Boston, CFR to Bedford. 9 It was noted in Section K of the accident report that there were no weather forecasters on duty at Pittsburgh between 4:00 PM and 7:00 AM. The Base Operations Officer at Pittsburgh reported the pilot was fatigued and concerned about deteriorating weather conditions at his destination airport.

The bomber departed western Pennsylvania and continued toward the east coast, which was blanketed with bad weather. An aircraft position report was made just east of Allentown, PA, and another over Stewart AAF, near Newburgh, New York. Grenier Airways in Manchester, New Hampshire overheard the aircraft as it attempted to contact Boston at 11:55 PM. Cpl. Wendell J. Adams was on duty at Grenier and noted that 2228 did not receive an answer from Boston. The Corporal queried the aircraft to see if he could be of assistance, but 2228 replied in the negative. 10

At midnight, residents of Brattleboro, VT heard an unusually loud aircraft pass overhead. 11 At 12:05 AM, a large aircraft circled the town of Springfield, VT about 45 miles farther up the Connecticut River valley, where the nearest weather station reported overcast at 500 feet. At 12:14 the aircraft rumbled low over the village of Perkinsville, in the town of Weathersfield, Vermont. Seconds later the sound of the engines ceased abruptly as the bomber impacted the southeast face of Hawks Mountain and was consumed in a huge fireball.

Without hesitation, the people of Weathersfield responded to the crash. In spite of the pouring rain, Richard Butterfield, Andrew Titcomb and Phil Woodbury climbed the mountain on foot in the hope of aiding possible survivors. They arrived at the wreck scene within an hour of the crash, and were

Members of the hike sponsored
by the Weathersfield Historical Society
gether on Hawks mountain

soon followed by others who tried to assist in the search. The would-be rescuers found a large area of wet, burned mountainside littered with bodies, molten metal and debris. Pockets of aviation fuel lit up the scene as they ignited with a dull roar. The gallant efforts of the townspeople were for naught; there were no survivors. 12

For a short time after the crash there was considerable confusion as to the identity of the remains, because the aircraft's manifest was not properly filled out. Reports indicated that five people left the plane in Pittsburgh. Still other sources indicate that one additional person got on at that location. Most bizarre of all, the people living in the area of the crash will still tell you of the rumor that there was an unauthorized woman aboard and that her body was never found. The confusion was quickly ironed out, and the Army released the following list of victims:

  1Lt.      Robert G. Fessler          Pilot
  2Lt.      Wilfred E. Gassett         Copilot
  2Lt.      Ceasare P. Fontana      Observer
  Msgt.   D.D. Jack                        Crew Chief
  Tsgt.    Paul H. Fetterhoff
  Tsgt.    Clayton K. Knight
  Ssgt.    Oliver W. Hartwell
  Ssgt.    Sylvester S. Machalac
  Ssgt.    John J. O'Toole
  Cpl.     Harry Humphrey
  Cpl.     Robert Clark
  Pfc.     Robert M. Stewart

As previously stated, it is unlikely that we will ever know the exact cause of the crash. There is little left at the crash scene today but the four engines and the landing gear. The pilot had 1294 hours on the type, and of these 58:15 were in the last 30 days before the crash. The Army admitted that the cross-training program in effect at the time was a detriment to aircrew performance. Personnel at Pittsburgh reported was fatigued and displayed anxiety about the remainder of the flight. The final summary found in section M of the official crash report reveals that there was no indication of mechanical malfunction. The aircraft impacted at 1700 feet elevation in a mountainous area with much higher peaks nearby. The concluding statement reads "From the above facts it would appear that Lt. Fessler was lost and trying to orient himself at a low altitude in conditions of poor visibility when the crash occurred."


1.Edward G. Longacre, Strategic Air Command: The Formative Years, 1944-1949,(Offutt AFB, NE, HQ SAC, 1991),pp.2.
2.Ibid., pp.8.
3.Norman Polmar, Strategic Air Command, People, Aircraft and Missiles,(Annapolis, MD, Nautical and Aviation Publishing Company of America, Inc., 1979), pp.9.
4.Richard A. Rodrigues, "Strategic Air Command Tail Markings, 1946-1953", AAHS Journal, Vol 41, No.1 (Santa Ana, CA, Spring, 1996), pp.3.
5.Maurer, Air Force Combat Units of World War II, (Washington, DC, Office of Air Force History, 1983), pp.100.
6.Edward G. Longacre, Strategic Air Command: The Formative Years, 1944-1949, (Offutt AFB, NE HQ SAC, 1991) pp.11.
7.Ibid., pp.21.
8.Norman Polmar, Strategic Air Command, People, Aircraft and Missiles,(Annapolis, MD, Nautical and Aviation Publishing Company of America, Inc., 1979), pp.12.
9.John H. Traylor, Major, AAF, Army Air Forces Report of Major Accident, (Grenier AAF June, 1947), Sec M.
10.John H. Traylor, Major, AAF, Army Air Forces Report of Major Accident, (Grenier AAF June, 1947), Enclosure #4.
11."B-29 Hits Mountain Near Springfield; At Least 12 Persons Die," Brattleboro Reformer, (Brattleboro, VT June 16, 1947), pp.1.
12.Barbara Norton Woodbury, The Hawks Mountain Plane Crash on the Stormy Night of June 15, 1947,(Weathersfield, VT.,Weathersfield Historical Society,1995),pp.5.

Article revision: This online article was updated on 13 June 2007. Slight changes were made to the text and layout for easier readability, and the photos now reside on a dedicated image server. No factual changes were made.