The Shadow Mountain B-50D
“A Little Too Low”
#48-070, January 10, 1951
By: Don R. Jordan
Over the years many prominent
buildings, streets and schools on Edwards Air Force base in California
been name to honor Test Pilots or crew members that have died in the
of their duties. Forbes Avenue for
example was named for Daniel H. Forbes, killed when the YB-49,
the B-2 Flying Wing, went out of control and crashed near Mojave. Edwards Air Force Base itself was named to
honor Captain Glen W. Edwards who was killed on that same flight. Some perhaps had not been involved in an
accident, but rather had contributed in some way to a significant
event in aviation history. Yeager
Avenue for example was named for Chuck Yeager, who as we all know was
man to fly faster than the speed of sound.
There are of course many, many
others! Nearly every street and avenue at Edwards is named in
these heroic airmen. Payne Avenue,
Bailey Avenue, and Bailey Elementary School in the residential section
Edwards were named for two such men.
Captain William A. Bailey, and Major Gordon L. Payne were
killed on January 10, 1951 when their B-50D research aircraft just
clipped the top of a small peak southeast of the Edwards Airfield while
returning from an aborted mission.
After hitting the peak the aircraft tumbled out of control down
side taking all eight men onboard to their deaths. The Flight
Engineer on that flight, M/Sgt.
Robert E. Mathusa, even has a road named to honor him.
The B-50, which was
basically a B-29 on steroids, was not a frequent site in the skies
Edwards. There were a few B-29s, but
most of the big bombers were B-24s. The
B-29s assigned to the base were primarily used for flight tests. It was a B-29 that dropped Chuck Yeager in
the famous X-1 on its record breaking flight into the history books.
distance the B-29 and the B-50 looked very similar.
However, the B-50 had a much larger vertical fin and rudder,
larger engines, and carried a large fuel tank under each wing outboard
engines. It also had considerably more
range and performance.
On January 10, 1951 Captain Bailey, and Co-pilot
Payne were conducting a flight test of some classified equipment for
Aircraft. Being tested was a fuel valve
venting system, presumable for use in the X-1 program.
The test required the aircraft to climb to
30,000 feet, and then operate the valves.
Engineers wanted to make sure that the valves were not affected
in the frigid air at the higher altitudes.
In addition to Bailey and Payne,
there were four Sergeants, and two civilians onboard.
The sergeants were, Robert E. Mathusa, James H. Willingham,
Lilburn N. Cate, and Carl A. Milhoan.
The civilians were, C.A. White, and W.J. Christian.
Both civilians worked for the Ryan Aircraft
Co., and were classified as test engineers.
The aircraft departed Edwards
Air Force Base at 8.54 a.m. on a local clearance for what was expected
to be a
four and a half hour test flight. The
weather at the time of departure was very good. There
was a high ceiling over Edwards, but this was not expected
to prevent the aircraft from reaching the assigned altitude of 30,000
feet. This particular aircraft was
equipped with a Photo Observer Panel for the purpose of recording on
flight test results. A Photo Observer
Panel is a separate instrument panel containing certain flight
are filmed with a camera for later analysis.
Film from the photo panel and the log kept by one of the
test engineers on board were recovered, and with the information
these sources, it was possible to reconstruct the flight up a time
approximately eighteen minutes before the crash occurred.
It is believed
that the flight proceeded without incident to approximately 30,000
then began the test procedure. This
altitude was maintained until it was determined that one of the valves
test equipment could not be operated, presumably because of the low
temperatures at that altitude. An entry
on the engineer’s log indicated that at 10:15 a.m. the aircraft began
descend to a lower warmer altitude. It
is believed that the failure of this test valve led to the decision to
terminate the flight early and return to Edwards. The
last photographic film available showed a time of 10:21 a.m.,
and an altitude of 24,000 feet. The
last legible entry on the engineer's log was at 10:48 a.m. at
In the late morning hours the weather began to
rapidly in the area. High winds, low
ceilings, and scattered rain showers moved into the area southeast of
Base. Since there was no requirement at
the time, Bailey did not contact the Edwards tower to give periodic
position reports. As a result Edwards Base Ops was not aware that the
had been aborted. At 10:50 a.m. that
morning the tower operators at George Air Force Base saw the aircraft
circling high overhead. George Air
Force Base is approximately fifty miles to the southeast of Edwards.
the aircraft making repeated calls to the Edwards tower, but did not
tower reply. The aircraft was estimated
to be at approximately 6,000 feet and well below the overcast at that
At 10:55 a.m. Capt. Bailey called the George Tower
and asked them to
contact Edwards for him and get the current weather information. George received the request, called Edwards
for the current weather, and then relayed that information to the
aircraft. Bailey was advised of the
advancing weather front, and was told to expect heavy rains and
ceilings. After acknowledging receipt
of the weather information from George, the aircraft took up a heading
degrees and departed the area. That was
the last time the aircraft was seen.
270 degrees is a direct course across pretty much open desert to
from the George area. The time was approximately 11:00 a.m.
Soon it was
realized that the B-50 had not arrived back at base at the scheduled
end of its
assigned mission. Repeated radio calls
from Edwards Base Operations failed to get a response.
George Tower also tried but failed to
contact the aircraft. By late afternoon
Base Ops began to fear the worst. But
because of the marginal weather conditions and impending darkness, no
could be conducted that night.
At this point let me describe the weather in
the area at the time, as well as the topography around Edwards. About the time that the B-50D was circling
over the George Tower a cold front was approaching the Edwards area
northwest. It brought with it high
winds, lowering ceiling, and poor visibility.
The ceiling dropped to an estimated 4,300 feet or lower between
and Edwards. This meant that clouds or
heavy rain showers obscured some of the higher peaks in the area. Most notable of which are in the Shadow
Mountains southeast of the base.
Edwards Air Force Base sits on Rogers Dry
Lake at an elevation of 2,302 feet above sea level.
When an aircraft is sitting on the ground at Edwards the
altimeter will be reading as if the aircraft was 2,302 up in the air. This is referred to as Mean Sea Level
(MSL). AGL refers to height Above
Ground Level, and represent how far above the ground the aircraft is no
what type of terrain he is flying over.
A pilot will do well not to confuse the two.
If an aircraft is flying over this part of the desert, and his
altimeter is reading 3,500 feet, he must not forget that his is
1,198 feet above the terrain.
When you think of the desert, you might well
think that the terrain is flat, with only an occasional sand dune. Not so in the area around Edwards. There are indeed miles and miles of open
space with nothing but an occasional Joshua Tree to break up the
of sagebrush. But every now and then a
sharp peak with jut up out of the desert floor and rise up to perhaps
three thousand feet above the surrounding terrain.
These peaks can be part of a very small mountain range, or a
single peak standing all by itself in the middle of nowhere. They are extremely dangerous to weather or
nighttime flying in the area. A pilot
will look at his altimeter and see a reading of three or four thousand
feet. If he forgets that the terrain he
is flying over can sometime rises up in a heartbeat to well over five
feet (MSL), then he could easily hit one of those unseen peaks, and
it coming. That is apparently what happened to Capt. Bailey and Major
On January 11, 1951, at 7:45 a.m., the morning after
went missing, an aircraft departed George Air Force Base and began
for the missing B-50D. Fifteen minutes
into the search mission the wreckage of Bailey's aircraft was spotted
twenty-five miles northwest of George on the lower levels of the Shadow
Mountains. If was apparent from the
distribution of the wreck that the chances of anyone surviving was
slim. Rescue crews arrived at the scene
about 11 o'clock that morning and confirmed that all crew members had
The aircraft had struck within a few feet of the top
the highest peak on the direct route between Edwards and George. The first point of impact was at the
3,943-foot level. Watches and clock
recovered from the wreckage showed that the accident occurred at
11:05 a.m. the previous morning.
The aircraft struck near the summit of a
low rocky peak in a slight nose high attitude.
It was as if Bailey had suddenly become aware of the rocks
directly ahead and desperately tried to initiate a climb out of danger. The nose section sustained only slight
damage with the first impact, but the right wing and right engines
higher ground to the right of the aircraft with full force. As the aircraft ricocheted over the crest of
the hill and down the other side, it broke into two separate pieces. All four engines were torn from their mounts
and were found some 600 yards farther along the debris trail. Some engine and flight instruments were
recovered, and from them it was determined that all four engines were
power, and that the aircraft was traveling at 260 mph at the moment of
impact. It was felt that nobody
survived the initial impact.
After the initial contact with the peak, the
disintegrating aircraft continued on out of control for another
one half mile,
and one thousand feet lower in altitude, before striking the ground
again. At that point the right main
landing gear, and the number three and four engine nacelles on the
were torn free. A third impact occurred
approximately one half miles even farther along the fight path, and one
thousand feet lower still. With the third impact the left wing and left
landing gear, the forward section of the fuselage, the aft section of
fuselage and the tail structure was all separated from the main
continued on alone. The engines,
forward fuselage section and the aft fuselage section tumbled
three to four hundred feet farther, and came to rest approximately one
feet apart. Propeller blades, engine
parts and pieces of metal and fuel cells were widely scattered between
three impact points.
It was felt by the Investigation Board that extreme
weather in the area of the Shadow Mountains at the time of the crash
forward visibility in a B-50 type aircraft very restricted. They surmised that Capt. Bailey tired to
maintain visual contact with the ground while approaching Edwards from
southeast, but lost visual contact when he flew into a severe rainstorm
before impact with the mountain. Given
the topography around Edwards, the outcome was predictable and tragic.
this accident Instrument Approach Procedures were establish for the
Edwards in the hopes of preventing other such accidents in bad
Today, as the children run and play on the
playgrounds of Bailey
Elementary School, it is not likely that any of them, or the staff for
matter, are aware of the tragic events that led to the naming of their
on the corner of Bailey and Payne Avenues. And it isn't likely that
anyone passing down Mathusa Road ever heard of the Master Sergeant who
died in the same tragic accident, and for whom the road is named. But I
think that Capt.
Major Payne, and M/Sgt. Mathusa would be proud if they knew.