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Jardine: Air Force vet recalls explosive Christmas Eve

Memories of Christmas Eves past.

Some folks might recall children waiting up all night or at least trying to catch a glimpse of Santa Claus.

Some might recall being stranded in an airport somewhere, hoping the weather would clear in time to be home for Christmas.

Turlock's Dick Stafford remembers one particular Christmas Eve because he couldn't possibly forget it. His most memorable eve began as routine, then turned downright frightening and nearly tragic before ending in great relief.

In December 1958, Stafford had been in the Air Force for about six years and was based in Lockbourne, Ohio, near Columbus.

"They'd sent me through aircraft and engineering school and I was picked to be a refueling operator," said Stafford, now 77. "No real schooling. They just brought me up in a B-50, and after three days I was certified to be a boom operator."

In midair refueling, a supply plane meets up with another over the friendly or, in some cases, not-so-friendly skies and reloads it with jet fuel. Why make the plane land when you can bring the gas station to it at 20,000 or so feet?

The maneuver requires plenty of practice, though, which brings us to Stafford's story.

"We were near Pine Bluff, Ark., in the daytime — probably around noon," he said.

His crew's mission in their KC-97: To practice refueling a B-45, a reconnaissance bomber.

"We had a series of dry hookups where no fuel was passed," he said.

After being in the air several hours, though, the B-45 needed a refill.

"We started pumping to it," Stafford said.

Moments later, he looked down and saw flames coming from the B-45. The boom, a 20-foot-long tube that transports fuel from the supply plane to the bomber, floated loose. The receptacle inside the plane had broken. About 500 gallons of jet fuel had trickled — OK, gushed — into the plane's fuselage.

"We didn't know the line had broke until we saw the flames coming out around the boom," Stafford said.

The supply plane's pilot broke away from the burning B-45, and it's a good thing.

"We were able to get some separation — about 30 seconds' worth — before it blew," he said.

A spark from one of the electrical panels, perhaps, ignited the fuel inside the plane, he said. The B-45 exploded.

"Had it blown earlier, it would have taken our tail off," Stafford said.

Often, pure luck plays a role in preventing an accident from becoming a tragedy. This is one of those cases, he said.

First, there were only three crewmen aboard the B-45.

"The gunner didn't have to fly," Stafford said. "It was a training run and it was Christmas Eve. So they told him to take a break and get an early start on Christmas."

That left only the pilot, co-pilot and navigator aboard when the fire broke out.

"The navigator — I told him to break away," Stafford said. "He punched out (bailed)."

The pilot and co-pilot, meanwhile, were blown out of the bomber.

"Their chutes opened at 8,000 feet," Stafford said.

The B-45 crashed in the woods. Stafford's supply plane circled for 45 minutes, spotting the navigator easily and the other two after a more detailed search. They contacted local authorities, who came to the downed airmen's rescue.

"We flew back to Lockbourne," Stafford said. "They went to the hospital (in Arkansas)."

He never got to visit with them, because they were hospitalized more than 600 miles away and he went on Christmas leave. In fact, he never saw them again, as he went on to an assignment elsewhere. But he later learned they recovered fully and returned to their duties.

"They were burned but lived to fly another day," Stafford said.

An investigation revealed that the receptacle had broken inside the bomber, allowing the fuel to go everywhere but into the tanks.

Stafford logged 7,000 hours of refueling missions in his 20-year career, providing fill-ups to U-2s and RB-47s that spied on the Soviet Union.

Then, one day in 1967, Stafford rode in one of the bombers instead of the refueler during a training run.

"A check ride, where I evaluate someone else," he said.

And guess what happened?

"I was standing by the doorway, and the flex line was right over my head," Stafford said. "Doggone if it (the receptacle) didn't blow. This time, I'm on the other end, and we're taking in fuel. It filled our cockpit."

They shut down anything electrical that wasn't absolutely necessary to fly the plane and — unlike the B-45 in 1958 — made it back to their base intact.

Stafford retired from the Air Force in 1972 and then taught special education at Davis and Downey high schools over the next 20 years.

Still, decades later, Stafford can't help but recall Christmas Eve 1958, the equipment malfunction, and how thankful he was the B-45 crew survived.

"I'm the only (boom operator) who ever had an airplane blow up like that," Stafford said. "I never heard of another one. I hope nobody else would ever have one."

A memorable Christmas Eve, indeed.

Jeff Jardine's column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays in Local News. He can be reached at 578-2383 or jjardine@modbee.com

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