Cold War fighter jet remains flank mountainside

The body of a Cold War jet that crashed in 1961 still lies between the trees on Bald Mountain. PHOTO BY JESSICA PIPER

Tragedy struck on Bald Mountain in Dedham over half a century ago — and the remnants are still visible for the interested hiker about two miles south of Route 1A off the Winkumpaugh Road.

Shortly after midnight on April 11, 1961, two F101Bs — a supersonic Air Force fighter jet that was relatively new at the time — left the former Dow Air Force Base in Bangor. The crew’s mission was to intercept an unidentified aircraft that had been spotted over New Brunswick, Canada. It was the thick of the Cold War, a year before the Cuban Missile Crisis, and any potential threat from the Soviet Union was treated with utmost gravity.

An ice storm also had moved in over Bangor that night. It was “desperately bad” weather, “snowing to beat heck,” recalled Chuck McClead, a Lucerne resident who was stationed with the 75th Fighter-Interceptor Squadron at Dow at the time.

Chuck McClead of Lucerne had flown with pilot Vernal Johnson prior to the crash.

Not long after the F101Bs were deployed, the mysterious plane was identified. It belonged to the Strategic Air Command and was inbound for Loring Air Force Base in Aroostook County. The fighter jets were permitted to turn around and head back to base.

The first plane arrived safely, skidding on the runway’s ice as it touched down. But when the second plane was roughly 12 miles from the base, air traffic control lost contact. The F101B had crashed into the eastern face of Bald Mountain.

McClead, a radio intercept officer and friend of the pilot, Capt. Vernal Johnson, was one of the men called to search for the plane in the morning. The rescue party found it despite the snow, but Johnson and radar observer 1st Lt. Edward C. Masaitis Jr were both killed.

Decades later, much of the plane still lies on Bald Mountain and can be reached via a half-mile trail making it an intriguing destination for aviation and history enthusiasts.

The Air Force insignia is visible on the plane’s torn-off wing.

Pete Noddin, a native of Millinocket and aviation archaeologist who works a day job as a safety engineer, has visited the site before as part of his decades-long research on plane crashes in Maine. He also has interviewed witnesses and spent time combing through crash reports. He describes the Dedham accident as “a tragic chain of failures.”

The crews were tired going into the mission, having just completed a multi-day operational readiness inspection. In their fatigue, crew members likely missed the field elevation for the plane’s altimeter, rendering the device’s altitude measurements inaccurate.

The first plane didn’t rely on altimeter readings; it landed using the tactical air navigation, or TACAN, system, which informs the pilot about the plane’s distance and direction. But the TACAN went out before the second plane could land, so the crew had to rely on a “non-precision approach” — essentially, the captain was to descend following step-by-step instructions from air traffic control.

Since these instructions related to the plane’s altitude, the missed field elevation suddenly mattered immensely. “They were 1,000 feet lower than they thought they were,” Noddin said.

The wreckage indicates that the pilot may have tried to climb at the last minute, according to Noddin, but it was far too late. The plane began to come apart as it clipped trees before crashing into the mountainside.

A mixture of woods and flowered fields make Bald Mountain a scenic hike.

More than half a century later, much of the wreck is still visible on Bald Mountain. The body of the plane was dragged most of the way down the mountain to its current location, below a power line on the mountain’s east side. For those willing to do a little bushwhacking, the site can be accessed by heading east from the nearby Bald Mountain Loop Trail, or by heading up from the end of Old County Way, off Winkumpaugh Road in Ellsworth.

The plane now lies on its left side, its tail pointing upward. Weather and passers-by haven’t been kind to the remains — names of many former visitors are etched in the metal and plenty of chunks are missing — but the white-starred Air Force insignia is still visible on the detached wing.

The large quantity of debris on Bald Mountain over 50 years later is “very unusual” among crash sites in Maine, Noddin said. Often, the wrecks are hauled away. The site is now adorned with a white cross, a tribute to the servicemen who lost their lives that night.

For Noddin, a former president of the Maine Aviation Historical Society, remembering the victims of military crashes is of utmost importance. A database on his website, aviationarchaeology.com, documents hundreds of 20th-century crashes in Maine, including dozens of fatal incidents.

“People try to forget tragedies to a certain extent,” he said.

McClead himself survived a similar tragedy. In 1962, he successfully bailed out of a spiraling F101B near Macwahoc via parachute. He went onto complete over 200 missions in Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War, and never had another incident.

Maine’s Cold War history is easily forgotten. Dow Air Force Base has since become Bangor International Airport; the last F101Bs were retired in the 1980s. But for anyone looking for a tangible reminder of the conflict, there’s a 20-foot-long metal one lying around in Dedham.

For more information on plane wreck sites in Maine, visit http://www.mewreckchasers.com/.