NORTH ELBA — Without a trace, a 380th Bomb Wing B-47 vanished after 2 a.m. Jan. 16, 1962.
The Boeing Stratojet, on a low-level, practice bombing mission over Watertown, was due back at the base at 7 a.m. and had only enough fuel to last until 8:30 a.m.
Missing were the 529th Bomb Squadron’s 1st Lt. Rodney D. Bloomgren (plane commander), 1st Lt. Melvin Spencer (co-pilot) and 1st Lt. Albert W. Kandetski (navigator/bombardier) and Airman 1st Class Kenneth R. Jensen (observer) of the 380th Armaments and Electronics Squadron.
A dozen base planes, KC-97s and C-47s, Plattsburgh Composite Civilian Air Patrol Squadron light aircraft, Griffiss Air Force Base jet trainers and Royal Canadian Air Force ski-equipped Otter planes scoured the Adirondacks rugged terrain for the missing crew.
WAITING FOR WORD
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers 1st Lt. Richard “Dick” Fletcher was anxious for news of the plane and Kandetski, his buddy and housemate in Plattsburgh.
“And, I remember it took them awhile,” said Fletcher, who lives in Derby Line, Vt. “It took them close to a week for them to find any kind of evidence that, hey, this is probably where they are.
“Toward the end of that week, three Army light aircraft, the L-19s — it’s almost like Piper Cub, a single-engine plane, like an observatory type of plane — they came up and became a part of that search toward the end of that first week. I heard they were flying in, like, on a Friday. I said, ‘We’re getting some Army in. I have to find these guys.’”
Fletcher hooked up with the Fort Devens, Mass., Army pilots and took them to the Officers Club and introduced them to his Air Force friends.
He found out they were going to search an area of mountains near Lake Placid on Saturday and he volunteered to help.
The L-19 pilots were briefed on a “hot area” by command-post officials, and Fletcher joined the search. Later, the weather started closing in.
“I said, ‘Oh God, there’s no instrumentation for these guys to fly the planes without looking.’ That cut us short. After lunch, it started to snow and everything else. The guy who was leading it, he said, ‘We can’t see anything. We’re going back.’ We ultimately worked our way back.”
Fletcher guided his pilot back to PAFB.
“I said, ‘Frank, take a 45-degree heading. We’ll hit the lake and go north and then come back over.’ He said, ‘Okay.’ We were flying along, and I saw a break in the clouds. They were doing construction on 87. I said, ‘I think that’s the exit of the interchange to the Keeseville area. I said, “Frank, can you go down between those clouds? That’s Keeseville. We’ll just follow that up and turn into the base.’ So, we got home Saturday night.”
‘THEY KNOW WHERE IT IS’
Fletcher was breakfasting Sunday morning when a sergeant alerted him of a summons from his commanding officer.
“He says, ‘Hey I just got a call from Colonel So-and-So,’” Fletcher said. “‘They got the plane, they know were it is. They want you to go.’”
Fletcher reported to a colonel at the command post.
“He said, ‘Here’s where we think they are, lieutenant.’ And he said, ‘What do you think?’ I gave them my ideas and what would work there. I need a compass and a map. I’m not about to climb around anything with the snow and everything else without knowing where I’m at. I said I will take a radio on my back just in case my Army guys could fly, and I could network with them and they can give me coordinates where I could look.”
The U.S. Air Force set up headquarters at the base of Wright’s Peak at Hart Lake. Fletcher helicoptered to North Elba in Essex County on a Sikorksy H-19 Chickasaw. En route, they stopped in Keeseville to pick up a radio.
“I said, ‘I’ll take it but I don’t think it’s going to be any good at this point in time,’” Fletcher said.
“There was a newspaper reporter there. I think from Lake Placid. He found out about me going up there, and said, ‘Can I go with you?’ I said, ‘You can go but you’re on your own.’ I had a doctor with me from the Air Force.”
HIKING UP THE PEAK
Fletcher, the doctor, reporter and another U.S. Air Force doctor, started the trek up the 4,597-foot peak in the MacIntyre Range.
“They gave me snowshoes. I never had snowshoes on in my life. We started up, and it was dark. It was just a trail going up. It is snowing, and the wind is blowing. We’re walking up and walking up, and then we see people coming down, and we hit each other.”
Six New York forest rangers were tramping back down due to 50-mph winds near the summit. Above the tree line, even with crampons, a person could not stand up.
“We went back to the lodge,” Fletcher said. “They said, ‘Tomorrow morning when it is light, we’re going back up.’ They asked me, did I want to go with them. I said, ‘Yeah.’”
He slept on a floor in Adirondack Loj.
“The next morning, there was a storm. There was three or four us, myself and the forest rangers, we went back up there. And, it was a tough climb with a 25-pound radio or whatever it was on my back and snowshoes. The wind is blowing snow right in your face. You can’t see a lot. We got to the top and wandered around.”
The search party found bits and pieces of debris.
“What we found was not the metallic pieces of the plane,” Fletcher said. “If they found anything, they would bring it to me because I’m the military guy. We found a glove, a person’s glove. We found a mat from a walkway, a little corrugated thing … and not too much more.”
Visibility was very poor.
“We couldn’t see anything, not any part of the plane at all,” Fletcher said. “So, I said, ‘This is it. Everybody’s dead, my roommate included. There’s no hope that anybody survived in this thing. We can’t even find the plane.’”
Monday, Jan. 22, 1962, was beyond depressing.
“By that time, I was pretty convinced that there is nobody alive,” Fletcher said. “It’s time for me to go back to the base and let these people take over. They don’t need my services anymore.
“I (didn’t) think anybody survived this crash, including my friend, Albert Kandetski.”
Email Robin Caudell: firstname.lastname@example.org
CRASH ON WRIGHT'S PEAK
This is the second installment of a three-part series recounting Richard "Dick" Fletcher's remembrances of the B-47 crash in 1962.
Check out the final installment on next week's After 50 page.