January 15, 2014

Remembering Wright's Peak


PLATTSBURGH — Richard “Dick” Fletcher regularly visits longtime friends John and Marty Strack in Plattsburgh.

Their friendship was forged decades ago at the Officer’s Club when Fletcher was a 1st Lt. in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and stationed at Plattsburgh Air Force Base.

He has fond memories of playing hockey with John and his pals. It was a stress reliever from Fletcher’s assignment overseeing the Atlas F Program, the construction of 12 Intercontinental Ballistic Missile sites that were built around the base.

Fletcher’s remembrances are tempered by the tragedy of Tuesday, Jan. 16, 1962, when a B-47 crashed sometime after 2 a.m. on Wright’s Peak, about 10 miles south of Lake Placid.

1st Lt. Rodney D. Bloomgren, 26, plane commander; 1st Lt. Melvin Spencer, 28, co-pilot; 1st Lt. Albert W. Kandetski, 25, navigator/bombardier; and Airman 1st Class Kenneth R. Jensen, 22, observer, comprised the crew lost on the remote icy peaks in the McIntyre Range.

When the Air Force launched the search-and-rescue mission for the missing crew, Fletcher volunteered. It was beyond duty but personal. Kandetski was one of his roommates that shared a house on Oak Street.

Fletcher arrived at PAFB in August 1960 to assist in the construction of the missile silos.

“We had civilian contractors do the work but the Army Corps of Engineers was part of the design of the system and construction managers,” said Fletcher, who lives in Derby Line, Vt. He and his wife, Elizabeth, own and operate the Birchwood Bed & Breakfast.

“We had a civilian staff, and we had three or four of us military guys that were running the whole thing. Being an engineer myself, with a mechanical-engineer background, the colonel in charge put me in charge of overseeing what they called the installation of the propellant-loading system for the Atlas Missile, which included all kind of liquid oxygen and liquid nitrogen and these kinds of things that fuels the missiles and sends it off to someplace. I was involved with that system at all 12 sites. There were other people that were helping me.”

A bachelor at the time, Fletcher lived on base in quarters for a little while.

“Then, I found other Air Force friends that were living off the base,” he said. “And my first place that I lived off the base was right here on Oak Street in Plattsburgh with three other Air Force guys, and I was the only Army guy. These were my buddies, OK. And one of those buddies of mine was the bombardier/navigator who died in that airplane crash. His name was Albert Kandetski. That was my buddy and my friend, and he lived with us in that Oak Street house with two other Air Force lieutenants.”

It was a typical mid-January, very cold and wintry.

“When I got to work the next day, the colonel who I worked for said, ‘I’m hearing that this B-47 didn’t come back from a training flight,’” Fletcher said.

“I told the colonel that my roommate was on that plane. I said, look, I’m an Army-trained individual with the Army Corps of Engineers. So I took extra training, and I was an Army Airborne Ranger.”

Fletcher told his commanding officer he had tons of training climbing mountains, navigating swamps and all kinds of crazy things.

“Not so much in the snow. I said notify the Air Force, whoever is in charge of this search and rescue. Tell them I will offer my services to be part of that search-and-rescue operation. If they want to use me, I will leave it up to them to contact me as long as you let me go, colonel. He said, ‘No problem lieutenant. Whatever they want you to do, you have my blessings to go ahead and do it.’”

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This is the first installment of a series recounting Richard "Dick" Fletcher's remembrances of the B-47 crash in 1962.

Check out part two on next week's After 50 page.