Fifty years ago, a British bomber crashed into an east-side Detroit neighborhood
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The first leg of the trip was an uneventful trans-Atlantic flight to the air base in Goose Bay. After an overnight stay for rest, refueling, and a buying spree at the commissary, the following day it was on to Nebraska, where the crew planned to surprise Lincoln’s mayor with a “best wishes” letter and package from his English counterpart.
On ranger flights, the normal five-man crew grew by one with the addition of a crew chief, whose duties ranged from overseeing all ground maintenance to ensuring sausages, ale, and contraband were stowed safely on board. The crew chief on this particular flight was an old hand: Edward “Taff” Evison, 39, who had joined the RAF in 1937.
Evison had the dry, absurd wit many Brits appreciate. Charles Bland, who boarded with Evison when they were training at the Avro works, remembers his roommate merrily waving to perfect strangers as they drove past. “The first time he did it, I asked who it was he was waving to,” Bland says. “Taff’s reply was, ‘I have no idea, but he will go to work wondering all day who was in the car that waved to him this morning.’ ” Evenings, Evison enjoyed a pint and a tall tale at the local pub. “Taff used to concoct the most fantastic stories. We went from being nuclear scientists to secret agents. He would always warn people not to repeat what he had told them. It was all very serious. He liked the idea of somebody going home and saying he had just met with some very special chaps, but that he was not to breathe a word about it.”
Wearing their flight suits and “bone domes” (flying helmets), Evison and his adopted crew left Goose Bay in the XA908. The tremendous roar from its four turbojet motors built into a throbbing crescendo as the bomber quickly climbed through the gray Canadian sky before leveling off some nine miles high. The Vulcan — designed to carry one thermonuclear warhead or 21 conventional 1,000-pound bombs — was unarmed, though its tanks held about 9,000 imperial gallons of aviation fuel.
For the first couple of hours, the flight was routine. Evison sat among the rear crew in a small pull-down seat; all were hooked up to oxygen hoses. The Vulcan whisked along at subsonic speed, covering one mile every six seconds in the thin, freezing reaches of the bright blue stratosphere. The plane was due to arrive in Nebraska at 5:23 p.m., Detroit time. At 3:18, Willoughby-Moore reported to a ground station in Erie, Pa., that he was flying on instruments at 47,000 feet. He expected to be over Flint’s Bishop Airport 30 minutes later.
There were no more transmissions until 3:40, when the cry of “Mayday! Mayday!,” was picked up by a radio operator at Cleveland’s municipal airport. Willoughby-Moore reported he was flying at 35,000 feet over Dresden, Ontario, about 50 miles northeast of Detroit. He requested an emergency “steer” to Kellogg Field in Battle Creek. Before the operator could respond, the pilot anxiously asked for directions to any airport.
Investigators would later determine a short circuit in the Vulcan’s electrical system had caused all four generators to shut down. The emergency battery was intended to provide auxiliary power for 20 minutes, enough time to find an airfield at which to land. However, the backup battery quickly failed. This locked the flying controls in neutral, and the Vulcan helplessly rolled over and fell into a steep dive. “The plane had a total electrical failure,” Bland says, “and as all the controls were electro-hydraulic, it did not stand a chance. It had no gliding ability at all. It just went straight down.”
According to Tony Regan, a former Vulcan crew chief who lives in Devon, England, evacuation was out of the question for the rear crew. As the bomber plunged at a 70-degree angle, the immense pressure exerted by the rushing air on the hatch “made it impossible for them to leave the airplane.” With the jet flipped over on its back, the pilots would have had a brief, baleful view of Detroit’s topography rushing up to meet them. At some point, the canopy blew off. Willoughby-Moore “may have ordered Peacock to eject,” Regan says. “We will never know.” By the time a score of witnesses looked up and saw the Vulcan tearing out of the soggy sky, the men on board had only seconds to live.
At 477 Ashland — part of a neighborhood of narrow lots, crowded boatyards, and winding canals in the vicinity of Harbor Island and Windmill Pointe — 4-year-old Curt Kurshildgen and his mother were in the kitchen. Suddenly, some mighty unseen force gripped their two-story home. Fifty years later, Kurshildgen can still see the growing look of terror in his mother’s face. “The sound overhead kept getting louder and louder,” he recalls. “The windows were rattling and the dishes were shaking inside the glass cabinets. The engines were so loud and screaming that I could feel them rumbling right through me.”
The frightened youngster jumped into his mother’s arms, just as the shuddering roar became a thunderous boom. “The explosion shook the house so badly, it was like an earthquake. My mother ran with me to the bedroom, yanked a blanket off the bed, and covered us with it as she ran out of the house with me in her arms. I remember peeking out and seeing nothing but flames and smoke down the street, this before she covered my eyes.”
The free-falling Vulcan was traveling at tremendous speed at the moment of impact. It tore through treetops before burying itself among houses on Ashland near Scripps, leaving behind a trench 100 feet long and 40 feet wide. Inside 179 Ashland, Otto Ewald, a 77-year-old retired patternmaker, was watching television while his 65-year-old wife, Emily, was ironing. “Then — BLOOM!” Ewald later told a Detroit News reporter. “Everything seemed to be afire all at once — carpets, walls, furniture, everything. Flames went shooting all through the house.” Emily came rushing out of the kitchen, screaming, “I’m on fire!” Otto tried breaking through the buckled front door, but it wasn’t until a couple of neighbors heard the cries for help that the elderly couple were able to escape the burning house. Moments later the roof fell in and the porch collapsed. Meanwhile, the family collie, Lassie, jumped into the canal behind the house, her hindquarters ablaze.
The house next door, 175 Ashland, was flattened. “The only things I could recognize were a bathtub and a sink in the middle of the street,” a neighbor said. Fortuitously, the homeowners were at the music shop they operated on John R. Later that afternoon, Ivan and Florence Kay got a call from Otto Ewald. “Come see what’s left of your house,” he said.