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The 6 lost Hurricane Hunter missions, Part V: Typhoon Ophelia, 1958

By: Dr. Jeff Masters, 2:55 PM GMT on July 24, 2009

There are no threat areas in the Atlantic to discuss, and no models are calling for tropical storm development in the next seven days, so it's time to continue my 6-part series on the hurricane/typhoon hunter missions that never returned. On January 15, 1958, an Air Force WB-50 (49-295) assigned to the 54th Weather Reconnaissance Squadron on Guam was lost in Category 4 Typhoon Ophelia, 500 miles west of Guam. From the New York Times article, "Typhoon Survey Plane Missing With 10 Aboard", 16 Jan 1958 58:7, "The Air Force said the plane last reported its position at 11:30pm January 15 (9:30am EST) at a point near the eye of storm and its 145 mph winds. A plane from the 79th Air Rescue Squadron flew to the area today, but its crew reported that the winds could not be penetrated. The search plane remained in the vicinity for four hours, trying vainly for a radio contact with the reconnaissance plane." Here is the text of the official Air Force Casualty summary for the accident (thanks to Bernie Barris of the Air Reconnaissance Weather Association for providing this!):


On 15 January 1958, WB-50 #49-0295 departed Guam on the twelfth mission to be flown by the 54th Weather Reconnaissance Squadron on Typhoon Ophelia. This aircraft was to obtain data on the typhoon including latest position and then return to Guam.

Radio contact was last made at l330Z, 15 January when they reported their position at 13-03 North Latitude and 135-20 East Longitude in the vicinity of the typhoon. No further contact was made with the aircraft.

Two hours after receipt of the last message 79th Air Rescue Squadron on Guam was alerted. A rescue aircraft departed at 1715Z for search and possible interception. Shortly thereafter, an intensive search was begun which during its course covered more than 500,000 square miles with areas or greatest probability searched numerous times and as thoroughly as possible.

Aircraft from 79th ARS, 54th WRS,and numerous other sources completed nearly one hundred sorties accomplishing over 1200 flying hours in the effort. This is believed to be the largest Search and Rescue operation of its type ever conducted. The joint Air Force and Navy search mission was suspended on 23 January 1958. However, special weather reconnaissance missions were flown until l5 February. These flights included investigation of possible emergency landing areas, i.e. islands, reefs, and atolls within possible range of the missing aircraft. Watch was also maintained on emergency radio frequencies. 79th ARS also continued modified search operations for a period after 23 January.

After all survival possibilities had been checked with negative results the status of the missing crew members was changed from "missing" to "dead" on 20 February 1958. The following is a list of crew members lost aboard WB-5O #49-0295 :

Aircraft Commander- Captain Albert J Lauer
AO 2095765

Pilot- Captain Clyde W Tefertiller
AO 751488

Weathar Observer- Captain Marcus G Miller
AO 751488

Navigator- First Lieutenant Courtland Beeler III
AO 2210728

Navigator- First Lieutenant Paul J Buerkle Jr

F1ight Engineer- Technical Sergeant De1ivan L Gordon
AF 57625218

Flight Engineer- Staff Sergeant Kenneth L Tetzloff

Radio Operator- Staff Sergeant Kenneth L Houseman
AF 17319484

Radio Operator- Airman First Class Randolph C Watts
AF 14382160

Weather Technician- Airman First Class Bernard G Tullgren

I spoke with Hank Woollard, whose father, Slaton Woolard, flew into Typhoon Ophelia on the hunter flight just prior to the lost flight. Mr. Woolard said his plane was so beat up by the turbulence when they penetrated the typhoon, he practically begged the flight operations control not to not let the following plane penetrate the storm. His plane was grounded for repairs for several months due to the damage it sustained. He theorized that the crash may have been related to lack of an engine air intake conversion done to most of the WB-50's when they adapted them from the very high altitude SAC service to weather reconnaisance. The conversion was to keep water out of the air intakes. Without the conversion, in certain wet weather circumstances, the engines could "drown out". One of the other WB-50 aircraft in the squadron almost went down for this reason.

Figure 1. A Popular Mechanics cover story from 1950 dramatized the dangers that the early typhoon hunters faced. From the article: "It is impossible for me to describe accurately or exaggerate the severity of the turbulence we encountered. To some it may sound utterly fantastic, but to me it was a flight for life. I have flown many weather missions in my 30 months with the 514th Reconnaissance Squadron. I have flown night combat missions in rough weather out of England, and I have instructed instrument flying in the States, but never have I dreamed of such turbulence as we encountered in Typhoon Beverly. It is amazing to me the ship held together as it did."

Previous posts in this series:
October 1, 1945 typhoon
Typhoon Wilma, 1952
Typhoon Doris, 1953
Hurricane Janet, 1955

Jeff Masters

The views of the author are his/her own and do not necessarily represent the position of The Weather Company or its parent, IBM.