The Lost Hurricane Hunters: October 26th, 1952

The second hurricane/typhoon hunter mission that didn't make it back was the only flight to be lost in a Category 5 storm. On October 26, 1952, an Air Force WB-29 aircraft knick-named "Typhoon Goon II" (44-69770), making a low-level penetration of Typhoon Wilma, went down 300 miles east of Leyte in the Philippines. The aircraft was attached to the 54th Weather Reconnaissance Squadron on Guam. The original "Typhoon Goon" was Aircraft 45-21838, which was stationed on Guam from January 1948 until December 1950, during which time she flew at least 25 typhoon missions. When Aircraft 770 arrived on Guam in January of 1951, she was given the name "Typhoon Goon II" to keep the tradition alive. The crew's last radio message indicated they were close to the eye and were attempting to make a low level fix. They reported that their radar altimeter had "burned out", and that they were going to fly in anyway, using just pressure altimetry to maintain the proper altitude. This was an extremely dangerous prospect, since Wilma was a Category 5 super typhoon with 185 mph winds at the time of penetration, and had a very sharp change in pressure near the eye. If the plane was attempting to fly at a constant pressure altitude, the pilot would have been forced to perform a steep descent in the eyewall. It is likely the aircraft hit a strong downdraft that carried them into the sea, or that severe turbulence caused the aircraft to go out of control, with insufficient time for the pilot to recover. The ten men lost on the mission were:

Maj Sterling L. Harrell
Capt Donald M. Baird
Capt Frank J. Pollack
1Lt William D. Burchell
1Lt Clifton R. Knickmeyer
MSgt Edward H. Fontaine
A1C Alton B. Brewton
A1C William Colgan
A1C Anthony J. Fasullo
A3C Rodney E. Verrill

The Air Force WB-29 named Typhoon Goon II, lost in Super Typhoon Wilma on October 26, 1952. Image credit: Arthur R. "Ray" Brashear, Air Reconnaissance Weather Association.
Sources: Personal communication, Bernie Barris, Air Reconnaissance Weather Association; "The Fireballs, an Unofficial History", by Robert A. Mann; "Flying the Weather", by Otho Spencer, 1996; Stars and Stripes 30 Oct 1952 page 1; New York Times, 9 Nov 1952 45:5.