The Lost Hurricane Hunters: January 15th, 1958
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 AO3053321
Flight Engineer- Technical Sergeant Delivan L Gordon AF 57625218
Flight Engineer- Staff Sergeant Kenneth L Tetzloff AFl7336278
Radio Operator- Staff Sergeant Kenneth L Houseman AF 1731948
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.
-Dr. Jeff Masters