TOWNSHIP 8 RANGE 10, Maine — The pilot of an ill-fated B-52 Stratofortress that crashed on Elephant Mountain 54 years ago has died in Omaha, Nebraska, at the age of 94.
The crash claimed the lives of seven crew members and remains hallowed ground today.
Col. Dante “Dan” Bulli died Dec. 30, 2016, after retiring from a 30-year military career that included three airplane crashes, according to his obituary in the News Tribune.
He was piloting the B-52 when it left Westover Air Force Base in Massachusetts on Jan. 24, 1963, headed to Maine to test the eight-engine jet’s ability to fly low. Planes needed to fly low on certain missions at the time to avoid Soviet and Chinese radar.
But the B-52 originally was designed to fly at higher altitudes, and the lower flight path created unexpected structural fatigue. The B-52’s 40-foot-tall vertical stabilizer was ripped off by severe turbulence as Bulli flew with a crew of eight toward Greenville at about 2:50 p.m.
The craft crashed into Elephant Mountain in western Piscataquis County just after Bulli, co-pilot Maj. Robert Morrison and Capt. Gerald J. Adler, a navigator, managed to eject. Morrison, however, struck a tree and died along with the rest of the crew.
“The airplane went nose down, and everything I tried to do to regain control was fruitless,” Bulli said in a 2013 Omaha World-Herald news article about the Maine plane crash 50 years prior.
Bulli was stuck in a tree when his parachute caught, and he suffered a broken left leg but was able to lower himself to the ground and get into his sleeping bag. Adler suffered a skull fracture and broken ribs, and gangrene and frostbite eventually took his left leg. The two men endured about 18 hours in subzero temperatures — it was 29 degrees below zero that night — before rescuers could get to them, according to a 50th anniversary article by the Bangor Daily News.
At the time of the anniversary, Bulli and Adler, who went on to become a lawyer and city councilman in Davis, California, still talked once or twice per year. A message left for Adler on Tuesday was not immediately returned.
Metal debris of the Stratofortress remains at the site, located just west of Greenville, and has become a place that visitors can hike to and pay homage.
An ejection seat from the doomed aircraft that was found in May 2012 later became part of a memorial at the Moosehead Riders Snowmobile Club in Greenville. Club members participated in the search five decades ago, and they also have established a memorial at the crash site in Greenville in recognition of all the servicemen and servicewomen who serve and protect the country. The crash site is marked with a sign not to remove any debris.
In addition to Morrison, the other crewmembers killed in the 1963 crash were Lt. Col. Joe R. Simpson Jr., Maj. William W. Gabriel, Maj. Robert J. Hill, Capt. Herbert L. Hansen, Capt. Charles G. Leuchter and Tech. Sgt. Michael F. O’Keefe.
The plane’s stabilizer landed 1½ miles from the other wreckage and remains there. Studies of the crash led to changes in the design of the B-52, which is still in use today.
Bulli was a combat veteran of World War II, Korea and Vietnam, and he served in the Army Air Force and U.S. Air Force from 1942 to 1974, earning many awards including the Bronze Star and the Legion of Merit, according to his obituary.
“Dan was a bomber pilot for more than 24 years and commander of various B-52 units from 1964 to 1968,” the obituary states. “He then served on the command staff of the 8th Air Force, followed by that of the combined 7th and 13th Air Forces in southeast Asia and was, at his retirement, the third highest-placed officer at the headquarters of Strategic Air Command. During 1949 he was a B-29 pilot on low-level incursions of the Soviet Union for radiation sampling.”
Bulli flew more than 9,000 hours in uniform and actually returned to Maine to serve at Loring Air Force Base at one point before he earned the rank of colonel and retired.
It’s obvious he loved to fly, even in the face of danger.
“Dan survived the crashes of a B-24 and B-52 and a mid-air collision in a B-26,” his obituary states.
BDN writers Judy Harrison and Nick Sambides contributed to this report.