Ride to B-36 Crash Site
A hill top near Burgoyne’s Cove, Newfoundland is the final resting place of a US military Convair B-36 bomber which crashed on March 18, 1953, killing all 23 men on board. It’s not a well-known fact of local history, and I would not have known anything about it if it had not been for an article in the Telegram a couple of years ago.
Getting to the crash site takes a bit of effort and planning, which is perhaps why it’s not as well known as it should be. Burgoyne’s Cove itself is 225km (140 miles) from St. John’s, the end of the line on Route 232. Once there, you must turn off and take a gravel road for another 4.5km. Follow the signage for Newfoundland Slate Inc, you pass their building on the way to the site. The road is in fair condition and is passable in an average front wheel drive car. If you have decent suspension and tires on your bike (and confidence in your off-road abilities) you should be ok, even if your bike is not designed to leave the pavement. My friend Jess rode her Honda VTR1000 over the road without issue. If you have the skills, any bike can be an adventure bike.
The trail itself is marked with a sign, and is in good condition. It’s a pretty much vertical hike up the side of the hill, so give yourself lots of time. The sign says a half-hour, but that is only if you go flat out up the hill.
The hike through the woods is beautiful, and there are benches if you want to take a break along the way. You know you’re getting closer to the top when the trees start thinning out and it gets breezier.
The view of the debris field is haunting. Despite the 61 years of nature trying to reclaim the land, there are twisted aircraft parts everywhere. The explosion on impact must have been tremendous. The biggest piece that remains somewhat intact is the tail section, where a plaque has been mounted. It’s eerie and quite sad knowing that the lives of 23 American airmen died at that very spot, so far from home.
We walked up to the top of the hill to see the memorial. It was actually made from one of the propellers, and has the names of the men who died in the crash. The view was astounding.
There were several other visitors to the area that day, and being Newfoundlanders we got chatting. One of the men we met told us that his father was one of the first people on the scene of the crash. I can’t imagine what they faced that night. Trying to get up a steep hillside at night in March is bad enough, but then to find the horrific scene of a plane crash with no survivors is something you never quite get over. These local men collected the bodies, which were picked up by a US military helicopter.
We will never know exactly what transpired on board the B-36 that night, but the weather conditions at the time played a major role in the tragedy. The plane was en route from the Azores to the US, on a mission to test the North American defense system. Flying at only 500 feet to avoid radar detection, the plane was scheduled to climb to 40,000 feet when they neared the coast of Maine. Here is an excerpt from the plaque at the crash site:
“A low pressure area was in the middle of the Atlantic. It was forecasted to move north. It did not move at the time it was forcasted to move. The navigator…ordered a right (north) correction of a few degrees to allow for the southerly drift caused by the low pressure area. The low pressure area was, in fact, south of the aircraft’s path which was causing it to drift north instead of south. That meant, of course, that the aircraft should have been correcting its course to the south, but was instead drifting north.
The northern drift, combined with the intentional steering north to correct a supposedly south drift, took the aircraft approximately 400 miles north of its planned course.”
Since the aircraft was using celestial navigation and the plane was flying in heavy cloud cover, they didn’t realize they were off course until it was much too late. Local people recalled seeing the plane fly so low that they could see the rivets.
The tragedy was multiplied later that night when a Boeing SB-29 Superfortress left the Stephenville Air Force base to search for the downed B-36. This aircraft and the eleven men on board was never seen or heard tell of again.
The remoteness of the location and quality of aircraft materials means that this wreckage will be around for many more years. If you have any interest in aviation history, pick a sunny day, pack a lunch and make the trip out. It’s a gorgeous motorcycle ride, and well-worth the time.
Here’s a link to more information about the aircraft itself.
Tom Drodge has written a book on the disaster, titled Under the Radar
Posted on September 1, 2014, in Roads of Newfoundland and tagged adv, B-36 bomber, burgoyne's cove, convair peacemaker, crash site, hiking, newfoundland travel, plane wreckage, US military history. Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.