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The Day the FB111A Crashed

JANUARY 30, 1981

"The good Lord was nice to us," one witness said, and she was right. No one was seriously injured when an Air Force bomber going 450 mph crashed into the one of the most populated neighborhoods in Portsmouth, NH. The date was January 30, 1981. Portsmouth dodged a bullet and the story faded – until now.




FB111A Crashes in Portsmouth, NH
January 30, 1981

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the first of a two-part report prepared with researcher John R. Goterch. The concluding piece, "Was It Really Pilot Error?", will appear in the Portsmouth Herald and on Monday July 28.

EXCLUSIVE Never Before Seen Photos of Crash Sites

JUMP to Part Two: What Caused the Crash?

READ AN eyewitness report

Officer Albert Pace was nearing the end of an uneventful eight-hour shift when he turned his Portsmouth cruiser onto Circuit Road at 2:55 pm on Friday January 30, 1981. Suddenly the sky fell. Pace heard a loud crackling noise overhead as a large ball of fire ripped by him to the left. The deafening explosion ruptured his inner ear.

"There was a cascading liquid fire burning across the tops of the buildings." Pace recalls today, "It looked like a great wave at the beach coming in only it was all flames of liquid fuel. It was pretty spectacular."


Spectacular indeed. A $10.5 million FB-111A jet bomber ripped into the earth at a densely populated apartment complex. According to a Boston Globe report, 2,500 people then lived in the low-rent units at Mariner’s Village, formerly Sea Crest Village. Today known as Osprey Landing and Spinnaker Point, the gentrified housing development is roughly half way between downtown Portsmouth and the Pease Air Force Base, a former strategic air command post. The 11,500 foot runway was not the biggest in the Air Force, but big enough to qualify Pease as a backup landing site for the Space Shuttle. The bomber missed the runway by roughly two miles. Exactly what happened remains a mystery.



Ejected and dejected

It was not the first or last mishap for the FB-111A. Of the 76 planes produced by General Dynamics, 12 eventually crashed, most disappearing deep in the woods of Maine and Vermont. Aircraft # 68-0263, however, was like no other. It crashed like a meteor in the heart of a city, hitting just 200 yards from a row of wooden houses, spewing over 2,000 gallons of flaming jet fuel and debris. But miraculously, with the exception of Officer Pace’s shattered eardrum, no one was seriously injured and no one was killed – not even the two crewmen.


Gary Berg, a police officer from nearby Eliot, Maine was driving in traffic near the malls of Newington when he heard a tremendous explosion and saw a plume of smoke to his right. Berg then spotted a large orange parachute supporting what looked like a space capsule floating to earth.

While Officer Pace was clearing tenants from their apartments in Mariner’s Village, Berg followed the escape capsule that rocketed from the jet just 10 seconds before the crash. It looked, at first, like it might land across the Piscataqua River in Eliot, so Berg sped toward the I-95 Bridge. Halfway up the on-ramp, Berg saw the parachute hung up in a small wooded section called Freeman’s Point. He backed cautiously down the ramp, then headed east on Market Street, quickly negotiating a series of turns.

Berg was the first official on the scene. The 3,200 pound capsule had not landed level and its cables were still snagged in a tree behind 398 Cutts Avenue. The flotation bags, designed to deploy in case of a water landing, were damaged and never fully inflated.

Captain Peter Carellas, 33, and Major Ronald Reppe, 39, were already standing outside their escape capsule when Officer Berg arrived. Both were veterans from the 509th Bombardment Wing at Pease, having logged over 2,500 flying hours each. Pilot Carellas would bear the blame for the accident, but it was Reppe, the navigator and Weapons System Operator, who pulled the ejection initiator handle in the nick of time. Both men continued to fly after the accident. Neither consented to an interview for this article.

"Where are we?" one of the crewman asked Berg, who explained their situation. They had landed, reports later showed, 1,750 feet from the crash site. When a crewman asked if the plane had landed in the city, Berg said simply, "Yes." The two men looked despondent, he remembers. They cheered up slightly when Berg added that, so far, there was no report of fatalities. As police, emergency and Air Force Security personnel arrived, Berg got a call from his dispatcher. There were reports of burning airplane debris falling in Eliot.



Damage report

Chunks of flaming airplane wreckage were hurled into Portsmouth apartments when the FB-111A exploded. Children playing on one porch were saved from shattering glass because the blinds were drawn. One building was gutted and two others were damaged – a total of $385,000 in property loss.. But in an era when locals were accustomed to the sounds and sights of an active military air base, reaction was more thankful, than angry. Pease AFB quickly doused the rumor that the plane was carrying "nukes". Although the FB-111A was capable of carrying 37,500 pounds of missiles or bombs, officials said: "We don’t fly sorties around here with nuclear weapons on board for obvious reasons."

fba03.jpgMost residents in "the village" were allowed back in their homes by 7pm that same evening. The 13 families left homeless by the crash were quickly given shelter in motels or moved to another apartment, and compensated by Pease AFB for any damages, according to press reports. The crash site was cordoned off by armed security guards, although locals were able to view the site by trekking through the woods. Within days the wreckage was removed to a hangar at the base. An investigative team blamed the incident on "pilot error" and exonerated the plane manufacturer.

There was a flicker of national attention, focused mostly on the "miraculous" absence of human injury and the "efficiency" of the FB-111A escape module. One Maine congressman suggested that, perhaps, due to its very high crash record, the FB-111A should be grounded, but nothing came of it.

Ultimately, the crash left no visible scars. Pease AFB closed in 1990 and is now an industrial and office park, although the Pease Air National Guard, home of the 157th Air Refueling Wing, is still active there.

Newer Portsmouth residents scratch their heads when asked about the incident today. Even long-time locals are often short on details. Some recall inaccurate accounts, myths or rumors. Officer Albert Pace’s patrol car was not, for example, blown 25 feet by the explosion as the Union Leader reported. Pace today says he simply swerved off the road during the blinding explosion. The Portsmouth Herald originally reported that the crew escape pod landed in Eliot, but later corrected the error.

Yet questions linger. Why did the pilot approach Pease over a populated area instead of following the usual flight path for training missions? Why was there so little mention of the fact that two new engines had been installed the day before the crash? If the new engines were perfect, as the Air Force claimed, then why did witnesses see flames coming from the bomber before the crash? Why did some observers say the plane circled around at the last moment, and why did the pilot report his plane made an "unscheduled roll" just 90 seconds before the crew bailed out and sent their bomber hurtling into the city?

What Caused the 1981 Crash?

Copyright © 2008 by J. Dennis Robinson. All rights reserved This article may not be reprocied in whole or in part without written persmission of the author.



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