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Rare Photos of USAF Bomber Crash


The disastrous crash of an FB-111A into an apartment complex in Portsmouth, NH has rarely been discussed and almost never seen. These images, taken in January 1981, surfaced during our research into the story and the anonymous photographer has given permission to post them.




Exclusive Images of FB-111A Accident

READ: The Day the Bomber Crashed 

This historic group of Polaroid images has never been published. They show damage to Mariner’s Village caused by the crash of an FB-111A that sprayed flaming jet fuel onto the housing complex at 2:55 pm on January 30, 1981. Researcher Jack Goterch rediscovered the pictures and obtained exclusive use of them on

Pictures show the dramatic damage to a few apartment buildings in the low-rent Mariner’s Village (formerly Seacoast Village). They also show the crew capsule that was released about 10 seconds before the crash and landed about 1,750 away by parachute. The capsule was then quickly picked up by US Air Force officials from nearby Pease Air Force Base, now closed. One image shows the deflated air bags designed for a water landing that were damaged in the landing and did not fully deploy. No one was seriously hurt and there were no fatalities in the crash and the accident was blamed on pilot error. The photos, loaned by an anonymous source, are provided as a public service of – JDR

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FB-111A Crash in Portsmouth, NH






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No re-use without written permission of web site and photographer.



I hadn't seen these photos before. They clearly represent what I saw that day (January 30, 1981). The photo at the top of the boarded-up apartment house was the house that Capt. Bob Watson told the fire chief that his crew could save after the chief was going to give it up as a loss. I was on the first hose crew backing up the nozzleman in that building. We entered the building on what would be the left side in the photo. We went to the second floor and knocked down the fire in the bedroom where the two windows are on the left. You can see that they are blackened where the fire escaped out the windows. As you can see the rest of the building was spared.

The second photo down is the building that took the brunt of the crash. When I first got on scene there were no firefighters or fire equipment there. The first call box pulled was on Rockhill and calls were coming into the fire station for an explosion on Rockhill. Portsmouth's Engine 1 was going to the box that was on the wrong street. I only had a pager. I could hear the staion communicating with Capt. Watson on Engine 1, but I could not call them to tell them where the crash actually was. They eventually got onto Circuit Rd. where they needed to be.

A man exited this building on the left and he hollered for me to get a hose. I told him the engines weren't there and to stay out of his apartment and not to go back in. There was a downed power line directly in front of him and he started to make his was toward me. I hollered to tell him not to cross the line and to go around the back side of the building away from the fire. On the left of this building there was a one-story bungalow. This is were I encountered the elderly man standing on the steps of his porch in a dazed state. I asked a neighbor to assist him across the street to safety. I entered his apartment to check for any other persons. There were none.

The photo below of the cockpit with the inflatable bag behind the seats shows part of the very sophisticated egress system in the FB-111A. When in flight, the pilot, or in this case the navigator, pulls the ejection handle (there are two at arms’ length on the center console -- one for each crewmember) a series of events begin to occur. Explosive bolts fire along a line between the cockpit and the plane's fuselage. When the bolts are fired, this severs any attachment the cockpit has with the fuselage. A nanosecond later two rockets attached to the cockpit/escape module fire, --one below the seats that lifts the cockpit upward, and one behind the seats that fire the cockpit forward. Both of these are designed to quickly move the cockpit away from the fuselage so that the fuselage does not interfere with the cockpit. This system is so powerful it can be deployed while the aircraft is on the ground. I've seen training video of an FB-111 on the tarmac deploying the cockpit. It's quite remarkable and a sight to see. The rockets lift and blow the cockpit high enough for the parachutes (2) to deploy, fill and safely descend to the ground.

A word about the flotation device. This is not automatically deployed. It can be selected by a crewmember if they believe they are to land in water. Not all the "air bags" seen are part of the flotation devise. Below the capsule there is a bag that deploys and deflates, not unlike our modern day automobile airbags, to cushion the landing. The bag in the photo behind the seats may be one designed to "right" the cockpit should it land upside down and not part of the flotation system.

You might ask just what does an airfield firefighter / crash rescueman know about an FB-111A?. Our mission was the safety of all of the Air Forces aircraft, particularly those stationed at Pease. We would train very often of the FB-111A. Our rescue procedure included egress into the aircraft, safetying the ejection system, engaging the engine's two fire buttons (deployed CO2 into the engines), retarding the two throttles, shutting off the battery switches (2) disconnecting the crewmenbers’ oxygen masks, communication connections and disengaging the seat restraint system. Finally, after all this was done, we would begin to bodily remove the crewmembers, beginning first and always first with the pilot. Oh yes, did I mention that all of this had to be done in under 45 seconds? We were well trained and we were good at what we did.

A word about nuclear ordinance. The newspaper accounts of the day made a point to tell the public that this aircraft was not carrying nuclear weapons. I can tell you that is absolutely correct. It was then and is now Air Force policy not to fly with nukes. Excluding that flight reported several months ago when nuclear weapons were flown to Texas from a base in the Midwest . . . Oops! We were always trained well for a "Broken Arrow" -- code for a disaster involving a nuclear weapon. In the event that a fire should detonate a nuke, it would not produce a nuclear yield (mushroom cloud) but the HE (high explosive) contained therein could detonate and scatter Plutonium over a wide area. Thank God we haven't yet had such an event. When I was working for the Air Force a Broken Arrow occurred rarely, perhaps once a year.

Lastly, let me say that I had never seen the retrieval of the cockpit. Thanks for sharing those pictures. I know this is probably more than you cared to know but I thought I would share it with you.

Bob Hersey

(c) 2008, All rights reserved.




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