One lucky coffee break;
Workers on ground were spared when B-57 crashed into Biggs motor pool in 1957

By Trish Long / El Paso Times
Posted: 03/22/2015 12:00:00 AM MDT

Tom Basile called me to ask about an airplane crash that he witnessed while stationed at Biggs Air Force Base in early 1957. He was in the motor pool when the crash happened and said that his truck which he wasn't in at the time flew 20 feet.

I found this El Paso Times article headlined "Two Crewmen Die In Biggs Plane Crash; Twin-Jet B-57 Hits Motor Pool," dated Jan. 18, 1957:

Two Biggs Air Force Base fliers were killed and a civilian worker slightly injured Thursday afternoon when a twin-jet B-57 bomber crashed on landing and threw flaming metal parts into the main Biggs motor pool area.

A Biggs spokesman said about all of the workers in the motor pool were on a coffee break at the time of the crash or "many more people would have been killed."

Dead crew members of the B-57 were First Lt. Thomas H. Higgins, 24, husband of Mrs. Sandra J. Higgins, 3111 Richmond St., and First Lt. Russell Earl Hanson, 24, of Cudahy, Wis. Both Hanson and Higgins were members of the 1st Tow Target Squadron.

Listed as slightly injured was George Jordan of El Paso, a civilian working in the motor pool area at the time of the crash. He was taken to the Biggs infirmary, treated and released.

The bomber crashed with an explosion that shattered windows in the near vicinity. Pieces of the plane hurled into buildings as far as 600 feet away.

The explosion set fire to several vehicles including a gasoline trailer parked in the motor pool, and flying metal parts damaged nearby buildings.

Firemen were unable to extinguish the blazing gasoline trailer for several hours after the crash. Several trucks in the motor pool were destroyed.

A Biggs official said the plane was making a normal approach to the runway when it apparently ran into trouble at 500 feet.

Observers noted that the plane began vibrating and then plunged to earth near the motor pool.

Workers in the motor pool had gone on coffee break at 2:45 p.m. and were away from the vicinity when the crash occurred at 2:50 p.m.

Concussion from the explosion shattered windows in the motor pool repairing building 600 feet away.

An El Paso Herald-Post story from the same day interviewed pilot J.C. Robertson, who witnessed the crash and gave some additional information:

The plane in which two Biggs Air Force officers died yesterday went into a spin at an altitude of 750 feet, J.C. Robertson, who was flying in the area, said today.

"I was in the landing pattern at El Paso International Airport," Robertson said. "I saw the B-57 make a turn towards Biggs on final approach. Then it went into a spin and crashed into the base motor pool. I continued with my landing and called the airport tower to report the crash. They thought there had been an explosion at Biggs."

Robertson, who lives at 111 Buena Vista Drive, said that he was flying at about 500 feet in a small civilian plane. "The B-57 was a little above me," he said. The B-57 was painted red and silver. It might have looked like it exploded from the ground, Robertson said.

He estimated that it was six seconds from the time the plane started spinning until it crashed. ...

Wreckage from the plane was scattered over a six-block area.

The plane was operated by the 1st Tow Target squadron at Biggs. It was used to tow gunnery targets over Fort Bliss firing ranges.

The B-57 is an American version of the British Canberra. It cost about $1.2 million to build. The British used Canberras to bomb Egypt recently.

It is one of the smallest bombers which the Air Force operates. It is capable of carrying atomic weapons.

Lieutenant Higgins is survived by his widow, Mrs. Sandra J. Higgins, and his parents, Mr. and Mrs. Thomas H. Higgins of Walled Lake, MI. Mrs. Higgins was under the care of a doctor today. Lieutenant Hanson is survived by his parents, Mr. and Mrs. Emmett C. Hanson of Cudahy, WI.

Rodenhaver-Miller has charge of funeral arrangements.

The next day, Jan. 19, the Times reported:

A Biggs Air Force Base board of investigation Friday began a probe of the B-57 bomber crash which Thursday took the lives of two Biggs fliers and slightly injured a civilian worker.

The twin-jet pane, attached to the 1st Tow Target Squadron at Biggs, plunged to the ground after beginning a normal approach for landing and exploded near the main Biggs motor pool area. ...

Biggs officials said Lt. Hanson ferried the first B-57 into Biggs last November. ...

(George) Jordan was repairing a boiler on a washtrack in the motor pool area shortly before the crash. He had just entered his car when he saw the B-57 plunging toward the motor pool. He slid to the opposite side of the seat, got out of the car and began running when the plane hit and exploded. His car was demolished, but Jordan escaped with minor burns on his head and left hand. He was treated at the Biggs dispensary and released.

Trish Long is the El Paso Times' archivist. She may be reached at tlong@elpasotimes.com.