A leap of faith
By Kenneth Fine
Published in News on June 24, 2012 1:50 AM
Adam Mattocks describes how, without an ejection seat, he escaped from a crashing B-52 bomber carrying a nuclear weapon and got away unscathed more than 50 years ago.
JACKSONVILLE -- He knew that death would be flying alongside his B-52 -- that if his crew executed its mission, he would never again embrace his wife or hold his little girl.
But Air Force Lt. Adam Mattocks did not shy away from the orders handed down by President John F. Kennedy on Jan. 24, 1961.
The wings on his flight suit meant too much to him.
He had dreamed about wearing them since he was a little boy.
So before his bomber took flight from Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, Mattocks came to terms with the fact that should he and his comrades be asked to dispose of the two Mark 39 nuclear bombs on board -- weapons designed to inflict more than 200 times more damage than those dropped on Japan near the end of World War II -- it would likely be the last thing they ever did.
"Each time we flew an alert mission, we knew it was just like going to war. Any time the president picks up that red phone, we have to go, and in that situation, we knew we wouldn't be coming back -- that it was a suicide mission," he said, recalling the mission. "Even if we go and drop that weapon on Russia or whoever the enemy is, normally, we would be out of fuel and would have to go down. So we were either gonna get killed by our own weapon because of the fallout or because of the pressure. Oh yeah, and the bigger the weapon is, the tougher it's gonna be to escape it. We could have never outrun it."
But when the order to release the bombs did not come, when the crew was told to make its way back to Goldsboro, Mattocks had no idea that death would continue to hover over his aircraft -- that he would need a series of "miracles" to ensure he would make it home.
He had no way of knowing that he and his fellow airmen would lose control of the bomber -- that it would ultimately crash and bring Eastern North Carolina within shouting distance of Armageddon.
Somewhere over the Atlantic Ocean, the B-52 hooked up with a tanker to get enough fuel to make it home.
But something was wrong.
"The boom operator in the tanker, he noticed some structure damage and that we were dumping ... a lot of fuel," Mattocks said. "And when we started checking out the inside of the plane ... we saw that the weapons were wet and the wheel well was wet. Right then, we knew we had a problem."
It would only take one spark -- from the landing gear or one of the engines -- to ignite both the aircraft and the weapons onboard.
So the crew shut down two engines, hoping to avoid catastrophe.
But by doing so, they created another problem. The bomber could no longer fly level.
"I wasn't afraid at that point. I didn't get too excited," Mattocks said. "But I think I knew, I really knew, that we were going down."
A few hours later, as the aircraft made its way ever closer to Seymour Johnson, it became clear to its pilots that they could no longer control it.
"At that point, something's telling me, 'You had better prepare to bail,'" Mattocks said. "So I started going through all the maneuvers in my head."
And when he finally got the OK from the flight commander to do just that, the real drama began.
From that moment on, Mattocks needed four "miracles" to survive.
Mattocks was thrown to the ground when, with a parachute strapped to his back, he took his first step toward the stairs that led to his escape hatch near the belly of the bomber.
"I took that one step and got pinned to the floor," he recalled. "The G-force was so great that it pinned me down."
The blood was rushing from his head to his feet.
His vision was waning.
All he could do was pray.
But moments later, the G-force reversed as the plane continued to barrel out of control.
"My vision comes back and I see the co-pilot eject, but I knew I wouldn't be able to walk down those steps and bail out, so I'm thinking, 'I'm gonna have to go out the top,'" he said. "But I know that no one has been able to get out the top and live (without an ejection seat)."
Mattocks knew a leap of faith was on the horizon and, after a few seconds, took it.
"I shot out like a bullet," he said. "I had to count because I didn't know where I was, but after I felt myself in a free fall -- suspended in space -- I reached around and pulled my D-ring ... until the parachute blossomed."
To this day, Mattocks characterizes getting out of that plane alive as a miracle.
There is just no other way to explain it, he said.
But it would take three more "acts of God" to get him to the ground unscathed.
"After the chute blossomed, all I could see was burning pieces of plane flying by me, and not long after that, the chute closed from the shock waves," Mattocks said. "I said, 'Lord, you got me out of the plane and now I've got a closed chute. I'm gonna free fall to the ground.' Right then, it opened up again, so I thanked Him."
And he thanked God a third time after, inexplicably, he was able to navigate his parachute through the debris whizzing by him.
"I laid back in the chute and I could see all these burning pieces coming. I said, 'Lord, you got me out, but if one of these pieces hits this chute, it's gonna cut me loose and I'll free fall. There's no way I can live,'" Mattocks said "Then, here come by these big burning pieces and after a while, they were gone. So I thanked Him again."
The worst, he thought, was surely over.
But then he looked down.
"I'm heading straight for the fire. I'm directly over this fire so I said, 'Lord, you got me out of the plane I was about to crash in, you fixed my chute and you made me miss those burning pieces, but now I'm about to fall in this fire,'" Mattocks said. "My mind started running with what I would do -- how bad it would be. In that moment, I accepted death -- like I had already done three times that night. I was at peace. But then, just like that, the wind picked up and blew me right on over that fire."
Not long after Mattocks finally reached the ground, he came across a farmhouse and hitched a ride back to Seymour Johnson.
And in the 51 years since the crash -- an event that has become a part of Wayne County lore -- he has never been back.
He did not return to the site that evening after Air Force officials evacuated Faro for fear that one of the bombs could detonate.
The truth is, he didn't even know they had fallen from the plane until long after he had returned home.
That night, for Mattocks, and for thousands of others who had no idea they were located inside the potential kill zone, ignorance was ecstasy.
Knowing would only have required the young officer to call in another miracle.
"I felt safe about the weapon, but I did think about getting destroyed in that plane," he said. "Now, when I was coming down in that parachute, if I had saw the weapons coming down, I probably would have died before I hit the ground."