Until recently, it was thought that the wreck of the Airplane was a US built B-29 Bomber. Bill Tilton of Springfield, Virginia who was the co-pilot provided the true story. Here, in Bill’s own words is what really happened.
The plane was a Hayes KB-50J, which was a heavily modified Boeing B-50 bomber, made over into an aerial tanker by Hayes International. The B-50 was basically a B-29 (like the planes that bombed Japan) with much larger engines, a taller tail, and other improvements. Our home base was England Air Force Base (now closed), at Alexandria, Louisiana. The aircraft commander was John Moore, whom everyone knew as "Curley" I was co-pilot. Master Sergeant Joe Samaripa was the panel engineer (engine and fuel panel control, mostly), and Steve Sellers was the navigator. In back, behind the bomb bays where we carried jet fuel, Tsgt Ed Corbin was the senior person, a refueling reel operator. There were also two very young airmen back there with him, a refueling operator and a passenger (mechanic). We had another, older, mechanic riding up front with us. Several of the names slip my mind just now.
We had flown to Lajes Field, in the Azores, where we had refueled fighters and conducted a search for a lost cargo plane. After a few weeks out there we were headed home, but had to fly a refueling mission out of Kindley Field.
Then on the 20th of October, 1963 (one month before President Kennedy was shot) we were finally ready for our last leg of the trip home, assigned the call sign "Sheba 80". Our eight o"clock takeoff was aborted because a propeller engine had bad ignition, which meant taking off the cowling and changing all the plug wires (each engine had 28 cylinders, so it was a two-hour job). Finally at ten we took off on a lovely Sunday morning and headed West. As were were climbing out the left auxiliary jet engine exploded and ignited half the left wing. As soon as he knew about it from the observers in back Curley ordered the bailout, saving our lives. If we had hesitated we would have ended up like him, in the wreckage. But instead six of us bailed out and were rescued, though Corbin got one leg caught by the rear entrance hatch and got his leg so splintered that they worked on it for six hours. Curley Moore was found by divers still in his seat, on the reef where the plane lies today. (He is buried at Arlington National Cemetery, where the author of a book about the fateful trip and I placed flowers on his grave in memory of the 40th anniversary of the accident). The passenger NCO from up front was never found, though they searched for days.
There were no "top secret modifications" to this plane. But the divers did go searching for our codes. These changed daily and would be of no use for message interception the very next day. But if someone got them they could use them to test a code-breaking scheme. The divers found those code books, and some of our personal items including a ruined lace gown I had bought in Lajes to give to my wife.
Three of us were picked up by Navy helicopters and taken to what was then their base, at the West end of Bermuda. The other three were picked up by Air Force helicopters and taken to Kindley. Ed Corbin was flown back to Keesler AFB, at Biloxi, MS. They told him he would never fly again, but he proved them wrong. Not long ago he retired after a distinguished career in KC-135 aerial tankers (which I also flew later on).
The divers reported to us survivors (who were in a ward of the Kindley AFB hospital for observation) that they found Curley’s body sandwiched between his seat and the instrument panel in front of him. Clearly he had made no attempt to bail out. We don’t know why, of course, but as the last person to see him, I can tell you that he was working hard to fly the plane. Our left propeller engines were trying to over speed as we lost control of the propeller pitch on them and there must have been a great deal of drag on the left wing. We had flown a big fishhook back toward the island and then after I bailed out the plane began to bank to the right, away from it. I like to think Curley did all that deliberately, but the plane was not all that controllable at that point. I was the next to last out, of those who were found, and the plane exploded and fell to the sea from about 1000 feet as I was descending. It hit the ocean in two big pieces, both of which were in flames as they fell.
Another theory is that he didn’t know if everyone had gotten out and wouldn’t leave until he was sure. Also, some of us knew that he was pretty unhappy about something at the time. His wife was a schoolteacher in Houston and refused to leave her little students and move to Louisiana. The hint here is that maybe he didn’t want to live. This I doubt, from what I had learned about this heroic person who saved my life.
The Airplane sits in about 25 feet of water. The visibility is usually quite good - 70 feet in the summer and over 100 feet in the winter. Most interesting about the wreck, is the visual effect of hundred’s of square feet of shining aluminium.
The wreck is broken apart and as a result of the impact, has spread over a large area. The main crash site is found by looking for sun light reflecting off the aluminium panels. We do have more advanced methods of locating the wreck, but why not a little romance!!
The most readily recognizable parts of the wreck are her 4 huge engines with propellers still attached, although the blades are bent beyond any reasonable use, they are still distinct and recognizable as nothing other than aircraft engines. As the aircraft fuselage was made entirely from aluminium, very little, if any traditional marine life has grown on the wreckage making it look almost like an aircraft!!! The propellers are excellent if not slightly unusual underwater photographic subjects. A huge amount of fish can be found on this wreck as nutrient rich waters pass closely by. Masses of Sgt. Major’s live here, perhaps a tie in to the wrecks military past or perhaps me once again romanticizing. The aluminium makes a great site for the Sgt. Majors to farm Algae, once farmed, they will guard it ferociously. This makes for endless entertainment playing with pound for pound one of nature’s more ferocious creatures.
Although not a secret location, this site is seldom dived by other operations, so it’s something of a Blue Water Divers exclusive even though we’ve published the GPS co-ordinates above!!! Don’t expect to see an airplane underwater though. The plane did break up quiet considerably upon impact. Beware of distance you can travel without being aware as the wreck is spread out over a large area, you can easily get a great distance from your boat. It really needs a number of dives to cover the whole site. Ideally make use of the Divemaster to cover the important areas, see all the cool stuff and if you behave, we may even get back to the boat.