RB29 Superfortress crash site, Snake Pass, Derbyshire...
Close to the A57 Snake Pass just a few miles outside Glossop, a foreboding moor land ridge called Bleaklow broods over the town. The hills hereabouts are steep sided and riven through with deep, U shaped valleys. In this area right on the border between Greater Manchester and the Derbyshire Peak District, the Pennine ridge is the first serious range of hills that fat, water laden clouds rolling in from the Irish Sea will encounter after the flat coastal plain. The prevailing weather not surprisingly is extremely wet - and not a little windy - and the ground is composed of deep layers of rich peat laid down by the innumerable bogs over thousands of years. These barren hills are just a small part of the Pennines, the backbone of England, which runs from the heart of the Midlands all the way up to the Scottish border. Just a few miles further along the Snake Pass the terrain around the three great reservoirs of Howden, Derwent and Ladybower, was used by the RAF's 617 "Dambuster" squadron to great effect for low level practise attacks.
At the top of Bleaklow, scattered far and wide throughout a large gulley system, can be found the remains of an American World War Two era Boeing Superfortress bomber. It is a relatively short walk up to the crash site from the road and a large part of the route is actually a good stone path - only the final ascent to the highest part of the ridge is across the boggy peat which is so much a feature in this area.
It is well worth the effort of getting up there to see what remains today. The plane came down in 1948, but sixty three years on many major structural spars remain, undercarriage struts, pulley wheels for internal control cables, and even large sections of the light aluminium alloy from which the fuselage was constructed, have survived the ravishes of the Bleaklow weather. The most instantly recognisable parts of the aeroplane are the four 18 cylinder Wright R-3350-23 engines, still in a remarkable state of preservation. This particular power plant was problematic to say the least and caused problems for several B29's due to it's propensity for bursting into flames, however engine malfunction is not thought to have been the cause of this particular Superfortress' demise - the sad reality appears to be that she was flown into the ground by instrument malfunction and/or pilot error, and it is very obvious from the state of the wreckage that the crew wouldn't have stood a cat in hell's chance of surviving the impact. At least it must have been quick for they can have had very little idea about what was coming.
Bleaklow Superfortress was not a standard B29 heavy bomber; rather she was
actually an RB-29, the photographic reconnaissance variant of the
aircraft. Soon after the end of the war it became imperative for the
western powers to monitor the build up and deployment of Soviet troops and
in June 1948 the Russians began a blockade of Berlin prompting the now
famous Berlin Airlift which continued until the 12th. May 1949. The crisis
sealed the issue and photo missions were flown from the UK right up
until the end of the Cold War.
Close to Warrington in Lancashire - Warrington mysteriously "moved" to Cheshire only in the latter part of the 20th. century - was situated the huge American logistics airbase named Burtonwood. The M62 motorway runs slap bang through the middle of the base now and little evidence remains of the site other than a couple of hangers converted for use as industrial units. By comparison RAF Scampton's American presence was quite small so all mail and pay destined for aircrew based there was routed through Burtonwood and had to be collected on regular re-supply flights. On 3rd November 1948 Overexposed was tasked with just such a mission and although only a minimal flight crew would be required the rest of the operational crew chose to go along for the ride bringing the total personnel aboard the plane to 13. This was not at all unusual - Scampton was rather short on creature comforts for the Americans, especially in view of the austerity measures in the post war UK where rationing was still in operation for the civilian population. But the vast logistics base at Burtonwood had just about everything a Yank away from home could desire - it was in effect a small part of America displaced onto English soil, even UK currency had to be converted into dollars for any none Americans visiting the base! No surprise then that the entire crew jumped at the chance of some quality leisure time just a 25 minute flight away.
The November weather that day was not good and the cloud base was considerably lower than 2000 feet. If you stand now at the crash site and face roughly due west you are looking straight out towards the Burtonwood final approach. At 11.15 AM Overexposed came across the moors flying to all intents and purposes at ground level. The crew must have been eagerly anticipating a hearty meal in the mess in a little over 30 minutes time but Overexposed crashed into the ground at Higher Shelf Stones a few hundred yards from the highest point of Bleaklow (2077 feet). It is not clear why Captain Landon Tanner flew into the ground that day and we will never know for certain. The fact is that Tanner had no need fly below 2000 feet at that point as he was still about another seven minutes flying time short of his descent point into the runway at Burtonwood, and his maps would show clearly the high ground he was crossing. He knew full well how low the cloud base was, both from his pre-flight meteorological reports at Scampton, and in bound from Burtonwood via Overexposed's radio, so any attempt to get below the clouds in order to gain visual contact with the ground whilst still flying over known high ground should be discounted. The most likely explanation was navigational error though I have often wondered if perhaps they had an altimeter fault. What is without doubt is that the wind that day was very strong and right on the nose of the aircraft. The effect of the headwind would be to throw off the navigator's positional calculations significantly - in short Tanner probably began his descent too soon believing that they were some 30 miles clear of Bleaklow and already over the low ground just short of the final approach into Burtonwood. Given the state of the weather that day and the known head wind perhaps Tanner should have flown at an altitude dictated by the safe operational height information for the Burtonwood sector and let down in a spiral pattern once he picked up the Burtonwood beacon.
He didn't, why we will never know...