The B-47 Stratojet was an awesome, beautiful plane with six jet engines on swept-back wings. Introduced in 1947, the B-47 marked a giant step forward in aircraft technology, the first U.S. bomber built as a jet. Its ceiling was 40,440 feet, with a top speed of 650 m.ph. It was designed to handle nuclear weapons. By 1955, the U.S. Air Force had more than 2,000 B-47’s.
But there were problems. The B-47 could be unstable, especially on take-off. In its operational lifetime, there were 203 crashes, 10 percent of the fleet. The danger became painfully obvious to the men flying them. While the plane provided an exceptional flying experience, the knowledge that many were crashing was hard to ignore.
One of those crashes claimed the life of Air Force Capt. Rene J. LaRivee, Jr. of Wilmington. He was the navigator on a B-47 that crashed at Eielson Air Force Base, near Fairbanks Alaska on Jan. 14, 1960.
LaRivee had just been promoted to captain while on forward deployment at Eielson. His home base was at Schilling AFB in Salina, Kansas.
Capt. LaRivee was 27 years old, and married with four children, the youngest less than a month old. He had grown up on Concord Street, the son of Rene and Marjorie LaRivee. He graduated from Wilmington High School in 1950. Rene LaRivee, Sr. served as Wilmington’s Civil Defense Director in the 1950s and as a selectman in the 1960s.
LaRivee had enlisted in the U.S. Air Force in April 1952 and had then gone to Officers Candidates School in Sacramento. It was in Sacramento that he met Jeanne Dodson. They were married in Houston in 1954 where Rene was a navigation instructor. Their first three children were born there. He was then transferred to Kansas.
The B-47 regularly flew with a crew of three men, sometimes four. The pilot and co-pilot were in a canopied cockpit, a unique feature for a bomber. LaRivee served as the navigator/bombadier. This placed him in the nose of the plane, below and ahead of the cockpit. There was an exit door below and a 12-foot ramp up to the cockpit.
The Eielson Air Force Base is in eastern Alaska, 26 miles southeast of Fairbanks. There was no permanent squadron of B-47s attached to Eielson, but it served as a forward operating base for squadrons based elsewhere. Officially, the mission was mapping northern territories north of the USSR (Russia), but in reality, the B-47s were up there to keep nuclear weaponry airborne at all times.
In spite of having six jet engines, the B-47 was slow on take-off, and required rocket boosters in the tail for added thrust. Landings were also tricky. It cruised at 525 m.p.h. and needed a parachute in the tail to provide braking while landing.
Searches in newspapers of the late 1950s reveal the story of the crashes, one or two a month. On one particularly bad day, two planes came down. By 1958, the Air Force made a decision to phase out the B-47. Its successor would be the B-52, a much larger eight-engine jet, some of which are still in service today. The development of intercontinental missiles (ICBM) also reduced the dependence on bombers.
The B-47 was taken out of service in 1965 and none have flown since 1969. A few are on exhibit at bases or museums. The 1955 Jimmy Stewart movie Strategic Air Command has some footage of the B-47 in action.
The flight on Jan. 14, 1960 was piloted by Capt. Daniel J. Hahn, 31. Capt. Alfred S. Despres was the co-pilot. First Lt. James L. Kearney, 23, was listed as a second co-pilot. He was in the bay, below the cockpit. Capt. LaRivee was in the nose of the plane.
After the plane had lifted off, there was a question of whether the landing gear had fully retracted, so Capt. Hahn received permission to fly past the tower for a visual inspection. The plane then apparently lost power and veered to the right, with Hahn trying to avoid a housing area. It clipped some trees and crashed in a munitions dump.
There was considerable structural damage to the lower area of the plane, leaving Capt. LaRivee and Lt. Kearney trapped in the bay. The co-pilot, Capt. Despres escaped from the cockpit and started to run. Capt. Hahn, who was tangled in his parachute harness with his clothes afire. Despres went back and was able to rescue Hahn. But his efforts to reach Kearney and LaRivee were futile. With ordnance explosions and fire, rescue crews were unable to reach the plane until the next day. The plane was not armed with nuclear weapons. Hahn and Despres both survived, but LaRivee and Kearney perished.
Capt. LaRivee’s widow, now Jeanne Cariglio, said that Rene had never wanted to discuss the plane’s safety with her. But she said that six men they knew were killed in B-47 crashes. It was a subject that Rene avoided. He had told her, though, that if anything happened, he wanted his family to return to Wilmington.
Capt. Rene LaRivee was buried in Wildwood Cemetery on Jan. 27, 1960 with full military honors. Several months later, the LaRivee-Wynne trophy for excellence in navigation & bombing was created at Schilling AFB. After the base was closed, the trophy was presented to Jeanne LaRivee Cariglio by the leader of the last team to have won it.
Jeanne LaRivee bought a house on Roberts Road in Wilmington, where she raised her four children. The LaRivees have always been an Air Force family. Rene’s brother Bob followed him into the Air Force as did both of his sons. Stephen served four years as a security specialist in the late 1970s. David LaRivee’s ambition was to attend the U.S. Air Force Academy. He graduated in 1980 and married the first woman graduate of the academy. They have both had brilliant careers in the Air Force, achieving the rank of colonel before retirement. David is now an assistant professor economics at the academy, with a master’s degree in operations research and a doctorate in international economics.
Their son and daughter also graduated from the academy and are now U.S. Air Force pilots.
Note: Paul Chalifour generously provided some information for this article. He wrote about Capt. LaRivee on-line, one year ago.