The twisted metal wreckage in this news photograph caught my eye at a recent online auction. That’s Portsmouth? I’ve written at length about the crash of the FB-111A at Mariner’s Village in 1981, but what was going on here?

The caption on the back of the UPI photo offers only a sentence about crash of the Air Force KC 97 Stratotanker that exploded on a local highway moments after taking off from Pease Air Force Base on Nov. 5, 1964. The plane was loaded with jet fuel and all five crew members died.

The details of this horrific accident were easy to find online. The front page of the Portsmouth Herald on the following day showed a similar photo with the banner headline: “Pease Tanker Plane Down in Flames.” Loaded with 11,000 pounds of jet fuel, the “ill-fated” plane was the fourth of five tankers to depart from Pease in a training exercise known as a “Minimum Interval Takeoff Operation.” The plane took off at 2:26 pm at a speed of 130 mph and rose only a few hundred feet, according to the Herald, before plummeting to the ground. “The crash scene extended from the south end of the Pease runway, through the base golf course, down a wooded slope, across Route 101, ending about 200 feet from the NH Turnpike,” the newspaper reported.

This was the fourth, and not the last, serious plane accident at Pease since it opened in 1956. A B-52 bomber had crashed near the same spot two years earlier, killing three men. Witnesses said the 175,000 pound $1.2 million airplane hit the ground at the north end of the golf course, burst into a ball of flame and disintegrated as it reached Route 101, closing the highway to traffic for five hours. The explosion could be heard for miles and “chunks of twisted metal catapulted from the fuselage and landed as far away as Pannaway Manor.”

Within hours of the crash Herald reporter Jack Barker delivered a detailed article including interviews with eyewitnesses. The newspaper listed details of the five crewmen, four of whom hailed from Connecticut, New Jersey, Virginia and Milwaukee. The fifth, flight engineer S. Sgt. Richard E. Towle, 36, was a native of Kittery Point, Maine, living in Rye The tragedy, according to the report, left five young widows and 10 fatherless children. An investigation into the cause of the crash was underway.

One month later, on Dec. 8, 1964, a B-47E strategic bomber left Pease AFB, ascended to 1,000 feet and then plunged into a wooded area two miles away. Four crewmen died in that crash. The base closed on March 31, 1991.

Photo courtesy author’s collection. “Historic Portsmouth” is presented every Thursday or Friday by J. Dennis Robinson whose history books on the Smuttynose murders, Wentworth by the Sea hotel, Strawbery Banke Museum and other topics are available in local stores and on Amazon. He is currently working on a hardcover history of The Music Hall and can be reached at This is weekly image number 753.