Dante E. Bulli, a former pilot who survived a harrowing and deadly crash of his B-52 Stratofortress in one of the most remote and rugged forests of New England 54 years ago, died Dec. 30 in Omaha. The retired colonel was 94.
A veteran of World War II and the Korean and Vietnam wars, Colonel Bulli had served on the command staff of the Eighth Air Force. At his retirement, the Illinois native was the third-highest placed officer at the headquarters of the Strategic Air Command, according to his family.
Yet it was the story of Jan. 24, 1963, that indelibly etched Colonel Bulli into New England aviation history.
He was at the controls when the bomber departed Westover Air Force Base in Massachusetts, banked over the Boston area, and headed toward Maine. The flight was intended to test the massive, eight-engined bomber’s ability to hug the terrain, evade any potential land-based radar, and deliver its payload.
Colonel Bulli supervised the elite training crew and instructed the other would-be pilots on the flight. In all, the crew numbered nine.
Designed to fly at least 500 feet above ground, the 159-foot long plane with a 185-foot wingspan was flying about 100 feet above ground, through mountains.
“This was basically treetop flying,” Gerald Adler, the navigator and the only other person to survive the crash, told The Boston Globe in 2001.
The flight turned ominous as the plane approached Greenville, Maine, with wind gusts barreling down 3,000- and 4,000-foot mountain peaks and creating turbulence.
The shaking became violent.
“The instrument panel was vibrating so badly that I couldn’t read the dials,’’ Colonel Bulli told the Associated Press in 2013. “It was the worst turbulence I had ever encountered.’’
A bang shuddered the bomber.
“I heard what I thought was an explosion from the back of the aircraft,” Adler said. “What it was was the vertical stabilizer snapping off at its base.”
The turbulence had sheared off the stabilizer — which keeps the nose of the plane from swinging wildly.
“It happened immediately. I just lost it — there was no separation from being in control to out of control,’’ Colonel Bulli told the Omaha World-Herald in 2013. “The airplane went nose down, and everything I tried to do to regain control was fruitless.”
As the bomber headed toward Elephant Mountain, he ordered the crew to bail out.
As his ejector seat burst through the hatch, Colonel Bulli’s foot struck the instrument panel, shattering his ankle. His parachute deployed, but the colonel ended up dangling from a tree, 30 feet above the snow.
Most of the crew were not in ejector seats and could not bail out quick enough.
The conditions for Adler and Colonel Bulli were brutal. Temperatures reached minus 20 with whipping winds. Snow depths reached shoulder height.
Colonel Bulli was able to clamber down, dig a cave into the snow, and wrap himself in his survival sleeping bag. It would take 20 hours for crews on snowshoes and in dog sleds and a helicopter to rescue them.
John Bulli said he remembers asking his father, who had earlier survived a midair collision in a B-26 Marauder, if he’d fly again.
‘‘He laughed out loud. He said, ‘No, I’m not worried about flying again,’’ said John, of Springfield, Ill.
In addition to his son, Colonel Bulli leaves a daughter, Marilyn of Boston, and two grandchildren. His wife of 68 years, Evelyn, died in 2015.
Services for Colonel Bulli have been held.
Flight historians consider the crash in Maine and another one days later in New Mexico critical in revealing weaknesses in the design of the bomber’s tail construction. A series of improvements helped the B-52 become the workhorse of the Air Force. They remain in service.
On Elephant Mountain, debris from the B-52 is still strewn across the wilderness.Material from the Associated Press was used in this obituary.