Cumberland, R.I. – June 13, 1951


Cumberland, Rhode Island – June 13, 1951

                                                                         By Jim Ignasher

Copyright, 2007

       On the morning of June 13, 1951, an accident occurred between to F-86-A Sabre jets over Cumberland, Rhode Island. The flight was part of 58th Fighter-Interceptor Squadron attached to the 33rd Fighter-Interceptor Group, then based at Otis Air Force Base in Falmouth, Massachusetts.    

     The incident began at 8:05 a.m. that morning when a flight of four Sabres took off from Otis AFB for a routine training flight.  The day was clear with 12 miles visibility with some haze at 27,000 feet.

U.S.A.F. F-86 Fighter Jet

U.S.A.F. F-86 Fighter Jet

The planes were to fly a simulated combat mission which would take them over the Providence metropolitan area. Once at altitude, they would split up into two teams called “elements” and would practice making mock attack runs at each other.  Each aircraft was equipped with gun cameras to record a “kill”.

     At 24,000 feet they leveled off and separated into two elements.  Each element was designated a color.  There was the Red Element, consisting of the Flight Leader, 1st Lieutenant Arnold W. Braswell, and his wingman 2nd Lieutenant Michael A. Corba.  The second was Blue Element consisting of 1st Lieutenant Leo R. Kirby Jr., who would be Blue leader, and his wingman 2nd Lieutenant Everett T. Brown. 

     Each element was to consider the other to be enemy aircraft.  The Red Element broke away and headed towards Boston while the Blue Element began to make wide circles around the Providence area climbing to 26,000 feet.  Once Red Element reached Boston, it turned around and headed back towards Providence. 

     As Red Element was returning they were spotted by Blue Element and Lieutenant Kirby made a run at them centering both jets in his camera sights.  At the end of this engagement, Blue Element broke off and headed towards Boston while this time Red remained over Providence.

     As Blue Element returned from Boston they saw Red Element flying 1,000 feet below and engaged them. Lieutenant Kirby later recalled to investigators; “About ten miles northeast of Providence my wingman (Lt. Brown), called in that he had the first element in sight at 10 o’clock low to us.  Looking in that direction I could see only one aircraft about 3 miles out and therefore did not make an attack on it, as I did not have the second aircraft of the first element in sight at that time.  The one aircraft passed the second element on a reciprocal heading approximately 2,500 yards off to the left and low about 1,000 feet.” 

Tail fin of Lt. Kirby's F-86 - US Air Force Photo from Investigation Report

Tail fin of Lt. Kirby’s F-86 – US Air Force Photo from Investigation Report

     The men of Red Element saw Blue Element coming and began evasive action. The four aircraft quickly became mixed in a high speed “dog fight” during which Lt. Kirby’s aircraft of Blue Element, and Lt. Corba’s aircraft of Red Element, were involved in a mid-air collision. 

      The impact knocked Corba unconscious for a few seconds, and when he came to, he found himself being thrown around the cockpit as the plane tumbled through the air.  In his statement to investigators he recalled what happened next; “After the explosion knocked me out and I came to the strap (from a safety belt) was snapping around the cockpit.  The spin threw me against the cockpit.  My helmet stayed on, luckily.  I remember trying to get out.  I tried to grab the ejection handle but the aircraft snapped every time I tried.  Finally got to where I could get it and hung on to the handle. I was humped up underneath the canopy when I pulled it and then I blacked out again.  When I opened the parachute I felt a sharp pain in my back and noticed that my hands were cut up.” 

     He later told investigators that he distinctly remembered checking his watch and noting that the time was 8:42 a.m.   

    At first Lieutenant Corba didn’t realize that he had been involved in a crash, but instead thought there had been some type of malfunction with his plane. He later told investigators from his hospital bed; “I just thought I blew up.  Never knew what hit me until I got on the ground.”      

     Lieutenant Kirby later related to a Woonsocket Call reporter his recollection of the moment if impact; “I suddenly saw the wing of a plane in front of my nose.  The other plane had apparently come up from under my belly.  I felt a light bump at first and then a real crash.  I saw a red flash in back of me as if there had been an explosion.  It stunned me for a second.  Then my actions were apparently automatic.  I pulled the seat handle that works the automatic ejector seat.”   

      Lieutenant Braswell saw the collision from his vantage point in the sky; “I followed Blue leader (Lt. Kirby) at a distance, since he had a speed advantage. I then observed Blue 2 (Lt. Brown) pulling up above the horizon in a climbing turn, followed by Red 2 (Lt. Corba) about 500 yards behind.  Just as Red 2 emerged above the horizon, turning at 90 degrees to my line of sight and about 2 miles away, I saw Blue leader pull up on him and for a brief instant appear to be almost in formation with red 2.  Just as I realized that something was wrong and was about to call, the two airplanes collided, Red 2’s aircraft exploding with an orange burst of flame and breaking up into several pieces.  It appeared that Blue leader’s nose struck the tip of Red 2’s right wing.”

     He noted that Lieutenant Kirby’s aircraft “…remained generally intact and spun to the ground in a flat spin”  

     Lieutenant Braswell called to Brown asking if he had seen any parachutes deploy.  Ten to fifteen seconds later Brown advised he could see two chutes at 14,000 feet.  Brown later recalled, “…Upon looking back, I saw an aircraft behind me and then it dropped below my line of vision.  The next instant I saw a tremendous explosion in the rear view mirror and it seemed that two aircraft had collided and completely disintegrated with the wing of one being thrown away from the area of flame.  It did not seem possible for the pilots to get out.  However, after watching the flaming wreckage fall, two parachutes appeared.”    

      Satisfied that both airmen had at least survived the initial impact, Lieutenant Braswell instructed Brown to notify Otis Air Base on “B” channel while he switched to “D” channel and called Quonset Naval Air Station for a helicopter to be sent to the scene.  In addition, Salem Coast Guard Station in Massachusetts also sent a helicopter and a PBY search aircraft to assist. 

     Both aircraft had been going over 500 mph at the time of the collision and the fact that either pilot escaped was a miracle.  As they hung in the air from their chutes, the debris from their aircraft began crashing to the ground in the area of Abbott Run Valley Road in north Cumberland.

     Lt. Kirby’s plane, serial number 49-1107, dropped relatively intact in a field near Rawson Pond. William H. Rawson, a local farmer, was spraying trees on his property with James Postle and Ronald Forte when they heard the explosion overhead and looked up to see the flaming debris falling towards them and began running for cover.  The plane crashed in the field 300 feet from Rawson’s home and exploded into a huge fireball.  The impact sent an engine portion tumbling through the air for several hundred feet before coming to rest near the Cumberland Grange hall. The explosion set several smaller fires to nearby grass and trees. Before long, .50 caliber bullets from the aircrafts gun magazines began going off sending live rounds wizzing through the air forcing bystanders to dive for cover. 

     Mr. Rawson was quoted in The Woonsocket Call as saying, “Bullets started going off and we though all hell had broken loose.  Then, we saw the parachutes coming down and we began to realize what happened.”

    The pieces of Lieutenant Corba’s plane, serial number 49-1106, came down in various yards of the houses along Abbott Run Valley Road.  One piece landed in the yard of Mr. and Mrs. Russell White who lived diagonally across from the Community School on Whipple Road just off Abbott Valley Run Road.  Another portion slammed into the back yard of Walter and Carrie Buchanan while Mrs. Buchanan was outside washing windows.  She ran to see if anyone was inside, but the flames set that plane’s gun magazines off too, sending her running into her house.     

Photo from Air Force Crash Investigation report.

Photo from Air Force Crash Investigation report.

 Fire Chief Nathan Whipple and Assistant Chief Shelton Parker were on duty at the North Cumberland Fire Station on Route 120 about a mile away when the accident occurred.  Chief Whipple ordered a general alarm sounded which would bring help from other fire stations in the area, then raced off towards the scene. Once there, he took charge of the crash site at the Rawson Farm and sent his assistant chief to oversee the fire at the Buchanan house.  Parker later commented to a Woonsocket Call reporter that the jet at the Buchanan house was, “spitting out bullets a mile a minute”   Cumberland firefighters from Ashton, Berkeley and Valley Falls responded, as did firemen from the Manville station in Lincoln, as well as companies from North Attleboro, Massachusetts, and the Cumberland town ambulance.   

     About four miles away in North Attleboro, Massachusetts, Patrolman Joseph A. Joubert was on a traffic detail in front of St, Mary’s Church when he heard the explosion and watched the planes fall from the sky.  When he saw the parachutes, he commandeered a passing ambulance and directed the driver to head towards the scene.     

     Lieutenant Kirby landed in heavy brush on the east side of Abbott Run Valley Road not too far from his plane and was helped by several nearby residents who ran to his aid. He was suffering from injuries related to the bailout, and as Officer Joubert arrived with the ambulance, Kirby was placed inside and taken to Notre Dame Hospital in Central Falls.  

     Lieutenant Corba came down through some utility wires which softened his landing, as he dropped by the side of Abbott Run Valley Road, in front of the home of Mrs. William G. Carpenter.  His injuries were more severe than Kirby’s, but not life threatening.   He was assisted by James Welch and George Miller who helped him out of his parachute harness and drove him to Notre dame Hospital in Mr. Welch’s personal vehicle. They later told a reporter from The Providence Journal that all the way to the hospital Lieutenant Corba repeatedly thanked God and the engineers who designed the automatic ejection mechanism.              

A Fuel Gauge from an F-86-A Sabre Jet.

A Fuel Gauge from an F-86-A Sabre Jet.

State and local police also raced to the scene and upon learning that both pilots had been taken to the hospital before their arrival focused their attention on trying to keep the throngs of curious onlookers away.  Shortly afterwards, a detail of National Guardsmen led by Major Robert W. Tucker arrived from Hillsgrove, (Now T.F. Green State Airport.), and took over the scene.   

     Lieutenant Kirby had joined the 58th FIS on May 25th, only seventeen days before the accident.  He earned his pilots wings on February 25, 1949, and flew 102 missions as a combat fighter pilot in Korea with the 36th Fighter Squadron of the 8th Fighter Wing. In all that time he had logged 925 flying hours and had never had any previous accidents.   

     Lieutenant Corba received his wings September 15, 1950, and joined the 58th FIS October 16, 1950.  Up to the date of the accident he had logged 505 hours of flight time. He had just celebrated his 23rd birthday less than two weeks before the crash.  

     Lieutenant Braswell later went on to have a distinguished career with the U.S. Air Force, rising to the rank of Lieutenant General in command of the entire Pacific Air Forces, in charge of over 34,000 personnel, eight major air bases, and numerous other facilities. 

     In 1952 he was sent to Korea where he flew 155 combat missions, and later flew 40 additional combat missions in the Vietnam War in 1967.  Overall, he logged more than 4,500 hours in the air, most in jet fighters.  He earned the Distinguished Flying Cross, Distinguished Service Medal with oak leaf cluster, Defense Superior Medal, and the Legion of Merit with oak leaf cluster.  He retired October 1, 1983, with 33 years of service.          


 U.S. Air Force Accident Crash Investigation Report (51-6-13-1)

The Evening Bulletin, “Pilot In Crash Unhurt”, June 15, 1943, Page 3. 

The Evening Bulletin, “520 MPH Jets Crash 30,000 Feet Over R.I.”(Two Pilots Parachute To Safety), June 13, 1951, Page 1. 

The Woonsocket Call, Over Cumberland, Pilots Escape, Bullets Endanger Householders”, June 13, 1951 

The Woonsocket Call, “Airmen Jump 10,000 Feet.  Badly Injured”, June 13, 1951 

The Woonsocket Call, “Jet Debris Moved, Abbott Run Serene”, June 14, 1951, Page 1. 

The Woonsocket Call, “Probe Started In Cumberland Jet Air Crash”, June 15, 1951, Page 10. 

Website, History of the 58th FIS,

Website, 33rd Fighter Wing History,



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