B-52 to Overfly Northern Virginia During Funeral

Saturday, October 13, 2001

A B-52 bomber will fly low over Arlington National Cemetery as part of a funeral today, a highly unusual event that could be frightening for any nearby residents not forewarned, Arlington County and Air Force officials cautioned.

The eight-engine plane will pass over the area at 3 p.m. at an altitude of about 1,000 feet. It will approach from the Potomac River and the Pentagon before heading over Arlington Cemetery and continuing west to its home at Minot Air Force Base, North Dakota, Air Force officials said.

The military put out word of the flyover Thursday.

“Much consideration was given to potential public anxieties, which is why additional notification . . . was made,” said Major Cheryl Law, an Air Force spokeswoman.

Flyovers at Arlington occur seven or eight times a year and are usually reserved for pilots and aviators who died on active duty, cemetery historian Tom Sherlock said. Sherlock said he knew of only three other B-52 flyovers in the past 25 years.

The funeral is for retired Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Robert J. Hymel, 55, a victim of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Hymel, a civilian management analyst, was working in the Pentagon when a hijacked airliner struck it. It was the second time he had been caught up in an extraordinary aircraft incident.

Hymel was a B-52 co-pilot during the Vietnam War. In December 1972, his plane was hit by a missile over Hanoi. When the crew tried to land the plane, it pulled sharply to the left. On a second attempt, the B-52 “fell out of the sky,” said Beatriz “Pat” Hymel, his wife.

The crew had elected not to bail out, Hymel said, because it had lost contact with the plane’s wounded gunner. When the plane crashed, the gunner managed to get out and survived.

Hymel was pulled from the plane and saw it burst into flames when he was just 20 feet away. He had collapsed lungs and a crushed arm and was administered last rites. His wife said his doctors were astonished at his recovery and attributed it to the fact that he wanted to meet his daughter, then 2 months old.

The other three members of the five-man crew perished. Hymel was awarded the Purple Heart.

“I’m eternally grateful that God gave him to me for 29 more years,” said Pat Hymel, who is principal of Hoffman-Boston Elementary School in Arlington. She requested the flyover and said she was “ecstatic” that the military granted it.

“My husband always regretted not being able to go back to flying,” she said, a limitation caused by his inability to fully extend his left arm.

The B-52 Stratofortress, a long-range, heavy bomber, has a takeoff weight of up to 488,000 pounds, according to the Air Force. It has a wingspan of 185 feet and can fly as high as 50,000 feet. The bomber, first flown in 1954, ceased production in 1962. The 94 planes still in service have been renovated and upgraded, an Air Force spokesman said, and are expected to remain in operation beyond 2045, becoming one of the longest-serving weapons in U.S. history.

B-52s dropped 40 percent of all bombs used by coalition forces during Operation Desert Storm and are involved in the bombing campaign in Afghanistan.

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