There are very few pilots of heavy bombers who can live to relate the story of their aircraft crashing into a mountain.
Dante ‘Dan’ Bulli, who passed away at age 94 in Omaha, Nebraska, on December 30 at a retirement home, was the only survivor of a crash that killed seven of his fellow crewmen. His bomber collided with a mountain in Maine in 1963, after the tail was lost when he was testing equipment that permitted the airplane to fly only 500 feet above the ground.
The airplane went nose down, and every attempt he made to regain control proved futile, he told the World-Herald newspaper 50 years after the accident.
He ejected despite the low altitude, and his parachute canopy snagged on a tree. He almost froze to death in the sub-zero cold while awaiting rescue.
Though grounded for 18 months while recuperating, he got the chance to return to flying and retired ten years later from the Strategic Air Command based in Nebraska.
Bulli was born in Cherry, Illinois on July 17, 1922, and was the son of Italian immigrants. He joined the Air Force in 1942, taking planes to combat units overseas. In his 30-year career, Bulli logged 9,000 flying hours, flew bombers in three conflicts, survived a series of plane crashes, and earned the Air Medal, Bronze Star, and the Legion of Merit.
His son, Bill, said his father’s favorite plane to pilot was the difficult B-26 Marauder bomber. Pilots had many names for the cantankerous old bird. One printable name was the ‘The Widow Maker.’
They had a dangerous, bad reputation, John Bulli said, but Dad liked them immensely.
Bulli married his wife, Evelyn, also from Cherry, in 1947.
They began their married life on Shemya Island, Alaska. Evelyn was one of the few military wives at the wind-blown, barren base in the Aleutians.
He did a substantial amount of Arctic flying, and had knowledge about surviving in the wilderness. Those skills assisted him to survive the crash in Maine. His son said the scars from experience never left him, though.
For him, the loss of the Strategic Air Command crew that he knew well was a real tragedy, John Bulli explained. The episode was a turning point in his career.
The crash in 1963 showed the Air Force that the B-52s tail couldn’t cope with severe turbulence at low altitude. The problem was remedied, making the bomber safer for later crews. They are still airworthy today.
Following the crash, Bulli for the next several years commanded bomber units. In 1968, he was grounded permanently after experiencing a brain hemorrhage. The rest of his career was in military intelligence until he retired as a colonel in 1974. His last tour of duty was at Offutt Air Force Base as assistant deputy chief of intelligence, the third highest ranking position at SAC.
Later, he taught school in Omaha and worked as a real estate agent. In 1986 a stroke rendered him wheelchair-bound for the remainder of his life but didn’t affect his mental capacity, Omaha World-Herald reported.
Bulli is survived by his son, John, of Springfield, Illinois, his daughter, Marilyn, of Boston, and two grandchildren, Alex and Nan.
His wife taught English literature and high school English for many decades, dying in September 2015, and she was interred in her Illinois hometown. Her husband was buried alongside her.