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Up in “smoke”

Charles Lindberg

The Spirit of Saint Louis was not the first plane to cross the Atlantic. Charles Lindberg gets all of the glory, but actually:

  • British aviators John Alcock and Arthur Brown made the first nonstop transatlantic flight in June 1919, eight years before Lucky Lindy. Ah, but that wasn’t a solo flight, so nobody has heard of those guys.
  • But wait — even Alcock and Brown weren’t the first to fly across the Atlantic. The first flight came a month earlier. A crew in the NC-4 flying boat accomplished it in May of 1919. Ah, but it wasn’t a nonstop flight. It landed on the water a few times along the way, so nobody has heard of the NC-4 or the engineering savant behind it.

That engineer was Jerome Hunsaker. As a young man, he had watched in awe as primitive flying machines circled Boston harbor while he was getting his master’s degree at MIT. He went on to design the country’s first modern airship, the USS Shenandoah, as well as that transatlantic NC-4 flying boat.

USS Shenandoah
USS Shenandoah

He designed MIT’s first wind tunnel and became head of MIT’s mechanical engineering department. He also led aircraft design for the Navy. The harnesses that catch planes as they land on aircraft carriers? He designed those too.

Jerome Hunsaker, aviation pioneer.

Fast-forward to 1959. By this time, it was clear that brilliant engineering ran in the Hunsaker family. Jerome’s 44-year-old son, James, was working for engineering contractor Arthur D. Little in Boston. Lots of companies relied on the elite Arthur D. Little engineers to tackle problems too daunting for their in-house talent. James Hunsaker was dispatched to Burlington to help a company with its secret military project.

The company? Tech-Weld at 70 Blanchard Road. The project? Devising a new rocket fuel. Huge tanks of liquid nitrogen, the same material used for “smoke” at rock concerts, held the secret fuel formula that needed to be kept out of Russian hands.

Tech-Weld explosion site
Tech-Weld liquid nitrogen tanks (Boston Globe).

On August 14, 1959, James and some helpers were standing below a huge tank where liquid nitrogen was stored under immense pressure at 350 degrees below zero. They were simply filling the tank. No risky behavior, or so it seemed.

Without warning, a steel lid beneath the tank somehow failed under the pressure. The pressurized explosion shattered the steel into splinters that ripped through James’ body, killing him instantly, while the liquid nitrogen froze him at the same moment. First responders found James Peter Hunsaker of Milton — son of an engineering giant and fast-becoming one himself — blown out of his clothing, fatally sliced but held together in a huge icicle. He left a wife and three children. Foreman Leo A. Carr, 45, of 884 Main Street in Reading, suffered a fractured skull and died three days later, leaving a wife and daughter. Technician David J. Hobson, 32, of 28 Louise Road in Holbrook was knocked 30 feet by the blast, escaping with only frostbite, cuts and severe shock.

This was likely Burlington’s first fatal industrial accident, since industry barely existed in Burlington before the arrival of Route 128 in the early 1950s. Tech-Weld’s bad luck returned in 1963, when gas vapors in an empty Hudson Oil truck exploded during repairs and killed a Lynn man.

James Peter Hunsaker

James Peter Hunsaker (right) with Sarah and Jerome
James Peter Hunsaker (left) with Sarah and twin brother Jerome Jr.

4 thoughts on “Up in “smoke” Leave a comment

  1. Lived in Burlington back then. Do not remember this incident at all. Thanks for all the interesting articles.

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