Daily Archives: February 12, 2024

12 February 1971

By Sean M. Cross, CAPT, USCG (retired)

“Lewis had to make what he considered to be one of the most crucial decisions of his life. Peering at the fog below him, he remembers asking himself a question to plunge or not to plunge…”

TODAY IN COAST GUARD AVIATION HISTORY – 12 FEBRUARY 1971: an HH-3F assigned to Air Station San Diego, CA and crewed by LCDR Paul R. Lewis (AC), LT Joseph O. Fullmer (CP), ASM3 Larry E. Farmer (FM), AT3 Charles Desimone (AV) and HM3 Richard M. McCollough (AMS) launched in response to an injured or ill “seaman in need of an operation” ¹ from the 492-foot freighter STEEL EXECUTIVE, approximately 220 miles south of San Diego. The WWII-era Type C3-class cargo ship owned by Isthmian Lines, Inc. of New York was on an extended trip from Saigon, South Vietnam to New York City via the Panama Canal with stops in Astoria, OR and various east coast ports. They departed Saigon on 29 January 1971 and on 12 February were southbound for the Panama Canal.² After requesting assistance, the ship reversed course back toward San Diego to reduce transit distance for the helicopter. This is their story.

A United States Coast Guard Sikorsky HH-3F Pelican over Air Station San Diego. (U.S. Coast Guard)

Friday afternoon at around 4:00 PM, Rescue Coordination Center Long Beach launched the off-going Air Station San Diego HH-3F duty crew on a long range medical evacuation or MEDEVAC. The maintenance crew had to stop downtown vehicle traffic so that could taxi from the unit’s waterfront location across Harbor Drive to Lindberg Field in order to utilize the runway for a running takeoff – as the aircraft could not get airborne from a hover with a maximum fuel load.³ According to LCDR Lewis, taking off “out of San Diego, it was a clear afternoon,” ⁴ but the sun was lowering in the sky with official sunset at 5:31 PM.

Photo caption: profile view of generic Type C3-S-A2 cargo ship built by Ingalls – a development of the C3 basic design. During WWII these ships stood the test as cargo vessels and transports and after the war as cargo liners sold under Merchant Sales Act of 1946. These ships were widely used by U.S. and Foreign Steamship Companies into the 1970s.

After two hours of night overwater navigation and using a combination of radio direction finding, helicopter radar, and guidance from the STEEL EXECUTIVE, arrived in the vessel’s vicinity, but was unable to make visual contact through the dense fog which extended from the surface to about 700 feet above the water.

Flight mechanic Larry Farmer described the scene, “We flew over the estimated position at 1,500 feet and it was beautiful, you could see stars clear to either horizon, but glancing down – it looked like a huge layer of thick cotton blanketing the water below us.” ⁵

Chartlet Caption: Approximate route of flight to STEEL EXECUTIVE’s last known position “about 220 miles southeast of San Diego” en route to the Panama Canal.

With visibility less than 1/8 mile, the helicopter directed the vessel to turn on all available topside lighting and dropped two MK-58 marine location markers (floating cylinder that produces smoke and flames for 40-60 minutes) approximately two miles downwind to assist in executing an instrument approach to a hover above the water’s surface. ⁶

Lewis had to make a crucial decision. Peering at the fog below him, he remembers asking himself a question to plunge or not to plunge. ⁷ Lewis knew that the answer could spell a chance at life for the seriously ill merchant seaman. However, there was also his crew, his co-pilot, a radio operator, a corpsman and the aviation survivalman who operated the rescue hoist. Their lives and his own also were at stake. “I decided to lower the helicopter down to the water,” he said in an interview. “By then it was pitch dark. I flew away from where our radar told us the ship was and then went down to about 40 feet from the ocean.” ⁸

Diagram Caption: overhead view of the HH-3F PATCH (Precision Approach to a Coupled Hover) a procedure very similar to the “beep-to-hover”.

To transition from forward flight to a hover, executed a challenging “beep-to-hover” maneuver, which enabled them to safely approach the water and the ship. The “beep-to-hover” maneuver was developed by LCDR Frank Shelley, test pilot and program manager for HH-52A acquisition testing, to help pilots safely transition to an overwater hover at night and/or in instrument conditions. The HH-3F PATCH (precision approach to a coupled hover) eventually replaced the “beep-to-hover” in late-1971. ⁹ Interestingly, both procedures most closely mimic the ‘early’ MATCH (manual approach to a controlled hover) in the H-60 and H-65 series aircraft – the PATCH and CATCH in these aircraft utilize auto-pilot and trim functions to perform a ‘hands off’ coupled approach to the water.

This “beep-to-hover” maneuver can be disorienting in the clouds at night, particularly when low over the water with little room for error. Both pilots must continuously scan and interpret the flight instruments – this is critically important – while smoothly manipulating the controls to ensure they are hitting various airspeed and altitude windows to fly the correct profile.

At the completion of this very demanding approach, the helicopter crew found itself in nearly “zero-zero” weather but had executed the approach with such precision that the MK-58s were located. ¹⁰ Barely establishing visual reference with the ocean surface from a 40-foot hover, the helicopter crew was unable to see the vessel’s lights and therefore was hovering at night in a dense fog with minimal visual reference with the ocean surface.

“We made what amounted to an instrument approach to the water,” Lewis explained, “Hovering just over the waves we crawled toward the ship which was about two to three miles away.” ¹¹ At least that’s where a little black box on the instrument panel said the ship was. The aircrew inched forward using the helicopter doppler hover system, the radar, the RDF (radio direction finding, which provided a bearing to a radio signal from the ship). At about one mile out, the STEEL EXECUTIVE’s blip on the helicopter radar was lost in surface clutter – the mood was tense with the aircrew concerned about the combination of low visibility, closure rate, low altitude and vessel rigging obstacles. ¹² At an altitude of 40 feet in extremely limited visibility, the helicopter could literally stumble into the vessel, causing a collision that would doom everyone on board the aircraft and imperil the ship’s crew as well. Eventually, the ship’s surface search radar picked up the helicopter and guided it to her. ¹³ Farmer was on a gunner’s belt leaning out the cabin door and straining to find the ship’s glow. ¹⁴

Lewis praised ASM2 Larry Farmer for far exceeding the scope of duties he’d been trained for – hoisting the injured man off his ship and onto the hovering aircraft. “Farmer actually guided me to the ship.” Lewis said, “I had no visual references so I depended entirely on him. He became our aircraft’s eyes and brought us over the freighter.” ¹⁵

Pucker factor is a slang phrase used by military aviators to describe the level of stress and/or adrenaline response to danger or a crisis situation. The term refers to the tightening of the sphincter caused by extreme concern – on particularly challenging missions, the seat cushions might go missing altogether. The pucker factor had been high since the initial descent into the fog bank, however Farmer remarked that “finally gaining a visual with the ship eased the pucker factor and transformed the aircrew’s outlook from uncertainty of success to ‘we can do this’.” ¹⁶

Huge spotlights pierced the fog, but all Lewis and Farmer could see was the hoist аrеа. Even under ideal weather conditions, positioning a hovering helicopter over the crowded decks of a freighter is a delicate maneuver. “Doing it in pitch darkness while howling 25-mile an hour winds rock ship and aircraft alike is – in the words of the young crewmen who were there with Lewis – something else”. ¹⁷

Diagram Caption: HH-3F #1473’s approximate hoisting position with STEEL EXECUTIVE (represented with a generic Type C3 cargo ship plan of roughly the same arrangement).

The pilot and flight mechanic were still concerned with the helicopter’s low hoisting altitude as they surveyed the vessel obstacles – the ship’s towering rigging literally disappeared in the fog above. ¹⁸ Much of the obstacle clearance judgement and decision making fell on the flight mechanic’s shoulders as the pilot was unable to see the hoisting area behind him. The crew was convinced that a ‘basket with trail line’ was the right technique for the situation as it would allow the helicopter to hoist from a position offset 30-40 feet from the ship and facilitate Lewis’ use of the STEEL EXECUTIVE as a hover reference. A trail line is a 105-foot piece of polypropylene line (similar to a water ski rope) with a 300-pound weak-link at one end and a weight bag at the other. The weight bag end of the trail line is paid out below the helicopter and delivered to the persons in distress (usually vertically, but seasoned flight mechanics can literally ‘cast’ the weight bag to a spot). The weak link is then attached to the hoist hook and the helicopter backs away until the pilot can see the hoisting area. The persons in distress can then pull the basket to their location – creating a hypotenuse or diagonal – as opposed to a purely vertical delivery.

Farmer carefully conned the helicopter over the vessel providing voice commands to the pilot – delivering the trail line and, subsequently, the rescue basket to the stern of the STEEL EXECUTIVE. The semi-ambulatory patient was assisted into the basket by the ship’s crew and then hoisted aboard the helicopter. Lewis and Farmer were able to complete the hoist on the first attempt. Farmer appreciatively described Desimone’s efforts: “he spent most of his time working the radios, but he assisted me during the hoists. He was the extra set of hands getting the rescue basket into the cabin and then clearly directed the patient to the back of the cabin.” ¹⁹ Petty Officer McCollough secured the patient for the flight, administered antibiotics and maintained constant watch on the patient’s condition during the return flight. ²⁰

Often forgotten was the job done by Fullmer as Safety Pilot. He continuously scanned the system instruments to ensure the aircraft was operating normally and monitored the flight instruments to ensure obstacle clearance and safe altitude. He effectively conveyed critical information without interfering with Farmer’s conning commands. ²¹

After completing the hoist, it took a few minutes to secure the cabin – Farmer stowed the basket and secured the hoist hydraulics, then closed the cabin door and reported the cabin was secured and ready for forward flight. The pilots then executed a demanding night instrument take-off or ITO from a hover over the water. The ITO is similar to the “beep-to-hover” in terms of relying on aircraft instruments instead of visual cues, but its purpose is the opposite – to get you away from the water and into a forward flight profile at a safe airspeed and altitude. The maneuver was flawlessly executed and the aircrew soon found themselves above the fog bank in clear skies. The helicopter returned to San Diego to deliver the patient to medical authorities. The STEEL EXECUTIVE crewman subsequently recovered. ²²

LCDR Lewis earned the Distinguished Flying Cross for this mission, while ASM3 Farmer earned the Air Medal. The medals were presented by RADM James Williams, Commander, 11th Coast Guard District, in a ceremony at Air Station San Diego on 23 February 1972.

The Lewis and Farmer citations are below:

LCDR Lewis also earned the American Helicopter Society (now the Vertical Flight Society) Frederick L. Feinberg Award on 19 May 1972 at the Sheraton-Park Hotel, Washington, D. C – presented to the pilot or crew of a vertical flight aircraft who demonstrated outstanding skills or achievement during the preceding 18 months.

The award was presented by RADM William A. Jenkins, Chief, Office of Operations, Coast Guard Headquarters, who outlined the case as follows:

“Commander Lewis was selected for his sea rescue of an ill crewman from the merchant ship, S.S. Steel Executive, at night and under extremely hazardous weather conditions. Despite very dense fog, Lt. Cdr. Lewis took off and proceeded to the estimated position of the vessel some 220 miles south of San Diego, Calif. , and — by applying extremely skillful instrument approach procedures — was able to find the vessel with visibility reduced to an eighth of a mile and less at times, and by hovering 50 feet above the vessel, he rescued its seriously ill crewman and safely delivered the patient to medical authorities. The crewman subsequently recovered. This demonstration of courage, skill and airmanship has deservingly earned him the Frederick L. Feinberg Award.” ²³

LCDR Lewis provided the following acceptance speech:

“It’s indeed a deep personal honor for me to receive this award from the American Helicopter Society and from the Kaman organization. But in a sense I really feel that it’s unfortunate that this award should be given to an individual. Without attempting to feign false modesty, I sincerely feel that this award should be shared with many others; specifically the other 3 members of my crew, my service — the Coast Guard — and really, in a sense, you, the members of the American helicopter industry. I am sure there are people sitting here in the audience this evening that participated in the design, the development, and the production of the very fine Sikorsky HH-3 helicopter that was used in this rescue. In honoring the Coast Guard by my selection, I really feel that you honored a service that from the helicopters very beginning — we employed it to rescue thousands of people and saved millions of dollars of property. My rescue that is honored here this evening is really very typical of many other rescues that the Coast Guard has accomplished. And so — even though it’s my name alone that is on this award — I sincerely believe that the honor belongs to my entire crew for that evening that this rescue was accomplished and I feel also that it should be shared with the many other Coast Guard crews who accomplished many other rescues of equal ability or what may it be, but I feel I should share the honor with them.” ²⁴

Later that summer (1972), LCDR Lewis transferred to Air Station St. Petersburg, FL where he continued flying the HH-3F helicopter. Unfortunately, six months after the Feinberg Award presentation, on 16 December 1972, HH-3F assigned to Air Station St. Petersburg was lost off Sarasota along with the crew LCDR Paul R. Lewis, MAJ Marvin A. Cleveland, USAF (Exchange pilot), AD1 Edward J. Nemetz, AT3 Clinton A. Edwards, and four rescued crewmen from the 54-foot fishing vessel WANDA DENE William Peek, George Dayhoss, Herbert Hardy and Paul Manley. It was late on Saturday when the WANDA DENE, sent out a distress call. The stricken vessel was 35 miles southwest of Key West, taking on water and sinking in rough seas. HH-3F was launched with its crew of four for a long range rescue. The helicopter arrived overhead the WANDA DENE several hours later and successfully hoisted the four crewmen from the sinking vessel in challenging conditions. The then flew to Naval Air Station Key West to refuel. From there , now with eight people aboard, departed at about 7 PM for a return flight to St. Petersburg. Normal flight operations were reported with regular radio position reports until about 8:30 PM. Two days later a small portion of the helicopter was found in the Gulf of Mexico south of Fort Myers. Despite a massive search, very little of the aircraft and only one body, that of one of the fisherman, was ever recovered. The cause of the crash was never determined.

On 04 March 2011, a dedication ceremony was held at Air Station Clearwater, FL to posthumously name an annex building in honor of the Service and Sacrifice displayed by LCDR Paul R. Lewis. Members of the Lewis Family including daughter Kara Lewis, wife, Jackie Lewis, sister Abby Sauer, son Curt Lewis, daughter Megan Lewis, sister Joan Chaffee, and Abby’s husband, Gene Sauer were in attendance. Here is a section of the presentation that was made that day:

“LCDR Lewis was a tall, athletic Coast Guard Academy graduate who was regarded as the type of officer and pilot that others strive to become. He graduated in 1960, and went to serve his time aboard a Coast Guard cutter before attending flight school.

Prior to being stationed at Air Station St. Petersburg, LCDR Lewis served at the following air stations: Miami, Kodiak and San Diego. LCDR Lewis was known for his exceptional crew resource management and inclusion of his crew in all his flying duties. Among the pilots he was heralded as a flight instructor and examiner who knew the aircraft better than anyone.
LCDR Lewis is notably remembered for being the first Coast Guard pilot awarded the Frederick L. Feinberg Award for a rescue he performed offshore in San Diego. For that same rescue, he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.”
While the building was named to honor Lewis, the air station believed Lewis would have wanted to honor the service and sacrifice of his crew as well. Hence, the auditorium within the building was named for Major Cleveland, the conference room for AD1 Nemetz, and the training room for AT3 Edwards.

¹ Staff writer, “Ex-Area Flier Lost In Crash”, Democrat and Chronicle, Rochester, NY. December 19, 1972, page 22. NOTE: The crewman, name and ailment unknown, may have been suffering from appendicitis and needed to get to a higher level of medical care within 6-12 hours. Various articles describe the issue as “severely ill crewman”; “ill crewman”; “seriously ill seaman”; “injured merchant seaman”; “seaman in need of an operation” and “injured crewman”, but I was unable to ascertain the exact ailment.

² Vietnam Era Voyages as reported in Lloyds Shipping Index (SS Steel Executive)

³ Larry Farmer (HH-3F Flight Mechanic) in email message to author on January 12, 2022 (and subsequent phone interview).

⁴ John Phillip Sousa, “Fog Thwarted Mission – Hero Recalls Perilous Rescue,” The San Diego Union, San Diego, CA, February 27, 1972, page B-3.

⁵ Ibid.

⁶ Air Station San Diego – “Awards Board Minutes” – Case -71, page 3.

⁷ Sousa newspaper article.

⁸ Ibid.

⁹ LCDR D. K. Shorey, “The PATCH: Precision Approach to Coupled Hover”, Flight Lines, Summer 1972, pages 2-3.

¹⁰ Ibid.

¹¹ Ibid.

¹² Farmer email.

¹³ Air Station San Diego.

¹⁴ Farmer email.

¹⁵ Ibid.

¹⁶ Ibid.

¹⁷ Ibid.

¹⁸ Ibid.

¹⁹ Ibid.

²⁰ Air Station San Diego.

²¹ Ibid.

²² “28th Forum, Trade Exhibit Registers 800 as 533 See Honors Night Awards Distributed” Vertiflite July/August 1972, pages 6-9.

²³ Ibid.
Ormie King, “Ormie King’s Legends of Auburn: Honoring a native son”, The Post Standard, Syracuse, NY. May 05, 2011 – available here: https://www.syracuse.com/neighbors/2011/05/ormie_kings_legends_of_auburn_honoring_a_native_son.html .

²⁴ Ibid.


Retired CAPT Sean M. Cross served 25 years in the Coast Guard as a helicopter pilot and aeronautical engineer. Flying both the MH-60T and MH-65D, he accumulated over 4,000 flight hours while assigned to Air Stations Clearwater, FL; Cape Cod, MA; San Diego, CA; Elizabeth City, NC and Traverse City, MI – which he commanded.

“LCDR Paul R. Lewis is first Coast Guard Aviator name etched on the Feinberg Award and the story of HOW it got there should be preserved for posterity.”

© 2022, Sean M. Cross


12 February 1959

Convair B-36J-10-CF Peacemaker, 52-2827, the last B-36 built. (U.S. Air Force)
Convair B-36J-75-CF Peacemaker, 52-2827, the last B-36 built. (U.S. Air Force)

The Last Peacemaker: This gigantic airplane, a Convair B-36J-75-CF Peacemaker, serial number 52-2827, was the very last of the ten-engine strategic bombers built by the Convair Division of General Dynamics at Fort Worth, Texas. It was completed 1 July 1954. On 14 August, it was delivered to the Strategic Air Command, 92nd Bombardment Wing, Heavy, at Fairchild Air Force Base, Washington. In April 1957, 52-2827 was assigned to the 95th Bombardment Wing, Heavy, at Biggs Air Force Base, El Paso, Texas.

The last one built, 52-2827 was also the last operational B-36.

Convair B-36J-10-CF Peacemaker 52-2827 at Amon Carter Field, Fort Worth, Texas, 12 February 1959. (Unattributed)
Convair B-36J-75-CF Peacemaker 52-2827, City of Fort Worth, at Amon Carter Field, Fort Worth, Texas, 12 February 1959. (Unattributed)

On 12 February 1959, after 4 years, 5 months, 30 days service, the Air Force returned the bomber to Fort Worth. 52-2827 departed Biggs Air Force Base at 11:00 a.m., under the command of Major Frederick J. Winter. Other pilots were Colonel Gerald M. Robinson, commanding the 95th Wing, and Captain Wilson P. Smith. (Colonel Robinson flew as first pilot during the takeoff, while Major Winter flew the landing.) The bomber’s crew were hand-picked, and included two navigators, two flight engineers, an observer, two radio operators, two gunners and a crew chief. Ten newspaper, radio and television reporters were on board as well.

Crew of City of Fort Worth

The B-36 touched down at Amon Carter Field at 2:55 p.m. The Peacemaker’s log book was closed out with a total of 1,414 hours, 50 minutes, flight time.

After a ceremony attended by thousands, the bomber was officially retired. A bugler blew “Taps,” and then the Peacemaker was towed away.

It was put on display at Amon Carter Field. After decades of neglect, the bomber was placed in the care of the Pima Air and Space Museum at Tucson for restoration and display.

The last Peacemaker, Convair B-36J-10-CF 52-2827, comes to the end of the assembly line at Fort Worth, Texas. (University of North Texas Libraries)
The last Peacemaker, Convair B-36J-75-CF 52-2827, comes to the end of the assembly line at Fort Worth, Texas. (University of North Texas Libraries)

Convair B-36J 52-2827 is one of 14 “Featherweight III” high altitude variants. It was built without the six retractable defensive gun turrets of the standard B-36, retaining only the two M24A1 20 mm autocannons in the tail. This reduced the crew requirement to 13. It is 162 feet, 1 inch (49.403 meters) long with a wingspan of 230 feet (70.104 meters) and overall height of 46 feet, 9 inches (14.249 meters). The empty weight is 166,125 pounds (75,353 kilograms) and loaded weight is 262,500 pounds (119,068 kilograms). Maximum takeoff weight is 410,000 pounds (185,973 kilograms).

The B-36J has ten engines. There are six air-cooled, supercharged 4,362.49 cubic-inch-displacement (71.488 liter) Pratt & Whitney Wasp Major C6 (R-4360-53) four-row, 28-cylinder radial engines placed inside the wings in a pusher configuration. These had a compression ratio of 6.7:1 and required 115/145 aviation gasoline. The R-4360-53 had a Normal Power rating of 2,800 horsepower at 2,600 r.p.m. Its Military Power rating was 3,500 horsepower at 2,800 r.p.m., and 3,800 horsepower at 2,800 r.p.m. with water injection—the same for Takeoff. The engines turned three-bladed Curtiss Electric constant-speed, reversible propellers with a diameter of 19 feet, 0 inches (5.791 meters) through a 0.375:1 gear reduction. The R-4360-53 is 9 feet, 9.00 inches (2.972 meters) long, 4 feet, 7.00 inches (1.397 meters) in diameter, and weighs 4,040 pounds (1,832.5 kilograms).

Four General Electric J47-GE-19 turbojet engines are suspended under the wings in two-engine pods. The J47 is a  single-shaft axial-flow turbojet engine with a 12-stage compressor section, 8 combustion chambers, and single-stage turbine. The J47-GE-19 was modified to run on gasoline and was rated at 5,200 pounds of thrust (23.131 kilonewtons).

The B-36J Featherweight III had a cruise speed of 230 miles per hour (370 kilometers per hour) and a maximum speed of 418 miles per hour (673 kilometers per hour). The service ceiling was 43,600 feet (13,289 meters) and its combat radius was 3,985 miles (6,413 kilometers). The maximum range was 10,000 miles (16,093 kilometers).

The B-36 was designed during World War II and nuclear weapons were unknown to the Consolidated-Vultee Aircraft Corporation engineers. The bomber was built to carry up to 86,000 pounds (39,009 kilograms) of conventional bombs in the four-section bomb bay. It could carry the 43,600 pound (19,777 kilogram) T-12 Cloudmaker, a conventional explosive earth-penetrating bomb. When armed with nuclear weapons, the B-36 could carry several Mk.15 3.8 megaton thermonuclear bombs. By combining the bomb bays, one Mk.17 15-megaton thermonuclear bomb could be carried.

Bomb, Mark 17, displayed with Convair B-36J Peacemaker at the National Museum of the United States Air Force. (U.S. Air Force)
Bomb, Mark 17 Mod 2, displayed with Convair B-36J Peacemaker at the National Museum of the United States Air Force. (U.S. Air Force)

Between 1946 and 1954, 384 B-36 Peacemakers were built. They were never used in combat. Only four still exist.

Convair B-36J-10-CF 52-2827 at the Pima Air and Space Museum, Tucson, Arizona. (B-36 Peacemaker Museum)
Convair B-36J-75-CF 52-2827 at the Pima Air & Space Museum, Tucson, Arizona. (B-36 Peacemaker Museum)

TDiA has received an number of comments recently regarding the safety of the Convair B-36 Peacemaker strategic bomber. Based on our research, out of the 384 built, 27 B-36s were lost in accidents between 1950 and 1957, amounting to just 7% of the fleet. 165 crew members were killed. The most common cause seems to be a fire following a landing gear collapse. The first, a B-36B, was lost on 14 February 1950. That incident is described at https://www.thisdayinaviation.com/13-february-1950/ . On 27 April 1951, a flight of four North Americaan Aviation F-51D Mustangs attacked a B-36D over Oklahoma. One fighter collided with the bomber, which crashed, resulting in the death of 12 of the 17 airman on board. (The F-51D pilot was also killed.) 6 May 1951, a B-36D crashed while attempting to land in high winds at Kirtland AFB, New Mexico. 23 of 25 on board were killed. 22 August 1951, a taxiing RB-36E collided with a parked RB-36E, which was destroyed. No injuries. 29 January 1952, a B-36D landed short of the runway and skidded into a snow bank at Fairchild AFB, Washington. The aircraft was destroyed by fire, but there were no fatalities. 6 March 1952, a B-36F was destroyed by fire while parked. A fuel leak was caused when the left landing gear failed on landing. There were no fatalities. 15 April 1952, a B-36D overran the runway during a maximum weight takeoff at Fairchild AFB, WA, because flight control trim had been incorrectly set. The aircraft was destroyed by fire. 15 of 17 on board were killed. 28 May 1952, a B-36F returning to Carswell AFB after takeoff due to a loose cowling, crashed and caught fire when its landing gear collapsed on landing, 7 on board were killed. 4 August 1952. A B-36F was destroyed by fire while parked at Carswell AFB. While being fueled, gasoline overflowed from a fuel vent and was ignited by a ground power unit. No injuries or deaths. 13 February 1953, a B-36H was misdirected during a GCA approach to Goose Bay, Labrador. It crash landed on a hill. 2 of 17 on board were killed. 5 August 1952, a modified B-36D being flown by a Convair crew crashed in the ocean west of San Diego, California, when it’s number 5 engine caught fire, which then spread to the rest of the wing. 7 of 8 crewmen bailed out while the pilot remained at the controls to guide the bomber away from the populated area. He was killed. 1 crewman drowned. 4 crewmen received minor injuries. 18 February 1953, an RB-36H was destroyed by fire when it’s landing gear collapsed during landing at Walker AFB, New Mexico. Of the 22 on board there were no fatalities. 18 March 1953, an RB-36H was destroyed when it hit a hill in Labrador. The aircraft was off course and one-and-a-half hours ahead of schedule. All 23 on board were killed. 5 August 1953, an RB-36H went down in the Atlantic Ocean (cause not discovered at this time.) 19 of 23 on board were killed. 11 December 1953, a B-36D crashed into a mountain in poor visibility while on approach to Biggs AFB, Texas. (Not in GCA radar contact). 9 of 9 on board were killed. 26 February 1954, at Fairchild AFB, the landing gear of a taxiing B-36D collapsed, resulting in the aircraft being destroyed by fire. No fatalities among the 20 on board. 29 March 1954, a B-36D crashed while practicing a takeoff abort at Fairchild AFB. All 7 on board were killed. 27 August 1954, an RB-36H making its sixth practice night approach at Ellsworth AFB hit an obstruction on a hill with its left wing and crashed. (Obstruction lights were inoperative due to a lightning strike.) 26 of 27 on board were killed. [Altimeter was in error, GCA was out of calibration, resulting in the aircraft being 150 feet lower on the glide slope than it should have been.] 8 February 1955, a B-36D landed short of the runway during a practice landing at Carswell AFB, Texas. Landing gear was sheared off and the aircraft damaged beyond economical repair. No fatalities. 6 March 1955, a B-36D landing at Loring AFB, Maine, hit a wingtip on a snowbank, resulting in the aircraft being destroyed by fire. No fatalities but some (unknown how many) serious injuries among the 11 on board. 25 May 1955, a B-36J disintegrated in flight during a thunderstorm/tornado near Sterling City, Texas. All 15 on board were killed. (Lost outboard wing panels and all tail surfaces. Impacted in level attitude with little forward motion.) 4 January 1956, an RB-36H crashed on landing at Ellsworth AFB, South Dakota after uneven power reduction. Destroyed by fire. No fatalities. 19 January 1956, a B-36D made a hard landing at Biggs AFB, Texas. No fatalities. Aircraft damaged beyond economical repair. 15 November 1956, a B-36H lost power on takeoff from Lowry AFB, Colorado, due to fuel starvation. It crashed one mile short of the runway attempting an emergency landing at Stapleton Airport, Denver. Aircraft destroyed by fire. No fatalities among 21 on board. 6 June 1957, a B-36H was damaged beyond economical repair while flying through a thunderstorm near Carswell AFB, Texas. No fatalities. 9 November 1957, an RB-36H was destroyed by fire while parked at Ramey AFB, Puerto Rico. No fatalities… A major incident occurred 1 September 1952, when a tornado struck Carswell AFB. 61 B-36s on the ground were damaged. Most were repaired and returned to service within two weeks.

© 2019, Bryan R. Swopes

12 February 1947

Sikorsky S-52 NC92823, serial number 52001. (Vertical Flight Society)

12 February 1947: The Sikorsky Model S-52, NC92823, made its first flight.

The S-52 was an completely new design helicopter based on the company’s experience with the earlier R-4 and R-5/S-51 models. It was a two-place light helicopter of  monocoque construction, using primarily aluminum and magnesium.

This was the first Sikorsky helicopter to use an offset flapping hinge in the main rotor, which greatly increased the helicopter’s maneuverability. This feature has been incorporated in every Sikorsky helicopter from that time on.

The three-bladed fully-articulated articulated main and two-bladed tail rotor were also of all metal construction. The main rotor had a diameter of 33 feet (10.058 meters) and rotated counter-clockwise as seen from above. (The advancing blade is on the right side of the helicopter.) The blades were construced of aextruded aluminum spar with a sheet duralumin skin riveted and glued. The blades used the NACA 0012 airfoil, a symmetrical profile which was common in early helicopters. The blades had  -6° twist.

The semi-rigid tail rotor was mounted on the left side of the tail boom in a pusher configuration. It had a diameter of 6 feet, 4 inches (1.930 meters) and rotated counter clockwise, as seen from the helicopter’s left. (The advancing blade is at the top of the tail rotor arc.)

The prototype was powered by an air-cooled, normally-aspirated, 333.991-cubic-inch-displacement (5.473 liter) Franklin Engine Company 6V4-165-B32F vertically-opposed 6-cylinder overhead valve engine, rated at 165 horsepower at 2,800 r.p.m. The S-52-1 that followed was equipped with a 425.29-cubic-inch-displacement (6.97 liter) Franklin 6V6-245-B16F (O-425-1). This engine was rated at 245 horsepower at 3,275 r.p.m.

The helicopter’s Civil Aeronautics Administration type certificate was approved 25 February 1948.

The prototype Sikorsky S-52 on public display at Radio City Music Hall. (Sikorsky Historical Archives)

© 2021, Bryan R.. Swopes

12 February 1935

USS Macon (ZRS-5) recovering two Curtiss F9C Sparrowhawk scout biplanes. (U.S. Navy)
USS Macon (ZRS-5) recovering two Curtiss F9C Sparrowhawk scout biplanes. (U.S. Navy)

12 February 1935: The United States Navy rigid airship USS Macon (ZRS-5), under the command of Lieutenant Commander Herbert Victor Wiley, crashed into the Pacific Ocean off Monterey Bay, on the central California coastline. The airship soon sank to the sea floor, approximately 1,500 feet (457 meters) below. Of the crew of 76 men, 74 survived.

During an earlier transcontinental flight, USS Macon had encountered severe turbulence while crossing mountains in Arizona. A diagonal girder in one of the ring frames failed. Temporary repairs were made, but permanent repairs were deferred until the next scheduled overhaul.

On 12 February 1935, the airship flew into a storm near Point Sur, California. The ring frame failed and the upper vertical fin was lost. Pieces of broken girders punctured several of the aft helium cells.

USS Macon (ZRS-5) is seen from directly below as it passes over San Diego, California, 9 February 1934. (U.S. Navy)

With the loss of helium, Macon lost rear buoyancy and began to settle. To compensate, all engines were run at full power and ballast was released. The airship began to climb with a nose-up pitch angle. When it passed 2,800 feet (853.4 meters) altitude, it reached its Pressure Altitude Limit (“Pressure Height”). At this point, expanding helium began to vent from the gas cells. Macon continued rising until reaching 4,850 feet (1,478.3 meters), by which time it had lost so much helium that the engines could no longer keep it airborne and it again began to settle toward the ocean’s surface. The descent took twenty minutes.

One sailor jumped from the airship, but did not survive the fall. Another swam back to the sinking ship to collect personal belongings and drowned.

Survivors were rescued by three U.S. Navy Omaha-class light cruisers, USS Cincinnati (CL-6), USS Richmond (CL-9), and USS Concord (CL-10), which had responded to Macon‘s distress signal. Lieutenant Commander Wiley was commended by Claude A. Swandon, Secretary of the Navy, for his handling of the accident, and he was awarded the Navy and Marine Corps Medal for personally rescuing a member of the crew at the risk of his own life.

USS Macon was the U.S. Navy’s last rigid airship. For the next twenty years, all lighter-than-air craft were non-rigid “blimps”.

USS Macon (ZRS-5) under construction at the Goodyear Airdock, Akron, Ohio, 1933. (U.S. Navy)

USS Macon was built by the Goodyear-Zeppelin Corporation at Akron, Ohio. It was launched 21 April 1933, and commissioned 23 June 1933. Macon was constructed of duralumin ring frames and girders, covered with a fabric envelope. The rigid airship was 785 feet (239.3 meters) long with a maximum diameter of 132 feet, 10 inches (40.488 meters). The overall height was 146 feet, 2 inches (44.552 meters). The airship displaced 7,401,260 cubic feet of air (209,580 cubic meters). Lift was provided by 6,500,000 cubic feet (184,060 cubic meters) of non-flammable helium gas contained in 12 rubberized fabric gas cells.

Macon had a dead weight of 108.2 tons (98,157 kilograms) and a useful lift of 160,644 pounds (72,867 kilograms).

Maybach VL-2 60° V-12 in the collection of the National Air and Space Museum. (NASM)

Propulsion was provided by eight water-cooled, fuel-injected, 33.251 liter (2,029.077-cubic-inch-displacement) Maybach Motorenbau GmbH VL-2 overhead valve 60° V-12 gasoline engines producing a maximum 570 horsepower at 1,600 r.p.m., each, or 450 horsepower at 1,400 r.p.m. for cruise. In addition to gasoline, the VL-2 could also use blau gas (similar to propane) as fuel. The engines were reversible and drove Allison Engineering Co. out-drives, which turned three-bladed, fixed-pitch, rotatable propellers. The VL-2 is 6 feet, 5 inches (1.96 meters) long, 3 feet, 0 inches (0.91 meters) wide and 3 feet, 2 inches (0.97 meters) high. It weighs 2,530 pounds (1,148 kilograms).

The airship had a maximum speed of 75.6 knots (87.0 miles per hour/140.0 kilometers per hour).

USS Macon was armed with eight Browning .30-caliber machine guns for defense. It also carried five Curtiss-Wright Airplane Division F9C-2 Sparrowhawk reconnaissance airplanes in an internal hangar bay. These were small single-place, single-engine biplanes, with a length of 20 feet, 7 inches (6.274 meters) and wingspan of 25 feet, 5 inches (7.747 meters). The Sparrowhawk had an empty weight of 2,114 pounds (959 kilograms) and loaded weight of 2,776 pounds (1,259 kilograms).

The F9C-2 was powered by an air-cooled, supercharged, 971.930-cubic-inch displacement (15.927 liter) Wright Aeronautical Division Whirlwind R-975E-3 (R-975-11, -24 or -26) nine-cylinder radial engine with a compression ratio of 6.3:1. The R-975E-3 had a normal power rating of 420 horsepower at 2,200 r.p.m., and 440 to 450 horsepower at 2,250 r.p.m. for takeoff, depending on variant. These were direct drive engines which turned two-bladed propellers. They were 3 feet, 7.00 inches to 3 feet, 7.47 inches (1.092–1.104 meters) long, 3 feet, 11 inches to 3 feet, 11.25 inches (1.143–1.149 meters) in diameter, and weighed from 660 to 700 pounds (299–317.5 kilograms).

The Sparrowhawk had a maximum speed of 176 miles per hour (283 kilometers per hour), a range of 297 miles (478 kilometers) and a service ceiling of 19,200 feet (5,852 meters).

The airplane was armed with two fixed Browning .30-caliber machine guns, synchronized to fire forward through the propeller arc.

Four of Macon‘s fighters, Bureau of Aeronautics serial numbers A9058–A9061, were lost when the airship went down.

Curtiss F9C-2 Sparrowhawk, Bu. No. 9056. (U.S. Navy)
Curtiss-Wright F9C-2 Sparrowhawk, Bu. No. A9056. (U.S. Navy)
Midshipman Wiley, 1915 (The Lucky Bag)

Herbert Victor Wiley was born at Wheeling, Missouri, 16 May 1891. He was the second of three children of Joel Augustine Wiley, a dry goods merchant, and Minnie Alice Carey Wiley.

Herbert Victor Wiley entered the United States Naval Academy at Annapolis, Maryland, as a midshipman, 10 May 1911. During his third year, Midshipman Wiley served aboard the battleship USS Wisconsin (BB-9). “Doc” Wiley graduated 5 June 1915 and was commissioned an ensign, United States Navy.

Ensign Wiley was assigned to the Pennsylvania-class armored cruiser USS San Diego (ACR-6), then the flagship of the U.S. Pacific Fleet.

Ensign Wiley was promoted to the rank of lieutenant (junior grade), effective 15 October 1917. On this same date, Wiley was promoted to the temporary rank of lieutenant. This rank became permanent 1 July 1920.

Lieutenant Wiley married Miss Marie Frances Scroggie, circa 1919. They would have two sons, Gordon Scroggie Wiley and David Carey Wiley. Mrs Wiley died 17 September 1930 in Los Angeles County, California.

On 11 April 1923, Lieutenant Wiley was assigned to the Naval Air Station, Lakehurst, New Jersey. He served aboard the U.S. Navy’s first rigid airship, USS Shenandoah (ZR-1), and was aboard on its first flight, 4 September 1923. A year later, as Shenandoah‘s mooring officer, Wiley was standing by at Lakehurst, New Jersey, when, on 3 September 1925, the airship was destroyed during a violent storm. Of its 40-man crew, 14 were killed.

USS Los Angeles (ZR-3), circa 1929. (Wikipedia)

Lieutenant Wiley was then assigned to the dirigible USS Los Angeles (ZR-3), 19 January 1925. (Los Angeles was built by Luftschiffbau Zeppelin GmbH, and designated LZ-126. It was commissioned in the U.S. Navy in 1924.) Wiley was promoted to lieutenant commander 17 December 1925 and transferred to NAS Pensacola, Florida. In 1928, Lieutenant Commander Wiley served as the executive officer of Los Angeles. He commanded the airship, April 1929–April 1930.

USS Akron (ZRS-4), 13 May 1932. (United States Navy)

Lieutenant Commander Wiley was the executive officer of USS Akron (ZRS-4) when it was destroyed in a storm off the coast of New Jersey, 4 April 1933. Of the crew of 76 men, only 3, including Wiley, survived.

The three survivors of the USS Akron disaster: Aviation Metalsmith 2nd class (AM2c) Moody E. Erwin, Lieutenant Commander Herbert V. Wiley, and Boatswain’s Mate 2nd Class (BM2c) Richard E. Deal. (U.S. Navy)

Wiley took command of USS Macon 11 July 1934.

On 23 September 1935, Lieutenant Commander Wiley married Mrs. Charlotte Mayfield Weeden (née Charlotte May Mayfield) in Los Angeles County, California.

Lieutenant Commander Wiley was promoted to the rank of commander 1 November 1935. He was assigned to the battleship USS Mississippi (BB-41). In 1938, he transferred to the U.S. Naval Academy.

Commander Wiley was promoted to the rank of captain, with date of rank from 1 July 1941.

USS Paul Jones (DD-230), 1942. (U.S. Navy)

During World War II, Captain Wiley commanded Destroyer Squadron 29 (consisting of thirteen Clemson-class “flush-deck” destroyers) with the Asiatic Fleet. His flagship was USS Paul Jones (DD-230).

Captain Herbert V. Wiley on the bridge of USS West Virginia (BB-48). (U.S. Navy)

Captain Wiley took command of the Colorado-class battleship USS West Virginia (BB-48), 15 January 1944. The battleship had been sunk at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, 7 December 1941. It was refloated and returned to a shipyard on the West Coast of the United States, where it was completely rebuilt and modernized. Wiley was awarded the Navy Cross for extraordinary heroism at the Battle of the Surigao Strait, 25 October 1944.¹

During the Battle of Okinawa, Captain Wiley remained on the bridge of his battleship for thirty consecutive days. During this period, West Virginia was hit by a kamikaze suicide attack.

Captain Wiley served as West Virginia‘s commanding officer until 2 May 1945.

Colorado-class battleship USS West Virginia (BB-48), 2 June 1944. (U.S. Navy)

Captain Wiley was promoted to the rank of rear admiral, and commanded a naval aviation facility on the island of Trinidad. While there, he suffered a heart attack. He retired from the U.S. Navy on 1 January 1947, after nearly 36 years of service.

Following his naval career, Admiral Wiley was the dean of the School of Engineering at the University of California, Berkeley.

Rear Admiral Herbert Victor Wiley, United States Navy, died at Pasadena, California, 28 April 1954. He was buried at the Golden Gate National Cemetery.

Captain Wiley’s USS West Virginia (BB-48) fires its eight 16-inch (408 milimeter) guns on the advancing Imperial Japanese Navy task force, 25 October 1944. (U.S. Navy)

¹ The Battle of the Surigao Strait was a major naval engagement between surface forces of the Imperial Japanese Navy and the United States Navy, a part of the larger Battle of Leyte Gulf. It was the last battleship vs. battleship naval battle.

Highly Recommended:

History of United States Naval Operations in World War II, Volume XII, Leyte, June 1944–January 1945, by Rear Admiral Samuel Eliot Morison, United States Navy. Little, Brown and Company, Boston, 1958.

The Battle of Leyte Gulf 23–26 October 1944, by Lieutenant Commander Thomas Joshua Cutler, United States Navy. HarperCollins Publishers, Inc., New York, 1994.

© 2019, Bryan R. Swopes