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1 September 1968

Lieutenant Colonel William Atkinson Jones III, United States Air Force.

1 September 1968: Two U.S. Air Force McDonnell F-4D Phantom II fighters were on a pre-dawn strike against the Ho Chi Minh Trail, near the Ban Karai Pass. Both Phantoms, call signs CARTER 01 and CARTER 02, were hit by anti-aircraft gunfire and their crews had to eject. Both pilots from CARTER 01 were quickly picked up, but the aircraft commander of CARTER 02 was hidden by the jungle. The Weapons System Officer was never seen again.

A Combat Search and Rescue (CSAR) mission was immediately sent out to locate and rescue the missing airmen.  Two Sikorsky HH-3 Jolly Green Giant helicopters, the recovery team, were escorted by four Douglas A-1 Skyraiders to help in the search and to suppress any enemy gunfire that was trying to shoot down the rescue helicopters.

The Skyraider was a Korean War era carrier-based attack airplane originally in service with the U.S. Navy. It had been replaced by modern jet aircraft, but the Air Force found that its slow flight and ability to carry a heavy fuel and weapons load were ideal for the CSAR escort mission.

The four Skyraiders were from the 602nd Special Operations Squadron at Nakhom Phanom, Thailand. They operated with the call sign SANDY. Lieutenant Colonel William A. Jones III, the squadron commanding officer, on his 98th combat mission, was the on-scene commander flying SANDY 01, an A-1H, serial number 52-139738.

Lieutenant Colonel William A. Jones III, United States Air Force, in the cockpit of of a Douglas A-1H Skyraider, 1968. (U.S. Air Force)

MEDAL OF HONOR
JONES, WILLIAM A., III

Rank and organization: Colonel, U.S. Air Force, 602d Special Operations Squadron, Nakon Phanom Royal Thai Air Force Base, Thailand

Place and date: Near Dong Hoi, North Vietnam, 1 September 1968

Entered service at: Charlottesville, Virginia

Born: 31 May 1922, Norfolk, Virginia

Citation: For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity in action at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty. Col Jones distinguished himself as the pilot of an A-1H Skyraider aircraft near Dong Hoi, North Vietnam. On that day, as the on-scene commander in the attempted rescue of a downed U.S. pilot, Col. Jones aircraft was repeatedly hit by heavy and accurate antiaircraft fire. On 1 of his low passes, Col. Jones felt an explosion beneath his aircraft and his cockpit rapidly filled with smoke. With complete disregard of the possibility that his aircraft might still be burning, he unhesitatingly continued his search for the downed pilot. On this pass, he sighted the survivor and a multiple-barrel gun position firing at him from near the top of a karst formation. He could not attack the gun position on that pass for fear he would endanger the downed pilot. Leaving himself exposed to the gun position, Col. Jones attacked the position with cannon and rocket fire on 2 successive passes. On his second pass, the aircraft was hit with multiple rounds of automatic weapons fire. One round impacted the Yankee Extraction System rocket mounted directly behind the headrest, igniting the rocket. His aircraft was observed to burst into flames in the center fuselage section, with flame engulfing the cockpit area. He pulled the extraction handle, jettisoning the canopy. The influx of fresh air made the fire burn with greater intensity for a few moments, but since the rocket motor had already burned, the extraction system did not pull Col. Jones from the aircraft. Despite searing pains from severe burns sustained on his arms, hand, neck, shoulders, and face, Col. Jones pulled his aircraft into a climb and attempted to transmit the location of the downed pilot and the enemy gun position to the other aircraft in the area. His calls were blocked by other aircraft transmissions repeatedly directing him to bail out and within seconds his transmitters were disabled and he could receive only on 1 channel. Completely disregarding his injuries, he elected to fly his crippled aircraft back to his base and pass on essential information for the rescue rather than ball out. Col. Jones successfully landed his heavily damaged aircraft and passed the information to a debriefing officer while on the operating table. As a result of his heroic actions and complete disregard for his personal safety, the downed pilot was rescued later in the day. Col. Jones’ profound concern for his fellow man at the risk of his life, above and beyond the call of duty, are in keeping with the highest traditions of the U.S. Air Force and reflect great credit upon himself and the Armed Forces of this country.

Medal of Honor
Lt. William A. Jones, Jr., Signal Corps, U.S. Army, circa 1918. (Elizabeth Hart Jones)

William Atkinson Jones III was born 31 May 1922 at Norfolk, Virginia. He was the son of William Atkinson Jones, Jr., an attorney in general practice, and Elizabeth Goodwin Hart Jones, a school teacher. Mr. Jones had served as a pilot in the Signal Corps, United States Army, during World War I. The Jones family had lived in Warsaw, Virginia, since the 1840s.

When his parents divorced in 1929, Bill and his mother relocated to Charlottesville, Virginia. Jones attended Lane High School in Charlottesville, where he was a member of the literary society, and played on the varsity football and basketball teams.

W. A. Jones III, 1942 (Corks and Curls)

Following his graduation from high school, Jones studied at the University of Virginia, which was also in Charlottesville. He was captain of the university’s fencing team, and a member of the Sigma Phi Epsilon (ΣΦΕ) fraternity. Jones graduated in 1942 at the age of 19 years, with a Bachelor of Arts degree.

Cadet William A. Jones III, United States Military Academy, circa 1944. (Howitzer)

Already a university graduate, William Atkinson Jones III was appointed a cadet at the United States Military Academy, West Point, New York. He entered West Point on 1 July 1942, as a member of the Class of 1945. along with academics and military training, Cadet Jones was a member of the Army Fencing Squad.

Bill Jones graduated from West Point with a Bachelor of Science degree. On 5 June 1945, he was commissioned a second lieutenant, Air Corps, United States Army.

2nd Lieutenant W. A. Jones III in flight training, 1945. (Elizabeth Hart Jones)

Lieutenant Jones was trained as a pilot at several locations around the United States, including Oklahoma, New York, and Arizona. Lieutenant Jones served as a fighter pilot, stationed in the Philippine Islands, 1946–1948. Returning to the United States, Jones was assigned as a transport pilot based at Biggs Air Force Base, Fort Bliss Texas.

On 20 October 1948, Lieutenant Jones married Miss Lois Marie McGregor at Bisbee, Arizona, her home town. The ceremony was officiated by Reverend John L. Howard. They would have three daughters, Anne, Elizabeth and Mary Lee.

Fairchild C-119 Flying Boxcars of the 40th Troop Carrier Squadron, 317th Troop Carrier Wing, Germany, circa early 1950s. The airplane in the foreground is C-119C-17-FA 49-199.  (317th Veterans Group)

In 1952, Jones was assigned as a Fairchild C-119 Flying Boxcar pilot with the 317th Troop Carrier Wing at Rhein-Main Air Base, Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany). He remained in Europe for the next four years.

In 1956 Jones transitioned to bombers, training as an aircraft commander in the Boeing B-47E Stratojet. He was stationed at Lake Charles Air Force Base, Louisiana, and Pease Air Force Base, New Hampshire.

Lockheed-Marietta B-47E-50-LM Stratojet 52-3363. (U.S. Air Force)

Jones attended the Air War College at Maxwell Air Force Base, Montgomery, Alabama, 1965–1966. He earned a master’s degree in international affairs. His next assignment was as a staff officer at The Pentagon.

In 1968, Major Jones requested a transfer to the Douglas A-1 Skyraider training course at Hurlburt Field, in Florida. On completion, he was assigned as the commanding officer of the 602nd Special Operations Squadron at Nakhon Phanom Royal Thai Navy Base, Thailand.

Hurlburt Field Skyraider Class 68–07. Major William Atkinson Jones II is in the front row, just to the right of center. Other class members are, front row, left-to-right: Captain Al Hale, Captain George Marrett, Major Jones, and Lieutenant Colonel C. Riner Learnard. Back row: Captain Al Holtz, Colonel Webster, Captain Tom O’Conner, Major Richard Lee Russell, and Lieutenant Colonel Charlie Joseph. The airplane is a Douglas A-1E Skyraider. (The A-1 Skyraider Association)

Lieutenant Colonel Jones was severely burned during the rescue mission of 1 September 1968. He was transported back to the United States for extensive medical treatment at Fort Sam Houston, San Antonio, Texas.

Bill Jones was promoted to the rank of colonel, 1 November 1969. One 14 November, President Richard M. Nixon approved the award of the Medal of Honor to Colonel Jones.

On 15 November 1969, Colonel Jones was flying his personal airplane, a Piper PA-20 Pacer, N7015K. At 12:55 p.m., he took off from Woodbridge Airport (W22), a small, uncontrolled airport about 12 miles (19 kilometers) southwest of Washington, D.C. The Pacer was a small, 4-place, single-engine light airplane.

Immediately after takeoff, Colonel Jones radioed that he was returning to the airport. The airplane was seen in a left turn with a nose down attitude. It crashed off the airport and caught fire. Colonel Jones suffered third degree burns over his entire body an died immediately.

Woodbridge Airport (W22), looking north, early 1970s. (Abandoned and Little-Known Airfields)

The NTSB accident report listed the Probable Cause as a complete engine failure for unknown causes, followed by a loss of control by the pilot, the cause also undetermined. (Some sources suggest that the Pacer struck wires while returning to the runway.)

At the time of his death, Colonel Jones had flown a total of 7,748 hours.

Colonel Jones was the author of Maxims for Men-at-Arms, published by Dorrance and Co., Philadelphia, 1969.

President Nixon presented the Medal of Honor to Colonel Jones widow in a ceremony at the White House, 6 August 1970. At the award ceremony, Miss Mary Jones, Colonel Jones’ youngest daughter, gave a copy of her father’s book to the president.

Colonel William AtkinsonsJones III, United States Air Force, was buried at St. John’s Episcopal Cemetery in Warsaw, Virginia.

The William A. Jones III Auditorium of Anderson Hall at the  Air War College, Maxwell Air Force Base, was named in his honor.

In 2011, The William A. Jones III Building at Joint Base Andrews, Maryland, (just south east of Washington, D.C.) was also named in honor of Colonel Jones.

The William A Jones III Building. (Coakley & Williams Construction)

The United States Navy and Marine Corps adopted the Douglas Aircraft Company AD-1 Skyraider just after the end of World War II. The U.S. Air Force recognized its value as a close air support attack bomber, but it wasn’t until the early months of U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War that a number of Skyraiders were transferred to the U.S.A.F.

This is the Douglas A-1H Skyraider flown by LCOL Jones, 1 September 1968. Though it was extensively damaged by anti-aircraft gunfire and the subsequent fire, 52-139738 was repaired and returned to service. On 22 September 1972, -738 was shot down over Laos. It was the last Skyraider shot down during the Vietnam War.

These aircraft were identified by Department of the Navy, Bureau of Aeronautics serial numbers, commonly referred to as “bureau numbers,” or “bu. no.” Once acquired by the Air Force, the two-digit fiscal year number in which the airplane was contracted was added to the bureau number, resulting in a serial number with a format similar to a standard U.S.A.F. serial number. For example, Lieutenant Colonel Jones’ Skyraider, A-1H 52-139738, was originally U.S. Navy AD-6 Skyraider Bu. No. 139738, authorized in 1952. (The Douglas AD series was redesignated A-1 in 1962.)

Douglas AH-1H Skyraider 52-137593 (U.S. Air Force)
Douglas A-1H Skyraider 52-137593 (U.S. Air Force)

The Douglas AD-6 (A-1H) Skyraider was a single-place, single-engine attack aircraft. A low-wing monoplane with conventional landing gear, it had folding wings for storage aboard aircraft carriers. The A-1H Skyraider was 39 feet, 3 inches (11.963 meters) long with a wingspan of 50 feet, ¼ inch (15.246 meters) and overall height of 15 feet, 8 inches (4.775 meters). The total wing area was 400 square feet (37.16 square meters). Its had an empty weight of 12,072 pounds (5,476 kilograms) and its maximum takeoff weight was 25,000 pounds (11,340 kilograms).

The A-1H was powered by an air-cooled, supercharged, direct-fuel-injected, 3,347.66-cubic-inch-displacement (54.858 liter) Wright Aeronautical Division R-3350-26WA Duplex-Cyclone (Cyclone 18 836C18CA1) engine. This was a twin-row 18-cylinder radial, with a compression ratio of 6.7:1 and water/alcohol injection. This engine had a normal power rating at Sea Level of 2,300 horsepower at 2,600 r.p.m., and 2,700 horsepower at 2,900 r.p.m. to for take off. 115/145-octane aviation gasoline was required. The engine drove a four-bladed Aeroproducts constant-speed propeller 13 foot, 6 inch (4.115 meters) diameter, through a 0.4375:1 gear reduction. The R-3350-26WA was 4 feet, 7.62 inches (1.413 meters) in diameter and 6 feet, 6.81 inches (2.002 meters) long. It weighs 2,848 pounds (1,292 kilograms), dry.

The A-1H Skyraider had a cruise speed of 164 knots (189 miles per hour/304 kilometers per hour) and a maximum speed of 297 knots (342 miles per hour/550 kilometers per hour) at 15,400 feet (4,694 meters). The A-1H could climb to 20,000 feet (6,096 meters) in 9.5 minutes. The ceiling was 31,900 feet (9,723 meters). Carrying a 2,000 pound (907 kilogram) bomb load, its combat radius was 260 nautical miles (299 statute miles/482 kilometers).

The A-1H was armed with four 20 mm M3 autocannon with 200 rounds of ammunition per gun. The Skyraider could carry a combination of external fuel tanks, gun pods, bombs or rockets on 15 hardpoints.

Douglas built 713 AD-6 Skyraiders at Santa Monica, California.

A Douglas A-1H Skyraider of the 6th Special Operations Squadron dive bombing a target during a close air support mission, Vietnam, 1968. (U.S. Air Force)

© 2018, Bryan R. Swopes

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1 September 1946

Alvin M. “Tex” Johnston with the Thompson Trophy and the Allegheny-Ludlum Trophy, 1946 National Air Races. (San Diego Air and Space Museum Archives)

1 September 1946: Just one year after World War II came to an end, the National Air Races returned to Cleveland, Ohio. Grandstands were set up at the site of the Fisher Body Aircraft Plant No. 2, where assemblies for B-25 and B-29 bombers had been produced.

The Thompson Trophy Race was one of the most popular events because it was in view of the crowds. Sponsored by Thompson Products Company (the predecessor of TRW), it was a ten-lap pylon race flown at low altitude around a 30-mile (48.3 kilometers) course. There were two divisions. The R Division was for airplanes with reciprocating engines, and the J Division was for turbojet powered airplanes.

The National Air Races 4-pylon course, flown in 1947, 1947 and 1948. (airrace.com)

The race course was laid out as a parallelogram, with two 10-mile (16.1 kilometer) sides, and two 5-mile (8.0 kilometer) sides. There were two 75° turns and two 105° turns.

In addition to the Thompson Trophy, the race winner would receive $20,000 in prize money (about $342,400 in 2018 U.S. dollars). There were additional $2,000 prizes for the leader of each lap. A pilot who set a speed record during the race would win the Allegheny-Ludlum Trophy and $2,000.

Entrants for the 1946 race included many well-known air racers, test pilots and combat pilots. They included Cook Cleland, a U.S. Navy dive bomber pilot and test pilot; Woodrow W. (“Woody”) Edmondson, an aerobatic pilot; Howard Clifton (“Tick”) Lilly, a test pilot for the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA, predecessor of NASA); Alvin Melvin (“Tex”) Johnston, an experimental test pilot with the Bell Aircraft Corporation; Anthony W. (“Tony”) LeVier, Chief Engineering Test Pilot for the Lockheed Aircraft Corporation, and an experienced pylon racer; Earl Hill Ortman, test pilot for Douglas Aircraft Company, and also an experienced racer; Howard L. Pemberton; Bruce Raymond; Robert Swanson; Charles (“Chuck”) Tucker, who had flown P-40s with the “Flying Tigers” in China, and an Army Air Corps test pilot; George Schwarz Welch, the Army Air Corps hero of Pearl Harbor, and test pilot for North American Aviation, Inc.; and Sylvester Joseph (“Steve”) Wittman, an aircraft designer and air racer.

Before the war, the races used specially-constructed racing aircraft and production civil aircraft. Following the war, the expense of developing a purpose-built, competitive air racer was no longer feasible, so surplus military fighters were used.

Of the twelve airplanes competing in the 1946 Thompson Race, there was one Bell Aircraft Corporation P-39Q Airacobra; four Bell P-63 Kingcobras; one Goodyear Aircraft Corporation FG-1D Corsair (a licensed variant of the Vought-Sikorsky F4U Corsair); a Lockheed Aircraft Corporation P-38L Lightning; and five North American Aviation, Inc., P-51D Mustangs.

Jack Woolams, Chief Test Pilot for Bell Aircraft Corporation, Experimental Test Pilot Tex Johnston, and Bell’s Chief Engineer, Robert Morris Stanley, had determined that a properly prepared Bell P-39 Airacobra could outrun and outfly a North American Aviation P-51 Mustang in the Thompson race.

A Bell Aircraft mechanic was sent to inspect surplus P-39s in storage at Ponca City, Oklahoma. He selected two nearly-new P-39Q Airacobras, each with less than 50 hours flight time. Woolams and Johnston paid $3,000 for the two fighters and they were flown back to the Bell plant at Buffalo, New York.

Jack Woolams’ Cobra I was a P-39Q-10-BE, U.S. Army Air Corps serial number 42-20733. Tex Johnston’s Cobra II was also a P-39Q-10-BE, 42-20869 (Bell serial number 26E-324).

The Bell P-39 Airacobra was a single-engine, single-place low-wing monoplane with retractable tricycle landing gear. An Allison V-1710 V-12 engine was mounted behind the cockpit in an unusual mid-engine configuration, with a drive shaft passing under the cockpit floor and turning the propeller through a remotely-mounted 1.8:1 gear reduction unit. This allowed the fighter to be armed with a large 37 mm autocannon which fired through the propeller hub.

Bell P-39Q-20-BE Airacobra 44-3887 at the National Museum of the United States Air Force)

The P-39Q was the final production version of the Airacobra. It was 30 feet, 2 inches (9.195 meters) long with a wingspan of 34 feet, 0 inches (10.363 meters) overall height of 12 feet, 5 inches (3.785 meters). The wings’ angle of incidence was +2° and there was 4° 0′ dihedral. The total wing area was 213 square feet (19.78 square meters). The horizontal stabilizer had +2° 15′ incidence and no dihedral.   The P-39Q had an empty weight of 5,692 pounds (2,704 kilograms), and maximum gross weight of 8,350 pounds (3,787 kilograms).

The production P-39Q was powered by a liquid-cooled, supercharged, 1,710.597-cubic-inch-displacement (28.032 liter) Allison Engineering Company V-1710-E19 (V-1710-85) single overhead camshaft (SOHC) 60° V-12 engine with four valves per cylinder and a compression ratio of 6.65:1. The V-1710-85 had a continuous power rating of 810 horsepower at 2,600 r.p.m. at Sea Level, and 1,000 horsepower at 2,600 r.p.m. at 14,000 feet (4,267 meters). The engine’s takeoff power rating was 1,200 horsepower at 3,000 r.p.m., and its military power rating was 1,125 horsepower at 3,000 r.p.m., at 14,600 feet (4,450 meters). 100/130 octane aviation gasoline was required. The Allison drove a three-bladed Aeroproducts Division A632S-C1 hydraulically-operated constant-speed propeller with a diameter of 11 feet, 7 inches (3.531 meters) through a 2.23:1 gear reduction. The V-1710-85 was 16 feet, 2.00 inches (4.928 meters) long, 3 feet, 1.56 inches (0.954 meters) high, and 2 feet, 5.28 inches (0.744 meters) wide. It weighed 1,435 pounds (651 kilograms).

Cutaway illustration showing the unusual mid-engine arrangement of the Bell P-39 Airacobra. (Allison Division of General Motors)

The Bell P39Q-10-BE had a maximum speed of 385.0 mph (619.6 kilometers per hour) at 11,000 feet (3,353 meters). Its service ceiling was 34,300 feet (10,455 meters), absolute ceiling, 35,700 feet (10,881 meters), and its range was 1,075 miles (1,730 kilometers).

The P-39Q was armed with one Browning M4 37 mm autocannon with 30 rounds of explosive ammunition, and four Browning AN-M2 .50-caliber machine guns, with two in the nose with 200 rounds per gun, and one mounted under each wing in pods with 300 rounds per gun. The M4 cannon fired a 1.34 pound (608 grams) high-explosive shell at 2,000 feet per second (610 meters per second). The gun had a rate of fire of 150 rounds per minute.

The Bell Aircraft Corporation built 9,558 P-39s. 4,905 of these were P-39Qs. 705 were the P-39Q-10-BE variant.

Jack Woolams (left) and Tex Johnston pose with their air racers, Cobra I and Cobra II, at the Bell Aircraft Corporation plant, August 1946. (airrace,com)

Bell Aircraft provided hangar space for the two Airacobras, and assigned an engineer and five mechanics to the project. Cobra I was painted red with black accents. It was issued Civil Aeronautics Administration experimental registration NX92847. Its race number, 75, was painted on the wings and fuselage. Cobra II was painted yellow with black trim, and registered NX92848. Its race number was 84.

Both airplanes were stripped of armament, armor and self-sealing fuel tanks. The landing gear was modified to reduce its retraction time from 22 seconds to just 4 seconds. The standard fabric-covered ailerons, rudder and elevators were covered with sheet aluminum. Adjustable trim tabs were deleted. Gyroscopic instruments were removed. The pitot tube was moved from the left wing tip and placed on a long boom projecting through the propeller hub. Thin, light-weight Goodyear fuel bladders were installed, not only reducing weight, but increasing the Airacobras’ fuel capacity by 10%. The roll-down side windows of the P-39 were replaced by fixed Plexiglas panels.

Bell P-39Q-10-BE NX92848, Cobra II, Tex Johnston’s Thompson Trophy Race winner. (San Diego Air and Space Museum Archives)

Engineers at Allison recommended that a modified Allison XV-1710-135 (E31) engine be used for the two racers. The modified engines used an increased-diameter supercharger impeller and undersized pistons to reduce cylinder wall friction. Using 140-octane Mobil aviation gasoline, they produced 2,000 horsepower at 3,200 r.p.m. with 86 inches (291 kilopascals) of manifold pressure. The high power output required that the engine be provided with a continuous injection of a precisely-measured water and ethyl/methyl alcohol solution when operating above 57 inches (193 kilopascals) of manifold pressure. An 85 gallon (322 liter) tank for the injection mixture was placed in the nose.

Tex Johnston’s Thompson Trophy-winning Bell P39Q Airacobra, “Cobra II.” (San Diego Air and Space Museum Archives)

The increased power of the modified XV-1710-135 required that the P-39’s standard three-bladed propeller be replaced by a four-bladed unit from the P-63 Kingcobra. This was an Aeroproducts A624S constant-speed propeller with hollow steel blades. Its diameter was 11 feet, 0 inches (3.531 meters). The propeller gear reduction ratio remained the same, at 2.23:1, as did the remote gear box, at 1.8:1.

Allison V-1710-E19 (V-1710-85) with extension drive shaft and remote propeller drive gear unit. (Allison Division of General Motors)

The V-1710-E31 was longer and heavier than the -E19 because of an outboard reduction gear box. It was 17 feet, 4.00 inches (5.283 meters) long, 3 feet, 0.75 inches (0.933 meters) high, with the same 2 foot, 5.28 inch (0.744 meters) width. It weighed 1,500 pounds (680 kilograms).

Jack Woolams’ P-39 Cobra I leads a P-51D Mustang around a pylon turn during qualifying, August 1946. (LIFE Magazine via Jet Pilot Overseas)

When race qualifications were held, Tex Johnston was placed first with his yellow Cobra II. His average speed was 409.091 mph (658.368 kilometers per hour). George Welch was second with his P-51D, number 37. Jack Woolams and Cobra I were third.

Jack Valentine Woolams, Chief Experimental Test Pilot, Bell Aircraft Corporation. (John Trudell/Ancestry)

Jack Valentine Woolams was killed on 30 August, two days before the race, when his Cobra I crashed into Lake Ontario while returning to the Bell plant for an engine change. The Airacobra’s windshield may have collapsed at over 400 miles per hour (644 kilometers per hour).

The Thompson Trophy Race was held on Sunday, 1 September 1946. Tex Johnston, leading the field, took off and retracted his landing gear, climbing to 300 feet (91 meters). As he approached the first turn, he rolled Cobra II into a 4G turn (75.5° angle of bank) and dove to 60 feet (18 meters). As he made the turn, he was already pulling far ahead of the other racers.

George Welch dropped out when his Merlin engine began overheating. Tony LeVier’s P-38 Lightning, race number 3, held on to second place. By the ninth lap, Tex Johnston was passing the airplanes at the back of the field.

On the final turn, Johnston rolled into a 90° bank, and at only 50 feet (15 meters) above the ground, passed inside a Bell P-63 Kingcobra at 430 miles per hour (692 kilometers per hour) to win the race. His average speed for the ten laps was 373.908 mph (601.746 kilometers per hour).

After winning the 1946 Thompson Trophy Race, test pilot Tex Johnston kisses his wife, DeLores. (LIFE Magazine via Jet Pilot Overseas.)
Tex Johnston with the Thompson Trophy, 1946 National Air Races, Cleveland, Ohio. (LIFE Magazine)

Tony LeVier and his Lightning were in second place at 370.193 mph (595.768 kilometers per hour). Finishers 3, 4 and 5 were P-51D Mustangs. Number 6 was the lone FG-1D Corsair, followed by another P-51D. Proving that Woolams, Johnston and Stanley knew their airplane, the final three finishers were the three remaining P-63 Kingcobras.

An oil-streaked, race-winning Bell P-39Q Airacobra, NX92848, Tex Johnston’s Cobra II. The modified Allison engine’s undersized pistons allowed excessive blow-by. (San Diego Air and Space Museum Archives)

Cobra II competed in the 1947 Thompson Trophy Race. Flown by Bell Aircraft Corp. test pilot Gerald A. (“Jay”) Demming, and carrying the race number 11, it finished in third place behind two Goodyear F2G-1 Super Corsairs. Demming’s average speed was 367.625 miles per hour (591.635 kilometers per hour).

In the 1948 Thompson race, Cobra II, still carrying the number 11, was flown by Charles Brown. For this year, the race was twenty laps of a shorter, 15 mile (24.1 kilometer) course. Cobra II had qualified in first place with an average speed of 418.300 miles per hour (673.189 kilometers per hour). Brown led the race for 18 laps. His highest speed for a single lap was 413.907 miles per hour (666.119 kilometers per hour). He had to land, though, when the modified Allison engine began losing power. The race was won by a P-51D Mustang.

Bell P-39Q-10-BE Airacobra NX92849
Cobra II at the 1947 National Air Races, with race number 11. It was flown in the Thompson Trophy race by Bell test pilot Jay Demming, who placed third. (SDASM)

The history of Cobra II is elusive until it was purchased by Ed Maloney in 1960. It was sold to Michael D. Carroll in 1967. Carroll was the owner of Signal Trucking Co., and lived in Palos Verdes, California. The Airacobra was now registered N9824. Carroll had the airplane’s wings shortened by 4 feet per side (1.2 meters), and renamed it Cobra III.

On 10 August 1968, Carroll and Cobra III took of from Long Beach Airport (LGB), enroute to Orange County Airport (SNA), at nearby Santa Ana, California. At 11:15 a.m., the racer crashed at the Seal Beach Naval Weapons Station. Carroll bailed out, but his parachute did not open and he was killed. His body was located 125 feet (38 meters) from the wreckage. There was no post-crash fire. Lieutenant Commander Jack Kellicott, U.S. Navy, said that the airplane had run out of fuel.

Tex Johnston left Bell Aircraft Corporation and moved on to Boeing in Seattle, initially testing the swept-wing XB-47 Stratojet. He made the first flights of the YB-52 and XB-52 Stratofortress; the Model 367-80 (the “Dash 80”), which he notoriously rolled over Lake Washington, 6 August 1955; the KC-135A Stratotanker; and the Model 707 airliner. As Boeing’s Chief of Flight Test, Tex Johnston set the standard by which modern flight testing is carried out.

Alvin Melvin (“Tex”) Johnston, Chief of Flight Test. (The Boeing Company)

Highly recommended: Tex Johnston, Jet-Age Test Pilot, by A.M. “Tex” Johnston with Charles Barton, Smithsonian Books, Washington, D.C., 1991

© 2018, Bryan R. Swopes

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