Tag Archives: Aircraft Accident

14 December 1931

Sir Douglas Robert Stewart Bader, 12 May 1970,by Godfrey Argent, 12 May 1970. (© National Portrait Gallery, London)
Group Captain Sir Douglas Robert Steuart Bader, CBE, DSO and Bar, DFC and Bar, FRAeS, DL,  photographed by Godfrey Argent, 12 May 1970. (© National Portrait Gallery, London)

“On 14 December 1931, Douglas Bader flew to Woodley airfield near Reading. After lunch someone said, ‘I bet you won’t roll at nought feet.’ Bader did, and the graceful little Bulldog ended up in a shapeless ball of twisted metal. After hovering at death’s door Bader lost both legs. At Cranwell he remembered the Commandant had admonished him, ‘The RAF needs men, not schoolboys.’ Now he was neither, and the RAF would not need him anymore.”

Duel of Eagles by Group Captain Peter Wooldridge Townsend, CVO, DSO, DFC and Bar, RAF, Castle Books, Edison, New Jersey, 2003. Chapter 6 at Page 82.

Left to right, Pilot Officer Douglas R.S. Bader, Flight Lieutenant Harry Day and Flying Officer Geoffrey Stephenson during training for the 1932 Hendon Airshow, with a Bristol Bulldog. (RAF Museum)
Left to right, Pilot Officer Douglas R.S. Bader, Flight Lieutenant Harry Day and Flying Officer Geoffrey Stephenson during training for the 1932 Hendon Airshow, with a Bristol Bulldog. (RAF Museum)

Pilot Officer Douglas R.S. Bader, Royal Air Force, caught the wingtip of his Bristol Bulldog Mk.IIA, K-1676, and crashed at Woodley Aerodrome, approximately four miles east of Reading, Berkshire, England. The airplane was damaged beyond repair. Bader suffered major injuries requiring amputation of his right leg, followed by amputation of his left leg several days later. He was fitted with prosthetic legs with which he was soon able to walk without assistance. Pilot Officer Bader was medically retired and received a 100% disability pension.

Bristol Bulldog Mk.IIA K-1676. This is the airplane that Douglas Bader was flying when he crashed at Woodley, 14 December 1931. (Royal Air Force)
Bristol Bulldog Mk.IIA K-1675. This is a sister ship of the airplane that Douglas Bader was flying when he crashed at Woodley Aerodrome, 14 December 1931. (Royal Air Force)

In 1939, feeling that war with Germany was imminent, Bader applied to the Air Ministry for reinstatement. He was turned down, but was told that if there was a war his request might be reconsidered.

The Air Ministry did reconsider Douglas Bader’s request for reinstatement and after a medical evaluation and other tests, he was sent to refresher flight training where he was evaluated as “Exceptional,” a very rare qualification.

A page from Douglas bader's pilot log book, showing his "exceptional' evaluation. (Royal Air Force Museum)
A page from Douglas Bader’s pilot log book, showing his “Exceptional” evaluation. (Royal Air Force Museum)

Group Captain Sir Douglas R. S. Bader, Royal Air Force, CBE, DSO and Bar, DFC and Bar, FRAeS, DL, a legendary fighter pilot of the Royal Air Force in World War II, was born at St. John’s Wood, London, England. He joined the Royal Air Force in 1928 as a cadet at the Royal Air Force College Cranwell and was commissioned as a Pilot Officer in 1930.

Credited with more than 20 aerial victories while flying Hawker Hurricane and Supermarine Spitfire fighters, Bader was himself shot down while flying his Supermarine Spitfire Mk Va, serial W3185, marked “D B”. His prosthetic legs caught in the cockpit and made it difficult for him to escape, but he finally broke free and parachuted to safety.

Bader was captured and held as a prisoner of war. He was initially held at a hospital in occupied France and it was there that he met and became a life long friend of Adolf Galland, also a legendary fighter pilot—but for the other side! After arrangements were made for replacement legs, Bader escaped. He was recaptured and taken to the notorious Offizierslager IV-C at Colditz Castle where he was held for three years.

Douglas Bader is the subject of Reach For The Sky, a biography by Paul Brickhill, and a movie based on that book which starred Kenneth More.

Sir Douglas was invested Knight Bachelor, 12 June 1976, for his service to the disabled. He died suddenly of a heart attack, 5 September 1982.

Douglas Bader with a Hawker Hurricane of No. 242 Squadron.
Douglas Bader with a Hawker Hurricane of No. 242 Squadron, September 1940. Photograph by F/O S. A. Devon, Royal Air Force. © IWM (CH 1406)

The Bristol Type 105 Bulldog was a single-place, single-engine biplane fighter which served with the Royal Air Force from 1928 to 1938. It was constructed of a riveted framework of rolled steel strips. The forward fuselage was covered with light weight sheet metal, while the wings and aft fuselage were covered with doped fabric. The Bulldog Mk.IIA was 25 feet, 2 inches (7.671 meters) long with a wingspan of 33 feet, 10 inches (10.312 meters) and height of 8 feet, 9 inches (2.667 meters). It had and empty weight of 2,222 pounds (1,008 kilograms) and maximum takeoff weight of 3,660 pounds (1,660 kilograms).

The Bristol Bulldog Mk.IIA was powered by a 1,752.79-cubic-inch-displacement (28.72 liter) air-cooled, supercharged Bristol Jupiter VIIF nine-cylinder radial engine which was rated at 440 horsepower up to 12,000 feet (3,658 meters). This was a left-hand tractor engine which drove a wooden two-bladed fixed-pitch propeller through a 2:1 gear reduction.

The airplane had a maximum speed of 174 miles per hour (280 kilometers per hour) at 10,000 feet (3,048 meters) and a service ceiling of 29,300 feet (8,931 meters).

The Bristol Bulldog Mk.IIA was armed with two synchronized Vickers .303-caliber machine guns with 600 rounds of ammunition per gun.

Bristol Bulldog Mk.IIA K-2227, the same type airplane flown by Pilot Officer Bader when he crashed 14 December 1931. K-2227 is in the collection of the Royal Air Force Museum. (Unattributed)
Bristol Bulldog Mk.IIA K-2227, the same type airplane flown by Pilot Officer Bader when he crashed 14 December 1931. K-2227 is in the collection of the Royal Air Force Museum. (Royal Air Force)

© 2016, Bryan R. Swopes

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11 December 1941

Pilot Officer John Gillespie Magee, Jr., Royal Canadian Air Force.

11 December 1941: Pilot Officer John Gillespie Magee, Jr., Royal Canadian Air Force, an American serving in England before the United States entered World War II, was killed when his Supermarine Spitfire collided with another airplane in clouds over the village of Roxholm, Lincolnshire, England. He was only 19 years old.

Magee was born in China, the son of Anglican missionaries. His father was an American, giving him American citizenship, and his mother was from England. He was educated in the missionary schools until 1931 when his mother took him to England to continue his education at the Rugby School in Wawickshire.

In 1939, Magee traveled to the United States to visit his father’s family in Pittsburgh, but because of the outbreak of World War II, he was unable to return to England. While in America, he continued his schooling at the Old Avon Farms School in Connecticut and won a scholarship to Yale University.

Group Captain Wilfred A. Curtiss presents pilot’s wings to Pilot Officer John Gillespie Magee, Jr., at Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, 14 April 1941. (Royal Canadian Air Force)

Instead of studying at Yale, in 1941, John Magee enlisted in the Royal Canadian Air Force. After completing flight training, he was sent to England. Once there he went through operational training in the Supermarine Spitfire and was assigned to No. 412 (Fighter) Squadron at RAF Digby, Scopwick Heath, and then at RAF Wellingore, Navenby, both in Lincolnshire.

Pilot Officer John Gillespie Magee, Jr., in the cockpit of his Supermarine Spitfire, No. 412 Squadron, Royal Canadian Air Force.
Pilot Officer John Gillespie Magee, Jr., in the cockpit of a Supermarine Spitfire, No. 412 Squadron, Royal Canadian Air Force.

At approximately 11:30 a.m., 11 December 1941, Pilot Officer Magee was flying his Supermarine Spitfire Mk.Vb, AD291, squadron markings VZ-H. He and three other pilots from No. 412 Squadron descended through a hole in the clouds. At 1,400 feet (427 meters), Magee’s Spitfire collided with an Airspeed A.S. 10 Oxford twin-engine trainer, T1052.

A witness said that he saw the Spitfire pilot struggle to open the airplane’s canopy, then stand up in the cockpit and jump from the doomed fighter. The pilot was too close to the ground for his parachute to open.

Both airplanes crashed. Pilot Officer John Gillespie Magee, Jr. was killed, as was the pilot of the other airplane, Leading Aircraftman Ernest Aubrey Griffin.

Pilot Officer John Gillespie Magee, Jr., No. 412 Squadron, Royal Canadian Air Force

Pilot Officer Magee is best known for his poem, High Flight:

Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth 
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings; 
Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth 
of sun-split clouds,—and done a hundred things 
You have not dreamed of—wheeled and soared and swung 
High in the sunlit silence. Hov’ring there, 
I’ve chased the shouting wind along, and flung 
My eager craft through footless halls of air. . . . 

Up, up the long, delirious, burning blue 
I’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace 
Where never lark nor ever eagle flew— 
And, while with silent lifting mind I’ve trod 
The high untrespassed sanctity of space, 
Put out my hand, and touched the face of God

"On Laughter-Silvered Wings", by Keith Ferris, 1995. © by the artist. The original of this painting, depicting John Gillespie Magee’s Supermarine Spitfire, is on loan to the George Bush Presidential Library and Museum, College Station, Texas.
“On Laughter-Silvered Wings”, by Keith Ferris, 1995. © by the artist. The original of this painting, depicting John Gillespie Magee’s Supermarine Spitfire, is on loan to the George Bush Presidential Library and Museum, College Station, Texas.

A less well-know poem by Magee is Per Ardua, written after his first combat mission, 8 November 1941.

(To those who gave their lives to England during the Battle of Britain and
left such a shining example for us to follow, these lines are dedicated.)

They must have climbed the white mists of the morning;
They that have soared, before the world’s awake,
To herald up their foemen to them, scorning
The thin dawn’s rest their weary folk might take;

Some that left other mouths to tell the story
Of high blue battle,—quite young limbs that bled;
How they had thundered up the clouds to glory
Or fallen to an English field stained red;

Because my faltering feet would fail I find them
Laughing beside me, steadying the hand
That seeks their deadly courage—yet behind them
The cold light dies in that once brilliant land …

Do these, who help the quickened pulse run slowly,
Whose stern remembered image cools the brow—
To the far dawn of Victory know only
Night’s darkness, and Valhalla’s silence now?

Supermarine Spitfire F. Mk.Vb R6923 (QJ-S) of No. 92 Squadron, 19 May 1941. © IWM (CH 2929)

John Magee’s fighter was a Supermarine Spitfire F. Mk Vb, built at the Castle Bromwich Aircraft Factory, at Warwickshire, West Midlands, and delivered to the 45th Maintenance Unit at RAF Kinloss, Scotland, on 27 September 1941. The new airplane was assigned to No. 412 Squadron on 14 October.

The Supermarine Spitfire was a single-place, single-engine low-wing monoplane of all-metal construction with retractable landing gear. The fighter had been designed by Reginald Joseph Mitchell CBE. The prototype first flew 5 March 1936.

The Spitfire F. Mk Vb was 29 feet, 11 inches (9.119 meters) long with a wingspan of 36 feet, 10 inches (11.227 meters) and overall height of 11 feet, 5 inches (3.480 meters). It had an empty weight of 4,963 pounds (2,129 kilograms) and gross weight of 6,525 pounds (2,960 kilograms).

The Spitfire Vb was powered a liquid-cooled, supercharged, 1,648.959-cubic-inch-displacement (27.022 liters) Rolls-Royce Merlin 45 single overhead camshaft (SOHC) 60° V-12 engine with a single-speed, single-stage supercharger. It was rated at 1,185 horsepower at 3,000 r.p.m., at 11,500 feet (3,505 meters). The Merlin 45 drove a three-bladed Rotol constant-speed propeller with a diameter of 10 feet, 9 inches (3.277 meters).

The Spitfire Vb had a maximum speed of 371 miles per hour (597 kilometers per hour) at  20,100 feet (6,126 meters). It could reach 20,000 feet (6,096 meters) in 6 minutes, 24 seconds, and 30,000 feet (9,144 meters) in 12 minutes, 12 seconds. The Vb’s service ceiling 37,500 feet (11,430 meters), and its range was 470 miles (756 kilometers).

The Spitfire F. Mk Vb was armed with two 20-milimeter Hispano Mk.II autocannon, with 60 rounds of ammunition per gun, and four Browning .303-caliber Mark II machine guns, with 350 rounds per gun.

Supermarine Spitfire F.Mk Vb,, similar to Magee’s fighter, photographed 19 October 1941. (Royal Canadian Air Force

© 2016, Bryan R. Swopes

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10 December 1963

Colonel Charles E. Yeager, U.S. Air Force, wearing a David Clark Co. A/P22S-2 full-pressure suit, accompanied by Major Ralph N. Richardson of the Aviation Physiology Laboratory, Richardson, walks to a Lockheed NF-104A Aerospace Trainer at Edwards Air Force base. (U.S. Air Force)
Colonel Charles E. Yeager, U.S. Air Force, wearing a David Clark Co. A/P22S-2 full-pressure suit, accompanied by Major Ralph N. Richardson of the Aviation Physiology Laboratory, walks to a Lockheed NF-104A Aerospace Trainer at Edwards Air Force Base. (U.S. Air Force)

10 December 1963: In an attempt to set a world absolute altitude record, Colonel Charles E. (“Chuck”) Yeager, U.S. Air Force, took a Lockheed NF-104A Starfighter Aerospace Trainer, 56-0762, on a zoom climb profile above 100,000 feet (30,480 meters) at Edwards Air Force Base, in the high desert of southern California. This was Colonel Yeager’s fourth attempt at the record.

Colonel Charles E. Yeager, U.S. Air Force, in the cockpit of a Lockheed NF-104A Aerospace Trainer, at Edwards Air Force Base, California, 1963. (U.S. Air Force)
Colonel Charles E. Yeager, U.S. Air Force, in the cockpit of a Lockheed NF-104A Aerospace Trainer, at Edwards Air Force Base, California, 1963. (U.S. Air Force)

The zoom climb maneuver was planned to begin with the NF-104A in level flight at 0.85 Mach and 35,000 feet (10,668 meters). The pilot would then accelerate in Military Power and light the afterburner, which increased the J79 turbojet engine’s 9,800 pounds of thrust (43.59 kilonewtons) to 15,000 pounds (66.72 kilonewtons). The modified Starfighter was to continue accelerating in level flight. On reaching Mach 2.2, the Colonel Yeager would ignite the Rocketdyne AR2–3 rocket engine, which burned a mixture of JP-4 and hydrogen peroxide to produce 6,600 pounds of thrust (29.36 kilonewtons).

When the AST reached Mach 2.5, Yeager was to begin a steady 3.5G pull-up until the interceptor was in a 70° climb. At 75,000 feet (22,860 meters), he would shut off the afterburner to avoid exceeding the turbojet’s exhaust temperature (EGT) limits. Yeager would then gradually reduce the jet engine power to idle by 85,000 feet (25,908 meters), and then shut it down. Without the engine running, cabin pressurization would be lost and his A/P22S-2 full-pressure suit would inflate.

One of the three Lockheed NF-104A Starfighter Aerospace Trainers, 56-756, in a zoom-climb with the rocket engine firing. (U.S. Air Force)
One of the three Lockheed NF-104A Starfighter Aerospace Trainers, 56-756, in a zoom-climb with the rocket engine firing. (U.S. Air Force)

The NF-104A would then continue to zoom to an altitude where its aerodynamic control surfaces were no longer functional. It had to be controlled by reaction jets in the nose and wing tips. The pilot had to use the reaction control thrusters to pitch the AST’s nose down before reentering the atmosphere, so that it would be in a -70° dive. The windmill effect of air rushing into the intakes was used to restart the jet engine.

Yeager’s NF-104A out of control. This is a still frame from cine film shot at a distance of 20 miles (32 kilometers). (U.S. Air Force)

The 10 December flight did not proceed as planned. Chuck Yeager reached a peak altitude of approximately 108,000 feet (32,918 meters), nearly two miles (3.2 kilometers) lower than the record altitude set by Major Robert W. Smith just four days earlier.

On reentry, Yeager had the Starfighter incorrectly positioned with only a -50° nose-down pitch angle, rather than the required -70°.

The Starfighter entered a spin.

Without air flowing through the engine intakes because of the spin, Yeager could not restart the NF-104’s turbojet engine. Without the engine running, he had no hydraulic pressure to power the aerodynamic flight control surfaces. He was unable to regain control the airplane. Yeager rode the out-of-control airplane down 80,000 feet (24,384 meters) before ejecting.

The data recorder would later indicate that the airplane made fourteen flat spins from 104,000 until impact on the desert floor.  I stayed with it through thirteen of those spins before I punched out. I hated losing an expensive airplane, but I couldn’t think of anything else to do. . . I went ahead and punched out. . . .”

Yeager, An Autobiography, by Brigadier General Charles E. Yeager, U.S. Air Force (Retired) and Leo Janos, Bantam Books, New York, 1985, at Pages 279–281.

NF-104A 56-762 crashed at N. 35° 7′ 25″,  W. 118° 8′ 50″, about one mile (1.6 kilometers) north of the intersection of State Route 14 and State Route 58, near California City. The airplane was completely destroyed.

Chuck Yeager was seriously burned by the ejection seat’s internal launch rocket when he was struck by the seat which was falling along with him.

This incident was dramatized in the 1983 movie, “The Right Stuff,” (based on Tom Wolfe’s book of the same title), with Yeager portrayed by actor Sam Shepard.

Actor Sam Shepard portrayed Colonel Charles E. Yeager in the 1983 movie, "The Right Stuff", written and directed by Philip Kaufman for The Ladd Company, and based on the book by Tom Wolfe. The airplane behind Mr. Shepard is a Fokker-built F-104G Starfighter, 63-13269.
Actor Sam Shepard portrayed Colonel Charles E. Yeager in the 1983 movie, “The Right Stuff”, written and directed by Philip Kaufman for The Ladd Company, and based on the book by Tom Wolfe. The airplane behind Mr. Shepard is a Fokker-built F-104G Starfighter, 63-13269. (Warner Bros.)

56-762 was a Lockheed F-104A-10-LO Starfighter, one of three taken from storage at The Boneyard at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Tucson, Arizona, and sent to Lockheed for modification to Aerospace Trainers (ASTs).

These utilized a system of thrusters for pitch, roll and yaw control at altitudes where the standard aerodynamic control surfaces could no longer control the aircraft. This was needed to give pilots some experience with the reaction control system for flight outside the Earth’s atmosphere.

The F-104A vertical fin was replaced with the larger fin and rudder from the two-place F-104B for increased stability. The wings were lengthened for installation of the Reaction Control System. The fiberglass nosecone was replaced by an aluminum skin for the same reason. The interceptor’s radar and M61 Vulcan cannon were removed and tanks for rocket fuel and oxidizers, nitrogen, etc., installed in their place. The standard afterburning General Electric J79-GE-3B turbojet engine remained, and was supplemented by a Rocketdyne AR2–3 liquid-fueled rocket engine which produced 6,600 pounds of thrust for up to 100 seconds.

On 13 December 1958, prior to its modification to an AST, Lockheed F-104A-10-LO Starfighter 56-762 was flown by 1st Lieutenant Einar K. Enevoldson, USAF, to seven Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI) time-to-altitude world records at Naval Air Station Point Mugu, Californa (NTD).

Wreckage of Lockheed NF-104A 56-762, 10 December 1963. (U.S. Air Force)
Wreckage of Lockheed NF-104A 56-762, 10 December 1963. (U.S. Air Force)

© 2016, Bryan R. Swopes

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7 December 1936

Boeing YB-17 36-149 nosed over on landing at Seattle, 7 December 1936. (Unattributed)
Boeing YB-17 36-149 nosed over on landing at Seattle, 7 December 1936. (Unattributed)
Lieutenant Colonel Stanley Umstead
Lieutenant Colonel Stanley Umstead

7 December 1936: On landing at Boeing Field, Seattle, Washington, after its third test flight, the first Boeing YB-17, 36-149, nosed over. The pilot was Lieutenant Colonel Stanley M. Umstead, U.S. Army Air Corps, who was considered to be the Army’s most experienced and capable pilot.

When the airplane touched down, the main wheels locked and after skidding a short distance, the B-17 nosed over. The bomber’s brakes had welded. No injuries were reported. 36-149 suffered moderate damage.

Boeing repaired the bomber. On 11 January 1937, the YB-17 was  flown to Wright Field, Dayton, Ohio, for continued testing. 36-149 was then assigned to the 2nd Bombardment Group at Langley Field, Virginia, 1 March 1937. In October 1940 the bomber was transferred to the 19th Bombardment Group at March Field, California. On 11 February 1942 it was transferred to the Air Park at Amarillo Army Air Field, a B-17 training base in Texas. 36-149 was written off 11 December 1942.

A contemporary newspaper article reported the incident:

Landing from a test flight in Seattle, Wash., the new 16 ton army bombing plane YB-17 nosed over and was badly damaged. Capt. E.R. McReynolds, an army air corps observer who was aboard, said the air brakes locked, preventing the landing wheels from rolling when the plane touched the ground. It was reported subsequently in Washington, D.C. that the accident might result in suspending construction of 13 bombing planes of similar type pending an investigation. The YB-17, largest land plane ever built in America, was designed to carry a ton of bombs and had a cruising range of 3,000 miles.

Chicago Sunday Tribune, 13 December 1936, Part 2, Page 8, Column 8.

Boeing YB-17 resting on its nose after brakes locked while landing. —LIFE Magazine, 21 December 1935, at page 15
Boeing YB-17 36-149 resting on its nose after its brakes locked while landing. —LIFE Magazine, 21 December 1936, at page 15.

The YB-17 had several improvements over the Model 299, which was retroactively designated XB-17. There was a long carburetor intake on top of the engine nacelles which visually distinguishes the YB-17 from the follow-on YB-17A. The main landing gear has one strut rather than the two of the Model 299.

The Boeing Model 299B, designated YB-17 by the Army Air Corps, was 68 feet, 4 inches (20.828 meters) long with a wingspan of 103 feet, 9 inches (31.633 meters) and the overall height was 18 feet, 4 inches (5.588 meters). It had an empty weight of 24,465 pounds (11,097 kilograms), gross weight of 34,880 pounds (15,821 kilograms) and maximum takeoff weight of 42,600 pounds (19,323 kilograms).

Instead of the Pratt & Whitney engines installed on the 299, the YB-17 had four air-cooled, supercharged 1,823.129-cubic-inch-displacement (29.875 liter) Wright Aeronautical Division Cyclone 9 R-1820G5 (R-1820-39) nine-cylinder radial engines with a compression ratio of 6.45:1. They turned three-bladed Hamilton Standard constant-speed propellers through a 16:11 gear reduction drive, in order to match the engines’ effective power range with the propellers. The R-1820-39 was rated at 805 horsepower at 2,100 r.p.m., at Sea Level, and 930 horsepower at 2,200 r.p.m., at Sea Level, for takeoff. The R-1820-39 was 45-7/16 inches (1.154 meters) long and 54¼ inches (1.378 meters) in diameter, and weighed 1,198 pounds (543.4 kilograms).

The cruise speed was 217 miles per hour (349 kilometers per hour) and the maximum speed was 256 miles per hour (412 kilometers per hour) at 14,000 feet (4,267 meters). Its service ceiling was 30,600 feet (9,327 meters) and the maximum range was 3,320 miles (5,343 kilometers).

The YB-17 could carry 8,000 pounds (3,629 kilograms) of bombs. Defensive armament consisted of five .30-caliber air-cooled machine guns.

Boeing YB-17 36-139 after landing accident, 7 December 1936.
Boeing YB-17 36-149 after landing accident, 7 December 1936. (Unattributed)

© 2016, Bryan R. Swopes

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1 December 1984

NASA 833, a remotely-piloted Boeing 720 airliner, pulls up after a practice approach to the impact point on Rogers Dry Lake. The "X" is the planned touchdown point. The "rhino" barriers are at the runway threshold. (NASA)
NASA 833, a remotely-piloted Boeing 720 airliner, pulls up after a practice approach to the impact point on Rogers Dry Lake. The “X” is the planned touchdown point. The “rhino” barriers are at the runway threshold. (NASA)

After four years of planning and preparation, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) intentionally crashed a Boeing 720 airliner to test an experimental fuel additive intended to reduce post-crash fires, and to assess passenger survivability. An anti-misting agent was added to standard commercial JP-5 jet fuel to create AMK, or “Anti-Misting Kerosene.” The airliner’s fuel tanks were filled with the AMK mixture, totaling 16,060 gallons (10,794 liters). Instrumented crash test dummies were placed in the passengers seats.

NASA 833, the Boeing 720-027 airliner, FAA registration N833NA, was a remotely-piloted aircraft. NASA test pilot Fitzhugh Lee (“Fitz”) Fulton, Jr., flew NASA 833 from a ground station, the NASA Dryden Remotely Controlled Vehicle Facility. More than 60 flights had been made prior to the actual test.

Fitz Fulton in the CID.
Fitz Fulton in the NASA Dryden Remotely Controlled Vehicle Facility

The test was planned so that the airliner would make a shallow 3.8° approach to a prepared runway on the east side of Rogers Dry Lake at Edwards Air Force Base. It was to land on its belly in a wings-level attitude, then slide into a group of barriers, called “rhinos,” which would slice open the wing tanks. The fuselage and passenger cabin would remain intact. NASA and the FAA estimated that this would be “survivable” for all occupants.

Just before touchdown, the Boeing 720 entered a "Dutch roll." The airliner's nose yawed to the left and the left wing dipped, striking the ground sooner than was planned. All four engines are still at full throttle. NASA 833 is to the right of the runway center line. (NASA)
Just before touchdown, the Boeing 720 entered a “Dutch roll.” The airliner’s nose yawed to the left and the left wing dipped, striking the ground sooner than was planned. All four engines are still at full throttle. NASA 833 is to the right of the runway center line. (NASA)

As the Boeing 720 descended on its Final Approach, its nose yawed to the right and the airplane went to the right of the runway center line. It then yawed back to the left and entered an out-of-phase oscillation called a “Dutch roll.” The decision height to initiate a “go-around” was 150 feet (45.7 meters) above the surface of the lake bed. Fitz Fulton thought he had enough time to get NASA 833 back on the center line and committed to the test landing. However, the Dutch roll resulted in the airliner’s left wing impacting the ground with the inboard engine on the left wing (Number Two) just to the right of the center line.

NASA 833 slews left as it approaches the test apparatus. The Boeing 720 has reached the intended touchdown point but is out of position, still to the right of center line and misaligned. (NASA)
NASA 833 slews left as it approaches the test apparatus. The Boeing 720 has reached the intended touchdown point but is out of position, still to the right of center line and misaligned. (NASA)

According to the test plan, all four of the airliner’s engines should have been brought to idle, but they remained at full throttle. The left wing’s impact yawed the airliner to the left and, rather than the fuselage passing through the rhino barriers undamaged, the passenger compartment was torn open. Another rhino sliced into the Number Three engine (inboard, right wing), opening its combustion chamber. With the fuel tanks in the wings ruptured, raw fuel was sprayed into the engine’s open combustion chamber which was still at full throttle.

 As the airliner slides through the "rhino" barriers, they rip open the fuel tanks, the Number Three engine and the passenger compartment. The raw fuel immediately ignited. (NASA)
As the airliner slides through the “rhino” barriers, they rip open the fuel tanks, the Number Three engine and the passenger compartment. The raw fuel immediately ignited. (NASA)

The raw fuel ignited and exploded into a fireball. Flames immediately entered the passenger compartment. As the 720 slid on the runway it continued to rotate left and the right wing broke off though the fuselage remained upright.

NASA 833's right wing breaks off, rupturing the fuel tanks. Nearly 8,000 gallons (30,000 liters) of jet fuel pours out into the fireball. (NASA)
NASA 833’s right wing breaks off, rupturing the fuel tanks. Nearly 8,000 gallons (30,000 liters) of jet fuel pours out into the fireball. (NASA)

As the right wing came off the ruptured fuel tanks emptied most of the raw fuel directly into the fireball.

The flaming wreckage of NASA 833 slides to a stop on Rogers Dry Lake. Fire fighters needed more than one hour to extinguish the fire. (NASA)
The flaming wreckage of NASA 833 slides to a stop on Rogers Dry Lake. Fire fighters needed more than one hour to extinguish the fire. (NASA)

Over an hour was required to extinguish the flames. The test of the flame-reducing fuel additive was a complete failure. Test engineers estimated that 25% of the occupants might have survived the crash, however, it was “highly speculative” that any could have escaped from the burning, smoke-filled passenger compartment.

Fithugh L. "Fitz" Fulton, Jr. (NASA)
Fitzhugh Lee “Fitz” Fulton, Jr., with NASA 905, a Shuttle Carrier Aircraft, and Enterprise (OV-101). (NASA)

Fitzhugh Lee Fulton, Jr., was born at Blakely, Georgia, 6 June 1925, the first of two sons of Fitzhugh Lee Fulton, a livestock salesman, and Manila Fulton. He was educated at Alabama Polytechnic Institute (now known as Auburn University) and the University of Oklahoma. He was awarded a bachelor of arts degree from Golden Gate University, San Francisco, California.

Fulton entered the U.S. Army Air Corps in 1943, and was trained as a pilot. He married Miss Erma I. Beck at Tucson, Arizona, 16 December 1945. They would have three children.

Following World War II, participated in Operation Crossroads, the atomic bomb tests at Bikini Atoll, July 1946. Lieutenant Fulton flew the Douglas C-54 Skymaster four-engine transport during the Berlin Airlift, making 225 sorties, and then the Douglas B-26 Invader light attack bomber during the Korean War.

Captain Fitz Fulton, U.S. Air Force, in teh cockpit of a Douglas B-26 Invader, circa 1952. (Air & Space Magazine)
Captain Fitz Fulton, U.S. Air Force, in the cockpit of a Douglas B-26 Invader, circa 1952. (Air & Space Magazine)

Fulton graduated from the Air Force Test Pilot School in 1952. He served as project test pilot for the Convair B-58 Hustler supersonic bomber and flew the B-58 to a World Record Altitude of 26,017.93 meters (85,360.66 feet) on 14 September 1962.¹

Major Fitz Fulton in the cockpit of a Convair B-58. (Jet Pilot Overseas)
Major Fitz Fulton in the cockpit of a Convair B-58. (Jet Pilot Overseas)

At Edwards Air Force Base, he flew the B-52 “mother ships” for the X-15 Program. He flew the North American XB-70A Valkyrie faster than Mach 3. When Fulton retired from the Air Force in 1966, he was a lieutenant colonel assigned as Chief of Bomber and Transport Test Operations.

Fitz Fulton continued as a research test pilot for NASA, flying as project pilot for the YF-12A and YF-12C research program. He flew all the early test flights of the NASA/Boeing 747 Shuttle Carrier Aircraft and carried the space shuttle prototype, Enterprise. By the time he had retired from NASA, Fulton had flown more than 16,000 hours in 235 aircraft types.

Fitzhugh L. Fulton, Jr., died at Thousand Oaks, California, 4 February 2015, at the age of 89 years..

Lieutenant Colonel Fitzhugh Lee Fulton, Jr., with a North American Aviation XB-70A Valkyrie.
Colonel Joseph Frederick Cotton and Lieutenant Colonel Fitzhugh Lee Fulton, Jr., with a North American Aviation XB-70A Valkyrie.

NASA 833 (c/n 18066) was ordered by Braniff Airways, Inc., as N7078, but the sale was not completed. The airplane first flew 5 May 1961 and it was delivered to the Federal Aviation Administration as a test aircraft one week later, 12 May 1961, registered N113. A few years later the identification was changed to N23, then back to N113, and then once again to N23. In 1982, the Boeing 720 was transferred to NASA to be used in the Controlled Impact Demonstration. At this time it was registered as N2697V. A final registration change was made to N833NA.

NASA 833 at Edwards Air Force Base, prior to the Controlled Impact Demonstration. (Paul)

The Boeing 720 was a variant of the Model 707, intended for short to medium range flights. It had 100 inches (2.54 meters) removed from the fuselage length and improvements were made to the wing, decreasing aerodynamic drag, though it retained the span of the 707.

The Boeing 720 was powered by four Pratt & Whitney Turbo Wasp JT3C-7 turbojet engines, a civil variant of the military J57 series. The 720B was equipped with the more efficient P&W JT3D-1 turbofan engines. The JT3C-7 was a “two-spool” axial-flow engine with a 16-stage compressor (9 low- and 7 high-pressure stages), 8 combustion tubes, and a 3-stage turbine (1 high- and 2 low-pressure stages). It was rated at 12,030 pounds of thrust (53.512 kilonewtons) for takeoff. The JT3D-1 was a dual axial-flow turbofan engine, with a 2-stage fan section 13-stage compressor (6 low- and 7 high pressure stages), 8 combustion chambers and a 4-stage turbine (1 high- and 3 low-pressure stages). This engine was rated at 14,500 pounds of static thrust (64.499 kilonewtons) at Sea Level, and 17,000 pounds (75.620 kilonewtons), with water injection, for takeoff (2½ minute limit). Almost half of the engine’s thrust was produced by the fans. Maximum engine speed was 6,800 r.p.m. (N1) and 10,200 r.p.m. (N2). It was 11 feet, 4.64 inches (3.471 meters) long, 4 feet, 5.00 inches (1.346 meters) wide and 4 feet, 10.00 inches (1.422 meters) high. It weighed 4,165 pounds (1,889 kilograms). The JT3C could be converted to the JT3D configuration during overhaul.

The maximum cruise speed of the Boeing 720 was 611 miles per hour (983 kilometers per hour) and maximum speed was 620 miles per hour (1,009 kilometers per hour). The range at at maximum payload was 4,370 miles (7,033 kilometers).

Boeing built 154 720 and 720B airliners from 1959 to 1967.

The Federal Aviation Administration's Boeing 720-027 N113. (FAA)
The Federal Aviation Administration’s Boeing 720-027 N113. (FAA)

¹ FAI Record File Numbers 14652 and 14656

© 2016, Bryan R. Swopes

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