Tag Archives: Aircraft Accident

17 September 1908

Lt. Thomas E. Selfridge (Robert B. Williams)

17 September 1908: Orville Wright brought his Wright Flyer to Fort Myer, Virginia to demonstrate it to the U.S. Army Signal Corps.  A crowd of approximately 2,500 spectators had gathered to watch the flight.

Lieutenant Thomas Etholen Selfridge, Signal Corps, United States Army, wanted to ride along with Wright and asked to go first. Lieutenant George Sweet, U.S. Navy was scheduled for the first flight, but he and Wright agreed to let Lieutenant Selfridge go. The two men aboard the Wright Flyer made four circuits of the field approximately 150 feet above the ground. The starboard propeller broke and struck the wires supporting the rudder. As the rudder rotated sideways, it caused the airplane to pitch nose down.

Lieutenant Thomas E. Selfridge and Orville Wright aboard the Wright Flyer. (U.S. Air Force)

Orville Wright later described the accident:

“On the fourth round, everything seemingly working much better and smoother than any former flight, I started on a larger circuit with less abrupt turns. It was on the very first slow turn that the trouble began. . . A hurried glance behind revealed nothing wrong, but I decided to shut off the power and descend as soon as the machine could be faced in a direction where a landing could be made. This decision was hardly reached, in fact I suppose it was not over two or three seconds from the time the first taps were heard, until two big thumps, which gave the machine a terrible shaking, showed that something had broken. . . The machine suddenly turned to the right and I immediately shut off the power. Quick as a flash, the machine turned down in front and started straight for the ground. Our course for 50 feet was within a very few degrees of the perpendicular. Lt. Selfridge up to this time had not uttered a word, though he took a hasty glance behind when the propeller broke and turned once or twice to look into my face, evidently to see what I thought of the situation. But when the machine turned head first for the ground, he exclaimed ‘Oh! Oh!’ in an almost inaudible voice.”

The wreck of the Wright Flyer, Fort Myer, Virginia, 17 September 1908. (Library of Congress)

The Wright Flyer struck the ground and both men were seriously injured. Thomas Selfridge suffered a fractured skull. He underwent neurosurgery but died without regaining consciousness. Orville Wright had a broken leg, several broken ribs and an injured hip. He spent seven weeks in the Army hospital.

This was the first fatal accident involving an airplane. Lieutenant Thomas Etholen Selfridge was the first person to die in an airplane accident.

Doctors attend to the unconscious Lieutenant Selfridge following the crash of the Wright Flyer at Fort Myer, Virginia, 17 September 1908. He died later that day. (Library of Congress)

© 2015, Bryan R. Swopes

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16 September 2011

Unlimited Division racer The Galloping Ghost just before impact. The pilot is not visible in the cockpit. (AP photo/Grass Valley Union/Tim O’Brien via The Press Democrat)

16 September 2011: In the late afternoon, six highly-modified World War II-era fighters were competing in a preliminary heat for the Unlimited Division championship of the National Championship Air Races, being held at the Reno-Stead Airport (RST), about 12 miles (19 kilometers) northwest of the central business district of the city of Reno, Nevada. The field elevation is 5,050 feet above Sea Level (1,539 meters). The races were being flown over an 8.4-mile (13.5 kilometers) ovate course, marked by ten pylons. All turns were made to the left.

The competitors for Heat 2A were three North American Aviation P-51D Mustangs, a Goodyear F2G-1 Corsair, a Grumman F8F-2 Bearcat, and two Hawker Sea Furies.

The Galloping Ghost taking off at Reno-Stead Airport in 2010. (Shawna Malvini Redden, the bluest muse)

The Galloping Ghost, race number 177, was flown by its owner, James Kent Leeward. On lap number three, Leeward was 4.5 seconds behind the second-place P-51, Voodoo, and 8.8 seconds behind the heat leader, Strega, also a radically-modified Mustang. The airplane was at approximately 445 knots (512 miles per hour, or 824 kilometers per hour) as it rounded Pylon 8 in a steep left bank.

At 16:24:28.9 Pacific Daylight Time, The Galloping Ghost‘s angle of bank rapidly increased from 73° to 93° in just 0.83 seconds. (The NTSB referred to this as a “left-roll upset.”) (Wake vortices from the leading air racers may have been a factor in this left-roll upset. Investigators found that they could not exclude the possibility.) The air racer, corrected by its pilot’s aileron input, rolled back to the right, but then violently pitched up. The airplane essentially flew itself into an inside loop, then crashed into the ground directly in front of a seating area.

The left elevator trim tab falls away from The Galloping Ghost. (Julia Kirchenbauer, from NTSB Accident Brief AAB-12/01)
177 rolls inverted. The left elevator trim tab is missing. (AP photo/Grass Valley Union/Tim O’Brien via The Press Democrat)
The Galloping Ghost in its final dive. (Ward Howes/The Los Angeles Times)
Impact 1 (Ward Howes/The Los Angeles Times)

The Galloping Ghost was totally destroyed. Jimmy Leeward and 11 spectators were killed, with at at least 69 others injured.

The Galloping Ghost had been built in 1944 as a P-51D-15-NA Mustang, serial number 44-15651, by North American Aviation, Inc., at its Inglewood, California factory. Following World War II, the very low-time fighter was sold off as surplus equipment.

Registered NX79111 and carrying the race number 77, it was flown by Bruce Raymond in the 1946 Thompson Trophy Race, finishing in fourth place. In 1947, Steve Beville flew The Galloping Ghost in the Kendall Trophy Race, finishing in first place with an average speed  of 384.602 miles per hour ( kilometers per hour). He then finished in fourth place in the Thompson race. For the 1948 National Air Races, Bruce Raymond was back in the cockpit of number 77. He finished in fourth place in the SOHIO Trophy Race, first in the Tinnerman Trophy Race, and second in the Thompson. In 1949, Beville again flew 77 in the SOHIO and Thompson Trophy Races, finishing fourth in both.

North American Aviation P-51D-15-NA Mustang NX79111, The Galloping Ghost, photographed in 1948. (Classic War Birds)

The airplane was later raced as Miss Candace and Jeannie.

On 18 September 1970, N79111 crash landed near the Reno-Stead Airport following an engine failure during a race. The P-51 was substantially damaged.

Jimmy Leeward purchased the fighter in July 1983. After racing it for years, the airplane was placed in storage. Then, beginning in 2007, the airplane underwent a series of radical modifications. Some of these were similar to those made to other Unlimited Division racing planes, however, there was no evidence of engineering before, or flight testing, following these mods.

The most obvious modifications were made to the profile of the P-51D’s fuselage. The standard windshield and bubble canopy were removed and replaced by a much smaller unit. This was smoothly faired into a raised dorsal “razorback” which carried aft from the cockpit to the vertical fin. The lower fuselage, with its Meredith Effect radiator scoop and cooling ducts, was completely removed and a new fuselage belly constructed.

The standard Mustang cooling system was replaced by a “boil off” system in the aft fuselage. Rather than radiators which remove heat from the engine coolant by the passage of air, heat exchangers were immersed in a solution of water and methanol. A 150 gallon supply was in a tank in the left wing.

The Mustang’s wings had been shortened from the standard span of 37 feet, 0 inches (11.278 meters) to 28 feet, 10 inches (8.788 meters). The ailerons were each shortened from about 7 feet (2.1 meters) to 3 feet (0.9 meters). The horizontal stabilizer span was shortened from 14 feet, 10-5/32 inches (4.525 meters) to 12 feet, 1 inch (3.683 meters), and its angle of incidence increased from +0.5° to +0.91°. The vertical fin was offset to the right of the airplane’s longitudinal axis, instead of to the left, as built by the factory. The ailerons were not properly adjusted, which required the pilot to use constant pressure to the right on the control stick to keep the wings level.

On the standard Mustang, both elevators are equipped with adjustable trim tabs on their trailing edges, which the pilot uses to adjust the flight controls’ neutral positions. On The Galloping Ghost, the right elevator trim tab had been deactivated, placing increased load on the left trim tab. The elevators and rudder used weighted counterbalances. These, too, had been modified. The total weight for both elevator counterweights had been raised to 53.5 pounds (24.3 kilograms), nearly four times the maximum allowable weight of 13.75 pounds (6.24 kilograms). Similarly, the rudder counterbalance weight was increased to 25 pounds (11.3 kilograms). The maximum allowable weight was 16.6 pounds (7.5 kilograms).

According to its maintenance records, at the time of the accident, N79111 had flown a total of 1,453.6 hours. Its Packard V-1650-9A Merlin V-12 engine had been overhauled to military specifications at 1,428.9 airframe hours. The four-bladed Hamilton Standard 24D50 propeller had just 24.7 hours since new. The modified airplane had an empty weight of 6,474 pounds (2,936.6 kilograms). Accident investigators estimated its weight at the time of the upset as 7,760 pounds (3,202.4 kilograms).

Wrinkles in fuselage of The Galloping Ghost during the first lap of Heat 2A, 16 September 2011. (Florian Schmehl, from NTSB Accident Brief AAB-12/01)

Photographs taken during the first lap showed significant diagonal wrinkles in the fuselage of The Galloping Ghost, just behind the right wing, which were not present before the race started. A photograph taken during the third lap showed similar wrinkles on the left side of the fuselage. It is apparent that the modifications to the Mustang’s fuselage had significantly weakened its structure.

The left and right elevator trim tabs are attached to their hinges by three screws, each. These are secured by locknuts. NTSB investigators found that two of these screws had broken due to overload during the flight. (One screw was found to have had a pre-existing fatigue fracture.) All of the screws were loose in their locknuts and could easily be turned by hand. All six locknuts were worn beyond limits and were incapable of maintaining torque.

The loose trim tab attachment allowed the trim tabs to flutter because of the aerodynamic loads of very high speed flight. This flutter produced loads beyond the strength of the trim system. These loads caused the linkage to the left tab to break. Without the linkage, flutter increased the movement of the tab beyond its limit and the hinge broke. The left tab moved beyond its normal limit, and caused the the linkage to bend and then fracture. Withe left tab uncontrolled, the flutter was transmitted to the right elevator tab which had been fixed in place with a steel rod. The vibrations caused its fixed link assembly to fracture.

The loss of the downward force which the left trim tab applied to its elevator caused the elevator to move upward. This caused the airplane to violently pitch up. Investigators calculated that Leeward would have been subjected to an acceleration of 17.3 Gs, far beyond human tolerance. He was immediately incapacitated.

With its pilot unconscious and the airplane traveling at such high speed, it went completely out of control. It flew inverted into a “helical” pattern and then, with the Merlin engine still at wide-open throttle, crashed into the ground at a very steep angle.

The National Transportation Safety Board reported:


          The National Transportation Safety Board determines that the probable cause of this accident was the reduced stiffness of the elevator trim tab system that allowed aerodynamic flutter to occur at racing speeds. The reduced stiffness was a result of deteriorated locknut inserts that allowed the trim tab attachment screws to become loose and to initiate fatigue cracking in one screw sometime before the accident flight. Aerodynamic flutter of the trim tabs resulted in a failure of the left trim tab link assembly, elevator movement, high flight loads, and a loss of control. Contributing to the accident were the undocumented and untested major modifications to the airplane and the pilot’s operation of the airplane in the unique air racing environment without adequate flight testing.

—National Transportation Safety Board. 2012. Pilot/Race 177, The Galloping Ghost, North American P-51D, N79111, Reno, Nevada, September 16, 2011. NTSB/AAB-12-01. Washington, DC.

James Kent (“Jimmy”) Leeward with his Unlimited Division racer, The Galloping Ghost. (Marilyn Newton, The Reno-Gazette Journal)

James Kent Leeward was born at Brackenridge, Pennsylvania, 21 October 1936, He was the son of Albert James Leeward and Mary Virginia Leeward. He was educated at the Culver Military Academy, a college-preparatory boarding school at Culver, Indiana. He graduated in 1952.

In July 1959, Leeward married Miss Bette L. Hofacker in Dade County, Florida. They had four children.

At the time of his death, James Kent Leeward was 74 years old.

© 2018, Bryan R. Swopes

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16 September 1931

Supermarine S.6B S.1596 (BAE Systems)

16 September 1931: Flight Lieutenant George Hedley Stainforth of the Royal Air Force High-Speed Flight was flying the second Supermarine S.6B, S.1596, to test an alternate propeller before attempting a 3-kilometer speed record. As he landed on the water following the test flight, his foot became caught in the rudder bar. The S.6B skidded across the surface, and then capsized. Stainforth was able to escape with only minor injuries.

While it was being towed back to the seaplane station at RAF Calshot, the racer sank to the bottom of Southampton Water.

Divers were called in to locate the sunken airplane and to rig it for recovery. The following day, the 17th, a Royal Navy salvage ship recovered the airplane.

Supermarine S.6B S.1596 is hoisted from the sea onto a Royal Navy salvage ship, 17 September 1931. (FLIGHT)

The S.6B had sustained damage to one float and the cockpit, but was otherwise in reasonably good condition. It was returned to the Supermarine works for repairs.

S.1596 was the second of two Vickers-Supermarine S.6B Monoplanes, designed by Reginald Joseph Mitchell, who would later design the legendary Supermarine Spitfire fighter of World War II. The racer was developed from Mitchell’s earlier S.4, S.5 and S.6 Schneider Cup racers, and was built at the Supermarine Aviation Works (Vickers), Ltd., Southampton, on the south coast of England

The Supermarine S.6B was a single-place, single-engine, low-wing monoplane with two fixed pontoons as an undercarriage. It was of all-metal construction and used a high percentage of duralumin, a very hard alloy of aluminum and copper, as well as other elements. The float plane was 28 feet, 10 inches (8.788 meters) long, with a wingspan of 30 feet, 0 inches (9.144 meters) and height of 12 feet, 3 inches (3.734 meters). The wing area was 145 square feet (13,5 square meters). The S.6B had an empty weight of 4,560 pounds (2,068 kilograms) and gross weight of 5,995 pounds (2,719 kilograms).

Supermarine S.6B S.1596 (BAE Systems)

In an effort to achieve the maximum possible speed, aerodynamic drag was eliminated wherever possible. There were no radiator or oil cooler intakes. The wing surfaces were constructed of two thin layers of duralumin with a very small space between them. The engine coolant, a mixture of water and ethylene glycol, was circulated between these layers, which are known as surface radiators. The engine had a high oil consumption rate and the vertical fin was the oil supply tank. The skin panels also served as surface radiators. The fuselage panels were corrugated for strength, and several small parallel passages transferred lubricating oil from the fin tank to the engine, and further cooled the oil.

S.1596 was powered by a liquid-cooled, supercharged, 2,239.327-cubic-inch-displacement (36.696 liter) Rolls-Royce Type R single-overhead-camshaft (SOHC) 60° V-12 engine, number R25. The Type R was a racing engine with 4 valves per cylinder and a compression ration of 6:1. In the 1931 configuration, it produced 2,350 horsepower at 3,200 r.p.m. It used a 0.605:1 reduction gear and turned a Fairey Aviation fixed-pitch airscrew with a diameter of 8 feet, 6 inches (2.591 meters). A special fuel, a mixture of benzol, methanol and acetone with TCP anti-detonation additive, was used. Engine R25 was specially prepared for the 3-kilometer speed runs.

The world record-setting Supermarine S.6B, S.1596, race # 7. (BAE Systems)

George Hedley Stainforth was born at Bromley, Kent, in 23 March 1899, the son of George Staunton Stainforth, a solicitor, and Mary Ellen Stainforth.

Stainforth was a graduate of the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst. On 11 September 1918, Cadet Stainforth was commissioned a Second Lieutenant of Infantry, East Kent Regiment (“The Buffs”), ³ effective 21 August 1918 and then served in France. On 30 March 1923, Lieutenant Stainforth, R.A.R.O., was granted a short service commission as a Flying Officer, Royal Air Force, effective 15 March 1923.

Flying Officer Stainforth married Miss Gladys Imelda Hendy at St. George’s Hanover Square Church, London, in March 1923.

Stainforth was promoted to Flight Lieutenant, 3 July 1928. He was granted a permanent commission in this rank 1 October 1929.

Flight Lieutenant George Hedley Stainforth, 1929. (Stainforth Historical Archive)

In 1929, Stainforth won the King’s Cup Air Race, and on 10 September, set a Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI) World Record for Speed Over a 3 Kilometer Course, averaging 541.10 kilometers per hour (336.22 miles per hour) while flying a Gloster Napier 6 powered by a Napier Lion VIID borad arrow W-12 engine.¹

Stainforth would set another 3-Kilometer world speed record on 29 September 1931, at 655 kilometers per hour (407 miles per hour).² He was the first pilot to fly faster than 400 miles per hour. For this accomplishment, Flight Lieutenant Stainforth was awarded the Air Force Cross, 9 October 1931.

Stainforth was promoted to Squadron Leader with effect from 1 June 1936. On 12 March 1940, he was promoted to the rank of Wing Commander, with effect from 1 March 1940.

During World War II, Wing Commander Stainforth commanded No. 89 Squadron in Egypt. The New York Times reported that he was “the oldest fighter pilot in the Middle East.” On the night of 27–28 September 1942, while flying a Bristol Beaufighter near the Gulf of Suez, Wing Commander George Hedley Stainforth, A.F.C., was killed in action. He was buried at the Ismailia War Memorial Cemetery, Egypt.

Bristol Beaufighter, No. 89 Squadron, Royal Air Force.

¹ FAI Record File Number 11829

² FAI Record File Number 11831

³ “The Buffs” is a reference to the regiment’s uniform colors during the Austrian War of Succession, circa 1744.

© 2018, Bryan R. Swopes

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14 September 2003

Captain Chris Stricklin ejects from his F-16C approximately 140 feet above the ground at Mountain Home AFB, 14 September 2003. (SSgt Bennie J. Davis III, U.S. Air Force)
Captain Chris Stricklin ejects from his F-16C approximately 140 feet (43 meters) above the ground at Mountain Home AFB, 14 September 2003. (Detail from photograph by SSgt Bennie J. Davis III, U.S. Air Force)
Captain Chris R. Stricklin, USAF
Captain Chris R. Stricklin, USAF

14 September 2003: During an air show at Mountain Home Air Force Base, Idaho, Captain Chris R. Stricklin, a member of the U.S. Air Force Air Demonstration Squadron, the Thunderbirds, was flying Thunderbird Six, a solo demonstration aircraft. Thunderbird Six was a General Dynamics F-16C Block 32J Fighting Falcon, serial number 87-0327, a single-seat, single-engine fighter.

Captain Stricklin was performing a “Maximum Climb and Split-S on Takeoff” maneuver, in which the pilot takes off in a maximum climb at 55° nose up to a height of 3,500 feet above the ground, rolls to an inverted position and performs a descending inside half loop. This results in the aircraft returning to level flight in the opposite direction, upright, and at a considerably lower altitude.

Diagram of Split-S maneuver.
Diagram of Split-S maneuver.

During his time with the Thunderbirds, Stricklin had performed this maneuver more than 200 times. This time, though, he mistakenly entered the Split-S at 2,670 feet (814 meters) above the ground—when he should have been at 3,500 feet (1,067 meters) AGL. As he came approached the vertical point in his dive, he realized that he did not have enough altitude to pull out.

Captain Stricklin banked the F-16 so that it was heading away from the crowd of spectators, and when he was just 140 feet (43 meters) above the surface, he ejected from the fighter. 87-0327 impacted the ground 0.8 seconds later and was completely destroyed. The F-16 was valued at $20.4 million.

Captain Stricklin descends by parachute as his F-16 leaves a trail of fire on the runway at Mountain Home AFB. (Still frame from YouTube video at https://youtu.be/ujXnhCfrjX8 )
Captain Stricklin descends by parachute as his F-16 leaves a trail of fire on the runway at Mountain Home AFB. (Still frame from video at https://youtu.be/ujXnhCfrjX8 )
F-16C Block 32J Fighting Falcon 87-0327, 422 TES landing at Nellis AFB 30 March 1989. (Takeshi Imagome via F-16.net)
General Dynamics F-16C Block 32J Fighting Falcon 87-0327, 422nd Test and Evaluation Squadron, landing at Nellis AFB, Nevada, 30 March 1989. It is armed with an AGM-65 Maverick air-to-ground missile. (Takeshi Imagome via F-16.net)

The F-16 was designed to be a highly-maneuverable, light weight air superiority day fighter, but it has evolved into a multi-role fighter/fighter bomber with all weather attack capability. The F-16C is a single-seat, single-engine Mach 2+ fighter. It is 49 feet, 4 inches (15.037 meters) long with a wingspan of 31 feet, 0 inches (9.449 meters) and overall height of 16 feet, 8½ inches (5.093 meters). It has an empty weight of 18,238 pounds (8,272.6 kilograms), a loaded weight of 26,463 pounds (12,003.4 kilograms) and maximum takeoff weight of 42,300 pounds (19,186.9 kilograms).

The F-16C Block 32J is powered by one Pratt & Whitney F100-PW-220 afterburning turbofan engine which produces a maximum of 23,770 pounds of thrust (105.34 kilonewtons).

The Fighting Falcon has a maximum speed of Mach 1.2 at Sea Level, and Mach 2.02 at 40,000 feet (12,192 meters). The service ceiling is higher than 50,000 feet (15,240 meters).

The F-16C is armed with one General Electric M61A1 Vulcan 20 mm 6-barreled Gatling gun with 515 rounds of ammunition, and can carry a wide range of missiles and bombs, including the AIM-9 Sidewinder and AIM-120 AMRAAM air-to-air missiles, and AGM-45 Shrike and AGM-65 Maverick air-to-ground missiles..

Thunderbird Six, an F-16C, 87-0327, seen in February 2001. (F-16.net)
Thunderbird Six, General Dynamics F-16C Block 32J 87-0327, photographed in February 2001. (F-16.net)

This accident ended Striklin’s assignment with the Thunderbirds. He was reassigned as Pilot Career Field Manager, Headquarters, U.S. Air Force.

A 1994 graduate of the United States Air Force Academy, Stricklin went on to earn a Master of Aeronautical Science degree, and later a Master  of Military Operational Art and Science degree from the Air Command and Staff College.

Captain Stricklin was promoted to the rank of major, 1 September 2004. From 2006 to 2007, Major Stricklin was Chief of Fighter Operations, NATO, at Eskisehir Air Base, Turkey. He was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel 1 June 2008. From February 2009 to June 2010, Lieutenant Colonel Stricklin was assigned as Chief of Safety, 14th Flying Training Wing, at Columbus Air Force Base, Mississippi. On 18 June 2010, Lieutenant Colonel Stricklin was assigned to command the 49th Fighter Training Squadron, also at Columbus. After assignments to the White House and the Army War College, Stricklin was assigned to NATO as Chief of Staff, Air Training Command, Kabul, Afghanistan. In June 2014, Lieutenant Colonel Stricklin was assigned as Vice Commander, 9th Reconnaissance Wing, Beale Air Force Base, California. He was promoted to the rank of Colonel, 1 September 2014. He retired from the U.S. Air Force in 2017.

Colonel Chris R. Stricklin, United States Air Force.
Colonel Chris R. Stricklin, United States Air Force. (U.S. Air Force photograph)

© 2018, Bryan R. Swopes

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8 September 1954

Albert Scott Crossfield, NACA Test Pilot. (LIFE Magazine via Jet Pilot Overseas)
Albert Scott Crossfield, NACA Test Pilot. (Allan Grant/LIFE Magazine via Jet Pilot Overseas)

8 September 1954: Scott Crossfield, a NACA Aeronautical Research Pilot at the High Speed Flight Station, Edwards Air Force Base, California, took the North American Aviation F-100A-5-NA Super Sabre, 52-5778, on its first NACA test flight—and his first flight in an F-100.

Tests of the prototype and early production Super Sabres revealed directional stability problems, a very dangerous inertia coupling characteristic that could cause the aircraft to go violently out of control (and which would result in the death of North American’s chief test pilot, George Welch, in just another three weeks). The highly swept wings could stall at high angles of attack, causing the airplane to pitch up in the deadly “Sabre dance”. NACA wanted to explore the causes of these aerodynamic problems and design solutions.

Scott Crossfield pre-flights a North American Aviation F-100A Super Sabre. Note the extended leading-edge "slats". (LIFE Magazine via Jet Pilot Overseas.)
Scott Crossfield pre-flights a North American Aviation F-100A Super Sabre. Note the extended leading-edge “slats”. (Allan Grant/LIFE Magazine via Jet Pilot Overseas.)

During the flight there was an engine fire warning and Crossfield shut down the Pratt & Whitney J57-P-7 turbojet engine. The F-100A had no flaps and North American’s own test pilots did not think a “dead stick” landing was possible due the very high landing speed required.

Scott Crossfield signs the maintenance forms for an F-100, certifying the airplane ready for flight. (LIFE Magazine via Jet Pilot Overseas)
Scott Crossfield signs the maintenance forms for an F-100, certifying the airplane ready for flight. (Allan Grant/LIFE Magazine via Jet Pilot Overseas)

Scott Crossfield tells the story in his autobiography:

. . . As a matter of fact, North American tests pilots were then flipping coins to see who would bring an F-100 in dead-stick to fulfill a requirement of the Air Force acceptance tests. I was not concerned. Dead-stick landings in low L-over-D [Lift-over-Drag] airplanes were my specialty. Every test pilot develops a strong point. I was certain that my talent lay in dead-stick landings.

With the engine idling and generating no energy to the plane’s systems, I was running out of hydraulic pressure to operate the controls. Following the handbook instructions, I pulled a lever which extended a miniature “windmill” into the slipstream. This “windmill” churned, building up pressure in the hydraulic lines. Unknown to me, there was a major leak in the line. The windmill was not helping, but hurting me. It was pumping hydraulic fluid overboard as fast as it could turn.

Scott Crossfield climbs into the cockpit of a North American Aviation F-100A-5-NA Super Sabre. (LIFE Magazine via Jet Pilot Overseas)
Scott Crossfield climbs into the cockpit of a North American Aviation F-100A-5-NA Super Sabre. (Allan Grant/LIFE Magazine via Jet Pilot Overseas)

I called Edwards tower and declared an emergency. All airborne planes in the vicinity of the base were warned away from the lake area. I held the ailing F-100 on course, dropping swiftly, following the glide path that I used for the dead-stick Skyrocket. [Douglas D-558-II Skyrocket] I flared out and touched down smoothly. It was one of the best landings I have ever made, in fact. Seconds later, while the F-100 was rolling out, the remaining bit of hydraulic pressure in the control lines drained out and the controls froze.

I then proceeded to violate a cardinal rule of aviation: never try tricks with a compromised airplane. The F-100 was still rolling at a fast clip, coming up fast on the NACA ramp, when I made my poor decision. I had already achieved the exceptional, now I would end it with a flourish, a spectacular wind-up. I would snake the stricken F-100 right up the ramp and bring it to a stop immediately in front of the NACA hangar. This trick, which I had performed so often in the Skyrocket, was a fine touch. After the first successful dead-stick landing in an F-100, it would be fitting.

Instrument panel of a North American Aviation F-100 Super Sabre. (U.S. Air Force)
Instrument panel of a North American Aviation F-100 Super Sabre. The fire warning light and hydraulic pressure gauge are at the upper right corner. (U.S. Air Force)

According to the F-100 handbook, the hydraulic brake system—a separate hydraulic system from the controls—was good for three “cycles,” engine out. This means three pumps on the brake, and that proved exactly right. The F-100 was moving at about fifteen miles an hour when I turned up the ramp. I hit the brakes once, twice, three times. The plane slowed, but not quite enough. I was still inching ahead ponderously, like a diesel locomotive. I hit the brakes a fourth time—and my foot went clear to the floorboards. The hydraulic fluid was exhausted. The F-100 rolled on, straight between the yawning hangar doors!

The good Lord was watching over me—partially anyhow. The NACA hangar was then crowded with expensive research tools—the Skyrocket, all the X-1 series, the X-3, X-4 and X-5. Yet somehow, my plane, refusing to halt, squeezed by them all and bored steadily on toward the side wall of the hangar.

The nose of the F-100 crunched through the corrugated aluminum, punching out an eight-inch steel I-beam. I was lucky. Had the nose bopped three feet to the left or right, the results could have been catastrophic. Hitting to the right, I would have set off the hangar fire-deluge system, flooding the hangar with 50,000 barrels of water and ruining all the expensive airplanes. Hitting to the left, I would have dislodged a 25-ton hangar-door counterweight, bringing it down on the F-100 cockpit, and doubtless ruining Crossfield.

Chuck Yeager never let me forget the incident. He drew many laughs at congregations of pilots by opening his talk: “Well, the sonic wall was mine. The hangar wall was Crossfield’s.” That’s the way it was at Edwards. Hero one minute, bum the next. That I was the first pilot to land an F-100 dead-stick successfully, and memorized elaborate and complete instrument data on the engine failure besides, was soon forgotten.

The F-100 is a tough bird. Within a month NACA’s plane was flying again, with Crossfield back at the helm. In the next few weeks I flew forty-five grueling flights in the airplane, pushing it to the limits, precisely defining the roll coupling. (On one flight the coupling was so severe that it cracked a vertebra in my neck.) These data confirmed, in actual flight, the need for a new F-100 tail, which North American was planning to install on later models of the airplane.

Every night after landing, I taxied the F-100 slowly to the NACA ramp. At the bottom, placed there on orders of Walt Williams, there was a large new sign, symbolic of the new atmosphere at Edwards. It said:


Always Another Dawn, The Story Of A Rocket Test Pilot, by A. Scott Crossfield with Clay Blair, Jr., The World Publishing Company, Cleveland and New York, 1960. Chapter 20 at Pages 196–199.

North American F-100A-5-NA Super Sabre parked on Rogers Dry Lake, 1959. It had been repaired and returned to service after running through the NACA hangar wall at Edwards AFB, 8 September 1954. In 1960, FW-778 was retired to Davis-Monthan AFB, Tucson, AZ. (NASA)
North American Aviation F-100A-5-NA Super Sabre 52-5778 parked on Rogers Dry Lake, 1959. It had been repaired and returned to service after running through the NACA hangar wall at Edwards AFB, 8 September 1954. In 1960, FW-778 was retired to Davis-Monthan AFB, Tucson, AZ. (NASA)
North American Aviation F-100A-5-NA Super Sabre 52-5778. (NASA)
North American Aviation F-100A-5-NA Super Sabre 52-5778. (NASA)
North American Aviation F-100A-5-NA Super Sabre 52-5778. (NASA)
North American Aviation F-100A-5-NA Super Sabre 52-5778. (NASA)
North American Aviation F-100A-5-NA Super Sabre 52-5778 parked on the ramp in front of the NACA hangar, Edwards Air Force Base, California, 1959. (NASA)
North American Aviation F-100A-5-NA Super Sabre 52-5778 parked on the ramp in front of the NACA hangar, Edwards Air Force Base, California, 1959. (NASA)
NACA High Speed Flight Station, 24 August 1954. The Boeing P2B-1S Superfortress is parked at the northeast corner of the ramp. (NASA DFRC

© 2017, Bryan R. Swopes

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