18 September 1948: The first delta-winged aircraft took flight for the first time when Consolidated-Vultee Aircraft Corporation test pilot Ellis D. “Sam” Shannon lifted off from Muroc Dry Lake with the prototype delta-wing XF-92A, serial number 46-682. For the next 18 minutes he familiarized himself with the new aircraft type, before landing back on the lake bed.
Later, with Captain Chuck Yeager flying, the XF-92A reached Mach 1.05. Yeager found that the airplane’s delta wing made it nearly impossible to stall, even with a 45° angle of attack. He was able to land the airplane at nearly 100 miles per hour slower than the designers had predicted.
The XF-92A was a difficult airplane to fly. NACA test pilot Scott Crossfield commented, “Nobody wanted to fly the XF-92. There was no lineup of pilots for the airplane. It was a miserable flying beast.” Scotty made 25 flights in the experimental delta-winged aircraft. On its last flight, 14 October 1953, the airplane’s nose gear collapsed after landing. The XF-92A was damaged and never flew again.
The XF-92A (Consolidated-Vultee Model 7-002) was a single-place, single-engine prototype fighter. The airplane was 42 feet, 6 inches (12.954 meters) long with a wingspan of 31 feet, 4 inches (9.550 meters) and overall height of 17 feet, 9 inches (5.410 meters). It had an empty weight of 9,078 pounds (4,118 kilograms) and gross weight of 14,608 pounds (6,626 kilograms).
The prototype was originally powered by It was powered by an Allison J33-A-21 centrifugal-flow turbojet engine with a single-stage compressor and single-stage turbine. It produced 4,250 pounds of thrust at 11,500 r.p.m. at Sea Level. This was later replaced by a more powerful J33-A-29 (7,500 pounds thrust).
The XF-92A had a maximum speed of 718 miles per hour (1,156 kilometers per hour) and a service ceiling of 50,750 feet (15,469 meters).
The XF-92A was not put into production. It did appear in several motion pictures, including “Toward The Unknown” (one of my favorites). It is in the collection of the National Museum of the United States Air Force. This was the first of several Convair delta-winged aircraft, including the F2Y Sea Dart, F-102A Delta Dart and F-106A Delta Dagger supersonic interceptors, and the B-58A Hustler four-engine Mach 2+ strategic bomber.
Consolidated-Vultee XF-92A 46-682 is displayed at the National Museum of the United States Air Force, Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio.
Ellis Dent Shannon was born at Andalusia, Alabama, 7 February 1908. He was the third of five children of John William and Lucy Ellen Barnes Shannon.
He was commissioned as a second lieutenant the Alabama National Guard (Troop C, 55th Machine Gun Squadron, Cavalry) 21 May 1926. He transferred to the U.S. Army Air Corps in 1929. In 1930, he was stationed at Brooks Army Airfield, Texas.
In 1932 Shannon was employed was assigned as a flight instructor and an advisor to the government of China.
On 24 December 1932, Shannon married Miss Martha Elizabeth Reid at Shanghai, China. They had son, Ellis Reid Shannon, born at Shanghai, 24 August 1934, and a daughter, Ann N. Shannon, born at Baltimore, Maryland, in 1940.
Shannon and his family returned to the United States in 1935 aboard SS Bremen, arriving at New York.
He was employed by the Glenn L. Martin Co., at Baltimore, Maryland, in 1936 as a test and demonstration pilot. He travel throughout Latin America for the company, demonstrating the company’s aircraft. As a test pilot he flew the Martin Model 187 Baltimore, the B-26 Marauder, PBM Mariner and the Martin JRM Mars.
In February 1943, Shannon started working as a Chief of Flight Research for the Consolidated Aircraft Company at San Diego, California. While there, made the first flights of the Consolidated XB-24K, a variant of the Liberator bomber with a single vertical tail fin; the XR2Y-1, a prototype commercial airliner based on the B-24 Liberator bomber; the XB-46 jet-powered medium bomber; the XP5Y-1 Tradewind, a large flying boat powered by four-turboprop-engines; the Convair 340 Metropolitan airliner; and the XF2Y Sea Dart, a delta-winged seaplane powered by two turbojet engines. Shannon also participated in the flight test program of the YF-102A Delta Dart.
After retiring from Convair in 1956, Ellis and Martha Shannon remained in the San Diego area. Ellis Dent Shannon died at San Diego, California, 8 April 1982 at the age of 74 years.
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 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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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 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).
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.
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.
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.
Highly recommended: Tex Johnston, Jet-Age Test Pilot, by A.M. “Tex” Johnston with Charles Barton, Smithsonian Books, Washington, D.C., 1991
23 August 1954: The first of two Lockheed YC-130 Hercules four-engine transport prototypes, 53-3397, made its first flight from the Lockheed Air Terminal at Burbank, California, to Edwards Air Force Base. The flight crew consisted of test pilots Stanley Beltz and Roy Wimmer, with Jack G. Real (a future Lockheed vice president) and Dick Stanton as flight engineers. From a standing start, the YC-130 was airborne in 855 feet (261 meters), The flight lasted 1 hour, 1 minute.
The C-130 was designed as a basic tactical transport, capable of carrying 72 soldiers or 64 paratroopers. All production aircraft have been built at Lockheed Martin’s Marietta, Georgia, plant.
The first production model, the C-130A Hercules, was 97.8 feet (29.81 meters) long with a wingspan of 132.6 feet (40.42 meters), and height of 38.1 feet (11.61 meters). Total wing area was 1,745.5 square feet (162.16 square meters). The transport’s empty weight was 59,164 pounds (26,836 kilograms) and takeoff weight, 122,245 pounds (55,449 kilograms).
The C 130 has a rear loading ramp for vehicles, and there is a large cargo door on the left side of the fuselage, forward of the wing, The transport’s cargo compartment volume is 3,708 cubic feet (105.0 cubic meters). It could carry 35,000 pounds (15,876 kilograms) of cargo.
The C-130A was equipped with four Allison T56-A-1A turboshaft engines, driving three-bladed propellers. The engines produced 3,094 shaft horsepower at 13,820 r.p.m. (continuous), and 3,460 horsepower, Military Power (30-minute limit) or Takeoff ( 5-minute limit).
The C-130A had a cruise speed of 286 knots (329 miles per hour/530 kilometers per hour) and maximum speed of 326 knots (375 miles per hour/604 kilometers per hour) at 24,200 feet (7,376 meters). Its range with a 35,000 pound ( kilogram) payload was 1,835 nautical miles (2,112 statute miles/3,398 kilometers). The initial rate of climb at Sea Level was 4,320 feet per minute (21.95 meters per second). The combat ceiling was 38,700 feet (11,796 meters).
In addition to its basic role as a transport, the C-130 has also been used as an aerial tanker, a command-and-control aircraft, weather reconnaissance, search and rescue and tactical gunship. It has even been used as a bomber, carrying huge “Daisy Cutters” to clear large areas of jungle for use as helicopter landing zones, or, more recently, the Massive Ordnance Air Blast “mother of all bombs.” The aircraft has been so versatile that it has served in every type of mission. Over 40 variants have been built by Lockheed, including civilian transports. It is in service worldwide.
The latest version is the Lockheed C-130J Hercules. After 64 years, the C-130 is still in production, longer than any other aircraft type.
YC-130 53-3397 was scrapped at Indianapolis in 1962.
16 August 1948: The prototype Northrop XF-89 all-weather interceptor, 46-678, made its first flight at Muroc Air Force Base (later, Edwards Air Force Base). Company test pilot Fred Charles Bretcher, Jr., was at the controls.
The Northrop XF-89 was a two-place, twin-engine, mid-wing monoplane with retractable tricycle landing gear, designed as an all-weather interceptor. The pilot and radar intercept officer sat in tandem in the pressurized cockpit. Similar to Northrop’s World War II-era P-61 Black Widow night fighter, the XF-89 was painted gloss black.
The XF-89 was 50 feet, 6 inches (15.392 meters) long, with a wingspan of 52 feet, 0 inches (15.847 meters). The wing had a 1.5° angle of incident, and1° dihedral. The total wing area was 606.2 square feet (56.32 square meters). The prototype had an empty weight of 23,010 pounds (10,437 kilograms), gross weight of 31,000 pounds (14,061 kilograms), and maximum takeoff weight of 43,000 pounds (19,505 kilograms).
The XF-89 was powered by two Allison J35-A-9 single-spool, axial-flow turbojet engines. The J35 had an 11-stage compressor section and single-stage turbine. The J35-A-9 was rated at 3,750 pounds of thrust (16.68 kilonewtons). The engine was 12 feet, 1.0 inches (3.683 meters) long, 3 feet, 4.0 inches (1.016 meters) in diameter, and weighed 2,455 pounds (1,114 kilograms).
The prototype crashed during a demonstration flight, its 102nd, at Hawthorne Airport, 22 February 1950. Vibrations caused by the engines’ exhaust caused the tail to separate. The pilot, Charles Tucker, escaped, but flight test engineer Arthur Turton was killed.
The F-89 went into production as the F-89A Scorpion. 1,050 were produced in eight variants. The final series, F-89J, remained in service with the Air National Guard until 1969.
Fred Charles Bretcher, Jr., was born 22 September 1920, at Cincinnati, Ohio. He was the son of Fred Charles Bretcher, a pharmacist, and Frieda Juliana Emma Poggenbeck Bretcher. His father, Sergeant Bretcher (or Bretscher), had served in an ambulance company at Ypres and the Meuse-Argonne during World War I, and had been honorably discharged, 18 April 1919.
The younger Bretcher attended Western Hills High School in Cincinnati. He played with the golf team and worked on the school newspaper. Bretcher graduated in 1938. He then worked as a sales clerk while attending college.
Bretcher enlisted as an aviation cadet in the U.S. Army Air Corps at Fort Thomas, Kentucky, 29 May 1941. He was sent to the Southeast Air Corps Training Center, Maxwell Field, Alabama, as a member of Class 42A. He graduated 8 January 1942, and was released from his enlistment to accept a commission as a second lieutenant, effective 9 January 1942. Lieutenant Bretcher was then assigned to Wright Field, Ohio, as a trainee test pilot. While at Wright, he flew every aircraft in the Air Corps inventory.
Lieutenant Bretcher flew combat missions in the European Theater in the Curtiss-Wright P-40 Warhawk, Republic P-47 Thunderbolt and North American P-51 Mustang. Temporarily assigned to the Royal Air Force, he flew the Supermarine Spitfire and Hawker Tempest fighters and the Avro Lancaster long-range heavy bomber. While serving in Europe, Bretcher was promoted to the rank of captain.
Captain Bretcher returned to Wright Field in May 1944. Promoted to major, he was assigned as the Chief of the Bomber Test Section, working on the Boeing B-29 Superfortress and Consolidated B-32 Dominator heavy bomber projects.
Major Bretcher also flew at Muroc Army Airfield in California, testing the Bell YP-59 Airacomet, Lockheed YP-80A Shooting Star, and the experimental Northrop N-9M flying wing proof-of-concept airplane. Major Bretcher was released from active duty, 13 January 1946.
Fred Bretscher went to work for the Northrop Corporation, Hawthorne, California, as a civilian test pilot. He flew as co-pilot to Chief Test Pilot Max R. Stanley on the first flight of the Northrop YB-35, 15 May 1948.
In 1950, Bretcher was assigned to the flight test program of Northrop’s N-25 Snark cruise missile (which would be developed into the SM-62 Snark) at Holloman Air Force Base, near Alamogordo, New Mexico.
Bretcher married Miss Jean Taylor at Albuquerque, New Mexico, 18 December 1951. He retired from the Northrop Corporation in 1952.
Fred Charles Bretcher, Jr., died at Sedona, Arizona, 2 June 2004. He was 83 years old.
1 August 1977: Francis Gary Powers, a pilot and news reporter for KNBC Television (Channel 4) in Los Angeles, California, was flying the company’s “Telecopter,” a camera and transmitter-equipped Bell Model 206B Jet Ranger, N4TV. He and a cameraman, George R. Spears, had been reporting on the aftermath of the disastrous Sycamore Canyon Fire in Santa Barbara County and were returning to their base, the KNBC Heliport at the television studios near the Ventura Freeway in Burbank.
At approximately 12:35 p.m., PDT, (19:35 UTC), the JetRanger was eastbound, about 1 mile southwest of Van Nuys Airport (VNY). Powers called Van Nuys Tower and requested to land there as the helicopter was low on fuel. The last transmission was: “TV Four just lost—”
Francis Gary Powers was a highly-experienced airplane pilot. At the time of the crash, Powers had 7,193 total flight hours, with 381 hours in the Bell 206. He had attended the Bell 206B Pilot Transition Training Course at the Bell Helicopter Training School, Fort Worth, Texas.
When TDiA attended the Bell Helicopter Training Academy in 1981, the crash of Power’s JetRanger was discussed by the school’s instructors in great detail. The high-profile accident involving Bell’s leading civil product had been thoroughly investigated by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) and by Bell’s own experts.
(TDiA requested the official NTSB accident investigation report nearly three years ago, and though the request received immediate acknowledgement, the report has not yet been provided.)
Powers, returning from covering the fire in Santa Barbara for Channel 4 News, flew past the Santa Barbara Municipal Airport (SBA), Oxnard Airport (OXR), and Camarillo Airport (CMA), all of which were almost directly along his course, and all of which could have provided fuel for the Bell 206.
Powers passed those airports, but just a few miles short of his destination, 1 mile (1.6 kilometers) to the southwest of Van Nuys Airport (VNY), the busiest general aviation airport in the United States, the helicopter’s turboshaft engine stopped because of fuel starvation. The JetRanger crashed in an open field. Both Powers and his cameraman, George Robert Spears, were killed.
Examination of news photographs of the wreck show that the JetRanger was completely destroyed on impact. It appears to have struck the ground in a nose-down attitude. Surprisingly, damage to the main rotor assembly is slight, with no twisting, tearing, or failure of the doublers at the blade root, as are commonly seen.
An engine failure over a large, level open space, should have resulted in no damage to the aircraft or injuries to its occupants. The autorotation characteristics of the Bell 206-series helicopters are excellent, among the best of any helicopter. The extent of the damage to the airframe, though, when compared to the relatively slight damage to the main rotor assembly, convinces TDiA that the helicopter was not in autorotation, but in free fall. The main rotor blades were not turning within the autorotation r.p.m. range of 355–440 r.p.m.
There are reports that Powers turned the helicopter away from a group of children playing in the open field, but this would not have been possible with the main rotor turning at the very low rotational speeds demonstrated by the lack of twist damage.
This crash was caused by pilot error.
Francis Gary Powers was born 17 August 1929 in Letcher County, Kentucky. He was the son of Oliver Windfield Powers, a mortarman in the coal industry, and Ida Melinda Ford Powers.
Powers attended Milligan College at Elizabethton, Tennessee, from 1947 to 1950. He studied biology. He was a member of the school’s pre-med club, and was junior class manager of the intramural council. He was also on the varsity track team.
Francis Gary Powers entered United States Air Force in 1950, trained as a pilot and was commissioned in 1952. He flew the Republic F-84G Thunderjet fighter bomber with the 468th Strategic Fighter Squadron, 506th Strategic Fighter Wing, at Turner Air Force Base, Albany, Georgia. He received special training in delivery of the Mark 7 tactical nuclear weapon at Kirkland Air Force Base, Albuquerque, New Mexico.
In 1956, 1st Lieutenant Powers was released from the U.S. Air Force to participate in the Central Intelligence Agency’s Project Aquatone. He was now a civilian government employee, although he was promised that he could return to the Air Force and that he would keep his seniority and would be promoted on schedule.
Francis Gary Powers gained world-wide notoriety when the Lockheed U-2A he was flying, “Article 360,” (USAF serial number 56-6693) was shot down over Russia, 1 May 1960. Powers was captured and held prisoner at the notorious Lubyanka Prison where he underwent 62 days of interrogation at the hands of the Komitet gosudarstvennoy bezopasnosti (the Committee for State Security, or simply, the KGB). Powers was placed on trial in Moscow and was convicted of espionage. He was sentenced to prison for ten years.
After almost two years, he was exchanged for William August Fisher, (AKA Rudolf Ivanovich Abel, Vilyam Genrikhovich Fisher) a long-time Soviet intelligence officer that had been caught in the United States in 1957. [This story was recounted in the recent motion picture, “Bridge of Spies,” which starred Tom Hanks. The film received six Academy Award nominations in 2015.]
After his release from the Soviet Union, Powers was employed as a test pilot for Lockheed, 1962–1970. He then became an airborne traffic and news reporter for several Los Angeles-area radio and television broadcast stations.
Gary Powers and his first wife, Barbara Gay Powers, divorced in 1963. He then married Claudia Edwards Downey at Fauquier, Virginia, 26 October 1963. This was also her second marriage. They would have a son, Francis Gary Powers II. (Mrs. Barbara Powers remarried in 1964.)
On 24 November 1986, the Distinguished Flying Cross was awarded posthumously to Powers “For Extraordinary Achievement While Participating in Aerial Flight 1 May 1960.” After reviewing his record at the request of his son, Francis Gary Powers, Jr., on 15 February 2000, the U.S. Air Force retroactively promoted him to the rank of Captain, effective 19 June 1957, and further credited his military service to include 14 May 1956–1 March 1963, the time he was with the CIA. The award of the Prisoner of War Medal was also authorized.
On June 15, 2012, General Norton Schwartz, Chief of Staff of the Air Force, awarded Captain Francis Gary Powers the Silver Star (posthumous).
George Robert Spears was born at Chicago, Illinois, 17 July 1934, the fourth of five children of William E. and Nora Neelom Spears. He married Annette A. Montalbano in Chicago, 26 May 1956. They had three children and lived at Northridge, California. He had worked for KNBC since June 1976.
N4TV was built as a Bell Model 206A JetRanger, serial number 433, at Hurst, Texas, in 1969. It was first owned by the Los Angeles, California, independent television station KTLA (Channel 5), and registered N555TV. The helicopter was later upgraded to the Model 206B standard with the installation of a more powerful Allison 250-C20 engine. When purchased by KNBC, a National Broadcasting Company affiliate, 433 was reregistered N4TV.
The Bell Model 206B JetRanger is a 5-place, single-engine, light civil helicopter based on Bell Helicopter Company’s unsuccessful OH-4 entrant for the U.S. Army’s Light Observation Helicopter (LOH). It is flown by a single pilot in the right front seat. Dual flight controls can be installed for a second pilot. The helicopter is 39 feet, 8 inches (12.090 meters) long, with rotors turning. On standard skid landing gear, the overall height is 9 feet, 4 inches (2.845 meters). The main rotor has a diameter of 33 feet, 4 inches (10.262 meters) and turns counterclockwise (as seen from above) at 394 r.p.m. (100% NR). The empty weight is approximately 1,700 pounds (771 kilograms), depending on installed equipment, and its maximum gross weight is 3,200 pounds (1,451.5 kilograms).
The 206A was powered by an Allison 250-C18 turboshaft engine rated at 370 shaft horsepower at 6,016 r.p.m., and derated to 317 s.h.p., the transmission’s limit. The later 206B and 206B-2 had a 400 horsepower 250-C20 engine, and 206B-3s had 250-C20B, -C20J or -C20R engines installed, which produced 420 shaft horsepower. The helicopter’s transmission, however, is limited to 317 horsepower input.)
The JetRanger has a maximum speed of 150 miles per hour (241 kilometers per hour). Its best rate of climb is at 60 miles per hour (97 kilometers per hour) and best glide distance is at 80 miles per hour (129 kilometers per hour). The service ceiling is 13,500 feet (4,115 meters) and maximum range is 430 miles (692 kilometers).
Note: The Model 206A-1 was adopted by the U.S. Army as the OH-58A Kiowa. Though very similar in appearance to the Model 206A and 206B, the OH-58A differs significantly. Few of the parts are interchangeable between the types.
Between 1967 and 2010, Bell Helicopter built 4,491 JetRangers and 2,275 OH-58 Kiowas. Nealy 1,000 more were built under license by other manufacturers.