Fireball in the Sky
It was an afternoon in early November, 1954, when more than 200 of us had gathered at the Convair seaplane ramp near the Coast Guard Station on San Diego Bay. Among the group were some 80 reporters and photographers from throughout the United States, military and aircraft officials, Convair flight test engineers, design engineers, and others from various departments of the company.
We were all assembled to witness a flight demonstration of the Convair XF2Y-1 Sea Dart. She was designed as a single-seat, delta wing, supersonic interceptor seaplane. She had twin retractable skis that allowed her tail to clear the water at the high angle of attack required for a delta-winged aircraft takeoff. I was a senior design engineer assigned to the Landing Gear and Mechanisms Group. I had designed the retraction gear for the skis as well as the unique three-stage oleo (shock strut). The oleo was fully compressed for stowing in the fuselage, and was extended to an intermediate position for the early takeoff run. Once the aircraft had “unported” (the skis were breaking the water surface), the oleo was fully extended to position the aircraft for the high-angle-of-attack takeoff. Oleos generally have some five to six inch strokes. The Sea Dart oleo had a twenty-seven inch stroke. That combined with the three-stage operation was a first.
As originally envisioned by the Navy, she was to operate from forward areas. One plan for stealth operation was to encapsulate the aircraft on the deck of a submarine, and thus be able to launch near the target, return to the submarine and disappear below the sea. There was a second reason for wanting such an aircraft. The Navy had doubts that supersonic aircraft could operate from the decks of then current aircraft carriers. It was believed at the time that much longer decks would be required. Steam catapults and canted decks solved the problem.
The flight demonstration began with a beautiful westerly takeoff from the bay. The skis retracted nicely and the Sea Dart was on its way. Charles Richbourg, one of our ace test pilots, was at the controls. He made a wide climbing turn to the left, circling south of North Island and disappeared into the haze in an easterly direction. After some time the aircraft reappeared heading west. It looked like Chuck had put her in a dive to gain speed for a low altitude, high-speed flyby over the bay near the observers. He should have made any altitude changes a little earlier before he was in range of the crowd. It wasn’t normal procedure.
Then as he approached the bay the aircraft made a slight pitch-up, as if he wanted to gain a little of the altitude he lost in the dive. Why would he have dived so low that he needed to regain altitude? It made a second pitch up, then the aircraft appeared to return to normal flight.
A muffled explosion immediately followed, and the aircraft became a brilliant ball of fire. I couldn’t believe my eyes. The aircraft was now in pieces!
The two engines and the tail section tore loose from the fuselage and formed the major part of the fireball. The forward section of the fuselage including the skis and cockpit appeared intact and not burning.
“Eject, Chuck, eject!” I shouted.
The flaming engines and aft fuselage hit the water and burned for some time on the surface, but for the moment my attention was totally focused on the cockpit section, which was still in the air.
“Oh, Chuck, for God sake eject.” I thought to myself. The occupied cockpit and forward fuselage hit the water, with a finality that tore at my heart.
I checked my watch. It was a few minutes after three in the afternoon on Thursday, November 4, 1954.
Our Convair divers were immediately on the scene. They found Chuck still strapped in his seat. They quickly extricated him and brought him to the surface. My desperate hope was that he had survived, but the impact of the cockpit told my analytical mind that it wasn’t possible. He died a few minutes after he was brought to the surface.
Later analysis of instrumentation revealed that the perturbations I observed were probably the last of a series of small amplitude, but violent divergent pitch oscillations. What frequency these oscillations reached I don’t know, but the oscillations did cause the structure to fail at several places. My initial assumption was that Chuck had exceeded the top design speed hoping to make a good show, but in retracing the incident I remembered that there was no sonic boom. Later information indicated he was below max flight speed. He had flown the aircraft through Mach 1 during earlier flight tests in August with no problems, so speed probably was not the direct cause of this tragedy.
It was very hard to accept that Chuck was gone.
He was such a nice guy, and what a wonderful background. He had earned both BS and MS degrees in aeronautical engineering from MIT. He was a Navy pilot in WW II. He was chosen Outstanding Student of his class when he graduated from test pilot school at Patuxent, Maryland.
Chuck spent hours in the engineering department reviewing designs and offering comments. I had many discussions with him. His engineering education made it very easy to communicate with him. He was a mild easy-going guy that displayed none of the arrogance that some test pilots flaunted around the company.
I often remember Chuck when I look to the ocean or azure sky. I see the sleek navy blue aircraft with brilliant yellow stripes streaking across the sky with Chuck at the controls. He was my friend. I will remember him always.