Story from the book “Flight Testing at Edwards”


by Johnny Armstrong

They were new – these jet transports and the Air Force was conducting a short evaluation of each; the Boeing 707, the Douglas DC-8, and the Convair 880. All of us flight test engineers were aching to get a chance to go for a ride. By now I was a seasoned multi-jet airplane rider. I had recently completed serving as flight test engineer assistant to Everett Dunlap on the first Air Force evaluation of the B-58 at Fort Worth. My opportunity to ride one of these future replacements of the DC-7s and Constellation prop airliners came when Lt. Charlie Crawford was assigned the lead engineer for the 880 evaluation…….I should have known better! (Last time I rode with Charlie on one of his projects I ended up taking a bath in the Pacific Ocean… the Ruptured Duck SA-16B story.)

This was the number three Convair 880 and it was set up in typical flight test fashion with only a few airline type seats, photopanel station, and water ballast tanks. It also had a bail out tunnel located aft of the cockpit on the right side of the aircraft. During preflight walkaround we were shown the actuator handle which, when rotated, would actuate the extension of the tunnel downward below the exterior of the fuselage into the airstream to hopefully allow a freefall clear of the aircraft without recontact.


What a smooth ride that day, 16 April 1959, flying at 35,000 feet over the Antelope Valley except for the intentional upsets by the rudder kicks, aileron rolls and other test maneuvers. The cockpit crew for the flight was a Convair pilot in the left seat, an Air Force Flight Test Center pilot in the co-pilot’s seat and an FAA pilot in the jump seat. I was sitting in the aft part of the fuselage and Charlie was seated at the photopanel station located mid fuselage near the center of gravity.

Another test maneuver input and the aircraft responded with an oscillation…….and then all hell broke loose. I seem to remember now 36 years later that the first terror was the noise and high frequency vibration followed instantaneously by the unfamiliar low frequency motions and g forces. The vibrations seemed severe enough that my mind concluded that the aircraft structure could fail and we were totally out of control in an unrecoverable situation. I write this years later like I was analyzing all this at the time. What was really going on was total terror and the thought that I was going to die. Natural survival instincts took over and I started to head toward the bail out tunnel. I already had my back pack chute on so I unbuckled the lap seat belt and got out of my seat only to find myself thrown to the floor of the aircraft due to the g forces. So I continued to crawl on my hands and knees toward the front of the aircraft. Looking to my left I saw Crawford still seated at his photopanel station with a very strange expression on his face which at the time I categorized as a look of death. The g force remained positive as I continued up the open spaces of the stripped fuselage interior. I next observed that the FAA pilot had exited the cockpit and was going through strange looking contortions trying to put on a backpack parachute with his body bending in strange shapes as it was being pulled down by the g force. At that time I knew I would have company diving through the bailout tunnel. I was getting closer to my life saving escape hatch when all of a sudden the vibration, noise, and three axis motions ceased. All I recall now is next I was back in my seat all buckled in and still scared that it could happen again. Soon Capt. Joe Jordan in an F-100 was in formation with us assuring us we seemed to have all the important parts of the aircraft still attached that would allow us to return to Edwards. It was reassuring seeing that F-100 chase aircraft off our wing and hearing Joe’s familiar voice as we were heading home. Even so, each time the 880 dropped its wing for a heading change I felt uncomfortable. Finally….. the secure feeling of the jar of touchdown and the shriek of the tires leaving rubber on the Edwards runway…we made it!

The 880 had gone through two 360-degree rolls at critical Mach number resulting in the loss of 10,000 feet. A cam in the mechanical flight control system stuck and resulted in a wing spoiler becoming stuck in the deflected position until it broke loose due to the high vibration being experienced by the airframe. The good news was that the flight control system was modified and a load of paying airline customers never had to experience that E-ride. That’s the ….”why” of flight test.

So, did I see my life pass in front of me as they say when the brain senses that death is near? No! I recall even to this day that as I was crawling toward the escape hatch that my mind focused on thoughts of things that were not complete or remained to be accomplished. I had just recently married a lovely blond Texas girl while on the B-58 program in Fort Worth and my thoughts were on the fact that I had not yet changed my life insurance policy from my folks to her. I was uneasy about flying again but one month later I was airborne in an experimental McDonnell aircraft Model 119M that looked like a miniature DC-8 that was in competition with the Lockheed Jetstar in the UCX program.