Story from the book “Flight Testing at Edwards”
THE RUPTURED DUCK
by Johnny Armstrong
All the sawtooth climbs, check climbs, speed powers, and performance takeoff and landings had been completed on SA-16B tail number 517200. Now it was time to put it all together in the form of the “Range Mission” and demonstrate the overall performance for an operational mission. It was the morning of 20 May 1957 when pilot Captain Doug Benefield taxied out to Edwards runway 04 for takeoff of this Albatross, modified with extended wings and larger engines. The flight test engineer, Lt Charlie Crawford, was seated at his station in front of the large photopanel ready to hand record some of the flight data. Me? I was a brand new 2nd Lt, on station for less than a year, serving as an apprentice flight test engineer to Charlie (who himself had less than 2 years of flight test experience). The mission was progressing as planned at the three hour-point after completing several legs of the planned flight track. We were on the leg to Catalina Island over the Pacific Ocean when smoke began to fill the passenger/cargo compartment.
We advised Doug that we had a fire in an electrical junction box on the left side of the compartment. Two of us grabbed carbontetrachloride fire extinguishers and began to attempt to extinguish the fire. We succeeded in putting out the fire at that time, but in the process, created a toxic smoke cloud that totally filled the cabin. We opened the top half of the compartment door, located on the aft left side of the fuselage, and stood at the door trying to clear our lungs while looking down at the ocean below. (We were still at relatively low altitude at this point of the mission.) During this time, Doug had turned the Albatross around and was headed back to the California coastline. We were approaching the coastline with things calming down, giving the impression that we were home free,…..when…..KABANG!!. The junction box exploded, deforming the cover. At that point, Doug shutdown the left engine, feathering the prop, hit the gear down switch and set up for an emergency landing on the beach. When it was apparent we were going to make an emergency landing we sat down facing aft with our backs against a seat. Very quickly we hit the sand, bounced back up in the air, and hit again coming to rest in the ocean about 300 feet off the shore. We climbed out of the aft side door and proceeded to wade to shore in waist deep water – me with my orange covered Herrington Flight Test Manual in my hand. We (about 7 total onboard) stood there looking at the results of our handy work on Sunset Beach, 5 miles south of Long Beach. The gear was still in the process of extending when we hit and one of the main gear was ripped from the aircraft and lay on the beach.
The bottom of the aircraft was sitting on the sand parallel to the beach in shallow water. It was being rocked in the roll axis with each wave causing the float on the right wing to collide noisily with the sand. Surf fishermen, who had long since thrown down their poles and scattered, were beginning to wander back to the crash site. So, in a group, we wandered toward the nearest beach house to be greeted warmly by the very pregnant occupant. She invited us in and Doug Benefield called Edwards and broke the news to them. Meantime our host had gone out and returned with a six pack of beer that she offered to her surprise guests. We all thought, under the circumstances, we best decline. Eventually, the H-21 helicopter from Edwards arrived. I can still see the flight surgeon, even now, as he came walking up to us with his little black bag marked “Human Remains”. We arrived back at Edwards and were taken to the hospital for observation. We all checked out OK except for a few of us that had some problems from breathing the carbontetrachloride/smoke.
As I was walking to my room in the BOQ, still in my wrinkled flight suit and with my wet Herrington manual in my hand, my close friend, Rob Ransone, made some snide remark like “What have you been doing? You look like you have been in an accident!”……… He came close to getting clobbered. The next day, the LA Times showed a large photo of the airplane on the beach and the broken landing gear in the foreground with one inch headlines on page 1; “Big Rescue Plane Rests in Surf After Forced Landing on Beach”. My log book shows 4+10 of SA-16B time and 1+15 of H-21 time on 20 May 1957. I qualified for my flight pay that month.
THE ABOVE STORY IS ONE OF OVER 100 STORIES BY AND ABOUT FLIGHT TEST ENGINEERS AT EDWARDS AFB DOCUMENTED IN THE BOOK DESCRIBED HERE.
PROFITS FROM SALE OF THE BOOK GO TO
THE EDWARDS FLIGHT TEST HISTORICAL FOUNDATION.