23 June 2009

Marine Fighter Pilot Dies at 86

Colonel Ed McMahon (USMC, retired) died today.

McMahon passed away peacefully shortly after midnight at the Ronald Reagan/UCLA Medical Center, his publicist, Howard Bragman, said today. He was hospitalized in February with pneumonia and other medical problems.

When World War Two broke out Ed wanted to be a pilot. He enlisted in 1943 and earned his pilot's license while being evaluated for the Navy's cadet evaluation program at Boston College. After being checked out in the Piper Cub he was assigned to the Marine Corps.

McMahon earned his wings and was commissioned early in 1945.

He flew the F4U Corsair and was immediately assigned to instructor duty at Lee Field in Florida. On 6 August he was given orders to join the Marine carrier program in California. With the dropping of the atomic bomb, his orders were canceled and he was discharged.

In 1952 he was recalled to active duty for the Korean War. He flew artillery spotting missions in the O-1E Bird Dog. Completing 85 missions, he was awarded six Air Medals. After the war he retired from the Marine Reserves as a Colonel and was promoted to Brigadier General of the California Air National Guard.

17 June 2009

The Cornfield Bomber

On 2 February, 1970 three F-106's of the 71st Fighter Intercept Squadron were on a routine training mission out of Malstrom AFB, Montana. 1st Lieutenant Gary Faust was flying Lead of a flight of three. The other pilots in the flight were Captain Tom Curtis and Major James Lowe. Curtis and Lowe were Instructor Pilots.

Originally, the mission that February day nearly four decades ago was to be a two vs. two air combat training flight. One aircraft subsequently aborted from the mission when its drag chute deployed on the ramp. So the day’s training activity became a "two vs. one" fight.

The "one" on this eventful day was Tom Curtis. The "two" were 1st Lt. Gary Foust and Maj. Jim Lowe.

Curtis witnessed the mishap:

We took off as a flight of three. Gary Foust was leading with Jim Lowe in the chase position. We then split up I went to one end of the training air space and they proceeded to the other end of the air space. We had about a twenty mile separation. The controllers turned us into each other so we passed head on with a thousand feet separation. The ROE (rules of engagement) were we had to pass head on with no tactical advantage to either flight. After passing the fight was on. The object was to gain a tactical advantage on the opponent and maneuver in to valid firing position. After landing we would review the film and try to reconstruct the engagement. Of course, this was a big ego thing. who was the winner etc.

I figured I could handle Gary pretty easy but I did not trust Jimmy. I figured he would probably break off and come after me. With this thought in mind, I came at them in full afterburner I was doing 1.90 mach when we passed. I took them straight up at about 38,000 ft. We got into a vertical rolling scissors. I gave him a high G rudder reversal. He tried to stay with me, that's when he lost it. He got into a post stall gyration. This happens just prior to a stall. The aircraft violently rolls left and right and sometimes swaps ends, a very violent maneuver. His recovery attempt was unsuccessful and the aircraft stalled and went into a flat spin which is usually unrecoverable.

The aircraft looked like the pitot tube was stationary with the aircraft rotating around it. Very flat and rotating quite slowly. Well,. Gary rode it down to about 15,000 feet. All this time Jimmy Lowe was giving the spin recovery procedures. Part of the spin recovery procedures is to actuate the take off trim button. This trims all the control surfaces to a take off setting, which is a bout the same as for landing. So when Gary ejected the aircraft was trimmed wings level for about 175 knots a very nice glide setting.

When he ejected the aircraft straightened out and glided toward a perfect landing. I couldn't believe it ! Jimmy says "Get back in there."

After the ejection, the aircraft recovered from the spin on its own, and established a wings level low rate descent under reduced power to the ground. Ground effect broke its rate of descent, and it settled into a near-perfect gentle belly landing in a farmer's snow-covered cornfield.
Lowe parachuted safely to the ground and was picked up by some Indians on snow mobiles. A local Sheriff was first on the scene and found 58-0787 on it's belly with the engine still running. He saw the name "Major Wolfold" painted on the side of the jet and called Wolford at Malstrom AFB asking for instructions on how to shut the motor off.

When he climbed onto the jet and looked into the cockpit he found that the radar was still sweeping. It was then that the jet began to inch forward. The sheriff jumped off and decided to let the engine run out of gas. For an hour and 45 minutes, "787" scooted across the corn field for about 400 feet before the engine quit, ending up near a road.
A depot team from McClellan AFB recovered the aircraft and it was eventually returned to service.58-0787 is in its 49th FIS markings now on display at the USAF Museum.
Ex 71st FIS pilots are ragged unmercifully about the "Emergency" so dire that the aircraft was forced to land itself.