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At 1:10 in the afternoon, on February 17, 1953, four AD-4 Skyraiders departed the Moffett Naval Air Station in northern California on a high altitude oxygen familiarization flight. Hours later, only three would return to base safely. Something went terribly wrong for thirty-three year old Lt. Robert Black USNR, who was piloting the fourth, late World War II, propeller driven Skyraider.
The Skyraider was designed for carrier based operations with the United States Navy and first flew on March 18, 1945. The design, which included folding wings and a tail hook, was powered by a 2,500 hp, R-3350 radial engine. This same type of engine was installed in B-29s. Later ADs would be powered by the massive R-3350-26B radial engine which developed 2,800 hp and turned a huge four bladed propeller. Its maximum speed was 320 mph at 18,000 feet, and the designed altitude limit (ceiling) was 25,500 feet. The aircraft saw meritorious service during both the Korean War and the Vietnam War. In the 1960s, the designation "AD" was changed to "A-1". There were 3,180 ADs manufactured, but as of this writing, only 19 are still airworthy.
Lt. Black was the Flight Leader on the day of this accident. He was accompanied on the mission by Ens .Charles E. Foge, Lt.(jg) Gilbert L. Crowser and Ens. Gary B. Bailey. The mission was a familiarization flight to allow the men to get some experience at using oxygen at high altitude. They were to climb higher than any of them had gone before, and higher than the ADs were designed to go.
Before takeoff, the pilots and ground crews performed a thorough pre-flight on each aircraft, including the oxygen delivery system. All systems seemed to be working properly, so the pilots climbed onboard and started their engines. They were instructed to use the oxygen system from the ground up to 30,000 feet, and all the way back down again.
The pre start procedure for the massive radial engine included, clearing the oil from the bottom cylinders. This is done by cranking the engine over with the magneto switch in the "off" position. Radial engines tend to collect oil in their bottom cylinders after periods of non-use. Starting such an engine could result in major engine damage.
After all engines were started and warmed up, Lt. Black requested, and received clearance to lead his flight to the active runway. Once in the run-up area, the engines were again checked for proper operation. Again, all systems appeared to be operating normally. Each pilot in turn gave the traditional "thumbs up" signal to Lt. Black, signaling that they were ready to go.
At idle rpm, the pilots could almost count each blade of their massive propellers, as it rotated in a giant arch in front of them. But soon the blades became a shinny blur as the throttle were advanced to taxi onto the active runway. Once on the runway, and aligned with the center line, the throttles were slowly advanced to achieve takeoff power. Black was the first off the ground, followed in turn by Foge, Crowser, and Bailey.
Once they were all in the air, the aircraft joined up with Lt. Black, and began a slow climb for altitude. Their course was in a southeasterly direction, away from Moffett Field. It was agreed beforehand to make a radio check every five minute during the mission. And as the minutes passed, every pilot would report in as instructed. So far, everything was going according to the flight plan.
As the flight approached the fertile flat lands of the San Joaquin Valley, near the auxiliary naval landing field at Crows Landing, they had already reached an altitude of 16,000 feet. There, another radio check was made with all pilots. And again, all was well!
At that point, Lt. Black instructed the other pilots to switch to the high position on their engine's supercharger. The big radial engine needed more air to breath at the higher altitudes. As the superchargers kicked in, the ADs surged forward clawing for altitude.
As the four Skyraiders approached 25,000 feet, their engines began to experience power fluctuations. Soon the flight began to spread out somewhat. Another radio check was made, and a wide left turn was initiated to keep the flight over the Crows Landing airfield. All was still normal, as each pilot checked in by radio at 26,000. . . 27,000 . . .28,000 and finally at 29,000 feet.
On the final radio check at 29,000 feet Lt. Black seemed, by the tone of his voice, to be okay. But within a few minutes his flight path became erratic. He leveled off, and then began to make a series of very shallow turns. This did not unduly alarm the other pilots, but they were having some difficulty staying in the formation with their leader.
Finally, Foge made a radio call to Black, and stated that he was having great difficulty staying in position. Black did not answer the radio call. However, it appeared that Black was starting a coordinated left turn so that Foge could rejoin.
As Foge and the others tried to join on Black's plane, they began to wonder what was going on. There was no visual sign of trouble, but Black had not answered the last radio call. That was unusual!
Suddenly, as the others watched, Lt. Black's AD rolled into an ever steepening left turn. Soon it went completely inverted and began to dive straight for the ground. The other pilots attempted to stay in position and tried to duplicate the maneuver. Bailey became alarmed at this unusual maneuver at such a high altitude. None the less, he followed Black down as best he could.
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