Home F-14 Tomcat The fatal crash of Grumman test pilot Bill Miller and the search for F-14 Tomcat #10

The fatal crash of Grumman test pilot Bill Miller and the search for F-14 Tomcat #10

by David Trojan
The fatal crash of Grumman test pilot Bill Miller and the search for F-14 Tomcat #10

The F-14 struck the water at about 350 knots and exploded. It was thought that Miller may have been distracted by something in the cockpit…

H/T to Marc Wolff, owner of the Facebook group Where have all the Tomcats gone.

The F-14 Tomcat first flew Dec. 21, 1970 and was one of the most powerful fighter jets to serve in the U.S. Navy. Tomcat BuNo 157989 was the 10th prototype F-14 Tomcat built and it was delivered to the Naval Air Test Center (NATC) at Patuxent River, Maryland for structural trials and carrier qualification evaluation. On Jun. 28,1972, Tomcat #10 completed the first carrier landing by an F-14 with a Navy pilot.

The fatal crash of Grumman test pilot Bill Miller and the search for F-14 Tomcat #10
F-14 Tomcat #10 first landing aboard the carrier USS Forrestal Jun. 28,1972

At 6:14 in the following video the 1st carrier landing is documented on film.

On Jun. 30, 1972, less than 48 hours later, the same Tomcat #10 was destroyed when it crashed into Chesapeake Bay, 4-1/2 miles southeast of NATC while preparing for an airshow at Patuxent Maryland. The accident killed Grumman’s top test pilot William H. (Bill) Miller, who a year and a half earlier survived the crash of the first F-14 built during its second flight. Miller was flying alone and had already completed a number of highspeed maneuvers when he was seen to be passing low over the water. Witnesses in a fishing boat nearby reported seeing the F-14 being pulled up suddenly, but too late to avoid the tail hitting the surface. The aircraft struck the water at about 350 knots and exploded. It was thought that Miller may have been distracted by something in the cockpit. It was a very hazy, smoggy day, with no horizon, and there was nobody in the rear cockpit to warn him of the danger. The weather conditions may have caused the pilot to lose his visual reference to the horizon and he flew the jet right into the water.

Just five months prior to the accident, on Feb. 23, 1972, the NATC was directed by the Naval Air Systems Command (NASC) to implement a project to install underwater crash locator pingers in all test aircraft flying over shallow coastal waters. As early as 1966, the NASC and the Federal Aviation Agency (FAA) started testing acoustic beacons (pingers) for possible use as aircraft underwater crash locators. The pinger is a small battery power device which radiates an acoustic signal upon activation by a water sensitive switch. Search operations are conducted utilizing a portable receiver with a directional hydrophone. The crash of F-14A, Tomcat #10, BuNo 157989, was its first operational test.

The fatal crash of Grumman test pilot Bill Miller and the search for F-14 Tomcat #10
The fatal crash of Grumman test pilot Bill Miller and the search for F-14 Tomcat #10

The following is a narrative by Mr. Paul Davis of the search for the wreckage of F-14, Tomcat #10, serial number 157989:

“At approximately 1:00 pm on Jun. 30, 1972, I received word that the F-14 may have crashed. I was aware that F-14A, ship #10, was carrying a pinger. Mr. Collom was requested to check the status of our receiver unit while I was confirming the crash and its location. The crash of the F-14 into the Bay was confirmed, and the receiver unit satisfactorily checked out.” It is interesting to note, however, that prior to this search neither, Mr. Davis or Mr. Collom had ever operated the receiver unit.

The fatal crash of Grumman test pilot Bill Miller and the search for F-14 Tomcat #10
Receiver and hydrophone configured for scuba diver

“Mr. Collom and I proceeded to the operations headquarters to notify them that we might assist in locating the wreckage. We were sent directly to the Chesapeake Bay boathouse to be picked up by a Navy crash boat. We boarded the crash boat at approximately 4:30 pm and proceeded directly to the crash area. While traveling to the search area, I received a radio call from shore. The call forwarded the exact operating frequency of the F-14 pinger which was 38.7 KHz. The approximate search area was known because of eyewitnesses and floating debris appeared to cover four square miles.”

The fatal crash of Grumman test pilot Bill Miller and the search for F-14 Tomcat #10
Map of NATC area indicating the location of the crash site

“Upon arrival in the search area, we first tested our receiver with a new pinger which was brought along for this purpose. After this successful check, the hydrophone was dipped into the water. Immediately a signal from the F-14 pinger was received. The direction of the wreckage was determined by rotating the hydrophone until maximum audio signal was obtained. Tracking the signal was conducted by stopping the boat every 300 – 500 yards and submerging the hydrophone in the water. It was not possible to hold the unit vertically in the water when the boat was underway. The signal was followed for approximately 1/2 mile. At this point the signal appeared to be weaker, and it was questioned if the hydrophone was indicating the true bearing. As the boat drifted we lost the signal entirely. Slight background noise was audible. The noise was directional and appeared to be originating from other boats. The question of depth finder interference was also mentioned, but this is not a problem. As the boat continued to drift in a circle, the signal was reacquired. This time we easily followed the signal for approximately 1 to 1-1/4 miles. At this point the bearing of the signal reversed by 180 degrees indicating that we had passed over the wreckage. At this moment the master diver arrived on the scene, and we transferred to his boat.”

The fatal crash of Grumman test pilot Bill Miller and the search for F-14 Tomcat #10
Underwater Hand Held Receiver diagram

“As we were now close to the wreckage, the receiver was transferred to a Navy diver.

Utilizing the directional hydrophone, the diver swam for approximately 100 yards, where he contacted the first piece of wreckage at 6:05 pm. This piece was a six foot section of the right rear sponson where the pinger was installed. The visibility in the water was less than one foot, and the diver actually followed the signal until he bumped into the wreckage. The poor visibility is attributed to the normal muddy bottom of the Bay, the recent passing of Hurricane Agnes, and the overcast sky conditions. The diver who had no previous checkout on this equipment appeared very enthusiastic and commented; ‘it was just like following a road map.’ One more dive was made locating several more pieces of wreckage before securing for the night. The wreckage was found in 32 feet of water, approximately 1-1/2 to 2 miles from the initial search point, and 1/2 mile east of buoys dropped by other crash boats. The underwater crash locator pinger worked as advertised and lead to the successful location of the wreck.”

The search efforts were conducted in an expeditious and well-coordinated manner due to the valuable acoustic locator beacon instrumentation. A sixteen day salvage operation, that included 100 hours of diver bottom time, resulted in 80% – 90% recovery of the F-14 aircraft wreckage. This was considered an unusually high percentage, given the wide (300 X 2,900 feet) area of the crash site, the poor underwater visibility, and the severe weather conditions.

Forward a year, the wreckage of F-14 Tomcat #10 was recovered from Chesapeake Bay and the accident investigation completed. The wreckage debris was then offered through the DOD surplus catalogue venue and put up for auction. The aircraft remains were essentially broken up airplane parts and listed as:

“Aluminium, wrecked aircraft and irony, scrap: Consisting of residue from crashed and cannibalized aircraft. Outside – Bin Stored, 12,000 pounds.”

The fatal crash of Grumman test pilot Bill Miller and the search for F-14 Tomcat #10
Scrap pile containing C-2A BuNo 152788 left, F-14 Tomcat BuNo 157989 on the right identified by red paint and black stripe, photo by Leon Cleaver Apr. 16, 1973
The fatal crash of Grumman test pilot Bill Miller and the search for F-14 Tomcat #10
Scrap pile T-38, BuNo 158197 background, F-14, BuNo 157989 foreground, photo by Leon Cleaver Apr. 16, 73

Mr. Leon Cleaver from Ohio purchased the scrap pile, sight unseen from Patuxent River via sealed bid on Apr. 5, 1973 for $127.20. Among the parts were the F-14 wreckage, C-2 Greyhound pieces, the wreck of T-38A BuNo 158197 and X-26A BuNo 158818 and an AV-8. He made two trips to remove a little over 10,000 lbs. of the scrap using his 1969 Chevy pickup, a 14 foot trailer and a U-Haul truck. He picked up as much as he could from the pile, but left behind about half of it including the rear section of a C-2 and more parts from the Tomcat. The disposal yard normally sold the scrap piles to reprocessing companies who would recycle the metal. Leon estimated that he got about 400 lbs. of the F-14 wreckage or about 4% of his payment, which worked out to costing him only $5.00 for the pile of F-14 debris. How’s that for a bargain? He hauled it all the way back home to Ohio. The wreckage was moved around a couple of times and ended up in a storage building in rural Ohio.

During my visit to Leon’s property in October 2015, I search around trying to identify all the aircraft parts on his property. I noticed right away the Grumman Aircraft Corporation data tags on several pieces of debris piled in his building. I questioned Leon about what they were from and learned they were from the prototype F-14. My search began for just the right artifact(s) in the pile to save. I ended up making a couple of trips all the way from Michigan down to central Ohio to acquire a couple of interesting parts. I could find nothing from the cockpit area, so I selected parts that are easily identifiable on the exterior of the jet. One piece has “Jet Danger” painted markings on it indicating it was from the engine intake area. It also has a black strip on it. The black stripe was only used on Tomcat #10. The second part that I acquired, I believe is a trim tab. I hope to use them in historic aviation museum displays. There are many more pieces that need to be saved and are available to an interested party. Where else can you legally get a piece of a historic Navy F-14 Tomcat? I’m very happy to own a couple of pieces that were important to Navy history. A big Thank You goes to Leon Cleaver for saving pieces of history and keeping good records!

The fatal crash of Grumman test pilot Bill Miller and the search for F-14 Tomcat #10
Pile of F-14 Tomcat parts and debris in storage in Ohio
The fatal crash of Grumman test pilot Bill Miller and the search for F-14 Tomcat #10
F-14 parts with Grumman data plates
The fatal crash of Grumman test pilot Bill Miller and the search for F-14 Tomcat #10
Part of the engine intake that I saved
The fatal crash of Grumman test pilot Bill Miller and the search for F-14 Tomcat #10
Trim tab part that I saved

Here are some excerpts from an email (CLICK HERE to read it on rec.aviation.military.narkive.com website) written by Bob Smyth (the other Grumman Test Pilot who along with Miller was aboard of F-14, Tomcat #1, serial number 157980 when it crashed on Dec. 30, 1970) about Miller‘s tragic crash.

“Every 4th of July, Patuxent has a big Navy Relief air show with thousands attending. They ask the contractors who have their latest aircraft there if they would participate in the air show. They usually all say they will. Bill agreed to perform, and had planned a high performance takeoff, followed by a 90/270 reversal, and return down the runway at 400 KTS with the wings fully swept.

VF-2 F-14A print
This print is available in multiple sizes from AircraftProfilePrints.com – CLICK HERE TO GET YOURS. F-14A Tomcat VF-2 Bounty Hunters, NK201 / 159625 / 1976

“On Jun. 30, 1972, Bill went out for a practice flight. The weather was said to be VFR (3 miles or better visibility); in fact it was much less out over the Chesapeake Bay – a common summertime condition. Bill lined up on Runway 20, which is parallel to the bay. He advanced power to Zone 5 afterburner, and made his takeoff run. He pulled up very steeply, retracted the gear, then rolled inverted, pulled the nose back down to the horizon and began his 90 deg. left turn out over the bay. He noticed his gear did not show up and locked so he had to recycle the gear. He then started fiddling with the circuit breaker and flap handle while starting his right 270 deg. turn to line up with the runway. At this point the nose fell slightly and he unwittingly started to descend from his 1,000 foot altitude. There was no horizon and the water was a flat calm. At the last minute he must have seen a sailboat (one saw him), went to full power and yanked the stick back. He hit the water at 350 KTS and that was the end.

“Had there been someone in the back seat to warn him, the accident would never have happened. Most accidents are stupid; this was no exception.”

F-14 model
This Model is Available from AirModels! CLICK HERE TO GET YOURS.

Photo credit: U.S. Navy, David Trojan and Leon Cleaver

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