Losses and Aviation Safety

The story of George Smith, the F-100 test pilot who became the first person to accomplish supersonic ejection (He suffered grievous injuries, survived and resumed flying Super Sabres again)

F-100 Super Sabre high accident rate

Developed as a follow-on to the F-86 Sabre used in the Korean War, the F-100 was the world’s first production airplane capable of flying faster than the speed of sound in level flight (760 mph). The prototype — the YF-100A — made its first flight on May 25, 1953, at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif.

After the F-100 fighter entered service in 1954, it developed a high accident rate. North American test pilots experienced Super Sabre accidents too. George Smith earned a place in aviation history by being the first person known to accomplish supersonic bailout.

F-100 Super Sabre

North American test pilot George Smith, the first person known to accomplish supersonic ejection

As told by John Fredrickson in the book North American Aviation In the Jet Age, The California Years 1945-1997, George Smith earned his wings from the US Navy at Pensacola in 1943. His wartime experience was in Grumman TBF Avengers. After earning a living as a ferry pilot flying twenty-five different types of aircraft, Smith joined North American in 1951 as a production test pilot.

Smith, a genial bachelor on an errand to take his laundry out, stopped by the office on his day off, Saturday Feb. 26, 1955. Two fellow test pilots were at work to fly an F-100 familiarization flight. Dispatcher Robert Gallahue hailed him with a special request: “F-100A number 659 is ready for a first flight. Why don’t you take it up as long as you’re here?” Smith donned a flotation device, helmet, oxygen mask, and parachute over his street clothes.

On taxi-out he noted the stick binding, and thought he artificial-feel system might be acting up. The stick then became free, and he opted to continue with the mission. The F-100 took off from LAX while Smith commenced a turn out over the Pacific Ocean. The stickiness returned as he attempted to catch the two ships ahead. He considered calling the tower and aborting the missions when the problem again resolved itself. At about 35,000 feet over Laguna Beach, the contrails of the other ships were visible.

The first supersonic ejection

George Smith, a production test pilot, took an F-100 on a routine initial test hop. A hydraulic-system manufacturing defect put the airplane into an involuntary near-vertical dive. Smith was the first to accomplish a supersonic ejection and suffered (but survived) grievous injuries.

Suddenly, his F-100 pitched over into a dive. Calling on all his piloting skills, Smith attempted to overcome the problem with brute force on the stick to get the nose up but to no avail. The pitch trim was engaged, but the angle of dive steepened from 20 to 80 degrees, the nose tucked under, and speed increased. Smith had been describing his dilemma over the radio, and the pilots of the other aircraft and the North American control tower were telling him to eject.

With control lost, Smith pulled the ejection handle as he was passing through 6,500 feet at a speed of Mach 1.05. Nobody had ever previously ejected at speeds near (or over) Mach 1. The canopy was ripped off and instantly lost to the slipstream, allowing a thunderclap of shock wave to enter the cockpit. Consciousness was lost as the ejection seat departed the aircraft. The helmet was ripped from his head. His eyes were severely mauled. His nose was literally torn from the upper lip, and his internal body filled like a balloon from the intruding air pressure. Watch, shoes, dye marker, and flashlight were torn from his body while his clothing was shredded.

Designed to assist the unconscious pilot, the parachute was deployed by an automatic device (called an aneroid), but the high speed tore out several panels. The two other F-100s arrived overhead just in time to witness Smith’s too-rapid descent into the ocean.

A roar like an exploding cannon shell

Meanwhile, the 20-foot twin-engine private pleasure boat named “Balababes” (out of Balboa) was cruising directly under Smith about a thousand yards off Dana Point. Aboard were businessman Art Berkell, attorney Mel Simon, and Robert Simon-Mel’s fifteen-year-old son. Suddenly, there was a roar like an exploding cannon shell. The little boat was nearly tossed out of the water. Berkell climbed out of the small cabin and saw a huge geyser of white, foaming water shooting skyward about 200 yards in their wake. “We’ve got into a Navy gun range! Let’s get out of here!”

But then Robert observed a limp figure floating at the end of a torn parachute descending from the layer of clouds overhead. It first appeared to be a dummy dropped from the same plane that was bombing them. Then they observed blood dripping from his feet as he dropped into the water. Smith was so bloated with air ingested into his GI tract that he bobbed on the surface at chest height. They made their way to Smith, cut him out of his harness and pulled him into the boat. It was an awful sight. His street shoes and soc s were gone, while his clothing was shredded to tatters. The boaters radioed ahead to Newport Beach as they started limping on one engine toward that destination. A faster boat rendezvoused with them, took Smith, and rushed him to a waiting ambulance, hospital. and doctors.

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Declared fit to resume flying F-100s again

George Smith was not expected to live. An Air Force flight physician, Dr. Toby Freedman, arrived at the hospital to preside over Smith’s recovery. George remained comatose for six days and was blind for a month. Along with suffering liver and kidney damage, Smith had his tall bladder removed along with 17 feet of intestine. Every joint in his arms and legs had been dislocated; however, after a year of recovery, he was declared fit to resume flying F-100s again. Smith went on to a role in project engineering followed by a television career on KABC, and later as a Hollywood technical director on science fiction movies.

The shattered F-100 was retrieved from its watery grave. The probable cause was determined to be a blocked hydraulic valve. Fixes were engineered both for retrofit and incorporation into subsequent F-100s.

North American Aviation In the Jet Age, The California Years 1945-1997 is published by Schiffer Publishing and is available to order here.

Photo credit: U.S. Air Force

This model is available from AirModels – CLICK HERE TO GET YOURS.
Dario Leone

Dario Leone is an aviation, defense and military writer. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviation Geek Club” one of the world’s most read military aviation blogs. His writing has appeared in The National Interest and other news media. He has reported from Europe and flown Super Puma and Cougar helicopters with the Swiss Air Force.

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