Spectacular landing of damaged plane proves design's mettle.

By Frank Perkins
Star-Telegram Staff Writer.
From the Fort Worth Star-Telegram
Thursday, March 13, 1997

    Fifty years ago March 26, a test flight of the prototype XB-36 Peacemaker bomber ended in a spectacular crash landing that not only saved the plane, but preserved the government contract for generations of succeeding B-36 models that kept the assembly line at Fort Worth's Convair plant humming.

    At the controls of the 200,000 pound airplane - at that time, the world's largest flying machine - were company test pilots Beryl A. Erickson, now 80, and the late Gus S. Green.

The XB-36, with a 230-foot wingspan and powered by six pusher engines, carried more than 21,000 gallons of fuel, and its bomb bays were equal in area to four railroad cars.

    On board were seven Convair flight test crewmen, three Army Air Force observers and two technicians from the Curtiss-Wright company in New York who were to run electronic tests on troubling propeller vibrations.

    "we took off routinely enough around noon that day and at 700 feet altitude south of Fort Worth Army Airfield, (later Carswell Air Force Base), Gus Green raised the landing gear and the plane just went insane," Erickson recalled in a telephone interview from his Aspen, Colo., home.

    "There were sounds of rending metal under unbelievable stress violently shrieking and rupturing.  I thought that from the sounds and the way the plane was acting that we had suffered a mid-air collision," Erickson said.

    It was not a collision, but a "right main landing gear disablement" in the words of the accident investigation report.

    As the hydraulics lifted the huge weight of the right main landing gear, with its 9-foot-2-inch diameter tire and 800-pound inner tube into the landing gear well, the retracting hydraulic strut exploded, letting the gear's tons of suddenly unsupported dead weight fall to its down position.  The rear of the No. 4 engine nacelle was smashed, and fuel and hydraulic lines ruptured, Erickson said.

    The drop also ripped the gear's main brace from the huge wing spar.

    With the brace gone, the right main gear swung from side to side in the plane's slip stream like a gigantic rubber-tired pendulum.  The gear's oleo struts and a smaller, undamaged extender rod kept the mass from twisting sideways.

    Flight engineer J.D. McEachern, now 76, of North Richland Hills, grabbed a fire extinguisher and headed for the gear's wheel well, Erickson said.

    "He reported that the well was a 'shambles' with 'horrendous damage, bathed in hot hydraulic fluid,'" Erickson said.

    Erickson said he was confident he and Green could land the crippled bomber, but the 12 others aboard complicated matters.

    "The main threat was that the gear would collapse and allow the right wing to hit the ground and tear off, igniting the 21,000 gallons of highly volatile aviation gasoline aboard and burning us all up," Erickson said.

    "We had no way to dump the fuel, we had to fly around and burn it up and I decided we would do just that.  We'd burn up some fuel, have the others bail out after Gus and I figured out how we could land the plane and then we'd just do it. And for the next six hours, that's what we did".

    He told McEachern to organize the bailout which would occur over the O.C. Whittaker ranch between US. 80 and the Aledo Cutoff, some 10 miles west of the plant and the adjoining army air field.

    For the next six hours, the pilots explained to their supervisors at the plant how they planned to land the plane, and experimented with controlling the huge bomber under various rudder, aileron and engine power combinations.

    Army Air Force Maj. Stephen P. Dillon of the plant's Air Force office was told to bail out first, then get back to the air field as fast as possible and get to a vantage point where he could radio steering directions to Erickson after the landing.

    McEachern recalled that one of the observers was wearing loafers.   "He apparently figured out on his own that we were going to have to bail out, so when I came back with the bailout order, he was already sitting on the floor taping his loafers to his feet and legs so he wouldn't lose them when he jumped" McEachern said.

    By now the bomber's plight was on the radio news and both lanes of the divided highway running by the bailout point were jammed with sightseers, McEachern recalled.

    Erickson flew in a large circle around the drop zone at 5,000 feet, and at each pass, two of the crew members would jump from the right and left rear observation blisters and parachute down.

    "We didn't know it, but the winds were blowing 30 to 35 miles an hour and the bailout would be very, very dangerous," McEachern said.

    Nine of the 12 parachutists were injured in the gusty March winds.  The injuries ranged from sprained ankles to broken ribs, broken legs and punctured lungs.

    McEachern, the last man out after manually cranking down the plane's nose gear, broke a vertebra upon landing.

    "I tripped over a large rock and fell on my back.  I felt something inside me break, but it was some time before I learned it was one of my vertebra," he said.

    McEachern was rescued by a pair of Texas highway patrolmen who loaded him in their cruiser and sped him back to the base in time to see the landing.

    "They had to use the median strip because the traffic lanes were choked with onlookers, and every time they hit a bump, I really felt it",  McEachern said.

    Dillon had suffered a badly sprained ankle when he landed, but he was at his post at the airfield; in the cockpit of an Air Force C47, radio tuned to the big bomber's frequency when Erickson turned the crippled plane onto its final approach and landing at 6:20 p.m.

    Erickson and Green were landing the plane with no brakes and no nose wheel steering because of the blown hydraulics.  They would have to jockey rudder and aileron controls and the power of the five remaining engines to steer the huge airplane.

    "We lined up on the end of the runway and came in and it was marvelous sport, with all sorts of ambulances and fire trucks lined up along the runway," Erickson said.

    "We landed with all wheels down just a little to the left of the center line of the runway and soon Dillon was on the radio, telling us how to steer.  We rolled to the end of the runway and edged off onto the soft earth at the left and stopped but the right main gear held and the wing never touched the ground.   That was fortunate because we still had 8,000 gallons of high octane aviation gas aboard."

    Erickson said the plant brass told him the dramatic crash landing saved the B-36 program, which was in trouble because it was behind schedule and over budget, and the cost of a fleet of the bombers was under heavy attack by the Navy, which wanted more carriers rather than strategic bombers.

    It was all quite dramatic," he said. "The contract was in jeopardy, the plane was a year behind schedule, but the incident proved that although significantly damaged the XB-36 could be landed safely and two months later with new, redesigned landing gear retraction struts installed, it flew again."

    On May 25 1947, the company held a testimonial dinner in honor of Erickson and the crew at the now-closed Blackstone Hotel in downtown Fort Worth and Convair President Harry Woodhead presented the crew members with engraved gold watches.

    "Two months ago I waited for long, drawn out hours while our crippled XB-36 circled over Fort Worth.  Convair people everywhere were anxiously waiting, and so were the Army Air Forces and most of the nation,"  Woodhead said.

    "Many of them realized that this was more than just another airplane in trouble.  Production of B36's is essential to America's safety and the damage of the experimental model would have adversely affected both flight testing and production.   The corporation is justifiably proud of and sincerely grateful to the 14 men who performed so well in such a trying situation."

    There were 385 B-36s built at the plant between 1947 and 1954, according to plant records.  The plane went through 11 model changes from the prototype to the final plane, a B-36J that rolled off the assembly line in 1954.

    Erickson pooh-poohed the emergency landing in the best test pilot tradition.

    "It was just a plain, straightforward job of earning shoes for the baby,"  he told Star-Telegram reporter Irv Farman, who covered the dramatic landing.