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The Story of World War II Ace Butch Voris and the Creation of the Blue Angels
By Robert K. Wilcox
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2004 Robert K. Wilcox
All rights reserved.
Showtime! The four navy F9F-5 "Panther" jets streaked in from the northwest at 450 knots. They were in a tight diamond formation; sleek, bubble-canopied, distinctive bomblike fuel tanks jutting on their wingtips, each plane's dark azure color symbolic of what they were: the Blue Angels, the navy's recently reorganized flight demonstration team.
It was approximately ten a.m., July 7, 1952. The Gulf of Mexico gleamed choppily below the oncoming jets, their wings slicing through turbulent summer air. Up ahead was a crowd of viewers, largely made up of naval academy midshipmen, gathered on the seaplane ramps at Naval Air Station Corpus Christi, the flight team's coastal headquarters. The show, a practice really, was being put on mainly for the benefit of the visiting midshipmen on their summer indoctrination tour. It was hoped that some of them would be sufficiently impressed to opt for naval aviation when they graduated.
It was a clear day, billowy clouds in the sky. Nobody had an inkling of the tragedy that was soon to happen.
The formation was at approximately 4,500 feet and descending rapidly, gathering speed. Leading in "Navy 1" at the front of the diamond was Lieutenant Commander Roy Marlin "Butch" Voris, a thirty-two-year-old World War II ace and veteran of the furious Pacific air wars who had started the Blue Angels, called simply "Blues" by its members, in 1946, and had been asked to restart them again after the team's assignment to the Korean War in 1950 as the core of a new combat unit.
That assignment had halted the team's exhibitions. Now, with the war winding down, the navy wanted its great public relations tool back.
Voris was a big, strapping fighter pilot in the classic Hollywood mold: blond, iron-nerved, square-jawed handsome, but without the Hollywood flair. He disliked pretension and ostentation and wouldn't hesitate to rib those who affected it. Large as an offensive football tackle, which he'd been in college, he had a physical resemblance to the then popular newspaper comic strip hero Joe Palooka, except, unlike the cartoon boxer, he was extremely bright. At six-feet, two-inches tall, and a lean 215 pounds, he could stand up to the toughest in his profession, both physically and mentally. But he was surprisingly even-tempered and good-natured, a smiling recruiting poster officer in his dress whites or simple flight suit who spoke plainly and convincingly and hardly ever got ruffled.
If Voris was anything, he was cool — as in cool under fire.
The flight plan, once the planes had gotten close enough to their audience, was to veer left together in a thirty-degree bank parallel with and facing the shore, revealing their undersides, and streak along in front of the seaplane ramp's entire one mile length so the gathered onlookers could glimpse the large "US Navy" painted in gold on the bottom of their wings. Then, reaching the ramp's end, they'd curl up and back out to sea in a chandelle, a 180-degree revolving slow turn that would rotate them easily around the vertical axis, and then they'd streak back into the airspace in front of the crowd to begin the show's more complicated and startling maneuvers.
It was a proven way to start.
Constituting the rest of the tight diamond were three superb fighter pilots, each handpicked by Voris from the navy's vast aviation pool. Twenty-nine-year-old Lieutenant Commander A. R. "Ray" or "Hawk" Hawkins of Lufkin, Texas, was a World War II and Korean veteran who had shot down fourteen Japanese planes. A Blue Angel before he logged forty combat missions in Korea, Hawkins was on Voris's port, or left, side. The formation was so tight that Hawkins's right wing, stepped down about ten feet from his leader, was actually intruding, had it been at the same altitude, into the small section of airspace directly behind Voris's left wing and forward of his left rear horizontal stabilizer, the small winglike appendage extending from the jet's upright tail.
That ten-foot difference in altitude, a hiccup in the air, was all that kept the two planes from fitting together like two pieces in a flying jigsaw puzzle.
On Voris's starboard, or right, and, like Hawkins, stepped down, slightly back, and similarly interlocked with the boss, as Voris was called, in the close formation, was Lieutenant Francis J. "Pat" Murphy, a Brookfield, Illinois, native, younger than Voris and Hawkins, who, like Hawkins, had been with the Blues when they were sent to Korea. Flying the "slot," or rear of the diamond, was twenty-seven-year-old Lieutenant (j.g.) Dwight Everett "Bud" Wood Jr., an easygoing, balding Columbus, Ohio-born pilot who had not been part of the team before Korea but had flown combat there and distinguished himself sufficiently that Voris had plucked him from the fleet.
Wood's was the most precarious position in the diamond. The lengthy tubular nose of his Panther actually extended directly under Voris's tail, although it was perhaps fifteen feet below. He was stepped down a little lower than the two wingmen. Woods could look right up through his Plexiglas canopy at the leader's fiery exhaust. Voris's tail was what he flew. When it rolled left, he rolled left. When it rolled right, he did the same. As long as he kept the roughly fifteen-foot interval and stayed directly beneath Voris, he could hold position and escape the dangerous, jostling wind wash that came off the leader. But he had to work perhaps the hardest because he was the only pilot with a good view of the other three. He was counted on to alert them to any detectable problems.
Similarly, the two wingmen flew Voris's right or left wingtip while maintaining their own hair-thin cushions. The leader's wingtip, to their insides, was easy to keep sight of because of the tubular fuel tank attached. The tanks resembled pontoons or small, torpedo-like bombs. They were permanently attached. If the wingman's eyes strayed, which wasn't often, they could follow the thin wing up to see the nose of Voris's Panther, but little else. Neither of the wingmen nor Voris could see Wood. He was alone in the rear slot. Not that they would want to see him. Flying the wingtips, just like flying the slot, demanded intense concentration. Even the slightest deviation could unravel the diamond and possibly cause a collision. Four hundred and fifty or so knots at such close quarters meant that disaster was always just an eyeblink away.
In fact, they'd postponed the show for two days straight because of bad weather, which was always a pilot's enemy with its dangerous winds and often restricted visibility. Instead of flying, they'd allowed the midshipmen to taxi the planes up and down the seaplane ramps, pilots positioned on the wing roots, ready to reach in and grab the controls in case one of the novices got into trouble. It had given the students a taste. But today had dawned clear, with only ten- to fifteen-mile-per-hour winds. There were occasional gusts, but visibility was twelve miles with scattered clouds. Voris in consultation with base officials had determined that the show would go on. Otherwise the midshipmen would have to leave without seeing the Blues.
The oncoming jets encountered no problem until they were just about ready to make their close-to-shore turn. Behind the seaplane ramps were giant airplane hangars evenly spaced. With the ramps and hangars clearly visible, Voris, recalling it nearly fifty years later, said he noticed what he surmised were gusty, individual wind shears bumping them as they descended. "I could see Hawkins's and Murphy's wings moving up and down beside me." The shears, which he thinks were being funneled through the large spaces between the hangars, were hitting each of them separately. "It's amazing how you don't all necessarily bounce together."
He radioed, "Let's ease it out ... ease it out," meaning the pilots should increase their separation as they readied for the turn.
The gusts seemed to stop, and they went into the thirty-degree bank. They were approximately 200 feet up, maybe 300 feet in front of the ramp, which had bleachers erected to accommodate the crowd. "US Navy" beckoned from each of their underwings as they streaked belly-up down the bay front holding the diamond tight. It was only a two to three G turn, a single G being the force of gravity equivalent roughly to one's own body weight. To the pilots, two to three Gs was mild, not much more than the outward pull a speeding racecar driver might feel negotiating the turns of an oval track. Hawkins, however, because of the tilt, became the low man, and had to work harder to stay "tucked" in.
Beneath and just in front of them midshipmen probably lifted their hats and cheered.
It was the kind of first pass they wanted.
Hawkins later told a navy investigation that he thought they were in good position to continue past the onlookers and back out to sea. Then, as they completed the curving turn in front of the crowd and started up and out in the chandelle, the unexpected happened.
"Hawkins came up or I went down," recalls Voris. "When things go wrong, it happens awfully fast." He heard a loud crashing sound and felt his jet pitch violently nose down and himself lift from his seat and smash up against the top of his canopy — all in a split second. Simultaneously, his jet dived downward and he lost all vision to a surge of blood in the head called redout, the result of a rapid descent in the upright position. Normally, to go down fast, a fighter pilot flips his plane upside down and pulls. The resulting G-force in the dive forces the blood down, toward his seat, and away from the head. It's the most comfortable way to change direction. The pilot struggles to avoid a "blackout," or loss of consciousness, as the blood drains. But this was a sudden "negative G" dive, a painful and scary downward motion without the flip. The blood surged to Voris's head. He didn't lose consciousness but couldn't see anything other than what he later described as a gray-lined and pretty Chinese red.
When he regained his sight, which was probably no more than another second, he was pitched over and roaring toward the shoreside ground, a sure course for a fiery crash and certain death.
Instinctively, he yanked on the control stick between his legs, pulling it as hard toward himself as possible. The action, according to his accelerometer, caused him to pull eight Gs, about as much as a human body can take. The Panther started to shudder its way upward, draining blood from his head. The sudden upward curl was so fast and strong that he lost consciousness momentarily. But he held on. When his consciousness returned, he was rocketing parallel to the ground. On his left, toward the bay side, he was roaring by the tops of tall palm trees that he knew lined a street running along the shore roughly parallel to the line of seaplane ramps. "We called it the Gold Coast Road," he said, because of the admirals' homes fronting the bay there.
On his right he caught flashes of the admirals' porches. He was approximately twenty-five feet above their lawns, streaking like a crazed kamikaze.
Dazed, he wasn't sure what had happened. He figured he'd been in some sort of collision. His first thought was a catastrophic engine explosion. But that couldn't be true, he realized, because the engine was still running. His head and neck and legs, both of which had been under the instrument panel and smashed up against it, hurt, especially his shins. But pain was the least of his worries. The runaway jet was vibrating terribly, his rudder pedals didn't work, meaning he had vastly diminished control, and he was getting an "over temperature" indication from his tailpipe exhaust that signaled the engine might explode any second.
Instantly, with his left hand, he brought the side-mounted throttle back to idle. This reduced the fuel flow and the rising tailpipe temperature. The gauge needle receded. Reduced thrust wasn't an immediate problem because he had tremendous residual speed from the initial pass and the dive he had just been through. Both were propelling him forward. But he had another problem: He could feel the jet pulling to the right and down, which at such a low altitude could kill him in an instant. It took much of his strength to hold the stick to the extreme left in order to counteract the pull.
He probably traversed the entire road in a matter of seconds. At the end of the row of admirals' houses sat the air station's officers' club and pool. He roared over it. "I remember it vividly," he recalls, "even the beach chairs and tables around the pool. It's amazing what sticks in your mind."
Holding the stick hard to the left raised the wing aileron on that side, turning the jet toward the bay and starting its rise, which was his hope. The crowd was now reacting in horror. In his ear, he could hear the show's announcer, Lieutenant Commander Edward L. "Whitey" Feightner, a test pilot and squadron mate from World War II, screaming, "Get out, Butch! Get out!" But it was suicide to eject at that low height. The Panther, by later standards, had a primitive ejection system. Gunpowder blasted the pilot out still strapped in his seat once he'd removed the canopy. But with the other immediate problems occupying him, Voris did not have the time to get the canopy open, and he knew that the explosion and other ejection forces to which he'd be subjected, often resulted in serious injury to the pilot. Most important, the parachute needed at least two thousand feet to deploy properly.
Ejection wasn't really an option.
"I was thinking of getting up to two thousand feet, number one, where I had a chance of getting out."
Still unsure of what had happened, he got on the radio and asked if he'd been hit. Incredibly, the first transmission he heard was no. It was Hawkins, also unaware of what had happened. He had felt no impact. All Hawkins knew, he later testified to the board of inquiry, was that he was alongside Voris one second and the next second Voris was gone. Hawkins, thinking he had somehow gotten out of position, had first thought of trying to move back into the formation but then decided it was too dangerous and had started a standard-procedure rollout to his left to clear the formation. It was sometime during that rollout that he heard Voris's question and answered in the negative. But then Murphy, who had had an identical experience to Hawkins's, not feeling any impact himself but suddenly missing the leader, had rolled out to his right where there was a different view. There he caught a glimpse of Voris careening downward and saw that his tail was broken and mangled around the exhaust and his left stabilizer was missing. Murphy radioed that they had indeed had a midair.
Climbing, easing on power while keeping the turbine temperature within safe limits, Voris heard the others asking about Bud Wood and glanced over his left shoulder to see the slot man's Panther, minus its nose, hit the water, followed by Wood himself, still strapped into his seat but without his parachute deployed. The frothy impact alone, Voris knew, would have killed him, if he wasn't dead already. The damage to Wood's jet, he later said, was "awful." Hawkins, coming up alongside Voris, now realized that his own right wingtip tank was gone, along with about three feet of the wing. Murphy, coming up along the other side, had a dented left wingtip tank. It was now becoming clear that they'd all been involved in a disastrous collision.
To this day, the exact cause of the accident has never been officially determined. But most agree, and the investigation concluded, that the wind, uncontrollable in such a situation, burbled at least one more fateful time. It hit either Voris or Hawkins, or maybe both. As a result, they collided. Hawkins's right wingtip hit Voris's left stabilizer, knocking three feet of Hawkins's wing off and severing the leader's stabilizer. The impact, which had tremendous energy, instantly pitched Voris's plane over and down, throwing him up against the canopy, and causing the rear of his jet to hit the nose of Wood's jet, slicing it off at the cockpit. Without its nose, the Panther's center of gravity went to its rear and it became unflyable, a hunk of metal hurtling through the air. The collision with Wood also smashed Voris's tail, pinching his exhaust, which was the cause of the heat buildup, and permanently jammed the rudder at the back of the tail to the right, which was why the jet was pulling to that side.
Wood, having no options, got out as his disintegrating plane hurtled another nine hundred feet, but he didn't have enough altitude for his parachute to open.
Little of this — except the fate of Wood, which he'd deduced in his quick glance — was clear to Voris or the others at the time.
Excerpted from First Blue by Robert K. Wilcox. Copyright © 2004 Robert K. Wilcox. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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