The Crash That Saved the B-36

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

On March 26, 1947, a test flight of the prototype XB-36 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 and Gus S Green. On board were seven Convair flight-test crewmen, three USAF observers, and two technicians from the Curtiss-Wright who were to run electronic tests on troubling propeller vibrations.

    "We took off routinely enough around noon that day and at 700', Gus raised the landing gear and the plane just went insane," Erickson recalled in a 1997 interview. "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."

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 gear with its 9'2"-diameter tire and 800-lb innertube into the landing gear well, the retracting hydraulic strut exploded, letting tons of suddenly unsupported dead weight fall to its down position. The rear of the number four engine nacelle was smashed, and fuel and hydraulic lines ruptured. 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 grabbed a fire extinguisher and headed for the gear's wheel well. "He reported that the well was a 'shambles' with horrendous damage, bathed in hot hydraulic fluid," Erickson said.

Erickson 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 gas aboard. With no way to dump the fuel, we had to fly around and use it up, and have the others bail out."

    He told McEachern to organize the bailout which would occur over the Whittaker ranch, some 10 miles west of the plant and the adjoining airfield.

    For the next six hours the pilots radioed Convair how they planned to land the plane, and experimented with controlling the huge bomber under various rudder, aileron, and engine power combinations.

    USAF Maj Stephen Dillon of the plant's Air Force office was told to bail out first, then get back to the airfield as fast as possible and get to a vantage point where he could radio steering directions to Erickson after the landing. With the bomber's plight on the radio news, both lanes of the divided highway 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 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 received injuries ranging from sprained ankles to broken ribs, broken legs, and punctured lungs.

Erickson and Green were landing a 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 gas aboard!"

    Erickson said the plant brass told him their 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 gear retraction struts installed, it flew again."

    On May 25, 1947 the company held a testimonial dinner in honor of Erickson and the crew, and Convair President Harry Woodhead presented the crew members with engraved gold watches.