Tuesday, June 8, 2010

F-104A #56-840

I grew up in the Yakima Valley, in Central Washington State.  As a kid I recall sonic booms being a common phenomenon.  It was not out of the ordinary, as I grew up, to hear them.  I never paid much attention to them until our new next door neighbor moved in, in 1984.  He had just retired from the Air Force, where he worked on the SR-71 Blackbird.  He explained that the SR-71 had a characteristic double-boom.  We, as it turned out, lived UNDER one of their training routes.  We often heard the double-boom.  It was quite an experience KNOWING what was flying somewhere 70 miles down range, since the aircraft was no longer overhead when the boom reached us. 

I seem to recall a number of single booms, though, too.  This can possibly be confirmed with the fact that the USAF operated an intercept area to the south of us above the Horse Heaven Hills.  Super-sonic interceptors seem now to be a thing of the past, especially since the Soviet Union no longer seems a great threat with MANNED bombers.  Most of the air bases that interceptors operated out of are now civil airports.  Paine Field had an interceptor squadron, as did Geiger Field, and Larson AFB.  These are now civil airports.
Of course, the most common super-sonic interceptor that operated in Washington State would have to be the F-106 Delta Dart.  Over the years, though, F-82s, F-86s, F-94s, and F-102s all protected Washington State’s vital war making industries.  One interceptor, though, was exceptional in its capabilities, and despite this, it was not operated by the USAF in significant numbers.  It is, of course, the F-104A Starfighter.  (One of my favorites)

The F-104A was the sports car.  It was the thoroughbred.  It was made for speed.  It was small.  It could blister along and hold a speed of over Mach 2!  With a 21 foot wing span, it was tiny.  It performed!  It could reach bomber altitudes in 6 minutes.  It’s listed as having a maximum operational altitude of over 55,000 feet!  F-104s broke speed and altitude records, being the first aircraft to hold both the speed record and the altitude records at the same time.  F-104As reach over 90,000 feet!  The C model, with the -19 version of the J-79 engine broke even those records and reached 103,000 feet!  It was not uncommon for the early F-104 pilots to wear pressure suits. 

It was Wednesday, April 13, 1960.  Senator John F. Kennedy had announced his candidacy for the office of president a few months earlier.  France had detonated their first atomic bomb a few months earlier.   The winter Olympics had been held in Squaw Valley, California in February.  Ben Hur had won a record number of Oscars the week before.  Today, though, it was business as usual at Larson AFB.   A pilot was scheduled for a high altitude mission in an F-104A.

First Lieutenant William Thomas Tilson, of Limestone, TN, a USAF pilot with 521 total flight hours, was to perform a high altitude intercept mission in his new steed.  He had flown a total of 108 hours in F-104s.  88 hours in this model alone.  The other 30 hours were likely in the trainer version.  He had become a pilot on September 3, 1958.  His wife and 2 ½ year old daughter lived on base with him.[1]

This particular mission required the use of a pressure suit.  The planned altitude was to be 45,000 feet.  The Operations Officer briefed Tilson and his wingman on the coming mission.  His wingman was Lt. Robert G. Moore.  Moore would not be wearing a pressure suit.  Tilson was assigned aircraft #56-840.  He and the squadron pressure suit specialists preflighted the aircraft.  They then went to the pressure suit fitting room, where they dressed Tilson and checked his suit.  They all then went to the aircraft and strapped Tilson in.  The suit was again checked using the aircraft oxygen test switch. 

The flight was delayed for 20 minutes when the target aircraft aborted after take-off.  This aircraft could have been a B-52 from Fairchild.  Then flight was delayed another 20 minutes waiting for an instrument clearance.  When he finally received clearance, he taxied to the active.  He made the requisite calls to the mobile control unit.  (Mobile control usually had an active pilot who evaluated take-offs and landings.  It was usually a small green house-like structure that was situated on a part of the field away from the main control tower.)

The flight lifted off at 1035 AM.[2]  All was normal, but at 25,000, Tilson allowed his speed to drop below .7 mach.  Normal climb was made at .85 mach.  They broke out of the clouds at 32,000 feet, at which time Tilson resumed normal climb speed.

Tilson and wingman contacted the ground control site.  Tilson was vectored Northwesterly, while Moore was vectored to the West.  Moore would be playing the part of the target that had aborted earlier.  Both pilots put distance between each other for the intercept.  Then Ground control vectored them inbound.  Tilson was vectored behind Moore.  He was doing about Mach 1.4 and his altitude was 45,000 feet.  Tilson was conscious and answering instructions until he was three miles behind the target.  He still had not acquired the target.  According to ground control, he slowed.  He was instructed to break off the intercept and turn off his identification signal. 

Tilson did not acknowledge this transmission, even though it was repeated several times.  Then his identification signal faded and no other contact could be made with him or his aircraft.  The aircraft crashed not far from the area of the intercept, about half way between Farmer, Washington and Douglas, Washington, on Lawrence Egger’s farm. 

Tilson did not survive.  There is no more to my version of the accident report.  No indication as to cause, no indication as to why.  Nothing.  One hopes First Lt. Tilson’s widow and child took solace in the fact that he died doing what he doubtlessly loved doing. 

As usual, if you have any more information on this accident, please feel free to e-mail me and help me fill out the rest of the story.

[1] “Base Probes Fatal Crash” Spokane Daily Chronicle, April 14, 1960. http://news.google.com/newspapers?id=JJcSAAAAIBAJ&sjid=IfcDAAAAIBAJ&dq=william%20tilson&pg=4133%2C3873721

[2] The report says 1035P, but another part lists accident time as 1100 PST.  The F-104 was a day fighter, a night intercept does not make sense.

Author's personal recollections.

Accident report for #56-840, USAF

Spokane Daily Chronicle, April 14, 1960.

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