The Primitiveness of Being a Test Pilot in the Mid-Forties
I was a naval pilot at the end of WWII, then became a civilian test pilot. My job was to test fly experimental F4U Corsairs as well as production models off the assembly line fallonpilotshop.com/ . “Test pilot” is an exciting name that can be given to pilots, like Chuck Yeager, who was first to break the sound barrier as well as to many unrecognized people who test aircraft, small or large, off of production lines every working day. My duties required both. Most of my associates and I flew production testing; five of us also flew experimental (the Chuck Yeager types).
Being a test pilot was exhilarating, but few people know some quirky primitiveness of certain equipment when I was involved. It was not the aircraft, only the equipment used to flight test them. Helmets, for example, were cloth throughout WWII, and the U.S. manufacturers were just beginning to produce jet aircraft which would eventually mandate hard helmets. The maximum speed required of the first F4U’s, sold to the US Navy June 30, 1941, was 417 mph and its service ceiling was 36,900 ft. These figures steadily increased until the F4U-5 had a service ceiling of 41,500 ft. and a maximum speed of 462 mph.
Vought’s first jet was off the drawing boards and a prototype was being built. Thus, we test pilots for Vought concentrated on F4U-4’s of which the orders were voluminous, due to the forthcoming Korean War.
To test the new F4U-5’s above 40,000 ft., our pilots needed hard hats, pressurized cockpits, and ejection seats. Ironically, for three to four months in 1946, we had none of those three necessities!
Vought pilots had never seen nor worn crash helmets. Wearing them would give protection if at high speeds the plane hit an air pocket. When I put in a request for a hard hat, Purchasing could not find a supplier. The military had not accepted hard hats yet. When they did, such hard helmets were plentiful. But that was not until late 1946, several months after my request. For me, having played football at an eastern college, I was able to get surplus football helmets from my school’s athletic department. The electrical shop at Chance Vought wired them for radio communications. That was as close as we got to hard hats. Although gaudy, they worked. I’ve kept (actually my mother kept) my primitive helmet, and it generates many questions at book signings.