Column: 50 years after Grumman crash, still wondering ‘what if’

A half-century has passed since a fateful test flight at the Grumman base in Calverton claimed the lives of Charles “Buck” Wangeman and Ralph “Dixie” Donnell.

About three months before the April 21, 1967, crash, Sam Fletcher was reassigned from his position as flight test manager of the F-111B program, for which his close friend Mr. Donnell remained as Grumman’s chief test pilot. Mr. Fletcher, who grew up in Baldwin and summered as a kid at his grandfather’s South Jamesport home, had earned a scholarship through Grumman that enabled him to study engineering at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, leading to his full-time employment with the company starting in 1950.

Following a career that spanned nearly four decades — working on nearly every plane Grumman designed — Mr. Fletcher settled in Williamsburg, Va., with his wife, who died about a year and a half ago. Now 89, he lives in a retirement community, where he remains active. He plans to give a talk about the F-111B program this month to a Virginia aviation historical group.

Mr. Fletcher often thinks back to that test flight 50 years ago and can’t help but wonder, “What if?”

What if he had still been actively running the program?

Would he have noticed the mislabeled switch added to the cockpit? Could the entire travesty have been avoided?

“I really have thought about it ever since,” he said in a recent interview. “[The pilots] never had a chance.”

A few weeks after the crash, Mr. Fletcher viewed film from a Fairchild Flight Analyzer camera that recorded a sequence of strip photos showing the takeoff, liftoff, the start of gear retraction, the closing of translating cowls, two puffs of smoke as the engine stalled and the ultimate crash.

“You could see the whole bloody thing,” Mr. Fletcher said.

An accident report from the Naval Aviation Safety Center outlined how the crash occurred and how it could have been easily prevented. Engineers had toyed with the experimental craft’s airflow system, which fed oxygen into the jet engines. Unbeknownst to the pilots, a switch that should have opened the airflow cowls had been mislabeled with scotch tape and advisory lights in the cockpit were switched off as the cowls closed, the report stated, according to prior coverage. About eight seconds after the landing gear on the jet retracted, the cowls shut off completely, choking off the engine.

The pilots couldn’t escape because a handle on the escape capsule had been poorly designed and tended to jam when pulled quickly, Mr. Fletcher said.

“The handle was broken off,” he said. “Probably Ralph broke it off in the process of trying to get out.”

The long forgotten story of Mr. Donnell, 46, and Mr. Wangeman, 29, resurfaced late last year when Aldo Catsaros, a local aeronautics history buff, and Tim Lent, a former Grumman employee, began a plan to place a boulder at the memorial park in Calverton to honor the two pilots. The News-Review featured the story last November, and then last month the Riverhead Town Board informally OK’d bringing in a three-ton boulder, to which a plaque would be affixed.

“It’s absolutely perfect for the plaque,” Mr. Catsaros said in describing the boulder last month.

A few years ago Mr. Fletcher connected with Mr. Donnell’s son, Bruce. Through Bruce, he found recent News-Review coverage of the memorial plans. He hopes to contribute in any way he can, and possibly raise money by sharing the story with retired Grumman workers.

Over the past years, Mr. Fletcher has always loved sharing stories about Mr. Donnell. He’s even written some of them for the Grumman Retiree Club Newsletter.

Mr. Donnell had been an Army Air Corps fighter pilot during World War II. He flew P-51 Mustangs against the Nazi Luftwaffe. While over enemy territory, Mr. Donnell shot down a German fighter plane, which exploded and tore a wing off his Mustang.

He was captured and held at Stalag Luft III, the same German prisoner-of-war camp featured in the classic war film “The Great Escape.” During that time Mr. Donnell learned to speak German.

Mr. Fletcher tells the story of how that language came in handy years later. It was the 1950s when Grumman was trying to sell the F-11A Tiger fighter jet to Germany. A German group arrived in Calverton, where Mr. Donnell performed a flight demo. He found himself as an unofficial host for the contingent and the foreigners would often speak in German when they didn’t want the hosts to hear what they were saying.

“Ralph never let on that he understood every word until they were about to say goodbye,” Mr. Fletcher said.

Mr. Donnell wished them goodbye, saying “auf wiedersehen,” and told them he hoped they had learned enough on the tour to reach a decision.

The Germans were stunned, Mr. Fletcher said. They asked him how he knew German.

At Stalag Luft III, he responded.

“He was always pulling some kind of stunt,” Mr. Fletcher said.

Photo caption: Ralph ‘Dixie’ Donnell, then a captain in the Army Air Corps, poses on a P-51 Mustang while working as flight instructor at Luke Field in Phoenix, Ariz. Mr. Donnell would later serve as Grumman’s chief test pilot. (Credit: Donnell family, courtesy)

The author is the editor of the Riverhead News-Review and The Suffolk Times. He can be reached at 631-354-8049 or [email protected].