16 September 2016 | Nanton and Calgary, Alberta, Canada. John T. Stemple, a photojournalist, flew to Calgary to attend the ceremonies and meet up with Kendra Davis, a colleague from Vulcan, Alberta* who reports for Vulcan TV and Nanton Aviation Station, to cover the August Bomber Command Museum of Canada 30th anniversary events in Nanton.
Meanwhile, John knew in downtown Calgary a 1963-vintage Canadair Model CL-90 CF-104 Starfighter (RCAF serial number 104846) supersonic tactical fighter sat on display inside the Ken and Roma Lett Cold War Exhibit at the Air Force Museum of Alberta.
Fortunately for 20th Century Aviation Magazine it did not require a Vulcan mind meld to access them, and in the paragraphs below John reminisces about learning at a very early age, after witnessing a segment of a tragic JF-104A crash, of the inexplicable calamities of life and inherent dangers of operating high performance military aircraft in addition to his more recent and pleasant associations with the legendary F-104 Starfighter.
The Lockheed F-104 interceptor, first flown on 4 March 1954, and Canadair Starfighters were, due to their blistering maximum speeds that could exceed Mach 2 (a speed comparable to that of the Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor, which is the USAF’s newest air superiority fighter) termed “a missile with a man in it” by many. In fact, CF-104s were probably the fastest operational aircraft the Canadian Forces ever operated. During their service life, for American and NATO pilots there was perhaps no “hotter” ship than the F-104/CF-104. “They were very alluring, considering their aesthetics and blazing speed,” stated John Stemple.
Another factor contributing to Mr. Stemple’s affinity for Starfighters is that several records were set by F-104s on two of John’s childhood birthdays. One was a new world altitude record of 31,513 metres (103,389 feet) and F-104s also set several time-to-climb marks. “These touted achievements captured my attention and that of the general public because the jet and space ages were fairly new. In the 1960s most television stations ceased broadcasting programming in the early morning hours. A popular station sign-off was a film (see “Suggested Viewings” at the end of this article to view it) that featured an F-104 flying while the famous sonnet (High Flight) composed by RCAF-American John Gillespie Magee, Jr. was read aloud,” said John. He added, “It was a most exciting time for aerospace aficionados.”
Yet, Starfighters, as all high performance military aircraft, could be dangerous to the aviators who piloted them. Their small, thin wings necessitated careful manoeuvring on behalf of the pilot. Ken Lett, former RCAF squadron commander, told (see the article Cold War exhibit does Canada proud) the Calgary Herald in 2015 the following: Starfighters “could be deadly, especially for the beginners.” The article states that 37 Canadian airmen were killed in crashes involving the CF-104 alone.
Wikipedia indicates that Canada lost 46% of its F-104s (110 of 235), the write off rate of the F-104 in USAF service was 26.7 accidents per 100,000 flight hours as of June 1977 and 30.63 through the end of 2007, and the German Air Force lost about 30% of its aircraft to accidents.
Notably and unfortunately, the early production models of USAF Starfighters utilized a downward-firing Stanley C-1 ejection seat. This feature made low-altitude ejections dangerous, and 21 American pilots died after activating the units. One who survived such an experience on 2 November 1959 was USAF Major James William Bradbury. Mr. Stemple, then a mere youngster, related his connection to the tragic saga of that winter day.
“Life was simpler and in some ways more enjoyable in that era,” remarked John. Computer games were not even dreamed of in the late 1950s. “We boys spent our summers building and flying RC or free-flight, powered model aeroplanes and practicing archery,” explained John.
The area terrain was largely open country with a spattering of housing. Riffles Carry Out, a family owned and operated store, was just up the road, as was the nearest primary school (Fairbrook Elementary) and a Beavercreek fire station was situated up the hill. A survivor of The Great Escape resided on a farm in close proximity.
John’s father was employed at Gentile Air Force Station, a military centre named after WW II fighter ace and Ohioan Don Gentile who had, during the early years of the Second World War, been recruited by the RCAF for service in the Royal Air Force (RAF) and eventually an RAF Eagle Squadron. The primary USAF installation in the region, Wright Patterson Air Force Base (WPAFB), was an important facility and remains so.
“In those days it was not unusual to hear relatively frequent sonic booms produced by military aircraft departing or transiting overhead,” commented Mr. Stemple. However, this November day area residents would be startled by a different loud sound, one generated by an explosion after a Starfighter fell from the sky.
Although the full investigative report is still classified, the redacted USAF Report Of AF Aircraft Accident provides the pertinent details. The weather in the vicinity of WPAFB was satisfactory for flying. The sky contained broken cloud at 1066 metres or 3500 feet. Visibility was 24 kilometres (15 miles). Winds were from the northwest at 14 knots, and the air temperature was 7.8 Celsius or 46 degrees Fahrenheit.
Major James William Bradbury, age 34, was posted to the Directorate of Flight and All Weather Test section at WPAFB. He had been a rated USAF Command Pilot since 1954, having his air force pilot wings on 8 February 1944. Bradbury possessed 3440 total flying hours. He was scheduled to fly on the fateful morning of 2 November, and he duly suited up to fly with Air Materiel Command and the 2750th Air Base Wing.
Bradbury climbed into the sleek jet (JF-104A-1-LO, Serial number 55-2964A), went through the prestart checks, and afterward started the powerful General Electric J-79 turbojet powerplant. The gauges and instruments all contained normal readings.
The major subsequently taxied out to the active runway at WPAFB’s Patterson Field. At 0942 (Eastern Standard Time) hours the tower cleared the JF-104A* for “take-off on runway 23-Right with a left turn out of traffic” and Bradbury given a wind direction of 310 degrees. He pointed the needle-like nose straight down the long airstrip. Upon brake release he switched on the photo-panel camera and advanced the throttle slowly into the afterburner/reheat range according to the instructions received in the preflight briefing.
Takeoff was normal. With a trail of flame produced by the afterburner as Starfighter 55-2964A rapidly accelerated to take-off speed. Major Bradbury rotated and entered the ascent phase of flight but when he retarded the throttle to disengage the afterburner Bradbury “heard and felt a moderate explosion.” The pilot radioed the tower and declared an emergency, reported engine problems and gave the aircraft’s position as east of Wright Field.
The tower operator answered immediately and stated that he had “seen a flash out of the tailpipe. . . .” Then, Bradbury “decided that he could not make it to either Wright or Patterson Field and to attempt it would only place him over a populated area for bail out.” The major informed the tower of “his intention to proceed southeast to an open area and bail out” and squawked emergency on the IFF frequency.
By then the crippled F-104 was losing altitude, and “the pilot knew that with the downward ejection seat he could not delay his ejection much longer. Bradbury was over relatively open country side and could see no appreciable change in topography ahead so “at approximately 0947 and about two minutes from brake release at an estimated altitude of 304 metres (1,000 feet) the pilot reported he was bailing out.” As Bradbury reached for the O-Ring to activate the ejection seat the Starfighter suddenly pitched downward. Therefore, “He reached back to the stick, pulled the nose up slightly and again reached for the O-Ring and ejected. The seat separation and chute deployment took place automatically with the chute opening at an estimated 500 feet.”
Hanging beneath the parachute canopy Major Bradbury observed the JF-104A make a slight turn to the left. Tragically, the Starfighter “struck the ground in a very shallow angle just to the rear of a frame out-building and careened into the northwest corner of a brick house. . . .” Two young sisters, one age 12 and the other 2 years of age, inside the structure were undoubtedly killed immediately. The girls’ 34-year-old mother dashed from the inferno that erupted around and in what had been the house, a converted brick school building, with her clothing afire.
Simultaneously a man was driving past the house when the plane hit and slid across a road which was more than 15 metres (50 feet) away. Fire completely enveloped his vehicle. He lost control and hit a ditch about 45 metres (50 yards) down the road. When the driver saw the house he realized that the structure was a complete wreck, and he spotted the mother running cross the yard with her clothing alight. Neighbours extinguished the flames by beating the burning fabric and then rushed the screaming woman to a hospital where she died 4 days later.
At the time the Stemple family was living in Greene County, Ohio, about one half-mile away from the crash site and approximately 12.8 kilometres (8 miles) southwest of WPAFB. The dwelling was situated on the crest of Cedarwood Lane.
John Stemple spoke of conditions just prior to the crash. “It was surreal,” stated John. “It is inexplicable how nature senses tragedies. We lived next to a wooded area and birds were continually singing, but prior to the Starfighter’s impact and immediately in the aftermath it was deathly silent.”
The Stemple trio witnessed Bradbury floating down beneath his parachute and coming to rest in a tree just down the street. The chute pack terminated its plunge atop the Stemple’s driveway, and the ejection seat impacted in the field behind their home. A vertical column of thick, black smoke just over the tree line marked the demise of the JF-104 and 2 incinerated girls.
The pilot extricated himself from the tree and walked, unhurt, a few metres to an adjacent home and telephoned WPAFB to report the accident. The following day a Dayton Daily News account noted the pilot’s survival: “Major Bradbury is one of the few men to survive ejection from a Starfighter one Air Force source said.”
“Major Bradbury must have been devastated,” John surmised. “Personally, I cannot fathom why such horrible things occur.” He continued, “There but for the grace of God. Had the abandoned aircraft taken up a slightly different glide path the destroyed home could have been an immediate neighbour’s or ours.”
When the still popular science-fiction series Star Trek debuted in 1966 John was further captivated by the lure of flight and intrigued by the introduction of a character from the fictional planet Vulcan. The first season productions included an episode, which aired 26 January 1967, titled Tomorrow Is Yesterday which incorporated, when the writers scripted that a USAF F-104 would intercept the damaged USS Enterprise, stock footage of F-104s.
“I learned some truths from that script,” stated John. “A primary teaching, whether it was intentional or not, is that every human is important. In the television show the F-104 pilot, a character by the name of Captain John Christopher, was initially believed to be of no real importance to history. However, Vulcan and USS Enterprise First Officer Spock eventually discovered the aviator’s son would become a noteworthy astronaut. Thus, Christopher could not be removed from the time in which he lived.”
Mr. Stemple related a parallel drawn from reality: “Renowned physicist Albert Einstein’s father Hermann struggled in business and had to rely upon relatives to help pay his business debts. Later in life the parent, being human, may have harboured thoughts of personal inconsequence. Yet, we know his son Albert, who also encountered personal troubles and sometimes made errors in life, conceived of the Theory of Relativity. Had Hermann not existed his genius son would not have been born, and the world perhaps would not have benefited from the scientific insights Albert promulgated,” explained Mr. Stemple. John then pointed out that the scriptwriters obviously drew from Albert’s revolutionary theories and wove the now proven concepts of black holes and time warps contained therein into the script.
The references to Hermann and Albert Einstein also indicate that, as John concluded, “We are all the result of our cumulative successes and failures. Such is human existence.”
Little did John Stemple know at the time of the premier showing of Tomorrow Is Yesterday that it would air again on the day he first soloed an airplane. One wonders if that were mere coincidence? John thinks not.
A small number of airworthy F-104s still exist, but it has been years since Mr. Stemple has seen one aloft in its natural element. Nevertheless John periodically puts the Tomorrow Is Yesterday DVD into his video player and for the better part of an hour relives the events associated with the F-104, an aeroplane which has obviously left an indelible mark upon his life and philosophies.
*The town of Vulcan became associated with actor and fictional Vulcan Leonard Nimoy after he journeyed to the community many years ago.
*The JF-104A was an aircraft modified by Lockheed for specific testing purposes.
The author (Susan Gale) thanks John T. Stemple, Bomber Command Museum of Canada, Nanton Aviation Station, Vulcan TV, Dunrobincastle.com and Gary Watson (Director of the Air Force Museum Society of Alberta). Furthermore, the 20th Century Aviation Magazine staff wish to thank General Manager Andrea Townshend (and staff members Andrea Ramsay, Cara Gray and Mercedes Brentnall) of the High River Ramada Hotel and Kathryn of the Auditorium Hotel in Nanton for their exceptional hospitality and customer service.
Sources and Suggested Readings
2 Children Die As Airplane Slams Into House After Pilot Bails out
Air Force Museum of Alberta
Bomber Command Museum of Canada celebrates 30 years
Canadair CF-104 Starfighter (CF-111, CL-90)
ASN Wikibase Occurrence # 47293
BBC – Universe General relativity: Warped space-time. . . .
BCATP Station Vulcan
Canada Aviation Museum Aircraft Lockheed / Canadair F-104A Starfighter
Canadair CF-104 Starfighter
Canadair CF-104 Starfighter
Cold War exhibit does Canada proud
Einstein Was Right: General Relativity Confirmed
Einstein was right: space and time bend
Einstein’s theory is proved – and it is bad news if you own a penthouse
General Electric J79
Gentile Air Force Station
Lockheed F-104A Starfighter
Lockheed CF-104 Starfighter
Lockheed F-104C Starfighter
Lockheed F-104 Starfighter
Lockheed F-104 Starfighter
NASA Announces Results of Epic Space-Time Experiment
RCAF Aerodrome Vulcan – Abandoned Places
RCAF Station Vulcan
Satellite confirms we live space-time warp:
The not quite right stuff – F-104 Starfighter
The Vulcan Mind Meld
Theory of Relativity
Tomorrow is Yesterday
Welcome to the Town of Vulcan
World War II: The Great Escape
Wright-Patterson Air Force Base