12 June 2015 l Bowling Green, Kentucky & Polk City, Florida, USA. One motto of the Commonwealth of Kentucky is Deo gratiam habeamus or “Let us be grateful to God.” Kentuckians are proud and grateful to the men and women who have served and sacrificed to obtain and maintain liberty. A noteworthy native son, John ‘Johnny’ J. Magda, Jr., born to Hungarian immigrant parents at Camp Taylor, Kentucky, gave his life in the cause of maintaining freedom and democracy for an American ally.
Not only is Magda remembered for being a brave man and native of Kentucky, but his legacy includes being among a relative handful of elite Grumman F9F Panther pilots.
The extraordinary group of achievers includes Ted Williams, the famous Boston Red Sox baseball player, John Glenn, Friendship 7 astronaut and the first American to orbit the earth, and Neil Armstrong, who commanded Apollo 11 and was the first man to walk on the moon.
As the Military Aviation Chronicles article Florida Panthers (Grumman F9Fs): Revered but No Longer on the Hunt indicates, four-footed ‘Panthers’, as well as a three-footed, man-made, winged aluminum example, are to be seen in the Bluegrass State.
Yes, Kentucky, just as the Sunshine State, possesses ‘Panthers’ of the animal variety albeit they are probably cougars, mountain lions or pumas and wildlife officials are skeptical as to their existence. Referencing claims of sightings, a respondent, who goes by the moniker ‘IrishTom29’, to a post on the CityData.com Web page Mountain Lions/Cougars back in Kentucky! posted the following: “There are several uses of the term ‘panther’. . . If ole Daniel Boone ran into a ‘cougar’ he probably called it a ‘panther’.”
Kentucky can additionally boast to having an authentic Grumman Panther in residence. An F9F-5, which is on loan from the National Naval Aviation Museum in Pensacola, Florida, sits inert inside the Aviation Heritage Park in Bowling Green, Kentucky.
The type and model are forever preserved in Hollywood’s production of The Bridges of Toko Ri, which starred William Holden as the fictional Harry Brubaker, who in the film, like John Magda, Jr., was a World War II U.S. Navy fighter pilot died during the Korean War after his Panther was hit by ground fire.
Prior to attaining prominence at the controls of F9F-2s, John Magda, an athlete who graduated Western Kentucky State Teachers’ College in 1940, worked his way up through the U.S. Navy’s pilot training program at Naval Air Station, Pensacola, Florida, beginning in January 1941.
In June 1941 Ensign Magda, with the wings of a naval aviator on his tunic, learned to fly fighter planes.
At the time, the most modern U.S. Navy (USN) types were the Brewster F2A Buffalo and Grumman F4F Wildcat, both of which were generally inferior in performance to their future foe, which was the Imperial Japanese Navy’s Mitsubishi A6M Zero. August of 1941 found John Magda assigned to VF-8, which was at the time equipped with Wildcats and based on the aircraft carrier USS Hornet.
In the midst one mission during the June 1942 Battle of Midway Ensign Magda’s relatively short-ranged F4F exhausted its fuel supply after the determined pilot attacked three Japanese aircraft. Magda ditched the powerless plane into the Pacific Ocean, and he another aviator subsequently drifted in a life raft for 5 days until located and recovered.
John J. Magda, Jr., survived World War II and in 1948 became a member of the first jet (North American FJ-1 Furys) squadron (VF-5A — the ‘Screaming Eagles’) to operate aboard an aircraft carrier (USS Boxer – CV 21).
Transitioning to turbine power did present a few challenges for aviators. The turbojets were faster but at the same time temperamental. At altitude the thirsty jets were in their element, but down low reciprocating contemporaries such as the Grumman F8F Bearcat and Hawker Sea Fury were generally superior in performance. In fact a segment titled Flying Bearcats with The Horsemen Aerobatic Team, contained on the DVD Ultimate Aviation DVD Series Volume 1, also records the point that the highly capable Bearcats approximated the landing speeds and associated approach profiles of extant jets.
VF-5A was soon re-designated ‘VF-51’ and operated FJ-1s beginning in August 1948. Whenever a new aircraft enters service pilots acclimate themselves to the intricacies of each new design and the manufacturer discovers and rectifies problems.
At 5:00 p.m. on 3 May 1948 Lieutenant Commander Magda made an approach to USS Princeton in FJ-1 Fury #120366. Initially all was well, but according to the USN’s Aircraft Accident Card, after establishing a rate of descent that was excessive he applied too much ‘up’ elevator. The result was that the after part of the fuselage contacted the deck and the arresting hook broke.” The damaged Fury traveled up the deck only to be stopped by the erected Mk. 5 crash barrier. Fortunately, the barriers operated as designed, but nose wheel failure occurred and increased the extent of damage. An inspection found that the tail hook was broken and the entire length of the fuselage and ‘components’ in scattered areas had incurred major structural damage. Although the cause was officially classified as ‘PE’ (pilot error) as a result of judgment or technique, lessons were learned by the Navy as well as Magda.
Two years later John Magda was flying turbojet-powered Grumman F9F-2s. The F9F-2 was the first production version, powered by Pratt & Whitney ‘J42‘ (a license-built Rolls-Royce RB.41 Nene) engine. Specifically, the J42 Turbo Wasp centrifugal-flow turbojet was rated at 5,000 pound force (lbf) (26.5 kN) with water injection.
Significantly, F9F-2s were the Blue Angels first jet mounts. As the commander of the 1950 team, Magda took command in January 1950 after the unit’s upgrade from the F8F-1.
When the jet era arrived for the Blue Angels John Magda, Jr., was the man who led the pilots as they transitioned to performing in the larger, heavier and faster 500-knot (575 mph, 925 km/h) F9F-2 Panther. The demonstration squadron was equipped with F9F-2s from 1949 to 1950.
However, in November war broke out in Asia as Communists forces in North Korea attempted to overrun the democratic south. Panthers went to sea aboard aircraft carriers and entered the fray.
Operating from rolling and pitching decks, and in flying machines in general regardless of the environment, entails some degree of uncertainly and carries a chance for unexpected accidents. At 5:08 p.m. on 14 November 1950, after completing a combat air patrol above the task force, Lieutenant Commander Magda came aboard USS Princeton in F9F-2B #123631. He “made a normal carrier approach and landed in a tail low attitude.” The tail hook struck the deck, gouging 7 inches into a wood plank. The toe of the hook struck a steel cleat and “either broke off at this point or 7 feet further up the deck on the hook’s first bounce after contact with the cleat.” The Panther hurtled up the deck until “arrested by the number 1 Davis type barrier.” The incident report continues, “The cause of this accident was hook breakage due to a freak blow on a cross deck steel tie-down cleat.” Damage was additionally sustained to the right tip tank, left and right landing gears, left and right landing gear fairings, miscellaneous hydraulic hoses, right outboard flap assembly, left and right wheel doors, and a ram air duct.
Notably, the sleek straight-wing jets soon made their mark in aerial fighting when the first MiG-15 was downed on 9 November 1950 by Lieutenant Commander William Amen of VF-111 (the ‘Sundowners’). Amen was piloting an F9F-2B.
Although the F9F was slower (575 miles per hour/500 knots/925 kilometer per hour) than the MiG-15 (616 miles per hour/536 knots/992 kilometers per hour at 10,000 meters/33,000 ft), the Panther possessed deadly fangs in the form of four 20 mm (0.79 in) M2 cannons and the American naval aviators were generally better trained than their opponents.
The Aviation Heritage Park’s website states the following about the F9F: “The system was primarily utilized as a close-support strike aircraft but could hold its own against the Soviet-built MiG jet fighters fielded by North Korea and China.” Notably, Panthers were the most widely used U.S. Navy jet fighter of the Korean War, undertaking some 78,000 sorties and scoring the first air-to-air kill by the U.S. Navy.
On 8 March 1951 at 1:25 p.m. John J. Magda, Jr., was flying an armed reconnaissance mission. His mount (F9F-2B #123621) was, the loss report indicates, hit in the vicinity of a fuel cell by enemy anti-aircraft fire over Tanchon, Korea after a strafing run. The “under part of the aircraft burned heavily,” states the document.
Magda headed north toward the sea and in the direction of friendly ships at Songjin. When nearly over the Allied vessels he commenced a nose high turn at about 3,000 feet. The fatally wounded Panther, now uncontrollable, rolled over and spiraled into the water at a 45 degree angle. Lieutenant Commander Magda was thrown clear of the aircraft but did not survive. His body was recovered. ‘Johnny’ Magda was thus the only Blue Angels member to die during the conflict.
Jim Winchester indicates (page 97) in Military Aircraft of the Cold War that Panthers continued to serve in small numbers into the 1960s and beginning in September 1962 operational Panthers were re-designated ‘F-9’. In fact, former U.S. Navy air intelligence officer J.R. Hafer, the founder and publisher of 20th Century Aviation Magazine, encountered Panthers several times after entering the Navy. “There were a few F9Fs still in service when I entered the Navy in 1963,” remarked Mr. Hafer.He added, “Most were used as photo reconnaissance aircraft and drones.”
On 27 October 2006 Western Kentucky University honored John J. Magda, Jr., by inducting him into the institution’s Hall of Distinguished Alumni, and on 3 November 2007 the highly decorated Magda was inducted into the Aviation Hall of Fame in Lexington, Kentucky. John J. Magda Jr.’s remains rest in Louisville’s Zachary Taylor National Cemetery. All Americans, not just citizens of Kentucky, can and should take great pride in this Kentucky hero.
The author (John T. Stemple) thanks the Aviation Heritage Park in Bowling Green, Kentucky, Michael W. Pocock of www.maritimequest.com, Craig Fuller of Aviation Archaeological Investigation & Research and J.R. Hafer for providing information, insights and images.
Sources & Suggested Readings
A Blue Angel’s First Combat Flight at Midway
Battle of Midway
Blue Angels History
Blue Angels 1950s
Brewster F2A Buffalo
Captain Theodore Williams Crash Lands
Daniel Boone in Kentucky
Flying Bearcats with The Horsemen Aerobatic Team. Ultimate Aviation DVD Series Volume 1. TNM, 2012.
Fort Boonesborough History
Daniel Boone and The History of Fort Boonesborough
First Jet on Jet Kill
Flight Journal: Four Down!
Florida Panther Net
Green, William and Gordon Swanborough, The Complete Book of Fighters, New York: Smithmark, 1994, p. 106.
Grumman F4F Wildcat
Grumman F8F Bearcat
Grumman Panther F9F – Aviation Heritage Park
Grumman F9F Panther
Hawker Sea Fury
Hawker Sea Fury FB.11
John Herschel Glenn, Jr. (Colonel, USMC, Ret.)
John Joseph Magda, Jr.
Johnny Magda Inducted into Kentucky Aviation Hall of Fame
Lawson, Robert L. Lawson (ed.) The History of US Naval Air Power. New York: The Military Press 1985, p. 109.
LCDR John “Johnny” J. Magda
Lieutenant Commander John J. Magda, Jr.
List of military aircraft of the United States (naval)
Mitsubishi A6M Zero
Mountain Lions/ Cougars back in Kentucky!
North American FJ-2/-3 Fury
National Naval Aviation Museum
North American FJ-1 Fury
Notable Panther Pilots: Ted Williams & Royce Williams
Rolls-Royce RB.41 Nene/Pratt & Whitney J42/JT6
The 15 Minute War at 26,000 feet
The Official Ted Williams Site: Korean War
The Bridges at Toko-Ri
USS Boxer (CV-21)
USS Hornet (CV-8)
USS Princeton (CV-37)
Winchester, Jim, ed. “Grumman F9F Panther”. Military Aircraft of the Cold War (The Aviation Factfile). London: Grange Books, 2006.