Vintage Space Fun Fact: Crossfield’s Worst Landing

I stumbled across this picture the other day and was reminded of the story. I thought it was worth retelling. This is the result of Crossfield’s first landing in an F-100 – I’d recommend clicking for the full resolution version. Credit: NASA

Scott Crossfield held that every pilot had a specialty. In his case it was landings, specifically landings without power often called dead stick landing. So how did Crossfield, a former flight instructor and by all accounts an ace pilot, manage to land a plane then drive it through a hangar wall? It was only partly the fault of the plane; it was mostly the fault of the pilot.

Crossfield’s first flight in an F-100A was on September 8, 1954. He took off from the concrete runway at Edwards and rose, almost vertically, into a clear sky. At 35,000 feet he leveled off and immediately saw two warning lights light up on his instrument panel. He had a fire in the forward end of his engine, the compressor section. That’s where all the fuel lines, gear boxes, and other vital flight systems were housed. Pilots at Edwards had a saying about compressor fires: if you have one and you haven’t blown up yet, you’re about to. Crossfield had no choice but to shut down the engine and land immediately.

Crossfield the day he became the first man to fly Mach 2 in a Douglas D-558-II Skyrocket. November 20, 1953. Credit: NASA

A panel bolted next to the compressor fire light echoed the pilots’ axiom. It advised him to shut down the engine. He did; the light flickered before turning back on full strength. If the light remained on, the panel advised, bail out. But Crossfield had no intention of abandoning the crippled F-100. He was paid to test aircraft in flight and bring them back in one piece, fighting to save the bird was a matter of professional pride. The problem was – in addition to the fire – that no one thought the F-100 could land without power. Crossfield thought otherwise. Dead stick landings were, after all, his self-professed specialty.

He declared an emergency, signaling to nearby aircraft and personel to give him a wide berth as he lined up for a landing. He managed to bring the aircraft down in what he thought was his best landing to date. He was so pleased with his performance he decided to show off a little more – he decided to coast off the lakebed and roll right up the ramp and through the front door of the hangar. Unfortunately, he was going too fast in an unhealthy aircraft that turned out to be nearly uncontrollable. He rolled through the main hangar doors but couldn’t stop. He luckily missed the whole fleet of X-aircraft as the F-100 rolled all the way to the far wall and crashed right through it.

Chuck Yeager never let Crossfield live it down, joking that he may have broken through the sonic wall but the hangar wall was all Crossfield’s doing. Director of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics’ research centre at Edwards Walt Williams took a different tactic. He hung a sign at the base of the ramp: “Please come to a complete stop before taxiing up ramp.”


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