Amazing Aviation Tales: The Lead Bombing

I’ve been talking with a friend for a while about starting another blog called, “Amazing Aviation Tales.” I’ve got the domain name, but I thought I’d post a few items on this blog to see how it goes before I activate the other website.

The idea is to tell true stories of amazing things that have happened in airplanes that people have lived to tell about. The stories will be kept as generic as possible to protect both the innocent and the guilty. If anyone has a story they would like to submit, please contact me at eabjorkman@aol.com. You can either write the story yourself (and I will give you credit if you want your name used) or you can provide me the details and I’ll do the actual write up.

So here we go for the first story, which is in two categories: “Things falling off of airplanes” and “I’d rather be lucky than good!”

Two test pilots were flying a bomber on a mission to do what’s known as “flutter and loads” testing – basically, taking the airplane to its speed and g limits to make sure the wings (or other parts of the airplane) don’t fall off. We’ll call the pilot in command Major Paul.

For the test, the bomber had 1,500 pounds of lead ballast inside the rear fuselage to simulate ammunition normally carried in the tail. The airplane also carried a dozen missiles attached on the wings.

The test points required the pilots to make abrupt, full deflection control inputs that rattled the airplane and pilots like a freight train, especially when using the rudder. Another pilot also flew in a chase airplane to watch the bomber during each test point and check for damage after each maneuver.

During one test point, Major Paul dove the bomber from 27,000 feet to 22,000 feet to get the airplane to its airspeed limit and then abruptly moved the yoke and rudder as required. As he finished the maneuver, the chase pilot called on the radio, “A panel just fell off back by the tail.”

“Which panel?” asked the bomber co-pilot.

“I don’t know. I’m not familiar with your airplane.”

Major Paul called the test director in the control room on the ground, “Any idea what just fell off?”

“Negative. We’re baffled too.”

Major Paul started a slow turn back to the base to set up for a landing. The two airplanes remained at 20,000 feet as the chase pilot continued to describe what he saw and added, “It looks like there are some wires hanging from the opening.”

Major Paul flew over the housing area at the base and turned the plane towards the east. Just as he finished his turn, the chase pilot called out, “Whoa! Something big just fell out!”

At that instant, Major Paul realized that 1,500 pounds of lead was heading for the ground.

People at the base working outside said the ballast sounded like a bomb as it came down and smashed into the ground, spraying up a 100-foot tall mushroom dust cloud.

The “bomb” had landed right next to the center taxiway, narrowly missing a pilot in a fighter airplane taxiing in from a mission.

The wing commander met our heroes, but they weren’t in trouble. Instead, the contractor that built the airplane was. They had to go back and redesign the rack holding the lead in the tail so it wouldn’t fall off again!