When Bird Rock resident David Everett, 64, read the tragic news about Kobe Bryant last Sunday, he immediately flashed back to April 27, 1965. He does whenever a plane crash makes the news.
David’s father, Lou, was an Air Force pilot who flew surveillance missions during the Korean War. Afterward, like his buddy Neil Armstrong, he became a test pilot, flying experimental aircraft at Edwards Air Force Base. (In 1961, he became the first person to pilot a powered flexible-wing aircraft.)
The Ryan XV-5A Vertifan — powered by two General Electric turbojets — could take off vertically, switch to conventional flying and land vertically again. A small plastic model of it sits on David’s coffee table, alongside a copy of the condolence letter President Johnson wrote to his mother after the crash.
David — a software engineer who raised two children with his wife — grabbed the model and used it to illustrate the events that caused his father to miss out on two subsequent generations of his family.
Test pilots were heroes back then, weren’t they?
“Yes. I remember neighbors being impressed by him and mentioning his commercial on television. The astronauts were all originally test pilots back then. But my dad was very humble about it.”
Did your father apply to become an Apollo astronaut?
“Yes, but he knew he was already too old. Somewhere around here, I have his letter to them saying that. I remember our family saying that my dad might go to the moon and there was a possbility he might not make it back. And I remember thinking, ‘Really? You want to go to the moon and you might not come back?’ I remember being a little hurt that he would leave us behind.”
Did Neil Armstrong visit your house when you were a kid?
“I don’t remember Neil coming to the house, but we lived in Lancaster for a period while my dad was working there, and I have friends who tell me there were always astronauts over our house. Well, a lot of these people became astronauts, but they were test pilots back then.”
Did you realize the unusual amount of danger associated with what your dad did?
“Yes. In fact, he was insured by Lloyd’s of London because nobody would insure him. I can’t imagine climbing into this big aircraft and saying, ‘I’m going to control these big engines, take off vertically, switch to conventional flight and then come back.’ It’s got to be just scary. But we knew the risk, because dad crashed at Langley Air Force Base in the Flex-Wing in 1962 or 1963 and he tore up his leg. We went out there to be with him and everyone knew that something could happen.”
What caused his fatal plane crash?
“This is the model. The jet engines redirected exhaust gas from the turbines to spin fans in the wings and take off like a helicopter. Then it converts to conventional flight.
It was a public demonstration of the aircraft, for military and the press, and a bunch of people were there. There were two planes and my dad went zooming by the audience at 180 mph at 800 feet. At the exact wrong time, a switch was hit to start the conversion from conventional to vertical while he was going too fast, and that caused the tail to go up and the nose to go down.”
Did your dad hit the switch by mistake?
“He wore gloves, and they think that either his glove hit the switch, or that something else inadvertently happened. He was the chief test pilot. He had 800 hours on the thing. But there was nothing that could be done. He ejected, but these were early ejection seats with two rockets in them. One didn’t fire and the other one was loaded with the wrong charge. His chute caught on the tail and dragged him. He went down with the plane.”
How did you find out about your dad’s death?
“I was in fourth grade, walking to the bus stop with a friend, Scott Shimp, who knew but didn’t tell me. His family had seen it on the news that morning while eating breakfast. And he said later that he turned his plate of scrambled eggs over.
Scott was asking me, ‘Is anything wrong?’ But I didn’t suspect anything. I got into class, where I was supposed to take a spelling test, and a neighbor, Mrs. Shields, came into the room and whispered to the teacher, who got me and we walked out. Mrs. Shields took us home. We had this big driveway in Bonita Woods. My little brother and I got walked into the house and my mom told us privately.”
It’s not something you’re ever able to get over, is it?
“Growing up without a father is one thing, but then, having this tragic thing was also pretty hard. I was set adrift. I went through high school with no one really guiding me.”
Did you think of following in your father’s footsteps?
“Because he was a pilot, I always kind of wanted to be a pilot. So, I got my pilot’s license and was going to be a jungle pilot. But then I just got interested in electronics and computers, so I switched and started doing that. I’ve been an independent software engineer since 1997. I’ve worked on robotics and motors, autonomous underwater vehicles. I worked for GoPro.”
Do you suspect your father would’ve been happy about that decision?
“Yeah, maybe. I don’t know.”
Are you glad you weren’t there to witness the crash?
“I never thought about that. I was pretty young at the time to witness something like that, and some of the accounts said it was pretty gruesome ... But I’m very curious about what did happen and there’s no film of the whole thing happening. So, just out of morbid curiosity, I’d like to see it now.”
Flight has been so beneficial for the human race that there’s almost an acceptability to the bad things that happen — mechanically and otherwise.
“It’s collateral, it’s part of the process ... but it’s just too bad, because what went wrong that day, he could have still escaped. But too many things went wrong that day. I would have loved to have been able to talk to my father about this kind of stuff. It would have been great.”
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