Aircraft designs were constantly modified. Toward the end of the war, the redesigned Focke Wolfe 190, a formidable fighter, had a smaller turning radius than the P39 Thunderbolt. To compensate, the P39N had its wings clipped and shortened to give it a smaller and more competitive turning radius. This had the disadvantage that resulted in a higher wing loading, which necessitated a longer takeoff and faster landing speeds.
In a Wright field hangar, a modified P39N was being checked for a test flight. I was in the pilotís lounge when I was summoned by the CO, the rednecked Colonel Yancy from Georgia, whose florid face and tirades made him a pilotís ogre. Throughout the war he had been assigned to Wright Field, where he eventually became CO of pilots, most of them having completed many overseas combat missions, were assigned to test and report on various American and captured foreign aircraft. He gave me the dubious honor to flight test the modified Thunderbolt the following morning..
I got up early to review the assignment and look over the plane which should have been standing at the end of the long northeast runway. That runway was temporarily inoperative. A unique German plane, a twin diesel engined, Junkers 88, that was being tested had collapsed its landing gear upon landing. Mechanics were swarming about it with jacks and dollies in an effort to take it off the runway and salvage it for further testing. The Thunderbolt was fully loaded with weight to simulate actual conditions required for combat missions. The Colonel had ordered wing tanks used during extended flights, and the plane was on a short 9000 foot long runway bordering the side of the field. I was sure that the plane could not be airborne in that short distance. I wanted to delay the test flight until the long runway was cleared. I passed the mess hall kitchen and took an onion before I went back to the barracks. I slapped my nose until it was red, and crushed the onion and I passed it near my eyes, before I reported to Colonel Yancy.
I told him that I had a cold and suggested that the test flight be postponed until the next day. I suggested that takeoff be from a long runway. He exploded, as usual, and dismissed me. An hour later, as I was watching the attempt to hoist the Junkers on dollies, I saw one of the new test pilots, a brash young man who had completed his overseas missions, climb aboard the Thunderbolt to take it up for a test flight. Colonel Yancy had assigned him for the flight test. I heard the roar of the engine as it laboriously lumbered down the runway trying to get up to takeoff speed. It was still on the ground at the end of the runway and plowed along, a few hundred feet on the soft ground, a wing hit the ground and tore off, then it nosed over in a resounding crash. The limp pilot pulled from the wreck was lucky to be alive. Months after he was released from the hospital, and retired, he would, due to spinal injuries, spend the rest of his life on crutches. I felt some guilt. I had faked an illness not to fly, but I was glad that I did not test that plane that day.
A week later, the Thunderbolt had been repaired. A new wing was in place, and the engine had been replaced with a more powerful Wright Cyclone power plant. The crash dents had been hammered out and the plane repainted. It was now ready on one of the long runways. The Colonel assigned me to test fly the plane. I took the smaller, more compact, chest parachute, instead of the bulky back chute. I wanted more room in the close quarters of the cockpit. The takeoff, though long, was accomplished and I jotted my notes on a lap pad as I climbed to 12,000 feet. Then I went through a series of maneuvers and listed the results. A spin recovery was one of the tests, and as I pulled the nose up into a stall position, I became aware of an ominous creaking and noticed the left wing, the replaced wing was fluttering. Metal fatigue may have set in the framework of the plane, and the wing was becoming loose. I raised the right wing and started a spiral descent to take the load off the now waving wing. I knew I could not land the plane in that condition, and prepared to bail out. The left aileron was inoperative, but the right responded as I rolled the plane on its back. I released the canopy, which flew off, as I ejected at the same time that the wing fluttered away.
I had never jumped before and the fall from the plane was a frightening experience. I was tumbling down and grabbed for the ripcord. Nothing seemed to be happening. My arms were desperately waving, and I had no wings. I was falling, spreadeagle, head down, detached and alone in the sky, except for the detached wing on my left, and the one winged plane plunging to earth far beneath me, when I heard the snap of the opening chute. At the same time, a jolt of unexpected pain of explosive violence flooded my groin. The cords of the chute had passed between my legs and jerked me erect. I almost wished the chute had not opened. Death from a fall from heaven seemed more merciful. The abrupt and perilous test flight was now sheer agony as my chute lowered me harshly to earth. I did not, and could not, properly brace myself for a landing, and the chute dragged me face down, across the plowed furrows of a field. I managed to release the chute pack and the wind carried it away before the chute collapsed against a distant fence. I lay on my back, tenderly clutching an area of my body swollen with torrents of agony.
It seemed an eternity as I lay there in pain. My eyes were closed when I heard footsteps running toward me. Through half closed lids I saw four airmen racing to me, two of them carrying a stretcher. They did not see the chute, which had blown away, and thought I was a corpse, until they heard my groans. They gently loaded me on the stretcher while an ambulance bounced over the furrows to my side. When they undressed me in the hospital, I noticed my pants were wet. During the few weeks of recovery, before I could walk in a somewhat normal fashion, I watched the purple bruises on my thighs slowly fade and diminish, but I had in addition, a huge varicose seal, as large as a hazelnut, take place beside the testicles in my scrotum. It looked like I had three nuts. After a few days, I was able to move about with a widespread walk
Some pilotís flying was on the ball. I flew on three.