The Panther That Flew Itself

Maybe the oddest accident report ever filed.

Maybe the oddest accident report ever filed: the F9F Panther that flew itself. (Photo-illustration by Théo; F9F and accident report: U.S. Navy)
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The weather was good on the morning of March 19, 1951, as Lieutenant Ed Boudinot of squadron VF-52 and his flight instructor prepared their Grumman F9F-3 Panthers for takeoff from Naval Air Station San Diego. Boudinot, a World War II combat veteran, was a novice to jets, which were still a new and immature technology.

The aviators of VF-52 flew the F9F-3, equipped with underpowered Allison J-33 engines, which had an intricate fuel management system. For the final preflight check on his Panther, call sign Sugar 209, Boudinot toggled his fuel management system to the takeoff position, then pushed his fuel system emergency check switch, a means of momentarily dropping fuel pressure to test fuel pump recovery. When working properly, system sensors detected dips in fuel flow and automatically adjusted.

As Sugar 209’s engine wound down, the instructor’s voice came over the radio: “Your plane’s on fire!” Boudinot leapt from the cockpit, slid down the port wing, and sprinted to safety.

Soon, seeing no fire, Boudinot cautiously approached Sugar 209. But as he reached the wing, the engine’s whine increased to a roar and Sugar 209’s wheels began to roll. The desperate pilot gave chase and managed to clamber onto the wing, but as Sugar 209 accelerated, the rush of wind blew him off and he tumbled away. Unhurt, he could only watch as Sugar 209 barreled down the runway.

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Lester R. “Bob” Smith was standing squadron duty officer watch in the ready room of VF-52’s hangar. Now 85 and a retired rear admiral, Smith recently explained by phone that making the jump from propeller-driven Corsairs to jet-powered Panthers was a “gigantic step.” Confined to the windowless ready room, Smith heard nothing until the phone rang.

“This is the tower. Sugar 209 crashed on takeoff.”

“Was there an ejection?” Bob asked.

“No sign of ejection,” the tower replied. “He climbed steeply and then dove steeply into the channel.”

“Can you see the pilot in the water?” Smith asked, looking at the ready room board to determine who was in the airplane.

“No, there’s an explosion. There’s no chance of survival.”

“Oh my God!” Smith exclaimed. “It’s Boudinot!”

“What’s going on?” demanded Squadron Executive Officer Mike South, who overheard Bob Smith’s end of the tower call.

“Boudinot’s dead! He crashed!” Smith cried.

Smith related what happened next: “Just as Mike finishes with the tower, who walks through the door but Ed Boudinot and the instructor pilot. I don’t remember if it was Mike, me, or both of us that said: ‘It can’t be! You’re dead!’ ”

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An accident board eventually produced the official cause of Sugar 209’s problem: “Apparently emergency fuel system did not cut in” properly, and when it finally did, it “injected too large a quantity of fuel in combustion chambers.” This accounted for the fireball that chased Ed Boudinot out of the cockpit. Then the plane “weathercocked to right into wind and accelerated,” and hit a dip in the runway. The slight rise unstuck the nose wheel violently.” This upward lurch, “coupled with the 1/2 mark back tab setting, caused the aircraft to become airborne in a very nose high attitude.” After “it climbed to an estimated altitude of 700 feet…the nose fell through and a/c hit the water 150 feet off NAS pier George.”

Ed Boudinot was ultimately cleared to resume flying (he went on to a long airline piloting career, and died in 2006). Fortunately, before deploying to Korea in 1952, the squadron switched to F9F-2s—a later version of the Panther despite the lower number, equipped with more powerful and reliable Pratt & Whitney J-42s—and no Panthers flew by accident again.

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