I tried to make a Mayday radio call, but all I could hear in my headset was loud static. Just a bit above me, the overcast was punctured by the fireball’s trail. In its wake, patterns of light that looked like Japanese umbrellas exploded every thousand feet. I pushed the control stick to the right and looked for the airstrip, when to my pleasant surprise the beacon appeared through the smoke and haze just 25 miles away. By now the static in my headset had subsided somewhat, and the smoke under my feet had begun to dissipate. For the first time in a few long seconds, I thought I might have a chance of surviving.
I had no idea about the overall condition of my airplane, but it responded to my control input so at least I could point it toward home. I tried another Mayday call. I was relieved when my controller acknowledged it and vectored me toward the runway. When I was on my final approach, the smell from whatever had been burning was still making my eyes water. I could only partially see to land.
In reviewing the flight, we found that the heat reflected off the overcast and onto my F-84 had burned away or wrinkled the skin on the flaps, stabilator, and ailerons. The glare shield above the instrument panel, and all of the black tape windings on the instrument lines behind it, were completely burned away. The hydraulic fluid that had leaked out around the rudder pedals had created other fires. The lens on the over-the-shoulder camera inside my protective hood had melted. Of the three layers of asbestos and aluminum cloth that made up the hood itself, two were incinerated.
I continued to have the sensation of needles burning through my body for several weeks. Because of the overall classification of the Redwing tests, I was never allowed to see the data gathered from any of my missions. Nor was I ever given the radiation readings from the film badges I wore during the last five flights. Although we had been briefed that the maximum exposure we could safely receive was 100 milli-roentgens in six months, I had pointed out to the flight surgeon that I had been exposed to 100 on each of my first two flights. Whether the overexposure contributed to the life-threatening melanoma I developed seven months later, I’ll never know.
My next two missions were H-bomb tests over Bikini Atoll. On the second, the bomb exceeded its predicted yield by a significant amount, breaking my airplane’s right wing spar in two places. On the plus side, this provided the test engineers with the maximum possible data and negated the need for more testing.
An Air Force test pilot for 38 years, Bud Evans served in World War II, Korea, and Vietnam. He logged 15,000 hours in 203 aircraft types.