Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Deadly A-10 crash at Paris Le Bourget Air Show some years ago

A-10 75-0294 / DM (cn A10-0043) crashing at Paris - Le Bourget (LBG / LFPB), France, June 3, 1977. (Photo by Fred Willemsen) Full size

Yesterday, I asked photographer Fred Willemsen from the Netherlands for permission to post his dramatic shot (see above), just published on, on my blog. Today, from Fred I got the following kind e-mail:

Dear Joachim,

Attached please find the same shot as it appears at as well as a shot
of the same aircraft a day before the accident.

It may be 33 years ago, but I still remember it well. On the fateful day the
display sequence changed from that of the day before: instead of a single
looping the pilot made a second and immediately after that initiated a
third, which I found strange as it exited the second looping rather low. He
came out too low, but almost managed to pull up the aircraft. The tail hit
the ground with the aircraft at a nose-up attitude. Rescue services were
quick at the scene (matter of a minute or two). The official announcement
was that the pilot died on the way to hospital.

I have never been able to unearth an official accident report. I really
would like to know why the pilot made a second and even a third looping.
Disorientation, a mechanical failure? Hope you can do something with this.

Kind regards,
Fred Willemsen

Special thanks to Fred for supporting Warthog News!

A-10 75-0294 / DM (cn A10-0043) at Paris - Le Bourget (LBG / LFPB), France, June 2, 1977. Note the large air show number 97 painted on the right engine nacelle. (Photo by Fred Willemsen) Full size

By trying Google, I found the following background info:

Paris 1977 A-10 Crash – The Day the Music Died

Posted by Jim Swickard at 6/1/2009 10:35 AM CDT
Aviation Week Blog

I mean, life couldn't get any better in June 1977. I was working selling avionics for Rockwell Collins – mission, fighter ICNI. I was an Air Guard 1Lt, who had the privilege of flying the F-100 – (the single-engine, single-seat, sleek and shiny, silver sliver, swept-wing supersonic Super Sabre) and the freedom of being an O-2 FAC.(" OK Lt ,take the airplane and don't come back for 2,5 hours. Do you want it for a week? I had a Form 40 to pay for gas and anything else I needed,)" I had my own 150 Apache ( $13K). Avgas was $.50 a gallon. And the company was sending me to the legendary Paris Air Show. Like the line in Little Big Man, my heart soared like a hawk.

Rockwell had a front row chalet, superb for watching the flying displays. There still was a cloud over the flight demonstrations after the breakup and crash of the Russian TU-144 supersonic airliner into a village near Le Bourget during the 1973 show. (My oritginal post has the TU-144 crashing in 1975, but cousin Bill Sweetman gave me the correct date. See his comment.) Show officials now reserved the right to stop any maneuver they subjectively considered looked "too dangerous". The demo pilots worried that the officials would favor French demonstrations, but immediately before the show, the only aircraft affected was the Swedish AJ-37 ground attack aircraft, which had to eliminate its low-speed, wing-rocking pass. Altitude minimum was 100 meters.

I was looking forward to seeing the Fairchild Republic A-10. With the big 30mm gun that could shoot right through a T-54 tank engine block and the titanium bathtub that protected the pilot and its extreme maneuverability, I thought it would make a dandy replacement for the F-100 (except for the speed) and I also thought it would be a dandy FAC aircraft. And it indeed turned out that Desert Storm vindicated the feelings of possibly the only Air Force pilot in 1977 that enjoyed Close Air Support. The Air Force was then currently into the post-Viet Nam "speed is life" syndrome. The F-100 units lived in dread of getting the A-10. I heard a lot of whining at the bar about how dangerous low and slow CAS would be.

Of course, anything would be better than the 4,400-pound, 0.25 Mach O-2.

And so there I was, on the chalet porch, contentedly sipping on a Tab thoughtfully imported from the good old U.S.A., watching Fairchild Republic chief test pilot Sam Nelson taxi out for his first display, June 3. I liked his high seating position.

The canopy rail was about at Sam's armpit height. The canopy itself was commodious and crystal clear. The ceiling was about 4,400 feet, but I figured no big deal for the Warthog. Even then nobody, except total weenies, could choke out its official moniker, "Thunderbolt II." I was ready to be amazed and entertained.

Bob Hoover was on my left and Jim Churchill, Collins Air Transport Avionics Division vice president, and an F-86D pilot, on my right.

I've reviewed the AW&ST coverage and description of the crash in the June 13, 1977 issue. But here's what I saw at the time. Sam took off and did a climbing turn to the left that Av Week described as a loop, but what I would characterize as a "wifferdill" an Air Force term for an improvised positioning maneuver. He ended up in my opinion on a high left downwind and dived for the runway, and at 100 meters pulled sharply up into a tight loop. I watched serenely as he went over the top and suddenly something didn't compute.

I had no experience in straight-wing jets like the T-33 (later I did) and the A-10 that can loop in 4,000 feet or less. In T-38s and F-100s loops take 8,000 to 10,000 vertical feet. So I was in complete air show spectator mode. I was not a range officer, a runway supervisor or a FAC. I was wearing a pin stripe suit, not a flight bag. I was an admiring spectator and, Sam and the A-10 were the stars. I was a Lieutenant and he was a genius. But I came out of my air show daze when it became obvious that the A-10 was headed for an altitude bust. There was no possibility of recovery at 100 meters (about 300 feet). I thought, "Boy, he's going to get dinged for that." Then, to my horror, I saw any recovery was unlikely and I went into full time dilatation mode—each second s-t-r-e-t-c-h-e-d into an infinity.

Slowly, slowly, the nose came up. Then level. Then probably 3 to 5 degrees nose up, about six feet above the ground. My heart was going a mile a minute. Then the airplane settled, and the tail cone was dragging along the ground. It was a gentle kiss, the nose was still up and Sam was still flying the airplane. How did I know? I told you that the canopy was commodious and clear. Sam was upright in the seat and his oxygen mask hose was pointing straight ahead, meaning chin up, as he looked over the nose of the aircraft. I'd seen that pose hundreds of times by landing pilots as I manned Runway Supervisory Units in pilot training, and in fighter squadrons in which I flew.

What does that mean? It means he was not incapacitated by the first ground impact. He had zero sink rate for several seconds providing an opportunity to eject – especially with the Escapac II seat. I'm sure he was trying to fly the airplane off the ground.

But it was not to be. As the airplane dragged across a taxiway at the approach end of the runway, the horizontal tail snapped off and whirled up, up, way into the air with its vertical stabilizers, rotating around its lateral axis. Like the bone scene in 2001 a Space Odyssey.

Then the airplane bellied into the ground in a burst of flame and clouds of dirt, but I could still see the entire airplane including the cockpit sliding along. As far as I'm concerned, another possible ejection opportunity. Astonishingly, the airplane took off again and this time it was all over.

The accident board later concluded that Sam had banged the throttles to military power at first touchdown and it took the big fan engines that long to spool up.

The A-10 cartwheeled and was obscured in a cloud of dirt, smoke and flame. But then, out of the cloud, the cockpit section emerged intact – broken away just forward of the wing -- sailing, tumbling through the air with the canopy clearly intact and pristine, shining as brightly as it was when Sam taxied out. I prayed for the canopy to blow and the seat come out. No ejection. I went slightly insane as it tumbled back into the dirtball.

I turned to Churchill and literally screamed, "Ah, f***," right in his face. Hoover just turned sadly away and silently went inside the chalet.

Silence fell on the airport. Nothing happened for what seemed like hours, but was probably a minute. It was surreal. From my side of the airport, a groundskeeper in a Cushman-like flatbed scooter raced toward the cockpit. The tiny vehicle leapt across the ground, going airborne itself, light showing under the wheels as it raced toward the cockpit lying on the ground.

The next thing that happened was the security helicopter from the Israeli Pavilion whopping overhead and landing by the cockpit. Finally, after a significant delay, airport crash rescue equipment rolled toward the site.

Sam Nelson died en route to a hospital. The French chalet staff pressed a drink into my hand and I appreciated the gesture. They stood silently aroundly around me and some patted my shoulder. So much for Frnch rudeneses.

As I moped on the chalet porch, a Lieutenant Colonel I'd met at Wright-Patterson in the course of my sales duties came up to me and said, "Hey, Swick did you see the crash?" Yes. "Are you still in the Guard?" Yes, still a Lt. Then he said, "Well, Lieutenant, report to the second floor of the American Pavilion at 10 hundred tomorrow to the accident board. Hoover wouldn't testify.

The surreal part was not over. I showed up in the conference room assigned to the board and we all settled down at the table which had multiple microphones hooked to a tape recorder. The door to the room opened and a French General and a Colonel came in and dumped Sam's bloody flight suit, torso harness, mask and helmet onto the center of the table. Without a word the president of the board stood up and reeled in the microphones by their cables and gathered them up with the recorder and left the room. We all followed to another room and wordlessly set up again.

I essentially testified as I wrote above. They asked me what I thought of the A-10.

I said I lusted after it for CAS and FAC mission and that I would gladly fly it at the show if I got a good cockpit checkout. Of course it was bravado. However, I gave the board one last scare. The president asked if I had any further comments and I said it did. The communal intake of breathe was certainly clearly audible on the tape.

And this is what I said: I would never criticize Sam's decisions regarding the flight profile, but his death was clearly a delayed ejection decision. Probably the difference between me and a test pilot.

After a classmate flew into the ground and didn't eject in 1971, I vowed to swallow my ego and, even if it was my fault, to jump out if a situation was unrecoverable. Sam tried to fly it out, but that decision superseded all previous decisions, right or wrong, and the results were fatal.

Speaking of fatal, I went to the Fairchid Repiblic chalet and begged for and got a 30mm depleted uranium cannon shell for the GAU-8 gun, emblazoned with a Paris 1977 sticker. I got it and have it to this day. I don't know what happened to the dozens they were ready to give out. I really did believe in that airplane.

The rest of the show went as scheduled. The flight demos were thrilling, with the F-16 and even the YF-17 showed off as the prototype of today's F-18. But that was then.

And now, 32 years later, flight displays at Paris and Farnborough are mere shadows of what they were. There is not even a Fairchild Republic. So much for the P-47, F-84, and F-105. The company killed by a rude Long Island receptionest who dissed the Air Force General in charge of the Next Generation Trainer program, making him wait in the hideous company lobby (I have been there) for two hours.

The music has died.


In a comment to this post, Bill Sweetman wrote:

I was there but did not see it happen - I was behind the chalet line and headed for a briefing chez Airbus (which was gasping for survival at the time). I had just glanced at the A-10 in its loop, thought "someone's trying to convince people it's a fighter", turned to look where I was going and heard the impact and the silence in place of jet noise. Dirty gray smoke boiled up over the chalet line.
Historical note: the Tu-144 crashed in 1973, and back in the 1960s I'm not sure that they got through one show without a fatal accident (or two). Notably, the USAF sent two B-58s to Paris (one in 1961 and the other in 1965) and neither came back.
And the fate of the T-46A Thunderpiglet was nothing to do with the receptionist, and a lot to do with what Roy Braybrook once called "the kind of design that gives abortion a bad name."
6/2/2009 12:04 PM CDT


Anybody who could provide some more info about this A-10 crash?

Fairchild-Republic chief test pilot Howard W. "Sam" Nelson:


  1. My father Major Richard Rogers died in an A-10 crash near Mrytle Beach, SC in June 13, 1976.

    Does anyone have any knowledge of that accident? From what I remember, his crash was related to very low flight and tail drag on a ridge tree line. Any info would be much appreciated.

    Unit/Serial 75-0295 MB 354th TFS

  2. I remember seeing the video of this crash in Paris on the national news when I was TDY to Mt. Home AFB inspecting F-111F aircraft and equipment prior to their transfer to RAF Lakenheath... it was pretty dramatic. Anyone know of any reason why there is no video of this crash available today?