Intro / The Crash
I’m not sure what string of expletives test pilot Leo J. “Pete” Colapietro yelled when he bailed out of his F4D at 650mph over the ocean — but I do know what he said from his hospital bed during his recovery:
“It was one climax after another, after that.”Leo J. Colapieto, Douglas Test Pilot
Only a test pilot would describe it that way.
According to one article he said “My helmet and my oxygen mask were ripped off. Then my gloves and wrist watch went. My clothes started to tear.”
During a routine flight, the F4D Skyray he was flying went out of control and Leo bailed out over the ocean.
His parachute deployed and he hit the water pretty hard but then he faced another problem: the parachute started to drag him underwater. He was able to get at the toggles to inflate his life vest. He was spotted by a rescue helicopter after about 45 minutes and a heli-diver jumped in to stay with him until he was picked up by the Santa Monica lifeguard boat. He broke his right arm in two places, fractured his pelvis, cracked two vertebrae and dislocated his shoulder and spent six weeks in the hospital recovering.
There is an interesting story about the crash that was in Flying magazine:
There was a pilot instructor with a student in the area when the crash happened. The student yelled “plane on fire” and the instructor called the Santa Monica tower which then co-ordinated with the Douglas Aircraft Company Flight Operations. They immediately dispatched a rescue helicopter and, as it turns out, there was another F4D that was flying at 40,000 feet over Palmdale about 50 miles away. That jet was piloted by Roger Conant who was the chief test pilot for Douglas. He only had a few minutes of fuel left but high-tailed it over to Malibu so quickly that he was able to see the parachute hit the water. He dropped his tip-tanks as markers and left for LAX with his fuel gone and flamed out on the roll-out.
I’m guessing that if the other pilot hadn’t seen the crash and if they didn’t pinpoint his location for the search, he would likely not have survived.
Most people have probably never heard of the F4D Skyray — much less know that one crashed here in Southern California back on March 18, 1958. It should NOT be confused with the F-4D Phantom which uses the “new designation” format for fighter plane designations.
The F4D Skyray gets it’s moniker from the unique swept delta wing design. The picture below illustrates this perfectly and looks a lot like a manta ray:
The F4D was produced by Douglas Aircraft from 1950-1958 and only 422 were produced. It was designed to be a carrier-based supersonic fighter/interceptor. The was the last fighter produced by the Douglas Aircraft Company before it merged with McDonnell Aircraft and became McDonnel Douglas. It never saw combat.
The design requirement was a fighter aircraft that could intercept and destroy an enemy aircraft at an altitude of 50,000 feet within five minutes of the alarm being sounded. The Skyray set a new time to altitude record flying from a standing start to 50,000 feet in 2 minutes and 36 seconds, while flying at a 70 degree pitch angle. That is one bad-ass jet for the 1950s.
Interestingly, one article I read noted that “the Skyray had very unpleasant handling characteristics” and that “it was used to teach pilots how to handle unstable aircraft.”
Below is another picture of the Skyray flying near the Palos Verdes Peninsula, relatively close to where the crash occurred.
The F4D has a very unique design. Below are some various photos to give you a sense of the wing design, including the requirement to “fold up” the wings for carrier-based aircraft.
Given that the impact when the jet hit the water was likely very violent and that it happened 60+ years ago, I wasn’t sure what to expect. As far as I know, there aren’t any pictures of the wreck published so there was no way to do any research. I was really hoping that the wreck was intact enough to get a sense of the wing shape.
The conditions were great for the dive. The sun had come out and the ocean was flat with little-to-no current. We dropped down the line and I saw a school of fish and knew that we had a good drop. The wreck came into view and I was able to identify the wing.
There are quite a few other parts of the wreck that are identifiable including landing gears, wiring harnesses, etc. You can also see the struts on the wings where various missiles, armaments, and fuel tanks could be mounted.
We had about a 5 minute descent, 20 minutes on the bottom and about 45-50 minutes of deco and a total run time of 73 minutes. Water temp was 52F at the bottom and 57F at the 20′ deco stop.
The wreck was really fun to photograph because you could get a sense of the shape of the wing but it wasn’t perfect. You had to constantly engage your brain to keep a sense of where you were but there were a ton of great features to take pictures of. Helium does wonders for deep diving and narcosis.
The wing design is a very unique characteristic of the F4D. Below are multiple pictures and some captures from video taken by Tyler that give a sense of the shape. In the pictures from the video capture, you can see the struts that held the extra tanks, missiles, etc. and the landing gear in the foreground.
Front Landing Gear
Below is a capture of a video taken by Tyler which shows the front landing gear along with the page from the Naval Fighters #13 book with a diagram and photos.
The wiring harness is a very noticeable feature of the wreck. Below are a few pictures.
Given the position on the wreck site and the dimensions, I believe this is the nose cone section of the jet.
Main Landing Gears
One of the two main landing gears is very obvious and visible tucked into the wing. I believe the second main landing gear is mainly buried in the sand.
Below are a clipping from a news articles about the accident and the article from Flying magazine.
First, a huge thanks to Ray Arntz at Sundiver for getting us on the wreck.
Second, a big thanks to Tyler Stalter for his help with the research and his video footage and as a dive buddy.