What really happened on air legend Col. Mike McCoy's last flight
In public, the military praised Col. Michael McCoy for steering his disintegrating B-47 bomber away from Orlando homes. But in response to an Orlando Sentinel request, the Air Force finally reveals how it privately blamed the legendary pilot for causing the infamous crash 50 years ago Tuesday.
Kevin Spear | Sentinel Staff Writer
October 7, 2007
Longtime Orlando residents know of U.S. Air Force Col. Michael McCoy, the heroic pilot who steered his disintegrating jet bomber away from homes and schools to an empty field on the edge of town.
The crash, which happened 50 years ago this Tuesday, was a watershed moment in Orlando aviation history. It killed McCoy, a star pilot of his time, and three others aboard the B-47. On the ground, only a cow died.
McCoy's actions that day earned the commander a lasting tribute: Orlando's "MCO" airport code for tickets and luggage comes from his name.
But tell a different story. The Air Force, it turns out, swiftly blamed McCoy for his own tragedy and cast doubt over whether he had control of the bomber as it went down.
The records conclude that one of the nation's premier military fliers somehow had a brief lapse of control in an unforgiving plane. It was a Cold War incident kept shrouded in secrecy from even families of the dead.
"My mom speculated it was pilot error, that Colonel McCoy possibly was full-throttling the plane," said Texas resident Barry Stuff, 59. His mother died three years ago not knowing for certain what killed her husband, the plane's navigator.
But to say that McCoy simply made a mistake doesn't do justice to what happened. The whole story, pieced together from crash records and interviews, is a complex tale of a legendary pilot and a dangerous aircraft during a perilous time in U.S. history.
McCoy, 52, commanded a fleet of nearly 50 B-47s at Pinecastle Air Force Base, which was renamed months after the crash in his honor and later became Orlando International Airport.
McCoy had a reputation for keen control in a cockpit and a knack for cheating death. Once, according to his , he bailed out of a stricken plane, and his parachute failed to open. Luckily, he plummeted into a snowdrift.
Also impressive were the crewmates he assembled for his final flight.
The co-pilot was Lt. Col. Charles Joyce, 38, a World War II veteran as experienced in bombers as McCoy. , 39, was chief of a bombing division at Pinecastle.
Group , 43, a highly decorated Royal Air Force commander, was McCoy's invited guest. He was in charge of British warplanes, taking part in a bombing competition at Pinecastle.
McCoy already had taken an exhilarating ride in one of the RAF jets. Intending to repay the favor, McCoy took off at 10:12|a.m. for a flight that ended 57|minutes later.
Passing over College Park, the bomber spouted flames before it exploded, rattling windows miles away. .
At the time, some said McCoy was "hot-dogging" the aircraft as if it were a more nimble fighter or was performing an overly aggressive bombing technique.
Witnesses pointed to a possible malfunction.
"Fuel was dripping from one of the aircraft's engines," an Orlando Sentinel article stated.
Sabotage was suspected because the crew was so capable of dodging trouble, said Norman Joyce, 78, a New Hampshire resident and brother of the co-pilot.
"It was the Cold War," added the RAF officer's son, Robin Woodroffe, 61, of London. His father and McCoy were "two of the most experienced pilots in the air."
But in a report classified for nearly five decades, investigators checked "operator error."
The B-47 mission was to deliver nuclear annihilation to the Soviet Union. To do the job, the plane was given swept wings and jet engines, a first for an American bomber.
"It gave you a sense of power you never felt before," said Walter J. Boyne, 78, a former B-47 pilot and past director of the Smithsonian's Air and Space Museum. "But the margins were so slight between being a really hot pilot and having a disaster."
In level flight and lightly loaded, an inattentive pilot could accelerate the bomber until it ripped itself apart. No propeller plane could do that. High speeds also could flex the wings so wildly that a pilot lost control.
"If you relaxed for a minute, it would turn around and bite you," said retired Col. Sigmund Alexander, 79, a B-47 veteran and president of the B-47 Stratojet Association.
The B-47 never saw major combat. Yet 464 crewmen died in crashes between 1951 and 1966, according to the book Boeing's B-47 Stratojet. Most died during training.
. By Oct. 9, funerals had been held for 40 crewmen. Before lunch, another four would perish in Orlando.
On that day, the navigator's son, Barry Stuff, was 9. He walked from his Bumby Avenue home to Audubon Elementary.
The navigator's wife, Tucker Stuff, 29, met with another navigator's wife for lunch and a movie.
As Joyce, the co-pilot, left his Pinecastle base home, he told his daughter, "Tell your mother to have my sandwich ready" for lunch.
Woodroffe climbed into the co-pilot's seat as a passenger. Joyce, though a highly qualified B-47 pilot, strapped into a jump seat. That left McCoy alone at the controls.
The B-47 streaked low over north Lake County in a winding route to Orlando. Skirting Ocoee, it turned east near Pine Hills. Then the bomber banked north toward College Park. The turn was unremarkable, though nearing the high speed when the plane's wings would flex dangerously. For McCoy, a gifted, seat-of-the-pants flier, that was standard operating procedure.
Moments later, the B-47 streaked beneath a twin-engine military plane.
Les Gaskins, 85, often a crewmate of McCoy's and now retired in North Florida, thinks that McCoy, distracted when he looked up at the small airplane, allowed the nose to dip imperceptibly.
"You drop the nose and you build up speed really rapidly. I mean really rapidly," said Gaskins, who supervised pilot testing and gave McCoy top marks in his .
There might have been another factor. Buffeting and vibrations -- warnings of too much speed and the onset of wing flexing -- begin mildly at higher altitude. Feeling that, pilots know to back off on the B-47's six throttles.
But in thicker air of low altitude, violent buffeting could start abruptly.
McCoy might have expected to feel vibrations of excessive speed in the seat of his pants. Investigators suggest there was none. In one instant, he was banking through a regular turn. In the next, the 43-ton bomber was lost.
His recovery attempt cracked the plane in half, according to the crash report. The jet rolled left severely and then upside down at nearly 500 mph.
"For all practical purposes, it wasn't a flying machine anymore," Gaskins said. "It was more of a projectile."
Tucker Stuff, the navigator's wife, and her friend were in a movie theater when they were paged by two lieutenant colonels. Once in a staff car, the officers spoke of the accident but gave few details. Even then, Stuff didn't know her husband had flown. He had forgotten to tell her.
Jimmie Joyce, the co-pilot's wife, had prepared a sandwich of deviled ham and mustard. She looked out a window at a distant pillar of smoke and then at a chaplain coming up the driveway.
"They never said he was dead," said Joyce, 79, who now lives in New Mexico. "They just said he wasn't coming back."
That afternoon with a school buddy, the young Stuff walked home. The house was surrounded by cars.
"My friend said my mother must be having another bridge game."
A week later, McCoy's widow, Rose Frances, wrote a letter of condolence to the RAF commander's widow, Joy, in England.
"Let us be brave as is befitting Brave Men's wives," she wrote.
To hide the B-47's vulnerabilities, the Air Force never disclosed that it had blamed McCoy for the crash.
"An extensive investigation has failed to reveal any conclusive evidence primarily because of the degree of destruction of the aircraft and the fact that there were no survivors," wrote a Pinecastle colonel to the co-pilot's father.
In the early 1960s, B-47s left the McCoy air base, making way for bigger B-52 bombers. In the mid-1970s, the base closed to become Orlando International Airport. Over time, much of the crash site became the Rosemont neighborhood.
Family members never thought to press the Air Force for answers.
Earlier this year, the Sentinel made a request for crash records under the federal Freedom of Information Act. The Air Force released the file.
Told recently what caused the accident, Stuff said it's hard not to feel anger.
"The crash was avoidable, and it's a darn shame," he said. "I would have liked to have grown up with a father."
Gaskins, who would later command forces in Panama, thinks McCoy's last flight was not about fault but about the odds of flying an exhilarating but pitiless machine.
And in the Cold War, a death rate of more than one B-47 crewman a week was regrettable but not enough to ground a key weapon against communism. Days before the crash, the Soviet Union had shocked America by launching the first satellite into orbit.
McCoy's death came on his 52nd birthday. He had been flying for three decades and had more than 20,000 hours in cockpit. He survived 22 combat missions in WWII, was among the first trained to fly B-47s and had set performance records in the bomber.
"He was the best pilot I ever knew," Gaskins said. "The plane just got away from him."
Kevin Spear can be reached at 407-420-5062 or firstname.lastname@example.org.