John Glenn’s Project Bullet F8U Crusader — The Rest of the Story

By Bill France


Significant accomplishments in aviation and astronautics during the mid-1950s and early 1960s were regarded as major news events. This was certainly true on July 16, 1957 when Senator (then Marine Major) John Glenn became a national hero by setting a new transcontinental air speed record.  On that day, Major Glenn flew an F8U-1P Crusader (BuNo 144608) from NAS Los Alamitos, California nonstop to NAS Floyd Bennett Field, New York at a record speed of 725.55 mph. The flight lasted just three hours, 23 minutes and 8.4 seconds, which beat the previous record holder (an F-100F Super Sabre) by 15 minutes. In total, four pilots would break the transcontinental air speed record in 1957.

John Glenn’s record setting flight was certainly not a publicity stunt. The purpose of the Project Bullet flight was to prove that the Pratt & Whitney J-57 engine could tolerate an extended period at combat power - full afterburner - without damage. After the flight, Pratt & Whitney engineers disassembled the J-57 and, based on their examination, determined that the engine could perform in extended combat situations. Accordingly, all power limitations on J-57s were lifted from that day forward.

On July 16, 1957, Major Glenn secured his place in aviation history and became an inspiration to thousands of young people in the United States. Project Bullet secured his reputation as one of the country's top test pilots. He was awarded his fifth Distinguished Flying Cross and, shortly thereafter, was named to NASA’s first astronaut class.

Unlike John Glenn, few pilots have had an opportunity to break or set significant aviation records. Undoubtedly, these aviators have a “special spot in their heart” for the aircraft that helped them obtain their place in history.

Although John Glenn’s accomplishments as a Marine aviator are well documented, little is known about the subsequent history of the Crusader flown on that record setting flight in 1957.

Here is the rest of the story…

Glenn’s F8U-1P Crusader remained in active service but was re-designated as an RF-8G. At some point after the flight, a small brass commemorative plaque was affixed to the port side of the aircraft. Over the next several years, Glenn received notes from aviators who had flown it. As time went on, Glenn started hearing stories of the demise of the Crusader. One story had it that the aircraft was shot down over Vietnam. Another stated that it was damaged during a carrier landing in the Indian Ocean and went over the side.

The “damaged on landing” story comes the closest to the truth. Commander Tom Scott (USN, Retired) was the last pilot to fly Major John Glenn's Crusader. Commander Scott provided the following account of the demise of this historic aircraft.    

 Commander Scott began his Naval aviation career in 1965 as a F-4B Phantom back seat RIO. In 1969, Scott received his pilot wings and flew A-4's and F-8's. In May 1972, Scott's unit (Light Photographic Squadron VFP-63 Det-4) acquired Glenn's Crusader from the aircraft bone yard at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base. The Crusader was fitted out and returned to active duty in short order. Scott first flew it May 12, 1972 at NAS Miramar. On May 18th, he flew it to the USS Oriskany (CVA-34) during work ups for the pending West Pac cruise. The USS Oriskany arrived in the Gulf of Tonkin and air combat operations began in June.

On Friday December 13, 1972, then Lieutenant Scott launched on a flight over North Vietnam. In general, it was an uneventful flight. Scott conducted his mission as planned and then returned to the Oriskany for landing. Little did he realize that his day was about to get really exciting!

Due to poor weather and rough seas, Scott's first attempt to land failed to catch the arresting wire on the flight deck. With the flight deck rising and falling in a fairly consistent cycle, Scott set up for a second approach to the ship. However, passing over the stern of the ship, the cycle unexpectedly reversed and Scott’s aircraft hit the flight deck’s round down belly first which tore off the right main landing gear. The plane then bounced up and came down on its nose before bouncing back into the air where Scott fought to keep it under control with one hand on the stick and the other ready to pull the secondary ejection handle between his legs.

With calls from the ship of “eject, eject, eject” exploding in his helmet, Scott pulled the ejection handle but initially could not over come the resistance of the handle. He tried again with all his strength to eject. Giving everything he had, Scott was finally successful ejecting out of the cockpit, as his aircraft passed the ship’s island.

The parachute opened and Scott thought with a little luck, he might land on the deck. However, common sense kicked in at that point. He said, “I realized that if I missed the deck, I could crash into other deck equipment or other jets on the flight deck. Neither of which seemed acceptable.” As Scott guided his parachute away from the carrier in preparation for landing in the Gulf of Tonkin, he inflated his flotation device. Scott hit the water hard ripping his hands from the parachute koch fittings. He was now being pulled face down in the water by the chute. With great effort, Scott managed to release himself from the chute as it pulled him closer to the Oriskany.

As soon as Scott felt he had everything somewhat in control, he looked up to the ships rescue helicopter coming for him. The helicopter hovered near and lowered a rescue crewman to within approximately 20 feet from where Scott was located. As luck would have it, this was the crewman’s first in-water rescue. Fortunately, the crewman was young and a good swimmer and soon made it to Scott. At this point, he realized that his rescuer forgot his personal flotation device. The inexperienced crewman became fatigued and was actually holding on to Scott to remain afloat. Unfortunately, a single flotation device was not sufficient to keep both men on the surface.

While Lieutenant Scott and the rescuer decided who was to rescue whom, the helicopter crew was dealing with their own problems. The intercom between the pilot and the hoist operator at the door was not working. The pilot had no idea where to go or even if the downed pilot was aboard. However, after considerable effort, the flight crews finally lowered the rescue harness and passed over Scott a few times until both men were able to grasp the harness and were hoisted aboard the chopper.

After any aviation accident, an investigation is conducted and an incident report completed. As a result, Scott learned that the secondary ejection handle should been normally be set to 20 about pounds of pull. However, Scott believed that the ejection handle in his Crusader may have been set at about 100 pounds of pull as was the case on several of the F-8's aboard the Oriskany. He commented, “This was well out of the tolerance limits for that aircraft.”

Scott lamented the loss of this historic aircraft.  However, he was grateful that he was able to overcome the ejection problems and did not do down with the aircraft. Certainly, this series of events was fortuitous for other aviators that flew the F-8s that may have had ejection handles incorrectly set to 100 pounds. Scott believed a loss of an aircraft could have positive result in that other aircraft and pilots could be saved by the corrective actions taken as a result of the loss. Unfortunately, in this case, it had to be John Glenn’s record breaking Crusader that was lost.

3 thoughts on “John Glenn’s Project Bullet F8U Crusader — The Rest of the Story

  1. I was in the Navy stationed at N.A.S Patuxent River Md. when Maj. John Glenn stopped on his way back to Calif. I was assighned to work at Flight Test and I had a chance to see John Glenn and his F8U Airplane.

  2. That particular landing attempt I was working Fly 2 (Yellow Shirt) standing in front of the crash shack and I remember seeing Lt. Scott working his hands very franticly as he just passed me by. I’m sure if his visor would have been up, I was so close I would have seen the white of his eyes. I remember this as if it was yesterday.

  3. I would like to share my oral history of what I remember about this incident.
    First I would like you to know that I have a Bachelor of Science degree in History , am a member of two national college honor societies and have a 3.5 GPA which means I’m am very well trained and aware of how important it is to get History recorded correctly. Here is my account as accurately as I can remember of what I recall of that day:
    I was working my TAD (Temporary Duty Assignment) Mess Cooking assignment which was working with the Commissary Department’s Food Stores Breakout crew. (We brought the cases of food from the ship’s storerooms to the galleys.) I was three decks down in one of the storerooms below the #3 Hangar Bay with my co-workers when all of a sudden we heard a very loud explosion-type of sound coming from the upper decks of the Oriskany accompanied by a heavy jolt of the ship. Landings of aircraft always created a small booming-type noise and a mild jolt depending on the type of plane landing. This was really out of the ordinary.
    Next we heard a man’s voice coming over the 1MC (ships intercom) yelling “Plane in the Water, Plane in the Water, Port Side!” I remember feeling the Oriskany start to tilt to the left as we turned heavily to the right apparently to avoid hitting the downed plane or for some other reason.
    My co-workers and I went scrabbling up the three flights of ladders and running the passageways until we got to the Hanger Bay deck where I saw ships company members massing at the left side of the ships sponsons. I looked out one of the fantail entryways and saw a pilot in an olive-green flight suit parachuting down in a red, white and brown combat parachute into the sea a good distance from the left side of the wake of the carrier and the Sea King helicopter, (“Angel”) was hovering to the pilot’s left a short distance away so as not to interfere with the parachute in flight. I couldn’t see him land because of the crowd of sailors gazing out the doorway of the fantail-end of the Hanger Bay.
    A sailor near me made some comment to someone about seeing the downed plane and so I asked him what he saw and he replied that he saw a wing floating past the ship. I asked him what type aircraft was it and he said it was one of the F-8’s. I then asked him what the number on the side of the fuselage was and he said “601”. My regular assigned job aboard ship was working in Air Ops and so I knew that this was one of the four VFP-63’squadron’s “Photo Birds” on board. (601,602,603,604 were their designator numbers.)
    I also remembered seeing a small plaque on what I seem to remember at the time was this aircraft. It was brushed aluminum, about 2½ to 3 inches wide by about 4 inches long with very small letters stamped into it and the letters were painted in black paint. They listed the name of John Glenn as a “Maj.” And recorded that this aircraft had set a record transcontinental speed flight in 1957.
    I asked the sailor if this was the plane that had this plaque and if he knew of it and he said he thought it was this plane that crashed on the flight deck above us. I felt a sickening sense of loss for this particular plane, if it was indeed John Glenn’s plane, as I have always been a big fan of the manned space program and to be aboard a ship that lost one of our astronauts famous planes has always made me feel sad and a little guilty. I often wondered, over the years, what I would say to John Glenn if I ever met him and “Sorry Sir, we lost your plane” was not something I wanted to have to say to one of my real life childhood heroes.
    As a footnote I know that Oriskany was participating in the Operation Linebacker II bombing campaign of Hanoi and Haiphong and that we may have hit targets in the southern part of the city. Is there any declassified combat air photos of bombing damage which VFP-63 has access to and are any of these credited to this “601” aircraft from missions John Glenn’s plane flew days or weeks prior to being lost?
    Also, did Captain Barrow, the Oriskany’s Commanding Officer at the time, record anything regarding this event in the Oriskany Ship’s Logbook? This might add further valuable historical information on this incident. Longitude and Latitude, (at the time of the crash,) information would help locate this planes resting spot in the Tonkin Gulf should any effort to recover the remains of the plane be desired.
    I want to thank you for this article about the loss of this aircraft which has helped me to finally come to know the fact that it was lost and I hope that this oral historical account might help add more details to your record of this event. Thank You very Much!

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