Bail Out!
Kevin Eldridge Bails Out of the Burning Super Corsair
By Scott Germain / Warbird Aero Press

Imagine Steve Hinton, Bruce Boland, John Maloney, and the rest of the Chino Kids standing around the remains of a F4U-1 Corsair in the Planes of Fame storage yard. They're looking at it - scratching their heads - and cradling their chins - in deep thought. They wanted to go air racing again. They had resources that included a warbird restoration shop, every conceivable skill that would be required, and very little money.

If you were standing amongst this group of men and looking at it, you really couldn't call it an airplane. It used to be a Corsair, but the elements, time and the Hollywood movie industry had taken a toll on the airframe. 'Basket case' is the term that comes to mind. The amount of work just to get the aircraft flyable would be huge, and the Chino Gang had the idea to go racing again. Reno 1982 wasn't too far away; so time was of the essence.

There was no way that a R-2800 powered Corsair was going to be competitive around the pylons; too little horsepower and too much drag. A massive dose of horsepower could be utilized by mounting the 4,000 hp. Pratt and Whitney R-4360. Drag could be cut by an airframe cleanup, clipping the wings, and paying close attention to cooling drag. Weight would be cut by removing unnecessary equipment in the airframe.

If the program was going to proceed, it would signal a return to the Brute Horsepower Era that ruled the post war Cleveland races. Cook Cleland's R-4360-powered F2Gs ruled the Cleveland pylons at speeds in the neighborhood of 400 mph. At Reno in the early eighties, that speed wouldn't cut it; the bar had been raised to the 430 mph neighborhood.

When the Chino Kids initially consulted Bruce Boland, he thought about it, but dismissed the idea. It would be too slow. However, he went home and ran some calculations anyway. His slide rule told him that a Corsair with - about 4,000 hp plus or minus some variables - should be able to run laps in the mid 400 range. With this news, thrashing commenced on the airframe with hopes of making Reno 1982.

There were the usual number of detractors along the way that said it would never work, or the airplane would be too slow. The Sanders family, also based at Chino at the time, fell under this category, albeit in a good-natured way. The late Frank Sanders would come over to the Fighter Rebuilders hangar and shake his head. He thought it wouldn't be as fast as his Sea Fury. On the same note, he'd be the one lending a hand or fabricating parts when needed.

With Reno quickly approaching, the racer was nearing completion. Each wing had been clipped four feet, and the panels normally covered with fabric were metalized with sheet aluminum. Boland designed the new engine mount to mate the huge engine to the airframe. An A-26 cowl was found to cover the R-4360, so John Sandberg donated one. Hundreds of modifications were made to the airframe and systems. The finishing touches were the addition of a Skyraider prop and a P-51 spinner.

Once the Super Corsair was complete and undergoing flight tests, Sanders flew chase in his stock Sea Fury. One day the power was put to the Corsair's R-4360 over Lake Mathews on the way back to Chino. The bent wing racer accelerated away as if Sanders was tied to a post. He was so impressed by that, he set out and created Dreadnought.

The Super Corsair made its debut at Reno in 1982, and over the years, became one of the favorites around the Reno pylons. Pylon Legend Steve Hinton was the initial pilot of the Super Corsair, and in 1985, he captured first place in the championship race when Dreadnought pilot Neil Anderson cut pylon eight on the final lap.

When Hinton went on to fly Tsunami, John Maloney took over the cockpit duties for the Super Corsair team. Over the years, the aircraft had proven itself admirably. For relatively little financial output, the Super Corsair turned out to be a very competitive aircraft, although it would be hard pressed to attain speeds over 450 mph. Even for years afterward, the racer was in the thick of gold competition. The bent-wing bird could always be counted on to provide competition with the super-stock Mustangs, Yancey's Yak and the R-3350 powered Sea Furies.

Kevin Eldridge had worked at Fighter Rebuilders for years, and had been one of the dedicated crew that built the racer. Having earned his pilot license in a Luscombe, Eldridge worked his way up the warbird ladder through the T-6, B-25, Mustang and others. He had been the crew chief on the Super Corsair, and knew it as well as anybody. When Maloney's wife became pregnant and he decided to hang up his racing suit, Eldridge was the next Chino Kid in line for the Corsair's cockpit. He had turned pylons in a few Mustangs in the bronze and silver class, and had displayed some excellent racing ability. One thing he never had, though, was a mayday during a race.

With Eldridge in the cockpit, the aircraft raced at Kansas City and was experiencing engine problems. Eldridge explains, "We had put on a new cowling and a different spray bar system, but we were still having trouble with cooling." With some more work, it appeared that they had it all figured out. "When we left for Kansas City, the engine started shucking the valve seats out, so after takeoff it would start barking and banging. I landed and we changed a cylinder." Even after the races, problems persisted, so the aircraft was left at the race site.

Before the inaugural Phoenix 500 Air Races in March of 1994, a spare engine had been built up from an overhauled unit from the same shop as the previous engine. Sandberg's piston ring modification had also been performed to clean up the oil burn that 4360's are famous for. "We put about 15 hours on that engine," Eldridge says, "Everything was running good when we got to Phoenix."

Eldridge was still working up to the aircraft's speed potential. "Steve (Hinton) could get all of the speed out of it," he says, "I hadn't really worked it up, but I was getting there." More modifications had been made over the years; large fillets smoothed the airflow between the fuselage and wing, the air inlets had been choked down, and a larger spinner was installed. The Super Corsair looked, sounded and performed like a true unlimited.

During race week, the crew was finding that the new engine was making some metal in the screens; not an uncommon problem, but one that warranted investigation. Thought centered on a broken piston ring, so two suspect cylinders were changed and the engine seemed to be happy during the Saturday morning runup. For the heat race that day, the pace aircraft was down for mechanical reasons, so race participant and pole-sitter Howard Pardue would also act as the pace aircraft.

Under gray skies, the racers took off and formed up on Pardue's wing. Robbie Patterson was overhead in the TF-51D safety aircraft with Bob Hoover in the back seat. It was time to race. Eldridge had joined up and noticed Pardue was flying rather slowly down the chute; The power setting to stay with Pardue was a paltry 20 inches of manifold pressure. "I was just trying to hang on and not pass him," he says laughing. All of a sudden, Pardue called, "Gentlemen, you have a race," and motored away towards the first pylon.

Eldridge followed Pardue onto the course and caught up easily. "I was only running 62 inches or something like that," Eldridge says. "I wasn't running that much power. I paced him and was looking for a good spot to make my move." The first sign of any trouble came on the third lap.

"Coming around, it just started vibrating a little bit," Eldridge says. He radioed the crew and told them of the vibration while bringing the power back to about 10 inches, but the vibration remained. "I figured I'd started to burn a piston, so I called a mayday at that point and started to pull off the course."

That is exactly when all Hell broke loose.

"When I was in the climb, the engine just let go. I pulled the throttle back and started to shut it down," he says. The race site at Williams Gateway Airport features three ex-Air Force runways with ample room for a mayday racer. Getting to one of them didn't seem to present a problem at this point. "I just pulled up, made a big downwind, and said to myself, 'Oh, I've got it made...' I'll be able to shut it down and glide right in - no problem."

"The next thing I know, is that they tell me it's on fire, and to bail out..."

He takes a second to relive those moments. "Actually, they told me it was on fire, and I looked at everything and then they said the fire was out. I thought, 'Ok, the fire is out,' and I'm going to glide in. Then there is fire again, and they said it was just blazing. They said I better bail out. I didn't even hesitate; it's something you have with your crew. You trust them. They're not going to tell you to bail out unless you really have to bail out. And with 150 gallons of fuel between me and the fire, you know...?" he chuckles. But in an instant he is somber. "I'd just lost my friend Rick Brickert before then in Reno, and the last thing I wanted to do was burn up."

Overhead, Patterson and Hoover were joining up as best they could and also advising Eldridge to exit the aircraft. As he recounts the event, Eldridge makes movements like he's in the cockpit going through his procedures. "I didn't even hesitate to do what I had to do to get out," he says. "It's pretty tough getting out... I was still at 250 mph and 2,500 feet AGL, by the time I got out I was probably a couple of thousand feet above the ground."

The loss of altitude during this time had to do with the aircraft being trimmed for basically straight and level flight at 450 mph. Since the aircraft had lost power and was in a climb, the trim forces were unable to hold the aircraft level. Eldridge continues, "The first time I let go of the stick, the airplane pitched down, so I grabbed it and leveled it. The problem the Corsair had was it had a ground adjustable trim tab. You could adjust it for cruise to go to the race, and once you got there, we'd adjust it for fast flying. So when I pulled up, I pulled up to about 2,500 feet above the ground and I was down to about 250 mph. Even though that's pretty fast, it's slow for that thing. When you let go of it, it wants to roll over, so I had to get everything undone and let go of the stick to open the canopy."

The first time Eldridge let go of the stick to open the canopy, the burning racer rolled over to the right and began to pitch down. He again corrected and rolled in all of the nose up trim. He also tried to adjust with rudder to keep it straight, but it just wouldn't work. At this point, Eldridge was thinking to himself that he has to get out now. While rolling in the trim, Eldridge used his free hand to finally open the canopy. The racer was again rolling to the right and pitching for the desert. He had decided he was going out the left side.

With his long legs and the geometry of the Super Corsair's cockpit, Eldridge had to fly with the seat in the fully raised position, a fact that made bailing out more difficult. "You've got to kind of hop up on the seat to get out, so when I did this, the wind grabbed my helmet, so I ducked back in real quick, turned to the side, and proceeded to jump out," he says.

In the mean time, with flames streaming from the bottom cowling, the Super Corsair had begun it's final return to Earth. With precious few seconds to go before it dug into the ground, fans, pilots, crewmembers and emergency crews all joined in the chorus of, "Bail out! Get out!" Nobody was breathing.

As Eldridge leapt over the side, he explains, "My left leg got stuck between the seat and the canopy railing. I was just stuck in there and I was pushing to get out of the cockpit. You really want to get a good jump, but I just flopped over the left hand side. The last thing I remember seeing is the greasy side of the airplane; I kind of slid down the side of the fuselage and then 'wam-bam,' I'm kind of spinning in the air."

"Now I'm thinking I've got to pull the D-ring," he says as he goes through the motion of trying to located the parachute's ripcord handle. "I'm looking for the D-ring, spinning through the air thinking, 'Oh man... Where's the D-ring at?' Then I find the tube that the D-ring is connected to but the D-ring is gone."

About the time Eldridge realized the D-ring was missing, his parachute popped open. In reviewing video of the accident, the time frame this all occurred in was just a few quick seconds. When he realized his chute had opened, Eldridge remembers thinking, "Wow!!! OK!!!" It might be argued that at this point, things were looking up for Eldridge, but the drama wasn't over yet.

There were a few seconds left in the life of the Super Corsair. It had represented everything good about unlimited air racing. It had been built "On The Cheap" by a talented group of people. John Sandberg and Daryl Bond had provided sponsorship and donations to the program. It was competitive, it was a favorite, and it was rolling inverted... Still on fire, it flew straight into the ground. The muted impact and fireball made the crowd gasp. For a quick instance, fire trailed up one of the wing tip vortices. The Super Corsair was gone.

Back in the air, Eldridge took stock of the situation. His helmet and oxygen mask had been ripped off his head either from the slipstream or contact with the tail of the aircraft. When he looked down, he saw his left leg was pointed off at a 50 degree angle. "That's gonna hurt," he thought. He didn't watch the aircraft hit the ground. "I saw it on the news in the hospital. That was tough to watch," he says.

While hanging in the 'chute, Robbie Patterson and Bob Hoover were orbiting in the Mustang. "They came by and I waved at them to let them know I was ok. And I'll tell you, there is nothing more beautiful than the sound of that Mustang flying by when you're floating down in that parachute."

With the adrenalin still pumping, Eldridge had yet to feel any pain from his leg. Unfortunately, that was the least of his problems. All he knew was that his leg was pointing in a rather unique direction, and his arm had began to hurt. There was a large lump in it. "Then it hit me," Eldridge says. "To be blunt, I thought, 'This can't be f&*$ing happening to me! It hits you that it actually happened."

At this point, Eldridge tried to look up at his canopy, but could not get his head to tilt back enough to see. Knowing something was wrong with his neck, he began feeling a lot more pain in his arm. Things turn almost comical at this point. "It was just taking forever to come down. I'm over a double highway and all I see is this white diesel truck coming down the road, and I'm thinking, 'I'm going to get hit by the truck,' so I hold my arms out and wind kind of blows me past the road," he says.

"I was looking good at that point, going out over the sagebrush," he remembers. "But that last fifteen feet, man, you just haul ass. I hit and held up my left leg as high as I could because I knew it was broken. I tucked, rolled, and landed on my side and thought I would get up. I couldn't; I just laid on my side with my parachute for like - forever. It might have been ten minutes before they came out and got me."

In the distance, Eldridge could hear a helicopter that was part of the airshow. It had taken off and was flying back and forth searching for the fallen race pilot. He raised his good arm to make himself easier to see. Upon seeing him and landing nearby, a passenger came over and stayed with Eldridge until the paramedics arrived. "That was a comedy of errors," he says. "I was just dying of thirst; I wanted a Gatorade, but they wouldn't give me anything for fear of me going into shock."

After arriving at the hospital, the tally sheet for Eldridge's injuries included a broken C2 vertebrae, a broken right arm, a compound fracture in both bones in his left leg, and various minor injuries.

By all accounts, the neck injury alone should have paralyzed or killed him. Upon examination, his parachute was within a hair of falling apart. Due to the speed at the time the chute opened, three panels blew out, and the bottom skirt had one-eighth of an inch of nylon left before it would have torn. At every step, it seemed Eldridge had used up every ounce of luck in the world.

Kevin Eldridge's hospital stay in Arizona lasted one week, with another week in a Riverside, California hospital. His recuperation took quite a bit of time, including three months in a halo to keep his neck immobilized. Arm and leg casts were also on for a similar amount of time, and he still has the titanium plate and eight screws in his arm as a souvenir. Luckily, his recovery has been complete and he returned to flying right after his doctor cleared him.

"I've been the only one that had to bail out, " Eldridge sums up. "Everybody at the races wears all the gear; the helmet, the flight suit and the gloves, and everybody straps on a parachute. But nobody thinks they're going to have to use it. You should actually go through the steps and see what you're going to do to get out. Practice for the worst. Know your equipment and know how to use it."

"Well," he says laughing. "That was my mayday."

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Warbird Aero Press would like to thank Kevin Eldridge for his time and effort with this interview. Eldridge now flies for American Airlines.

Story Copyright by Scott Germain 2000. Photos by Scott Germain, Gerald Liang and Nick Veronico. All rights Reserved.