In memory of Capt. Gene Devlin - 1 Apr 1933 - 9 May 1964
Story and photos by Gene Devlin's son - Bill Devlin
On May 9, 1964, when the team arrived at the Hamilton Air Base, California, a short time before landing, Thunderbird #2 Capt. Gene Devlin crashed. An eye witness on the ground at the field said that Thunderbird Two was on the left side of the three-plane formation, which had just executed a low pass over the runway. Then, as the three rose into a vertical climb, when Devlin's aircraft was at about a 45-degree attitude to the ground, and traveling about 300 knots, the fuselage snapped in half, just above the weapons bay, and blew up.
An eye witness on the ground at the field said that Thunderbird Two was on the left side of the three-plane formation, which had just executed a low pass over the runway. Then, as the three rose into a vertical climb, when Devlin's aircraft was at about a 45-dergee attitude to the ground, and traveling about 300 knots, the fuselage snapped in half, just above the weapons bay, and blew up.
From comments from Maj Kauttu the leader, they entered the maneuver at 400 knots at 50' and did a closed pull up to downwind for landing. My father then followed with the same maneuver. I have been looking for the Va of the F-105 but others are around 350knots. Even if he honked on it he should not have gotten the result of the accident.
However, as Captain Devlin pulled back on the controls, his aircraft broken up, and disintegrated around him. Debris rained down on the runway below, and the remaining aircraft in the formation diverted. Thunderbird One Kauttu recalled, "At 50 feet and 400 knots I pitched up, then looked back over my shoulder to see a terrific conflagration billowing from the runway."
Much later during routine maintenance of the F-105, structural engineers began to find cracks in the upper part of the aircraft just behind the cockpit. Engineers had no idea what caused these cracks. Large stresses in these areas were unanticipated. Re-design teams set to work to beef-up this apparently weak area of the aircraft. It was some time before engineers learned of the cause of these cracks.
I also talked to one of the accident investigation members about the crash. A Col. on board my flight from Mildenhall to Frankfurt asked to visit the flight deck of my C-130. He found I was the son of Gene Devlin and told me of the cause of the accident. It was a failure of the block that tied the wing spar to the fuselage and cockpit. It was misdrilled at the factory. The official investigation also list that as the cause. Give someone the internet and the world and they can falsely influence many people…
A 40-member Air Force investigating team probed the crash, and concluded that the fuselage spine structure of Devlin's aircraft had failed. The defect was found to be a trapezoidal-shaped manufacturing joint - a plate that was designed to strengthen the connection between the forward and aft fuselage. It should have been rectangular. However, the investigation also turned up some very interesting side information on the particular aircraft the Devlin flew that day.
Thunderbird Two, Air Force serial number 57-5801, had been involved in an air-refueling incident. During an aborted hook-up attempt, turbulence dragged and pounded a drogue basket into the fuselage, damaging the aircraft's spine. The damage to the spine was repaired, but no direct evidence was uncovered that this incident caused a defect or weakness in the fuselage. But the suspicion remains, that there may have been some connection between this, and the untimely destruction of Thunderbird Two.