The Crash of the Thunderbirds'
At Hamilton AFB, Calif.
May 9, 1964
High speed, high-performance, and high expectations, are par for the course
among the U.S. Air Force's Thunderbirds jet demonstration team, from the Lead
Pilot and Squadron Commander, on down to the greenest maintenance personnel.
It was to be the seventh air show of 1964 for the Thunderbirds, to take place
at Hamilton Field, situated in on the shores of San Pablo Bay in eastern Marin
county. Two days earlier, the population of the Bay Area had been shocked
by the crash of Pacific Air Lines Flight #773. The Armed Force Day Open
House and air show at Hamilton,
having been scheduled several months earlier, was to continue as planned, as a
reminder of what aviation can really be about.
Arriving the day prior to their performances, and coming off of a successful
show in at McChord AFB in Washington, the jets of the Thunderbirds, shiny Republic F-105B
"Thunderchiefs" in team colors, blazed into the Bay Area, to prepare and
rehearse their aerobatic routine. The team flew a shortened version of
their aerial show, in order to get a feel for the surrounding terrain, scout
potential obstacles, and double-check the sight pictures along the axis they
would be flying.
At 6:41 PM, the formation, after finishing these maneuvers, dove towards the
runway at Hamilton Air Force Base, and started a series of sequential
pitch-ups by each aircraft to enter the landing pattern.
Thunderbird One, piloted by Major Paul Kauttu, made its last-second
pitch up for the tactical-style landing. Major Kauttu was the Team Leader /
Commandant of the group for the 1964 Thunderbirds.. Having flown with the
team the two years prior, serving as the "Slot" pilot. Kauttu had also
flown in the Korean War, flying 100 combat missions in the
F-86 Sabre Jet while assigned to the 16th Fighter Interceptor Squadron at Suwon
Air Base, Korea, and having downed two (and a half) MIG-15s, and
instructed fighter gunnery tactics.
Following in turn would be Thunderbird Two, piloted by Captain Eugene J. Devlin,
the left wingman of the team. Having joined the team three months earlier,
the 31-year-old native of Tucson, Arizona, had been graduated from Herbert
Hoover High School in San Diego and enlisted the Air Force soon after his
graduation in 1952. Accepted for the Aviation Cadet program, he completed
pilot training and was commissioned a second lieutenant at Williams AFB,
Arizona, in September of 1954. Having been previously assigned to the Pacific Air Forces,
he had also served at the Air Forces Fighter Weapons School, where he worked with the AGM-12
"Bullpup" air-surface guided missile.
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
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."
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
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.
Mrs. Merle Smith, of San Pablo, said she heard the planes
come low over her house. "There was a different
kind of whine," she said. "I saw one of them going below the horizon of
the hills as if it was going to land. There
was a quick flash, a ball of fire, and black smoke,"
With TLC to Alabama...
The next day, on orders from the 12th Air Force, the
Thunderbirds were directed to fly the airplanes to Brookley Field in Alabama . .
. and to “handle each of them like a crate of eggs.”
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
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.
Throughout the Air Force, the Thunderchiefs were grounded
from operations for two months, pending repairs and modifications to their
design and structure, and the Thunderbirds, after returning to Nellis and flying
the aircraft to Brookley AFB, Alabama, canceled the reminder of their air show
season. Planning to finish out the year, the team reverted to the F-100D
"Super Sabre", an upgrade to the F-100C model they had flown the year before.
Although the switch back to the "Super Sabre" was intended to be temporary, the
F-100D stayed with the team until 1969, and the Thunderbirds never again flew
Thunderchiefs in their aerial demonstration routine.
Captain Devlin was buried on May 14th, 1964, in Section
A-C at site 146 at Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery in San Diego,
California. He was survived by his wife, Shirley, and their three sons,
Greg, Bill, and Mark.
When Republic shipped a large model of an F-105 to Nellis AFB,
it had the name of the only Thunderbird Leader to fly the F-105, Paul Kauttu, on
the canopy rail. Kauttu replaced his name with Devlin's.
In 1975 and with Republic’s assistance, the Team added the
“Devlin Memorial” plaque to the pedestal, which reads, “To the honor of Capt.
Gene Devlin who lost his life on May 9, 1964, while serving his country as a
U.S. Air Force Thunderbird. This memorial is dedicated to all whose common bond
is uncommon devotion to duty.”
In October of 2008, the U.S. Air Force Auxiliary - the Civil Air
Patrol - chartered Cadet Squadron 714 at Escondido Charter
High School in California. It too was named in Captain Devlin's honor.