The First Pilot to Shoot Down a Jet

Nearly seven decades ago, Grumman test pilot Tom Attridge flew his company’s new F-11F Tiger into the sky over Long Island, NY. He climbed to 20,000 feet, then began a dive and fired two four-second rounds from his cannons.

The Navy called it a million-to-one shot. But Attridge wasn’t convinced.

Tom Attridge

On September 12, 1956, Grumman test pilot Tom Attridge took to the skies in an F-11 Tiger on a weapons-testing mission. He climbed to 20,000 feet, dived and fired the Tiger’s frontal cannons in two four-second bursts. Then the Tiger went down.

As the bullets left their cannons, they traveled forward at around 1,700 mph but immediately encountered significant air resistance that caused them to slow to about 400 mph as they descended. They then slowed even more as they flew through Attridge’s aircraft.

He pushed the throttle to gain altitude but said the engine sounded “like a Hoover vacuum cleaner picking up gravel from a rug.” The Tiger went down into trees less than a mile from the runway at Calverton Field, losing a wing and stabilizer in the process. Attridge ejected, suffered broken legs and back injuries, but survived to continue his work for Grumman. The Navy hailed the incident as a one-in-a-million fluke but Attridge disagreed: “At the speeds we’re flying today, it could be duplicated any time.” He would later become a project manager on the LEM-3 astronaut spacecraft and return to flight status only six months after the crash.

Ivan Kozhedub

Kozhedub was a renowned fighter pilot with the Soviet air force during World War II. He earned the title of Hero of the Soviet Union three times, along with two Orders of Lenin and seven campaign and jubilee medals. He claimed 62 aerial victories in Lavochkin La-5s, MiG3s and Bell Airacobras.

On his first sortie as a combat pilot in March 1943, Kozhedub’s wooden La-5 was hit by enemy anti-aircraft fire and his engine stalled. But he managed to recover and make it back to base.

During one engagement, he squared off against a pair of American P-51 Mustang fighters. He shot down both, but by then his plane was shattered from the bullets. Williams recalled that the Mustang pilot got on the Soviet fighter’s tail and scared it off. The Soviet pilot then dropped out of formation and the American aircraft continued on to attack the task force. The wingman followed the Soviet aircraft and captured it.

John Curdes

Lieutenant Curdes, who flew a P-51 Mustang fighter called “Bad Angel,” was one of America’s top flying ace during World War II. He was credited with shooting down German, Italian and Japanese aircraft, and also shot down an American cargo plane that had his girlfriend (and future wife) aboard.

On one mission in 1945, Curdes spotted a C-47 cargo plane heading toward a Japanese airfield on Batan Island in the Philippines. The pilot was lost and running low on fuel, and Curdes tried to communicate with the crew by radio but was unsuccessful. He maneuvered his P-51 in front of the transport, trying to get them to veer off course. When that failed, Curdes shot out one of the plane’s engines, forcing it to ditch in the ocean.

The survivors were rescued by a PBY rescue plane the next morning. Curdes gave a start when he discovered that one of the nurses aboard was the woman he had had a date with the night before.

Chuck Yeager

As the first pilot to fly faster than the speed of sound, Chuck Yeager has earned a permanent place in history. But that’s only the start of his remarkable military career.

A World War II fighter pilot ace, Yeager is credited with 11.5 enemy aircraft (though half that number comes from a second pilot who assisted him in one shootdown). He was shot down over Germany in October 1944 and escaped capture, eventually making his way to neutral Spain with the help of the French Resistance.

After returning to the United States, Yeager was sent to Muroc Air Base, California, to become the project officer on the Bell X-1 rocket plane. He flew that plane more than 40 times, breaking the sound barrier on each occasion. Yeager later commanded squadrons and wings in Europe and Southeast Asia, and rose to the rank of brigadier general before retiring in 1975. He remains an active aviation enthusiast, and has advised on the filming of several films and television programs about flight.

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