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Since the start of the First World War, aircraft have played a key role in combat. From planes designated to act as close air support for the advancing troops below to bombers able to carry some of humanity’s biggest bombs, the aircraft has become a diverse tool of war.

As technology evolved, so did aircraft. The advent of the jet engine changed how we use these tools of war completely. This advancement in tech allowed for the creation of efficient multi-role aircraft unlike any seen in any recent conflict. As always, with new technology, these advancements brought new problems to the table of the designers in charge of making these groundbreaking machines. Today we will explore one such problem, being fast enough to catch up with your own bullets.

A standard test flight

On 12 September 1956, Grumman test pilot Tom Attridge was booked to fly a test aircraft. The aircraft in question was a prototype of the F-11 Tiger, at the time still in the final developmental stages. During this test flight, Attridge, a seasoned pilot, was meant to test the aircraft’s frontal cannons and their ability to shoot accurately while the aircraft was in a dive.

Once in the air, Attridge did just that. After climbing to an altitude of around seven kilometers, he was ready to commence the testing. Attridge entered a shallow dive of around twenty degrees while firing his afterburners to achieve Mach speeds. At around four kilometers from the ground, he fired a burst of the 20mm cannon equipped on the F-11.

Illustration of the trajectory of the fighter and its bullets. Source: Check-Six.com

After the burst, Attridge put the aircraft in a steep dive, and at around the altitude of two kilometers, he was struck by what he deemed to be a ‘foreign object, ’ most likely a bird, he thought. Unbeknownst to him at the time, the objects that hit his aircraft were actually the bullets he’d fired several moments prior.

Although Attridge initially only saw one of the objects which struck his bulletproof windshield, he would soon find out that more than just glass was damaged from his unfortunate encounter with his own bullets.

Getting back to the airfield

Being struck obviously startled Attridge, initially. After seeing the damage done to his windshield, the pilot pulled out of his steep dive to prevent the glass from breaking due to the pressure. As he leveled out and tried to accelerate, he found a new problem: his right engine was also damaged. Although Attridge radioed in the fact that there was only damage on the outside of the engine, it was obvious that the damage was much more complex.

F-11 Tigers stationed on the USS Intrepid. Source: Wikicommons

When trying to power up past 78%, the aircraft’s right engine would start to jitter and make a sound that Attridge described as “a Hoover vacuum cleaner picking up gravel from a rug.” The only option now was to return back to base, a task easier said than done. As Attridge tried to pilot the wounded aircraft back to base, it became obvious that the engines would not be able to carry the six-ton beast home.

Around two kilometers away from the airfield and just 400 meters off the ground, the engines started to give out, and Attridge began losing altitude at a very rapid rate.

Not your usual kind of landing

Now a kilometer away from the base, Attridge kept losing altitude and was forced to crash land the jet fighter in a forest close to the compound. Even after trying to lose as much power as he could to make the crashing landing as soft as possible, the Tiger still had the force to push through the trees of the forest and travel 100 meters away from the initial crash point, taking Attridge on perhaps one of the wildest rides of his life.

Once the aircraft stopped, Attridge surveyed the situation. Around him, a fire broke out, being fueled by the kerosene the jet used to feed its hungry engines. This fire also heated up some of the unexpended ammunition which remained in the aircraft. He had to escape.

A Lancaster bomber being refueled during WWII, a similar but more potent type of Kerosene-type fuel is used in jet engines such as the ones on the F-11. Source: Wikicommons

With a broken leg and three displaced vertebrae, the test pilot managed to cut himself free of his harness and drag himself away from the crash site so that a potential explosion of his aircraft wouldn’t harm him. A rescue helicopter was quickly dispatched to the scene, picking Attridge up shortly after the crash. He received first aid on his flight back to base, after which he was transferred to the nearby Central Suffolk Hospital.

The test pilot didn’t suffer any permanent injuries as a result of the crash. He continued working with Grumman, coming back only six months after the crash. With such an experience under his belt, Attridge was now ready for anything these test aircraft could throw at him. Fortunately for him, the remainder of his test pilot career was uneventful. The aircraft he shot down, the F-11, would come into service the same year and be retired from active carrier service in 1961.

Although some say this was a “one-in-a-million shot,” other instances of such events have happened as aircraft have gotten faster. Even so, Attridge’s fateful flight will go down in history as the first time a pilot managed to perform such a “one-in-a-million” maneuver.

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