Exactly 70 years ago today, U.S. Navy Commander George Chamberlain Duncan escaped from one of the most dramatic and widely publicized carrier aviation accidents of all time. Watching the footage today, it’s almost miraculous that the naval aviator, a two-time World War Two ace, was pulled from the blazing hulk of his Grumman F9F Panther jet fighter with only burns — and that he would be flying again within six months.
Back in the early 1950s, military aviation was an especially risky profession, even outside of the Korean War, and operating jets from aircraft carriers, which were little changed from World War Two, was especially so. Carrier decks were a lot smaller than they are today and angled decks and steam catapults were only starting to be introduced, as were other features to aid safety for faster, heavier aircraft, such as mirror landing aids.
As of June 23, 1951, Commander Duncan was a test pilot at the Naval Air Test Center in Patuxent River, Maryland, assigned to Fighter Squadron 51 (VF-51), and was proving out the F9F-5 version of the Grumman jet aboard the aircraft carrier USS Midway — a vessel completed at the end of World War Two — during a cruise off the Virginia Capes in the Atlantic.
The F9F-5 was the latest version of the straight-wing Panther, which had first flown in 1949 and soon bore the brunt of Navy and Marine Corps jet fighter operations during the conflict in Korea. Having been moved onto the carrier by crane, Duncan’s assigned F9F-5, Bureau Number 125228, successfully launched, and then recovered, aboard the Midway on the first attempt.