Air Doors

by James Thompson

From 1959 to 1962 I served as a Maintenance Officer for the 59th Weather Reconnaissance Squadron, better known as the “Hurricane Hunters.”  We used ten-year old WB-50s to fly routine weather patrols over the North Atlantic as well as missions into the eye of the storm during hurricane season.

It was dangerous flying, so the birds had to be kept in good repair to avoid a catastrophe. New flight crew members needed time in the airplane before being assigned to hurricane duty, so we also had to maintain a training schedule on top of everything else.

As it was converted from an old strategic bomber, the WB-50 retained several of the systems used on the bomber version. The search radar was the same as was the navigation system. The carry-overs also included the bomb bay doors.

The bomb bay doors on the B-50 were actuated by compressed air. This was a carry-over from the B-29, its predecessor. The hydraulic doors on the B-17 and B-24 opened slowly, giving the anti-aircraft gunners ample warning the birds were on their bombing run. The B-29 doors opened in a flash by contrast.

The doors were operated by what we called a “Four Way” valve located at the front end of the forward bomb bay. The panel engineers had a habit of testing the valve by pulling up slightly on the actuating cable and listening for a “pssst, pssst” noise.  This was not a checklist item, only one they thought of themselves.

I had warned the panel engineers about this. Too much of a tug on that cable could actuate the doors with lethal consequences for the engineer.  My warnings fell on deaf ears

One afternoon I was talking to the pilot of a crew pre-flighting an airplane for a training mission.  The panel engineer, a senior E-9, was in the bomb bay performing his checks. I heard the pssst, pssst followed by the whoosh of the bomb bay doors closing.  I hesitated to look in that direction, knowing the scene would be very grisly.  I had to look anyway, and was surprised to see no blood and guts, only the bomb bay doors not quite closed. The pilot and I rushed to check on the engineer.

From inside the bomb bay, we heard a muffled stream if profanity. I peered through the crack between the doors and saw the Sarge braced between the doors, his back against one, and his feet on the other one. My crew chief joined me, suppressing a giggle at the engineer’s plight.

I informed the pilot his engineer was okay then consulted with my crew chief as to how to remedy the problem. We agreed that the engineer should work his way up the doors to the point where they closed, then simply walk out of the bomb bay into the forward flight compartment.

I asked the engineer if he could do this, and he informed me that he’d tried that, and he couldn’t move his legs due to the force from the doors. He was firmly wedged into his position.  The only other option was to open the doors and let him fall to the concrete parking ramp.

The drop was only a matter of three feet, or so. We thought about getting some mattresses from the barracks, but they were too far away. The crew chief climbed into the cockpit and opened the bomb bay doors. The engineer fell to the concrete, butt first, but he got up still swearing, only stopping long enough to tell the pilot he was okay and ready to resume his pre-flight.

Only the quick reflexes of this NCO prevented a fatality.  The other engineers heard of his narrow escape, but it did not deter them from continuing the four-way valve check.  Luckily, no one was ever injured performing it.