No, it wasn’t. Though the pilots shared a last name and a first initial, they were not the same. Victor Frank Grissom Jr. was from Tennessee. Virgil Ivan “Gus” Grissom was from Indiana. Answer Man contacted Gus Grissom’s brother Lowell, who noted, “As far as I know, I don’t have any relatives in Tennessee.”
Gus flew the F-86 in the Korean War before earning a spot in Project Mercury. He went into space with Mercury and as a Project Gemini astronaut. Grissom died in 1967 with fellow astronauts Ed White and Roger B. Chaffee in a launchpad fire while testing Apollo 1.
McLean, Va., reader Bill Neff remembers that rough landing of the B-17 at Bolling and that the plane’s right landing gear collapsed. He was there: a plane-obsessed 14-year-old ninth-grader from Woodrow Wilson High who had taken several buses to get to Bolling from his home in Chevy Chase.
“It was a big air show: first anniversary of the establishment of the separate U.S. Air Force,” Bill wrote. “I do remember watching the B-17 drone landing attempts — it was a big plane for those days. I saw it ground-loop, and the fire trucks go out.”
Wrote Bill: “Growing up in D.C. does have its advantages. I’m glad to have been the beneficiary of some of these.”
The B-17 drone from the air show was billed as “atomic-tested.” It had been flown without a crew through a mushroom cloud during A-bomb tests at Bikini Atoll, a way to gather data without endangering fliers.
Harold Johnson of Blue Ridge Summit, Pa., noted that wasn’t always the case. “Not all of those bombers collecting data over nuclear tests were unmanned,” he wrote. “This is a frequently stated error that the military has done nothing to correct.”
Harold said he once worked with a daughter of a USAF pilot named Arthur S. Cunningham who was involved with Operation Greenhouse. That was the 1951 test of a nuclear device called George in the Enewetak Atoll.
In a 2006 memoir, Cunningham wrote that two B-17 drones flew over the device around the time it was detonated. Aboard each was a three-person safety crew able to take over should the ground-based control fail. Cunningham was among them.
The men were all volunteers, and their unit was disbanded after the flights, he said. Wrote Cunningham: “The aircraft could have recorded any information they collected without any person on board.”
Whatever ill effects Cunningham may have experienced from flying over a nuclear test, he lived to the age of 96, dying in 2017.
Finally, Harry L. Lockhart of Harrisonburg, Va., remembers another remote-controlled plane that refused to be controlled remotely. On Aug. 16, 1956, Harry was an air traffic controller at California’s Oxnard Air Force Base, near Point Mugu Naval Air Station.
“The Navy base called to say they had a drone that got away from them and was flying toward Los Angeles,” Harry remembered.
The drone was a remote-controlled World War II-era F6F Hellcat that was meant to be used for missile target practice. Immediately after takeoff, contact was lost. The Hellcat climbed to 30,000 feet and circled over Ventura and Los Angeles counties.
Two F-89 Scorpion interceptors were scrambled from Oxnard. For the next two hours, the planes showered the Hellcat with Mighty Mouse air-to-air rockets, some 208 in all. Most of the rockets missed. The few that struck the drone failed to detonate.
The weapons did take a toll on the ground. A car driven by 16-year-old Larry Kempton with his mother as passenger was destroyed when a rocket exploded on the street in front of them. He and his mother were unharmed. House windows were shattered, roofs perforated. Multiple ground fires broke out, burning hundreds of acres.
After two hours, the Navy drone ran out of fuel and crashed, severing a power line and starting yet another fire. It took firefighters two days to extinguish all the blazes.
What became known as the Battle of Palmdale must have been an embarrassment to the Air Force. An aerial line of defense designed to stop Soviet incursions had not been able to shoot down one old prop plane that didn’t even have a pilot aboard.
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For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/john-kelly.