Monday, January 02, 2006

James F. 'Skeets' Coleman 1918-2014

James “Skeets” Coleman joined the USMC in 1941. He gained a B.S. at UCLA in 1947. He joined the Convair Division of General Dynamics in 1952 and flew the CV-340, 440, R-3Y and F-102. He made the maiden flight and was the only pilot to successfully fly the XFY-1 “Pogo” VTOL fighter, and was awarded the 1955 Harmon Trophy. He was the first airplane pilot ever to accomplish a vertical takeoff, transition to forward flight, and change back to a vertical landing.
Worked in a wide variety of aviation companies North American Aviation, Aviation Values Corporation, Business and Commercial Aviation Magazine and the Fairchild Aircraft Company.


On April 29, 1954, James F. "Skeets" Coleman, a lieutenant colonel in the Marine Reserve and a Convair engineering test pilot, made the first tethered flight in the Pogo. The XFY-1 was very much experimental. No other propeller-driven aircraft with similar size, weight, and engine power had ever attempted to take off and land vertically. The Pogo required safety lines to protect the pilot and the aircraft. Convair removed the propeller spinner and rigged a tether to a fitting in the nose. The tether streamed from a motorized reel controlled by Convair flight test engineer, Bob McGreary. McGreary could wind-up the reel and snatch the Pogo upright if Coleman lost control. Four more lines steadied each wingtip.
Coleman completed many tethered flights in the hangar, more than sixty hours of flying time, but it was dangerous work. The 4.8 m (16 ft) diameter propellers thrashed up a tremendous airflow that turned extremely turbulent as it washed against the inside of the hanger. Several times, Coleman called McGreary to "catch me, catch me" and the engineer slapped a button, spinning the reel to tighten the tether and steady the teetering Pogo.
By August, it was time to move outdoors. Coleman completed his first free flights on August 1st. He rose 6 m (20 ft) on the initial attempt but soared to 45 m (150 ft) on the second try. A short time later, Convair moved the aircraft to Naval Auxiliary Air Station Brown Field, California, to continue testing, including transition from vertical to horizontal flight. Coleman flew more than 70 additional takeoff-hover-landing flights in keeping with his conservative, safety-first approach to the XFY-1. He gained valuable experience with every flight. On November 2, 1954, Coleman finally transitioned and flew horizontally for 21 minutes. The test pilot spent seven minutes hovering. Just two days later, the aircraft made its public debut. Coleman launched and transitioned about 15 m (50 ft) above ground, thanks to tremendous engine power and a low-drag, streamlined airframe. The Pogo was fast too. Even with the throttle set at minimum power, the XFY-1 knifed through the air at well over 483 kph (300 mph). The airplane had no speed brakes or spoilers to help control airspeed and Coleman often outpaced the chase aircraft assigned to monitor him.
Trouble controlling low-speed velocity only aggravated the problems encountered during landing. Coleman's technique was interesting. He approached the field low with the engine set at flight-idle. At mid-field, he popped the control stick back into his stomach and pitched the airplane's nose straight up. The speed fell sharply but just as he reached the peak of his climb, Coleman applied power and stopped the Pogo in mid-air. With practice, the testpilot could stop the climb in a hover, reduce power and "back" down to a nice landing.
His descents often began higher than 300 m (1,000 ft). The aircraft was not stable and maintaining a hover required constant corrective action on the flight controls. Close above ground, the Pogo descended through its own, turbulent propwash, and Coleman fought the controls to get through it. With great skill and huge control inputs (stick and rudder pedal deflections), the test pilot brought this flying experiment back to earth safely, every time.
Yet another problem for the pilot made landings the most challenging part of flying the Pogo. When descending for touchdown from a high hover, Coleman found it almost impossible to judge rate-of-descent accurately with eyeballs alone. The Ryan Aeronautical Company developed a compact radar altimeter and mounted it in the left wingtip pod. Signals from the altimeter activated three lights: green signaled a stable hover or ascent, amber meant the rate of descent was safe, and red signaled an unsafe dive toward the ground at more than 10 feet per second.
Coleman climbed the airplane to 3,000 m (10,000 ft) on February 5, 1955. At this altitude during winter, temperatures can drop to freezing, yet he never closed the canopy once, during the entire time he flew the XFY-1. Convair installed an ejection seat but everyone thought it unreliable and technicians disarmed it. If serious trouble occurred in flight, Coleman's only option was to "step over the side" but it was considerably easier to leave the airplane if the canopy was already open.
No other pilot flew the airplane until May 19, 1955. John Knebel attempted to fly without tethered rig experience and the flight nearly ended in disaster. The Navy moved the tether rig from Moffett Field to Brown, and two other pilots began training in May 1956 but the end was already near. The giant gearbox had begun to wear and bits of metal were appearing in the lubricating oil. It was time for a major overhaul but the Navy was becoming enthusiastic about flying fixed-wing jets from aircraft carriers. Coleman had made his last flight on June 16, 1955. Interest in the program, and the funding, was disappearing and on August 1, 1956, the Navy closed the books on the XFY-1.
The Pogo proved that the VTOL fighter concept was theoretically possible but that much work remained to make the idea operationally practical. As it stood, flying the XFY-1 required above-average piloting skills and special training. It remained near San Diego for several more years until the Navy shipped it to Naval Air Station Norfolk, Virginia, and the Pogo sat "gate guard" there for a number of years. In 1973, the Navy transferred the aircraft to the National Air and Space Museum.