Friday, September 07, 2007

Charles E. Richbourg 1923 –1954

Charles E. Richbourg was born in St. Augustine, Florida, and was introduced to flying at an early age. Over half of the family was pilots – his father, his older brother and older sister.
Charles graduated from St. Augustine’s Ketterlinus High School in 1941 and then from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, then joining the Navy as a pilot during World War II. Following four years in the Navy, Charles became a test pilot for Convair. In those days test pilots were very involved in designing the planes in addition to flight testing. He knew Chuck Yeager and his name was included in early discussions of astronaut candidates.
His last project with Convair was testing the YF2Y1 Sea Dart, a high performance delta wing jet fighter that featured hydro-skis for water landings – the world’s fastest jet seaplane. The Navy was interested in these capabilities because it combined the speed of land-based jets with the versatility of a water-based craft. In August, 1954, at age 31, Charles Richbourg became the first – and remains the only – man to break that sound barrier in a seaplane, at 34,000 feet.
On November 4, 1954, the Navy arranged a demonstration for the Navy brass, press and others of three current Convair projects, two of them at the Convair seaplane ramp on San Diego Bay. Sadly,the flight of the Sea Dart was his final flight.The aircraft disintegrated, the left wing separated from the aircraft.The nose and cockpit section separated from other disintegrating parts of the aircraft as they plunged into San Diego Bay in full view of the visiting dignitaries. Rescue frog men standing by in a water launch were quick to find the cockpit in the shallow bay. The canopy was opened and they brought Richbourg to the surface. At first there was hope that he had survived but that was not to be. Richbourg died of his injuries.