On this date in 1954, Convair’s experimental Sea Dart supersonic seaplane exploded in a fireball over San Diego Bay on it’s first test run, killing test pilot Charles “Chuck” Richbourg.
Among the eyewitnesses to the tragedy were dozens of reporters who had gathered to view the Navy exhibition and Union-Tribune photojournalist Leslie A.”Les” Dodds.
Dodds’ photo sequence of the Sea Dart jet explosion appeared on front pages across the nation the following day and won the Sigma Delta Chi news picture award of 1954. It resulted in a Pulitzer Prize nomination and earned him numerous other press honors.
The Sea Dart was the first supersonic seaplane in the world. Convair built five Sea Dart jet fighters for the Navy, and only three of them ever flew. One is now mounted at the front entrance to the San Diego Air and Space Museum in Balboa Park.
From The San Diego Union, Friday, Nov. 5, 1954:
SEA DART EXPLODES OVER BAY
Hundreds See Pilot die In Accident At Navy Exhibition
Speedy Seaplane Hits Water Near San Diego Coast Guard Air Station
A Convair Sea Dart, the fastest jet seaplane in the world, exploded in the air yesterday afternoon and fell in pieces into the bay. The pilot, Charles E. Richbourg, 31, of 952 Moana Dr., was fatally injured.
The black and yellow delta-winged fighter crashed from an altitude of about 500 feet during a demonstration flight for 200 aircraft and military officials and press representatives.
The seaplane plunged in flames into the bay 300 yards from the group of observers assembled on the Convair ramp near the Coast Guard air station. The accident occurred at 3:05 p.m.
REACHED BY DIVERS
Richbourg died soon after Convair divers pulled him from the wreckage . He still was strapped in the cockpit when the divers reached him.
The flight was part of a Navy-sponsored demonstration of the new aircraft and was witnessed by 80 reporters and photographers from throughout the United States.
More than 100 Convair employes saw the crash. Hundreds of San Diegans in scattered parts of the city also saw it.
The Sea Dart, or XF2Y1, took off from the bay near the ramp, retracted its ski landing gear and circled Coronado, gaining altitude for its first pass.
As the onlookers watched, took notes or aimed cameras, Richbourg put the plane into a shallow dive and picked up speed as he came in for a run over the takeoff course.
As the plane approached the course, observers noticed that it pitched or porpoised. There was a subdued explosive sound, a flash of flame and the Sea Dart blew apart in the air.
The tail section disintegrated and the cockpit and nose section tore free. The flaming main fuselage section struck the water first and burned for several minutes.
A crash boat with two Convair divers aboard sped to the wreckage. The boat ad been stationed near the ramp during the demonstration.
The pilot was brought the surface from a depth of 30 feet by divers Fred Kilbourne, Route1, El Cajon and Dick Evilsizor, 1021 Chalcedony St., Pacific Beach.
“He was still strapped in his seat and his chute harness when we got to him,” Kilbourne said.