High Desert Hangar Stories with Bob Alvis

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The Picture
Born and raised here in the Antelope Valley and the son of a Douglas Aircraft man in the 1950s, I had many opportunities as a kid to rub elbows with the early pioneers of aircraft that were really starting to push the envelope big time.

Mach 1 had come and gone, and supersonic flight and higher Mach numbers were the order of the day, as aircraft manufacturers kept building bigger and more exotic aircraft to gain those lucrative government contracts.

One day many years after Pops had called it quits, I was looking at his tool boxes and rollaways that he used over the years. Sadly, they were no longer in the hangars or on the flight line at Edwards, but were instead gathering dust in the garage of a retired flight test crew chief.

One item that had stood out for many years but that I’d never asked about was a simple black and white photo of a man by his plane tucked away in the tool box.

During my childhood years, I respected Pops’ tools and never really asked much about the stuff and that picture. I just knew it was there and hoped maybe someday a story would be shared.

Dad passed away in 1999 and the day came when Mom asked what I was going to do with all of his tools. I made my way out to the garage and started looking through the drawers at the tools that had furthered a career and helped maintain some really incredible aircraft over the span of Dad’s life. Then came the drawer and the photo that now looked at me and said, “It’s your time to understand me.”

The photo in the little workbench hand-built frame was that of a pilot and a Douglas A3D. With close inspection, I could just make out the signature that said “Bill.” My dad’s name was Bill, but it sure wasn’t my dad’s writing. So off I went to one of Dad’s old Douglas buddies, Charlie, and asked if he knew who the Bill in the picture was. Charlie’s failing eyesight struggled with it a bit, but with some help from a magnifying glass, the story came forth.

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In October 1955, Bill Davis and flight test engineer Jack Amick took off to perform structural flight testing in preparation for the structural demonstration program for the Navy on the A3D #359. Southwest of Edwards, the plane was put into a high-speed dive. Near Lancaster, where Leisure Lake Mobile Home Park is today, the A3D went into the ground at about 550 knots, killing the crew instantly. Later on it was determined that the horizontal stabilizer hinges may have failed allowing the stabilizer to float free, negating any inputs the pilot may have made.

Charlie then really put the chill in the air when he said “Your Dad was the crew chief on that plane” and he was really close to Bill, as they worked many hours together on that program. Quietly reflecting on what had just been said, I was kind of speechless to say the least. Then Charlie spoke up and said, “It was flight test in the 1950s. We lost a lot of great guys, but we ended up with some really incredible aircraft and that crash ended up providing a modification that changed the aluminum hinges on the stabilizer to steel and we never had another problem.”

The picture in the tool box now sits on a shelf over my desk. From time to time I find myself looking at it and wondering about that day and all the years that the photo sat in the tool box, and what Dad would think when he looked at it. I guess the most important part of this story is now after all these years the story of the picture has been shared. The loss of Bill Davis and his engineer was never forgotten by Dad and it’s up to us now to carry on that remembrance of those who gave so much pushing our nation’s planes to the limit. A simple artifact in a little hand-built frame – amazing how loud it speaks now and how huge it is to the legacy of some great men that gave it their all.

Till next time, Bob out …