Pilots reunite on 60th anniversary of Crusader’s first flight

EVERETT — Pete Batcheller came to see “the mother,” the sleek fighter jet that he flew in combat over Vietnam.

The airplane was unveiled Wednesday at the Museum of Flight Restoration Center at Paine Field, about 20 years after volunteers started returning the aircraft to its original condition.

The date for the unveiling was quite deliberate. Wednesday marked the 60th anniversary since the first flight of the Vought XF8U-1.

The museum restored the plane to the paint scheme it had on that 52-minute flight, when test pilot John Konrad pushed it through the sound barrier, said Tom Cathcart, who oversees the museum’s restoration work and the aircraft collection.

Adding the Crusader to the Museum of Flight’s collection “adds to the story of the transition from the propeller age to the jet age,” he said. The plane is to be displayed in the museum’s gallery at Boeing Field in Seattle.

Designed in the 1950s, the airplane was a critical step in the U.S. Navy’s evolution from prop to jet. The planes were heavily used during the Vietnam War by the Navy and the Marine Corps. A photo-reconnaissance model wasn’t retired from active Navy service until 1987.

In all, Vought built 1,261 Crusaders, including 42 that served until 2000 with the French Navy.

The airplane’s powerful engine and sleek design helped it set speed records. It was the first plane to cross the continental U.S. faster than the speed of sound, known as Mach 1.

“The first time you take off and light that afterburner, you go ‘holy [expletive]’ and hope you don’t screw anything up,” said Batcheller, who lives near Bremerton.

The buttons on his blazer were inscribed with “1000 mph club” and a silhouette of an F-8 from above.

Speed wasn’t the only thing that set the airplane apart. By the 1960s, most U.S. air-to-air combat planes didn’t have guns. They relied on air-to-air missiles.

But the Crusader bristled with four cannons, earning it the moniker “the last of the gunfighters.”

Batcheller, who retired from the Navy as a commander, flew the plane over Vietnam during three combat tours with Fighter Squadron 24, assigned to the aircraft carrier USS Hancock.

He regularly flew two sorties a day off the wood-decked carrier.

“You met yourself coming and going,” he said of the frequency of missions.

His scariest moment came returning from a sortie. He was over the ocean, halfway between the nearest U.S. air base and his carrier. He met up with a refueling tanker, but, he said, it was “sour” — the fuel transfer system wasn’t working.

Another tanker took off as he burned through the little fuel he had left.

“I couldn’t make Da Nang, and I couldn’t make my carrier,” he said.

When he connected with the second tanker, he had “maybe a minute worth” of fuel left, he said. “I was sucking fumes.”

The Museum of Flight has “done a fabulous job restoring” the prototype Crusader, he said.

The Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum first loaned the plane to the museum in 1987, later donating it in 2004.

Restoration work started in 1996. By then, the plane had suffered significant corrosion, mostly from weather, Cathcart said.

It took about 5,000 work hours to restore it, he said.

The airplane had a reputation for being hard to fly, but the former F-8 pilots at Wednesday’s event only had praise for its sleek lines, “honest” handling and, of course, its speed.

Renton resident Tom Blackwood has flown dozens of aircraft types, including the F-8, since he joined the Navy in the 1970s. He retired as a captain and became a commercial airline pilot.

“If I had one to take home, it would be this one,” he said. “And a credit card for the gas and maintenance.”

He flew photo reconnaissance missions in an RF-8, an even faster version armed only with cameras. Over the skies of Vietnam, he and his squadron mates said at the time they were “alone, unarmed and unafraid.”

“The first two were true, but I don’t know about the third one,” he said.

The Crusader’s speed helped him and other pilots get back safely.

“What’s 1,000 miles per hour? It’s about 2.6 seconds, and you do a mile,” Blackwood said.

With the afterburner on, “you’re all by yourself, you’re everything,” he said.

Dan Catchpole: 425-339-3454; dcatchpole@heraldnet.com; Twitter: @dcatchpole.

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