Fire in the Sky, 1973 (over Sumas, Washington)

Just across the U.S.-Canada border from Sumas, Washington, is the Canadian community of Abottsford, British Columbia. Since 1962, the Abbotsford Airport has been the site of what is now Canada’s largest airshow, and both as a child and an adult I attended many of the annual shows, held in early August, as have many other residents of Bellingham. But one show in particular stands out in my mind – that of August 12, 1973….

But first, some background:

Prior to their being decommissioned in 1984, for many years the airshow was officially opened each day at 1:00 p.m. with a flight demonstration by four CAF-101 “Voodoo” interceptors out of their base at Comox, B.C., on Vancouver Island. A member of the old guard “century series” fighters built in the United States, the F-101 Voodoo was built by the McDonnell-Douglas corporation in St. Louis, and the aircraft were sold to Canada. Equipped with dual afterburning jet-engines and capable of supersonic flight, the Voodoo was a perfect show opener, because it was very fast and loud, very “up close and personal.” Indeed, if an F-101 engaged its afterburner with its jet exhaust pointed in your general direction, you could actually feel a shock wave strike your body.

CAF-101 Voodoo

CAF-101 Voodoo

On that sunny, hot August day in 1973, the Voodoo show proceeded normally and everyone was impressed and charged up. As the aircraft ended their routine, they took separation, forming a line, and each passed by show center, in turn, at just under the speed of sound, then pitching up into steep, high performance climbs.

The third plane in the series had passed, and my head was turned to the left, watching the fourth approach, when it surprised me by suddenly breaking to the left into a wide circle around the field. Simultaneously I heard my mother say “Oh, NO…”

It’s odd how things often seem to go into “slo-mo” during emergencies of various sorts. I turned to look at what everyone was suddenly looking at, up in the sky, and I immediately got a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach, because the last plane that had passed, now high up in the sky, was in two pieces, and burning. The two halves of the aircraft fell earthward, rotating slowly as they turned. The sky was filling with black smoke and out of the front part of the fuselage nervous, red flames flickered.

A hush fell over the crowd, while the announcer admonished everyone to stay calm, that the pilots of these craft were highly trained and knew how to deal with this.

Meanwhile, across the border in Sumas, Washington, a young man was outside his house, watching the airshow, when his mother inside the house heard him yell, “Mom, it blew up and it’s gonna hit the house!”

She rushed outside in time to see the front part of the fuselage come crashing down into a nearby cornfield. Which must have been something to behold, because the Voodoo was not a small aircraft – nose to tail it measured almost 70 feet in length, with the nose sitting some 18 feet above the ground when parked.

Back at the airfield, everyone was scanning the sky, looking for parachutes. After a few minutes, as the black smoke began to dissipate slightly, someone nearby said, “There!” and pointed. High up in the sky was one white parachute, and somewhat lower in the sky was a white and red parachute. Both the pilot and navigator had managed to eject from the ill-fated aircraft.

An investigation was conducted, and it was determined that the plane had entered into a state of “inertial roll coupling” where the aircraft begins to oscillate around the pitch (up and down) and yaw (side to side) axes. Sometimes referred to as a “Dutch Roll,” it is a potentially lethal situation. Interestingly, the F-101 Voodoo had been known to experience this problem, and many U.S. model Voodoos had been retrofitted with stability augmentation, designed to damp out the potentially lethal gyrations. Also interesting is that Canada at one point had traded a number of Voodoos back to the U.S. for models that had been “upgraded.” It makes we wonder if this particular plane lacked the stability augmentation system, because it seems not to have functioned at all; it could only have been a matter of seconds between the time the “Dutch Roll” started and the time the aircraft fell apart in flight.

dutch roll

The “Dutch Roll.” (Image credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Whatever the case, it is most fortunate that no one was seriously injured or killed that day.

Perhaps I am more impressionable than the average person, because for years afterwards, I would sometimes have nightmares about airplanes crashing with terrific explosions, or falling out of the sky on fire. In fact, every so often, I still haveĀ  dreams of fire in the sky.