Daredevil US test pilot J.F. ‘Skeets’ Coleman dies aged 95

Skeets Coleman, who has died aged 95, flew prototype no other airman would go near

PUBLISHED : Monday, 19 May, 2014, 8:57pm
UPDATED : Monday, 19 May, 2014, 8:57pm


J.F. "Skeets" Coleman, who was the test pilot on one of the oddest military planes ever produced, has died of natural causes at an assisted-living facility in Oceanside, California, said his daughter, Nancy.

He was 95, a life span especially notable given the precariousness of the plane he tested in the 1950s, the Convair XFY-1. It was a vertical-take-off-and-landing (VTOL) vehicle featured on the cover of the 1990 book The World's Worst Aircraft.

"It was a project that looked really good on paper," said Bill Yenne, author of the book and several others on aviation.

Yenne said the US navy wanted the plane, which took off straight up like a helicopter before entering its horizontal regular flight, to save space on aircraft carriers. After years in development, one XFY-1 was built, but much of its engineering was untested.

"No one wanted to fly it; there were no volunteers," Coleman said in an interview for the Reaching the Skies BBC documentary series. "It was a developmental power plant, it was a developmental plane, a developmental concept. It's pretty hard to tie all of those together without having a lot of risk."

Coleman, who died last Tuesday, was the only pilot to ever take the XFY-1 on a full-on flight and was awarded the Harmon Trophy in 1955 for his contribution to aviation.

"Coleman was one of the last people ever to venture aloft in a machine that nobody knew how to fly, that no simulator had proved would fly, and that no computer could promise would be controllable," according to an article in the Air & Space magazine of the Smithsonian Museum, where the XFY-1, nicknamed the Pogo, now resides.

James Francis Coleman was born June 2, 1918, in Chicago, the third of six children. He joined the US marines in 1941, serving as a fighter pilot on dive-bombing missions in the Pacific during the second world war. After the war he earned an aeronautical engineering degree at UCLA.

In 1951, the US navy awarded Convair aircraft manufacturing a contract to design, build and test a VTOL fighter. The XFY-1 was a so-called tail sitter because it sat straight up like a rocket, resting on four wheels attached to the edges of its wings and fins.

Coleman never had a mishap in test-flying the Pogo, but after just a handful of full-on flights, tests were halted - the plane was considered too unwieldy to be practical.