North Smithfield, R. I. – May 19, 1959

North Smithfield, Rhode Island – May 19, 1959

 

F-89 Scorpion U. S. Air Force Photo

F-89 Scorpion
U. S. Air Force Photo

     On May 19, 1959, two U. S. Air Force F-89 Scorpion jets attached to the 58th Fighter Interceptor Squadron were dispatched from Otis Air Force Base in Falmouth, Massachusetts, to intercept an unidentified aircraft that appeared on air defense radar.  The flight was actually an unannounced drill.  Such drills were common, one air command would send a plane into another air command’s air space to test readiness and proficiency.

     The crew of one F-89 consisted of the pilot, Captain Arthur Canella, 29, and his radar observer, Lieutenant Robert J. Scearce Jr., 26.  Once airborne, Canella’s F-89 was designated the radio call sign, “Kilo November Nine”, and the other “Kilo November Ten”.  Even though they were scrambled out of Massachusetts, they were put in radio contact with the New York Air Defense Sector which was using the call sign “Occasion”. 

      Ironically, Lieutenant Scearce wasn’t scheduled to be on this particular flight.  He was supposed to be relieved at the end of his shift by another radar observer, but when the man showed up he asked Scearce to cover for him for an hour or so until he could register his car.  Scearce agreed, and thirty minutes later the scramble horn sounded.

      As the Scorpions sped through the upper atmosphere at 30,000 feet on an interception course, both jets found themselves flying in thick clouds, or “popeye” in Air Force jargon, and were forced to fly in IFR (Instrument Flight Rules).  Canella and Scearce, (Kilo November Nine) began closing in on the “target” using their on-board radar, while Kilo November Ten was positioned a few miles away serving as the surveillance aircraft per instructions from Occasion.  The following dialogue leading up to the accident is taken from a radio transcript submitted with the official Air Force Crash Investigation Report.  (59-5-19-2) 

OCCASION: “Kilo November Nine, your heading is two eight zero, your target, thirty five port now twelve miles.  Do you have a contact?”  

NINE: “Rog, we have a contact.” 

OCCASION: “Roger, Contact.” 

After a few moments of radio traffic between Occasion and the other aircraft: 

NINE: “Zero Nine has a Judy.” 

OCCASION: “Judy for zero nine.  Investigate, full I.D. please.” 

NINE: “Zero nine.” 

A few moments later: 

OCCASION: “Ten, nine is now a mile and a half behind the target, you hold them both the port side twenty five degrees at fourteen to thirteen miles.” 

TEN: “Roger, ten” 

OCCASION: “Ten, they’re in ten miles.  Do you have a contact?”  (Occasion was informing ten that nine and the target were now within ten miles of his aircraft and asking if he had them on radar.)  

TEN: “Negative, ten seems to be bent here.” 

OCCASION: “Roger ten, let’s come port two eight zero degrees that’ll place them fifteen to twenty your port side at seven to eight miles.” 

TEN: “Roger two eight.” 

OCCASION: “Nine, are you Victor Fox now?” (Asking if Nine was now above the cloud cover and flying on Visual Flight, (Victor Fox), Rules.) 

TEN: “Roger, we’re on top at thirty seven.” (The report lists ten as answering, but nine was asked the question.  This could be a typo.) 

OCCASION: “Ten, your heading two seven zero, the target will be your two thirty position twelve miles.” 

TEN: “Roger, understand, two thirty at twelve.  Do you have a stranger passing about twelve o’clock at four or five miles?”  (Apparently the aircraft’s radar was picking up another plane and was asking if Occasion had it on their radar.)  

OCCASION: “Ten, that’s negative, you have a stranger off your starboard side at one thirty at fourteen.  I have no stranger that neck of your position.”  

OCCASION: “Ten, I now have a stranger in your heading of two seven zero in your ten o’clock position at six.” 

After some course correction instructions between Occasion and Ten, Occasion checks on Nine. 

OCCASION: “Nine, are you still popeye?” 

NINE: “That’s affirm, I think we are going to get him soon here.” 

OCCASION: “Roger, nine.” 

OCCASION: “Ten, what state fuel?” 

TEN: “Roger, ten has ten thousand pounds, oxygen sweet.” (10,000 lbs. of fuel and plenty of oxygen to breathe due to the altitude.) 

OCCASION: “Roger, ten continue at gate your pigeons home plate zero seven zero degrees at forty five.” (“gate your pigeons” – Air Force slang for use afterburner for maximum power.) 

TEN: “Roger.  Forty-five starboard twenty four.” 

NINE: “It’s a B-47 type aircraft, I’ll pull in and get numbers.”  (The pilot was required to get the serial number on the tail of the target aircraft as proof they had identified it.) 

OCCASION: “Roger, nine, we’re standing by.” 

OCCASION: “Kilo November Ten, starboard three-three zero.” 

TEN: “Roger three-three.” 

NINE: “Zero nine is breaking it off.  I’ll give you the numbers here.” 

OCCASION: “Roger, nine, nine break port – port one eight zero degrees the hard way.  I’ll join ten up with you.”  

NINE: “I’ve already broken starboard, I’d had to break into the aircraft to break                               port.” 

     This was the last radio transmission received from Kilo November Nine.      

     Canella and Scearce had broken to starboard, and unknowingly began heading almost straight down due to the lack of visual reference points.  The aircraft began picking up speed, and then broke the sound barrier, something it was not designed to do.  When it finally broke free of the clouds the situation became apparent, and the crew was forced to eject.  

     The Plexiglas canopy flew off as explosive charges under the crews’ seats blew them free of the cockpit.  For the two men, hitting the slipstream at 700 mph was like being slammed into a brick wall. Both injured their shoulders in the bail out leaving them incapable of controlling their parachutes as they descended.   

     Meanwhile, those at Air Defense Command began to realize something was wrong.  Both Occasion and Kilo November Ten tried to radio Nine, but got no response.  Occasion reported to Ten that they had lost Nine on radar.  

OCCASION: “Kilo November Ten, your Nine should now have gone off  your starboard side.  His last position that I had him was about fifteen your port side seven miles.”   

TEN: “Roger, you still have no paint on him?” 

OCCASION: “Negative, I’m not painting his parrot, (not on radar) I lost him, you heard the last transmission that he made to us as he turned starboard.” 

TEN: “Roger, you want to clear me down through this stuff, (the clouds) I’ll drop on down here a little bit lower.” 

OCCASION:  “Ten that negative, be advised we’re over land and if anything did                             happen to Nine, no sense taking you down there too.”  (Kilo November Ten was the given instructions to return back to Otis AFB.) 

     The men bailed out over the city of Woonsocket, Rhode Island.  Many on the ground who witnessed the parachutes deploy first thought it was all part of a stunt connected to the upcoming Madi Gras celebration.       

Former U. S. Rubber Company, aka Alice Mill,  at 85 Fairmont Street, Woonsocket, R. I.   The mill burned to the ground in June of 2011

Former U. S. Rubber Company, aka Alice Mill,
at 85 Fairmont Street, Woonsocket, R. I.
The mill burned to the ground in June of 2011

     Lieutenant Scearce landed hard on the roof of the U.S. Rubber Company at 85 Fairmont Street,   suffering from multiple serious injuries connected to the bailout.  

      Employees of the plant climbed to the roof using a fire escape.  Dorothy Kane, the industrial nurse for the company, began administering first aid while police and firemen converged on the area.  Scearce was transported to Woonsocket Hospital where he stayed for the next eleven days.        

      Meanwhile, Captain Canella landed in Harris Pond next to the Precious Blood Cemetery in northern Woonsocket.  Looking down during his descent he saw 17-year-old Roland Ruge working in the cemetery and began calling for help. The wind carried him across the cemetery and straight into Harris Pond where he became tangled in the cords of his parachute.   Acting quickly, Roland dove into the chilly water and swam 200 feet from shore to reach Canella.  Roland struggled to pull the injured flyer to shore while keeping his head above water.  As he neared shore someone threw him a rope. 

     Both Canella and Ruge were transported to Woonsocket Hospital for treatment.  While the captain was admitted for his injuries, Roland was treated for hypothermia and released.   

    While the crew of the F-89 came down in Woonsocket, the aircraft continued down into the neighboring town of North Smithfield, about 200 yards west of Greenville Road, (Rt. 104), at a point about three-tenths of a mile south of where Providence Street intersects with Smithfield Road.  The plane exploded in a massive fireball. 

     The wreckage at the crash site was scattered in a swath a half-mile long and roughly 300 feet wide.  Both engines were found intact approximately 300 feet past where the initial impact occurred.  The fires burned hot enough to melt the aluminum from the plane.  In one area, it was reported that the melted aluminum remained liquid until the firemen cooled it with water from their hoses. 

     The ejection seat belonging Lt. Scearce was later recovered by on Wright’s Farm on Woonsocket Hill Road, in North Smithfield, which is several miles away from where the air-crew parachuted to earth. 

     The Scorpion involved in this crash was an F-89 J, serial number 53-2621A.   

     While the aircrew lay recuperating at Woonsocket Hospital, Roland Ruge was hailed a hero by the Air Force for saving Captain Canella’s life.  Roland later received an official award from the Air Force and was given a tour of Otis Air Force Base.  While being given the tour, he was able to view the remains of the wrecked F-89, and was presented with the cockpit compass as a keepsake.     

Sources:

United States Air Force Crash Investigation Report #59-5-19-2

Woonsocket Call, “Two Bail Out Safely As AF Jet Crashes In North Smithfield”, May 19, 1959.

Providence Journal, “2 Airmen Hurt Parachuting”, May 20, 1959, Pg. 1

Woonsocket Call, “Crash Pilot Blames Going Too Fast”, May 20, 1959

Cape Cod Standard Times, “Plane Crashes In Rhode Island”, May 20, 1959   Cape Cod Standard Times, “Explosion Of Otis jet Being Probed”, May 20, 1959

Cape Cod Standard Times, “Investigation Is Continuing”, May 21, 1959

Woonsocket Call, “AF, Pilot’s Wife Pour Thanks On Hero Ruge”, May 21, 1959

Providence Journal, “Gathering Up Of Fighter Pieces Begins”, May 21, 1959, Pg. 19

 

 

 

 

 

 

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