That time a US Navy fighter accidentally shot itself down

Among the many things fighter pilots never want to be known for, shooting themselves down while on a mission probably ranks among the highest — though it’s a rare event that has only happened just a handful of times in history, as far as we know.

Thomas Attridge, a Grumman test pilot flying the F11F Tiger supersonic fighter jet, was one such pilot who achieved that one-in-a-million feat in 1956 during a test flight near Grumman’s main facility on Long Island, New York.

Attridge, a former naval aviator and combat veteran of the Pacific Theater of WWII, powered up the Tiger and took off, aiming the aircraft’s nose for a gunnery range a few dozen miles offshore over the Atlantic. Attridge would be firing the jet’s cannons, clearing its magazines, before returning to base.

For an experienced fighter pilot, this would easily be a piece of cake.

After reaching the range, he pushed forward on the control column, sending the Tiger into a shallow dive and triggered the guns. Then, pushing his throttles forward to maximum thrust, he depressed the trigger again, firing off a second volley of shots.

Within seconds, things went horribly wrong and the Tiger began to shudder violently. The windshield in front of Attridge’s face buckled, threatening to fly inwards and hit him.

This F11F Tiger (BuNo 138620) was lost in 1956 when it accidentally shot itself down during a test flight (Photo US Navy)

Assuming that he had hit a bird at high speed, Attridge pulled back on the throttle and leveled off, calling in his troubles to the tower at the Grumman facility. Craning his head around the cockpit, he noticed gash marks on the right engine’s intake and that the engine was having trouble responding to the throttle.

The Grumman tower controllers notified emergency personnel on the ground who rushed to the runway, readying themselves to extricate the pilot from what could wind up being a terrible crash. Meanwhile, the confused test pilot goosed the stricken Tiger onto the airport’s approach, hoping for a quick landing.

As it turns out, that landing happened far sooner than Attridge expected — his engine flamed out and died, and the Tiger rapidly descended into the woods behind the runway’s threshold. After slamming through trees and brush for nearly 300 ft, the Tiger came to a stop and promptly caught fire.

An F11F landing aboard the USS Intrepid in 1959 (Photo US Navy)

Despite sustaining a broken leg and three fractured vertebrae, Attridge was able to pull himself out of the wreckage. A rescue helicopter was able to pluck the downed pilot out of crash.

Scarily enough, the helicopter hovered low enough that its blades briefly kissed the treetops, nearly dropping the aircraft on top of the downed pilot.

Upon recovering the burnt-out remains of the Tiger, Navy and Grumman investigators soon happened upon marks and holes in the windshield and right intake, just as Attridge had mentioned prior to crash landing. A deeper layer of confusion was added to the mystery behind the Tiger’s demise when a deformed 20 mm round was found embedded inside the engine of the aircraft.

Investigators realized that the only reasonable explanation for Attridge’s crash was that he accidentally shot his own jet down. The rounds fired during the cannon tests had slowed down enough that they were barely traveling faster than the jet that had just spit them out.

The former Naval Weapons Industrial Reserve Plant on Long Island, NY, used as Grumman’s primary manufacturing and test facility (Photo Wikimedia Commons)

When the Tiger went into a steeper dive, it flew directly underneath the arc of the bullets’ flight path, allowing them to hit the jet. At that precise moment, the F11 Tiger became the very first fighter jet to have ever shot itself down.

In the wake of the accident, Navy flight instructors began advising all trainee pilots to turn their aircraft away through a hard bank lest they get a taste of what happened to Attridge in 1956.

The test pilot at the center of the incident recovered and resumed flying six months later, climbing the corporate ladder to become president of Grumman’s Ecosystems division.