By Fred “Crash” Blechman
During his flying days, George Clinton Watkins piloted over 200 different types of aircraft. Those aircraft included 75 different models he flight-tested as a Navy experimental test pilot during three tours at Patuxent River, Md. By the time he retired from the U.S. Navy as a captain in 1973–after a 30-year career–he had established a number of records. Although he had flown Navy fighter planes at over Mach 2, he could not outrun the Grim Reaper. Watkins, known by many fellow pilots in his Navy days as “Gorgeous George,” passed away from a heart attack on Sept. 18, 2005.
Watkins was a record setter. He became a legend among Navy and Marine aviators, and then continued establishing soaring records. He’s probably up there now, setting new records. It would take a book to describe his many accomplishments and adventures, and such a book is in work by his beautiful wife, Monica Watkins, a former flight attendant.
George C. Watkins graduated as an ensign from the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis in June 1943. He served aboard the battleship USS Pennsylvania as a main battery turret officer for 15-inch guns during many naval bombardments of Pacific Islands during World War II. He reported to Ottumwa, Iowa, for flight training in late November 1944, and earned his naval aviator wings of gold in October 1945 (no carrier landings were required in those days to earn naval aviator wings).
His next stop was Fort Lauderdale, Fla., for operational training in Grumman TBM torpedo bombers, and his first arrested carrier landings–six on the old Ranger (CV-4). Then it was on to VT-98, the Air Group 98 replacement training squadron in Los Alamitos, Calif., still flying TBMs, and more carrier qualification on the Tarawa (CV-40).
Finally, Watkins went to his first fleet duty with VT-41 at North Island, San Diego. They flew 18 TBMs in coordination with VF-41s 18 Ryan FR-1 “Fireballs” on hunter/killer anti-submarine warfare missions. The TBMs searched for enemy submarines. When they spotted a periscope, they called the Fireballs to fire up their jets, chase the sub and fire rockets.
The three small carriers they operated from at that point were the Badoeng Strait (CVE-116), the Bairoko (CVE-115) and the Rendova (CVE-114).
“They were all jeep carriers,” Watkins said, when interviewed previously by this writer. “As I look back on it now, to be operating day and night off of those jeep carriers, with an airplane as big as the TBM, it seems awfully hairy.”
He said that in those days, at night, the carriers weren’t even lighted.
“You had dust-pan lights out there that were very dim on the sides of the carrier, and then you had the centerline lights,” he said. “The landing signal officer was there with his paddles to tell you if you were high, low, fast or slow. He was under a black-light that was focused on him. His paddles were fluorescent and his arms and legs were outlined in fluorescent cloth.”
Watkins says the FR-1 Fireball “was a very borderline case airplane.”
“It had a prop up front and a jet in the rear, which only put out about a thousand pounds of thrust, as I recall,” he said. “Structurally, it was a very poorly built airplane, built by Ryan Aircraft there in San Diego. I saw several aboard ship just come apart–the front end went one way, the rear end went another way! Many people–I being one of them–weren’t all that enthusiastic about flying the Ryan Fireball.”
After several years of squadron duty and several cruises, Lieutenant Watkins went on to carrier division staff in the Pacific in 1948, then to the East Coast to another carrier division staff where he deployed to the Mediterranean in the Leyte (CV-32). Although on staff duty, he managed to get some flying in.
“I flew TBMs, doing banner towing for ship and air gunnery practice, by planes and ships, with their five-inch guns–something no one else wanted to do,” he said. “The banner was about 700 feet behind, but one of the ships came pretty close (to hitting my airplane), because it really shook it. Several tow ropes got shot off.”
Navy Test Pilot School
After that cruise, Watkins got his orders to Navy Test Pilot School at Patuxent River, Md., where two of his classmates were future astronauts John Glenn and Alan Shepard. He graduated in February 1951. He flew experimental test flights in McDonnell F2H Banshees, Grumman F9F-2 and F9F-5 Panthers, late model Vought AU Corsairs, and Douglas AD Skyraiders.
Watkins also test flew the North American AJ Savage, the first Navy atomic bomber he described as “an awfully big airplane to land on a straight-deck carrier.”
“I made a lot of landings with that airplane on carriers,” he said. “There was just one stick in the side-by-side cockpit; the guy in the other seat was the bombardier. The AJ-2 came out with a yoke rather than a stick, because the majority of people flying in those squadrons were former patrol plane pilots. I like a stick; I’m used to a stick. If you’re a fighter pilot, you like a stick!”
Watkins flight tested the then-new swept-wing airplanes, like the North American FJ-2 Fury and the Grumman F9F-6 Cougar. Near the end of 1952, he and several other Patuxent River test pilots test-landed on the Antietam (CVA-36)–the first American angled deck, called the “canted deck” at that time.
“In those days, they still had an LSO with paddles,” he said. “This was before the mirror system. It (the deck angle) was, as I recall, about eight degrees–not very much. But we really liked it.”
By then Watkins had tallied 400 to 500 regular straight-deck carrier landings. When asked how landing on an angled-deck compared with straight-deck carrier landings, Watkins said that first, there’s a “psychological difference.”
“It’s a lot easier making your approach to an angled-deck carrier than it is to a straight deck, where you have four or five barriers facing you,” he said. “Psychologically, that impediment is all gone with an angled deck–no barriers, no barricades, no other airplanes parked there.”
There were usually nine arresting wires on a straight deck, but the last three could still stretch into the barrier cables. He recalled that if you had a good barrier operator who saw that you caught a wire, he could drop the barrier and save your prop. On an angled deck, your target wire is number three of the four wires.
“If you don’t catch a wire, you go around again,” he remembered. “On an angled deck, there is no ‘cut’ in a jet. You keep your power on, and as soon as you hit the deck you add full power. The only aircraft you take a cut in are prop airplanes. (In a jet) if you don’t get a wave-off, you keep on coming.”
On straight deck carriers, the wind over the deck was at most 10 degrees to the port (left), to keep you from getting caught in the turbulence from the “stackwash” (ship’s island and smoke stacks) on the starboard side.
“With an angled deck, they try to get the wind (combination of surface wind and ship’s forward motion) right up the angle,” he said. “On a calm day, it comes right down the straight deck, but you have no problem at all, because the angle is small. Essentially, you have a slight crosswind from the right instead of about the same amount from the left, as it used to be on a straight deck carrier. The stacks don’t seem to interfere at all. You just fly down that glide slope and you fly down that centerline. No more low and slow in a turn coming into the groove.”
After that first tour at Patuxent River, Watkins got his orders to VF-24, the first swept-wing fighter squadron in the Navy, flying Grumman F9F-6 Cougars. They deployed to Korea on the Yorktown (CVA-10), still a straight deck at the time. The Korean “action” was beginning to end.
“The North Koreans had accepted the temporary truce, so we didn’t fire any shots in anger, although these were combat flights,” he explained. “We did a lot of patrolling off North Korea, but never encountered any enemy aircraft.”
After the Korean cruise, Watkins was sent back to the Sixth Fleet. While there, he and three other former Patuxent River test pilots were chosen as the first American pilots to evaluate the British mirror landing system on the British carrier HMS Hermes (with an angled deck.)
Back to Patuxent River
After about a year and a half in the Sixth Fleet, Watkins headed back to Patuxent River for his second tour in flight test.
“Now came the Golden Years of Naval Aviation,” he said. “We were testing all of the afterburning airplanes. I think we were testing seven different fighters, four different light attack airplanes, several different heavy attack airplanes, and various and sundry ‘cats and dogs,’ which are the AEW (Airborne Electronic Warning), ASW (Anti-Submarine Warfare), electronic countermeasures airplanes–all the different kinds of aircraft that are not part of the fighter and attack wing.”
Testing airplanes lasted for three years–the standard tour at Patuxent. Around April 1956, Watkins came out to Edwards to evaluate the F11F-1F Super Tiger.
“We had almost completed the evaluation, and wanted to try some ‘zoom climbs,’ a phrase just coming into existence then,” he said. “We wanted to see what kind of altitude we could get out of the F11F-1F.
To do that, they had to don partial pressure suits.
“The F11F-1F was a Grumman single-place, single-engine fighter with a J-79 engine,” he recalled. “It was the first potential Mach 2 airplane the Navy had–though the Navy never bought that version. During the evaluation process we got up to (Mach) 1.86, where we were limited at the time. From that point, you go into a zoom climb and see what kind of altitude you get.”
They got to altitudes in excess of 70,000 feet.
“Somewhere around 73,000 feet,” he remembered. “The General Electric people, who built the J-79 engine, told us there was no way that engine would run at about 70,000 feet. We didn’t know what was going to happen. We didn’t know what kind of altitude we were going to reach. It was still running at 73,000 feet, although it was running hot, even at idle rpm.”
He said that was just one of the airplanes they evaluated.
“The Navy didn’t buy the F11F-1F, although they bought earlier models,” he said. “Two years later, in 1958, the Navy decided to go after the world’s altitude record; that was the airplane that was selected, because by that time it was a Mach 2 airplane. They still only had two of them.”
He said he was at Patuxent River at the time, but because he was the only one that had done altitude flights, they sent him back to Edwards.
“Meanwhile, a bunch of different Air Forces–the French, Japanese, Spanish, you name it–evaluated the airplane, always out at Edwards,” he said. Before I went out there, they said, ‘Well, there’s something I think you ought to know. The lakebed here is less than ten inches of water, so you won’t be able to land on the lakebed. Also, Rosamond’s lakebed is less than ten inches of water, so there are no lakebeds to land on. You’ll have to land on the runway. So if you have a flameout, you better be sure you know what you’re doing.’ I said thanks and headed out to Edwards.”
He said that the day he arrived at the Grumman hangar, there were aircraft parts spread out all over the floor.
“I’m supposed to fly that thing tomorrow?” he recalled asking. “It was completely disassembled. They said, ‘Sure, we’ll have it together.’ I said, ‘OK. I’ll be in at 6 o’clock.’ I came in at 6 o’clock, and there was the airplane outside, all ready to be cranked up.
“We put two sealed barographs in it. The man from the FAI (Federation Aeronautique Internationale) was there (to witness the record). The field truck was out on the end of the runway and they parked the airplane there. I told them, ‘Seal the flaps up.’ They said ‘Don’t you want flaps for takeoff or landing?’ I wanted minimum drag; you have all sorts of space in there. I wanted it smooth to get more Mach number out of it.”
He said one of the problems of using that engine in that airframe was that you didn’t have a lot of fuel in the airplane to begin with for a -79 engine.
“It was all right for a J-65 engine, which was in the standard F11F,” he explained. “But this J-79 engine burned a lot of fuel. I had computed that I would have to go downrange about 320 miles at cruise altitude and cruise power before I could turn around and hit my afterburner. I calculated that I would end up over the field with something less than 500 pounds of fuel remaining.”
He said you had to do that in order to build up to as close to Mach 2 as you could get.
“It took all that distance to build up to Mach 2,” he said. “It’s very slow to build up.”
After getting over the airfield with about 320 pounds of fuel remaining, he started his pull up, at 52,400 feet.
“I went over the top a little less than 77,000 feet (76,939 feet),” he said. “I pulled the engine back to idle rpm. It was pretty hot, but it was still running. When you pull up in a zoom climb, you’re pulling up as much G as you can have, and you’re doing a little bit of fishtailing in that airplane, because it didn’t have enough vertical fin. That’s because it wasn’t designed as a Mach 2 airplane.
“As soon as the burner goes from lack of air, you then immediately take it out of burner, since you don’t want those nozzles open. You leave it in military power and monitor the turbine out temperature to not exceed the limit, and then come back to idle rpm. You don’t look at your airspeed at all.”
He said that as soon as the burner blows out, you go to zero G.
“You have a big accelerometer sitting right in front of you,” he said. “You hold that thing at zero G. You’re nothing but a bloody guided missile right now. You’ve unloaded your wings completely, minimum drag. You’re sitting there at zero G with that altimeter winding up probably in excess of 20,000 feet a minute. At the end of this ballistic ride you go over the top, holding zero G and holding the wings level. There’s no airspeed. Then hold it until the nose goes over the top and you start picking up airspeed once again. Next thing to do is to find the field where you can come back and land.”
He said all that took place in the new radar range that Edwards had just gotten.
“They were able to predict this altitude within plus or minus less than a foot!” he said “They knew exactly where you were. They asked me from the tower, ‘Do you have any fuel left?’ I said, ‘Yeah. It looks like about 200 pounds.’ I don’t think the gauge goes any lower than that. I planned a flame-out approach to the 15,000-foot runway at Edwards, and I never moved that throttle–equivalent to a dead-stick landing. I wasn’t even watching the airspeed. I was watching that field, so I could get back to the field, first of all, and line up with that runway.”
He said he thought he’d come over the top of the field at about 20,000 feet and then worry about setting up for a flame-out approach.
“I was coming down about 4,000 to 5,000 feet a minute, no flaps, and came in just about the speed of the space shuttle at the touchdown–about 200 knots,” he said. “It worked out fine–and there were 18 gallons of fuel left in the airplane. If it had flamed-out on the way down, it would not have made a particle of difference to me. Probably a little less drag, because there’s more drag at idle rpm than there is without anything going on.”
He had set the Class C altitude record for a turbine-powered plane.
“Rocket-powered airplanes are an entirely different category,” he said. “A Phantom broke the Class C record some years later, using a zoom climb.”
A close call
Watkins said he had plenty of close calls, but one in particular caused him great concern.
“After this altitude record business in 1958, Lockheed told us we should have been going in the other direction,” he said. “It’s the speed over the surface of the earth that gives you the energy when you’re going up, rather than going downwind. So they said, ‘With what you did, you could have gone over 90,000 feet just by going in the other direction.’ So, we kept the option open for this F11F-1F to try and do it again.”
It was decided that he would make one more flight before going back to Patuxent River.
“They tweaked up the airplane,” he said. “They told me about a new fire warning system in the plane. The Grumman engineers told me, ‘If you see the fire warning system in this airplane, you have a fire.’ They said it casually, never expecting the fire warning system to be activated.”
Two days later, on a beautiful day when the temperature at altitude in the 50,000-foot category was minus 73 degrees centigrade (17 degrees colder than it was when they went for their record), they tried again.
“We thought, ‘Boy, this is a dream come true,'” he recalled. “Thicker, colder air meant you wouldn’t have the overheating problem with the engine, and the mass of air going through the engine would be much heavier, giving you more energy.”
As they headed out, Watkins found himself thinking that he was at 92 percent rpm, which was nowhere near military power.
“We were doing .96 Mach number,” he said. “That you could do that with that little power was unheard of for those days. We went 400 miles downstream, turned around, came back, and I was really excited about this one–much more so than I had been before. The Air Force provided two T-38 chase planes, but they couldn’t keep up with me at Mach .96, so they had to stop halfway down or they’d run out of fuel. When I turned around, I was all alone.”
At that point, Watkins thought he’d get ready to hit the afterburner.
“I advanced it to military power–and I got a fire warning light!” he recalled. “I thought, ‘Oh, boy.’ I could hear those Grumman engineers telling me about the fire warning system. This was real.”
At about 42,000 feet, Watkins immediately pulled the power back to idle.
“That’s the first thing you do in a jet to try and put the (fire) light out,” he said. “The light didn’t go out. I didn’t think it was a light malfunction after what the Grumman people had told me. I had a sneaking hunch it was really a fire. About all I could do was leave it at idle and start a slow descent. I looked out and there was absolutely nothing. There were no roads–nothing except rocks and desert.”
Watkins was relieved when after getting down to about 25,000 feet, the fire warning light went out.
“I added a little power, but the light went on again, so I again pulled back to idle rpm,” he said. “I was just over plain old desert. My guess is that at this point in time I was about 300 miles east of Edwards. I was now down to about 18,000 feet. I was getting ready to get out. I tightened everything up and my warning light went out. I thought, ‘I don’t believe this!'”
Watkins gingerly began to add power, so he could add enough to maintain level flight to get back to Edwards.
“As soon as I added power, the light came back on again!” he said. “I pulled it back to idle, and the light went out fairly soon this time. I hung on below 15,000 feet, and went down to about 12,000 feet, as I was trying gingerly to add enough power to maintain level flight.”
Finally, at about 9,000 feet, he added power and the light didn’t go back on again.
“Here I was struggling at a relatively low speed–about 250 knots–to try and get back without the light going back on again,” he said. “About 40 minutes later, I landed back at Edwards and I shut it down just off the end of the runway. Sure enough, the fire trucks came out there and said, ‘You have a fire back there!’ It had been on fire all the time! It had burned up the (fire warning) detectors.”
Setting another record
In 1958 and 1959, Watkins was the commanding officer of Fighter Squadron VF-191, which flew the Grumman F11F-1 Tiger. They deployed on the Bon Homme Richard (CVA-31) to the Western Pacific.
Next Watkins went out again to the Pacific as air boss on the Lexington (CVA-16). He later was offered the lead of the Blue Angels, but turned it down to become CAG (commander, air group) of Air Group 13 in August 1961.
On Feb. 7, 1962, flying a Douglas A4D Skyhawk, Commander Watkins made the first takeoff and landing from the newly-commissioned USS Constellation (CVA-64) while it was on its shakedown cruise. He made the ship’s 1000th landing on March 10 in a Douglas AD-6. Then, on May 9, 1962, he became the first U.S. Navy pilot to personally make 1,000 arrested carrier landings! He was also the first pilot to land a Grumman F11F Tiger aboard a carrier.
In 1965, he was the captain of a fast combat stores ship, the USS Mars, off the coast of Vietnam. He was the aviation technical advisor for the 1970 movie “Tora! Tora! Tora!” that reenacted the Dec. 7, 1941 attack by Japanese aircraft on Pearl Harbor. He also served three presidents as a White House social aide.
The first pilot to log 10,000 hours flying Navy aircraft (ultimately, 21,000 hours in the air), Watkins made more than 26,000 flights in various aircraft and gliders during his career. He retired with a total of 1,418 carrier landings on 37 aircraft carriers to his credit.
He said that the fastest he’d flown was Mach 2.2 in a Phantom.
“Of course, 1972 was a lot different than 1958,” he said. “In 1958, Mach 2 was very unique for that period. The only one that could even approach it at that time was the (Lockheed) F-104–which was really just getting going then.”
Watkins and his wife Monica ran Crystal Soaring, in the high desert just north of the Los Angeles area, until 1998. Until heart problems grounded him in November 2004, at age 83, Watkins was teaching aerobatics in sailplanes at his gliderport in Lompoc, Calif., as well as performing sailplane aerobatics in air shows and competitions.