15 seconds to live

by Francis Vivian Drake

This is the story of an American fighter pilot who deliberately exposed himself to one of the most dangerous experiments in all aviation history — the airman's equivalent of sitting on a keg of gunpowder and lighting the fuse. While his story is here printed for the first time, our fliers throughout the world have long been warming a place in their hearts for Lt Colonel Cass Hough of Plymouth, Michigan. But for him, hundreds of them might now be dead: to him must go at least part of the credit for the fabulous score of enemy planes chalked up by the now-famous Lightning P-38.

When this two-engine, twin fuselage fighter arrived in England, the British tried it out, shook their heads, said it wasn't good enough to fly against the Luftwaffe. In a mock battle with Spitfires, staged at Hough's request, RAF pilots flew circles around him. Had it been actual combat, the Spits would have shot the Lightning down in flames. But Hough refused to be discouraged; he knew the American plane was basically a super fighting machine. Grimly he set to work with hand-picked mechanics to sweat out improvements, using every trick of Yankee engineering know-how. Then he appeared a second time at the British testing depot.

It was the same mock battle, but this time an entirely different story. Hough put on a performance the English skies had never seen before — a foreign plane giving points to a Spitfire. Then the RAF pilots tried captured German Focke-Wulfs and Messerschmitts against him, and saw the remodeled American plane outperform them all. Cass Hough's faith had been justified — a sensational new fighter plane would take the skies against the Luftwaffe.

But then the blow fell. An experienced pilot, putting one of the new Lightnings through a standard routine at 34,000 feet, got into a vertical power dive. When he tried to pull out, his wings came off.

This pilot had been dead only a few hours when another American slipped his Lightning into a similar dive seven miles above the earth. Hurtling down at unprecedented speed, he too found himself unable to pull out although he tried every trick of control in the book. Desperately making a final bid for survival, he grabbed the emergency release that operates the sliding canopy above the cockpit, whereupon the whole canopy was immediately snatched away. Monster suction tore him from his seat, breaking both his legs against the straps of his safety belt, whipping him up through the hatch like a straw in a tornado, and flinging him, at 700 miles an hour, onto the screaming air.

With extraordinary presence of mind, the young pilot waited, second after second, to decelerate before pulling his parachute ring. If he had pulled it at once, the opening chute would have ripped him limb from limb. As it was, he survived a parachute landing — equivalent to jumping from a 15-foot wall — with two broken thighs, and returned practically from the grave to give Cass Hough a blow-by-blow account of his experience.

Hough went back to Headquarters and pondered. The Lightning was a military weapon of huge potential value — if some way could be found of making it survive the vertical dive which is a necessary maneuver in air fighting. Hough drove his mind through days and nights of unsparing work. Finally he arrived at one possible solution: to use, as a brake for the dive, the trim tabs — final segments of the tail by adjustment of which the nose of a plane can be raised or lowered to keep it in level flight. That might work.

The next morning Hough took his own Lightning up to 43,000 feet — eight miles. In that pale, thin air it was -60°, but he felt he needed every foot of room he could get.

"The visibility was unlimited," he says. "I could see west past Liverpool, east to the Dutch coast, and south to the Cherbourg Peninsula. I had a touch of the bends — pains in my arms and legs — so I took it easy and cruised around for about 15 minutes. I guess I was really trying to get up nerve enough to dive,"

He was proposing to send seven tons of airplane, with two 1200-hp Allison engines wide open, hurtling down a 43,000-foot plumbline. Today, American airmen all over the world, streaking after outclassed Zeros and Messerschmitts, marking up Lightning victories at the rate of five for one, have profound cause to be grateful that there was nothing the matter with Cass Hough's nerve that clear September morning.

After one last look around, he started down. For the first 5,000 feet everything was normal. The plane dived, the speed rose. Then "all Hell broke loose. It seemed like something went 'Whoo-o-o-f' and left me hanging there."

Hough had now reached that fabulous speed at which tail surfaces flap in a weird vacuum. The airspeed indicator reached its limit of 500 mph, and then started around the second time. The needle on the altimeter, which makes one complete revolution every thousand feet, was spinning like a wheel. "At 35,000 feet the plane started to buffet" — "buffets" being violent surges in speed which make a pilot feel like he is being dashed against a concrete wall. Hough pulled back on the controls, but the nose didn't lift an inch.

Next he tried to throttle down the roaring engines. But this was "a nearly fatal mistake." The plane started into the dreaded outside loop. Quickly he resumed full throttle. The Lightning tore on.

He had now plunged 13,000 feet in about the time it takes to cross Main Street. The earth was racing toward him at incredible speed. The buffeting had become so violent that he could hardly keep his hands on the controls.

He was traveling about 800 mph, faster than the speed of sound, faster than any human being had ever traveled before, The pain in his ears was torture. He had about 22 seconds left.

"At this point," says Hough, "I was beginning to get pretty scared." All known methods of recovery had failed. If he was going to get clear by parachute, this was the last instant to jump.

But Hough was hurling himself down through space like a shooting star to try one particular thing, and he was determined to go through with it. Abandoning the controls, he turned the little reel which raises or lowers the trim tabs. Then he waited to see if the tabs would bite into the air.

At 25,000 feet the speed was still unchecked. As he flashed past 20,000, he had slightly over 15 seconds to live.

It was then that Hough felt the initial sign of recovery. The split second had arrived when seven tons of runaway metal, streaking out of the blue, gave the first faint intimation of willingness to come under control. At 15,000 feet — 12 seconds to go — the plane was beginning to turn away from the vertical.

"It was a welcome feeling," he says.

But the scorching plane had still to be brought safely through onrushing tons of air pressure. One uncertain move meant ripping the wings asunder. No plane had ever before been successfully subjected to such a fearful test.

Forcing himself to move deliberately in this madhouse of speed and sound, Hough eased up on the trim tabs, just as the nose started to sweep up in real earnest. The plane was still going over 700 miles an hour, when all the controls took at once. He had a last question: "Will the wings hold?" before the tremendous force of pulling out from the great dive blacked him into semiconsciousness.

When Hough came to, he was 5,000 feet higher up, with the plane climbing almost vertically. He looked around. Everything was still there. His faith in the Lightning had been justified.

"My gas was running low, so I returned to the field and landed."

It took him three minutes to steady down enough to light a cigarette.

That his heroic dive and his scientific brain had at last made the Lightning P-38 a super-weapon was proven a short time later. Ten young American pilots, armed with Hough's hard bought experience, took their revamped Lightnings down in a blinding dive at 25 Messerschmitts. They shot down 16 Me-109s for a loss of only one Lightning.

As for the man whose patience and supreme daring was responsible for this and hundreds of victories that followed from the English Channel to New Guinea, his Air Force citation said: "Colonel Hough achieved the longest terminal velocity dive in history…. He knowingly and deliberately entered unknown regions of the air…. The courage, skill and devotion to duty displayed by this officer reflect the highest credit upon himself and the Armed Forces of the United States."

Accompanying the citation was the Distinguished Flying Cross.

This article was originally published in the February, 1944, issue of Air News magazine, vol 6, no 1, pp 12, 66.
The original article includes a rather large unidentified photo, presumably of Lt Col Hough.
Photo credited to Acme.

Note: This article recounts the story of the "supersonic power dive," attributing it to a test flight in a P-38, in considerable detail. The article "Prize fighters" attributes the flight to one by Lt Col Hough in a P-47.
—JLM