Status: Deceased. Born: 1916. Died: 1968-09-29.
Bridgeman grew up in southern California - photographs document him clowning around at Point Mugu in 1942. He flew B-24 bombers for the US Navy during World War II in Squadron VB-109 under Buzz Miller. His crew sunk the Japanese submarine RO-117, with 55 men aboard, on 17 June 1944. After the war he stayed in the Pacific, flying for several airlines. He obtained a bachelor of science degree from the University of California and became a test pilot for Douglas Aircraft in 1949. This led to pioneering flights on the D-558-2 rocketplane and X-3 Stiletto in the 1950's. He was listed as an astronaut candidate for the US Air Force's Man In Space Soonest program in 1958 (NASA was created instead and given responsibility for putting the first man into space).
Bridgeman was briefly famous, setting altitude records, and appeared on a cover of Life magazine in 1951 as the latest "The Fastest Man Alive". He later left Douglas and flew flying boats on the run from Long Beach to Catalina Island off Los Angeles. Alone on one of these flights, he crashed into the ocean, on 29 September 1968, and was killed instantly. An eyewitness reported:
on our return crossing from Avalon bay to Newport Beach, CA. we observed a Catalina Airlines (PBY)/Grumman do a nose dive, level off just above the water and then made contact, cartwheeling and disintegrating right before our eyes. I steered our 42' fishing boat into the debris field and found the body of pilot Wm. Bridgeman whom now settled and sank before we could get a rope on him. Luckily he was ferrying the plane back empty to Avalon Bay as we saw no other souls. The plane was in small pieces from this horrific impact and we did observe that Mr. Bridgeman was completely stripped of all clothing as evidently the impact had propelled him straight thru the fuselage. It was a grim sight and it was regretful that we were unable to collect Mr. Bridgeman for a befitting funeral to this veteran aviation pioneer.
At the time of his death Bridgeman was 53 years old and had flown 14,000 hours, 3,000 of them in the Grumman G-21 he was flying. Because he was such a superb pilot, many felt the crash in clear weather may have been due to a heart attack. The cause was never determined and his body was never recovered. With his wife he wrote a book, The Lonely Sky, called "…an extraordinarily fine work; starkly honest, especially for the times, introspective without being self-absorbed, fair without false modesty, and a window into one of the golden ages of aviation…"
His description of his first powered air-launch in the Skyrocket captures the flavor of test flying the early rocket planes:
"My first air-launched flight in the rocket-only Skyrocket came after some eight unsuccessful attempts had been made….Just before launch altitude was reached, two of the launch crewmen helped me down and into the air vehicle. While they closed the cockpit canopy, I plugged the plane's oxygen hose into my facemask. Some five minutes before launch, Jansen (the mother ship pilot) gave notice on the P2B's communication system. The chase pilot, flying an F-86, moved in close on the starboard side as I charged the Skyrocket's propulsion system. If the onboard gauges read normal, we would move up to the one-minute warning as the dash two's cockpit was being pressurized. I flipped on the data switch that started the onboard cameras and the all-important flight instrumentation that would record the aircraft's flight parameters throughout. Usually, at about this time, I began to wish very much that I had taken Mother's advice and had actually attended dental school. But it was 10 seconds to go, and George (Jansen) was busy counting them off: 10, nine, eight, seven, six, and down. The holding shackles were released, and, like some kind of gigantic bomb, I was duly dropped.
After the drop, some 100 feet below the P2B, I fired the number-one chamber. When the fuel-system pressures came up to the correct readings, I fired the trio of remaining chambers as fast as I could flip their switches.
The dash two had dropped out of the P2B's belly at a speed that was slow for it. It is very heavy at this stage, and at first, even though all four chambers of the rocket motor had been fired off, it seemed motionless and its subsequent acceleration was not very fast. Regardless, to stay out of an accelerated-stall situation, I had to initiate the climb immediately. The climb at first was more than a little disappointing. The pitch-up angle of the nose was too steep for me to see the ground and make references. But one look at the altimeter did convince me of the phenomenal climb rate I was experiencing. (At first, we had had a standard altimeter in the cockpit, but we had later found it advisable to remove the needle that measured 100-foot increments as it revolved. The reason: the climb rate had become so rapid that the needle became a blur.)
Suddenly, because the 100-foot-increment needle was neither in the gauge nor wanted, I found myself shooting past the altitude determined as optimum for the push-over point and maneuver. When I initiated the push-over maneuver, I hung on for a few seconds to enjoy what can only be described as a ride that was very interesting. I was experiencing weightlessness!
Then, quite suddenly, the Skyrocket seemed to buck a couple of times and I realized, "That's all she wrote." The fuel for the rocket motor had gone, and the powered part of the flight was over. Now, it was an un-powered glider that needed to get back to terra firma. It definitely didn't want to turn at these reduced speeds, but by taking what are sometimes called drastic actions - pitching the nose straight down for example - I could trick it into turning to where I wanted to go. The Skyrocket continued to slow as I concentrated on my long coast home and, I hoped, my good, safe, dead-stick landing.
During a later flight, as I banked the dash two downward for landing, I noticed the landing-gear indicator showed the gear had not extended. Chuck Yeager was flying chase in an F-86, and I asked him to look the landing gear over. He slid his F-86 under me and disappeared from my view. He then requested that I retract the gear, which I did. I felt a little bump, and over the radio I heard an unkind word. He said, in a somewhat unfriendly tone, "OK, let's try it again. Only this time give me a chance to get my head out of the wheel well before you yank the gear handle." It worked, and he slid his F-86 out from under my ride at about the same time as I leveled off for landing.
In a US Air Force briefing a preliminary astronaut selection for the Man-In-Space Soonest project is made. The list consisted of USAF test pilots Robert Walker, Scott Crossfield, Neil Armstrong, Robert Rushworth, William Bridgeman, Alvin White, Iven Kincheloe, Robert White, and Jack McKay. This was the first preliminary astronaut selection in history. The project was cancelled when NASA was formed in and took responsibility for all manned space flight on 1 August 1958. Prospective contractors estimated it would take from 12 to 30 months to put the first American in orbit. In retrospect the orbital flight portion of NASA's Mercury program was paced by the availability of the Atlas booster. Therefore it is unlikely Man-in-Space-Soonest would have put an American in orbit any earlier than Mercury.