The “Sabre Dance” is one of the most famous accidents in aviation history, and also one of the least understood. In the 1950s it was not common―as it is today―to record accidents on video. In fact, capturing a plane crash on film was such a rarity that it drew vast audiences when it happened. Because Barty crashed at Edwards Air Force Base (AFB), the USAF Flight Test Center, most people who saw the ghastly films assumed it was a flight test that went awry. That is far from the truth.
Barty and his other two flight members were “ferrying” three new North American F-100C Super Sabres from the manufacturing facility in Palmdale, CA to George AFB in Victorville, CA. It was only a 15 minute flight. But Bart's plane developed a minor problem with its nosewheel. Brooks decided to divert to Edwards because it had a much longer runway, which he might need, and a fire and rescue unit which was accustomed to almost daily emergencies. The landing should have been a “piece of cake." But it was not.
The F-100 was a new fighter jet. It was far advanced from the Korean War era jets Bart had flown, and he had logged very little time in it. He didn't realize that the Super Sabre had a very dangerous characteristic which developed at slow speeds, “adverse yaw” and “roll coupling.” At a low speed and a high angle of attack, if the jet rolled the pilot needed to counter-act with opposite rudder, not aileron. Opposite aileron worsened the situation.
A film crew at Edwards was preparing to film a test flight. As they set up their cameras they saw Brooks coming. Fire and rescue vehicles swarmed around the runway. The cameramen turned on their equipment at swung it toward the oncoming jet.
Barty saw that he was about to touchdown short of the area the fire trucks had foamed for him. The foam reduced the possibility of a fire due to sparks when bare metal touched the runway. He raised his nose too high and added too little power. The wings began to stall. The jet rolled. He applied aileron. The nose yawed away from the direction of the roll, then yawed the other way. Bart applied opposite aileron again, and the nose yawed even more.
Bart lit his afterburner and tried to lower his nose but it came down so abruptly he raised it again, much too high. The dangerous rolling and yawing worsened. The jet appeared to be “dancing” down the runway in an eerie slow motion.
Then Bart's heading swerved 90 degrees from the runway. It rolled almost ninety degrees and fell into the ground on its right wing. The films showed a spectacular explosion with pieces and chunks of debris rising and falling. The fire and rescue crews had the fire out in less than two minutes and quickly reached Bart.
Bart, in his ejection seat, was thrown clear of the wreckage. For decades rumors circulated in hangars, bars, and on internet forums that Bart died of asphyxiation. They said he drowned in his own vomit, with his oxygen mask fixed to his face. The accident report stated that Bart's helmet and mask were both found in the wreckage. The life sciences report stated that Bart died of blunt trauma. A flight surgeon who recently examined the life sciences report said death was likely instantaneous.
The film spread quickly around Air Force and Navy flying squadrons and many pilots learned from Bart's mistakes. Unfortunately, the film got into the hands of Hollywood and television producers. Read more about that on the Hollywood page.
For a more detailed story on the Sabre Dance, including the testimonies of others who survived it, the man Brooks, what his friends said about him, and the legend he spawned, read “Deadly Sabre Dance: How film footage of a spectacular crash saved lives and spawned a legend,” by Alan Cockrell, published in the September 2011 issue of Aviation History. (Click on the crash image)
The official USAF Accident Investigation Report is on the next page.