Sunday, February 1, 2009

Bill Bridgeman Surfer, Aviator, Test Pilot

Bill Bridgeman was a surfer. He was a part of a pioneering group of early Southern Californian surfers that included Don James, Frank Donahue, George 'peanuts', Larsen, Jack Quigg, Pete Petersen and others who called the breaks of San Onofre to Point Dume home.

William ' Bill' Bridgeman was one of the most famous test pilots during the late
1940's and early 1950's. His test flights for the Douglas Aircraft Company in California pushed the boundaries of known aeronautics and led him to become the fastest and highest man ever known in that era.
Like many other surfers from Southern California, Bridgeman left the beaches and began his wartime career in the military, serving as a US Navy pilot in the Pacific Campaign in early 1942.
He was part of the famous bomb squadron 109, "The Reluctant Raiders", which had a wartime record of 180,000 tons of enemy shipping sunk in the Pacific.
Assigned to fly PBY 'Catalinas', he served in Darwin Australia and then went on to the Pacific chains which include Apamama, Tarawa, Gilbert Islands, Kwajalien, Entiwetok, Carolinas and Truk Island.
Returning to the States late in the war, he served with the ferry squadron of the Naval Air Transport Service and then went on to be an instructor in PB-Y4's on the west coast at Santa Ana Air Corp Base.
When the war was over, Bridgeman was desperate for a change in career and was approached by the Douglas Aircraft company of Santa Monica to become a test pilot for several government projects the company was then working on out at the Muroc Dry Lakes in California.
His first project was to fly the Douglas Skyraider AD-1 and AD-2, which pushed the propeller driven engines into the sub-sonic zone.

At this time the government was obsessed with experiments in supersonic flight.They had contracted several companies to build aircraft that could fly at the speed of sound.
Bell Aircraft Corporation was the first to succeed with the X-l rocket plane, flown by Chuck Yeager. In 1947, Yeager flew the X-l at Mach 1 and smashed the invisible sound barrier, forever changing the concepts of aviation. After these speed tests the plane had been handed over to the NACA (National Advisory Committee of Aeronautics) the predecessor of NASA.

The goal of Mach 2 was the next big obstacle, and the Douglas company responded by developing the Sky Rocket D-558-2, a US Navy experimental plane designed for high speed flight through the sound barrier and beyond. The pilot chosen to fly the Sky Rocket was surfer, Bill Bridgeman.
Bridgeman tested the plane over several months working up to a run of Mach 2, finally they attached the Sky Rocket to the belly of a B-29 and performed an aerial drop. The Sky Rocket started its engines and then proceeded to break every previous record for speed and height. Bill Bridgeman become the fastest man on earth, flying at 1300 miles an hour or Mach 2 and also attained the altitude of 14.1 miles or 80,000 feet.
During these test flights they was always a chase plane. These were usually P-80's or F-86's and were flown by Muroc's flight community including Chuck Yeager himself.
Bill Bridgeman and Chuck Yeager toured the United States, where they were able to talk to the media. When Bridgeman was asked how he felt on being the highest and fastest pilot, he replied, " It was easy, I'd look for one of those holes That Chuck punched in the sky and then just fly right on through it".
In 1952, Bridgeman went on to test the new Douglas Stiletto X3, a fantastically designed aircraft using the latest in research technology. He flew 25 of 51 Test flights.
Ironically, Bridgman's' career came to an abrupt end in 1958. While travelling as a domestic passenger on a commercial flight from Long Beach to Santa Catalina Island, The Grumman Goose in which he flew crashed and all aboard were killed.
Papa Nui remembers Bill Bridgeman.

Bill Bridgeman can been seen in his glorious pre-wars days idling his time at the beach in Don James fabulous book, Surfing San Onofre to Point Dume. James was a pioneer surfer and photographer and captured these early years of surfing's exuberance on the Southern California coast from 1936 to 1942.

R.I.P Bill Bridgeman. Surfer, Warrior, Hero.


  1. Actually, it seems that Bridgeman was alone and piloting that Goose when it crashed.

    R G Hunt

  2. Thanks for that information, friend. Id heard that before from another source but decided to base my story on a Biography I read on Bridgeman. Id like to think he was too talented a pilot to crash himself, but I guess the reality is almost all the good ones augered in on their own accord, just look at the aces during WWII, invincible one moment dead the next.