Witness to History – Evans was up close and personal with H-bomb testing

A secret diary written by Indialantic experimental test pilot Norvin “Bud” Evans, 93, was kept in a safety deposit box for 50 years. It details how a Melbourne-based avionics system placed him right over seven of the 17 nuclear bomb tests in the South Pacific during Operation Redwing in 1956.

With the details of the program recently declassified, Evans pulled out the diary and went to work.

The resulting book, “A Tenth of a Second to Live: A Test Pilot’s Account of Top Secret U.S. H-Bomb Testing,” gives readers a rare personal glimpse into the nearly impossible missions. He was a player in a key era of the Cold War when second-generation hydrogen bombs were being developed using the Pacific proving grounds.

Evans had earlier been temporarily stationed at Patrick Air Force base to test the precursor to today’s Global Positioning System (GPS), which at the time was accurate enough to get his jet within 0.1 second of the detonation of the bomb. The idea was to subject the aircraft, and pilot, to the maximum amount of heat and shock wave.

An Air Force test pilot for 38 years, Evans served in World War II, Korea and Vietnam, logging 15,000 hours in 203 aircraft types.

He said he wrote and kept the Redwing diaries first as a way to deal with boredom on the mission and also because he did not keep diaries during his previous service in Korea.

The Redwing program tested vulnerabilities of a variety of aircraft by flying them in formation over the blasts, including a B-52 (lead), B-66s (flanking), a B-47 (following), F-84s (flanking) and an F-101A (in trail).

Evans flew a Republic F-84F, at the time the sturdiest aircraft in the Air Force inventory, as the closet pilot to the seven nuclear explosions.

He described the sensation as sitting in a straight-back chair without legs suspended 15 feet above a hardwood floor before being dropped straight down. “It hurt like hell, it was a horrible jolt,’’ he recalled.

His account from the diary as he headed out one morning: “Following my last-minute briefing, I lifted off into the black sky. It was always about as lonely a time as I have ever spent. About 10 minutes later, I closed my protective hood and continued flying on instruments to the test site …’’

On his final Redwing test flight over Bikini Atoll, the bomb exceeded its predicted yield by a significant amount, breaking his airplane’s right wing spar (internal support) in two places. On the plus side, Evans said that particular test provided the test engineers with the maximum possible data and negated the need for more testing.

Because of the overall classification of the Redwing tests, Evans was never allowed to see the data gathered from any of his missions.

He addressed what it was like to serve on classified missions in the prologue. He and other pilots and crew “did their job with full knowledge that they would never receive credit or recognition for their sacrifices if they survived the task.’’

Through his unlikely long life and the contents of the notebook, Evans said he is in a small way giving those men their due.

Following his Air Force career, Evans continued as a test pilot for major aircraft companies including Republic, Piper and Northrop.

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