The day a BD-5J jet went down

Damaged BD-5J under tow 1 August 1973. Photo: John Stemple

Damaged BD-5J under tow 1 August 1973.
Photo: John Stemple

1 August 2016|Lakeland, Florida, USA. In the summer of 1973 the space station Skylab was in orbit and the war in Southeast Asia still raged. Perhaps because of the widespread interest in the jet and space age the BD-5J, a jet-powered version of the BD-5 series, was more intriguing than any other “Experimental” homebuilt design of the era. Who did not dream of owning or piloting a BD-5J? The dreamers included even the author of the inspirational flying classic novella Jonathan Livingston Seagull* Richard Bach, an individual who was quite familiar with piloting turbojet aircraft having flown Republic F-84 Thunderstreak tactical fighter-bombers with the New Jersey Air National Guard’s 108th Fighter Wing, 141st Fighter Squadron (USAF), succumbed to the enticement and purchased and flew a BD-5J.

141st TFS -F-84F Thunderstreak 51-9396 circa 1960. USAF photo via-Wikipedia and David Mclaren.

141st TFS  F-84F Thunderstreak 51-9396 circa 1960.
USAF photo via Wikipedia and David McLaren.

The airplanes’ fuselages are aerodynamically sleek and, like military jets such as the F-104 Starfighter, make use of short wings. Featuring a wingspan of 17 feet, a length of 12 feet 9 inches in length, and a vertical height of 5 feet 7 inches, the BD-5J is certainly petite. Furthermore the type’s weight is only 860 pounds and the single $18,000 Micro-turbo TRS-18 turbine engine, with which early BD-5Js were equipped, could produce 200 pounds of thrust. This force was sufficient to propel the little airplane to an impressive maximum speed of 320 mile per hour.

Within the confines of the Experimental Aircraft Association‘s camping areas during suppertime at Wittman Regional Airport at Oshkosh, Wisconsin, that week of late July and early August, the exited and mostly transient population discussed the BD-5J beside campfires as portable radios blared songs that were on the Pop music charts at the time. They included Wings’ Live and let Die (the theme song for a James Bond movie), Paul Simon’s Kodachrome, Bette Midler’s Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy and Pink Floyd’s Money. All of these tunes could eventually be applied to the BD-5J legacies. For instance, the airplane would be immortalized a decade later (1983) when it was featured in another (Octopussy) of the James Bond series. Furthermore Eastman Kodak’s Kodachrome film was state-of-the-art in the early 1970s and a favorite of aviation photographers, Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy could allude to the BD-5J’s future aiding the U.S. Military, and Money represented the planes’ high cost (kits were initially priced at $21,400), which in 2016, according to the U.S. Department of Labor Bureau of Labor Statistics, represents an investment of $116,087. This sum was obviously beyond the financial means of most aviation aficionados in 1973.

Yet, for all the BD-5J’s attractiveness there soon proved to be problems. As a Pima Air & Space Museum webpage states: “The BD-5 proved to be a challenge both to build and to fly. While many kits were sold they often proved to be beyond the abilities of most homebuilders to complete and even when finished the tiny aircraft require a very competent pilot to fly them safely.”

The reason a highly trained and experienced pilot was required would be become obvious on the afternoon of 1 August 1973 at Wittman Regional Airport. The incident took place only weeks after the Federal Aviation Administration had issued (15 May 1973) a Certificate for BD-5J N5BD (Serial Number 5J0001).


P-51D and Shrike Commander flown by R.A. “Bob” Hoover. Photo: John Stemple

By mid-afternoon a canopy of cloud was covering the airfield, but conditions were satisfactory for the daily afternoon flying exhibitions that are always a popular component of annual Experimental Aircraft Association conventions. That day, now 43 years ago, one demo would include a highly anticipated flight of the new BD-5J.

Canadair Sabre Mk V flown by R.A. "Bob" Hoover. Photo: John Stemple

Canadair Sabre Mk V flown by R.A. “Bob” Hoover.
Photo: John Stemple

Aerial display pilots such as the legendary Robert Anderson (“Bob”) Hoover (who thrilled the crowds that week with incredible routines performed in a North American P-51D Mustang, Shrike Commander 500S-3117 and a white and red Canadair Sabre Mk V) headlined the flying schedules, but for many spectators in the grass-covered viewing areas along the length of the runway another act had brought them out; they had come to view a flight of the highly-touted, diminutive BD-5J.

On cue, N5BD’s tiny powerplant fired and began emitting the signature whine of a turbine engine. The BD-5J taxied to the active runway and soon raced past the audience as it gained momentum. Upon attaining flying speed, 31-year-old Les Berven, the test pilot, eased the control stick back and rotated the minute bird into the air. Swiftly, the landing gear retraced.  With drag eliminated, the BD-5J was sleek and charging forward in earnest.

The aircraft climbed quickly and sped off. The crowd was ecstatic as the BD-5J sharply turned and darted around the pattern in an effective and impressive illustration of the flying machine’s maneuverability. The routine was undertaken without difficulty and Berven prepared to land. Seconds before landing viewers on the ground sensed something was not right with the approach, and short of the runway a cloud of dirt appeared just above the horizon. The plane could not be seen.

Everyone wondered, silently or audibly, “What happened?” People strained to see beyond the end of Runway 36, and one woman boldly and rudely mounted a fellow spectator’s flimsy aluminum and fabric lawn chair in an effort to get a better view.

All that became known in the immediate aftermath was that the BD-5J had for some reason landed short of the runway and that the pilot was uninjured. It was an unfortunate ending to a memorable flight of a very unique airplane.

An article (Breezing off to Oshkosh) within the 20 August 1973 issue of Sports Illustrated magazine contains this Coles Phinizy summation of the incident: “[T]he home-built jet was a surefire scene-stealer for the first three days of the fly-in. On the fourth day it was almost a heart stopper. When Test Pilot Les Berven momentarily closed the attenuator on a landing approach, it failed to reopen. Berven got down unhurt but short of the mark, bashing one wing.”

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) “Aviation Accident & Synopsis Query” (NTSB Identification CHI74FEPO3) states that N5BD was in the traffic pattern and circling before it collided with two approach lights on the ground. The event was described in the abbreviated narrative as being attributed to a “partial loss of power” that forced a “landing off airport on land.” Additionally, the document remarks that the engine “thrust reverser lever” was “jammed closed by an undetermined substance.”

Despite the many problems encountered by the Bede company and design, within the past decade BD-5Js were certified by the U.S. Department of Defense as a cruise missile surrogate. An API, Inc. webpage states the following about the jets’ usefulness to the U.S. Air Force and U.S. Navy: “The low radar cross section (RCS), manned feature, dependability and economy make the aircraft a natural threat representative and support system. . . .”

Draken International. Photo: John Stemple

Draken International.
Photo: John Stemple

The Air Force Magazine 21 September 2016 e-mail Daily Report reported, under the heading Blue Suits Needed for Red Air, that General Hawk Carlisle of Air Combat Command informed reporters on 20 September 2016 that because of necessity, the service will continue to use private contractor support. In fact, the electronic newsletter text states that “for the next 15 to 20 years, the Air Force will need contractor augmentation. USAF already has contracts with companies such as Draken International . . . for opposition training. The Air Force is looking at how to increase the contractor support. . . .” Perhaps one may conclude from the officer’s comments that BD-5Js will also continue to whiz around military airspace for the foreseeable future?

BD-5 in Blue Angels livery at the Wings Over the Rockies Air & Space Museum. Photo: John Stemple

BD-5 in Blue Angels livery at the Wings Over the Rockies Air & Space Museum.
Photo: John Stemple

After more than 4 decades a number of the campers at Oshkosh remember hearing the tragic news on 26 July 1973 related to the U.S. Navy’s Blue Angels F-4J Phantom II fatal accident at Lakehurst, New Jersey. Undoubtedly many recall seeing the BD-5J’s disconcerting landing. Fortunately, despite their controversial past, the jets continue to attract attention and stoke the dreams of countless people. Hopefully they will motivate licensed aviators and future pilots to pursue the pastime of flying or a professional career in aerospace for many years to come.

*Note: The first edition of the enormously popular Mass Market Paperback, written in a house adjacent to Jack Brown’s Seaplane Base on Lake Jessie at Winter Haven, Florida, was also released in 1973.


The author (John Stemple) thanks Craig Fuller of Aviation Archaeological Investigation & Research for assistance in locating the crash report and the Wings Over the Rockies Air & Space Museum in Denver for granting access for photography.

Suggested Viewings

BD-5 “Smallest Jet” Flies At AirVenture

BD5J The smallest jet plane ever made

BD-5 “Smallest Jet” Flies At AirVenture

Bede BD-5 Micro Jet

Bede BD-5 Micro Aircraft “Pieces of a Dream” Jim Bede

Octopussy BD-5J clip

Operation Barney SMART-1 JET & The Freedom Team

SMART-1 JET N21AP & John Lamb taking a flight mission 5/4/2012

Vigilant shield SMART-1 JETS & The Freedom Team in Key West, FL

Sources and Suggested Readings

141st Fighter Squadron

A dream of the 1970s: the Bede-5

ASN Wikibase Occurrence # 82595

Aviation Archaeological Investigation & Research

Bach, Richard and Russell Munson. Jonathan Livingston Seagull. Avon Books. 1973.

Bede, James. The BD-5 Story.

Bede BD-5

BD-5 Flight Test Program Report

BD-5 Web Site

Bede BD-5J

Bede BD-5J ‘Acrostar’ Jet

Bede BD-5

Blue Suits Needed for Red Air. Brian Everstine. Air Force Magazine “Daily Report” e-mail message. Air Force Association. 21 September 2016.

Experimental Aircraft Association


McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II



New from Newton. . . The BD-6 And A Jet Micro

Operation Barney SMART-1 JET & The Freedom Team

Phinizy, Coles. Breezing off to Oshkosh. Sports illustrated Vault. 20 August 1973.

Richard Bach

SMART-1 (Small Manned Aerial Radar Target, Model 1)

The Freedom Jet goes Military!

The Thrill of Flying the World’s Smallest Jet: Jim Bede and the 1975 BD-5 Jet Team

War Aircraft Replicas International

Wings Over the Rockies Air and Space Museum

Wittman Regional Airport