A Marine pilot, Coleman flew fighter planes in World War II. After the war, he wanted to keep going: he earned his degree in aeronautical engineering and became a test pilot. He is most famous for flying the Convair XFY, which the U.S. Navy wanted because the “Pogo” (as the plane was nicknamed) was a VTOL: it could take off and land vertically, which would enable it to be flown from ships smaller than aircraft carriers. “No one wanted to fly it; there were no volunteers,” Coleman said later, and at first he would only try lifting it off and landing it when it was attached to a crane, so it couldn’t crash; the crane operator would quickly rescue him when called over the radio. “My call was ‘catch me, catch me,’” Coleman said after the flights, “and I had to call him a lot.”
The tethered flights gave Coleman confidence — and provided data to improve the plane. Once that was done, Coleman agreed to fly it untethered, and he became the first pilot ever to successfully accomplish a vertical takeoff, transition to forward flight, and then do a vertical landing. The problem wasn’t so much the takeoff, but the landing: the XFY could not land like a normal airplane, but rather had to be backed down onto its tail (see video below). To do that, Coleman had to look over his shoulder to watch, which meant he could no longer see the plane’s instruments. Still, he flew the plane more than 70 times, mostly without any forward flight, and landed safely every time. “It was a project that looked really good on paper,” says Bill Yenne, author of World’s Worst Aircraft — which featured the Pogo on its cover. Landing the turbo-prop plane “was a nightmare,” Yenne said. “Imagine doing that on rough seas, and at night.” One other pilot tried flying the Pogo …and nearly crashed it. The design was scrapped as impractical, and the only XFY made is now housed by the Smithsonian. Lt. Col James H. “Skeets” Coleman outlived most test pilots: he died in a southern California assisted living facility on May 13, at 95.