Bill Fornof wasn’t born in Houma, but I know of few other individuals that had such a major impact on aviation in Houma and the rest of the nation. J. W. ‘Bill’ Fornof was raised in Metairie. He came to Houma in 1954 and opened a car dealership on Barrow St. which later relocated to Main St.
In 1948, Bill flew Corsairs from the deck of the carrier, Midway, as a Navy fighter pilot. In 1952 he was assigned to the aircraft carrier, Boxer, during the Korean conflict and flew Grumman Panthers. After the war, the love that he had for the Grumman aircraft design, led him to purchase a Bearcat (N7700C) and paint it in colors that he had seen on the autos in his dealership. Bill’s son, J. W. Jr., Corkey, also had a matching colored Bearcat and flew with his dad at numerous air shows. The wing design, although not considered a factor in wing failure of this type of aircraft, will come back to haunt us in this discussion.
TheF8F Bearcat was introduced after the capture of a German Folke-Wulf, FW 190. It wasn’t a copy, but the Grumman engineers used the 190 as a guideline to later develop the Bearcat. The engineers seemed to be concerned about structural failure of the wings at high g-forces, so the first Bearcats had wingtips that would detach when the g-force was above 7.5 g, allowing for a safe controlled carrier landing. Under certain conditions though, one wingtip detached and not the other. This left the aircraft unstable. An explosive charge was later added to both wingtips to detach the tip manually if needed. The wings in later models were reinforced and designed not to detach. Bill and Corkey flew together as a team in matching Bearcats in air shows across the country. Bill flew the N7700C and Corkey the N700A. There were very little differences in the paint scheme. Bill and Corkey were a great team that was well respected on the air show circuit. They flew shows on side of the Navy's Blue Angels and the Airforce Thunder Birds. One day in June, 1971, the airshow that Bill and Corkey was doing in Quonset Rhode Island, took a somber turn. John Goodrich, a long time fan, describes the mayhem.
"My son called me from California on Friday evening to tell me
about the Reno Air Race disaster. He had made plans to be at the
event, but canceled to attend funeral of an acquaintance, a
mother of three who died at 43 of cancer. My thoughts
immediately went back to the sad day in June 1971 when I was at
the Quonset, Rhode Island Air Show and and witnessed the tragic
crash that took the life of Bill Fornof. I can vividly remember
the sickening thump and fireball as the Bearcat went straight
into the ground and his son helplessly circling the crash site
before landing. I had a brief conversation with Bill Fornof in
the hangar some time before the accident. I remember him as a
very cordial man, willing to answer any questions I had about
his immaculately maintained Bearcat. I had attended the airshow
on previous years when Bill was performing a solo routine before
acquiring the second identical Bearcat flown by his son. I was
so impressed by the spectacular performance that I would drive
from Mystic, Connecticut on Saturday and again on Sunday to
watch the incredible routine. Exactly like Ed Auble's memories,
I was awed by the power and rapid acceleration of these
beautiful metallic bronze aircraft with black and white stripes.
From a standing start at the end of the runway in just a matter
of seconds, the tail was up, the plane airborne, landing gear
retracted and they would roar past the spectators in low, level
flight gaining speed and momentum. Then they would pull up
sharply into amazing steep climbs, roll out at altitude and
begin a series if truly impressive, thrilling aerobatics. The
low, high speed passes in front of the spectators after coming
out of a steep dive were awesome. However it was one of those
steep, near vertical dives that ended in the heartbreaking
crash. I often wonder what was the hidden, unforeseen fatal flaw
that caused this horrible disaster. I would guess it was
probably metal fatigue from years of repeated stress. I lost all
enthusiasm for air shows for many years after that fateful day.
Jim Franklin, and Art Scholl, performers at air shows I attended
were also killed. I find no pleasure in watching such fine men
risk and too often lose their lives needlessly, resulting in
unimaginable grief and sorrow for suffering families.
I had 8 mm movie films of Bill Fornof's Bearcat in action at the
Quonset Air Show, but unfortunately they were lost in a 1991 house
fire. I wish I still had them to share with you."
We thank Mr. Goodrich for allowing us to use his interview.