Ron Jones and the F-16 Safety Canopy [1999]

Since the introduction of the F-16 safety canopy, no one has died in Unlimited hydroplane racing. Since the loss of driver Dean Chenoweth in 1982, the Thunderboat sport has been entirely death-free.

The man most responsible for this happy turn of events is Ron Jones, Sr., the Seattle area boat builder who pioneered the F-16 concept, starting with the Miss Budweiser and the Miss 7-Eleven in 1986.

Jones began building race boats in the early 1950s and constructed his first Unlimited, the Miss Bardahl, in 1958.

Ron's father, Ted Jones, introduced Slo-mo-shun IV, the first prop-riding Thunderboat to run successfully, in 1950. The first major contribution of Ron Jones to the sport was his development of the modern cabover hull design, as typified by Tiger Too in 1961 and Record-7 in 1969.

In the late 1960s, Ron was visited by racing great Billy Schumacher at the Jones boat shop, which was then located in Costa Mesa, California. Schumacher stated, "I love driving hydroplanes. But I want to be able to tell my grandchildren about it. What can we do, Ron, to insure better driver safety?"

"That started me to thinking," Jones recalls. "It made me put serious effort into the business of safety. And I came up with the idea of an enclosed canopy system. At that moment, I wasn't certain what it would look like and how I would go about it. But that meeting with Billy Schumacher was the start of it all."

Over the next dozen years, Ron did considerable research in the area of safety equipment. He talked with numerous individuals. But the cost of producing the working model of a safety canopy was highly prohibitive. And no one seemed willing to step up to the plate and sponsor such an expensive program. But still Jones persisted.

Unlimited hydroplane racing experienced some difficult times in the early 1980s. The great Bill Muncey was tragically lost in a "blow-over" accident in October of 1981 with the Atlas Van Lines "Blue Blaster" in Acapulco, Mexico. Chenoweth of Miss Budweiser died in a similar crash nine months later at the Tri-Cities, Washington.

After the loss of Muncey and Chenoweth, the Unlimited fraternity was in an uproar. For racing to survive, something needed to be done.

Ron decided that an F-16 canopy would be ideal for a Thunderboat. "I looked at magazines and read books about all of the fighter planes of the world. And the F-16 was the only one with a monolithic canopy. All of the other canopies had framework and pieced-in pieces of windows. But the F-16 was a complete bubble. And I knew that that was what I needed."

There was only one problem. The company that built the F-16 canopies responded quite negatively. "This was because the U.S. Air Force owned the tooling for the canopies and paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to own these tools. The company wasn't at liberty to use them for something so extraneous as a racing boat. But I kept persisting."

Jones inquired about those canopies that, for whatever reason, were rejected for use in airplanes and thrown away. As Ron pointed out, "Those canopies that you reject could save someone's life. Does that interest you?"

Finally, after much persuasion, Jones managed to secure two rejected F-16 canopies at the very reasonable cost of $1500 per unit. But all of this took time.

Meanwhile, Jeff Neff of the Miss Budweiser crew was anxious to install some sort of protective device on a new Jones hull that Ron had built for the team in 1984. Neff installed a vacuum-drawn bubble made of plexiglass. When the new boat debuted in 1985, it came to be known as the "Bubble-Bud" and was the first Unlimited hydroplane to seat its driver (Jim Kropfeld) "indoors."

Jones did not endorse the plexiglass bubble on the 1985 Miss Budweiser because of concerns that plexiglass can be very brittle. "I wish that an F-16 canopy had been available for use in the 1985 Budweiser. If it had, I would have put one on."

Ron finally had the opportunity to install one of the $1500 canopies on a different Miss Budweiser, which raced in 1986. The hull in question was the former Lite All Star, which had failed for its previous owner. Budweiser crew chief Ron Brown asked for Jones's help in improving the riding characteristics of the hull, which had been acquired as a test bed for a Lycoming turbine engine. Jones agreed. "But I insisted that I be allowed to put an F-16 canopy on it. It was either that or I wouldn't work on the boat. And so we did it."

While work was underway on the 1986 Miss Budweiser, Miss 7-Eleven owner Steve Woomer and his crew chief Jerry Verheul stopped by the Jones shop in Kent, Washington, for a visit.

Woomer and Verheul took one look at the Budweiser's F-16 canopy and immediately wanted one installed on the Miss 7-Eleven as well. And Ron was only too happy to oblige them.

Both the Bud and the 7-Eleven raced in 1986 and neither one of them crashed. So, there was no test of the canopy system. But after the conclusion of the 1986 season, the Miss 7-Eleven was sent over to the Tri-Cities for a series of skidfin tests on the Columbia River.

According to Jones, "During one particular run, Steve Reynolds, the driver, was instructed to enter the corner as fast as he could to see the effect on the new skidfin. The fin broke off just as he entered the corner. The boat did a complete inverted roll. It hit the deck on the way over and landed right-side up.

"Reynolds, at that moment, didn't know that he had even gone over. He radioed the crew after the boat had settled down and said, 'I believe I just spun the boat out. Water came clear over the canopy.' The crew, of course, was just in shock. They said. 'Just sit tight and we'll be right there.' When they got to him and took him out of the cockpit, he was fine.

"This was the first unscheduled test of the new canopy system. And suddenly, the word spread like wildfire about the results of that unscheduled test. And canopies became a state-of-the-art item."

The APBA Unlimited Racing Commission immediately recognized the value of the safety canopy. Beginning in 1987, all new boats in the Unlimited Class had to be so equipped; old boats were given until 1989 to make the change-over. The concept has since been picked up by many of the Limited Classes as well, including the Unlimited Lights, which are the support class for the full-sized Unlimiteds.

It is interesting to speculate on how the F-16 canopy might have affected the outcome of accidents that occurred prior to 1986. On that subject, Ron Jones has some very definite opinions.

Bluebird II, the British jet hydroplane, owned and driven by Donald Campbell, was the fastest boat in the world during the 1950s and 1960s. The non-propeller-driven craft was the first to officially clear 200 miles per hour on the straightaway in 1955. Bluebird II was shooting for 300 in 1967 when she flew into the air, did a backward somersault, and crashed on Lake Coniston with fatal consequences. Bluebird was one of the first hydroplanes to utilize an enclosed cockpit.

According to Jones, "Campbell certainly had the right idea, without a doubt. I never saw the boat in person, but I saw a lot of photographs. And I bought a book about Campbell just to see what everything looked like. I suspect-but we'll never know-that when he crashed, the canopy failed instantly.

"One of the reasons that I chose the F-16 was its egg-shaped contour. Obviously, the eggshell is thin and weak, but the egg stays together, because of its contour of shape. And the F-16 canopy is like a portion of an egg. It's extremely strong to try to deflect the radius surface. The radius surface has more strength than a flat plate.

"Campbell's cockpit was built of a metal frame. Flat windows were inserted into the frame. At the speed that the boat was going, I suspect that the windows blew in. And if they didn't, then the crash probably blew the structure that held the windows away.

"I'm not saying that an F-16 would have survived a 300 mile an hour crash. I seriously doubt it. However, the flat-sided windows and the frame on Bluebird II certainly did not survive."

Ron is quick to point out that canopies aren't 100 percent foolproof. But compared to where the sport has been, the canopy has amply demonstrated its viability. Just ask Chip Hanauer. At Syracuse, New York, in 1989, Chip blew the Miss Circus Circus over in as violent a crash as has ever been witnessed in hydroplane racing. The boat was broken in two. And yet Hanauer walked away from the accident with nothing more than a bloody nose.

Before the introduction by Ron Jones of the F-16 canopy, fourteen men died in Unlimited hydroplanes between 1951 and 1982. Jones believes that all of these likely would have survived had canopies been available. "Certainly Jerry Bangs would be here today. Also Ron Musson, And also Bill Brow, Chuck Thompson, and the rest."

Canopy development is by no means over. Yes, there are shortcomings and problems that remain unsolved. "But the F-16 is certainly a step in the right direction. I feel very satisfied about what we have done. It's reassuring to know that if you put a driver in an environment in which he can possibly survive, he now has an excellent chance of surviving."