Luck is H-bomb test pilot’s wing man


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Bud Evans is a lucky fellow who survived atomic bomb testing to lead an active life in many types of aviation. Photo Courtesy of Valiant Air Command

Fortunate is the man who spends his life doing a job he loves. Lt. Col. Norvin “Bud” Evans is one of those lucky fellows.

The 90-year-old Evans spent his working life doing what he adored: flying test planes. Not the safest of jobs, considering he was the closest pilot to fly during the H-bomb tests in the Bikini Atoll in 1956. 

“On my seventh mission, the wing broke, but I was able to limp back,” the Indialantic resident said. “I was one of the very lucky people.”

His luck, however, left him when the exposure to the atomic bomb testing gave him melanoma in 1957. 

“They removed my lymph glands and I was in for an 11½-hour operation,” he said.

“I was in the hospital for five-and-a-half months. Ninety-eight percent of the people who had what I had didn’t survive.”

This member of the Greatest Generation has beaten the odds on plenty of opportunities, beginning as a young pilot from Pennsylvania when he flew B-24s and B-63s during World War II.Bud Evans loved life as a young test pilot. <i>Photo Courtesy of Bud Evans </i>

After the war, he sought a career change by enrolling in pre-law at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., but quickly changed his mind.

“My heart was still in aviation,” he said.

In late 1948, he joined the First Fighter Group, the first group to use jet fighters. On June 26, 1950, Evans became one of the first Americans to fly fighter jets in Korea. After two tours of duty in Korea, he attended experimental test pilot school at Wright Patterson Air Force base in Dayton, Ohio. 

He excelled as a test pilot, retiring as commander of the Fighter Test Division at Wright Patterson in 1966, the year Evans then looked higher up into the sky for his next career challenge and joined the “ultra-secret” Manned Orbiting Laboratory Program. After the program was canceled, Evans headed to other flying options that included serving as test pilot for Republic Aviation and the administration of the flight testing program for Piper Corporation Enforcer turbo-prop fighter. This job took him to Piper’s facility in Vero Beach and introduced Evans and his family to the Space Coast.

“We bought a home in Indialantic to be near Patrick Air Force Base, and I just traveled back and forth to Vero,” Evans said.

The move was short-lived because Evans was offered an opportunity developing the F-5 program in Saudi Arabia for two years.

After that stint, Evans thought he would retire for good.

“I played golf and lounged around,” he said. “That lasted about four months until I got bored.”

Northrop kept tempting Evans with job offers and he eventually agreed to work for the aerospace company in California for a year. Life after Northrop included test pilot work for Gulfstream American, as well as owning a private flight training, plane sales and charter facility in Roanoke, Va. 

Evans’ résumé also includes working as a consultant to the Pentagon on foreign military sales and as a test pilot for an airplane manufacturing firm based out of the Space Coast Regional Airport in Titusville. It was here that Evans discovered the Valiant Air Command Warbird Museum. He served the museum through various volunteer positions — including executive director, director of operations and publicity director — from 1995 to his retirement in 2014, although in truth he never really retired, since he remains as advisor to the board.

For many years, Evans would travel 102 miles roundtrip from home to Titusville to help the museum. 

Evans knows how fortunate he has been throughout his life.

“I’ve always had a guardian angel,” Evans said.