On the day McConnell shot down his eighth MiG-15, his F-86 was hit by enemy aircraft fire and he was forced to bail out over enemy-controlled waters of the Yellow Sea west of Korea. After only two minutes, a helicopter crew pulled him from the freezing water. The following day he returned to combat duty and shot down his ninth MiG-15. By the end of April 1953, he had scored his 10th victory to become a "double ace."
On the morning of 18 May 1953, McConnell shot down two MiGs in a furious air battle and became a "triple ace." On another mission that afternoon, he shot down his 16th and final MiG-15. After achieving these aerial victories, McConnell was pulled from combat status against his wishes. Lt. Gen. Glenn O. Barcus, commander of the Fifth Air Force, did not wish to risk his top ace any further and directed that McConnell be sent back to the U.S. for "safe duty" sharing his experience with new jet pilots. He was assigned to an instructor's position at George Air Force base, California. McConnell was soon offered a temporary duty assignment at Edwards to evaluate the new F-86H. He jumped at the chance.
On 25 August 1954, McConnell climbed into the cockpit of F-86H, serial no. 52-1981, for a one-hour Phase VI Aerobatic Functional Check Flight. He had been briefed to perform all aerobatic maneuvers not prohibited by the flight manual. He departed the Edwards runway about 20 minutes past noon and proceeded to carry out the maneuvers on his Mission Card.
Twenty minutes later, the Edwards control tower received a transmission from McConnell to the effect that he was experiencing elevator control difficulties. The tower put him in contact with the Fighter Test Operations branch so he could speak directly with two permanently assigned qualified F-86H test pilots.
McConnell was advised to abandon the airplane if he couldn't maintain enough longitudinal control for a safe landing. Following a request for position and altitude, McConnell responded with a garbled transmission. After a second garbled transmission, the control tower reported a column of smoke northeast of the lakebed.
Eyewitnesses reported seeing the stricken jet at an altitude of less than 500 feet. They saw McConnell eject, but his parachute didn't have time to open before he struck the ground. The F-86H continued to fly for another half mile before plunging to earth.
An extensive investigation revealed that the F-86H crashed because the day Crew Chief had improperly reinstalled two bolts attaching the stabilizer rod assembly and the stabilizer feel bungee assembly to the horizontal stabilizer. The removal of these bolts was not logged in the maintenance records and therefore supervisory and inspection personnel did not check them for proper installation and security. The bolts worked loose over the course of six flights prior to the mishap flight.
When McConnell encountered control difficulties, he could have ejected immediately instead of attempting an emergency landing. He probably thought abandoning the aircraft might risk letting the cause of the problem go unsolved. Any design flaw might endanger the pilots who had to fly the F-86H in combat. McConnell undoubtedly wanted to do everything in his power to ensure the problem was fixed even if it meant risking his life to do so.