By lex, on February 28th, 2007
The story of the grounded Raptors in Hawaii reminds me of one of the first TRANSPAC tales I ever heard. I was an ensign, or maybe a JG in Meridian training in TA-4J’s, and one of the Marine IP’s started talking about a WESTPAC pump his squadron had been on.
It seems that eight Yuma-based A-4F’s were on the way to the P.I., herded by a USAF KC-10 – and unlike the high-tech F-22, they didn’t have to worry about navigation systems that might fail. For the A-4′s, it was TACAN and NDB only, neither of which was worth a damn more than 200 miles or so from a land station.
Anyway, about half-way between California and Hawaii, the site of their first lay-over. One of the guys was in the basket, replenishing his go-juice – A-4′s didn’t carry much gas, so it was pretty much a constant cycling through the tanker to try and maintain options if something should go wrong aboard the tanker itself. Fatigued, I guess, from all of that form flying and refueling in the cramped environment of a Skyhawk cockpit, he hit basket with too much closure and a little off-center, the result being that the basket ripped off the hose. The still-pressurized fuel hose dumped JP-5 straight down his intake causing the (only) motor to cough and finally quit.
Which combination of events was bad for pretty much everyone. For him, it was a complete loss of the technology pilots use to generate airspeed, which is in turn used to create lift, which force – and this is the really important part – is marshalled to overcome gravity and slip the surly bonds of earth, like. He also experienced an explosive decompressurization since engine bleed air is also used to provide cabin pressure, but that was of secondary, even trival concern.
His seven remaining wingmen were left to thoughtfully consider the fuel quantities in their own tanks, the groundspeed they were making good and the distance remaining to the field as they were just past the go/no-go line and no diverts were available. After quick consultation with the heavy tanker, they worked the math and realized that they would not be able to hang around if junior couldn’t get his machine started again. Although the warrior ethic is to never to leave a man behind when he’s in trouble, no useful purpose would be served by swimming alongside him in the ocean so they did what they had to do and pressed on course. Even as they motored west, the lead kept up an excited conversation with his stricken wingman, going through the engine out checklist.
The wingie had gotten his ram air turbine out into the slipstream, and was trading altitude for airspeed just like he’d been taught, so at least he had radio comms in his otherwise eerily silent cockpit. While Skyhawk pilots may refer to their machine as “God’s jet,” this probably means that God is not a glider pilot, however, because with the engine stubbornly refusing to re-light, the A-4 was falling like a delta-winged rock.
Eventually the time came when he was simultaneously out airspeed, altitude and ideas. After trimming the jet up carefully, he reached above his head and pulled the overhead handle out and down, the face curtain coming down over his head. Now whether or not that causes the airplane to eject the pilot, or the pilot to jettison the airplane is a matter of perspective I suppose, but the net result was that in just a shade more than second later, the canopy had blown, the catapult had launched him up the ejection rail, the rocket motor had blasted him free of the jet’s tail, the parachute altimeter had sensed his height (less than 14,000 feet), the drogue gun had fired – taking with it the drogue ‘chute – and the full parachute had opened behind it. Good ‘chute!
IROK is the post-ejection acronym he had been taught, and it stands for Inflate (life preserver), Release (raft, out of the seat pan), Options – (O2 mask and gloves off/on depending on environment – mask on for overwater ejection, gloves off) and Koch – (find and prepare to release the Koch fittings which would release the parachute from his harness- but not too soon: Although getting tangled up in parachute cords after water entry and being dragged under to drown is a serious concern, it’s very difficult to judge altitude above a flat sea and he wouldn’t have been the first guy to jettison his chute from an unsurviveable altitude).
Things worked out well for him though, and he kept his head even as he marveled at how quickly chaos could arise from order. In a short time his boots were wet, the Koch fittings released and fortunately the parachute blew clear of his splash zone with little fuss.
A lanyard connected to his seat pan led to the one-man survival raft he’d set free during his descent, and so he pulled it close and struggled aboard, after first freeing the seat pan from his lap restraints. He made himself as comfortable as he could in the warm Pacific Ocean, entirely alone as the sound of his wingman and their tanker faded in the distance.
It’s quiet at sea, half way between California and Hawaii with your wingmen receding out of radio range. A man can get thoughtful.
But our hero was not just a man but a Marine, so it was ix-nay on the ought-thay. After a short time bobbing around in the deep blue sea, not unlike a solitary rice crispie in a milk bowl, he considered his entertainment options. In the chest pocket of his survival vest was the Sony Walkman he’d brought along to enliven the weary aerial hours of the TRANSPAC. Removing and stowing his helmet in the raft, he discovered that it was still fully functional. Probing his shoulder pocket, he discovered that his pack of Marlboro cigarettes were somewhat the worse for wear, but that middle ones were still sufficiently dry to light with the emergency matches in his vest.
And when the merchant ship found him and hour or so later, pretty much exactly where the KC-10′s navigator had said he would be, they found him kicked back in his raft, smoking a cancer stick, listening to Chuck Mangione on his Walkman.
Which says something, I think, about the power of a positive mental attitude.