By CAPT. JOSEPH M. HARTER
450th Bombardment Wing, Minot
IF YOU HAVE THE IDEA that accidents always happen to the other person, discard it. Accidents are no respecter of persons and when you are in an emergency situation which calls for bailing out of an aircraft you find this out the hard way.
At the time I had been sent TDY to Forbes Air Force Base for aircraft commander upgrading. With the usual ground school preparation completed I eagerly started the flying phase and found the first six missions to be very routine. On the seventh mission, however, the routine was left at homeplate.
Our instructor, another student pilot, a crew chief and I took off on a refueling jaunt. We were proceeding to our refueling area when I noticed two amber power control unit lights glowing to my right, indicating a malfunction in the hydraulic boost of the ailerons. Believing the instructor pilot may have been "testing," as some have done, I asked him to check all circuit breakers. When he told me they were all in, I explained my trouble.
Our next step was to follow the Standard Operating Procedures and call the Command Post to advise them of our difficulties. Apparently, we were out of radio range as the Command Post could not be reached. We then contacted our tanker and asked them to call. Still no luck. We continued our mission and chased our tanker around cloud formations for a short while.
From the corner of my eye I noticed a red light come on that was beside one of the two amber lights. I notified the instructor pilot and we made an immediate disconnect from the tanker. The malfunction was not difficult to diagnose; ft definitely meant a control problem that we could not remedy in the air. I relinquished control of the aircraft to the instructor pilot and-received clearance from Kansas City to return to homeplate, while the third pilot figured our optimum altitude to be 35,000 feet. We realized we could not- stay in the clear at this altitude because of a cirrus deck of clouds, but without a navigator aboard to operate our radar it was impossible for us to know that on the other side of the cirrus clouds was one of Kansas' typical thunder bumpers.
The aircraft started to vibrate from the turbulence. It became more violent-too violent for cirrus clouds! I stared at the instruments: altitude, about 35,000 feet; airspeed, oscillating between 220-240 knots; attitude, right turn, then a sharp left turn. I looked in the mirror that was focused on myself "Harter," I said, "remember, this type of situation always happens to the other person." I should have saved my breath. At this moment the instructor pilot was turning the aircraft to head back 'on our reciprocal course and I realized that any time we could lose complete control of our aircraft.
The turbulence became unbearable. I noticed the attitude indicator go crazy--90 degrees of bank, then 135 degrees of bank in the opposite direction. The instructor pilot was trying desperately to talk to Kansas City about our situation: "Kan-Kansas City, we're in a spin, we're in a spin!" In the same breath: "Bail out, bail out! . . . depressurize! depressurize!"
I will never know how long I took to squeeze the trigger, but evidently not too long. The canopy departed and I followed. But to this day I do not remember squeezing the trigger There was an unknown number of seconds that had departed my life, because I had blacked out during my ejection. I did not have the time to think out a decision when I regained consciousness; in fact I am still vague about the act of opening my own parachute.
The, opening shock made me pass out again. After a few seconds I realized I did not pull my bailout oxygen bottle. Frantically I pulled at the green apple and managed to sever the line. With a significant sigh -of relief I started to think about other problems, and found one quick: I had lost my helmet from the wind blast so my oxygen bottle did not help. From my training I feared that soon I would get hypoxic since I had no idea of my altitude. Moments passed but I did not get the symptoms of passing out. I realized then that I was it least low enough not to suffer from hypoxia.
I was still trying to survey my situation but the numbness from the bitter cold dulled my senses. I wrapped a scarf around one hand in an effort to stop possible frostbite. The sky was filled with white swirling patches of clouds and thunder roared with deafening pitch around my bare head. The shroud lines of my parachute were snapping from updrafts and downdrafts. I was I swinging like a pendulum on a grand- father's clock, not knowing when I would stop: oscillating. In between my thoughts I prayed like no man has ever prayed. Words came to my mind that I didn't know existed. I could only hope if God ever answered my prayers, please let it be now.
Soon I knew my prayers had been answered. For the first time since I hit the silk I knew I was descending. I finally broke through the overcast and calculated the ground to be 3000 feet below.
Now I was faced with further problems. Where am I going to touch down? The area was sparsely populated but the small towns passed by very rapidly. I was moving horizontally much faster than vertically. This situation made it extremely difficult to decide my impact with the ground. I tried to judge carefully, from my line of travel, the possible area of landing. Time was growing short. My descent was faster than I had judged it to be. My decision on possible areas of landing could not have been more undesirable if I had had time to judge them-a farmer's cattle drinking pond or a small forest of irregular looking trees.
Frantically I tried to remember my survival training in how to juggle the parachute risers to land in a predetermined site. It didn't work, for I was too weak from fright and panic to manipulate my hands correctly. Due to the violent winds, the rate of descent became faster than the rate reckoned with in our training. I was suddenly submerged in smelly, stagnant water. After a few sickening swallows of water, I came to the surface. My parachute canopy was still billowed from the fast moving wind. Gliding on the surface of the pond I reached for my harness quick-disconnect. Simultaneously the canopy deflated as it struck a wharf in the pond. Even though I was in shock, I distinctly remember spending 15 minutes of hell under an orange and white canopy of silk.
My panic and fear very slowly began to subside. I was able to stand on my feet while I proceeded to unhook my harness. But because of my unstable legs, I fell down numerous times, again swallowing more stagnant water. I struggled breathlessly to reach the shore, falling, swallowing more water. Only ten steps were needed to reach the shore but I must have taken thirty. Lying exhausted, trying to regain my strength, I said another prayer of thanks.
With effort I managed to stand, but not too erect. I looked about my surroundings deciding which direction to travel. All I could see in the distance, silhouetted by brilliant flashes of lightning, were a few cattle. I remember hoping the herd did not include an angry bull, for in my weakened condition I could not have outrun a turtle. To my surprise I stumbled in the right direction, as I met a vehicle along a nearby dirt road. The occupant of the car had noticed my descent and had driven in my general direction.
When we arrived at the hospital I was asked if I needed a wheel chair and I bravely uttered no. It wasn't until I was inside the hospital that the full impact of shock struck me. I began shaking so terribly that it took four people to undress me. I learned a short time later that the crew chief and I were the only survivors.
I am not necessarily a superstitious individual, but this accident happened on the 13th day of the month, at 1300 hours, and I was assigned Room 13 in the hospital. Another 13 and the men in the little white coats would be asking for me.
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