The Ejection Site

Underwater Ejection

Probably the rarest form of ejection, ejecting while submerged. As odd as it may sound, it is feasable and has been done successfully. Once submerged, it is virtually impossible to open an aircraft canopy against the pressure differential between the water and the air in the cockpit¹. Once the cockpit is full of water, it might be possible to slowly push the canopy open and exit the craft, but the amount of time necessary for the cockpit to fill would allow the plane to sink below the depth a pilot could survive. The pilot's oxygen mask is optimized for use in thin atmosphere conditions, and cannot be counted on to provide breathable oxygen under any depth of water.

The above factors mean that there is only one significant option available to a pilot once the craft becomes submerged- eject through the canopy. The same forces that prevent a pilot from opening the canopy manually would prevent the jettison charges from pushing the canopy safely out of the way of the ejection seat. The seat does not usually exit the water, it merely crashes through the canopy and then initiates seat seperation. The pilot must then seperate from the parachute that would usually partially deploy, and swim to the surface, not necessarily in that order. The following article describes one such incident:

Underwater Ejection
by CDR. Russ Pearson, USN(Ret)
Reprinted with permission of The Hook magazine.

   Shortly after midnight, in the "zero-dark-thirty" hours of 10-June 1969, I was the pilot of a single-engine, single-seat A-7 Corsair II light-attack aircraft that departed the flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS Constellation (CVA-64) and plunged into the Pacific Ocean some 60 miles off the coast of Southern California.

   The mishap occurred at the end of a marathon 23-hour day that culminated with the first of six scheduled night carrier landings. The event was to have marked my final night of initial carrier qualification (carqual) training as a fleet replacement pilot with VA-122 at NAS Lemoore, Calif.

The Landing

   The voice of Connie's final approach controller came through the headset loud and clear, "Corsair 202 is on course, on glideslope at three-quarters of a mile. Call the ball." It was my cue to get off the instruments and fly the final few seconds of the approach visually. A light drizzle was falling from the low hanging overcast just above the landing pattern, but the visibility was good underneath and the sea state calm. The A-7 Corsair II aircraft strapped around my waist was the Navy's newest light-attack carrier jet and I was proud to be in one the initial classes of first-tour pilots selected to fly it. "Two-Zero-Two, Corsair, ball, fuel state 4.0," I replied as my scan shifted outside the cockpit to the "meatball" of amber light beaming aft from the optical landing mirror on Constellation's four-acre flight deck. The seat of my pants told me the plane was too high, but the ball was centered on the mirror to confirm I was on glideslope. My 4,000 pounds of fuel was a comfortable reserve, ample to make it around the landing pattern a couple more times and still have enough fuel to "bingo" to the primary divert field at NAS Miramar if I didn't get aboard.

   "Roger, Ball. Keep it coming," the landing signal officer (LSO) acknowledged from his platform on the port side of the flight deck. The voice was not as relaxed as the LSO who had "waved" the class every night for the past month at Lemoore.

   More that two years of flight training at five bases in four states were riding on this event. Tonight was the long awaited "graduation exercise" from the training environment into the fleet, the final rite of passage into the Navy's elite fraternity of tailhook carrier pilots. In a few short months, I'd be flying combat missions in Southeast Asia from an a aircraft carrier in the Gulf of Tonkin.

   Scheduling such a significant event at the trailing edge of a grueling 16-hour day should have raised caution flags somewhere, but not with me. The instructor pilots had primed the class for months with sea stories about night carrier landings separating the "men from the boys"- now it was my time to prove I could fly with the eagles. The adrenaline was pumping.

   The non-stop day that began with a 0330 wake-up call back home in Lemoore had been a test of endurance, but long days are part of the normal routine aboard carriers at sea. Besides, we were training for combat, and "hacking the program" was part of that training-this was the Navy, not the airlines. The squadron's mission was to pump out combat replacement pilots for NavAirPac's light attack Corsair squadrons, and pilot output was running behind schedule. The pressure was on from the top down to catch up. In the light-attack community, "death before dishonor" was the unwritten code. Begging off the flight schedule, especially with a flimsy excuse like fatigue, was a sure way to be branded a "non-hacker" for the rest of your career.

   The final half-mile to the ship was over in a matter of seconds-it happened so fast that the tricky "burble" of turbulent air at the fantail passed practically unnoticed. But the bone jarring jolt of the 25,000-lb. Corsair- coming down at 650 feet-per-minute to collide with the ship's steel deck didn't go unnoticed. I knew it was coming but it still got my attention. The harness straps dug deeply into my shoulders as the plane decelerated from 135 knots to a screeching halt in three seconds flat. The first night "trap" had lived up to its billing: it was a cross between ecstasy, and a head-on collision with a freight train.

   "Piece of' cake," I thought. "Five more and your on you're way to the fleet."

   The landing was on speed and on glideslope, and the tailhook had engaged the targeted No. 3 wire. All was not well, however, as the plane was drifting fast toward the port catwalk. On this, the fifth man-up, third launch and eighth trap of the extended day, fatigue had finally over- powered my adrenaline. I had become so focused on flying the ball that the landing centerline had momentarily dropped out of my scan. A late line-up correction had set up a right-to-left roll-out as the plane decelerated down the angled deck.

Over The Side

   The plane skirted the port deck edge like a tight-rope walker on a high wire before stopping painfully close to the catwalk. I couldn't believe this was happening to me- could already hear the lineup lecture from the LSO back at the ready room debrief.

   The cockpit was jolted hard as the plane's port main landing gear dropped off the deck edge. As luck would have it. the protective steel scupper plate guarding the deck edge had been removed during the ship's recent trip to the shipyard and had not been replaced. In less than a heartbeat, the plane was precariously perched on the edge of the flight deck.

   It was hard to tell the plane's exact attitude with no visible horizon, but the fuselage was turned at least 60 degrees left-wing-down. To eject now would be suicidal-the trajectory of the ejection seat's rocket motor would send the seat skipping across the water like a flat rock on a farm pond. If the hook remained engaged with the arresting gear cable, the situation might still be salvageable.

   As the magnitude of the moment settled in, my mind suddenly shifted into slow motion. Strangely enough, there was no panic-at least not yet. My thoughts were surprisingly calm and clear as I instinctively pulled the throttle aft and "around-the-horn" to shut-down the engine. If the hook should release from the cable and the aircraft went over the side. the prospect of cold sea water combining with the Corvair's hot power plant was a recipe for an even more explosive situation. The engine was of no use now anyway.

   As the engine spooled down through 65 percent rpm, the generator dropped off the line and cut off all electrical power-as the radio and interior lights went out, total darkness instantly enveloped the cockpit. All contact with the world outside was lost. I had been alone in a crowd before, but never like this. Except for the pounding in my chest, there was only dead silence and it had a deafening sound. If this was a dream, it was a nightmare! Unfortunately, I wasn't dreaming.

   The momentary stillness was soon shattered as the aircraft lunged forward. The worst had happened-the tailhook had "spit-out" the arresting cable. I was in deep, serious trouble and knew it. The plane tumbled off the flight deck and plunged downward some 60 feet prior to impacting the Pacific-the sensation was like falling into a black hole.

   We had learned in survival training that a ditched aircraft normally sinks at about 10 feet per second, and after 100 feet, crew survival is highly unlikely. I figured I had about 10 seconds if I were going to get out of this mess alive. It appeared that only a miracle could save me now. I had just run out of altitude and airspeed, and was about out of ideas, too.

   The ejection seat seemed the only chance, albeit a slim one. In the history of Naval Aviation, only a handful of pilots had ever attempted, much less survived, an underwater ejection. It was theoretically possible in the A-7, but no one had yet tested it.

   There was also the chance I might eject directly into the Connie's passing steel hull or even worse, into one of her massive propellers. The odds for survival were grim and getting worse each second.


   I intentionally delayed the inevitable for a split-second for the ship to pass clear. Then, like a death-row prisoner condemned to throw a switch and end his own life. I reached down between my knees for the seat's alternate ejection handle, the one we'd been trained to use when time is the most critical factor. Images of my wife Theresa waiting at home with Steve, our nine-month old son, flashed through my mind. How would she react when the black Navy sedan pulled into the drive-way and the skipper and chaplain came to the door. Realizing this might be my last conscious thought. I grasped the ejection handle, closed my eyes and, expecting the worst, pulled straight up ... nothing- happened. Time seemed to stand still.

   The delay was only a millisecond, but it seemed much longer. I had already decided that the ejection seat was not going to work and saw myself slowly sinking, to drown or be crushed to death by the depths. The Corsair's tiny cockpit seemed destined to be my coffin.

   A sudden blast of brilliant light blinded me-the seat's rocket motor had fired following a built-in sequencing delay. In an instant, I was out of the cockpit and clear of the seat, though still submersed in the cold, dark water of the Pacific.

Focus on Survival

   I couldn't breath. The water had forced the oxygen mask down around my chin and the emergency oxygen bottle in the seat pan was useless. for the first time, panic set-in and I became totally disorientated-I couldn't tell up from down. It was as if I had been shot out of a high-powered cannon into a pool of jet-black ink, a far cry from the Dilbert Dunker simulator in the crystal-clear water of the training tank back at the Water Survival School in Pensacola. In less than a minute, I had gone from being a cocky, self-assured carrier pilot to a desperate young 25 year-old Navy LTJG fighting for his life.

   I had to do something fast or it was all over but the memorial service. Just then, a cluster of lights flickering on the surface caught my eye. As an 80,000 ton aircraft carrier cutting through the water at 30 kts. doesn't stop and turn around on a dime, the flight-deck directors had tossed their watertight flashlight wands over the side to mark my plane's location for the plane-guard destroyer and the search and rescue (SAR) helo. Though I was still under water, the lights reoriented me and I instinctively swam toward them.

   I gasped for air as my helmet broke the surface-it felt great to be alive. But that lung full of fresh sea air was accompanied by an excruciating pain as if a butcher knife had been plunged between my shoulder blades and twisted. Something was seriously wrong, but there was an even more pressing problem.

   The altitude-sensing device that automatically deploys the parachute had activated and the chute had partially opened. The canopy and its nylon shroudlines were streaming behind me, overpowering my frantic efforts to keep my head above water. I had to stay clear of those shroud- lines and get rid of that chute, now.

   I grabbed for the nylon toggles that inflate the lobes on the Mk 3C survival vest. but they weren't where they shouid have been. Panic began to set in again and time was running out. I was fast losing the struggle to keep my head above water-it took all the strength I could muster just to stay afloat. The parachute was winning and I was on the verge of being dragged under.

   My body suddenly went numb as something below the surface brushed against my feet. During the ejection through the Plexiglas canopy, my left forearm had been sliced and was bleeding profusely. The gash on my arm was even more reason to be alarmed. The Survival vest contained several packets of shark repellent but I was too busy trying to keep my head above water to get to them. When the object brushed against me again, I realized that it was the plane. It had impacted the water with minimal force and was virtually intact. With its wing fuel bladders and over half of the fuselage fuel cells filled only with air, Corsair 202 was floating upside down just beneath the surface, still bobbing from Connie's passing wake. I had surfaced alongside the aircraft and my legs had brushed against the tall. Hanging onto the horizontal stabilator for support, I finally located the life vest's inflation toggles which had wrenched around to my side during the ejection. Grasping a lanyard in each hand, I pulled down and away and whoosh, the flotation lobes inflated instantly.

   But I wasn't out of harm's way yet-the parachute still streamed out like a huge sea anchor. Should it fill with water and sink, even the inflated vest wouldn't help. I glanced around just in time to see Connie's plane-guard destroyer bearing down on me. From my water- level perspective, the "small boy" looked anything but small, and if she didn't change course, the rescue part of the mission would be over and recovery and salvage operations would begin.

   Using techniques learned in water-survival training, I rolled over on my back and reached upward along the parachute risers until I located the koch fittings, the small metal latches that connect the haress to the parachute. I lifted up on the cover and pulled down on the latch. In an instant, the chute was gone.

SAR Helo to the Rescue

   Moments later, I was floating center stage in a large beam of bright, white light shining down from the ship's SAR helicopter that hovered noisily overhead. Like most jet jocks, I had never fully appreciated helicopters except when they brought the mail-they had always been high on my list of low-priority aircraft. Never again! Just now, that homely, wind-blowing, water-churning contraption looked like an angel of mercy-nothing could have been more beautiful. Fortunately, the destroyer had veered off to starboard and yielded to the helicopter.

   Minutes later, a rescue swimmer from the helicopter was in the water next to me.

   "You okay, sir?" he yelled over the din of the thrashing rotor blades.

   "I'm okay," I yelled back, "but it hurts to breathe." I didn't tell him that it also hurt to yell.

   "Hang on, sir. All we've got is a horsecollar, but it'll get you out of here," he shouted as he guided my arms through the opening in the pear- shaped rescue sling that nestled under my armpits.

   As the hoist began lifting us slowly out of the water, my body dangled helplessly from the horsecollar like a wet dish rag. Weighted down by soaking flight gear and steel-toed flight boots, and whipped about by the helo's downdraft, the pain became unbearable. The next thing I remember was sprawling on the deck of the helo's cargo cabin, heaving salt water.

   Moments later, the helo recovered aboard the carrier and I was transported to sickbay on a stretcher. The alternate ejection handle may have expedited my exit from the cockpit, but at a painful price. Reaching down bctween my knees to grasp the secondary handle in an inverted, submerged cockpit had placed my upper body in a vulnerable. dangerously curved position. The brutal g-force of the seat firing had broken my back.

The Miracles Continue

   Three days after the mishap, the ship's senior medical officer, a newly selected Navy captain, arranged to accompany me ashore on a MedEvac flight to Balboa Naval Hospital in nearby San Diego. By coincidence, the flight was scheduled with the same crew and aboard the same helo that had rescued me earlier.

   Just prior to boarding the flight, a casualty on the flight deck created an unexpected dilemma-the MedEvac helo was configured to carry only one patient. The doctor had an instant decision to make. Needless to say, I was not happy to learn my name had been scratched from the manifest only moments before launch.

   About an hour later, a young corpsman came running onto the ward. He was out of breath. From the look on his face. I knew something terrible had happened.

   "You're either living right or somebody's looking after you. Lieutenant," he blurted out. "Word just came down from Air Ops that the MedEvac flight had engine problems and went down in the water about halfway to the beach. The crew got off a Mayday and another SAR helo found the wreckage right away, but there were no survivors. Not even the Doc."

   I respectfully declined a second chance to MedEvac ashore, electing instead to ride the ship back into port a few days later. Shortly after Constellation moored at the carrier pier at North Island, the corpsmen carried me ashore on a stretcher to be transported by ambulance the short distance to Balboa Naval Hospital.

   Naval Aviation had turned out to be as dangerous as it was glamorous. In three short days. I had cheated death twice and, in the process, learned first-hand that the thrill of flying high-performance jet aircraft off the decks of aircraft carriers sometimes demands a hefty personal price. I now understood why guys get paid for a job most of us would gladly pay for the privilege of doing.

   Whether my survival was fate or just sheer good luck is debatable. Maybe the corpsman was right-maybe someone was looking after me. But one thing is for certain. Without the first-class water survival training all tailhookers receive as they earn their Naval Wings of Gold, I would have been remembered by friends and family, at a 1969 memorial service rather than honored by them at a 1992 Navy retirement ceremony. Every day since 10 June 1969 has been a gift of life for which I am thankful.

Note 1: This phenomenom is the same if you are trapped underwater in anything, including your car. The water pressure against a car window would freeze it in its track and prevent it from being rolled down as well. Therefore it is a good idea to keep something heavy in the passenger compartment to smash the window in the unlikely event of being submerged in your car. (I recommend a heavy aluminum flashlight, which obviously has other, more mundane uses.)

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