I was a single, twenty three year old Ensign navigator who had had little jet experience, little navigator experience and had never been in combat or even on a carrier. My pilot, LCDR Butler and I were due to qualify in the RA-5C in one month on the USS Ranger, one of the large supercarriers of the time, and then on to combat in six months over North Vietnam flying from Yankee Station in the Gulf of Tonkin. But first we had to practice crew coordination and the techniques and procedures to land the largest and heaviest carrier aircraft on a flight deck. This was the pilot's time.
I checked the inside of my small cockpit. My left elbow could touch the aluminum skin of the left side and my right elbow could touch the right. My arm partially bent forward could touch the front console. I had a little one foot by one foot window high up on the left and right side of my canopy. In front of me there was a fold-down desk and a full instrument panel including radar, viewfinder, altimeters and many other electronic controls. It was cramped but comfortable once I knew where everything was. The seat was a hard beige plastic which was the bottom of the ejection seat which also went up my back and over the top of my head. The seat had to be hard to exert the correct forces without hurting the back. No cushions were allowed. I could not see nor touch my pilot in his equally small cockpit in front of me.
The second time upwind my pilot raised the landing gear and the flaps to ten degrees. I relaxed and went into the routine. I settled into the small cockpit, checked my pad of paper clamped to the desktop with the record of landings and fuel states. I cinched up my harness, checked my clear visor down and gloves on tight. I was wearing a new silver flight suit that was undergoing testing. It had the parachute harness integrated into the suit, unlike the regular flight suit that had the harness added on as a separate item. The plane tossed and turned; it was a little like an amusement ride at a carnival. Again downwind I called, "201 abeam."
"Landing checklist, flaps," I quickly said. We both knew what the other was about to say and also knew the expected response.
"Flaps full," he replied.
"Gear," I prompted.
"Three down and locked, state 5.0," he answered just after the small thumps of the landing gear locking in place were felt.
"Checklist complete," I said to the pilot, and to the LSO I said, "201, on final, state 5.0."
The plane began its usual last minute maneuverings. This particular plane, Bureau Number 149314, was on its second full day of flight operations after having been returned from a Progressive Aircraft Rework (PAR) program which updated all the systems and repainted the aircraft inside and out. It gave the feeling of flying in a brand new airplane. We also carried a million dollar camera in the reconnaissance pod. Normally the camera would not be used on the rough FCLP but this plane was up, flyable, and needed. The Navy policy of aircraft usage was when a plane was ready to fly, a crew was found to fly it. The constant pounding of the landings was hard going on camera mounts and internal parts.
"I've got the ball, 4.8" my pilot said calmly.
"201, ball 4.8," I reported to the LSO.
"Roger ball," the LSO answered.
We staggered along as usual and made a nice pass with no comments from the LSO. The plane thumped its usual thump and accelerated as the pilot applied full takeoff power. We started to climb. I started to write down the landing and the fuel state on my pad in the well-lit small cockpit when I heard a sudden soft rushing sound off to my right.
Just then my pilot said, in a slightly exasperated voice, "Oh, shit, starboard engine."
I immediately asked, as I started to put my pencil into its holder still listening to the whooshing on my right, "What's the matter?"
My pilot quickly answered me. "Standby, eject, " he said in a terse, level tone of voice.
I immediately reached up with both hands and pulled the face curtain all the way down over my face and upper body.
The rushing sound continued as I looked down to see what was wrong and started to think that we were low and wouldn't have much time to do any of the manual procedures such as blowing off my canopy, unhooking myself from the seat, and jumping out. As it turned out, the delay was caused by the normal functioning of the seat firing sequence which allowed three quarters of a second for the seat to be set in the full down position. Since I was tall, I always had it in the full down position. I was still looking down when the rocket ejection seat fired. The cockpit was immediately filled with bright flame and I was ejected upwards. The original ejection seats were fired with explosive charges, but too many pilots suffered back injuries so the seat was improved by having this seat propelled by a small rocket charge that reduced the initial shock on the back. The ride up was smooth.
After the bright flash of the rocket firing I had just enough time to think that I hoped everything worked normally. I knew the complicated sequence that had to be followed precisely for me to live through this.
Just then I felt a great tug and felt warm black sky all around so the knee restraints had retracted normally, the seat had bottomed out, my canopy had blown off, the seat had fired, the knee restraints had been popped off, the bladder behind me had inflated separating me from the ejection seat, my drogue parachute had deployed immediately since we were below twelve thousand feet, my main parachute had opened, my face curtain was gone with the seat and I was coming down to earth under a parachute while breathing oxygen from my ten minute bailout bottle. My new silver flight suit had held and was comfortable. I did not know what had happened to my pilot. His ejection sequence is delayed one and three quarter seconds to permit my ejection sequence to complete itself before his sequence commences. Without the delay there would be a chance of his canopy blowing away into me as I was ejected upward.
As soon as I had realized that the chute had opened I saw a brilliant yellow flash down and to my left as my airplane hit the ground. I thought, "Just like in the movies." It hit and smeared a yellow flash in the night.
After a maximum of three seconds in the calm air after the chute opened I abruptly hit the ground in a standing position and crumpled down into a heap.
During training I was taught to roll upon landing using the fleshy parts of my body to cushion the landing. They never mentioned what to do on a pitch dark night when the ground was invisible. As soon as I hit, I felt a sharp pain in my back but quickly got up and looked around. The burning plane was about forty yards away, upside down, and making explosive noises. I was on a hard, flat, grassy field. I kept the oxygen mask on because the gas was cool and I knew it was clean. I put my blinking flashlight on my harness, as instructed in my training classes, and started to walk away to look for my pilot. I then took off the oxygen mask and breathed in the warm Florida night air. I laughed and thought, "I did it and this is really something to talk about, I can't wait to tell the guys." I shouted, "Mr. Butler, Mr. Butler." There was no answer, just the crackling of the burning airplane.
I walked around a bit, still exhilarated but very aware of my situation. It had only been a minute since the sudden rushing noise, but it had seemed like a lifetime. A Navy fire truck drove up with some fireman hanging onto the sides. It stopped and the fireman asked me if I was all right and I said sure, why not, and laughed. They didn't laugh. The plane had crashed just next to the runway. I climbed into a yellow Navy pickup truck that soon came up and we drove to a central grouping spot. I asked about my pilot but got no answer. I got out and walked over to a circle of men standing around a parachute I knew wasn't mine. I walked over to my pilot's parachute and it looked to me as if the flight suit attached to it had just been thrown into a heap on the grassy ground. I guessed he had unzipped his flight suit and had quirmed out of the suit, leaving it attached to the parachute which was laying all strewn out. I again asked where my pilot was, but there was no answer, only silence, as everyone just stood around and looked. There was no activity other than silent standing around. The plane was going to burn itself out and there was no searching going on.
I realized then that my pilot was still inside his flight suit and he was dead. I wasn't happy anymore and didn't look forward to telling the guys all about it anymore either. I sighed and went back to the truck and asked to be taken back to the tower. My back was starting to hurt whenever I bent over. I rode back silently to the tower where my regular pilot and our squadron commander were already waiting. I told them we lost the starboard engine and we ejected. I told them my pilot was dead but they didn't seem to want to believe it. They said I was in shock and to relax.
The next day I woke up and my back was really hurting from a compression fracture of thoracic vertebrate six from the abrupt parachute landing. I went to work, was sent to the Dispensary where I was given some muscle relaxants for my back, and took two days off. I resumed flying and completed my training.
The accident report revealed that a loose clamp, probably undone or not correctly tightened during the Progressive Rework, had become loose and was ingested into the starboard engine causing Foreign Object Damage (FOD) and a fire.
The pilot's ejection sequence was normal but he was too low or the angle was not vertical enough for the parachute to inflate after it was pulled from the ejection seat by the drogue. It was guessed that he was too low because the aircraft had rolled slightly to the right while waiting for my ejection sequence to complete and thus changed the trajectory of the seat from the vertical to the horizontal. He died of massive internal injures. It was reported that he should have used the alternate ejection handles on each armrest instead of the face curtain because that way he could have maintained the aircraft in level flight instead of taking his hands off the control stick to reach up and pull the face curtain. Up until that crash it was believed that the Vigilante could maintain altitude and even climb if an engine out situation eveloped when low, slow, and dirty. NATOPS was changed to have the A-5 reach five hundred feet before turning downwind. I believe that my pilot did everything right from quickly identifying the source of the noise, to deciding the airplane was not airworthy, informing his crew with instructions, and following the correct ejection sequence. And he still died and I lived.
Low and Slow is one of the two most unforgiving parts of the ejection envelope. Ejection seats can only do so much to save the life of the crew. Even the latest and best ejection seats have difficulty in saving the crewperson when they eject with high rotation rates in any axis or with high sink rates.
John Barry Smith, the author, has an extensive home page on various topics, but centered on the correlation between cargo door failures and airplane crashes. On his page, you can find much more information on his RA-5 accident and ejection, including the full version of this narrative, and scans of the actual U.S. Navy Accident report.
You can also view large animated gifs of the seat from the Vigilante at this link which is normally found off my Seat Gallery page.
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The Weber F-106 & Project 90
|NASA ejection seats|
|Remembering the Pioneers||Some Ejection Seat Links|
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