The year was 1957 and there had been no successful downward ejection from the navigator's position of the B-47 bomber.
The navigator sat in the nose of the aircraft with his feet on the outer skin of the plane, which also served as the escape hatch. The navigator's seat was bolted to this hatch and the navigator was strapped to the seat. In case of an emergency, the pilot rang the alarm bell to alert the crew. Ringing the alarm bell also caused a small hatch to be jettisoned so that the plane would be de-pressurized to aid departure from the plane. During pre-flight inspections, the safety pin was removed from both the pilots and the navigator's ejection seats. This was so that rapid departure was possible from the plane in an emergency.
The worst possible major emergency envisioned by the crew was for a fire to develop in the fuselage. The B-47 had very thin swept-back wings that carried no fuel like most other planes. All fuel was stored in fuselage tanks. A serious joke by B-47 pilots was that if a fuselage fire were reported and the navigator asked "Huh." he would be talking to himself.
The B-47 sometimes carried a fourth person. This person sat on an aisle step beside and a little lower that the co-pilot. This was called the instructor pilot position and was where instructor pilots sat to observe and instruct both pilots. Sometimes other personnel flew in this position. Instructor navigators, crew chiefs and sometimes other persons on flying status who needed their four hours of flying each month to qualify for their extra flying pay. Right at the feet of the instructor pilot position was the open entry hatch which was sealed by the entry door at the aircraft skin. In case of an emergency, a handle was pulled which jettisoned the entry door and the ladder from the entry to the cockpit. Sometimes, when an instructor navigator was using the position, he would remove his parachute to make easier his walk to the nose to look over the navigators shoulder, and to relieve the strain on his back while doing so.
On the day in question, the crew was flying what was called a "War Profile Mission". The War Profile Mission tried to simulate as many of the conditions of a war mission but with the constraints of staying in the U.S. The length of the mission, the types of navigation, the number of refuellings, the types of targets and target terrain were all chosen to provide as realistic a mission as possible. One constraint which flying over the U.S. imposed was the use of Electronic Countermeasures . Jamming radar frequencies of our own air defence radars was not allowed. Special non-harmful frequencies were programmed in the jammers. Chaff and rope were physical ECM measures. Chaff is small bundles of thin aluminium strips which have been cut to specific lengths to cause returns to radars of specific frequencies. Dropping a series of these bundles cause much larger radar images than the B-47 and lets the penetrating airplane hide within the clutter generated. Rope is longer, heavier lengths of aluminium which are intended to fall to the ground and straddle power lines and cause shorts and power outages.
To test the ability of the B-47 crew to dispense this chaff and rope, the end of the mission was designed for the crew to fly out over the Atlantic Ocean for 200 miles, then turn back toward Savannah, Georgia, the home base, and to actually drop their aluminium strips over the water.
The mission went close to picture perfect. An instructor navigator was aboard and confirmed the good bombing and navigation results. The air refuelling rendezvous had been within 10 seconds of the planned time. The refuelling had been flawless. The night had been long and tiring and the sun was peeking it's head over the eastern horizon when the tired crew made the turn 200 miles from home and prepared to perform the ECM mission.
The co-pilot of a B-47 is the ECM operator. To perform these duties he must rotate his seat 180 degrees and face the tail.
Shortly after the start of the ECM mission, the co-pilot reported puffs of smoke from the fuselage. Of course, the pilot immediately rang the alarm bell. The small panel dropped away and the plane depressurised. Now there were several problems . The instructor navigator was in the nose of the plane without his helmet and with no parachute on. Now despite the serious joke of talking to yourself, The equally serious tradition of the departure of passengers before the captain was ingrained in the pilots. The instructor navigator struggled back to his seat and put on his parachute before passing out from lack of oxygen. While remaining in his seat the co-pilot tried to get the instructor's helmet on him and attached to the bail-out bottle of oxygen so the instructor could regain consciousness and jettison the entry hatch and ladder and bail himself out.
The pilot was becoming increasingly anxious to depart the aircraft so he instructed the co-pilot over the planes interphone "Hurry and get the Instructor out of the hatch so we can get the hell out of here." Now unknown to any of the crew, when the little hatch had blown, and depressurised the cockpit the interphone volume drastically decreased. The navigator, isolated in the nose, only heard the last of the message "Get the hell out of here." Not wishing to talk to himself, he immediately pulled the D-Ring that blasted him downward.
The pilot while waiting for the Instructor Navigator to regain consciousness, put out "MAYDAY" calls on the radio. One of the squadron aircraft on a similar mission, flying about a mile to the right, came over and inspected the plane in distress. The inspecting plane reported no smoke or signs of fire. With this reassurance, the crew dropped to liveable altitude for the Instructor and proceeded to home base. It was later determined that the co-pilot , looking into the rising sun had mistaken the chaff bundles for the puffs of smoke.
But back to our dearly departed navigator. After he cleared the airplane, he separated himself from the seat and waited for the automatic barometric opener to deploy his parachute.
This worked perfectly and when he hit the water, he inflated his dinghy and climbed aboard. He paddled around and collected as much of his maps and books that landed in his vicinity and stowed them in his boat.
An immediate alert was sent to all boats in the vicinity. Within an hour a Swedish freighter had spotted him, brought him aboard, fed him, plied him with whiskey and wrapped him in the Sauna. The captain radioed the Navy that the navigator was with them and was safe and sound. The navy requested them to bring him to Charleston, S.C. and drop him off. The Swedish Captain replied that his next stop was Panama.
So the navy sent the flag ship of a destroyer flotilla to intercept the Swede. The admiral's gig was dispatched to collect the flier. The navigator gathered all his possessions garnered from the sea and boarded the gig. As the gig approached the flag ship, the seas were rough. The gig was caught on a rising swell as the flag ship was sliding down the side. The ships ladder poked a hole in the gig and the first B-47 navigator to successfully eject downward found himself in the water a second time that day.
The navy would not let him collect his maps and other belongings the second time