NO TIME TO THINK
Captain John Sinclair joined the SAAF in 1982 from the Rhodesian Air Force. He served as an operational pilot on Impalas (8 Sqn, 5 Sqn from the end of 1982 until the middle of 1985. Upon completing his Mirage 0CC course in 7995, he was posted to 3Sqn, where he flew as an operational pilot on Mirage I1ICZ He has 1800 hrs flying experience of which 1200 hours were accumulated on jet aircraft.
The28th of December, 1987 seemed to begin quite normally for me, but it was to become the most horrific day of my life, and one which would affect my life considerably.
I was tasked, together with other colleagues from 3 Squadron, to plan and fly an individual low-level (250ft) navigation training exercise in the Eastern Transvaal. The meteorological forecast en route was clear weather with good visibility. Seventeen minutes after take-off I struck the top of a mountain peak near Lydenburg and rebounded back into the air. I ejected as the aircraft began breaking up in the air. In this article I would like to share this experience with other aircrew, should they ever have the misfortune of finding themselves in a similar predicament of having to make the split-second decision of whether or not to eject.
The start-up, taxi-out, take-off and departure from controlled air space proceeded normally. I experienced slight technical problems shortly after leaving controlled air space, but these were not serious enough to have to abort the sortie at that stage. The pilot of the aircraft 10 minutes ahead of me, who was flying the same route, warned me that the mountains just past the first turning point were covered in mist. I acknowledged his call and planned to make my decision whether to continue the sortie at the first turning point.
I was approximately two minutes from my first turning point, and was flying over a ridge of hills and into a valley which had a road and railway line running along it. This would lead me to my first turning point. During this time, I noticed that the weather was deteriorating to the east. I attempted to call the pilot in the aircraft ahead of me to establish whether he had continued to the next turning point, or whether he bad returned to Waterkloof, but was unable to raise him. I was concerned for his safety at this stage.
I identified my turning point and noted that I was exactly on time. My speed was 505 kts. There was a high mountain on the starboard side and I planned to fly around it by executing a right-hand turn and then flying into a valley which ran roughly in the direction I was heading. I was at approximately 350” AOL as I entered this turn and noticed that mist was covering the mountains about 6 kilometers ahead. I rolled out of the turn on my heading and began a shallow climb to clear the mist. There was another layer of altostratus type cloud at what I estimated to be between 8,000 and 10,000’ AMSL.
My decision either to continue between the cloud layers to the next turning point, or to return to Waterkloof, was going to be made once I bad determined whether the next turning point was visible or covered in cloud. I looked into the cockpit to see which VHF radio I had selected:
my intention being. once again, to attempt to contact the pilot ahead to ascertain the condition of the weather ahead. I looked up just in time to see a mountain no more than 500 meters ahead of rue and that the peak In front of me was about 15-20 degrees above the horizon. I immediately pulled bock on the stick to what I roughly estimate to have been 5-6 g. The nose of the aircraft cleared the mountain peak, and in that short period I still thought I was going to make it over the top. However, it was then that I felt the mush of the aircraft because it was still fairly heavy with fuel.
I felt the ground rushing towards me and from that moment the nightmare began. When I realized that I was definitely going to hit the mountain, my instinctive reaction was to eject. However, there was insufficient time for me to do this and I struck the mountain with a deafening crash. I think I passed out momentarily from the impact. I realized I was still alive when I saw fire all around the cockpit as it tumbled. I was subjected to positive and negative gas the aircraft rolled and tumbled in all directions. Through it all, I was wondering whether I was tumbling on the ground and was expecting to strike something solid which would kill me. I could hear the rush of air and the roar of something solid stalling through the air as the aircraft hurtled uncontrollably. The front instrument panel had small torch-like flames emitting from between the panel and the instruments. ‘These flames were being fanned by the rush of air through the cockpit and were coining straight at my body and face.
From the moment I had decided to eject prior to hitting the mountain until now, I had been grasping frantically for the seat pan ejection handle with my right hand, and at the same time I was trying to stop myself from being tossed around the cockpit by pressing my left-hand against the canopy above my head. My seat harness was in the locked position and my seat straps were tight against my body, restricting movement.
Until the moment I ejected, I felt as though I was living through having a nightmare and I remember thinking several times, “don’t worry, you are just haying a nightmare and will wake up soon and you will be safe”. Yet at the same time, I felt that I had to find the ejection handle and pull it just in case it was not a nightmare- I had a false sense of security while I was in this extremely dangerous situation, and it took considerable willpower to convince myself that this was real, and that my only chance of survival was to eject - regardless.
My right hand located the seat pan handle, and I pulled. To my relief it extracted with extreme ease! When I felt the explosion of the ejection, I realized that this was no nightmare. My helmet was ripped from my head and I think I saw my seat falling away slightly to my left as I was being ejected from the cockpit. I noticed that my height was approximately 200-300’ AGL as I felt my drogue chute and main parachute stabilizing me. I could see and hear large pieces of flaming air craft striking the ground all around me. There was a fairly strong easterly wind blowing (I estimate between 10-20 kts) I as drifted over the ravine towards the western side of a fairly steep incline. I completely misjudged my rate of descent and the last 50’ seemed to flash past, barely allowing me time to prepare for landing. At the last moment I had to swing myself clear of a large jagged rock and landed against the mountain rolling onto my left side. It seemed as though I had been stabilized in my parachute for 4-5 seconds before I landed.
During this whole nightmare I experienced an incredible feeling that time had slowed down, when in actual fact things happened rather quickly.
My thought processes were very clear, and my first concern was for my back which had taken the brunt of the ejection and landing. I therefore lay quite still on my back with my lumbar pack still in position behind me and my seat pan survival pack lying just to my right. My next reaction was to check my body for injury. It was a relief to realize I could move my whole body and there appeared to be no broken bones or major hemorrhaging. A C160 Transall was flying just to the north of me from the direction of Hoedspruit and Waterkloof. I took out my Pelba survival radio and my 50 pencil flares and tested both. By this time, the C160 Transall was out of range. My Pelba was serviceable, but when I tested one of my flares it flared on its upward flight path, but burnt out by the time it started its descent. I unpacked all the necessary survival equipment and laid it out next to me.
My next concern: shock. We had been taught to drink as much water as possible to counteract this, so I immediately drank 400 ml of dextrose while waiting for the pilot, who was to follow me, to fly over my position. Approximately 20-26 minutes later I heard him fly past on the far side of the mountain. There was no time for me to fire a flare or call him on the radio. It was then that I noticed people on the other side of the ravine surveying the wreckage. After I had fired a day/night flare to draw their attention, they sprinted down the ravine and up the other side towards me. By the time the farmer had reached me, I was uncertain of whose condition was worse, his or mine: all he could do was to rest his arms on his knees, stare at me and pant as though he was about to take his last breath.
After I had instructed my rescuers on how to carry out the survival and rescue procedures, the pain in my back began to intensify. 1 decided against the use of painkillers in order to obviate masking any symptoms which might hinder the doctor’s diagnosis. I also wanted to be aware of every movement to ensure that my back remained straight.
At 12.25 I heard the rescue Puma for the first time and attempted to raise the Puma on my Pelba radio, but received no response. I therefore reselected the VHF beacon so that the Puma could home in on my Pelba beacon. It transpired that the Puma pilot could hear my call but, whenever be answered, he could only hear the beacon carrier wave.
After the Puma had landed behind me the doctor attended to my injuries, gave me an injection for pain and set up a drip. Shortly thereafter I was flown to Military Hospital for treatment.
· My Decision to Eject
Shortly before my accident, Maj N. Meikie’s article on “The Ejection Decision” was discussed during a flying safety meeting at 3 Squadron, prior to its appearance in the NYALA. This article had a marked effect on my thinking regarding when to eject and when to attempt to salvage the aircraft. in fact it has a direct bearing on my survival and being able to write this article. On the day of that meeting I had already established in my mind when I would decide to eject and, as it turned out, that decision had to be made only a few weeks later when I had seconds within which to act.
If any pilot is not familiar with the content of Maj Meikie’s article, I strongly recommend that they acquaint themselves with it, and that they take heed of his suggestions.
· False Sense of Security.
From the moment when I realized that I was going to hit the mountain, my brain refused to accept the fact that this was really happening. My immediate thoughts were that this was a nightmare and that I should not be unduly concerned about the situation. I think that the sudden transition from feeling completely safe to being totally out of control was too much of a shock for my mind to accept. This is possibly a built-in safety “circuit breaker’ in the brain which prevents one from having to assimilate the full impact of such a shock which in itself could kill you
I think the instantaneous decision to eject prior to hitting the mountain may have resulted from that small measure of concern which helped me to overcome my false sense of security. Added to this, I could hear myself Screaming, hear the roar of rushing air, and could sense the fire on the exposed parts of my face. All these factors contributed to overcoming this sense of unreality.
The point that I am trying to make is that aircrew should be fully aware of this phenomenon and, should a similar situation be experienced in the future (God forbid), at least this article may serve to remind such victims of this feeling.
· Temporal Distortion.
I experienced an incredible feeling that time had slowed down. Ones brain has to process so much information in such a short period (far more than in normal situations) that it actually feels as if though time has become protracted. One feels that there is still plenty of time to get out of the aircraft, when in actual fact it may already be too late!
· Rate of Descent in Parachute.
We are all aware that the parachute canopy installed in the Mirage ejection seat is smaller than normal and that this increases the rate of descent. I was fully aware of this fact, but the rate of descent was still far in excess of my expectations, and 1 suffered a fractured leg from the impact upon landing.
· Back Injuries on Landing.
Several of my colleagues who have experienced ejection from aircraft have suffered back injuries: either from the force of the ejection or from the impact on landing.
When I landed my first reaction was to check myself for injury and free myself from the parachute. Although I could feel no pain in my back, I forced myself to restrict my movements and to lie still until I was rescued. The lesson learnt is that you should move only if you have to.
· Survival/First Aid.
We are taught that it is always advisable to drink as much water as possible to diminish the state of shock which is likely to follow from such an experience. When the doctor arrived I told him that I had drunk the 400m1 dextrose. His advice to me was to be very cautious about administering or taking dextrose, since internal or external injures may necessitate an emergency operation on site.
Pain-killers are also provided in the emergency first-aid kit. Unless it is absolutely necessary, rather endure the pain until medical assistance arrives. This enables the doctor to have full jurisdiction regarding the best treatment for you.
· Test your 50” pencil flares and day/night flares regularly. As it turned out, my 50” flares failed to work when I needed them most, simply because I failed to test them regularly.
· When I heard the rescue helicopter, I attempted to raise its pilot on my Pelba. Because I received no reply from him, I reselected “Beacon” , then he could home in on me. It transpired that he had no homing facility and that he could only hear my transmissions. It would have been better had I sent him blind transmissions and talked him towards my position. Finally, if my experience serves to endorse Maj Meikle’s article, may it also possibly assist in improving flying safety in general. Incidentally, it is quite ironic that Maj Meikie was my first flying instructor back in 1978/79. We have come a long way.