Skyhawk Ejection 1958

The ill-fated flight of 16 December 1958 was my sixth hop in the A4D-1 (A-4A BuNo 142172 side number 325) - (The older designation was current in 1958.) The aircraft was still very new and had the familiar new-car smell when I manned it. All of our A4D-1s were fresh out of the Douglas Aircraft factory within the past several months. On familiarization hop number five (FAM 5) we had dropped six Mk-76 practice bombs and fired four 2.75" folding fin aircraft rockets (FFAR) on "Switzerland Target" just south of Naval Air Station Jacksonville across the St. Johns River from the small town of Green Cove Springs, Florida. Consequently this was my second bomb and rocket hop in the A-4.

We took off mid-morning on 16 December 1958, rendezvoused a four-plane formation led by the executive officer (XO) of VA-44 (the East Coast A-4 RAG at that time) and proceeded to the same target. We made a low-altitude, 500-knot pass over the target to set the trim tabs for release conditions and broke up the formation to establish a safe interval between aircraft. As the junior ensign, I flew the number four position. We fired the rockets first with a release from a 30-degree dive angle at about 1,200 feet above ground level (AGL) and 500 knots true air speed (TAS).

On my third firing pass I pulled up in a four-G climb and pushed the throttle forward. Instead of the usual acceleration, I felt the aircraft decelerate rapidly. My body leaned forward into the shoulder straps and I heard the engine begin to unwind. I glanced at the engine gauge and saw the RPM and tail pipe temperature (TPT) falling rapidly. The oil pressure and fuel boost flip-flop gauges went to OFF. I said the usual OH NO, with "no" as a four-letter word, then keyed the mike and broadcast, "Mayday, Mayday, Mayday, Baker Boy 325, flamed out, pulling off the target." I then told the XO, our flight leader, that I would trade airspeed for altitude and try a relight going over the top when I reached the optimum relight speed of 220 kt. He "rogered" and told me he had me in sight.

As I went over the top of the arc at 5,500 feet and 210 knots., I pushed the nose over slightly and adjusted airspeed to 220 indicated air speed (IAS), I went through the relight procedure and waited for the TPT to start to rise. It never did. We had no fuel flow gage in the A4A; nor did we have any other diagnostic instruments like those available in current Navy jets, so I held the airspeed at 220 and tried one more relight procedure. As I completed each of the four simple steps for a re-light I read it off to the flight leader and asked him if I was forgetting anything. He told me, "no, you are doing all you can."

I really didn't want to eject and explain why I had just destroyed a $425,000 aircraft. During the second attempt, I saw the altimeter descend through 3,000 feet and heard the XO say, "Quit fooling with it and get out. Eject now." I glanced up and saw that I was headed toward a small crossroads village, so I turned right toward a swampy area. I had been holding the nose up to stop the descent because the ejection seat was only good to altitudes above 1,000 feet and 125 knots IAS, straight and level. When I pulled the face curtain the airspeed was 125, altitude 1,800 foot and rate of descent about 2,000 feet per minute. When I pulled the face curtain, the canopy separated and I was blasted out of the aircraft.

So far so good, but I quickly found out that I was still in real trouble. In between my sophomore and junior years at the University of Florida, I had spent three years in the Army, during the Korean War. I had gone through parachute training as an enlisted troop in December 1952, and had 22 static-line parachute jumps while serving with the 10th Special Forces Group in 1953 and 1954. In the early stages of training we had to climb up into a tower about 20 to 30 feet high wearing a parachute harness, hook up to a cable that descended at about a 10 or 15 degree angle, jump out and slide down to the ground. The training taught us to exit the airplane in the right position and then to make a proper parachute-landing fall when we contacted the ground. There was always a grizzled old sergeant at the bottom of the slide. (He was probably about 30 years old.) As soon as you jumped out of the tower he would scream at you, "You had betta open yo eyes, look around, and see what you can do fo yo sef." (All paratrooper sergeants had southern accents.) That translated to: "Don't expect everything to work as advertised; as soon as you clear the aircraft open your eyes and take care of any malfunctions."

I reached up, grasped the face curtain firmly and pulled hard with both hands. When the curtain pulled out about ?of the way, I heard a loud, "BOOM", felt a sharp pain in the small of my back, and was blown clear of the aircraft. As soon as I was out in the air-stream, I could picture the instructor, who used to be at the bottom of the cable slide training device. I could hear him shouting in that pronounced southern accent, "You had betta open yo eyes, look around, and see what you can do fo yo sef." Consequently, as I cleared the aircraft I threw the face curtain back out of the way and looked around to see what I could do for myself. It made the life or death difference, because I was still attached to the seat by the para-raft lanyard. The lanyard was a yellow nylon ribbon that connected the survival raft located under the aircraft seat to the pilot's flotation gear.

The bright yellow-colored -lanyard was wrapped around the shoulder harness locking handle on the left side of the ejection seat holding the seat snug up against my right hip. I quickly reached out with my right hand and pulled the seat in toward me to get some slack. I then unwrapped the pararaft lanyard with my left hand, and threw the seat forcefully away from me.

Next, I felt for and found the D-ring for manually opening the parachute. I pulled it hard to try and beat the automatic actuator. It was like pulling on a well-anchored cable; it would not budge. I was plunging, head first, toward the tops of pine trees near the edge of the swamp I had aimed the aircraft at. My first thought was, "you are a dead man." I tilted my head back, looked toward the ground, and saw a huge dark red-to-orange fireball exploding out from among the trees as the aircraft hit the ground near the edge of the swamp. I then looked down at the nearest pine tree and could see individual pine needles. My heart nearly stopped because I knew that if the parachute were not on its way out by now, I really was dead. It is eerily quiet when you are falling through the air and I could hear a whirring noise. It was the familiar sound of rubber bands popping as the parachute was deploying. Rubber bands are used to hold the shroud lines, risers, and panels in place when the parachute is packed. They make a whirring sound when they pop in sequence as the parachute opens.

The automatic actuator had fired when I threw the seat away and had kinked the steel cable leading to the D ring, which was why I could not pull it. My heart started to race again as I looked at the pine needles and tried to tell whether the 'chute was going to open in time. I shifted away from the thought that I was a dead man, and said to myself, "Oh, Shit, man this is going to be close, this is really going to be close." I then felt a hard jerk at my shoulders when the chute opened with me falling headfirst, face down toward the trees. The hard jerk swung my feet and legs down toward the ground and straightened me out. I had no time to enjoy the feeling because I was probably less than a hundred feet off the ground. I could see to my right front (about 2:30), a Y shaped intersection where three dirt roads joined. I then grabbed the two risers in that direction and pulled down hard on them to take a slip toward the little opening formed by that Y intersection. I had to lift my legs up to clear the last pine tree, but I made it into the small clearing and smashed into the Florida sand. I tried to do a parachute-landing fall to cushion the impact, but my timing was a little off and the impact stunned my whole body.

There was almost no wind so the parachute just collapsed around me. It was a good thing because all I could do was lie there for a few seconds. Almost immediately, however, I could feel a big grin growing inside my oxygen mask as a tremendous sense of elation welled up inside me. I stood up, popped the oxygen mask off, took my helmet off and looked up at the beautiful blue sky with puffy white, fair weather cumulus clouds drifting by. Life was good. The pine needles smelled like expensive perfume and my whole body unwound as I looked up at that beautiful sky and shed a few tears of elation and relief. I hurt all over, but it didn't matter. I was alive with no broken bones or other serious injury.

By the way the A-4A parachute was only 26 feet in diameter and was designed for survival, not for a comfortable landing. My back hurt like hell from the ejection because the older seats were fired by a 37-millimeter cannon shell and were not as friendly as the rocket motors used today. The hard impact with the ground didn't help. (Many of my contemporary pilot friends have had serious, long-term, back problems stemming from their ejections. I have been extremely fortunate and have had no long term effect at all.) We had no survival radios, so I popped an orange smoke signal device in the intersection of the dirt roads where I had landed. I then spread my 'chute out, and stood in the middle of it to make myself more visible for rescue.

In less than ten minutes a reconnaissance version of the F9F-8 flew overhead and rocked his wings to let me know he had me in sight. He circled my position and guided the helicopter in. Roughly ten minutes later, still, I could hear the helicopter approaching and popped another orange smoke. I rolled up the parachute, held on to it to prevent it from getting sucked up into the blades and got out of the way. The helicopter landed in my little clearing and we exchanged big smiles and enthusiastic thumbs up signals. They loaded my parachute and me aboard and flew me over to the helicopter pad next to the hospital at Naval Air Station Jacksonville. The flight surgeons at Naval Air Station Jacksonville checked me over, gave me three fingers of rot gut brandy and a bottle of aspirin, then released in time for happy hour.

The Accident Investigation

The accident board had asked me for a detailed statement of what happened and I gave them probably more detail than they wanted. They did not let me read their draft report, however, until it was essentially complete. At that time the Operations Officer, Commander Jim Homyak, called me in and let me read the, almost smooth, draft. The story the report told was that the aircraft, BuNo. 142172 side number 325, had flown a field carrier landing practice hop the night before and when it was returned to the line the ground crew failed to refuel it. I manned the aircraft the next morning and failed to complete the checklist including the push-to-test of the fuel gauge and check of fuel quantity. The aircraft would have had only about 2,500 pounds of fuel, which was exactly the amount that I would have needed to take off, rendezvous, get to the target, and make three rocket passes. Consequently, I had run the aircraft out of fuel and would have had no symptoms prior to flame-out. We had no low-fuel warning light in the A4D-1. The mishap board said it was 100 percent pilot error.

While I was reading this I was picturing the huge orange-red fireball I saw while falling face down toward the pine trees, waiting for the parachute to open. I thought, "no way!" I described the fireball to Commander Homyak and he agreed to go back out in the helicopter and take another look. He found the swampy area where the aircraft impacted had been severely burned for 25 yards around the impact point and agreed that the aircraft was clearly not out of fuel at impact. He also noted that there was a substantial amount of JP-4 still floating on the water in the hole formed by the crash. The cause was changed to "undetermined." I have been very suspicious of mishap boards ever since. We would learn on 21 February 1959 the probable cause of the majority of the large number of flameouts we had during the fall and winter of 1958-1959. That story is next. After four working days and a weekend off, recovering from the soreness, I was back in the cockpit.

This was one of about nine aircraft that the A-4 community lost in a matter of just a few months. The flame-outs were occurring without any prior symptom and several were at an altitude too low to eject, so we also lost about four pilots.