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Chuck Yeager’s insane NF-104 crash… or “Holy shit, this guy’s hardcore”

28 Jul

Yes, it’s long. No, there are no Cliff’s Notes

Excerpted from Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff


Two extraordinary pieces of equipment were being developed specifically for ARPS. One was a space mission simulator, a device more realistic and sophisticated than the Mercury project simulator NASA had on the boards. The other was the NF-104, which was an F-104 with a rocket engine mounted over the tailpipe. The rocket engine used hydrogen peroxide and JP4 fuel and would deliver 6.000 pounds of thrust. It was like a super-afterburner. The main engine plus the regular afterburner would take you to about 60,000 feet, and when you cut in the rocket, and that would take you somewhere between 120,000 and 140,000 feet. At least that was what the engineers confidently assumed. The plan was that the ARPS students would run profiles on the space mission simulator, then put on silver pressure suits, space-flight style, and take the NF-104 up to 120,000 feet or more in a tremendous arc, affording up to two minutes of weightlessness. During this interval they could master the use of reaction controls, which were hydrogen-peroxide thrusters of the sort used in all vehicles above 100,000 feet, whether the X-15, the Mercury capsule, or the X-20.

The only problem was, nobody had ever wrung out the NF-104. Just how it would handle in the weak molecular structure of the atmosphere above 100,000 feet, what the limits of its performance envelope would be, nobody knew. The F-104 had been built as a high-speed interceptor, and when you tried to do other things with it, it became very “unforgiving,” as the expression went. Pilots were already beginning to crunch the F-104 simply because the engine flamed out and they fell to the ground with about as much glide as a set of car keys. But Yeager loved the damned ship. It went like a bat. As the commandant of ARPS, he seized the opportunity to test the NF-104 as if it had his name on it.

The main reason he would be testing it would be for use in the school, but there was an extra dividend. Whoever was the first to push the NF-104 to optimum performance was certain to set a new world record for altitude achieved by a ship taking off under its own power. The Soviets had set the current record, 113,980 feet, in 1961 with the E-66A, a delta-winged fighter plane. The X-2 and the X-15 had flown higher, but they had to be hauled aloft by a larger ship before their rockets were ignited. The Mercury and Vostok space vehicles were lifted to altitude by automated booster rockets, which were then disengaged and jettisoned. Of course, all aircraft records were losing their dazzle now that space flight had begun. It was getting to be like setting some sort of new record for railroad trains. Yeager hadn’t tried to break a record in the skied over Edwards since December 1953, ten years ago, when he had set a new speed mark of Mach 2.4 in the X-1A and had come down in the far side of the arc in the most horrendous bout with high-speed instability any man had ever survived. Now Yeager was back on the flight line again to go for broke, out by the shimmering mirage surface of Rogers Lake, under that pale-blue desert sky, and the righteous energy was flowing again… and through that wild unbroken beast… a few volts of that righteous old-time religion… well, that would be all right, too.

Yeager had taken the NF-104 up for three checkout flights, edging it up gradually toward 100,000 feet, where the limits of the envelope, whatever they were, would begin to reveal themselves. And now he was out on the flight line for the second of two major preliminary flights. Tomorrow he would let it all out and go for the record. It was another of those absolutely clear brilliant afternoons on the dome of the world. In the morning flight everything had gone exactly according to plan. He had taken the ship up to 108,000 feet after cutting in the rocket engine at 60,000. The rocket had propelled the ship up at a 50-degree angle of attack. One of the disagreeable sides of the ship was her dislike of extreme angles. At any angle greater than 30 degrees, her nose would pitch up, which was the move she made just before going into spins. But at 108,000 feet it was no problem. The air was so thin at that altitude, so close to being pure “space,” that the reaction controls, the hydrogen peroxide thrusts, worked beautifully. Yeager had only to nudge the sidearm hand controller by his lap and a thruster on top of the nose of the plane pushed the nose right down again, and he was in perfect position to re-enter the dense atmosphere below. Now he was going up for one final exploration of that same region before going for broke tomorrow.

At 40,000 feet Yeager began his speed run. He cut in the afterburner and it slammed him back in his seat, and he was now riding an engine with nearly 16,000 pounds of thrust. As soon as the Machmeter hit 2.2, he pulled back on the stick and started the climb. The afterburner would carry him to 60,000 feet before exhausting its fuel. At precisely that moment he thre the switch for the rocket engine… terrific jolt… He’s slammed back in his seat again. The nose pitches up to 70 degrees. The g-forces start rising. The desert sky starts falling away. He’s going straight up into the indigo. At 78,000 feet a light on the console… as usual… the main engine overheating from the tremendous exertion of the climb. He throws the switch, and shuts it down but the rocket is still accelerating. Who doesn’t know this feeling if he doesn’t! The bastards are fantastic! … One hundred thousand feet… He shuts down the rocket engine. He’s still climbing. The g-forces slide off… makes you feel like you’re pitching forward…

He’s weightless, coming over the top of the arc… 104.000 feet… It’s absolutely silent… Twenty miles up… The sky is almost black. He’s looking straight up into it, because the nose of the ship is pitched up. His angle of attack is still about 50 degrees. He’s over the top of the arc and coming down. He pushes the sidearm control to bring down the nose of the ship but the nose isn’t budging. It’s still pitched up! He hits the thruster again… Shit!… She won’t go down!… Now he can see it, the whole diagram… This morning at 108,000 feet the air was so thin it offered no resistance and you could easily push the nose down with the thrusters. At 104,000 feet the air remains just thick enough to exert aerodynamic pressure. The thrusters aren’t strong enough to overcome it… He keeps hitting the reaction controls… The hydrogen peroxide squirts out of the jet on the nose of the ship and doesn’t do a goddamned thing… He’s dropping and the nose is still pitched up… The outside of the envelope!… well, here it is, the sonofabitch… It doesn’t want to stretch… and here we go!…

The ship snaps into a flat spin. It’s spinning right over its center of gravity, like a pinwheel on a stick. He pushes the sidearm control again. The hydrogen peroxide is finished. He has 600 pounds of fuel left in the main engine but there’s no way to start it up. To relight the engine you have to put the ship nose down into a dive and force air through the intake duct to and start the engine windmilling to build up the rpms. Without rpms there’s no hydraulic pressure and without hydraulic pressure you can’t move the stabilizer wings on the tail and without the stabilizer wings you can’t control this bastard at the lower altitudes… He’s in a steady-state flat spin and dropping… He’s whirling around at a terrific rate… He makes himself keep his eyes pinned on the instruments… A little sightseeing at this point and it’s vertigo and you’re finished… He;s down to 80,000 feet and the rpms are dead zero… He’s falling 150 feet a second… 9,000 feet a minute… And what do I do next?… here in the jaws of the Gulp… I’ve tried A! – I’ve tried B! – The damned beast isn’t making a sound… just spinning around like a length of pipe in the sky… he has one last shot… the speed brakes, a parachute rig in the tail for slowing the ship down after a high-speed landing…

The altimeter keeps winding down… Twenty-five thousand feet… but the altimeter is based on sea level… He’s only 21,000 feet above the high desert… The slack’s running out… He pops the speed brake… Bango! – the chute catches with a jolt… it pulls the tail up… He pitches down… The spin stops. The nose is pointed down. Now he only has to jettison the chute and let her dive and pick up the rpms. He jettisons the chute… and the beast heaves up again! The nose goes back up in the air!… It’s the rear stabilizer wing… The leading edge is locked, frozen into the position of the climb to altitude. With no rpms and no hydraulic controls he can’t move the tail… The nose is pitched way above 30 degrees… Here she goes again… He has no rpms, no power, no more speed chute and only 180 knots airspeed… He’s down to 12,000 feet… 8,000 feet above the farm… There’s not a goddamned thing left in the manual or the bag of tricks or the righteousness of twenty years of military flying… Chosen or damned!… It blows at any seam! Yeager hasn’t bailed out an airplane since the day he was shot down over Germany when he was twenty… I’ve tried A! – I’ve tried B! – I’ve tried C!… 11,000 feet, 7,000 feet from the farm… He hunches himself into a ball, just as it says in the manual, and reaches under the seat for the cinch ring and pulls.

He’s exploded out of the cockpit with such force it’s like a concussion… He can’t see… Wham… a jolt in the back… It’s the seat separating from him and the parachute rig… His head begins to clear… He’s in midair, in his pressure suit, looking out through the visor of his helmet… Every second seems enormously elongated… infinite… such slow motion… He’s suspended in midair… weightless… The ship had been falling about 100 miles and hour and the ejection rocket had propelled him up at 90 miles an hour. For one thick adrenal moment he’s weightless in midair, 7,000 feet above the desert… The seat floats nearby, as if the two of them are parked in the atmosphere… The butt of the seat, the underside, is facing him… a red hole… the socket where the ejection mechanism had been attached… it’s dribbling a charcoal red… lava… the remains of the rocket propellant… It’s glowing… it’s oozing out of the socket… In the next moment they’re both falling, he and he seat. His parachute has a quarter bag over it and on the bag is a drogue chute that pulls the bag off so the parachute will stream out gradually and not break the chute or the pilot’s back when the canopy pops open during a high-speed ejection. It’s designed for an ejection at 400 or 500 miles and hour, but he’s only going 175.

In this infinitely expanded few seconds the lines stream out and Yeager and the rocket seat and the glowing red socket sail through the air together… and now the seat is drifting above him… into the chute lines!… The seat is nestled in the chute lines… dribbling lava out of the socket… eating through the lines… An infinite second… He’s jerked up by the shoulders… it’s the chute opening and the canopy filling… in that very instant the lava – it smashes into the visor of his helmet… Something slices through his left eye… He’s knocked silly… He can’t see a goddamned thing… The burning snaps him to… His left eye is gushing blood… It’s pouring down inside the lid and down his face and his face is on fire… Jesus Christ!… the seat rig… The jerk of the parachute had suddenly slowed his speed, but the seat kept falling… It had fallen out of the chute lines and the butt end crashed into his visor… 180 pounds of metal… a double layer visor.. the goddamned thing has smashed through both layers… He’s burning!… There’s rocket lava inside the helmet… The seat has fallen away… He can’t see… blood pouring out of his left eye and there’s smoke inside the helmet… Rubber!…

It’s the seal between the helmet and the pressure suit… It’s burning up… The propellant won’t quit… A tremendous whoosh… He can feel the rush… he can even hear it… The whole left side of his helmet is full of flames… A sheet of flame goes up his neck and the side of his face… The oxygen!… The propellant has burned through the rubber seal, setting off the pressure suit’s automatic oxygen system… The integrity of the circuit has been violated and it rushes oxygen to the helmet, to the pilot’s face… A hundred percent oxygen! Christ!… It turns the lava into an inferno… Everything that can burn is on fire… everything else is melting… Even with the hole smashed in the visor the helmet is full of smoke… He’s choking… blinded… The left side of his head is on fire… He’s suffocating… He brings up his left hand… He has on pressure-suit gloves locked and taped to the sleeve… He jams his in through the hole in the visor and tries to create and air scoop with it to bring air to his mouth… The flames… They’re all over it… They go to work on his glove where it touches his face… They devour it!… His index finger is burning up… His goddamned finger is burning!… But he doesn’t move it… Get some air!… Nothing else matters… He’s gulping smoke… He has to get the visor open… It’s twisted… He’s encased in a little broken globe dying in a cloud of his own fried flesh… The stench of it!… rubber and human hide… He has to get the visor open… It’s that or nothing, no two ways about it… It’s smashed all to hell… He jams both hands underneath… It’s a tremendous effort… It lifts… Salvation!…

Like a sea the air carries it all away, the smoke, the flames… The fire is out. He can breathe. He can see out of his right eye. The desert, the mesquite, the motherless Joshua trees are rising slowly toward him… He can’t open his left eye… Now he can feel the pain… Half his head is broiled… That isn’t the worst of it… The damned finger!… Jesus!… He can make out the terrain, he’s been over it a million times… Over there’s the highway, 466, and there’s route 6 crossing it… His left glove is practically burned off… The glove and his left index finger… he can’t tell them apart… they look as if they exploded in an over… He’s not far from base… Whatever is with the finger, it’s very bad… Nearly down… He gets ready… Right out of the manual… A terrific wallop… He’s down on the mesquite, looking across the desert, one-eyed… He stands up… Hell! He’s in one piece!… He can hardly use his left hand. The goddamned finger is killing him. The whole side of his head… he starts taking off the parachute harness… It’s all in the manual! Regulation issue!… He starts rolling up the parachute, just like it says… Some of the cords are almost melted through, from the lava… His head feels like it’s still on fire… The pain comes from way down deep… But he’s got to get the helmet off… It’s a hell of an operation… He doesn’t dare touch his head… It feels enormous… Somebody’s running toward him… It’s a kid, a guy in his twenties… He’s come from the highway… He comes up close and his mouth falls open and he gives Yeager a look of stone horror…

“Are you all right!”
The look on the kid’s face! Christalmighty!”
“I was in my car! I saw you coming down!
“Listen,” says Yeager. The pain in his finger is terrific. “Listen… you got a knife?”

The kid digs into his pocket and pulls out a penknife. Yeager starts cutting the glove off his left hand. He can’t bear it anymore. The kid stands there hypnotized and horrified. From the look on the kid’s face, Yeager can begin to see himself. His neck, the whole left side of his head, his ear, his cheek, his eye must be burned up. His eye socket is slashed, swollen, caked shut, and covered with a crust of burned blood, and half his hair is burned away. The whole mess and the rest of his face and nostrils and his lips are smeared with the sludge of the burning rubber. And he’s standing there in the middle of the desert in a pressure suit with his head cocked, squinting out of one eye, working on his glove with a penknife… The knife cuts through the glove an it cuts the meat of his finger… You can’t tell any longer… It’s all run together… The goddamned finger looks like it’s melted… He’s got to get the glove off. That’s all there is to it. It hurts too goddamned much. He pulls off the glove and a big hunk of melted meat from the finger comes off with it… it’s like fried suet…

“Arrggghhh…” It’s the kid. He’s retching. It’s too much for him, the poor bastard. He looks up at Yeager. His eyes open and his mouth opens. All the glue has come undone. He can’t hold it in any longer.

“God,” he says, “you… look awful!” The Good Samaritan, A.A.D.! Also a Doctor! And he just gave his diagnosis! That’s all a man needs… to be forty years old and to fall one hundred goddamned thousand feet in a flat spin and punch out and make a million-dollar hole in the ground and get half his head and his hand burned up and have his eye practically ripped out of his skull… and have the Good Samaritan, A.A.D., arrive as if sent by the spirit of Pancho Barnes herself to render a midnight verdict among the motherless Joshua trees while the screen doors bang and the pictures of a hundred dead pilots rattle in their frames:
“My God!… you look awful.”

A few minutes later the rescue helicopter arrived. The medics found Yeager standing out in the mesquite, him and some kid who had been passing by. Yeager was standing erect with his parachute rolled up and his helmet in the crook of his arm, right out of the manual, and staring at them quite levelly out of what is left of his face, as if they had an appointment and he was on time.

As the hospital they discovered one stroke of good luck. The blood over Yeager’s left eye had been baked into a crust-like shield. Otherwise he might have lost it. He had suffered third – and second-degree burns on his head and neck. The burns required a month of treatment in the hospital, but he was able to heal without disfigurement. He even regained the use of his left index finger.

No one even broke the Russian mark with the NF-104 or even tried to. Up above 100,000 feet the plane’s envelope was too goddamned full of holes. And Yeager never again sought to set a world record in the sky over the high desert.





The Badass of the Week.

Chuck Yeager

If you were to look up the words “balls-out” or “fearless” in the Great Big Encyclopedia of Ultimate Badassitude, you’d probably just see a giant picture of Chuck Yeager’s scrotum. The man was the world’s premier test pilot for over three decades, literally getting into giant rocket-propelled flying deathtraps with wings, embarking on the most dangerous flights ever attempted, and blasting through the stratosphere at ludicrous speeds so fast that most lesser people would have their brains blast right out the backs of their heads. The man is an aviation legend, a pioneer in the field of “going as fast as fucking possible just for the sake of being totally awesome”, and a guy who made a living out of giving the Grim Reaper the finger, spitting in his eye, and/or pounding him in the balls with a two-by-four.

Chuck Yeager’s adventure in badassitude started in 1941 when he got sick of the Axis powers’ bullshit and enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Forces as an aircraft mechanic. Fixing planes and tightening nuts quickly got boring for Yeager, probably because he didn’t have to spend every waking hour warding off the ominous Black Hand of Death, so he transferred to aviation and became a fighter pilot instead. On just his eighth combat mission Yeager’s P-51 was shot down over the French countryside, but he didn’t even give a crap. Chuck joined up with the French Resistance, helped them make some bombs to throw at the Nazis, and eventually escaped back to England. Oh yeah, and he won the Bronze Star for throwing a seriously-wounded American pilot over his shoulder and carrying this dude across the motherfucking Pyrenees Mountains.

Getting shot down by the fucking Krauts only served to get Chuck Yeager really really ripshit pissed off, and he immediately went back and became one of the war’s few “Aces in a Day”, blasting the shit out of five German Me-109s in just a couple of hours. Not long after that he won the Distinguished Flying Cross for being one of the first Americans to ever take down a badass Nazi Me-262 jet fighter. During the war, he recorded 13 official aircraft kills over the course of 61 missions, and by the time he was sent back home he had already achieved the rank of Captain.

But shit was just getting started for Chuck Yeager in terms of limitless badassitude and pushing-it-to-the-limit-ness. His experience as both a mechanic and a badass fucking fighter pilot got him attached to the Aeronautical Systems Flight Test Division back in the States, where his chief duty was to test-fly repaired aircraft to make sure they were airworthy – an exercise that was basically one step removed from playing Russian Roulette with an automatic pistol. During his tenure flying around in a bunch of “hopefully functional” airplanes, Yeager so greatly impressed his superiors with his amazing ability to not die in a giant flaming inferno that he was selected to test-fly the new rocket-powered experimental Bell X-1 prototype aircraft. This was a pretty big deal, since he was chosen from a field of 125 senior pilots with buttloads of flying experience, and he definitely lived up to the task. Even though he had broken two ribs the day before and was in so much pain that he could barely get the cockpit hatch closed, Chuck Yeager sat behind the controls of this giant flying explosion and prepared to do what no man had ever done before – break the sound barrier. On 14 October 1947 Yeager went completely balls-out full-throttle, hitting Mach 1.07 and becoming the first man to ever travel faster than the speed of sound, proving that it was possible, in fact, to travel that fast without having all of your internal organs disintegrate and turn into a thick disgusting soup (before this, scientists weren’t so sure). For his amazing fearlessness in the face of probably-certain death, he won the Congressional Silver Medal of Honor. To give you some indication of how fucking huge this accomplishment was, his MoH citation states that it is, “For consipicuous gallantry and a total disregard for his own personal safety.”


Some dude broke Yeager’s air speed record by busting out Mach 2 in 1953, but Chuck wasn’t the sort of total fucking badass who was going to roll over and die just because someone stole his claim to being the “Fastest Man Alive.” No, he sought vengeance pretty much immediately. A mere two months after his record was broken, Chuck Yeager hit Mach 2.44 in a Bell X-1A. He went so fucking completely over-the-top balls-out that immedately after he hit the fastest speed ever recorded, the plane went completely out of control, plummeting 51,000 feet in the span of 51 seconds (!!) but Chuck didn’t even blink. He just said, “fuck you plane!”, pulled out of the dive mere feet from the ground, and flew back to safety.

After serving as the United States’ premier test pilot for over nine years Yeager became the first-ever commandant of the USAF Aerospace Research Pilot School, where he trained the first generation of badass NASA astronauts. He also served as an Air Force squadron commander in Europe for a while, and led the 405th Tactical Fighter Wing in the Vietnam War – personally logging 127 combat missions in a B-57 bomber. He retired as a Brigadier General in 1975 and spent much of his free time afterwards working as a consultant for the USAF and NASA. His final flight was in 1997 – the 50th anniversary of breaking the sound barrier – when he hit Mach 1 in an F-15 Eagle at the age of 74. During his decades-spanning career, Chuck Yeager logged over 10,000 hours of flight in 155 different military aircraft and completely re-defined what it meant to be badass, fearless, and balls-to-the-wall all the goddamned time.

I’ve Lost My RIO

29 Dec

Damn, what a ride that must have been. I imagine the ejectee was a bit embarrassed…


Story from here:


I’ve Lost My RIO

by Lt. Geoff Vickers
My squadron and air wing were detached to NAS Fallon, Nevada, for strike training. Most of us attended lectures all day, but I was tasked with giving the battle-group-air-warfare commander an orientation flight in the F-14D. As skipper of the cruiser in charge of the battle group’s air defenses, he had been spending time with the air wing to better understand how we conduct our missions. He had observed a number of the strike events through the tactical-air-combat-training system (TACTS) replays, and he had flown with the E-2C and EA-6B squadrons. He was proud that the Prowler guys hadn’t been able to make him sick.

My job was to demonstrate the Tomcat’s performance and tactical capabilities. Though this flight was my first without a qualified radar-intercept officer (RIO) in the back seat, I had flown with a number of aviators who had very little Tomcat experience.

The captain arrived at the squadron a half-hour before the brief to receive his cockpit-orientation lecture and ejection-seat checkout. Once in the ready room, we briefed the flight with our wingman. I covered the administrative and tactical procedures in accordance with our squadron’s standard-operating procedures (SOP).

I told the captain that after the G-awareness maneuver, we would do a quick inverted check to verify cockpit security. Looking back, I should have recognized his anxiety when he mocked me and said, “Just a quick inverted check?” then laughed. I didn’t realize hanging upside down with nothing but glass and 11,000 feet of air separating you from the desert floor might not be the most comfortable situation in the world for a surface-warfare officer.

I continued the brief and told the captain we would do a performance demo and a couple of intercepts, followed by tanking from an S-3. I told him if, at any point, he felt uncomfortable, we would stop whatever we were doing, roll wings level, and take it easy. I was determined to avoid the temptation to intentionally make him sick and uncomfortable.

The start, taxi, and takeoff were normal. We joined with our lead and did the standard clean-and-dry checks. We pressed into the working area and assumed a defensive combat-spread formation in preparation for the G-warm. I told him what was happening, and he seemed to remember the sequence of events from the brief. After we completed the checks, I asked him, “Are you ready for the inverted check? Do you have everything stowed?”

“All set” was the last thing I heard him say.

I checked the airspeed and confirmed it was above the 300 knots recommended to do the check, and I rolled the aircraft inverted. I decided not to really put on a lot of negative G and unloaded to about .3 to .5 negative G’s-just enough to make anything float that wasn’t stowed properly. If he was uncomfortable in such a benign maneuver, it would be better to find out then, rather than when we were racing toward the earth during a radar-missile defense.

As I started to push on the stick, I heard a loud pop, followed by a roar. The cockpit filled with smoke, and we suddenly lost cabin pressure. I first thought a catastrophic environmental-control system (ECS) had failed. I said to myself, “This is new. I’ve never even heard of something like this happening.”

Time compression turned the next few seconds into an eternity. I knew the first thing I had to do was to roll the jet upright and assess the situation. About three seconds after the first indication of a problem, I had the jet upright and knew exactly what had happened.

I transmitted, “Lion 52. Emergency, my RIO just ejected.”

I was yelling into the mic, thinking I would have to make all the calls in the blind. I never would have thought I easily could communicate with all the noise of flying at 320 knots without a canopy.

As I turned the jet to try and get a visual of my wayward passenger, Desert Control asked, “Understand your wingman ejected?”

“Negative, my RIO ejected. I’m still flying the plane.”

“OK. Understand your RIO ejected. You’re flying the plane, and you’re OK?”

I almost said I was far from OK, but I just told them I was all right, except I was flying a convertible. I was relieved to see a good parachute below me, and I passed this info to Desert Control. Very quickly after the emergency call, an FA-18 pilot from the Naval Strike and Air-Warfare Center, who also was in the area, announced he would take over as the on-scene commander of the search-and-rescue (SAR) effort.

I told my wingman to pass the location of the captain because I could not change any of my displays. Once my wingman started to pass the location, I started dumping gas and put the needle on the nose back to NAS Fallon.

One of our air-wing SH-60s was in the area and responded, along with the station’s UH-1N. The captain was recovered almost immediately and transported to the local hospital for treatment and evaluation.

The only F-14D boldface procedures for a canopy problem include placing the canopy handle in “boost close” position and then moving the command eject lever to “pilot.” Obviously, the canopy already was gone, so that lever action didn’t apply, and, if the command-eject lever wasn’t already in “pilot,” as briefed, I also would have been ejected.

I slowed the aircraft and lowered my seat because that’s what I remembered from the rest of the steps in the checklist. However, after sitting at eye-level with my multi-function display for about 30 seconds, I thought it would be more prudent to see outside, so I raised my seat. Slowing the aircraft had little affect on the windblast, but, as long as I leaned forward, the wind hit only my shoulders. Because it was very cold at altitude, I decided to return quickly to base, but I needed to watch my airspeed since the ejection had occurred.

The PCL says to fly less than 200 knots and 15,000 feet and to complete a controllability check for the loss of the canopy, but I never pulled out my PCL to reference it. I figured with the way my day was going, I’d probably just drop my PCL down an intake and complicate my problems. In retrospect, I should have requested my wingman break out his checklist and talk me through the steps. Though this practice of having a wingman assist is common in single-seat communities, Tomcat crews tend to forget this coordination technique is a viable option.

I did consider the controllability check, and I directed my wingman to check for damage to the vertical stabilizers-she found none. The faster I got on deck, the faster I would get warm.

I slowed to approach speed in 10-knot increments at about 3,000 feet AGL and had no problems handling the jet. As I approached the field, I was surprised at how quiet it got. The noise was only slightly louder than the normal ECS roar in the Tomcat. I’ll admit I felt silly saying the landing checklist over the ICS when no one else was in the cockpit, but I didn’t want to risk breaking my standard habit patterns.

The landing was uneventful, and, when I pulled back into the line, I was surprised to find how many people had come out to see the spectacle. The magnitude of the situation finally set in when my skipper gave me a hug after I got out of the jet.

The captain and I were very fortunate: All of the ejection and aviation-life-support-systems (ALSS) equipment functioned as expected. Our PR1 had taken the time to properly fit the captain, using components from three different sets of flight gear. This action caused a problem after the mishap-getting everyone’s gear replaced-but it renewed my faith in our escape systems. A 48-year-old man ejected from the jet when it was inverted, at negative .5 G’s, at 320 knots, and the only injuries he had were two minor cuts to his face.

After talking to the captain at the O’Club later that night, I realized I better could have briefed elements of the flight. Though I covered all of the details, I didn’t fully consider his perspective. He said he didn’t know where to put his hands. Consequently, he just left them in loosely clenched fists on his lap, about two inches away from the ejection handle. It never occurred to me that someone would not know what to do with his hands. Obviously, I fly with the stick and throttle in my hands 95 percent of the flight, but I failed to consider his situation.

The mishap board surmised that, during the inverted maneuver, he must have flinched when he slightly rose out of the seat and pulled the ejection handle. Now, before any brief, I try to place myself in the other person’s shoes (even if they are black shoes) and imagine what the flight will be like for him. Whether it is the person who never has flown a tactical aircraft before or just the nugget pilot who never has flown with NVGs, remembering what it was like when I was unfamiliar with the environment will prevent this type of mishap from recurring.

Christmas light viewing from a C-47

21 Dec

Here’s some background on the plane itself:

Southern Cross is part of the John L. Terry Heritage Foundation, is based at Meacham International Airport, Fort Worth, Texas.
The aircraft was ordered before WWII by TWA with Wright Cyclone engines and was completed in December 1941. Due to the attack on Pearl Harbor, many aircraft were pressed into military service and this Douglas was no exception. It’s first job in military service was as a troop carrier and paratroop trainer. Its official designation by the U.S. Army Air Corps was C-49J.
After the war, it changed hands many times. Immediately following the war, it was returned to its original purpose of passenger carriage. Chicago and Southern Airlines operated it until the airline was bought by Delta in 1953. It flew under Delta colors until later being sold to the President of Mexico. At this time the interior received a makeover to suit presidential status, including upgrades such as a wrap-around couch, a bathroom, complete galley, and the portrait windows seen on the aircraft today. The engines were also updated at this time to the higher horsepower 1820-72 engines.
Following its presidential service, it was purchased by a skydiving operator who immediately ripped out all the interior upgrades in an effort to make the plane as light as possible. The operator installed even larger engines, a pair of 1820-76Ds, the same engines that are on the HU46 Albatross.
Finally, after being owned by several private parties, it joined the Greatest Generation Aircraft family



Looking out at the wings and seeing the D-Day stripes while flying was a pretty cool experience… something I’m glad I’m doing 67 years after D-Day and not when they were actually needed.


Sorry about the bad quality. iPhone cameras aren’t too great at night.





Here are some other shots from around the hangar. A-26, B-25, Sabre, etc… LOVE IT!







Shooting the Canyon

11 Nov

My desire for a pilot license has suddenly been rekindled.

This is in a Marchetti SF260

“This is your captain screaming…”

8 Nov

An official inspects the hole in the British Airways jet where the windsreen used to be

February 5, 2005The plane was packed when, at 17,000 feet, the windscreen blew and the captain was sucked out. Nigel Ogden, who saved him by hanging on to his legs, tells his story for the first time to Julia Llewellyn Smith.

It was like something from a disaster movie and I still find it hard to believe I was at the centre of it all. An aeroplane full of passengers, out of control at 17,000 feet, with the captain stuck outside the aircraft.

I think about what happened every day. It was Sunday June 10, 1990. It was a beautiful morning and I was up early because I was working on the British Airways 7.30am flight from Birmingham to Malaga in Spain. I was 36, had been an air steward with British Airways for 12 years, and loved my job with a passion.

I expected that day to be especially enjoyable. It was a holiday flight, so the 81 passengers would be relaxed, and the crew – Captain Tim Lancaster, stewards Simon Rogers and John Heward, and stewardess Sue Prince – had worked together, on and off, for years. The only member of the crew new to us was the co-pilot, Alistair Atcheson. The aircraft was a 43-tonne BAC 1-11, which was known as the jeep of the skies, because it was a workhorse – reliable and easy to maintain.

The flight was delayed for an hour, so I wandered up and down the plane, making sure everyone knew what was going on. Tim made an announcement – “You’ll be pleased to know the weather is sunny and dry in Malaga and we should be on our way shortly.”

It was 13 minutes after take-off and we had just reached 17,300 feet, 5000 feet beneath our assigned altitude. I went onto the flight deck and asked if they’d like tea. I was just stepping out, with my hand on the door handle, when there was an enormous explosion and the door was blown out of my hands. I thought, “My God. It’s a bomb.” Explosive decompression made the whole cabin mist up like fog for a second – then the plane started to plummet.

I whipped round and saw the front windscreen had disappeared and Tim, the pilot, was going out through it. He had been sucked out of his seatbelt and all I could see were his legs. I jumped over the control column and grabbed him round his waist to avoid him going out completely. His shirt had been pulled off his back and his body was bent upwards, doubled over round the top of the aircraft. His legs were jammed forward, disconnecting the autopilot, and the flight door was resting on the controls, sending the plane hurtling down at nearly 650kmh through some of the most congested skies in the world.

Everything was being sucked out of the aircraft: even an oxygen bottle that had been bolted down went flying and nearly knocked my head off. I was holding on for grim death but I could feel myself being sucked out, too. John rushed in behind me and saw me disappearing, so he grabbed my trouser belt to stop me slipping further, then wrapped the captain’s shoulder strap around me. Luckily, Alistair, the co-pilot, was still wearing his safety harness from take-off, otherwise he would have gone, too.

The aircraft was losing height so quickly the pressure soon equalised and the wind started rushing in – at 630kmh and -17C. Paper was blowing round all over the place and it was impossible for Alistair to hear air-traffic control. We were spiralling down at 80 feet per second with no autopilot and no radio.

I was still holding on to Tim but the pressure made him weigh the equivalent of 500 pounds [about 200 kilograms]. It was a good thing I’d had so much training at rugby tackles, but my arms were getting colder and colder and I could feel them being pulled out of their sockets.

Simon came rushing through and, with John unwrapped Tim’s legs and the remains of the doors from the controls, and Alistair got the autopilot back on. But he continued to increase speed, to lessen the risk of a mid-air collision and to get us down to an altitude where there was more oxygen. He dived to 11,000 feet in 2 minutes, then got the speed down to 300kmh.

I was still holding Tim, but my arms were getting weaker, and then he slipped. I thought I was going to lose him, but he ended up bent in a U-shape around the windows. His face was banging against the window with blood coming out of his nose and the side of his head, his arms were flailing and seemed about 6 feet [1.8 metres] long. Most terrifyingly, his eyes were wide open. I’ll never forget that sight as long as I live.

I couldn’t hold on any more, so Simon strapped himself into the third pilot’s seat and hooked Tim’s feet over the back of the captain’s seat and held on to his ankles. One of the others said: “We’re going to have to let him go.” I said: “I’ll never do that.” I knew I wouldn’t be able to face his family, handing them a matchbox and saying: “This is what is left of your husband.” If we’d let go of his body, it might have got jammed in a wing or the engines.

I left Simon hanging on to Tim and staggered back into the main cabin. For a moment, I just sat totally exhausted in a jump seat, my head in my hands, then Sue came up to me, very shaken. In front of all the passengers, I put my arms around her and whispered in her ear: “I think the Captain’s dead.” But then I said: “Come on, love, we’ve got a job to do.”

By now, Alistair was talking to air traffic control, who were talking him through landing at Southampton Airport. All pilot training is done on the basis of two pilots, one to fly and one doing the emergency drill, but Alistair was alone, with a crew he didn’t know and relying on memory, because all the manuals and charts had blown away. He asked for a runway of 2500 metres because he was worried that the plane was so heavy with fuel, a tyre would burst or it would go off the runway, but all they could offer was 1800 metres.

Over the intercom he told the passengers we’d lost the windscreen. Some of them could see Tim out of the window but the cabin was silent as the grave. We walked up and down, preparing the passengers for an emergency landing. People gasped as they saw the blood on my face. The plane was very shuddery, very rocky. I remember one man at the very back, with a little baby on his knee, saying to me: “We’re going to die,” and I said, “No, we are not,” lying through my teeth.

All I could see out of the windows was a line of trees, and I thought we’d either smash into those or into the housing estate beyond. I had a partner, Jean, and a stepson, Jamie, but I was thinking most about my Mum. She’d lost my brother in a car crash the year before, and I couldn’t bear to think how she’d take the news. But, in spite of everything, Alistair did the most amazing landing, what we call a greaser – completely smooth and stopping the aircraft only three-quarters of the way down the runway.

There wasn’t even any need to use the emergency chutes. We got all the passengers down the steps in an orderly fashion, although I did have to shout at a couple of people who were trying to get their handbags from the lockers. The whole time from the explosion to the landing had been 18 minutes, but it seemed like hours.

I got back on board to check everyone had left. The paramedics had Tim in the cockpit on a stretcher and I went in to see him.

He was lying there, covered in blood, but to my amazement I heard him say: “I want to eat.” I just exclaimed: “Typical bloody pilot.” Luckily, he’d been in a coma throughout the ordeal, his body had just shut down. I went out onto the front steps, and shouted at the others “He’s alive!” and then I cried my eyes out.

Air steward Nigel Ogden was left with a dislocated shoulder, frostbitten face and some frostbite damage to his left eye. Amazingly, Captain Tim Lancaster suffered only frostbite, fractures to his arm and wrist and a broken thumb. Within five months he was flying again and today he’s a pilot for easyJet.

Ogden returned to work after a break but suffered post-traumatic stress and took early retirement in 2001 on the grounds of ill health. He is now a night watchman at a Salvation Army hospital.

In 1992, a report was published showing that a BA engineer, working under pressure, had fitted a new windscreen with bolts that were too small.


British Airways pilot Tim Lancaster in Southampton hospital in 1990 with the crew members who rescued him.


B17 Super Low Flyby – Don’t Mess With Texas

5 Nov

The video is at the bottom but I”m pretty sure the still shots are at least 781 times crazier.

These are from the making of an old “Dont Mess With Texas” TV commercial.

As for the location, it was quite a ways south of Midland and a bit of a story, if you don’t mind. I had been flying the Wildcat for a bit less than a year when asked if I could take it from the Dallas/Fort Worth Wing hangar in Lancaster, Tx out to Midland. Reg Urschler flew the P-51 to Midland from his base up near Omaha, NE. So when we were launched from Midland to go to the filming site several tens of miles south of Midland, neither of us were familiar with the area. I flew wing off Reg and in these days before GPS and other wonderful things in our warbirds, all we had was a sectional. After a bit, Reg and I were trying to locate ourselves in an area of mostly desert and Reg said something like “Wait here, I’ll be right back!” and dove down toward a small town below us and circled the water tower. When he rejoined, he said “I know where we are” (frankly I don’t remember) and off we went until we were able to talk with Herschel Whittington of the CAF staff on his handheld (seen late in the video) and started our runs.

The initial plan was for the P-51 and FM-2 to follow the B-17 in very closely for the shot. The hill that the B-17 pops up over was probably only about 100-200 feet above the desert to the south where we made our approach. Reg and I quickly figured out that at 40-50 feet AGL or even a bit higher, right behind the B-17 we were not having much fun or luck! Talk about turbulence. So then we started to try and work off the wing of the B-17, etc. In any event, we didn’t make it into the final cut but it sure was an interesting day! Trying to keep up with Reg when he cobbed the power was not fun, either! Hope you enjoy knowing a bit more about the good old days.

Video of multiple flybys for the filming:

And finally, here’s the actual commercial:


How do you say ‘Top Gun’ in French?

5 Nov

Les Chevaliers du Ciel

Sky Fighters

Les Chevaliers du Ciel was filmed in co-operation with the French Air Force. Initially the standard safety rules applied, but eventually the minimum allowed altitude was reduced to 3 m (10 ft) and the minimum distance between aircraft was reduced to 1 m (3 ft)”

The Man Who Rode the Thunder

17 Oct

Shamelessly re-posting from Damn Interesting:


I’d have shit my pants loooooong before getting to the ground.


Rider on the Storm

Posted by Alan Bellows on 06 October 2011

In the summer of 1959, a pair of F-8 Crusader combat jets were on a routine flight to Beaufort, North Carolina with no particular designs on making history. The late afternoon sunlight glinted from the silver and orange fuselages as the US Marine Corps pilots flew high above the Carolina coast at near the speed of sound. The lead jet was piloted by 39-year-old Lt Col William Rankin, a veteran of both World War 2 and the Korean War. He was accompanied by his wingman, Lt Herbert Nolan. The pilots were cruising at 47,000 feet to stay above a large, surly-looking column of cumulonimbus cloud which was amassing about a half mile below them, threatening to moisten the officers upon their arrival at the air field.

Mere minutes before they were scheduled to begin their descent towards Beaufort, William Rankin heard a decreasingly reassuring series of grinding sounds coming from his aircraft’s engine. The airframe shuddered, and most of the indicator needles on his array of cockpit instruments flopped into their fluorescent orange “something is horribly wrong” regions. The engine had stopped cold. As the unpowered aircraft dipped earthward, Lt Col Rankin switched on his Crusader’s emergency generator to electrify his radio. “Power failure,” Rankin transmitted matter-of-factly to Nolan. “May have to eject.”

Unable to restart his engine, and struggling to keep his craft from entering a near-supersonic nose dive, Rankin grasped the two emergency eject handles. He was mindful of his extreme altitude, and of the serious discomfort that would accompany the sudden decompression of an ejection; but although he lacked a pressure suit, he knew that his oxygen mask should keep him breathing in the rarefied atmosphere nine miles up. He was also wary of the ominous gray soup of a storm that lurked below; but having previously experienced a bail out amidst enemy fire in Korea, a bit of inclement weather didn’t seem all that off-putting. At approximately 6:00 pm, Lt Col Rankin concluded that his aircraft was unrecoverable and pulled hard on his eject handles. An explosive charge propelled him from the cockpit into the atmosphere with sufficient force to rip his left glove from his hand, scattering his canopy, pilot seat, and other plane-related debris into the sky. Bill Rankin had spent a fair amount of time skydiving in his career—both premeditated and otherwise—but this particular dive would be unlike any that he or any living person had experienced before.

As Rankin plunged toward the earth, licks of lightning darted through the massive, writhing storm cloud below him. Rankin had little attention to spare, however, given the disconcerting circumstances. The extreme cold in the upper atmosphere chilled his extremities, and the sudden change in air pressure had caused a vigorous nosebleed and an agonizing swelling in his abdomen. The discomfort was so extreme that he wondered whether the decompression effects would kill him before he reached the ground.

As the wind roared in his ears, he gasped up oxygen from his emergency breathing apparatus while resisting the urge to pull his parachute’s rip cord; its built-in barometer was designed to auto-deploy the parachute at a safe breathing altitude, and his supply of emergency oxygen was limited. Opening the chute early would prolong his descent and might result in death due to asphyxiation or hypothermia. Under normal circumstances one would expect about three and a half minutes of free-fall to reach the breathable altitude of 10,000 feet. The circumstances, however, were not normal. After falling for a mere 10 seconds, Bill Rankin penetrated the top of the anvil-shaped storm. The dense gray cloud smothered out the summer sun, and the temperature dropped rapidly. In less than a minute the extreme cold and wind began to inflict Rankin’s extremities with frostbite; particularly his gloveless left hand. The wind was a cacophony inside his flight helmet. Freezing, injured, and unable to see more than a few feet in the murky cloud, the Lieutenant Colonel mustered all of his will to keep his hand far from the rip cord.

After falling through damp darkness for an interminable time, Rankin began to grow concerned that the automatic switch on his parachute had malfunctioned. He felt certain that he had been descending for several minutes, though he was aware that one’s sense of time is a fickle thing under such distracting circumstances. He fingered the rip cord anxiously, wondering whether to give it a yank. He’d lost all feeling in his left hand, and his other limbs weren’t faring much better. It was then that he felt a sharp and familiar upward tug on his harness–his parachute had deployed. It was too dark to see the chute’s canopy above him, but he tugged on the risers and concluded that it had indeed inflated properly. This was a welcome reprieve from the wet-and-windy free-fall.

Unfortunately for the impaired pilot, he was nowhere near the 10,000 foot altitude he expected. Strong updrafts in the cell had decreased his terminal velocity substantially, and the volatile storm had triggered his barometric parachute switch prematurely. Bill Rankin was still far from the earth, and he was now dangling helplessly in the belly of an oblivious monstrosity.


“I’d see lightning,” Rankin would later muse, “Boy, do I remember that lightning. I never exactly heard the thunder; I felt it.” Amidst the electrical spectacle, the storm’s capricious winds pressed Rankin downward until he encountered the powerful updrafts—the same updrafts that keep hailstones aloft as they accumulate ice–which dragged him and his chute thousands of feet back up into the storm. This dangerous effect is familiar to paragliding enthusiasts, who unaffectionately refer to it as cloud suck. At the apex Rankin caught up with his parachute, causing it to drape over him like a wet blanket and stir worries that he would become entangled with it and drop from the sky at a truly terminal velocity. Again he fell, and again the updrafts yanked him skyward in the darkness. He lost count of how many times this up-and-down cycle repeated. “At one point I got seasick and heaved,” he once retold.

At times the air was so saturated with suspended water that an intake of breath caused him to sputter and choke. He began to worry about the very strange—but very real–possibility of drowning in the sky. He began to feel his body being peppered by hailstones that were germinating in the pregnant storm cell, adding yet another concern: that the icy shrapnel might shred his fragile silk canopy.

Lt Col Rankin was uncertain how long he had been absorbing abuse when he began to notice that the violence of his undulations was ebbing. He was also beginning to regain some sensation in his numb limbs, indicating that temperatures were warming. And the rain—which had previously been splashing him from every conceivable direction—was now only falling from above.

Moments later the moist Marine emerged from the underside of the cumulonimbus cloud amidst a warm summer rain. Below was a flat expanse of North Carolina backcountry, with no immediate signs of civilization. But Rankin’s parachute was still functional, and he was just a few hundred feet from the ground, so all seemed relatively well. But the storm had one last parting gift. As Rankin neared the ground a sudden gust of wind whisked him into a thicket. Helpless, he was pushed into the branches of a tree where his parachute became ensnared, and his momentum caused him to plow headfirst into the trunk. Fortunately his flight helmet kept his brain box from taking any serious damage.


Bill Rankin removed himself from the troublesome tree and assessed his situation. The time was 6:40 pm. Bill’s brutalized body had spent around forty minutes bobbing around the area of atmosphere which mountaineers refer to unfondly as the Death Zone. Applying his Marine training, Rankin started walking in a search pattern until he located a backroad. He stood at the roadside and attempted to flag down the automobiles that occasionally passed, but it took some time to find a passerby bold enough to brake for a soggy, bleeding, bruised, frost-bitten, and vomit-encrusted pilot. Finally an obliging stranger stopped and drove Rankin back to a country store in the nearby town of Ahoskie, NC where he used the phone to summon an ambulance. While he awaited its arrival he took the luxury of slumping to the floor for some much-needed rest.

In the aftermath of his ordeal Lt Col William Rankin spent several weeks recovering in the hospital. His injuries were surprisingly minor, however, consisting of superficial frostbite and a touch of decompression shock. He eventually returned to duty, and the following year he chronicled his perilous adventures in a now out-of-print book entitled The Man Who Rode the Thunder.

No human before or since Bill Rankin is known to have parachuted through a cumulonimbus tower and lived to tell about it. Lt Col William Henry Rankin passed away on 06 July 2009, almost exactly 50 years after his harrowing and history-making ride on the storm. Cue epic organ solo.

Oooooh, she’s bendy!

8 Oct

Boeing 787 during a stress test. There’s ~25 ft of deflection at the wingtips.

That’s some seriously badass engineering.

Larger version here:

Wing ultimate load test complete on 787
Posted by Guy Norris at 3/29/2010 2:27 AM CDT

Boeing completed the ultimate limit-load test on the static test 787 airframe, ZY997, at Everett on March 28. The test – officially dubbed Condition 18b – evaluates the ability of the wing-body structure to sustain loads equal to 150% design limit load – or the most extreme forces ever expected to be seen in service, and its clearance marks the passing of a significant hurdle on the way to FAA certification.

During the test, which occurred with 14.9 psi fuselage pressure, the wingtips deflected upwards by approximately 25 ft. The test, which did not continue until the wings failed, was also a key evaluation of the strengthened side-of-body modification which in June last year caused a six-month delay to the start of 787 flight tests. The deflection of the higher-aspect ratio composite wing was greater than that of the metallic 777 wing, the last major primary structure to undergo “wing ultimate up-bending” tests in Boeing’s sprawling Everett site more than 15 years ago. The 777 wing failed at 154%, having deflected 24 ft.

Internally Boeing is hailing the test as a major success, though externally the company is sounding a note of caution. “The initial results of the ultimate-load test are positive. More extensive analysis and review are required before the test can be deemed a success,” says Boeing.

Sunrise at 33,000 ft

30 Sep

As tiring as travelling all the time can be, both mentally and physically, seeing the sunrise from 33,000 ft never gets old.

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