Clear Fog Blog

Political musings from Warren E. Peterson

Naval Air – A-6 Mishap

Posted by Warren Peterson on January 2, 2009

a6mishap2A retired Navy captain sent me the following account of just another day in the Navy:

“Talk about having a bad day! Or in retrospect, maybe it was a good day after all. This is yet another example of why sailors should stick to driving ships.”

Lieutenant Keith Gallagher’s Account :

On my 26th birthday I was blindsided by a piece of bad luck the size of Texas that should have killed me. Luckily, it was followed immediately by a whole slew of miracles that allowed me to be around for my 27th. Not even Murphy of Murphy’s Law could have conceived of such a bizarre accident!

On the open sea, a third of the way through our cruise, we had the duties on an overhead tanker, making circles in the sky. Although the pattern can be pretty boring, we were alert and maintaining a good lookout doctrine because our air wing had a midair collision less than a week before, and we did not want to have a repeat.

We felt we were ready for ‘any’ emergency : fire warning lights, hydraulic failures and fuel transfer problems. Bring ’em on ! We were ready for them. After all, how much trouble can two airplanes�get into . . while overhead the ship ?

After my third fuel update call, we decided that the left outboard drop tank was going to require a little help in order to transfer. NATOPS recommends applying positive and negative G to force the faulty valve open. As the pilot pulled the stick back, I wondered how many times we would have to ‘porpoise’ the nose of the plane before the valve opened. As he moved the stick forward, I felt the familiar sensation of negative “G” . . and then something strange happened : my head bumped the canopy.

For a brief moment, I thought that I had failed to tighten my lap belts, but I knew that wasn’t true. Before I could complete that thought, there was a loud bang, followed by wind, noise, disorientation and more wind, wind, wind. Confusion reigned in my mind as I was forced back against my seat, head against the headrest, arms out behind me, the wind roaring in my head, pounding against my body. ” Did the canopy blow off ? Did I eject? Did my windscreen implode?” All of these questions occurred to me amidst the pandemonium in my mind and over my body.

These questions were quickly answered, and replaced by a thousand more, as I looked down and saw a sight that I will never forget: the top of the canopy, close enough to touch, and down through the canopy I could see the top of my pilot’s helmet. It took a few moments for this image to sink into my suddenly overloaded brain. This was worse than I ever could have imagined – I was sitting on top of a flying A-6 !

Pain, confusion, panic, fear and denial surged through my brain and body as a new development occurred to me: I COULDN’T BREATHE ! My helmet and mask had ripped off my head, and without them, the full force of the wind was hitting me square in the face. It was like trying to drink from a high pressure fire hose. I couldn’t seem to get a breath of air amidst the wind. My arms were dragging along behind me until I managed to pull both of them into my chest and hold them there.

I tried to think for a second as I continued my attempts to breathe. For some reason, it never occurred to me that my pilot would be trying to land. I just never thought about it. I finally decided that the thing that I could do was eject. I grabbed the lower handle with both hands and pulled. It wouldn’t budge. With panic induced strength I tried again, but to no avail. The handle wasn’t going to move. I attempted to reach the upper ejection handle, but the wind prevented me from getting a hand on it.

As a matter of fact, all that I could do was hold my arms into my chest. If either of them slid out into the wind stream, they immediately flailed out behind me, and that was definitely not good. The wind had become physically and emotionally overwhelming. It pounded against my face and body like a huge wall of water that wouldn’t stop. The roaring in my ears confused me . . wind pressure in my mouth prevented me from breathing, and the pounding on my eyes kept me from seeing. Time had lost all meaning. For all I knew, I could have been sitting there for seconds or for hours. And I was suffocating, and I couldn’t seem to get a breath.

As I felt myself blacking out, I wish I could say that my last thoughts were of my wife, but all I said was, ” I don’t want to die.”

Then someone turned on the lights . . I had a funny view of the front end of an A-6 . . with jagged plexiglas where my half of the canopy was supposed to be. Looking down from the top of the jet, I was surprised to find the plane had stopped on the flight deck with about 100 people staring up at me. ( I guess expecting to see the pearly gates and some dead relatives.)

My first thought was that we had never taken off . . that something had happened before the catapult. Then everything came flooding back into my brain, the wind, the noise and the confusion. As my pilot then spoke to me and the medical people swarmed all over me, I realized that I was alive.

Then, I found out how lucky I was. My parachute became entangled in the horizontal stabilizer tight enough to act as a shoulder harness for the landing wire trap . . but not tight enough to bind the flight controls on the tail. If this had not happened, I would have been tossed forward into the jagged plexiglas during the trap.

There are many other things that happened . . or didn’t . . that allowed me to survive this mishap. . just inches away from disaster. These little things, and a level headed pilot who reacted quickly and correctly, are the reasons that I am alive and flying today.

Lieutenant Mark Baden’s [ pilot ] account of the incident :

As we finished the brief, my BN (bombardier navigator – Keith Gallagher) told me that it was his birthday and that our recovery would be his 100th trap on the boat. To top it off, we were assigned to my airplane.

As we taxied out of the chocks, I was still feeling a little uneasy about all the recent mishaps that had been happening lately. To make myself feel better, I went through the ‘soft catapult shot or engine failure on takeoff’ emergency procedures . . touching each switch or lever as I went over the steps. ” At least if something happens right off the bat, I’ll be ready,” I thought.

The first few minutes of the hop were busy. Concentrating on the fuel package-check and consolidation, as well as trying to keep track of my initial re-fueling customers, dispelled my uneasiness.

As we approached the mission’s mid-cycle, we kept ourselves occupied with fuel quantity checks. We were particularly keeping a close eye on one drop tank that had quit transferring with about 1,000 pounds of fuel remaining inside. I had tried going to override on its pressurization, but that didn’t seem to work. My BN and I discussed the problem and we decided it was probably a stuck float valve. Perhaps some positive then negative G’s would fix it.

We were at 8,000 feet, seven miles abeam the ship, heading aft. I clicked the auto altitude hold to OFF, then added some power to allow us a little more G to play with.

At 230 knots I pulled the stick back and got the plane five degrees nose up. Then, I pushed the stick forward. I got about half a negative G, just enough to float me in the seat. I heard a sharp bang and felt the cockpit instantly depressurize. The roar of the wind followed. I instinctively ducked and looked up�expecting the canopy to be partly open. Instead of seeing a two or three inch gap, the canopy bow was flush with the front of the windscreen. My scan continued right. Instead of meeting my BN’s questioning glance . . I saw a pair of legs at my eye level.

The right side of the canopy was shattered. I followed the legs up and saw the rest of my BN’s body out in the windblast. I watched as his head snapped down . . then back up, and his helmet and oxygen mask vanished. They didn’t seem to fly off . . they just disappeared.

My mind went into fast forward. “What the hell happened ?” I wondered. ” I hope he gets ejected all the way out. What am I going to do now? I NEED TO SLOW DOWN ! ” I jerked the throttles to idle and started the speed brakes out. Without stopping, I reached up, de-isolated, and threw the landing flap lever to�down position. I reached over and grabbed for the IFF selector switch and twisted it to EMERGENCY. And I was screaming to myself : ” Slow down ! Slow down ! ” I glanced up at the airspeed indicator and gave another pull back on the throttles and [max’d] the speed brakes switch. The airspeed was decreasing through 200 knots. The whole time I was doing everything else had been staring back over my shoulder at my bombardier.I felt a strange combination of fear, helplessness and revulsion as I watched his body slam around in the windblast.

After his helmet flew off, his face now looked like the people who get sucked out into zero atmosphere in some of the more graphic movies. He fought for his life as his eyes lids were�blasted open, his cheeks and lips were puffed out to an impossible size, and the tendons in his neck looked like they were about to bust through his skin .

Now at 200 knots, I saw his arms pulled up in front of his face and he� was clawing behind his head. For a moment, I thought he was going to manage to pull his ejection handle and get clear of the plane. I was mentally cheering for him.

His arms got yanked down by the blast, and I cursed as I changed my radio selector switch to button 1 and said : ” Mayday, Mayday, this is 515. My BN has partially ejected. I need an emergency pull-forward ! ” The reply was an immediate, ” Roger. Switch to button six.” I switched frequencies and said [or maybe yelled], ” Boss ( Air Officer ), this is 515. My BN has partially ejected. I need an emergency pull-forward ! ”

In an effort to get slower, I slapped the gear handle down and turned all my fuel dump valves on). The ‘ Boss’ came back in his ever-calm voice and said, ” Bring it on in.”

As I watched, the indexers move from on-speed to a green chevron as I worked the nose to keep the plane as slow as possible and still keep it flying. The plane was holding at around 160 knots airspeed and slowly descending. My BN’s legs were kicking, which gave me some comfort; he was not dead. But, watching his head and body jerked around in the windblast . . being literally beaten to death . . made me ill. I had been arcing [ the aircraft] back and forth around in my descent and was still at seven miles when the Boss came up and asked if the BN was still with the aircraft. I think that I caused a few cases of nausea on deck when I said, ” Only his legs are still inside the cockpit.” It made sense to me, but more than a few people who were listening had visions of two legs and lots of blood and no body. But, the Boss understood what I’d meant.

As I turned in astern, I called the Boss and told him I was six miles behind the boat. I asked how the deck was coming. He asked if I was setting myself up for a straight-in. I told him ” Yes.” He told me to continue.

It was then I noticed that my BN had quit kicking. A chill shot through my body as I looked back at him [ and I saw] what I saw scared me even more. His head was now turned�left and was laying on his shoulder. His face was starting to turn grey. Maybe he’d broken his neck and was now dead ? Bringing back a body that was a friend [ only minutes before ] was not a good thought. After that I forced myself to not to look at him.

About four miles behind the boat, the front windscreen started to fog up. I cranked the defog all the way and was getting ready to wipe off the glass when it finally started clearing. Then, I saw the boat making a hard left turn. I made some disparaging remarks about the guys on the bridge as I rolled into a bank to chase the boat’s centerline.

I heard CAG paddles [ landing signal officer ] came up on the radio. He told the Captain that he would accept the current deck winds and that he needed to steady up the course. My tension eased slightly as I saw “mother” begin to leave her wake in a straight line.

Coming in for landing I was now driving it in level at about 300 feet. I had been in a slight descent and wasn’t willing to add enough power to climb back up to a normal altitude for fear I would have to accelerate and do more physical damage to my already battered BN.

I watched the ball move up to red and then move slowly up towards the center. Paddles called for some rudder and told me not to go high. My scan went immediately to the # 1 [landing] wire. I had no intention of passing up any “perfectly good wires.” I touched down short of the number one wire and I sucked the throttles to idle.

The plastic canopy shards in front of the BN’s chest looked like a butcher knife collection. I was very concerned that the deceleration of catching the [arresting] wire was going to throw him into that jagged edge. I cringed when I didn’t immediately feel the tug of the wire. I pulled the stick into my lap as paddles was calling for it. So I got the nose gear off the deck and felt the hook catch a wire. I breathed a sigh of relief. Testing the spool-up [ acceleration] time of a pair of J-52s engines as I rolled off the [ far ] end of the angled deck was not the way I wanted to end an already bad ‘ hop’.

As soon as I stopped, I set the parking brake and a yellow shirt gave me the signal to kill # 2 engine. Immediately after that, I heard a call over the radio that I was chocked. I killed # 1 and began unstrapping.

As soon as I was free of my seat ( I somehow remembered to ‘ safe’ the ejection seat ) I reached over and ‘ safed’ the BN’s lower ejection handle, undid his lower Koch harness fittings and reached up to try to safety his upper ejection handle.

As I was crawling up, I saw that his upper handle was already ‘ safed.’ I started to release his upper Koch fittings, but decided they were holding him in and I didn’t want him to fall against the razor-sharp plexiglas on his side. So I got back on my side of the cockpit, held his left arm and hand, and waited for the medical people to arrive. I realized he still was alive when he said, ” Am I on the flight deck? ” A wave of indescribable relief washed over me as I talked to him while the crash crew worked to truss him up and ease him out of his seat.

Once he was clear of the plane, they towed me out of the landing area and parked me. By hand, a plane captain bumped my canopy open far enough that I could squeeze out. Without looking back at the plane, I headed straight for medical.

Later, I found that ignorance can be bliss. I didn’t know two things while I was flying. First, the BN’s parachute had deployed and wrapped itself around the tail section of the plane. Then, the BN’s seat timing release mechanism had fired and released the BN from his seat. The only things keeping him in the plane were his parachute risers that holding him against the back of the seat.

[ abridged from an article taken from crew interviews ]

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