A-6 Emergency: Two Views
1. Lieutenant Keith Gallagher
Murphy's Law says, "Whatever can go wrong will go wrong, and when you least expect it." And we all know that Murphy was an aviator. Murphy was correct beyond his wildest dreams in my case. 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 birthday. Not even Murphy could have conceived of such a curious accident, and the fact that I am here to write about it makes it that much more bizarre.
We were the overhead tanker, one third of the way through cruise, making circles in the sky. Although the tanker pattern can be boring, midway through the cycle, 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 repeat. We felt we were ready for any emergency: fire, hydraulic failures, fuel transfer problems. Bring 'em on! We were ready. After all, how much trouble can two JO's get in overhead the ship?
After my third fuel update call, we decided that the left outboard fuel valve was going to require a little help to open. NATOPS recommends applying positive and negative G to force the valve. 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 touched 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 body. These questions were quickly answered as I looked down and saw a sight that I will never forget: the top of the canopy, close enough to touch, and 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 right on top of a flying A-6!
Pain, confusion, panic, fear and denial surged through my brain as a new development manifested itself: I couldn't breathe. My helmet and mask had been 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 through a fire hose. I couldn't seem to get a breath of air amidst the wind.
My arms dragged 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 trying to breathe. For some reason it never occurred to me that my pilot would be trying to land. I finally decided that the only thing that I could do to survive was eject myself. What else could I do?
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 was not budging.
I attempted to reach the upper eject 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 slid out into the wind stream, it immediately flailed out uncontrolled 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, the 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 suffocating in the wind. I wish I could say that my last thoughts were of my wife, but as I felt myself blacking out, all I thought was, "I don't want to die."
Suddenly someone turned on the lights and 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 safe on the flight deck with 100 people looking up at me. I had expected 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, the confusion. As my pilot spoke and medical personnel swarmed over me, I realized that I had survived.
It didn't take long to realize that I was a lucky man to be alive. As I heard more details, I found out how fortunate I was. My parachute became entangled in the horizontal stabilizer tight enough to act as a shoulder harness, but not tight enough to bind the flight controls. If this had not happened, I would have been thrown into the jagged plexiglas, as my shoulder harness had been disconnected from the seat when the parachute deployed.
There are many other things that happened (or didn't happen) that allowed me to survive this mishap a hair's breadth from disaster. And a level-headed pilot who reacted quickly and correctly is the reason that I am alive and flying today, along with a generous helping of good old-fashioned Irish luck.
2. Lieutenant Mark Baden, Pilot
As we finished the briefing, my 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 the plane with my name on the side. As we taxied out of the chocks, I was feeling a little uneasy about all the recent mishaps. To make myself feel better, I went through the "soft shot/engine failure on takeoff" emergency procedures, touching each switch or lever as I went through the steps. "At least if something happens right off the bat, I'll be ready."
The first few minutes of the hop were busy. Concentrating on the package-check and consolidation and trying to keep track of my customers dispelled my uneasiness. As we approached mid-cycle, the most boring time in a tanker hop, we kept ourselves occupied with fuel checks. We kept a close eye on one drop tank that had stopped with 1000 pounds of fuel still inside.
I tried going to override on the tank pressurization, but that didn't work. Keith and I discussed the problem. We decided it was probably a stuck float valve. Perhaps some positive and negative G force would fix it.
We were at 8000 feet, seven miles abeam the ship, heading aft. I clicked the altitude hold off and added some power to give us more G. At 230 knots I pulled the stick back and nosed the plane up five degrees. Then I pushed the stick forward and got about half a negative G -- just enough to float me in the seat.
I heard a sharp bang and felt the cockpit depressurize. The roar of the wind followed. I ducked instinctively and looked up at the canopy. Something was wrong. Instead of seeing a two or three inch gap, the canopy bow was flush with the windscreen. My eyes tracked down to the canopy switch. It was up.
As my scan continued to the right, I failed to meet Keith's questioning glance. Instead I saw a pair of legs at eye-level. The right side of the canopy was shattered. I followed the legs up and saw the rest of my bomaardier navigator's body out in the windblast.
I watched as his head snapped down and up.
His helmet and oxygen mask disappeared. They didn't fly off; they just disappeared. My mind went into ovedrive. "What the hell happened? I hope he ejects. What am I going to do now? I need to slow down."
I jerked the throttles to idle and eased speed brakes out. In one motion I reached up, de-isolated, and threw the flap lever to the down position. I reached over and twisted the IFF selector switch to EMER. I screamed, "Slow down!" to myself as I focused on the airspeed indicator and gave another pull back on the throttles and speed brakes. The airspeed was over 200 knots.
I felt a combination of helplessness and revulsion as I watched my bombardier's body slam around in the windblast. After his helmet flew off, his face looked like someone sucked out into zero atmosphere in a graphic movie. His eyes 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.
At 200 knots I saw hiim pull his arms in front of his face and claw behind his head. For a moment, I thought he was going to manage to pull the handle and get clear. I was mentally cheering for him. But his arms were yanked down by the blast and I cursed as I turned my radio selector to Radio 1. "Mayday. Mayday, this is 515. My BN has partially ejected. I need an emergency pull-forward!"
The reply was immediate. "Roger! Switch button six." I slapped the gear handle down and turned all my dumps on in an effort slow down. Max trap never crossed my mind. The Boss came back in his calm voice and said, "Bring it on in."
He and asked if the bombardier navigator was still with the aircraft. I caused a few cases of nausea when I answered, "Only his legs are still inside the cockpit." It made sense to me, but more than a few listening people had visions of two legs and lots of blood but no body. Fortunately the Boss understood what I meant.
The front windscreen started to fog up four miles behind the boat. I cranked the defog and was getting ready to unstrap my shoulder harness to wipe off the glass when it finally started clearing. The boat made a hard left turn and I made some disparaging remarks about the guys on the bridge as I rolled right to chase centerline.
I touched down short of the 1-wire and sucked the throttles to idle. The canopy shards in front of Keith's chest looked like a collection of butcher's knives.
As soon as I was free of my seat, I checked Keith and held his left arm and hand as we 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.
Later, I found that ignorance can be bliss. I didn't know two things while flying. First, his parachute had deployed and wrapped itself around the tail section of the plane. Second, the timing release mechanism had fired and released the BN from the seat. The only things keeping him in the plane were the parachute risers holding him against the back of the seat.
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Lieutenant Keith Gallagher