This episode occurred as he was preparing to transit to the South East Asia
area of operations as a squadron XO, flying F-8Es.
In the Gillcrist household, 9 November 1966 began as did most workdays. The alarm rang at 0530, and I shut it off after the first ring. I had been lying there waiting for it to go off. This morning I was tired. I hadn't slept well. My left knee prevented me from lying in any other position but on my right side. However, my left hip had arthritis, which was beginning to give me some trouble. Also, my back began to hurt after about five hours in bed. The net result was the same each night- I usually slept for about four hours. After that, the night was spent changing positions every fifteen minutes. As a result, I do a lot of thinking at night.
On this particular morning in our quaint but modest home in La Jolla, the routine was just a little different. Nancy had driven up to San Francisco with our youngest child, Peter, the five year old, the day before. I got the three older children up, fed them their breakfast, and saw them off to school with the admonition, "Mrs. Linkletter [the baby- sitter] will be here when you get home tonight. Do as she says. I'm going to be night flying and won't be home till late." Little did I realize how late I would really be that night!
By now I was getting used to the scrambled eggs on the visor of my cap. I liked being a senior officer (a com- mander). I liked being the executive officer of a fleet fighter squadron, with the almost certainty of succeeding to its command in a year's time. Furthermore, I liked the fact that I was now a combat veteran, had been shot at, and had responded well. The air wing was getting ready to deploy on its next combat deployment on USS Hancock in a few months. Fighter Squadron 53 had done well during the workups and would deploy with not only a goodly percent- age of seasoned combat pilots but, just as important, seasoned enlisted maintenance personnel.
It was with these good feelings that I sat down that evening in the ready room at NAS Miramar and briefed a rather unexciting night intercept training mission with one of those seasoned veterans, Lt. "Randy" Lanford, as my wingman. The night flight would be relatively simple. We would taxi out, take off singly, go to our assigned stations in the offshore training area, and run broadcast control intercepts on each other. Each would take turns being the target and interceptor airplane until we reached bingo fuel. At that point the intercept in progress would be completed with a rendezvous, a two-plane (section) visual return to Miramar, and a final landing. It was not a difficult mission, but it was important because this was the final opportunity to practice this intercept mission before being given the competitive exercise by the air wing observer. Doing well in all of the competitive exercises is very important for a hardcharging, seasoned lieutenant. But for the squadron executive officer, it is essential. I had learned long ago that in naval aviation, one leads by example, not precept.
The departure from NAS Miramar was uneventful. It was a crystal clear, moonless night with plenty of starlight. As my F-8E climbed to the assigned altitude of 40,000 feet for the intercept, the stars kept getting brighter and brighter. Passing through 20,000 feet, I was above 75 percent of the man-made pollution through which earthbound people view the heavens. The difference was always startling to me. The exquisite view of the heavens from a high altitude made me feet somehow disconnected from Earth.
As I passed through 37,000 feet, I noted Firefighter Two about twenty miles in trail, about 5,000 feet below, and reporting his radar was good and that be held me in radar contact. I scanned the engine instruments and everything seemed normal. Directing my attention back to my own radarscope for a minute, I fine-tuned the radar in preparation for my turn as interceptor.
BANG! A tremendous compressor stall jolted the airplane. It sounded as loud as a 20mm shell exploding inside the cockpit. Quickly rescanning the engine instruments, I saw the exhaust gas temperature needle climbing toward the redline and the engine RPM needle unwinding. Then the lights went out and it got ominously silent. Damn! A god- damned flameout. Shutting down the throttle, I reached over in the dark and deftly pulled the ram air turbine handle as I banked the airplane gently toward the distant lights of the Los Angeles area. I flipped the generator switch to EMERGENCY, and the lights in the cockpit came back on. "Priorities," I told myself. "Fly this airplane first, talk later. Get the engine started. Get on best restart speed." I attempted several engine starts in primary, then shifted to emergency fuel control and tried again. My God, it's quiet in here, I thought. All I could hear was the steady chirping in my earphones, which told me that the engine igniters were firing, but the engine RPM needle never flickered. No dice!
"We'll keep trying but now I better tell somebody I've got a problem. Keep flying it smoothly. Got to hold the best glide angle of attack. It's a long way to those white lights and that water is very cold." I kept talking to myself. I thought about the cold water. Without an exposure suit I would be good for about twenty minutes before becoming too numb to function well. Death would come fifteen or twenty minutes later.
"Mayday, Mayday. This is Firefighter Two Zero One," the calmness of my voice surprised me as I transmitted on the emergency frequency, "seven-five miles on the two seven five radial of Miramar TACAN, at three-five-thousand feet with a flameout. Gliding toward El Toro area, unable to restart. Anticipate ejection when I get to ten thousand. Request any assistance for a water recovery near the coastline. Over."
The response was startlingly clear and immediate. "Roger, Firefighter, this is El Toro Tower. I have a helo in the air. Approach Control picked up your emergency squawk a few moments ago and has you in radar contact. Also there's a Navy Sierra Two in the area equipped with flares. Keep it coming. Over. "
Wow, I thought, that's what I call quick service.
I figured that with my present load of fuel, the best lift over drag ratio would be fifteen units on the angle of attack gauge. It was giving me a glide speed of 215 knots as I passed through 25,000 feet. Quickly calculating, with a rate of descent of 2,700 feet a minute, I would have six or seven minutes more before I got to 10,000 feet. That's where the book says to jump out. But, to hell with the book, I thought. Let's see where the coastline is by then, and the S-2 and the helo, for that matter.
There was one thing I was certain of- I didn't want to eject over land. The impact of a normal parachute descent would be disastrous. All the pins, wires, and screws in my legs would be reduced to a shambles, and I was fairly sure I would never walk again. I must land in the water.
"Firefighter One, this is Firefighter Two. I have you in sight. There are sparks coming out of your tailpipe. I recommend no more air start attempts. Over." Good old Randy. He was his usual competent self. He had apparently run an intercept and was closing from astern.
Descending through 20,000 feet, I could see the lights of the Los Angeles area much more clearly and began to think I might make it to the beach. It was deathly quiet in the cockpit. There were no engine instruments to monitor. However, that emergency ram air turbine was turning in the airstream, providing electrical and hydraulic power to give me flight instruments to fly by, lights with which to see them, and power to the hydraulic flight control systems.
The S-2 aircraft had announced that it had my F-8's lights in sight, and so also did the helicopter. They were orbiting just off the coast near Newport Beach. Passing 15,000 feet, I sensed a fair degree of concern on the part of El Toro Approach Control about the 28,000 pounds of inert aluminum, steel, and fuel that was descending at 275 miles an hour toward one of the world's largest cities. As the airplane passed through 11,000 feet, I estimated that it was about three miles off the coast. I decided to make a right turn to a direction directly away from the coastline, and at a point about three miles off the beach, trimmed up at 250 knots and at about 8,000 feet, I would eject.
"El Toro Approach Control, this is Firefighter One. I'm turning starboard, heading it out to sea, and will eject when I'm steadied up on one eight zero. Over."
The reply was immediate and the voice sounded relieved. "Firefighter One, this is El Toro Approach Control. Roger, call just before ejecting. Over."
I had about two minutes to get set. The airplane was all trimmed up for hands-off flight at 250 knots, just like the book said. I took off my kneeboard and set it up on the left comer of the instrument panel. Then I did something I knew was against the rule book- I disconnected the leg restraint garter on my left leg. The F-8E escape system includes ankle and lower-leg garters with a lanyard connecting them to the ejection seat. Their purpose was to forcefully pull the feet back to keep the bottom corner of the instrument panel from cutting off the toes of the boots as the ejection seat rose up the sails and cleared the fuselage of the airplane. My left knee wouldn't bend past about 95 degrees. Indeed, it had taken me sixteen months of agonizing physio- and mechano-therapy to get it to bend that far after three extensive knee operations to repair the damage done when I hit that plowed field near Cambridge, Maryland, seven years earlier. I had known that I would have to make a decision if faced with ejection. It was something the flight surgeons hadn't thought of. If they had considered it, I would never have been allowed to fly again. If the lanyard drew my lower legs back forcibly, the movement would tear everything loose in my left knee and I would probably never walk again. Better to lose my toes, I thought to myself as I disconnected the lanyard.
By this time I had rolled the airplane out on a heading of one eight zero degrees now heading directly away from the lights on the beach. Everything was black out in front of me. I thought about the cold water down there.
"El Toro Approach Control, this is Firefighter One. Steady up one eight zero, I am ejecting. Out." As I grabbed the face curtain handle and yanked down hard, I thought about what the baby-sitter would do when I didn't show up. Would I ever see my kids again? Goddamn, here I am looking at the inside of this face curtain for a second time. There was a tremendous explosion as the Martin-Baker escape system fired the seat up the rails and out into the night.
I felt the impact of the seat on my spinal column and silently prayed that it wouldn't make my already-screwed-up back any worse. As the wind blast hit me, I felt myself complete one forward tumble, and then there was the opening jolt of the parachute deploying. It was deathly still. The quietest place in the world is descending in a parachute over water at night. I raised my helmet visor and knew immediately that something was terribly wrong. The web of the parachute shroud lines was wrapped around my neck, helmet, and upper body. "Jesus Christ," I muttered, "I can't go into the water like this. I'll drown for sure." The history books of naval aviation are filled with the names of aviators who drowned by entanglement in the shroud lines that connect the parachute canopy to the pilot's shoulder harness. Although it was contrary to recommended procedure, I took off the helmet and threw it away. Then I got out my parachute shroud cutter, a switchblade jackknife with a razor-sharp hooked blade welded in the extended position just for this purpose. I cut one of the shroud lines wrapped around my neck and looked up to see what effect it had on the shape of the parachute canopy twenty feet above. I sure didn't want to cause the canopy to collapse, making me a "roman candle" (parachuter name for a collapsed parachute, the result usually being death). Once seven years ago was enough in one lifetime.
My eyes widened in horror as I saw the ejection seat, all two hundred pounds of it, tangled in shroud lines about fifteen feet above my head. How the hell did that thing get up there? If it came down on my now-unprotected head when I hit the surface of the water, it would kill me. I also wondered what all this messed-up equipment was doing to my rate of descent. "Jesus, this is not a good day for me," I muttered. "What next?"
What was next was the life raft. Looking down, I saw that the lower half of my seat pan shell had not opened. It was supposed to open automatically, allowing the life raft to fall away about fifteen feet until the attaching lanyard came taut. The opening jerk was then supposed to inflate the one-man life raft. It didn't work. The seat pan lower shell was still attached to its upper half. Ready for this contingency, I pulled on the handle located on the upper shell of the seat pack. It still didn't open. Almost in a rage, I shouted out loud, "Goddamn it, what next?" Then I saw the reason. There was a parachute shroud line wrapped around the seat pack, keeping it shut. I grabbed the shroud cutter, pried the lower shell away from the upper, and the life raft tumbled out. It fell to the end of the lanyard and was jerked to a halt about fifteen feet below me, but there was no familiar hiss of the carbon dioxide bottle inflating the raft.
"I can't believe this!" I screamed. "Nothing at all is working right tonight." My throat was dry. There wasn't enough time to haul up the life raft pack and try to trouble- shoot what was wrong with it in the dark. "Screw it," I said, "I've got to get set for water entry." I hoped there'd be some surface wind to carry the heavy ejection seat downwind, so it would hit the water behind my head, not on it.
I knew I had to get unsnapped from the shoulder harness as soon as my feet touched the surface of the water. It was important not to release the two shoulder snaps prior to actually touching the water. It is easy, under certain wind and sea conditions, for an aviator descending in a parachute to misjudge his height above the water by hundreds' even thousands, of feet. It was especially easy to make that miscalculation at night, I was taught. In actual fact, even with no moon and only starlight, I could tell precisely when I was going to hit, and I had each hand on a shoulder harness release snap as I did.
I was surprised how far below the surface I went. Coughing out a gulp of seawater that had gotten into my lungs as I surfaced, I found that the right shoulder harness hadn't released. I felt the first flutterings of panic stir in my stomach "Don't panic, keep cool, old buddy," I muttered to myself. "New priorities." The ejection seat was now fifteen or twenty feet below me and still connected to me at two points-the right shoulder harness and some shroud lines that I could feel wrapped around my right ankle. Oh God, I'm going down! I was being inexorably pulled below the surface.
Just before I went under, I took a deep breath, reached down, and pulled the two toggles on the flotation vest. The positive buoyancy it gave me was barely balanced by the weight of the ejection seat somewhere below. Kicking mightily with my free left foot and stroking with both hands, I got back to the surface, choking on seawater and gasping for air. With both hands I still couldn't release the right shoulder harness. In desperation I found the shroud cutter and in about ten mighty strokes cut through all four layers of nylon in the shoulder harness. I was now free on top but still attached to the parachute by the right ankle. There was a gentle two- or three-foot swell. Each time a swell went by, the parachute pulled me under the surface. Jesus, I'm not making it, I thought, visualizing my kids snug in their beds.
Clawing and kicking my way back to the surface, I took a deep breath of air and reached down with the shroud cutter, frantically slashing at the lines around my ankle. Until now the adrenaline had kept the fifty-two-degree water from numbing me, but my arms were beginning to feel like lead.
Suddenly, I became aware of a brilliant light. As I clawed my way back to the surface again, I saw that the S-2 had dropped a pattern of flares in the water around me. To my horror, one of the flares was drifting directly toward me. It was about three feet long and five inches in diameter, with a full twelve inches of it above the surface. The flare itself was a blinding white jet of flame about a foot high, making a roaring sound like a huge blowtorch. It was now about four feet away and drifting right toward my body. I kicked at it with my free left foot. My heel struck the underside of the flare, and the blowtorch tilted toward the toe of my boot. Just before I was yanked under the next swell, I caught a glimpse of smoke coming off the singed toe of my boot. Jesus Christ, I thought, still choking on seawater, I really don't need any more of this kind of help!
Finally I was able to cut away most of the shroud lines wrapped around my right ankle and was floating higher in the water, although still going under a little bit with each passing swell. I had kicked away the flare as it drifted by. I heard the sound of a motor and looking up saw a Navy rescue helicopter pass about fifty feet overhead. It was dragging a rescue horse collar in the water at about five miles an hour. It was just out of reach. Letting go of the shroud cutter, I reached into the pocket of the survival vest and pulled out a day and night signal flare. Maybe he can't see me, I thought.
I remembered being taught to use the day and night flare by feel. The night end of the flare had bumps on it. The water survival instructor had told us, "The end with the bumps is the night flare; the end without bumps is the day flare--orange smoke. Just remember, bumps make you think of tits at night." No naval aviator ever has any trouble remembering which end of the flare to use. I pulled the tab up, bent it over, and hit it with the heel of my hand, just like the instructor said. Then I yanked on the tab and it came away in my hand, but for some reason the flare didn't light. In utter frustration I threw away the useless thing and reached down the shroud line lanyard (on my vest) for the shroud cutter. I came up with the bitter end of the lanyard.
I must have accidentally cut the line itself, and when I let the shroud cutter go to grab for the flare, the cutter had begun its 3,000 foot descent to the floor of the Pacific Ocean. I was still being pulled underwater every fifteen seconds or so, so I dragged my survival knife out of its leather sheath and finished cutting the remaining shroud lines free from my ankle.
Heaving a tremendous sigh of relief, I found myself floating clear of the tops of the swells, but I had swallowed a lot of seawater and was getting terribly cold. Again, I heard the helicopter coming and saw the rescue horse collar skipping along the top of the water just out of reach in spite of my last-minute lunge at it. It suddenly dawned on me that the helicopter couldn't hover! It was a dark, moonless night with no horizon, and with no automatic hovering mode in his flight control system, he physically could not stay motionless over one particular spot in the ocean.
I drew out my thirty-eight-caliber revolver and loaded it with six flare rounds. "Next time he comes by," I said out loud, "I'm going to give him his first night over-water hovering lesson." As the helo approached, I judged the horse collar would pass about ten feet from me. This was probably my last chance. I realized that I had been in the water about twenty minutes and I couldn't feel anything below the waist. I was running out of time.
When the helo was nearly overhead I aimed at a point a few feet in front of the pilot's windscreen and fired all six tracer rounds as fast as I could pull the trigger. The helo came to a screeching halt, the horse collar stopped about ten feet away, and I took three or four frantic strokes, grabbing the horse collar just as it started to drift away again. There wasn't any way I could get into the collar properly because it was being pulled away from me, so I climbed into it backwards, locked my arms together, then gave the crewmen the thumbs-up signal to hoist away.
About thirty feet above the water's surface I felt my whole weight slide to the bottom of the sting. My one arm was locked around the horse collar above the protective padding, and as my weight shifted, a swaged cable fitting ripped a two-inch gash into my bicep. I didn't even care. I was hanging on for dear life when I felt hands grab me and haul me into the cabin of the helicopter.
"How do you feel?" shouted the aircrewman as I sprawled exhausted on a bucket seat attached to the side of the helo.
"Okay," I replied hoarsely.
Nothing else could possibly go wrong, I thought to myself as the flight surgeon took my vital signs in the medical dispensary at Marine Corps Air Station, El Toro. I had just gone into shock, and despite the blanket wrapped around me, I was shaking violently and uncontrollably. The flight surgeon went to the medicine locker to get a shot of brandy.
He was gone for what seemed like an eternity. Finally, he came back to his shivering charge and very sheepishly admitted that he didn't have the right combination to the safe where the brandy was kept. Still shivering uncontrollably, I looked at him and said, "Hell, Doc, don't sweat it. Nothing else worked right tonight."
The ride back to Miramar in a Marine Corps sedan took about an hour. When I arrived at my office, still in my skivvy drawers and wrapped in a blanket, the CO had long since gone home for the night. I called the baby-sitter, apologized for being late, and told her I'd be home in twenty minutes. It was midnight when I walked the babysitter to her apartment behind our house. I took a long, hot shower, then sat down and poured myself a well-earned three fingers of good brandy. It was the perfect nightcap.
As the warmth of the brandy spread inside me, I examined my "go-to-hell" flying watch lying on the kitchen table. It was a cheap Timex I used for flying. Someone at the squadron had told me while I was getting back into uniform that I could save the water-soaked watch by putting it in the oven and steaming it dry for fifteen minutes at three hundred degrees Fahrenheit. I had just removed it from the oven. The crystal was made of plastic, however, and the heat had melted it onto the dial. It was now hard as rock, with the hands permanently set at 9:17. The clock on the instrument panel was the last thing I saw in the cockpit before pulling the face curtain-it said 9:17. Apparently the shock of ejection was too much for the watch. I chuckled to myself, "And I thought everything had gone wrong that could possibly go wrong." After kissing the three children good night as they slept blissfully unaware of the events of the evening, I thought to myself, I guess I don't know how lucky I really am.
As a postscript to the events of the previous evening, Fighter Squadron 53's safety officer, Lt. Cdr. Bob Rice, walked into my office the following afternoon. He ceremoniously laid two things on my desk: an airplane eight-day clock and a pilot's kneeboard slightly charred. The clock was still ticking away. It seems that even though I had trimmed the stricken F-8E for hands-off flight and pointed it out to sea, the shock of the ejection must have disturbed that delicate balance. After I ejected, the El Toro Approach Control radar operator watched with growing horror as the airplane started a gentle right turn, flew a complete reversal of course, and touched down in an empty field alongside Leisure World, a row of houses near El Toro. The aircraft had burned, but the cockpit remained intact. My kneeboard was sitting exactly where I had stowed it just prior to ejecting.
'Feet Wet' contains several other ejection stories, including an underwater ejection that is possibly more dramatic than CDR Pearson's underwater ejection.
|Ejection Seat Trivia||An Ejection Seat Warning|
|Fascinating Ejection Seat Facts||Underwater Ejection|
|Ejection from an OV-1 Mohawk
The Weber F-106 & Project 90
|NASA ejection seats|
|Remembering the Pioneers||Some Ejection Seat Links|
|Send email to Kevin|