Thursday, April 23, 2009

A Serious Miscalculation At 20,000 Feet Over Iowa, "Eject!"

I'm a bit of an adrenaline junkie. I satisfy most of my adrenalin related cravings on my bike but riding Power Tower at Valley Fair does a nice job of providing me with a fix too. I remember the first time Tammy and I rode the ride together nearly ten years ago and how she began having somewhat of a panic attack as we slowly climbed higher and higher until the ride came to an abrupt, clunking halt at the top. We were suspended there for about 8 seconds as we took in the view while hanging on tighter than we needed to in preparation for when the ride would send us shooting safely down toward the ground. The keyword being "safely". You never have anything to worry about on these sort of rides 'they say'. The drive to the amusement park is much more dangerous.

I love the rush a ride like that gives me.

I think I'd enjoy parachuting but to be honest, I'm not sure you could convince me to jump from the plane once I got into position. I don't know what I would do and I doubt I'll ever find out.

Tammy and I went hot air ballooning over Napa Valley several years ago and we loved it. Neither of us sensed any fear of heights at all as we serenely floated over the earth and vineyards several hundred feet below.

Riding Power Tower, hot air ballooning and even parachuting are all relatively safe when you consider how many people partake in those activities without incident. What about an invitation to ride along with the South Dakota Air National Guard in an A-7 over Iowa? That too would sound reasonably safe to me and I think I would jump at the chance. I've got a story for you. Not a story, story but a real-life story of an invitation and a ride-along in an A-7 that went terribly wrong.

I was writing in my blog last month about emergency situations I've been involved in over the years as an air traffic controller. One of the incidents I wrote about was of two A-7 aircraft which collided while engaged in combat maneuvers over Iowa. There wasn't anything that I as a controller could do to affect the outcome; in fact, I was no more than a bystander. I only brought it up because there was a more interesting story within the story. There happened to be the Executive Editor of the Sioux Falls newspaper, the Argus Leader, onboard one of the A-7 aircraft and he was forced to eject from the plane. I don't know that there's another experience one can go through other than possibly a space shuttle launch that would rival ejecting from an A-7 at 20,000 feet. It's simply not the sort of thing that reasonable people volunteer for.

After I wrote the piece, Tim found some specifics on the incident and I edited them into the post. He also came up with the name of the executive editor, Ward Bushee. I found an email address for Ward at the San Francisco Chronicle where he's currently the Executive Vice President and Editor.

I wrote Ward to see if he would be interested in recounting the experience for me to post in my blog. He graciously took time to both write about the incident as well as send me some photos taken that day back in 1990 by himself from inside one of the A-7's and by a photographer riding in a refueling aircraft shooting photos of the A-7 Ward was in.

I'll let Ward take it from here.

I do have vivid recollections of the crash. I never blacked out and can remember details almost 19 years later.

I was invited up for the Civic Leadership Orientation Flight after an editorial that we had written in the Sioux Falls Argus Leader that criticized a noisy, early-morning flyover of the city by the South Dakot
a National Air Guard that seemed to shake every window in the city. "What if a jet crashed?" our editorial asked. The air guard leadership was upset by the editorial, visited us and set up my ride. When my ride was cleared by the Pentagon (I was then a 41 -year-old executive editor of the Argus Leader) that was to be a refueling and training flight. The mission was the day after Memorial Day weekend (May 30, 1990). During the weekend, I went into the air guard headquarters to try on a flight suit, undergo egress familiarity training and sign the waiver that took the air guard and military off the hook in the event of an accident. Interestingly, I assigned a photographer to come along and there are photos of the egress training somewhere.

After sitting through the strategy session with the four pilots before our mission, four A-7s took off in tandems from Joe Foss Field on May 30. I was in the back seat of Major Duncan Keirens' A-7K as we took off aside another A-7. Keirens who attended the Air Force Academy and flew missions in Viet Nam, was a social friend but I had never met the three other pilots.

I had a photographer in the air tanker shooting pictures of us refueling from a position in the open aft of the tanker. I actually have one photo from the photographer of me shooting a photo back at the tanker with a Nikon 35-mm camera. Interestingly, the camera was recovered at the crash site and returned to me -- but only after the military had examined the photos.

We completed the refueling exercise. By then we were over Iowa, and Keirens allowed me to take the stick and he guided me through some maneuvers that included 360s. It was amazing how responsive the fighter jet was, how fast things happened and how the G forces limited the human body and compromised clear thinking. Keirens checked in frequently to see how I was feeling as we rolled, dived and flipped. He told me to use the oxygen if I felt I was going to pass out. They may have been testing me to see if I could withstand the next step -- which was an air-to-air engagement. I was fine and they proceeded on with the dogfighting -- games designed to lock in and "kill" other jets like in the movie Top Gun.

The air-to-air engagements were intense. I was struck by how fast the jets maneuvered the skies and how quickly reactions had to be for the pilots. There were four engagements in which we killed or were killed. On the final engagement, we needed a kill because we had lost the last two. Duncan engaged Major Gregory Gore's jet, closing on him but he veered down and Keirnes lost him. He asked me if I could spot Gore. I noticed him coming back and then Keirnes picked him up. As Gore closed, Duncan apparently put the jet into a "S" Pattern ("S"for stall -- at least that's what I recall that it was called), which meant he put the brakes on, with the nose slightly up with the purpose of getting behind Gore again to position for the kill. At that point, Gore was coming in at us directly on our left wing. I remember thinking that this must just be normal but also noticing that the Gore jet was porpoising through the air right at eyesight level -- and closing fast. I could see Gore's eyes for a split second, then the jets collided with Gore apparently passing through our tail section -- about 15 feet behind me. The sound was like two semi-trucks hitting head on -- metal on metal. The cockpit instantly exploded with orange flames and black smoke. And Duncan yelled "eject" and I was blown out first and then himself.

With the collision, I was fortunate to eject skyward (rather than earthward). Flames engulfing my midsection, arms, and legs -- a product of so much jet fuel that was enflamed. Duncan later said that we were a fraction of a second from being burned up by the firestorm -- "you were close to being a crispy-critter," as he called it. Some said I had to have blacked out, but I know that's not true. I remember vividly watching this incredible, unreal scene as I emerged above the exploding jets. I was thinking I was a dead man and vividly remember seeing my baby daughter's face and thinking what a shame I would never get to watch her grow up. But the ejection process worked beautifully from the bailout through the canopy (A7s ejections include a process of cracking through a weakened canopy by the ejection seat), to the release of the seat from me and the deployment of the parachute. After all the drama of the crash, I remember hanging in the air, head stuck in the chute's risers and watching my boots smoke from the fire that had extinguished when the chute stopped my fall. Below me, parts and pieces of the exploded jets were floating like big pieces of confetti toward the Iowa floor. It was suddenly quiet and peaceful and I can remember being exhilarated and a little surprised that I had survived a near - death experience. I noticed Keirnes' and Gores' chutes were also deployed (thanks to a very competent junior air guard members who packed the chutes), meaning that everybody had survived. My neck was burning in pain, however, because of fracturing two vertebrae in the ejection process. My left wrist burned in pain because the steel back of my wristwatch had heated to a sizzle.

By the time I reache
d a few thousand feet from the ground, it was clear that winds were blowing pretty fiercely over plowed cornfields near Spencer, Iowa. It turned out that at least two farmers had been near the fields watching the engagement above. One of them told me the collision looked like the explosion and aftermath of the Space Shuttle Challenger in 1987. I landed poorly but was unhurt because the ground was soft, plowed and the corn had been cleared for the season. Then the wind took my chute and I was dragged for a considerable distance before a farmer caught and stopped it. I figured at that point that his reaction to my face would tell me a lot about my condition. He winced when I took off my helmet because I had a cut above my eye that had bled down my face and the oxygen I was breathing caught some of the flames and singed my eyebrows and hair above my forehead. I looked like a mess but I had survivable injuries. Keirnes and Gore also hit the ground nearby and I noticed that they were talking, likely discussing what had happened and why things had gone wrong.

My injuries involved a broken neck, first and second degree burns and facial cuts. I spent a few nights in a hospital and went home to recover. The military suspended Civic Leadership Orientation Flights for a few years after that. The military investigations centered on the air-to-air mission that was done independent of approval, and the fact that they had exceeded the 12,000-foot level with a leadership flight (the crash was at about 20,000 feet). Gore was suspended from duty and assigned to fly tankers; I think Keirnes received some kind of sanctioning, too, much less severe than Gore's.

It became a common joke that this was the story about how the air guard had tried to show the editor how safe it was and almost killed him doing so.

Here are a couple links to the People Magazine article from June 1990 that Ward sent me which I've scanned an uploaded: page 1 and page 2.

Ward, thank you for taking the time to put your experience into words. It's an incredible account but try as I might, I can't imagine what it must have been like to go from being in the relative safety of the rear seat of an A-7 one moment to being on fire and rocketing through the canopy of the same aircraft 20,000 feet above the ground then falling among a sky littered with smoldering debris seconds later. It's simply unfathomable.

Depending on your perspective, you're either incredibly lucky or blessed to have cheated death in such a way. If I manage to cheat death someday, I'd like a story similar to yours to go along with it if it's not too much to ask.

On second thought, I'd be happy to just fade away.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

What a story. I'm with you on this I can't even imagine what it must have been like to go thru this ordeal. I once had a young controller working for me in the Tower that went up in the back of an F4 and passed out when the pilot excused an un-restricted climb to FL200. He had to immediately come back and land.