As a former Air National Guard fighter pilot, my Dad has always viewed life from a distinctly military perspective, which extended to our family life long after he separated from the military. As a family, we formulated our “POA” (Plan of Attack), and when it was Dad’s turn to cook supper we’d often have “S.O.S” (“s**t on a shingle,” otherwise known as creamed chipped beef on toast). We learned not to have our “heads up and locked”—that is, to be disengaged or inattentive, a reference to a potentially catastrophic situation in which an aircraft’s landing gear fails to descend when needed. Most importantly, we were taught to remember the 5 P’s: Prior planning prevents poor performance. Life may be full of surprises, but fortune favors those who anticipate and plan for disaster.
I was reminded of this recently while interviewing Dad as part of my ongoing project to record some of his stories for the family history. I asked him to recount the scariest incident that he experienced while flying. Surprisingly, it was not the time when he had to eject from his burning aircraft over the South China Sea. No, it happened during the summer of 1969 after his return home from Vietnam, while on a routine training mission at Niagara Falls Air National Guard base. By that point in his career, Dad was an experienced pilot, having logged close to 1,000 flight hours in the F-100C Super Sabre jet fighter aircraft. However, continued training was essential for maintaining proficiency. On the day of this incident, Dad was supposed to fly as wingman to Norm Culbertson. The flight protocol involved a 15-second spacing between the take-offs of their aircraft. Norm’s takeoff proceeded normally, but the same was not true for Dad. Almost immediately after take-off and just as soon as the wheels were up, Dad’s aircraft suffered a complete electrical failure. At first, Dad thought it was just the radio, but he quickly realized that the problem extended to all of his electrical systems. By that point, he was about 500 feet off the ground, and trying to power up to 400 knots to rejoin Norm and get in position on his wing. Dad knew he needed to land immediately, and he needed help from Norm to do that.
As Dad pulled up on Norm’s wing, he had to communicate the problem with his aircraft to Norm, without a radio. The Air Force employed “HEFOE” hand signals for just such emergencies as this, to indicate that a pilot was having trouble with his hydraulics, engine, fuel, oxygen, or electrical systems in addition to his radio. Dad caught Norm’s attention visually and gave the signal for electrical failure, and both pilots proceeded to implement the protocol to achieve a safe landing under these circumstances. Since the problem occurred immediately after take-off, with full fuel tanks, Dad’s plane was too heavy to land. The added weight of the fuel increases the stall speed of the aircraft, which in turn increases the minimum landing speed and stopping distance for the aircraft, necessitating a longer runway than what was available. The practical solution to this was to lighten the aircraft by jettisoning both 335-gallon fuel tanks, so Norm led Dad out into a wide, 5-mile circle over Lake Ontario before heading back to the base. Lacking an electrical system, Dad had to jettison the tanks using a manual release, but he was able to accomplish this successfully.
Dad remarked that prior to this incident, he never appreciated just how much a pilot depends on his electrical systems when flying. With the electrical gone, Dad lacked a number of key flight instruments, leaving him with only the throttle for altering power to the engine, the control stick for changing the direction of the plane, and the pitot-static indicators (airspeed indicator, vertical velocity indicator, altimeter, and machmeter). Just prior to the electrical failure, Dad had the airplane trimmed for a speed of 400 knots – that is, optimized in such a way that the center control stick was very sensitive to a light touch, and fine adjustments in attitude could be made with just the fingertips. With the electrical systems gone, Dad needed to use all his strength to steer the aircraft, holding the stick with both hands. Moreover, the summer day was hazy, with visibility restricted to about a mile. Flying in the haze means that a pilot lacks any visual reference to his position in the sky, so it’s impossible for him to know if he is inverted or not.
Inversion—flying upside down—can be a serious problem for pilots. Dad recalled an incident with the pilot who was ranked first in his class at Combat Crew Training School at Cannon Air Force Base in Clovis, New Mexico, and who was later stationed in Tuy Hoa with Dad. One day, this pilot tried to make a TACAN GCA (Tactical Air Navigation Ground-Controlled Approach) in bad weather. He had his gear down and was getting ready to land, but instead he crashed into the ocean and perished. Crash investigators later surmised that he must have gotten vertigo in the clouds and was inverted as he attempted to land.
The memory of this incident was on Dad’s mind as he flew in the haze with no instruments. Dad reasoned that if he just stayed on Norm’s wing in fingertip formation, matching Norm’s plane’s attitude and rate of turn visually and copying everything he did, he’d be all right. They completed their circle over the lake, and Norm led him back to the airfield. Once they were within a couple miles of the runway, Norm broke off, leaving Dad to land on his own. However, Dad knew that a successful landing under these circumstances would be very difficult.
The lack of an attitude indicator was a problem for landing in addition to flying, since pilots depend on these even for normal landings in good weather. Moreover, fighter jets typically require faster landing speeds than other aircraft. A typical landing speed in the F-100C (which lacked the trailing-edge wing flaps featured on later models to help reduce the required landing speed) is 185 knots, with additional speed required as the weight of the plane increased. If a pilot had to land immediately after takeoff, the lowest possible approach speed was 205 knots. To accommodate these high-speed landings, the F-100C had some special systems built in, which included a speed brake, anti-skid system, and tailhook. Unfortunately, all of these features were dependent on the plane’s electrical system. Not only was Dad going to land “hot,” but if he tried to brake prematurely, he’d blow out the tires. He still had his drag chute which could be deployed manually to slow the plane, but it could not be deployed until the plane’s speed was less than 185 knots since it was designed to tear away at higher speeds.
As Dad came in for the landing, he needed to use an alternate release mechanism for the landing gear, since normally that, too, was controlled electrically. The gear doors were designed so that the aerodynamic loads on them pull the gear down in the absence of hydraulics. However, Dad had to hope that this system was operating normally, because the confirmation lights indicating the gear was down were electrical, so he had no way of knowing if the landing gear were actually in place. To his relief, Dad’s aircraft touched down on the tarmac, but stopping it was still another matter. More than half the runway had disappeared behind him by the time he was able to deploy the drag chute at 185 knots. He ran out of runway and had gone onto the overrun before his aircraft finally came to a halt. Dad was drenched with sweat by that point, but he was alive.
Exiting the aircraft offered a welcome bit of comic relief after such a stressful landing. Normally after landing, the pilot taxis the airplane back to the parking space near the hanger and then the flight crew hangs a ladder on the aircraft’s canopy rail so that the pilot can exit the plane. Since Dad’s plane was in the overrun, there was no ladder available for him to get out of the plane. Some members of the flight crew had arrived to assist him, however, and they offered Dad the option of exiting the aircraft by climbing onto the shoulders of a particularly tall crew member nicknamed “Stretch” Johnson, rather than waiting for the ladder to arrive. Unfortunately, as Dad climbed out of the cockpit onto Stretch’s shoulders, the D-ring on the parachute on Dad’s back snagged the rail of the canopy and deployed the parachute, covering both men in a mass of silk as Dad stumbled to the ground.
When I was growing up, my Dad always seemed invincible. Unflappable under pressure, he could be counted on to be stay calm and keep his sense of humor in any crisis. I often think that experiences like this one are what shaped that quality in him. At so many points in the story, things might have ended differently had he made one false move, but his training, preparation and carefully memorized protocols carried him through. That, and maybe his guardian angel. After all, Dad also used to tell us, “There are no atheists in foxholes.”
© Julie Roberts Szczepankiewicz 2019