gunfighter fights to live
Some days - fullbore is just staying alive.
It doesn't happen by accident; it takes you knowing your equipment, your procedures - and most importantly, your ability to think and act without delay. It also takes your Shipmates - known and unknown - who know their business.
One of those days for Crusader pilot Cliff Judkins.
Fuel was pouring out of my aircraft; from the tailpipe; from the intake duct; from under the wings, and igniting behind me in a great awesome trail of fire.
The suddenness of the disaster overwhelmed me, and I thought: “This can’t be happening to me!”
The voices in my ears kept urging me to fire the ejection seat and abandon my aircraft.
I pressed my mike button and told the flight leader, “I’m getting out!”
I took my hands off the flight controls and reached above my head for the canvas curtain that would start the ejection sequence. I pulled it down hard over my face and waited for the tremendous kick in the pants, which would send me rocketing upward, free of the aircraft.
Nothing happened! The canopy, which was designed to jettison in the first part of the ejection sequence did not move. It was still in place and so was I.
My surprise lasted only a second. Then I reached down between my knees for the alternate ejection-firing handle, and gave it a vigorous pull. Again, nothing happened. This was very surprising. Both, the primary, and the secondary ejection procedures had failed and I was trapped in the cockpit of the burning aircraft.
The plane was now in a steep 60-degree dive. For the first time, I felt panic softening the edges of my determination. I knew that I had to do something or I was going to die in this sick airplane. There was no way out of it. With great effort, I pulled my thoughts together and tried to imagine some solution.
A voice in my earphones was shouting: “Ditch the plane! Ditch it in the ocean!”
It must have come from the tanker skipper or one of the destroyer commanders down below, because every jet pilot knows you can’t ditch a jet and survive. The plane would hit the water at a very high a speed, flip over and sink like a stone and they usually explode on impact.
I grabbed the control stick and leveled the aircraft. Then I yanked the alternate handle again in an attempt to fire the canopy and start the ejection sequence, but still nothing happened. That left me with only one imaginable way out, which was to jettison the canopy manually and try to jump from the aircraft without aid of the ejection seat.
Was such a thing possible? I was not aware of any Crusader pilot who had ever used this World War II tactic to get out of a fast flying jet. I had been told that this procedure, of bailing out of a jet, was almost impossible. Yes, the pilot may get out of the airplane but the massive 20-foot high tail section is almost certain to strike the pilot’s body and kill him before he falls free of the aircraft. My desperation was growing, and any scheme that offered a shred of success seemed better than riding that aircraft into the sea, which would surely be fatal.
I disconnected the canopy by hand, and with a great whoosh it disappeared from over my head never to be seen again. Before trying to get out of my confined quarters, I trimmed the aircraft to fly in a kind of sidelong skid: nose high and with the tail swung around slightly to the right.
Then I stood up in the seat and put both arms in front of my face. I was sucked out harshly from the airplane. I cringed as I tumbled outside the bird, expecting the tail to cut me in half, but thank goodness, that never happened! In an instant I knew I was out of there and uninjured.
I waited . . . and waited . . . until my body, hurtling through space, with the 225 knots of momentum started to decelerate. I pulled the D-ring on my parachute, which is the manual way to open the chute if the ejection seat does not work automatically. I braced myself for the opening shock. I heard a loud pop above me, but I was still falling very fast. As I looked up I saw that the small pilot chute had deployed. (This small chute is designed to keep the pilot from tumbling until the main chute opens.) But, I also noticed a sight that made me shiver with disbelief and horror! The main, 24-foot parachute was just flapping in the breeze and was tangled in its own shroud lines. It hadn’t opened! I could see the white folds neatly arranged, fluttering feebly in the air.
“This is very serious,” I thought.
Frantically, I shook the risers in an attempt to balloon the chute and help it open. It didn’t work. I pulled the bundle down toward me and wrestled with the shroud lines, trying my best to get the chute to open. The parachute remained closed. All the while I am falling like a rock toward the ocean.
I looked down hurriedly. There was still plenty of altitude remaining. I quickly developed a frustrating and sickening feeling. I wanted everything to halt while I collected my thoughts, but my fall seemed to accelerate. I noticed a ring of turbulence in the ocean. It looked like a big stone had been thrown in the water. It had white froth at its center; I finally realized this is where my plane had crashed in the ocean.
“Would I be next to crash?” were my thoughts!
Again, I shook the parachute risers and shroud lines, but the rushing air was holding my chute tightly in a bundle. I began to realize that I had done all I could reasonably do to open the chute and it was not going to open. I was just along for a brutal ride that may kill or severely injure me.
I descended rapidly through the low clouds. Now there was only clear sky between me and the ocean. This may be my last view of the living. I have no recollection of positioning myself properly or even bracing for the impact. In fact, I don’t remember hitting the water at all. At one instant I was falling very fast toward the ocean. The next thing I remember is hearing a shrill, high-pitched whistle that hurt my ears.
Suddenly, I was very cold.