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A Frightening Parachute Ride

by Jim Bates

The U.S. Air Force song says, in part, "Off we go, into the wild blue yonder,..." Despite that "wild" warning in the beginning of a spirited exaltation to the joys of flight, confident pilots often become forgetful that it might be nice weather when a flight starts but it's quite possible for aviators to experience first-hand how wild that blue yonder can easily and quickly become.

Here's the tale-of a naval pilot who discovered the extent of that wildness.

In May 1960, while flying in formation with another pilot, our discoverer bailed out of a powerless F8U at 47,000 feet while on a VFR (visual flight rules) journey from Massachusetts to North Carolina. His unanticipated problems started while the two planes were passing over a thunderstorm and his plane's engine made odd noises and a fire warning light came on.

He took hurried corrective actions, but nothing worked. Abruptly he was without power controls and the stick was locked in neutral position. He hastily decided to eject rather than stay with the plane that had started an uncontrollable plunge toward the raging storm below.

Later reports estimated the thunderstorm to be some hundred miles in diameter. His indicated airspeed at ejection was 210 knots (241.5 miles per hour).

The "wild blue yonder" gave him a frightening experience of a nine-mile descent, lasting more than thirty minutes - an ordeal that he fortunately survived - during which his parachute equipment did not fail, though it had been subjected to extraordinary stresses. Parts of his incredible adventure are given here in his words, garnered from statements in an official U.S. Navy investigation.

* * *
"My first sensation was one of severe cold and extreme expansion, as if I were about to explode. The cold rapidly changed to a burning, tingling sensation. I felt as if millions of pins were sticking in me. I sensed that I was tumbling and spinning like a cartwheel. My arms and legs were out and I could not get them in.

"In a matter of seconds I realized I had retained my helmet and mask but no longer had my visor although I had been flying with it down because of the bright sunlight and reflection from the top of the clouds. I believe it was torn away on ejection.

"I opened my eyes and saw I was entering wispy clouds. I was going into the tops of the fleecy overcast that I had flown through just a few minutes before. I seem to remember saying to myself, 'Well, you're entering it and it's about 44,000 feet.' About this time I managed to get my arms into my body.

"I looked down and noticed that I was absolutely forcing my torso harness. It looked like it was going to burst. My stomach popped out under my life vest as though I were pregnant.

"I had the feeling that I fell and fell and fell and fell for an eternity. My oxygen mask was beating against my face. I held my mask with my right hand. I put my left hand on my helmet which was pulling on the chin strap as if it was going to go off. My left hand was very cold and numb - it felt like somebody else's hand, not mine.

"Some time during the free fall, my right glove got in my way. It inflated like a balloon so I let it go - just jettisoned it. I remember seeing it go off and I thought 'Why did I throw the glove away?'

"During the free fall I had the feeling of not being able to exhale; in fact, I seemed to have to work very hard to be able to exhale, but all I had to do was open my mouth and in-rushing air just seemed to fill my lungs. At this time it was getting a bit darker in the cloud.

"I had an urge to open the parachute but I told myself I was still far too high and if I did I would either freeze to death or die from lack of oxygen. I still had this tingling sensation but I sort of had the feeling that I was slowing down and falling into denser atmosphere and I seemed to be getting a little warmer.

"I was still in the free fall and thinking about opening the chute. It was quite dark but I don't recall any great moisture or any great violence. It seems like while I was thinking about opening the chute, all of a sudden there was a terrific jolt and I knew the chute had opened. I looked up but by this time I was in such a dense, dark cloud that I couldn't even see my canopy. I reached up and got hold of the risers and gave them tugs on both sides; it felt like I had a good chute.

"From here on, my memory of what happened seems much better. I now clearly recall running out of oxygen, having the mask collapse against my face, and I believe I disconnected it from the right side as I always do. At about this time I thought I definitely had it made and was going to survive. However, I noticed I was still bleeding from the nose, my right hand was cut, and my left hand was frozen numb, but the pressure was going and I was much more comfortable. Then the turbulence started and I realized I was entering the thunderstorm.

"As the turbulence started, I was pelted all over by hail. Then I fell a little bit more and I seemed to be caught in a violent updraft. I had the feeling that I was being tossed around - that I was actually going around in a loop and I was looping over my canopy like being on the end of a centrifuge. I got sick in the turbulence and heaved.

"Sometimes I could see the canopy and sometimes I couldn't. The tossing and the turbulence was so violent it is difficult to describe. I went up and down - I was buffeted about in all directions - at times it felt like I was going sideways. One time I hit a very rough blast of air - I went soaring back up and got in a very severe hailstorm. I remember the hail beating down on my helmet. I had the feeling it would tear my canopy up. The next thing I knew I was in rain so heavy I felt like I was standing under a waterfall. I had my mask loose and the water was so great that when I tried to inhale I got water with the air like I was swimming. It seems to me that some time in the storm I noticed my watch and was surprised that it had stayed with me. I'm not sure but I think I was able to tell the time by the luminous dial - I believe it was around 1815.

"At one time during an up or down draft, the parachute canopy collapsed and came down over me like a big sheet. I could see my legs in the shroud lines. This gave me some concern - I thought maybe the chute wouldn't blossom again properly and since the hail seemed to be larger now I was afraid it might damage the canopy and put holes in it. I fell and the canopy blossomed again. I felt the risers and everything seemed all right.

"At this time I looked down and saw what appeared to be a big black elevator shaft. Then I felt like I had been hit by a blast of compressed air and I went soaring back up again - up and down - sideways. How much of this soaring went on I don't know. I had the feeling that if it went on much longer I was not going to maintain consciousness. I was being tossed around and beaten around and I wasn't quite sure how much more I could take.

"The violence was so great that I thought that if it doesn't stop soon, my gear will come apart - and my straps will break - I will come apart. Stretching - twisting - slamming - the turbulence of this thunderstorm was so violent I have nothing to compare it with. I became quite airsick and I had considerable vertigo. Again I had the feeling that I couldn't take much more of this but if I could only hold out a little while longer, I would be falling out of the roughest part of the storm.

"The lightning was so severe that I kept my eyes closed most of the time. Even with my eyelids closed, there was a blinding reddish-white light when the lightning flashed. I felt rather than heard the thunder; it just about burst my eardrums. As I recall, I had the feeling that I was in the upper part of the storm because the lightning seemed to be just flashes. As I descended, I seemed to see big red streaks heading towards the earth. All of a sudden I realized it was getting a little calmer and I was probably descending below the storm. The turbulence grew less, then ceased and I realized I was below the storm. The rain continued, the air was smooth, and I started thinking about my landing.

"By now my shoulders and legs hurt pretty badly. I checked myself over again and thought I was O.K. I kept looking down and said to myself 'Under the storm you probably won't have more than three hundred feet.' It was just like breaking out when you're making a GCA [ground controlled approach]. The first thing I saw was green and then I was able to see trees and then I knew I was very close to the deck.

"I remember seeing a field off in the distance and I thought there must be people nearby. As I got close to the trees I suddenly realized there was a surface wind and I was being carried horizontally over the ground quite rapidly - maybe 25 knots. I oscillated about three times, then went into the trees. It seemed that my chute fouled in two pine trees and I continued in a horizontal position with the wind, then swung back to the left. I came crashing back through the trees like a pendulum and hit a large tree with my left side. My head, face, and shoulder took most of the blow. My helmet was knocked crooked but I think it did a great deal to save me here. The blow was so violent that it twisted my helmet back on the right side and pulled the chin strap so tight over my Adam's apple under my chin that I had to loosen it when I got on the ground. Anyway, I came down with a crash. I slid down and landed on my side. I was cold and stunned but still conscious. At first I thought I had broken something and was paralyzed. Pretty soon, however, I was able to move my head and then my arms. I checked the time; it was between 1840 and 1845."
The pilot's report went on to detail that he wasn't yet out of trouble. It was still daylight but dimming quickly, and raining heavily. The physically battered and stunned pilot struggled out of the tangle of canopy, suspension lines, and harness webbing. He wanted desperately to get out of the woods before dark, but he was confused about what direction to go. Momentary panic worsened the confusion but he forced himself to think rationally.

He then quickly recalled training in making square search patterns. In the rainy darkness he saw a freshly cut tree stump, then another, and another, then several more. He figured that a logging operation of this size meant there would a logging road also. That road would be the objective of his square search pattern.

On the third leg of the square pattern he found the road. In the increasing darkness and steady rain he followed the dirt road until he came to a farm field and across the field he saw automobile headlights of several cars moving along a road. He wearily plodded through the muddy field until he reached a paved two-lane secondary road. Bedraggled, he stood on the edge of the road and tried to flag down a passing car. He got annoyed, then angry, that by his count fifteen cars went by without stopping to help.

His statement went on to read: "I must have looked like something real unusual - all wet and bleeding and standing out there in my flight suit in the dark and the rain. I guess they figured I was drunk.

But suddenly he got a break: "Then after all these other cars had kept on going, a car came by and I thought I heard a boy say, 'There's a pilot, daddy."'

The car kept going into the rainy darkness, but then slowed, turned around, and came back to the exhausted, hurt roadside figure. The aviator's ordeal was done. He recovered from his injuries flew again for many years.

The U.S. Navy's Approach magazine, produced for naval and marine corps flight crew members, included the pilot's amazing flight experience in an issue published soon after the official investigation had been completed.

The "wild blue yonder" had been bested and another flyer's life was saved with a parachute.

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This section is meant as an educational tool. If there are any topics of interest you wish to see here or are learning in school/college or wish to comment on the content please email either the author, Jim Bates, or with your input.

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