Rocket Rider: Surviving an Aircraft Ejection Is Just the Start

Dave Baranek

“How old am I?” Six? No, older. Everything is black and I’m confused. Come on, brain, catch up. Fractions of a second later I hear a sound like rushing wind and see an image of an instrument panel  ̶  a sketchy image as in a dream.

Suddenly I’ve got it! The last thing I remember was flying in an F-14 Tomcat fighter, then things went bad and I pulled the ejection handle.

A second later my eyes open. I see the gray hull of an aircraft carrier about a hundred feet away, and look down just in time to splash into the ocean. At least the water is warm. How the hell did I get here?

* * *

At the time of my ejection, I was a few months past my 23rd birthday. My goal of flying jet fighters had started when I was about ten and never went away. I wanted to be a fighter pilot, but when my eyesight went bad in college I had to modify my plans, and ultimately became a radar intercept officer (RIO)  ̶  the back-seater in the Navy’s F-14 Tomcat. Following graduation from college, I earned my Wings of Gold after a year of training in Pensacola.

My first squadron was the Fighting Renegades, officially known as Fighter Squadron 24. We had twelve F-14s assigned, and shortly after I joined them we departed on a 7½ month deployment aboard the supercarrier USS Constellation. I soon felt comfortable in this world of power and speed.

Danger? Yes, we all knew there was danger. Every aircraft mishap  ̶  they were never called crashes  ̶  was analyzed and categorized. The reports included a detailed narration and lessons, plus a box score of equipment and personnel, damaged or destroyed. But I was new, young and bulletproof. The guys who had been here before said that in those days, one person usually died on each deployment. And this was peacetime. At midnight in the wardroom, over pizza and “bug juice,” we sometimes talked of recent mishaps in our squadron or others. A few of them fatal. Sad, but that won’t happen to me, I thought.

* * *

Two months after the deployment started, I sat one afternoon in our squadron ready room and briefed for a routine flight with our squadron commanding officer, Commander Bill Switzer. After the brief we put on our g-suits and survival equipment, then stopped by Maintenance Control, where Renegade 205 was assigned to us for this flight. We then climbed one set of steps and stood on Connie’s 4½-acre flight deck, which was quiet for now. It was warm and breezy as the ship cruised near the middle of the Indian Ocean. We preflighted the jet and strapped in, the commotion and din swelling as aircraft started engines. We launched off the catapult at 3 PM and expected to be back in time for dinner.

It was yet another perfect tropical day with a few small clouds. Repetitious and remarkably beautiful.

Another Tomcat was our wingman for this flight, which was a series of radar intercepts against two A-7 Corsair aircraft. For each run our F-14s started about 30 miles from the A-7s, completed an intercept to practice using our radars, and made a few dogfighting turns before breaking off to return to our stations and do it again. A-7s were tactical fighter-bombers and their pilots always enjoyed mixing it up.

Two hours after launch we were in low holding, orbiting two thousand feet above the carrier watching the next event launch. As the last aircraft was set up on the catapult, Skipper Switzer used well-defined procedures to descend from holding and get us into position to land. In these last few moments of the flight we went from a holding speed of 225 knots (about 250 mph) to more than 500 knots, and finally slowed to 134 knots as we approached the carrier deck. I had done this seventy-eight times in the preceding eight months and I was pretty comfortable as I got ready for another routine landing. I noticed the time was 5:15 PM and just before we slammed onto the flight deck, I thought about having a slider for dinner.

My next conscious thought, a fraction of a second later, was that something was wrong. I should have been thrown forward into my shoulder straps by the sudden deceleration, but instead I was sitting upright. This was no longer a routine flight.

Anyone who’s been involved in a fender bender has experienced time dilation, and that’s what happened to me. I heard the rumble of the deck plates beneath our tires as we rolled through the landing area, and a second of silence passed while Skipper Switzer and I processed the situation. My hands instinctively grasped the lower ejection handle mounted on the front of my seat. I knew that if I pulled that handle our seats would rocket us out of the plane, so I paused.

There was some resistance slowing us down, but nowhere near enough to bring Renegade 205 to a stop. In a normal trap, the arresting wire plays out like a fishing line under tension, and the rollout of several hundred feet of cable takes about two seconds. For those seconds my brain was registering that this could still be a minor oddity and there was still a chance we would come to a stop. But we continued rolling toward the end of the flight deck, traveling about 50 knots  ̶  too fast to stop, too slow to fly.

Skipper Switzer called, “Eject! Eject!” His voice had taken on a new urgency. His hand was on the stick, still trying to fly, so it was up to me to eject both of us. I reacted on his first syllable, yanking the yellow-and-black striped ejection handle.

My ejection seat was in charge now, and it started running through its programming while explosive cord destroyed the powerful latches securing the canopy to the aircraft. A half second later the Plexiglas canopy flew free. Then the rocket in my seat fired. I instantaneously experienced an acceleration force of about 20 g  ̶  outside the recommended operating range of the human brain  ̶  and blacked out for a few seconds.

My next conscious thought was profoundly confused, wondering how old I was. My brain was rebooting, and this seemed to be a crucial index, the progress bar of my consciousness being reassembled. In a few more fractions of a second I was back in real time, flying through the air.

Observers watching from the flight deck saw Renegade 205 disappear over the edge of the deck and then me, an instant later, ride my seat to roughly the height of the tailfins of planes parked along the flight deck. This meant I started descending, unconscious and with an unopened parachute, from about sixteen feet above the steel surface. I owe my life to the fact that our jet tilted to the left as it slipped over the edge, otherwise I would have free-fallen to the deck rather than splashing into the ocean.

The ejection seat sensed it was at low altitude and went through its sequence quickly. It severed the straps that held me in place, and I felt myself being separated from the seat cushions. At the same instant, my parachute deployed and blossomed, and I felt a jerk as the nylon lines and harness attaching me to the chute took tension. I opened my eyes just in time to splash into the water.

To prevent pilot-RIO collisions during ejection, the rocket in the pilot’s seat fired four-tenths of a second after the RIO’s. The Tomcat had tilted more left-wing-down, so Commander Switzer was rocketed almost horizontally. Observers said he skipped several times across the surface of the ocean as he was flung away from the carrier, giving a new meaning to the term “Skipper.”

I splashed into the water and had been submerged for only a fraction of a second when a device activated by salt water fired and inflated my life vest. I bobbed to the surface aware and alert. With my head above water, I unclipped my oxygen mask. The time dilation effect had passed, and thoughts and sensations came through in real time.

I was bobbing in the Indian Ocean. It was daytime. The water was warm. I had landed just a few feet from the nose of Renegade 205, which I was amazed to discover was also floating. This strange view of a Tomcat is seared into my memory. The things you see when you don’t have a camera….

A few feet beyond the jet, just a hundred feet from me, Constellation skimmed past at 20 knots. My gaze ran up the huge, curved slabs of Connie’s gray hull and I saw dozens of people looking down at me from the edge of the flight deck, six stories above. I could see their helmeted heads and goggled faces and I gave them a thumbs-up to make clear I was feeling good under the circumstances.

Time in the water at this point, less than twenty seconds.

My primary task now was to detach myself from my parachute. A parachute does not float on the surface, but instead fills with water and sinks. An aviator could soon find himself attached to a bag of water weighing thousands of pounds that will drag him under despite the best flotation vest. This wasn’t theory, it actually happened, and we learned of it in the reports on those few unfortunate souls.

I flung off my wet gloves and released the fittings of my parachute harness, only to discover I was surrounded by my parachute and dozens of tough nylon lines. Moving in the water only entangled me more. Not a problem, the Navy had trained us for this. Bobbing on the swells and troughs spawned by the carrier, I paddled backwards away from the chute. After only a few strokes, I could tell this procedure wasn’t working like it had in the training pool in Pensacola. I was only getting more tangled up.

In the right front pocket of my survival-gear vest I had a razor-sharp folding knife, standard issue for cutting through parachute lines. We had been warned to cut lines only as a last resort, with the admonition, “Cut one line, and it becomes two,” which seemed remarkably sensible in training. But the school solution wasn’t working, and I decided I had to cut my way out of those lines  ̶  to “John Wayne it.”

I retrieved the orange-handled knife, only to find it duct-taped closed. There had been a problem with the blades opening inadvertently, so the survival equipment riggers made them safe. I actually smiled ay predicament as I used my thumbnail to find the end of the tape. Eventually I peeled it off and opened the blade, then scooped together a bundle of parachute lines with my left hand and sliced through it with my right. The lines cut away cleanly.

Time in the water, about a minute.

Although I was still entangled in half the lines, I felt a surge of relief as I was buffeted by the rotor wash from the Sea King rescue helicopter overhead. The plane guard! Rules required that a helicopter fly in close proximity to the carrier during all takeoffs and landings, and the chop of its rotors was welcome. Helo pilot Lieutenant Commander Sam Taylor had been watching as 205 went over the side and was in the perfect position to get to me immediately.

I looked up to see a rescue crewman’s face looking down from the open side door, less than fifty feet above me. Happy to be alive, I gave him a big thumbs-up and a grin, but was startled to see the helicopter bank and fly away. I had forgotten about Commander Switzer, my pilot! But after assessing his situation the helo crew quickly returned to me.

This time they lowered a rescue sling on a cable and dragged it toward me. I thought again about those aviators dragged down by their chutes, and decided I didn’t want to become another depressing case study. I wanted to be attached to that helicopter, so I swam toward the sling and grabbed it. It was simple to wrap the sling around me and fasten it, and this time I gave a thumbs-up with enthusiasm.

As the crewman slowly raised me, I was still snagged on too many lines. He lowered me back into the water and I slashed through the worst of the tangle. This time when he reeled in the cable, the last few nylon lines slipped free of my gear and fell into the sea.

Determined to show that I had paid attention in training, I concentrated on my job of hugging the sling and allowed the rescue crewmen to do their jobs. They pulled me into the helo.

Safely inside the copter’s cabin, I had my first opportunity to assess the situation. I was calm, having focused almost all of my attention on solving small problems. I went down a quick checklist of body parts and realized how fortunate I was not to have any injuries or even discomfort. My equipment worked, and through training I was prepared every step of the way.

I was shaking the rescue crewman’s hand when he answered an intercom call from the pilot. They’d lost visual contact on Skipper Switzer. It was a jolt and my first thought was I waited too long to eject, that my pilot had paid for my mistake with his life. The anxious moments before the rescue crew spotted the skipper seemed like an hour to me. While the crew had been concentrating on getting me out of the water, Commander Switzer had drifted in the ocean. But as we approached him, I looked out the open door and saw him calmly floating, his parachute bundled beside him in a comically small pile. It hadn’t blossomed, just popped out on impact. The skipper had come down the hard way and it was clear he was feeling under the weather.

This time the helicopter lowered a swimmer into the water to assist. He checked the skipper for injuries that might require the body rig the Sea King carried, and I was relieved to see him proceed with the simple sling. They rode up together on the cable.

When they pulled Commander Switzer into the helo, we shook hands. I shouted over the noise, “Did we do anything wrong?” He slowly shook his head no as he thought back over the last few confusing and harrowing minutes.

He reached up and patted the helo pilot on the shoulder, telling him, “Great job. Thanks!”

A thorough physical showed that I suffered no injuries, and I was cleared to fly a few days later. My first flight after the ejection was with pilot Larry “Magic” Morris, a legend in the Tomcat community. As we were preflighting the jet he looked at me and said, “Now Bio, we probably won’t have to eject on this flight.” He was right.

 

SIDEBAR: How Could This Happen?  

In the hours and days that followed our ejection, Commander Switzer and I learned what caused the mishap.

There are four identical arresting wires on the flight deck, and a landing aircraft can catch any one of them to make a safe landing. Since aircraft weights vary considerably, the shock-absorbing machinery at each end of a wire  ̶  valves and hydraulics that bleed away the energy of a speeding jet plane at a dramatic but measured rate  ̶  must be set to the weight of the incoming aircraft. Personnel in the control tower and on the flight deck report aircraft type to the arresting gear crew, who then set the valves.

In our case, the crewman assigned to set the valves on the number four wire was new to the job, not fully qualified. When the crews for the other three wires reported they had set their valves, he made the same report but hadn’t actually set anything. We happened to catch the number four wire, and it was left at its previous setting of 14,000 pounds, far short of what was required to catch our 52,000-pound Tomcat. By the time his supervisor noticed the mistake it was too late, and all of the sailors in the area were lucky to escape without serious injury when the equipment came apart.

There was a backup system using repeater gauges, but the gauges for the number four wire had not worked in some time. The whole system relied on the voice report from the arresting gear room.

Fortunately the arresting cable broke free at both ends at the same moment, preventing a gigantic whiplash that would have caused havoc on the flight deck. The Tomcat dragged the spent cable down the deck and harmlessly over the carrier’s side into the ocean. Of course there was an investigation of our mishap, with conclusions fed back into the live-and-learn system of naval aviation operations.

 

Photographs

  Author Dave “Bio” Baranek is a former F-14 RIO and Topgun instructor. His book TOPGUN DAYS is a true story of life in a Navy fighter squadron, the challenges of being an instructor, and helping to make the movie “Top Gun.” It is available in hardcover or e-book from online retailers. His website is www.topgunbio.com.
  Author photoSearching for Valhalla? In one of the last photographs of the F-14 Tomcat known as Renegade 205, taken days before it was lost, it cuts through misty clouds above the Indian Ocean. 
  Author photoSleek and fast. An F-14 Tomcat from the Fighting Renegades soars above the Indian Ocean with a load of Sparrow and Sidewinder missiles. 
  Author photoRIO’s roost. The F-14’s bubble canopy provided a panoramic view for both pilot and RIO.