• I Fell 15,000 Feet And Lived

Chapter 7 in author Ron Knott's book Supersonic Cowboys, a collection of forty-five Crusader stories is by Marine Corps aviator Cliff ('Jud') Judkins, reprinted here for your reading pleas . . . astonishment. Because he was able to write an account of his experience you've probably concluded that Jud survived this ordeal—but he also returned to flight status and was flying F-8s again within six months. After leaving the Marine Corps he was hired as a pilot with Delta Airlines and retired as a Captain.


Needless to say that startling command got my attention.

Our in-flight refueling process was necessary, and routine, because the F-8 Crusader could not hold enough fuel to fly from California to Hawaii. Soon, after plugging-in to the tanker, my fuel gauges stirred, showing that all was well.. In my cockpit, I was relaxed and confident. My thoughts were “In a few hours I knew we’d all be having dinner at the Kaneohe O'Club on Oahu."

My fuel guages indicated that the tanks were almost full. Then - THUD ! I heard the crack of an explosion. Instantly, I could see the RPM gauge unwinding with the tailpipe temperature dropping. The engine had quit – a flame-out !

I punched the mike button : “This is Jud. I’ve got a flame-out !”

Unfortunately, my radio was already dead; I was neither sending nor receiving..

I quickly disconnected from the refueling tanker and nosed over, into a shallow dive, to pick up some flying speed to help re-start the engine. I needed those few seconds to think. I yanked the handle that extended the air-driven emergency electrical generator ( RAT ) into the slipstream, hoping to get ignition for an air start. The igniter's clicked gamely, and the RPM indicator started to climb slowly, as did the tailpipe temperature.

For one tantalizing moment I thought everything would be all right.

But the RPM indicator hung uncertainly at 30 percent . . refused to go any faster.

Jet fuel poured over the canopy and the RED FIRE WARNING light blinked ON.

At the same instant, powered by the RAT, my radio came back on. And a great babble of voices burst through my earphones. Fuel was pouring out of my aircraft . . from its tailpipe . . from under the wings . . the fuel had flowed together, then it ignited in . . . a great awesome trail of fire!

I told my 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, rocketing me upward.

Nothing happened!

The canopy, was designed to jettison in the first part of the ejection sequence. But it did not move. It was still in place.

And so was I.

I reached down between my knees for the alternate ejection-firing handle, and gave it a vigorous pull. Nothing happened.

I was trapped in 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.

With great effort, I pulled my thoughts together and tried to imagine some solution, as a voice in my earphones was shouting : " Ditch it !”

That suggestion must have come from the re-fueling tanker skipper or one of the destroyer commanders, because every jet fighter pilot knows you can’t ditch a jet fighter and survive. On impact with the water, it would usually destroy itself.

I grabbed the control stick and leveled the aircraft. Then I yanked the alternate ejection handle once again.


That left me with only one imaginable way out : jettison the canopy manually, release your seat belt and harness, then jump out of the aircraft.

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 fighter. I had been told that this procedure, of bailing out of a jet, was almost impossible. The Crusader's high vertical fin's almost certain to strike the pilot’s body and kill him.

My desperation was growing, and any scheme that offered a shred of success seemed better than riding the aircraft into the sea swells.

I disconnected the canopy with my hands.. And it disappeared with a great whoosh.

To move the tail slightly out of the way of my exiting body, I trimmed the aircraft to fly in a sideways skid . . nose high and with the rudder trimmed in a ' crab ' to the right. I stood up in the seat, and held both arms in front of my face.

I was harshly sucked out of the airplane.

I cringed as I tumbled outside, expecting the tail to cut me in half ! Instantly, I knew I was uninjured. I was going too fast, so I waited . . . and waited . . . until my body decelerated to terminal velocity. Then I pulled the parachute's D-ring and braced for the opening shock.

No shock.

I heard a loud pop above me, but continued falling rapidly. As I looked up, I saw the small pilot chute had deployed. But the main, 24-foot parachute had not opened ! I was stunned with disbelief and horror as I saw the parachute's neatly arranged white folds, tangled by the shroud lines. Frantically, I shook and jerked the risers in an attempt to open the main chute.

It didn’t do anything.

Hand over hand, I pulled the parachute bundle down toward me, then wrestled with the shroud lines, trying to get the chute to billow open. But the parachute remained as a closed bundle with shroud lines wrapped around it. All the while I am falling like a rock toward the Pacific ocean. I noticed a ring of turbulence in the ocean. It looked like a big stone had been thrown in the water with white froth in the center. I quickly realized, that was my Crusader crashing.

“Would I be next to crash? ”

Again, I shook the parachute risers and jerked on the shroud lines, but the rushing air was holding my chute in a tight bundle. I began to realize that I had done all I could reasonably do.

I was just along for a brutal ride that may kill or severely injure me.

I have no recollection of positioning myself properly nor even bracing for the impact. In fact, I don’t remember slamming into the water at all.

At one instant, I was falling fast toward the ocean. Suddenly, I was very cold. And in an eerie world of half-consciousness, I thought, “Am I alive ? ”

I finally decided , “Yes, I think I am . . ."

The cold water helped clear my senses. But as I flopped around injesting water, I began coughing and retching. The Mae West around my waist had inflated. I concluded that the shrill whistling sound that I had heard was the gas leaving the CO2 cylinders as it was filling the life vest. A sense of urgency gripped me, as my mind told me there were some task I was supposed to do next. Then it dawned on me what it was. I need to get rid of the parachute! It had billowed out underwater, and it was now tugging me down.

I tried reaching down for my hunting knife located in the knee pocket of my flight suit. I had to cut the shroud lines before the parachute pulled me under for good.

This is when I first discovered that I was injured severely.

The pain was excruciating. Was my back broken? I tried to arch it slightly and felt the pain again. As I tried moving my feet, I could feel my broken ankle bones grating against each other.

There was no chance of getting that hunting knife, but I had another, smaller knife one in the upper torso of my flight suit. With difficulty, I extracted it and began slashing feebly at the spaghetti-like mess of lines surrounding me.

Once free of the parachute, I began a tentative search for my survival pack. It should have been strapped to my hips. And it contained my one-man life raft, canned water, food, fishing gear, and dye markers. Not there.

The impact had ripped it off my body.

“How long would the Mae West sustain me ? ”

I wasn’t sure, but I knew I needed help fast. The salt water that I had swallowed felt like a rock in the pit of my gut. And, here I was, solo, 600 miles from shore, lolling in the deep troughs and crests of the vast Pacific. And my Crusader, upon which we had lavished such affection, was sinking the thousands of feet to the ocean's bottom.

In about ten minutes, I heard the drone of propellers. Flying very low, the pot-bellied, four-engine refueling tanker came into view. They dropped several green dye markers near me, and some smoke flares a short distance away. They circled overhead and dropped an inflated life raft about 50 yards from me.

I was so pleased and tried to swim toward the raft. When I took two strokes, I almost blacked out due to the intense pain. The tanker circled again and dropped another raft closer to me, but there was no way for me to get to it . . then in it . . in my condition.

The water seemed to be getting colder, and a chill gripped me. I looked at my watch, but the so-called unbreakable crystal was shattered and the hour and minute hands were torn away. I tried to relax and surrender to the Pacific Ocean swells.

I could almost have enjoyed being buoyed up to the crest of one swell and gently sliding into the trough of the next, but I was in such excruciating pain.

In about an hour, a Coast Guard amphibian plane flew over and circled me as though deciding whether or not to land. But the seas were too high. And I knew he couldn’t make it down, then make a successful take-off. He came in very low and dropped another raft; this one had a 200-foot floating lanyard attached.

The end of the lanyard landed barely ten feet from me. Using only my arms, I paddled gently backward. I caught hold of it and pulled the raft to me. I knew I couldn’t crawl into the raft due to my physical condition. But I was able to get a good grip on its side and hold on. And this gave me a little more security.

The Coast Guard amphibian pilot gained altitude and flew off and found some minesweepers returning from the Far East. He was not able to tune to their radio frequency, but the ingenious pilot lowered a wire and dragged it across one of the minesweeper's bows, then rocked his wings, heading back toward me. The minesweeper captain understood. He instantly veered off and headed at top speed in my direction.

I was fully conscious during the two and a half hours it took the mine sweeper to reach me. I spotted the ship while teetering on the crest of a wave. Soon, its great bow was pushing in close toward me. Sailors in orange life jackets were crowding its lifelines. A bearded man in a black rubber suit jumped into the water and swam to me.

“Are you hurt?” he asked.

“Yes,” I said. “My legs and my back.”

I was now very cold and was concerned about increasing numbness in my legs. Perhaps, the imminence of rescue had made me light-headed, for I only vaguely remember being hoisted aboard the ship. I was laid out on the ship’s deck as they cut away my flight suit.

“Don’t touch my legs ! Don’t touch my legs ! ” I screamed.

I don’t actually remember saying that, but then somebody gave me a shot of morphine. It erased part of my extreme pain.

An hour or so later, a man was bending over me and asking questions. A doctor had been 'high-lined ' over from the cruiser USS Los Angeles, now along side the sweeper.

He asked me, “You have a long scar on your abdomen. How did it get there ? ”

I told him about an auto accident I’d had four years earlier in Texas, and that my spleen had been removed.

He grunted, and asked more questions while he continued examining me. Then he said, “You and I are going to take a little trip over to the USS Los Angeles; it’s steaming along- side.”

They got me into a wire stretcher, and hauled me, dangling and dipping, across the watery interval between the ships.

In the Los Angeles’s sickbay, they gave me another shot of morphine before they started thrusting all sorts of hoses into my body. I could tell from all their activity, and their intense, hushed voices, that they were very worried about my condition.

My body temperature was down to 94 degrees; my intestines and kidneys were in shock. The doctors never left my side during the night. They took my blood pressure every 15 minutes. I was unable to sleep. Until finally, I threw-up about a quart or more of seawater and my nausea was relieved a bit.

By listening to the medical team, I was able to piece together the nature of my injuries. My left ankle was broken in five places. My right ankle was broken in three places. A tendon in my left foot was cut. My right pelvis was fractured. My number 7 vertebra was fractured. My left lung had partially collapsed. There were many cuts and bruises all over my face and body, and my intestines and kidneys had been stunned into complete inactivity.

The next morning, Dr. Valentine Rhodes told me that the Los Angeles was steaming at flank speed to a rendezvous with a helicopter 100 miles off shore from Long Beach. At 3:30 that afternoon, I was hoisted into the belly of a Marine helicopter, and we whirred off to a hospital ship, the USS Haven, docked in Long Beach. Once aboard the Haven, doctors came at me from all sides with more needles, tubes, and X-ray machines. Their reaction to my condition was so much more optimistic than I had expected.

So I finally let go a few tears of relief, exhaustion, and thanks to all hands.

Within a few months, I was all systems go again. My ankles were put back in place with the help of steel pins. The partially collapsed left lung re-inflated and my kidneys and intestines were working again without artificial prodding.

The Marine Corps discovered the cause of my flame-out, was the failure of an automatic cut-off switch in the refueling system. The aircraft’s main fuel tank was made of heavy reinforced rubber. When the cut-off switch failed, this allowed the tank at high pressure, to go beyond its capacity. The tank burst like a rubber balloon, causing a flame-out and very spectacular fire.

We will never know why the ejection seat failed because it is on the bottom of the ocean. The failure of the parachute is a mystery also. Like they say, “Some days you are the dog, but others you are the dog's fire-plug.”

Do I feel lucky ?

That word doesn’t even begin to describe my feelings. To survive a 15,000-foot free fall with an unopened chute is a fair enough feat. But my mind keeps running back to something Dr. Rhodes told me during those grim and desperate hours.

He said that if I had had one, the spleen would have almost certainly would have ruptured at impact and I would have bled to death, internally.

Of the 25 fighter pilots in our squadron, I am the only one who didn't have a spleen.

* Keeper of the Flame

A friend who used to fly 747-400s professionally and a Yak for fun sends this reminder on Memorial Day:

Hi all,

Below is attached another episode in the "Further Adventures of Youthly Puresome". To those of you who read the "Tailhook" magazine, Youthly will be familiar to you as he has appeared frequently in the magazine for many years. To those of you that aren't lucky enough to read "Tailhook", Youthly is your prototypical young Navy fighter pilot who has had many adventures . . . and is very generous in sharing them with us.

"Youthly" is, in actual fact, a creation of a Naval Aviator named Jack Woodul, and the adventures are mostly, I suspect, biographical in nature. In some cases, the adventures reflect the good and bad luck of squadron mates. I've always followed the adventures of Youthly with particular pleasure as Jack Woodul is the older brother of a good friend of mine from Junior High and High School. Jack's father was a teacher at the high school I attended back in New Mexico. Jack is several years older than his brother and me and, while Jack's brother Bill and I were still in high school, on rare and wonderful occasions, Jack would appear like magic in some exotic flying machine, such as an F-8U, and soundly beat up our little town. This was enjoyed by all, I think—maybe a grump or two with no soul didn't like it—but nothing negative was ever said, and I thought it was the highlight of the year, every time.

Anyway, here is a "Further Adventure of Youthly Puresome" fitting for the day. A bit more on the somber side than is usual for Youthly. But good for reminding us all to never, ever forget.


Keeper of the Flame

It was a boondoggle — the Mighty U.S. Government had some extra money, and some of it had trickled down to the Naval Air Reserves. Lt. Youthly Puresome, part-time fighter pilot, had wrangled his piece of the pie by bagging a week’s active duty to attend an Electronics Counter-Measures school at NAS Lemoore, California.

Puresome had always had a creepy fascination with the gawps and gleeps generated by his ECM gear that came over his headset back when the bad guys in Veet Nam used to paint him with their radars. The warbles of SAM launches fascinated him almost to the point of soiling his already green flight suit. “Anyhow, a couple of bucks, a couple of yucks, maybe some decent Mexican food,” he thought.

The flight out West was not as placid as Puresome’s usual civilian DC-9 trip. Since the weather was supposed to be hot and dusty, and he hated chatting with the ATC folks if it wasn’t absolutely necessary; he had filed an easy Visual Flight Rules flight plan. But the cirrus layer he found to hinder his view of the desert unfortunately extended way above 41,000 feet, which was where he finally gave up trying to find blue sky. Then there was a silly business with the roll stabilization of his single-seat supersonic transport not working. When Puresome finally reached the land where the skies are not cloudy all day, he was happy to leave his quietly leaking F-8 Crusader on the transient line.

NAS Lemoore seemed semi-deserted. Puresome remembered days before the Big War when swarms of A-4 Skyhawks peopled the ramps, crowded the taxiways, and the skies overhead. But with Lemoore air wings on aircraft carriers at Yankee Station in the Tonkin Gulf, and with others in transit to and from WESTPAC, the western Pacific, things now seemed kinda...empty.

“‘Course, it’s Sunday afternoon, too,” he thought on the way over to the BOQ, rubbing his face where his oxygen mask had deeply creased it. Slumped against the pickup door as the duty driver jolted along, Puresome fantasized a moaning wind driving a scrap of newspaper along a deserted street, a screen door with a busted latch somewhere monotonously banging against the frame.

Since Puresome had honest-to-goodness orders, checking in the Bachelor Officer’s Quarters was no sweat. He had always felt that a BOQ was, like the interior of an aircraft carrier, one of life’s generic experiences — in one, in all — the same smells, colors, and jolly utilitarian construction. The only thing that brought a BOQ to life was being in one with your pals on the brink of some hairy adventure.

Puresome considered himself a loner in the great, self-reliant cowboy tradition. But there was something about watching strangers passing through a BOQ lobby in flight gear that made him feel that they had just done or were just going to do something really dangerous and righteous, and not being a part of that had always made him feel lonely. He felt that they were doing something he ought to be doing.

“Time to kick the situation in the canugies and get out of this place,” he thought as he dug his swim trunks, flip flops and a ratty T-shirt out of his parachute bag. “Lets go see if there are any winsom ladies toasting their parts out by the pool.”

The pool experience was another biggie for Puresome — no svelte nymphets simmering in coconut oil — just a few people. He drank some beer, ended up watching a shy mommy and two quiet little girls, and wondered where the old man was...a temporarily safe-at-home Shore Duty Puke; plowing around Yankee Station on a big iron boat; maybe enjoying the Hanoi Hilton; perhaps MIA or just plain KIA. “At least, my wife knows where I am...still out playing part-time fighter pilot,” he thought.

The Electronic Counter-Measures course was jolly good. There was a day of classroom instruction in new equipment and techniques. Puresome put considerable heat on a technician to design something to put on his Porsche that would melt police radar guns, but to no avail.

Another day was spent flying up to the Fallon ECM range in the station S2F and actually working Bad Guy gun-tracking and SAM radar against a chap in an A-7 Corsair, who was doing his best to keep from getting zapped. Even as he cranked the tracking wheels trying to nail the airplane, Puresome was rooting for the A-7 driver.

So another good deal came to an end. Puresome stuffed his old skivvies, civvies and shaving gear into his parachute bag, put on his flight suit and caught a ride to base operations to file his flight plan for home.

Puresome did all the usual stuff — figured out a navigation card, anticipated the customary radio and/or navigation equipment failure, talked to the weather guys and turned in his DD-175 flight plan to the Operations guys.

Then, as he was leaving for the transient line, he noticed the plaques. There, on the wall, were posted the names of all the guys from Lemoore who had been bagged in the War. There were lots of names.

Time stopped in Puresome’s universe as he read the names. Some he knew, most he didn’t. Puresome felt them, what they had done and what he had not. He felt the honor in them and the sadness of a lost and trampled cause.

“Don’t forget us, don’t forget us,” the wall whispered. “We gave and we’re gone and nobody gives a damn, so don’t forget us...”

Puresome started as two loudly talking sailors came around the corner. He walked out of operations toward his plane.

On the flight home and on other flights through the years, Puresome could hear the ghosts. They joined his friends on another Wall. The bright fire in him burned, and he did not forget them.

• Blue Angels

With yesterday's French vid behind us, here's some amateur video from the back seat of the Blue Angels slot aircraft, with some rather odd music. Note how tight they fly, especially the inverted pass in the last few seconds.

The Van Halen msuic in the following classic clip is much better suited . . .

• Dreamers

A friend, a Navy Test Pilot School graduate, commented on the PIO (Pilot Induced Oscillations) evident in several of the formation shots. Also notice in the segment when the two-ship pulls into a 45ยบ climb, and then rolls—the wingman loses it and the video cuts away.

Still, it looks like fun!

• Life as a Pilot

22 years old: Graduated from college. Go to military flight school. Become hot shot fighter pilot. Get married.

25 years old: Have 1st kid. Now hotshot fighter jock getting shot at in war. Just want to get back to USA in one piece. Get back to USA as primary flight instructor pilot. Get bored. Volunteer f or war again.

29 years old: Get back from war all tuckered out. Wants out of military.

30 years old: Join airline. World is your oyster.

31 years old: Buy flashy car, house and lots of toys. Get over the military poverty feeling.

32 years old: Divorce boring 1st wife. Pay child support and maintenance. Drink lots of booze and screw around while looking for 2nd wife.

33 years old: Furloughed. Join military reserve unit and fly for fun. Repeat above for a few more years.

35 years old: Airline recall. More screwing around but looking forward to a good marriage and settling down.

36 years old: Marry young spunky 25 year old flight attendant.

37 years old: Buy another house. Gave first one to first wife.

38 years old: Give in to second wife to have more kids. Father again. Wife concerned about "risky" military Reserve flying so you resign commission.

39 years old: Now a captain. Hooray! Upgrade house, buy boat, small single engine airplane and even flashier cars.

42 years old: 2nd wife runs off with wealthy investment banker but still wants to share house (100%).

43 years old: Settle with wife # 2 and resolve to stay away from women forever. Seek a position as a check Captain for 10% pay override to pay mounting bills. Move into 1 bedroom apartment with window air conditioners.

44 years old: Company resizes and you're returned to copilot status. 25% pay cut. Become simulator instructor for 10 % override pay.

49 years old: Captain again. Move into 2-bedroom luxury apartment with central air conditioning.

50 years old: Meet sexy Danish model on International trip. She loves You and says you are very "beeeeg!"

51 years old: Marry sexy Danish model for wife #3. Buy big house, boat, twin engine airplane and upgrade cars.

52 years old: Sexy model wants kids (not again). Resolve to get vasectomy.

54 years old: Try to talk wife out of kids, but presto, she's pregnant. She says she got sick after taking the pill. Accident, sorry, won't happen again.

55 years old: Father of triplets.

56 years old: Wife #3 wants very big house, bigger boat and very flashy cars, "worried" about your private flying and wants you to sell twin engine airplane. You give in. You buy a motorcycle and join motorcycle club.

57 years old: Make rash investments to try and have enough money for retirement.

59 years old: Lose money on rash investment a nd get audited by the IRS. You have to fly 100% International night trips just to keep up with child support and alimony to wife #1 and #2.

60 years old: Wife #3 (sexy model) says you're too damned old and no fun. She leaves. She takes most of your assets. You're forced to retire due to Age 60 rule. No money left.

61 years old: Now Captain on a non-schedule South American 727 freight outfit and living in a non-air conditioned studio apartment directly underneath the final appro ach to runway 9 at Miami Int'l. You have "interesting" Hispanic neighbors who ask you if you've ever flown DC-3's.

65 years old: Lose FAA medical and get job as sim instructor. Don't look forward to years of getting up at 2 AM for 3 AM sim in every god-forsaken town you train in due to the fact your carrier can find cheap, off-hours sim time at various Brand X Airlines.

70 years old: Hotel alarm clock set by previous FedEx crewmember goes Off at 1:00 AM. Have heart attack and die with smile on face. Happy at last!