Tuesday, 24 August 2021
How to cheat death in an F-8 Crusader fighter, book updates and more
Been up to my elbows so the updates have not been as regular as I might have liked. So where’s the Hush-Kit Book of Warplanes up to? Currently, the manuscript is being stress-tested, Red Teamed, and microscopically fact-checked by the veteran aviation writer Jon Lake. I nervously await his feedback. This man knows his onions – but then so do I and the other Hush-Kit contributors. Basically, there is a lot of onion knowledge but always good to have our onion thoughts checked over by another onion guy. Then it will be sent to the copy editor before falling into the hands of the designer. The release date remains unchanged as Spring/Summer 2022. I know it’s been a long wait, but it will be worth it. I’m extremely grateful for you making this daft idea possible, and will endeavor to make you the best possible book.
I’ll be appearing live at Al Murray & James Holland’s We Have Ways World War II History festival in September taking part in a live podcast with Holland and Murray on the subject of aviation top trumps.
(There’s some very big news to be announced in mid-September)
Here’s something that may interest you:
Westland Pterodactyl Mk V Fighter (1934) ‘The Cursed Dinosaur’
J. W. Dunne (1875-1949) developed some fascinating theories on the nature of time and consciousness, and he also pioneered stable aircraft and swept wings. At the age of 13 he had a dream he was flying an aeroplane that needed no steering — a significant anecdote, as Dunne was a firm believer in precognition in dreams (in fact he did not believe in the linear progression of time, something he thought was merely an illusion brought about by human consciousness – see Slaughterhouse-Five for a similar idea).
Here was a man who had the idea of tailless swept-wing aircraft years before the Me 163 was melting its groundcrew. His work inspired the brilliant engineer G.T.R Hill (designers have designations rather than names) who was looking for a way to save the many lives lost in air crashes. Dunne’s designs were the first inherently stable aeroplanes and thus had a degree of inherent safety, to this Hill added pivoting wingtip controllers which could act as ailerons and (when activated in unison) elevators. The Pterodactyl series had good handling and explored several new ideas (including variable geometry wings in the IV version).
An all-metal fighter variant, the Mk V, was built powered by a steam-cooled 650h.p Goshawk engine. As you’d expect from such a revolutionary design, it was beset with problems (the worst being the collapse of the entire wing during an early taxiing trial). But this, and other teething problems, were overcome (like the appalling Nieuport-Delage NiD 37 Type Course, the aircraft was a sesquiplane). The aircraft proved 10mph faster than the RAF’s best in-service fighter, the Demon. It was armed with two fixed .303 machine-guns, racks light bombs and a two-way radio. The addition of an electrically powered gun turret did not reduce the aircraft’s impressive 190 mph top speed (there is some debate as to whether this was actually fitted). The fighter was considered in two configurations: one with a tractor engine and rear-mounted gun turret (the Mk V) and the other a pusher aircraft with a front-mounted turret (the unflown Mk VI). Though promising, the RAF deemed the advantages of such a radical new design too small compared to the potential risks.
How to crash and survive in an F-8: The US Navy Crusader fighter pilot who cheated death — by George Wright
"There comes a time for me to recount my last flight at the controls of a military aircraft. A flight of four launched out of NAS Miramar on a beautiful, clear, California Fall morning, October 3, 1968. It was a flight of four F-8H Crusaders belonging to the VF-111 Sundowners, out for an air-to-ground weapons training flight.
The F-8's cockpit visibility wasn't the greatest, so you always raised your seat as much as you could. But you didn't want it so high that you would have trouble grabbing the two yellow-and-black-striped handles above your helmet, the handles that fired your ejection seat. The last thing I always did before taking the runway made a reflexive grab for the face curtain handles. That turned out to be a useful exercise. After a short flight east, over the mountains into the southern California desert, we reached the target, radio call sign 'Inky Barley.' Loaded with both 20-mm machine-gun ammunition and practice bombs, we set up a race track strafing pattern around the target at 4000 feet, 450 knots.
As the target went past 90 degrees to your left, you'd roll into a 25-degree dive and accelerate to 500 knots as you lined up your gun-sight on the target. Since this aircraft lacked a heads-up display, you had to watch the unwinding altimeter out of the corner of your eye. You wanted to be sure you initiated recovery early enough to avoid 'controlled flight into terrain.'
When Tom Garrett, the flight leader, called "last pass " I was determined to 'fire out' (to expend all my ammunition). Word was that it was a lot of extra work for the aviation ordnance crews to disarm unexpended munitions. Trying to be helpful, I hosed away at the target with the F-8's four Colt 20-mm cannon. A phenomenon called target fixation caused me to miss a revolution of the altimeter.
As I pulled four G's to recover, I looked up and to the left, looking for the aircraft ahead of me in the pattern. I have a vague memory of seeing sagebrush zooming by to my lower left. I felt a slight bump, which was the tail of the aircraft brushing a sand dune. I had hit the ground in a wings-level, slightly nose-up attitude, at 500 knots, about 550 mph. I reflexively grabbed for the face curtain.
I was strapped into a Martin-Baker Mk-F5A ejection seat, the last of the ballistic models. Pulling the face curtain handles fired a charge that set the seat moving up and out of the cockpit on a telescoping tube. As the seat moved up, two successive charges were fired by the hot gasses from the first. Ideally, the three successive charges propelled you high enough for separation from the seat and deployment of your main parachute.
My situation wasn't ideal. For one thing, ground-level was 100 feet too low for the speed of 500 knots. The seat delayed main chute deployment until a small drogue chute had slowed you down enough to avoid damage to the main chute. But a larger problem was that the ejection gun, the telescoping tube, ruptured as the aircraft was disintegrating. I only got one of the three charges; the other two were recovered unexpended from the wreckage. I didn't clear the aircraft's vertical tail. It chopped off my right heel like a guillotine.
My main chute streamed but didn't fill. On the plus side, it snagged in sagebrush, keeping me from tumbling. I hit the ground feet and butt first. Femurs stayed together but tibias and fibulas broke; the remaining ankle bones were shattered. The five-inch-thick seat pan, containing life raft and other supplies, acted as a crush- zone, but I still ended up with a fractured pelvis.
The first thing I remember upon regaining consciousness, face up on my back, was a cool breeze across my face. That wasn't right, because I should have been wearing a hot, rubber oxygen mask. It had been dislodged somewhere along the way. Then I heard the sound of another aircraft, orbiting overhead. That reminded me I had been flying my own aircraft a moment ago.
I was in shock. I felt no pain. I tried to sit up, but the broken pelvis and legs, as well as the parachute harness, made that problematic. I raised my arms and notice that my left forefinger had been dislocated. Well, I didn't particularly want to see that.
I had no sensation of time passing. Next thing I knew, one of the target crew appeared in my field of view. I asked him if I still had any legs. He said I did, but they didn't look so good.
Meanwhile, back in the strafing pattern, my flight leader, Tom Garrett, was directly across from me. He said later that he thought I was pulling out too low. He keyed his mic to say "Pull up," but instead transmitted "Oh shit!" as my aircraft erupted into the typical black mushroom cloud.
Recovering quickly, Tom immediately lit burner to climb high enough to get line- of-sight radio contact back to Sundowner base at Miramar. He ordered Hugh Risseeuw, the less experienced pilot to return to Miramar independently and the more experienced pilot, Tom Laughter, to orbit low and maintain contact with the target crew.
Since there was no rocket exhaust from my ballistic seat and since no chute had blossomed, Tom assumed I was spread over a mile or so with my aircraft. When he returned to target frequency the target crew reported that I was not only alive but also conscious. Tom got on the horn to MCAS Yuma, some 40 miles to the southeast. Yuma scrambled an H-34 helicopter, but its oil sump chip light came on en route. It had to make an emergency landing in the desert.
Tom then called NAF El Centro. Listening in on tower frequency was a Navy reserve flight surgeon, getting in his required flight time in a C-130 doing touch- and-go landings. He called for a full-stop, transferred to a helicopter, and was on his way to Inky Barley. All I remember about the helicopter was being loaded into it. I heard somebody cry out in pain. I realized somewhere in my shock-anesthetized brain that it was I.
Back to El Centro and into the C-130 for the flight back west over the mountains to Miramar. Time had no meaning; I was only marginally conscious. At one point, I noticed a placard on the bulkhead, "Do not store body bags aft of frame 58." I asked the doctor what frame we were next to. He told me not to worry about it.
Next thing I know, I'm being transferred to an ambulance bound for Balboa Naval Hospital. I see the faces of squadron mates and CDR Finney, the skipper. "Sorry I fucked up, skipper" I remember saying. "Don't worry about it" he said.
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Next memory is the Balboa ER. The anesthesiologist is explaining that he's about to intubate me. I will feel a choking sensation, he warned, but then the tube would slip into place and everything would be fine. Then he commences shoving a broomstick or something down my throat. Well, hell yeah I felt a choking sensation! Then I tried to tell him that, yes, it did slip into place, and everything was fine. All that come out was a whisper of breath. "Oh, don't try to talk; you can't; the tube goes through your vocal cords." Oh, OK.
I come to in the recovery room or ICU or who knows? The patient is the last to know. Turns out that I have tubes everywhere: a nasogastric tube, wound drains in open reductions of fractures on both legs, a Foley catheter, a cephalic vein IV, and a jugular intracath. I have a plaster cast on my left hand, where the dislocated metacarpophalangeal joint was reduced. I have a splint on my right elbow, where a large laceration was sewn up. I have a plaster boot on my left foot. I have a bivalve cast on my right leg, along with a Steinmann pin through what’s left of the heel. And I have an ugly-looking incision from sternum to pubis, thanks to a laparotomy that allowed repair of a lacerated liver.
Thanks to better living through chemistry, the only pain I felt through all this was a dull ache from the fractured pelvis. At one point, I thought I was dying as consciousness slowly faded. Turns out I was only falling asleep.
My orthopedist characterized my recovery as "stormy." That is a euphemism for raging pseudomonas infection in the huge defect that used to be my right heel, plus uremia. My kidneys had shut down—distal tubular necrosis, consequent to shock.
I was raving insane and had to be restrained lest I pull out my IV's. I was told I was about to be dialyzed before my kidneys rebooted and my BUN peaked at 180.
I did a tour in the Balboa ICU. The Red Cross flew my parents out from Maryland, something they do, I later learned, only in situations expected to be terminal. I was recovering from uremia then, so I don't remember much about the visit.
The worst part was being NPO (Latin for nulla per os, nothing by mouth). I could have only a shot class of D5W, sugar water, every hour. It's a great weight-loss regimen—see the picture below. I'd live for that shot. The nurses would never let me have it early, but they didn't seem bothered if it was late.
Toward the end of my ICU stay, I was visited once by one of the members of my last flight of four, Hugh Risseeuw. I enviously watched him finish a cup of coffee. Hmmm, there was a container of D5W on my table. He had a cup. Why not? "Hugh, sneak me a slug of water from that jug." There was a little ring of coffee left in the bottom of his cup. After weeks of nothing but sugar water, I still remember that sip as the richest, most exotic thing I have ever tasted. This is when I realized I had turned the corner. I have a load of hospital stories. I was shipped back home to Maryland to Bethesda Naval Hospital. Finally had my right foot amputated. Met the Navy nurse whom I later married. But this is supposed to be the story of how my last Crusader flight ended. To this day, every time the wheels squeal against the runway, I say to my seat-mate, "Cheated death again!"