everything went black!
The purpose of ejection seat in aircraft is that it gives the
pilot a chance of survival if things should go wrong. Not only
did things go badly wrong with the aircraft on Thursday 8th June
1978 but at some point in his egress from the plane and landing
by parachute 34 year old Major Gideon sustained a broken neck.
Francis Gideon was
a test pilot on the A-10 Joint Test Force at the Air Force
Flight Test Center, Edwards Air Force Base, California.
Air Force were in the final phase of qualifying a new
manufacturer of bullets for the GAU-8 Gatling gun. The
test held that day called for five gun-firing passes of 100
On the fourth pass,
things began to go wrong.
Maj. Gen. Gideon remembers
pulled the trigger, felt the gun firing, saw the gun gas cloud
form, and then saw it burst into flame."
A large ball
of fire standing on the nose of the aircraft had resulted due to
gun gas ignition”, and it would remain
as long as
the bullets were firing. The fire was starving the natural
oxygen supply necessary for the engines to function.
effect, the engines were burning up and no thrust was being
produced. There is a remedy for this situation—quickly shut
down the engines before damage is done, cool them off, and then
restart. Obviously, during this procedure, the aircraft has
become a glider and in the case of the A-10, it comes down
Major Francis Gideon
Major Gideon immediately
released the trigger and pulled up to terminate the mission, then shut
off the overheating engines, pulled up further to attain best glide
speed, and made a radio transmission to the chase pilot about what was
above the terrain without good engines
For two minutes Gideon watched the
temperature gauges slowly creep down, but all the while the A-10 was
"Eventually, though the temperature was still a bit high, I could not
stand it anymore, and began the start sequence on the left engine,
realizing that it would take about 45 seconds to attain full power. And
it would take full power to fly out of there with a heavy A-10 on one
engine. At almost the same moment, I estimated I was descending through
2000 feet above the terrain.There was also a ridge line ahead that I was
not sure I would clear. Air Force training says that the pilot should
leave an in-control, but doomed jet at or above 2000 feet. That figure
was chosen to give the ejection equipment plenty of time to function.
It also gives the pilot a little time to handle a minor malfunction such
as the seat belt not opening or a parachute problem. Since I was unsure
whether the engine would start, would actually deliver full power, and
whether I was still going to be above the ground in 45 seconds, I made
the easy decision to eject. I called the chase pilot and told him I was
on the way out. He said “fine”, and immediately made a “Mayday” call to
start rescue operations. His photographer was also ready to film the
ejection, which turned out to be a great help in the subsequent mishap
investigation. Thinking ahead, by the way, the chase pilot had moved
around to the right side of the A-10 to get best sun angle for the
Major Gideon pulled the handle activated the ejection sequence. In under
2 seconds he was swinging below his parachute.
In text book
ejections pilots are intended to have their aircraft in full control,
slow airspeed, and prepare themselves in the optimum position to avoid
injury. Head pressed against the back of the seat, spine aligned with
the direction of thrust. Ejection from a fighter aircraft is, however, a
violent event. In that 1.85 seconds from pulling the handle the canopy
is blown off, then a ballistic charge propels the seat and occupant,
guided by rails, upwards and out of the aircraft. Then the seat
automatically separated the pilot and puts him on the end of a
parachute. After a time - dependent upon the height at which the
parachute deployed, the pilot adopts a landing posture to avoid injury
on reaching the ground.
Major Gideon's experience, as the film of the event
was to show, was not a text book ejection. His head was yanked forward
by the G forces at ejection putting a severe strain on his neck, further
strain was applied on the neck as the Major's body decelerated rapidly
with the opening shock of the parachute and unable to get into a
suitable landing stance he hit the ground hard, "heels,
butt, and head" further jarring the already
injured neck. On landing the Major's head and neck suffered more trauma
when his helmet hit the "only rock within 50 yards and taking a chip out
of the helmet."
pulled the handle, started up the rail, and with my head coming
forward, I saw the cockpit dropping away beneath my feet.
Then, everything went black! As I recall, I was aware of
noise and movement for a brief time, and then quiet and
I still could not see, so I was curious about what was actually
The top of the
Douglas Escapac II Ejection seat, including canopy
breakers, fitted to the early A-10 aircraft
can be clearly seen in
The only choices I could think of
were that I was in the chute, I was plummeting toward the ground, or I
was in Heaven. I put my hands up to my face, and then I could see
again. Looking up, I found myself happily hanging under the chute. I
felt very good at that point because I had been there before. One other
aspect of my prior military training was to attend the Army’s Parachute
Training School when I was an Air Force Academy cadet years before.
Even though my neck was in pain, I felt safe and secure again, glad to
be hanging under that parachute. I also said a quiet thank you to the
gent who took care of my ejection equipment. The reason I could not
see? I think my helmet had rotated forward on my head and down across
Major Gideon was not yet aware of the severity of his
"I got up,
silenced the emergency beacon, and contacted the chase pilot via radio.
When I told him I was okay but my neck hurt, he wisely advised me to lie
still and await rescue. I flipped over the one-man life raft which
automatically inflates from the seat kit during the ejection sequence
(one of the other necessary miracles), and used it for a bed until a
helicopter arrived with rescue personnel. They were there within 25
minutes to transport me back to the base hospital."
Gideon's neck was in fact broken
"I was treated at the local Palmdale, CA, hospital which had an
outstanding neurosurgeon, and was back flying the A-10 again in exactly
"I have always felt that the major injury occurred at the time the
rocket fired. When I was hanging in the chute, my neck already was
hurting significantly. After hitting the ground and snapping my neck
again, it still felt the same. But the mishap board ruled that the
break occurred on landing. The reasoning was that if my neck had been
broken before then, it would have been unstable, and the blow from the
landing would have killed me. It is hard to argue against that logic."
Major General Gideon is
candid about the lessons learnt from the mishap.
the major findings from the investigation was that we had not done our
homework very well in planning the mission. That is, we failed to
recognize some of the potential hazards connected with the gunfire. We
were lulled into a false sense of safety since all three batches of
ammunition had been fired numerous times on development firing ranges on
the ground. They had performed flawlessly there. In addition, though
there had been a few instances of SGGI before, in all those cases only
one engine at a time had been affected. SGGI had also been a big worry
early in the developmental testing of the A-10, but none of us at the
Joint Test Force in 1978 were personally involved back then. Also,
engineers at the Program Office who were familiar with the earlier
testing did not speak up forcefully about possible dangers."
Major changes in test
procedures at Edwards AFB were made because of this mishap
and proved to be extremely effective in preventing further mishaps and
are still in place at the Flight Test Center. Another major result of
the mishap was the speeding up of the fitting of the ACES II to the
seat's effectiveness was already being questioned, having been featured
in several neck-injury ejections in other fighters such as the A-7. As
a result, in the A-10 fleet, the Escapac seat was already being replaced
with the ACES-II, a near perfect life saver. It was being retrofitted
into about half the fleet which was already in service and was being
introduced into the production line for the half yet to be
manufactured. My injury served to prompt the Air Force to significantly
speed up the retrofit program."
small silver lining
In conclusion Francis Gideon again,
"Aircraft mishaps are not
desirable and are usually preventable. But when they do occur, a good
investigation will find the underlying causes. The subsequent
recommendations, if followed, will prevent future mishaps of the same
kind. There can be a small silver lining in an aircraft mishap, and I
believe there was with this one."
Major Francis Gideon ejects
from his A-10. Photos from film taken by the photographer in
the chase aircraft