United States Air Force Joint Test Force, Air Force Flight Test Center
AFFTC
Edwards AFB, CA

A-10A Thunderbolt II
"Warthog"

73-1669
Y
"Paco 40"

8th June 1978

Major Francis C. Gideon Jr.
 

 

 

Then, 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.

The 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 rounds each.

On the fourth pass, things began to go wrong.

Maj. Gen. Gideon remembers

"
I 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 “secondary 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.

"In 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 pretty fast."


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 happening.

2000 feet 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 losing altitude.

"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 photography.

 

Ejection
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."

"I 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 stillness.
I still could not see, so I was curious about what was actually happening.

The top of the Douglas Escapac II Ejection seat, including canopy breakers, fitted to the early A-10 aircraft  can be clearly seen in 73-1669.

    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 my eyes!"

Major Gideon was not yet aware of the severity of his injuries
"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."
 Francis 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 six months."

"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.

"One of 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 A-10s

ACES II

"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."

A 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

Extracts and images used in this Biography  were  provided thanks to the generosity of
Major General Francis C Gideon
, USAF (Ret)
(used with permission)