"I was a student pilot in the U.S. Navy's Advanced Strike training syllabus, with
217 total flight hours and 36 hours in the TA-4J Skyhawk. Previous aircraft
flown included the T-34C Mentor and T-2C Buckeye.
My ejection incident occurred
while on a weapons detachment to Naval Aviation Facility (NAF) El Centro,
California. Selected students from my squadron (VT-25) and students from our
sister squadron (VT-24) were sent on detachment (DET) to fly formation, low
level navigation, and weapons training sorties using TA-4Js pooled from each
The DET routine was well in place leading up to my accident - eat,
sleep, work out, study, fly. I was completing my four-plane formation syllabus
and was to progress to the weapons syllabus next.
The day before my accident, I
flew an uneventful hop that debriefed in the evening. Early the next morning, I
briefed for my four-plane formation check ride and flew the hop - uneventful
until the landing phase when high crosswinds convinced me to limit my time in
the pattern. My next brief was mid-afternoon on the same day, and I joined an
instructor lead-safe and two other solos for our four-plane formation flight
over the remote California desert.
We taxied out to the duty runway (R26) and
lined up for a section go - all four jets on the runway in a 45 degree echelon
formation with lead taking the forward left position, myself as dash-two, and
the other two solos taking the rear two positions. The plan was to launch in
10-second intervals and join up in a rendezvous turn. Crosswinds were still
tough, and I had sensed them buffeting the jet even on taxi. Lead safe launched
without any issues and eight seconds later I was up on the power followed two
seconds later by brake release.
I had anticipated some effects from the
starboard quartering tailwind and was not immediately concerned about the
gradual left drift the jet experienced. Still under the illusion that I could
salvage the takeoff, I eventually held full right brake, full right rudder, and
full stick deflection forward and into the wind as the jet accelerated past 50 KIAS. Crossing over the runway edge lights, I finally realized that things
weren't going to get better but also noted that the jet would still go
"four-wheeling" off the runway even if I attempted to abort. Hoping that the
jet would experience a last-minute positive reaction to my control inputs, I
stayed with the airplane until it became apparent it was going to impact the
MOVLAS Fresnel lens landing system adjacent to the runway.
I recall thinking,
rather nonchalantly, that this moment was going to significantly influence my
short aviation career. I spat out an expletive (not on the radio!), quickly
assumed a posture as close to the proper ejection position as possible, and
yanked the lower handle into my gut. This is when time compression began. It
seemed like an eternity before something actually happened.
I was relieved when
I heard the canopy blow, but noticed another lengthy pause before the empty back
seat departed. Just as I wondered "what about me?", I felt a swift kick in my
rear end as my seat's rocket motor activated. Unlike the other two explosive
events, I don't recall any noise when my seat activated. The force of the shot
felt exactly like that experienced earlier in my training when I was shot "up
the rails" on the dynamic ejection trainer in Pensacola (albeit at about a
quarter of the actual g-force, apparently).
I did not notice any "out of body"
experience as I departed the aircraft and honestly don't remember anything until
I was sailing through the air near the apex of the ejection trajectory wondering
why my parachute hadn't opened yet (I suspect that I lost consciousness due to
the rapid onset of Gs). I recall looking down at the ground (from a NATOPS-advertised height of about 100 feet) and thinking "this is going to
hurt", fully expecting to hit the deck without a deployed parachute.
Thankfully, I heard a "pop" as the spreader gun fired the parachute out of the
pack followed by opening shock. I had time to put my legs together and bend my
knees before impacting the ground, but I don't know if I executed a proper
parachute landing fall roll. Luckily, I landed in some soft dirt approximately
50 yards away from the fireball that used to be my aircraft. The high winds
immediately filled my parachute and started to drag me away from the burning
jet. I groped to release my Koch fittings (they really DO end up high on the
risers when the parachute is deployed) and remember being a bit perplexed when
the release of my upper fittings did not fully release the 'chute. Motion
didn't stop until I released my lower seat pan fittings as well.
played out while being dragged about 400 feet, bounding across a couple of
taxiways before coming to a stop. Meanwhile, the jet had ploughed forward and
flipped on its back.
My first thoughts as I struggled to my feet and looked at
the burning jet were ones of absolute rage and frustration - "how did that just
happen?!" I angrily started to remove my flight gear, throwing my helmet to the
ground and ripping my SV-2 off (the SV-2 is a combination survival vest and
The base firefighters zoomed past me to fight the fire and
the NAF El Centro Commanding Officer was actually the first person on scene to
check on me. I remember apologizing to him for closing down his runway
(probably as I was experiencing the early stages of shock) before he ordered me
into his car. He took me to the base medical clinic where I was checked out and
sent into town for x-rays. The cut on the upper bridge of my nose was the only
apparent injury, so I was released.
I later met some A-6E Intruder aircrew who had seen my ejection while they were
parked in the hold short area. They said they saw my seat rocketing out of the
fireball just after one of my drop tanks impacted the Fresnel lens generator and
exploded. My two wingmen never saw me get out and had thought I didn't make
it. Apparently, I was literally a second or so away from a de-accelerating
ejection, one that probably would not have included a survivable trajectory.