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United States Navy VT-25 (CTW-3)

TA-4J Skyhawk

 BuNo.156950
C 465

1th April 1991
1625
P
ST

 NAF El Centro, California
Ensign James R. Ronka

 

"Not a second too soon"

Ground Level - Low Speed Ejection

 

23 year old student pilot, U.S. Navy Ensign James R. Ronka, attached to:  NAS Chase Field, Texas USA, was to fly a  solo peacetime training mission with three other aircraft on 11th  April 1991.

His Douglas TA-4J Skyhawk, BuNo 156950, from VT-25 (CTW-3), NAF El Centro, California USA was  to take off from runway R26 NAF El Centro.

Second to take off in winds 360 at 13 knots gusting to 18 knots caused his aircraft to drift. When it became evident to Ensign Ronka that the aircraft was not going to make it he found himself having to eject.

Using the lower ejection handle he initiated the sequence. At Approximately 60 KIAS, at ground level the canopy separated and he soon followed in his Douglas Escapac 1G-3 seat.

" I consciously acknowledged each phase of the ejection sequence:  pulled handle…noted that nothing is happening…boom!  Canopy blows…delay…boom!  Back seat goes…delay…I feel a swift kick in the rear as my seat goes.  What took a couple of seconds seemed to take 3-4 times as long. I don't remember anything from the moment I felt my seat rocket motor engage until I was nearing the apex of the ejection trajectory."

 

 

 

Onlookers who witnessed the mishap were amazed that Ensign Ronka survive the crash. With his aircraft an inferno he had been virtually a moments from death. His timely ejection saved his life.  His injuries consisted of, "stiffness in neck and cut on bridge of nose"

 

 

Jim recalls

"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 squadron. 

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. 

This drama 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 flotation device). 

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.

 

 

 

Details in this Biography  were kindly provided by Jim Ronka