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September 29, 2021

A Marine’s Record-Breaking Bad Day

Some days in the air are worse than others — especially after a midair collision at 37,000 feet.

“Those who expect to reap the blessings of freedom, must, like men, undergo the fatigues of supporting it.” —Thomas Paine (1777)

Last weekend, a back-porch conversation between and among college football rivals turned to a more civil topic of upcoming travels. That led back down the incivility line, and news that one airline just had two emergency landings in the same day because of out-of-control passengers. Oh, the joys of air travel these days — very classy clientele, including some who have recently been duct-taped their seats for flight durations!

Thankfully, I spend very little time on commercial flights these days, primarily because publishing deadlines and other work demands don’t allow for extended vacations to distant locations. I much prefer our driving trips anyway, and if I can get to my destination in less than six hours of drive-time, I avoid commercial airlines. Having traveled around the world early in my career, the prospect of distant travel today has little allure. My friends who are commercial pilots don’t like the current state of air travel either — nor do friends who are Federal Air Marshals.

This week, my wife and I will be taking a two-hour drive for a two-day stay in the Great Smoky Mountains. We’ll start at Cades Cove — the most scenic historic location in Tennessee. Then, another hour along the winding Little River Road, we will will arrive at an old and humble inn located in the foothill shade of Mt. LeConte — a place we’ve visited in every one of our 30 years together. LeConte, at almost 6,600 feet, is the third highest of the Appalachian Mountains on the Tennessee-North Carolina border, and just 80 feet short of neighboring Mt. Mitchell, the highest peak east of the Mississippi. From its base to its summit, LeConte rises 5,300 feet, and that mile-high stretch into the sky is impressive — for an eastern range.

Yeah, I know, some of you are rolling your eyes at that mere 6,600 feet of elevation, but recall that our Appalachian range is much older than other North American ranges — thus more tamed by time. I made a few pilgrimages to the Alaskan range as a young man (and since), and as mountains go, Denali (formerly known as Mount McKinley), at 20,194 feet, rises just over 19,000 feet from base to summit. By way of comparison, the highest base-to-summit rise on Mount Everest is 17,100 feet from the Tibetan Plateau. And yeah, there are a few fourteeners in California and a whole range of fourteeners in Colorado. But there is no base-to-summit rise in the world more impressive than Denali’s.

But I digress — this column is not about commercial air travel or geological surveys.

In a related back-porch conversation about bad flights last weekend, a friend reminded me of another rough day in the air — a record-breaking bad flight.

Cal Jumper’s uncle was a WWII Marine Corps pilot, a member of my father’s Greatest Generation aviators. So inspired was Cal by his uncle’s service that after graduating from Vanderbilt University. Cal joined the Marine Corps and became an F/A-18 aviator. The record this local boy set one terrible day in that Hornet is one that our Marine aviator readers will recall.

He wrote about that day, about having to eject from an F/A-18A Hornet about 145 miles southeast of Okinawa, so that one day his grandkids could read about it. It was the highest successful ejection from an F/A-18 — approximately 37,000 feet.

I have written accounts of tragic military flights, including those of two friends, former Vietnam POWs Leo Thorsness and Bill Gaunt. But accounts of non-combat military accidents are rarely published, though non-combat military deaths are frequent. It is dangerous business — even when training for combat.

Even if you’re not among our large military readership, including current and veteran pilots in all service branches, I think you will find this account interesting. It provides a good understanding of the complexity and the tragedy of the record Cal was forced to set — and the challenges he faced in order to survive.

Cal Jumper’s detailed account is as follows:

My Martin-Baker registration number is 4692. I received that number as a survivor of an ejection using a Martin-Baker ejection seat. My seat was in an F/A-18A Hornet aircraft. God bless the Martin-Baker engineers, the seat and flight equipment mechanics in my squadron, the parachute rigger who packed my parachute almost 6 months earlier, and the American and Japanese Airmen who searched until they found me. There is an old jingle among fighter pilots, “You will meet your Maker in a Martin-Baker”. Luckily for me, fighter pilots aren’t always right.

I was home on leave for the birth of my son, my youngest child. When he was eleven days old, I returned to my squadron, VMFA-115, about a week before the accident, to finish our six-month deployment to the Western Pacific. I was flying as part of an exercise to train USAF pilots on adversary MIG aircraft tactics. We were flying from Kadena AB, Okinawa, Japan. I was Dash 4 in a flight of 4 aircraft, called a division formation. Call-sign for the flight was Blade 63. We briefed early and walked to our jets for a 0930 take-off.

The weather was marginal with a large weather front in the area. Cloud bottoms were about 1,200 feet. Cloud tops were ragged from 15,000 to about 34,000 feet. There were storms embedded in the clouds. The front was also causing heavy sea states in our operating area, about 150 miles southeast of Okinawa. We were flying over deep water, approximately 16,000 feet deep, in the South China Sea. Reports varied that the sea state was between 12 and 15 feet, which means waves could be 24-30 feet high. The fishermen among you will tell you that is rough water.

Take off was routine with four aircraft streaming off the runway with about 2000 feet of separation and joining up in formation as we climbed through the cloud layers. Our scenarios were heavily scripted. Blade flight was basically supporting as training aides the 12th Fighter Squadron, flying F-15’s. Call-sign for the F-15’s was Knife 01. Knife flight was also a division.

After we checked into the working area, known on maps as the W-185, the flight leaders of Knife and Blade flights determined that we would limit maneuvering to 180 degrees of turn because of the high cloud tops. We were still able to fly the scenario that we briefed, but we were limited in our maneuvers, which gave Knife flight a decided edge.

We began the first engagement of the scenario as two divisions with about forty miles separation between Knife and Blade flights. Both flights were above 30,000 feet because of the cloud tops. The first engagement went pretty much as briefed with all four Blade aircraft (MIG simulators) being kill removed by Knife flight. The scenario called for all kill removed aircraft to fly through a southern point and regenerate as single bogeys (still simulating MIGS).

The big change from the first engagement was that Blade flight was no longer in visual support of each other. As I turned North for the second engagement of the scenario, I could see one Blade aircraft in front of me about 3 miles and one at about my 7 o'clock trailing contrails about 5 miles away. I knew from a radio transmission that the 4th Blade aircraft was at least 15 miles away. The F-15’s of Knife flight were coming south as two sections (2 aircraft in each) with about 10 miles separation, lead and trail, between sections.

The lead section of F-15’s attention was on the Blade aircraft that was in front of me and I was able to make a beam entry on the lead section and slid to their 6 o'clock at about 3 miles. I trailed them for about 20 seconds to get closer before I locked my radar on the F-15 on the left side of the formation. Their formation was what is called combat spread. They were flying abeam each other with about 3,000 feet of separation.

As soon as I targeted the left F-15, both started maneuvering in a hard right descending turn. I thought they saw me and were reacting to me. I closed the distance and simulated launching missiles on the F-15 I had targeted. I was about to kill remove him with a radio call. I scanned my HUD (Heads Up Display) to confirm altitude for the kill call. It was 38,000 feet.

My world was about to change.

There was a tremendous impact on the right side of my airplane somewhere aft of the cockpit. I remember saying “G-d damn, somebody hit me.” The sound was a sickening crunch. My airplane flew straight ahead for a short time then tumbled and rolled. My warning, caution and fire lights were lit up like a Christmas tree. I sensed fire, clouds and clear sky as the airplane tumbled. I did not know if my airplane would explode, thought it might, but knew with certainty it was un-flyable.

I grabbed my lower ejection handle with both hands and pulled hard when I thought I was pointed at blue sky. I guessed right, I suppose. The canopy blew off and seat fired with 32 G’s of force. When I got to the top of the ejection arc I opened my eyes and saw my airplane falling off below me with the tail end on fire. I sensed aircraft parts from the other airplane around me and thought this is the end. I was sure one of those parts would hit me.

It was cold.

I was at approximately 37,000 feet and ambient temperature that high is normally about -40- or -50-degrees Fahrenheit. I was wearing only my torso harness, flight suit and a t-shirt.

It’s odd what goes through one’s mind at a time like this. Remembering my first reaction to the impact, I said out loud “Jesus, I am sorry I said that.”

Later when thinking about my state of mind during the ejection, I remembered thinking my Great Uncle, a WWII Marine Corps pilot, was with me. He passed away a few years earlier and was a big part of why I joined the Marine Corps in the first place. The change from being warm and comfortable and in complete control of one’s environment to being cold, alone, and hurtling through a violent piece of sky is a shock to the system to say the least. It is an incredibly isolated feeling.

Believing that I wasn’t completely alone provided much comfort. A lot has been written about the third man and how one’s mind plays tricks on you in extremis as opposed to actually having a helping hand close by. Even so, I like to think he was there.

My ejection seat worked flawlessly. A small drogue parachute deployed to slow my rate of fall a little and stabilize the seat. I saw my aircraft and the loose parts beginning to fall away from me into the clouds. The cloud tops were at about 32,000 feet. I fell into the clouds sitting in the seat. With the drogue chute deployed I was facing straight down, still connected to the seat by my lap and shoulder straps connected to my harness.

I made my second decision since the impact: to remain with the seat until automatic seat-man separation so that I would have enough oxygen to survive. There is a bottle of emergency oxygen in the seat pan that is supposed to last about 20 minutes. Our ejection seats were set for automatic seat-man separation at 11,000 feet (+ or – 1,500 feet).

Anybody that thinks clouds are soft hasn’t fallen through them. It was cold and turbulent. My face was pelted first with ice, then water as I fell through the freezing level. The wind seemed to hit hard. I had little sensation of time and no way to know what my altitude was in the clouds. I was hoping the seat would work as advertised. I held onto the lower ejection handle with both hands to keep my arms from flailing.

I fell through the storm for about 26,000 feet. My seat worked like it was supposed to and kicked me out at what was probably the right pre-set altitude. I was still in the clouds so have no way of knowing for sure. When the seat pushes you out, it releases your connections to the seat and deploys your parachute. The parachutes are packed in a box that acts as a head rest during normal flight. Connected to me as the seat fell away was my seat-pan that held survival gear, a small raft and that oxygen bottle.

My parachute opened with a strong tug. I looked up to see a perfect round intact parachute and thought I might make it home. I was still in the clouds and had no idea how high I was, so went through the drill for immediate water landing that we had been trained on since flight school. That was a mistake. When I inflated my LPA (life preserver) my head and neck were pinned between my parachute risers, and I realized I had something painful on my neck. The pain later turned out to be burns.

About this time my oxygen bottle ran out. My oxygen mask was tight against my face. I took a breath, and nothing happened. It felt like somebody had wrapped plastic around my nose and mouth. I tried to release the fittings that secured the mask to my helmet, but my hands didn’t work so well. They were like blocks of ice, my fingers were numb. The fittings were also covered by the inflated life preserver.

I fumbled with the fittings and began to panic as I tried to breath and no air flowed. I finally grabbed my oxygen hose below the mask with both hands and yanked it loose from the mask. Gratefully cold ambient air flowed through the opening into my mask, and I could breathe again. After I calmed down a bit I managed to take my mask off and threw it away. Wouldn’t be needing it again. I looked at my watch and it was 10:20 AM. It was a Timex for those that are old enough to remember the commercials about taking a licking……. I still have it. I had been falling for about 16 minutes.

The wind was howling. I went through the rest of my water entry preparation and released my survival raft from my seat pan. The raft falls to the end of about a 30-foot lanyard and inflates by activating a CO2 bottle attached to the lanyard. The rafts we use are about the size of an average bathtub, maybe a little smaller. Our survival instructors tell us in training that it will act as a pendulum and stabilize our descent. They were wrong.

Actually, on a clear and calm day they were probably right. Today the winds in that storm system were approximately 50-70 MPH at 10,000 feet. The raft hit the end of the line, inflated, and started swinging crazily in the wind, which meant I swung with the raft. I almost got seasick suspended between that raft and my parachute. I was able to pull the raft up to me and the motion slowed down. I felt better and slowly lowered the raft back to the end of the rope. I was getting lower, the winds weren’t as bad, and this time the raft did what the instructors said it would.

There was nothing left to do at this point but wait for the water. It seemed to take a lot longer than it probably did. I was still in the clouds. When I finally started seeing water, I was almost in it. Cloud bottoms were about 1,200 feet. When I hit the water, I went deeper than I expected. It ripped my helmet off. My parachute was automatically released by the harness fittings when they sensed salt water. I tried to beat the fittings and release them myself, but my fingers were still too numb. Once again, the engineers saved me.

My LPA brought me back to surface. My helmet was close enough to reach and I put it back on. The waves were throwing my parachute over me, and I worked to get away from it and over to my raft, still attached to the lanyard. I grabbed the raft and pulled myself onto it. I was face down, spread eagle across it and wanted to sit.

Sounds like an easy thing to fix, but the water was very rough with waves up to 30 feet high, parachute cords were still tangled around my legs, and I had half the seat pan with most of my survival gear strapped to my butt. I unfastened one side of the pan, rolled into the raft, and then cut the parachute cords that were still entangled with me and the raft. From water entry to sitting in the raft only took a few minutes. As one would imagine, my adrenaline was pumping pretty hard. I looked at my watch and it was 10:41 AM.

My raft was being pushed sideways by the waves because half of my seat pan was dragging below the raft. The motion was causing a lot of seasickness. I was able to pull up my seat pan and deploy a sea anchor attached to the raft that aligned me with wind and waves. The waves were still big and breaking over me from behind me, but no longer beating me side to side. I drank a little fresh water carried in my survival gear and felt a bunch better.

I remember thinking I finally had a better than even chance of living and getting home. I had been a ball of adrenaline since the impact and remember feeling it leave my body. With it came an overwhelming need to pee. Since I was basically in a wash cycle in that raft, I let it go. I then had a strong urge to vacate my bowels but held fast. Again, it’s funny what you think about in extremis, but I decided I hadn’t gone through the last 40 minutes or so since the impact only to be eaten by a crap eating shark. I was not about to put out a chum line.

Once I got settled into my raft I inventoried my gear and turned on my survival radio, a PRC-90 model. It was small with very little power. The joke among us about the radio was that if you could see somebody you could talk to them. The good news was that I was able to hear radio chatter long before they were close enough to hear me so I knew they were looking.

I tried turning the raft Emergency Locator Transmitter (ELT) on and off, on 15-to-5-minute cycles, in an effort to let somebody know that I was alive and making changes. I later found out that nobody ever picked up the ELT. A little after 11:00 AM I was able to hear aircraft talking over the PRC-90 on the emergency frequency. It was about another 30 minutes before anybody could hear me though.

I first talked to a KC-135 tanker aircraft that was coordinating the search effort. They were able to triangulate my rough position from my transmissions and the Tanker vectored an F-15 from the 67th Fighter Squadron, Hook 01, down to me.

While this was happening and before anybody could hear me I saw a Japanese Self Defense Force (JASDF) Search and Rescue (SAR) aircraft, a small, slow, twin-engine propeller plane, about 5 miles away under the clouds. By the time I saw him, he was turning away from me, and it did not sound like he was on the frequency we were using so I was unable to get his attention. It’s probably not hard for the reader to understand what it’s like not to be able to get anybody’s attention when you can hear and see them and need help. He would be back.

I finally saw Hook 01 drop below the clouds about three miles away. I was at his 0900 o'clock position off his left wing. I was able to talk to him and tried to talk his eyes onto me. He was looking for a black raft with me wearing a white helmet in the middle of a rough black sea with white caps. No Joy. He asked for a flare, and I shot one of my pen flares. He asked for another and was able to find me in that ocean. It was a good feeling.

Hook 01 circled me until he was low on fuel and departed back to the tanker. His wingman Hook 02 quickly arrived, and we went through the flare drill again until he found me. He circled me until the JASDF SAR airplane mentioned earlier came back to the area. That plane had always been part of the effort but had just not heard me earlier. Once the SAR airplane was established on site Hook 02 departed. Hook 01 and 02, two more folks that I am forever grateful to.

The SAR airplane was capable of flying very slow. He flew at wave top level and, once he saw me, flew directly at me. I was amazed to see somebody stick his head out of a window with his arms over his head. He threw something at me and for a second, I thought he was trying to hit me. As it turns out he was throwing a smoke buoy that landed about 15 yards away.

After that I waited for a ride home. I can tell you, when you are in a spot like that, it’s comforting to have somebody waiting with you, even if they are circling a mile or two away from you. The first helicopter that made it out to me was a JASDF CH-46 SAR helicopter with extended range gas tanks. They needed the extra gas tanks because they picked me up 146 miles from Kadena. They flew over me, hovered, and deployed a rescue swimmer. It was sure good to see him.

The helo lowered a cable with a horse collar at the end of it. The swimmer didn’t speak much English and I spoke no Japanese, but we figured it out quickly. I wrapped the horse collar around me and up I went. He followed shortly after. Reports conflicted a little on how long I was in the water. My Timex told me it was about an hour and forty-five minutes in the water. The time from ejection to pick up was approximately 2 ½ hours.

The crew pulled me into the helo and quickly unhooked me. After we were both recovered, they started helping me off with my gear. Somebody handed me a soft drink in a can. It was a carbonated apple drink popular in Japan at the time. Somebody offered me a smoke, but like my decision about the shark earlier, I decided not to accept.

I didn’t need a new bad habit as I already had plenty, besides I could smell jet fuel and see the extended range fuel tanks in the helo bay about five feet away. They offered some dry clothes. I’m a big man, close to 6'4". The pants came down to just below my knees and the t-shirt didn’t quite cover my belly button, but I was happy to have them and a very warm blanket.

We looked for the other pilot involved in the mid-air for a while. I still had no idea who it was. After about 20 minutes of looking the crew got excited and we thought we found him, but it turned out to be my empty raft when we got close enough to see. I think that is when I first realized somebody probably hadn’t made it.

The pilots of the CH-46 decided they didn’t have gas for any more searching so they took me to the U.S. Hospital at Camp Lester on Okinawa. When we landed I got up to get off the helo and the crew would have none of it. They evidently needed to carry me off. I obliged and laid down on the stretcher. A crewman grabbed each end.

They counted to three in Japanese and lifted. Don’t think they were expecting to have to pick up a Wookie, my nickname/call sign. When they felt the weight they groaned loudly… it was almost funny. They carried me off the helo and helped the hospital staff get me on a gurney.

As I was rolled into the hospital my Wingmen met me at the door. One was missing, Henry. That’s when I knew who wasn’t coming home. We were still working on what his nickname would be: Henry, Hank, or Pokey. He was one of the newer pilots in the squadron and was working hard to establish himself among a cocky and irreverent crowd. The day before the mishap he made a big step forward when he passed his qualification as an Air Combat Tactics Instructor. That probably doesn’t mean much to the reader, but it is a critical qualification for an aspiring USMC F-18 pilot.

A couple of days after the accident the squadron executive officer (XO), a good friend, suggested we go over to the barracks and visit with the squadron Marines. I’m glad we did. They wanted to talk about Hank and look at my injuries. I really got off not too badly considering my odds. I had burns on my neck and forearm, baseball sized whelps on my shins, where evidently, they slapped something in the airplane on the way out, a strange bruise inside my ear that was bright purple and a very sore back and neck from the 32 G’s when the ejection seat fired. Not sure how long we stayed but it was a good bit of the afternoon. The heartfelt concern from the Marines meant a lot.

The Marine Corps conducted three investigations into the accident. We lost a Marine and two multi-million-dollar airplanes. There was a safety investigation to try and discover why the mid-air collision happened, so we could prevent it from happening again. A JAG (Judge Advocate General) investigation was conducted to determine if there were any legal issues to resolve. A Field Flight Performance Board (FFPB) was conducted to determine if I should fly again. An FFPB is a jury of one’s peers. They returned me to flight status and about thirty days after the mishap I climbed into my next F-18.

The Marine who launched me the day of the accident made it a point to be my Plane Captain for my next flight. He helped me strap into the plane. When you fly a plane like an F-18 you don’t just get into it. You are strapped in and just as much a part of it as the motors, hydraulic systems, and fuel. He made a point to tell me that I needed to bring this plane back in one piece. I agreed.

It was a glorious winter day in Beaufort, SC. Blue skies with small white clouds that looked like popcorn on the sea. My flight was very uneventful with one exception. A fly had hitched a ride in the cockpit. It crawled into view on the inside of the canopy and all I saw was a big black dot. I thought I had another airplane bearing down on me. To say I puckered up is an understatement. If your pucker factor was on a scale from 1-10, with 10 being so puckered that one couldn’t drive a needle up one’s butt with a sledgehammer, then that bug got a 4.5.

When I realized I was alone with that fly, I was much relieved. I had to get the fear and anxiety out of my system. I realized that just because it happened once, it didn’t have to happen again. Life is like that. When the realization occurred so quickly, it was a blessing. That such a small creature can have such a positive impact is a wonder. (BTW, I was a full-on pucker factor 10 during the ejection) I continued to fly a variety of Marine Corps aircraft until I retired in July 2008.

Let’s move to Henry, Hank, or Pokey…. Hank was an only son, devoted to his Mom. Hank also had a fiancée that he was crazy about, and they were to wed shortly after we returned from this deployment. Pokey was our squadron mate, our friend. I only met Henry’s mom and fiancée once.

Shortly after we returned, we held a memorial service for him that they were able to attend. They wanted to plant a tree onboard Marine Corps Air Station (MCAS) Beaufort, SC in his memory and the squadron helped them do it. It was a beautiful service but a bit awkward for me. They were very gracious, wonderful ladies, but it was difficult to get past the reality that I lived and Hank didn’t.

We never did decide on his call sign, and someday I’m going to visit that tree again. I’ll bet it’s grown some.

Epilogue: The night of the mishap, when I was released from the hospital, I went to the Officer’s Club. It was a Friday night and there is usually a crowd. I had one wet hundred-dollar bill and put it on the bar. It had a tear in it where my wallet had caught a rivet as I was leaving the airplane. The Squadron was so down there was still money left on the bar at the end of the night. That is unheard of for a Marine Fighter Squadron. Left the change for the barmaids as a tip from Hank.

About 10 days after the accident Hank came to see me while I was sleeping. I know it was a dream, but he was as real to me as he had been the last morning we briefed for the flight. He was happy and in a good place. He wanted me to know it and, in doing so, he lifted a burden from my soul. Hank was a good man. As we would say in the squadron, he was a Great American.

Col. Cal Jumper is now retired with a grateful heart for his fellow Marines and the nation they serve — and now has some grandkids to read about his aviation record.

Semper Vigilans Fortis Paratus et Fidelis
Pro Deo et Libertate — 1776

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