5 December 1956 – A Northrop XSM-62 Snark, 53-8172, N-69D test model, fitted with a new 24-hour stellar inertial guidance system, launches from Cape Canaveral Missile Test Annex, Florida. It wanders off-course, ignores destruct command, disappears over Brazil. It is found by a farmer in January 1983. The Day They Lost the Snark By J.
James A. Autry
An excerpt from Jim Autry’s book… “The Cold Warrior: When Flying Was Dangerous And Sex Was Safe.”
Author note: This scene takes place as Daniels, one of the F-100 squadron pilots newly arrived is getting an instrument check ride soon after arriving at the base in France. Perkins is the check pilot. He is an IP in the wing instrument school, and, like the others, is somewhat resentful of the combat-ready squadron pilots. He is determined to give Daniels a tough ride.
“Okay,” said Perkins, “I’ve got it again.”
“Roger, you’ve got it.”
More rolls. A dive, then a four-G pull, steep climb, airspeed dropping, attitude indicator tumbling.
“You’ve got it.”
Daniels checked the instruments quickly. The airspeed was just above stalling. This would usually mean advancing the throttle and lowering the nose to gain speed, but the attitude indicator seemed inoperative. Daniels realized it was tumbling and that the plane was inverted. So, he advanced the throttle but pulled the stick back, continuing what was probably a loop, let the airspeed return to a safe level, then rolled over, leveled the wings, and eased back on the stick to bring the bird level and under control, and reduced the throttle.”
No word from Perkins, but Daniels knew he’d also aced that recovery. The problem was that the vertigo was now making him nauseous. He did not want to tell Perkins who would probably terminate the check ride without doing the penetration and GCA handoff. Plus, there is a certain shame for pilots in becoming airsick.
He breathed deeply.
Perkins shouted something unintelligible into the intercom, then Daniels smelled an acrid odor and saw smoke creeping under the hood. He switched to a hundred percent oxygen just as Perkins shouted again, “Smoke in the cockpit!”
“Roger,” said Daniels, “I’m on a hundred percent oxygen. What’s going on? How bad is it?”
“Something in the circuit breaker panel, I think.”
Daniels began pulling back the hood to stow it when he saw a flash and flames from the left-hand side of the front cockpit. The smoke stung his eyes. He lowered his visor.”
He could see Perkins trying to lean away from the flames and fanning his left arm in the air. The sleeve of his flying suit was smoking.
“Fire in the cockpit. Eject, eject,” yelled Perkins, and Daniels instinctively ducked as the canopy flew off. The wind slammed him back into the seat and tore at his helmet and mask as Perkins’ ejection seat shot over his head.
The plane rolled left. Rather than reach for the ejection handle, Daniels grabbed the stick and leveled the wings. The noise was numbing and he was being buffeted by the slipstream. The wind tore at his oxygen mask and buffeted his helmet so viciously that he could hardly see.
This is it, he thought. He’d have to eject, the fear of which had plagued him all through flight training. He had known it was always a possibility, of course, but the idea of ejecting and riding a parachute to the ground scared the hell out of him. Somehow, he’d never been able to even force himself to imagine floating with nothing but a parachute and straps between him and falling.
But now he had to do it. In effect, Perkins had ordered him to abandon the airplane. He tightened his chin strap and oxygen mask as tightly as he could, hoping he would not lose them when he ejected. He pulled his feet back, sat up as straight as possible, helmet against the headrest, arms and elbows tucked closely to his side and reached for the handle that would fire an explosive charge and shoot the seat clear of the airplane.
He was ready, scared or not, but he paused.
The airplane is still flying, he thought. I was able to roll out of the steep turn so the controls are working. And I don’t see any flames in the front cockpit or any smoke. Maybe the wind blew it out.
He let go of the ejection handle, reached for the stick and throttle, and tried the radio.
“Ark tower, Ark tower, this is India Sierra One, mayday mayday mayday,” he yelled.
The wind noise was oppressive, and he was not sure he’d be able to hear any response but thought he might discern some indication of contact. He switched to the emergency frequency.
“Ark tower. Mayday, Mayday, Mayday, this is India Sierra One, Mayday, Mayday Mayday! We’ve had a fire in the cockpit. One pilot ejected. No canopy.”
Daniels realized that the fire must have been electrical and that it probably knocked out the radios and no telling what else.
He carefully rolled into a steep turn and looked down and back to see if he could spot Perkins’ parachute. Nothing, but he wasn’t sure which way to look or how far he’d flown from the site of the ejection. Daniels wondered again if he should eject. He’d been ordered after all. On the other hand, the airplane was flying and there no longer seemed to be a fire. He tried to see into the front cockpit but the wind was too strong for him to sit higher.
Then he made a decision. He’d take things one problem at a time. First, he needed to get the airspeed down as slow as he could without stalling, to make the wind more bearable, and he needed to descend into warmer air before he suffered frostbite. He decided that 140 would be slow enough to make the wind manageable and fast enough to maneuver without stalling.
He pulled the throttle to idle. The next step would be to figure out what was working and what was not.
He tried to remember everything he’d learned in training about the T-bird. The ammeter gauge was fluctuating erratically. What if this is a complete electrical failure and not just the radios? As long as the engine was running, he’d have hydraulic power; even so, he needed electrical power.
He remembered that the speed brakes were activated electrically but actuated hydraulically. Same with the landing gear. The flaps were completely electrical. He would absolutely need the landing gear and it would be much safer to have the flaps. He realized that if the generator was not working, the only electrical power he’d have would be from the battery. He’d have to ration. He turned off all electrical equipment except the master battery switch. He’d need the battery power for gear and flaps. So, to conserve, he decided not to use the speed brakes to slow down.
He held the plane level until the speed dropped enough to lower the gear. It felt as if the gear extended, but the position lights indicated that the nose gear had not locked; nonetheless, the drag was enough to let him descend and maintain 140 knots. He could not afford the electrical power to recycle the gear then, if it failed, to use the emergency system, so he decided to go straight to the emergency system. He put the emergency hydraulic selector valve lever in the emergency position, then turned on the emergency hydraulic pump switch. There was no change in the nose gear position. What the hell?
Next, fuel. He turned off the wing tanks to conserve electricity. He’d turn them on as needed to fill the fuselage tank of 85 gallons.
Now, where was he? Without his radio navigational aids, he’d have to get low enough to pick up some landmarks. He knew Dijon was southeast of Arc en Barrois, but with all the unusual attitude maneuvers he could be fifty miles in any direction from Dijon.
He decided the best chance of finding something he recognized was to fly either east or west hoping to cross the Soane river. He turned east, continuing to descend as fast as he could. When he passed through 9,000 feet, he spotted a river and followed it north. Then he saw the unmistakable landmark of Langres, an ancient walled city on a hill, and turned toward Arc en Barrois. In less than five minutes, he could see the field.
Now another reality hit him hard: he had not landed a T-Bird in over a year, and he’d never landed one from the back seat not to mention one with an open cockpit that would inhibit his visibility. That, plus he had no way to warn the tower or other aircraft that he was coming. Perhaps he should eject after all, but now that had its own set of problems in addition to his simply being scared to do it. Why would he abandon an aircraft that he’d been flying for fifteen minutes without too much difficulty? He couldn’t answer that. If he was going to eject, he should have done it when Perkins told him to eject.
He leveled off at a thousand feet above the ground, high enough to eject if the fire came back or there was another complication. He made a wide circle around the field; he could see no other planes in the pattern. He lined up with the runway about three miles out. His plan was to make one pass over the field, wagging his wings, the signal for radio failure, then come around and land.
Senior Master Sergeant Wilson Haney was tower supervisor. When he saw Daniels’ T-Bird about three miles out, something didn’t look right.
“Put your glasses on that T-Bird,” he said to the other tower operator.
“Holy Shit, he doesn’t have a canopy,” Haney yelled as he pushed the crash alarm and snatched up the red telephone.
As Daniels approached the field, he wagged the wings. He passed abeam the tower and began a wide left turn.
While Haney called group headquarters, the tower operator opened the emergency frequency and broadcast, “Attention all aircraft out of Arc en Barrois, we have an emergency in progress. Stay at least two miles clear of the airport until further notice and stand by for possible diversion to your alternate.”
This could be a mess, Haney thought if he crashes and we have to close the runway. He put his binoculars on the T-Bird and from the side angle, he could see that the nose gear was stuck at about 60 degrees, not fully extended.
Daniels was about to turn final. He hit the flap switch, and they extended slowly; not much battery power left. The nose gear light was still showing unsafe. He pulled back on the stick sharply, hoping that the g forces would make the gear fall.
“Fire a red flare when he gets on final! Give him a light signal that his gear is not down.”
Daniels saw the flare and the gear signal, but what could he do? He decided to land. To hell with it, he thought, I disobeyed the order to eject and now I’m ignoring a do not land order. If I get through this they’ll probably court-martial me anyway.
He did not know what effect, if any, the missing canopy would have on the plane’s aerodynamics. To play it safe, he decided to land about 20 knots above normal speed and hope he could stop before hitting the barrier, but of course, that wouldn’t matter anyway if the gear was not down. To hell with it.
As he came over the threshold and pulled the power off, the plane began to sink. He pulled back sharply but the T-bird still had flying speed; it ballooned. Daniels tried to ease it down but the speed played out and the plane dropped; he jerked back on the stick again, the nose rose, and the plane hit hard on the main landing gear and bounced back into the air. Daniels was no longer flying the plane – it was flying him; he held the stick position and just let the plane drop. The gear did not collapse.
He braked vigorously and brought the bird under control; the crash trucks were racing along the runway beside him. He turned off onto a taxiway and shut down the engine. Thin smoke rose from the circuit breaker panel in the front cockpit, and the fire crew scrambled to douse it as Daniels climbed on the wing and jumped to the ground.
At group headquarters, Colonel Haskins had received a call from the French police that a pilot parachuted into a farmer’s field and was now in the local hospital being treated. He seemed to be okay, and the police wanted someone to come get him.
Another thing, they’d been unable to locate the plane.
When Daniels was about to make his wing-wagging pass, Motormouth Morris was on the ramp waiting for Perkins and him to return. He had planned to take special delight in hearing how Perkins had turned Daniels every way but loose. Then came the pass. Motormouth looked up and was for the moment speechless. No canopy, the front seat was empty, and the nose gear was not locked down.
As the T-Bird settled over the threshold, he saw the crash trucks heading for the runway and noticed that other pilots were joining him on the ramp. They watched the plane drop and bounce and they saw the nose gear jolt down into position.
Daniels’ hard landing became in their minds a precisely executed maneuver to force the nose gear down. Instead of a screw-up, it was a brilliant piece of flying.
The story took on heroic proportions the more it was told that evening at the club. Instead of ejecting, he had coolly analyzed the situation and flown it home, thus saving a valuable airplane. When Colonel Spencer, the fighter pilot’s fighter pilot, shook Daniels’ hand and said, “You’re a hell of a pilot, Lieutenant, and you have a letter of commendation coming,” the 94th squadron pilots began to sing “Who Owns This Club?”
The Arc en Barrois newspaper, apparently working from the French police report, put the story on the front page, featuring the superior airmanship of Lieutenant Daniels.”
“James A. Autry, a former Fortune 500 executive, is an author of fourteen books, a poet and a consultant whose work has had a significant influence on leadership thinking. His book, Love and Profit, The Art of Caring Leadership, a collection of essays and poetry published in six languages, won the prestigious Johnson, Smith & Knisely Award. In 1998 he received the Lifetime Achievement Award for Service to the Humanities from Iowa Humanities Board and Foundation.
He fulfilled his military service as a jet fighter pilot in Europe during the cold war flying the F-86F and F-100D fighters with the 48th Tactical Fighter Wing in Chaumont, France. Later he rose to the rank of Major in the Iowa Air National Guard. Autry lives in Des Moines, Iowa, with his wife Sally Pederson, the former Lieutenant Governor of Iowa.”