21 September 1956 – Grumman company test pilot Tom Attridge shoots himself down in a Grumman F-11F Tiger, BuNo 138260, during a Mach 1.0 20 degree dive from 22,000 feet. Tom fires two bursts from the fighter’s 20mm cannon during the descent, and as he reaches 7,000 feet (2,100 m) the jet is struck multiple
George R. Partridge
George R. Partridge: F-100 Ejection; Kunsan, Korea May 1965
It was mid-May 1965, Kunsan AB, Korea that I was scheduled to lead a flight of two F-100s on an early morning practice gunnery and bombing mission. There were two ranges we would work which were about 50-60 miles north of Kunsan and 20 or so miles south of Osan AB. The mission would require about an hour and a half flying time. At this time I had about 150 hours in the F-100; having recently completed the F-100 short-course checkout program at Luke AFB, AZ in January. My wingman was an “ole-head” F-100 pilot with over 1000 hours in the F-100. The weather check revealed unsuitable low clouds for our mission. Thus our flight was put on hold until the weather improved which it was forecast to do. About noon the weather had improved to 2500 foot scattered clouds and 10 miles visibility. Great visual flying weather for the mission! It was forecast to remain that way for the remainder of the day. This fact is important to my story.
I briefed the flight and did a final weather check which showed no change in the forecast; although the weather briefer indicated that there was a low-level scud deck of clouds off the coast about 10 to 12 miles west; not unusual for coastal areas. He requested that I give him a “pilot report” on the condition as we proceeded north to the range. I agreed as this would only require a short detour in time and distance to the range. Our customary briefings for these missions called for a “bingo” fuel of 2500 pounds; meaning the absolute minimum amount of fuel necessary to recover to home base and have the required fuel reserve. I briefed my wingman that we would increase our “bingo” fuel by 500 pounds to 3000 pounds. I did so simply because of the low clouds just off the coast to the west. This precaution was also significant to events as they unfolded.
About halfway through our mission, I decided to call Kunsan weather to get an update on the low scud off the coast. After about five minutes I was told that Kunsan was 2500 foot scattered, 10 miles visibility and forecast to remain so the rest of the day. “No Sweat” – just as I was briefed. On the gunnery range, our attack tactics required repeated use of the afterburner coming off the target and climbing for a subsequent attack. I requested a flight fuel-state and was surprised to learn that I was running slightly lower on fuel than my wingman. I made a mental note of the fact as wingmen usually use more fuel than the lead because of throttle jockeying to maintain wing position during formation. I reminded him of the briefed 3000 pounds “bingo” fuel.
Completing our range work, we climbed to 16,000 feet for our recovery at Kunsan, about 60 or so miles south, which would normally terminate in a visual practice instrument approach and landing under control of a GCA controller. (GCA – ground controlled approach). I called for another fuel state and noted with some concern that I was a few hundred pounds lower than my wingman. I asked for a close visual check of my aircraft to see if I was over-boarding fuel. “Negative over-boarding fuel.” About 35 to 40 miles from Kunsan I switched my flight to Kunsan Approach Control. I was cleared to begin our descent for the initial approach to landing.
Noticing a very low solid cloud deck ahead I asked Kunsan Approach Control for their current weather. They came back immediately that they were 2500 feet scattered and 10 miles visibility. I told them that I could see a solid undercast ahead of me over Kunsan and asked them to reconfirm their current weather. They came back quickly with 400 feet overcast and 10 miles visibility. How could they give me the current weather at 2500 feet and 10 miles visibility and a minute later call it 400 feet and 10 miles? The 400-foot ceiling and 10 miles visibility at Kunsan would still be a piece-of-cake for the approach. Our locally mandated instrument landing minimums were 300 feet and ½ mile visibility; Air Force minimums were 200 feet and ¼ mile. We were only 15 to 20 miles north of Kunsan and I felt that landing at Kunsan would be no problem even with my excessive fuel burn rate; Osan likely being “iffy” at the rate I was burning fuel.
On final approach, we would have a slight westerly wind from the ocean on our landing to the north. I put my wingman upwind on the left so he could avoid turbulence from my jet exhaust on my downwind side. We entered the undercast at 1000 feet in our descent on final approach for landing.
About this time my minimum fuel red warning light came on indicating 800 pounds of fuel remaining. I attempted to advise the final controller but don’t know if he heard me. I was not overly concerned; after all, I should break out at 400 feet (100 feet above the 300 feet mandated minimum) with 10 miles visibility about a mile from the runway.
At 400 feet where I should have broken out of the overcast, I was still in solid clouds. The controller had been constantly correcting me to the left a degree or two. Then 300 feet – the headquarters directed mandatory minimums! Still in solid clouds – no runway, no visual contact with the ground! The controller issued a missed approach command stating that I was “… too far right of the centerline”. Had we broken out we likely could have landed; especially my wingman as he was on my left wing. However, descending to about 200 feet I was still looking for the runway, ground; anything! Nothing! I gave the visual signal to my wingman for the missed approach. Since he had sufficient fuel, I told him to proceed to Osan Air Base.
I considered a second attempt. Suddenly I realized that I did not know the actual cloud ceiling and visibility. It could be zero-zero as far as I knew. I remembered that the approach to the runway has two small hills at the end of the runway, one each side of the threshold. I did a quick mental calculation of the little fuel I had left and the distance to Osan where I knew the weather was clear. I may barely make it by climbing to 17,000 feet; even if it meant a flame-out landing I would at least be in the clear and landing on a long concrete runway. I preferred a possible visual flame-out landing in the clear over another unknown well-below-minimum instrument approach situation which would definitely assure insufficient fuel to reach Osan if I was unable to land.
I would not jettison my external wing weapons racks and stores for fear of hitting one of the multitude of fishing boats, sampans, and villages beneath the undercast.
At about 17,000 feet and 25-30 miles south of Osan, I flamed-out! I was an instant glider pilot; a really eerie feeling in a jet fighter. Quiet, and with no throttle response. I advised approach control and prepared for the eventual ejection. The F-100 flight manual recommended against a flameout landing – especially on unprepared surfaces – and recommended ejection above 2000 feet as an extra safety precaution. The Korean countryside is dotted with small villages, homes, and fields.
There was a runway capable of handling jet aircraft several miles south of Osan. I spotted the runway immediately after my flameout and told approach that I would attempt a flameout landing there. They came back with a “Negative” that there were men and equipment on the runway for repairs; and that they had no means of alerting them to vacate the runway. I was too far from Osan. I realized that I was now going to have to “walk home”. I advised approach that I would stay with my aircraft until “fifteen hundred feet” attempting to assure the safety of people on the ground. I made one last quick check of my ejection preparations – double checking that my “Zero-delay lanyard” was attached to my parachute “D” ring (ripcord). Constantly looking for a clear area in which to eject, I saw what seemed to be a reasonably clear area that I could reach. Foremost in my mind was the safety of people on the ground, and secondly was having to face an accident investigation board! At 1500 feet I advised approach that I was “outta here!” This was about twenty miles south of Osan Air Base: close but not close enough!
I breathed a quick prayer and took one last look to assure that there was no village below me – only farmland with scattered homes. I raised the right armrest on my seat which jettisoned the canopy. I was now riding a jet fighter convertible. Surprisingly there was no noticeable explosion from the charge or noise from the loss of the canopy. Raising the right armrest exposed the right-hand grip with the ejection trigger. I squeezed the trigger. Wham! I was outta there on a rocket-propelled seat! By the time I ejected, I was probably about 1200 to1300 feet above ground. There was no noticeable jolt or sensation of being ejected. Rather, the sensation was of my being suspended in space in my seat as I found myself looking down between my feet into the cockpit of this F-100 slowly falling away from me – no canopy, no seat, no pilot! Surreal! An unforgettable sight! Everything that transpired from squeezing the seat ejection trigger until my parachute was deployed required approximately two seconds – but seemed like an eternity.
My ejection and ‘chute deployment were textbook perfect. However, my pre-ejection positioning and parachute landing was less so. I did not get myself in the proper back-straight, head-up and feet-retracted into the seat stirrups before ejection. This would cause me some back problems years later.
When I was kicked out of the seat by the “seat-kicker,” the cable attached to the seatbelt pulled the “D” ring and deployed the parachute. The next indelible memory I recall is being spread-eagle, face down looking at the terra firma about a 1000 feet below with nothing, repeat nothing, between me and a hard place except the Lord God! I was silently repeating over and over: “Lord, please let the ‘chute open!” I didn’t know how many times one could repeat that phrase in the couple of seconds that it took for the canopy to deploy, but I was trying to establish a record.
“POP!” With a very loud pop, the canopy inflated and popped open. The opening shock was terrific. One moment I was spread-eagle face down; then the next instant I was snapped upright with my feet seemingly going above my head. Then I was swinging wildly in the canopy. The oscillations were so severe that I felt like I was oscillating through a 180-degree arc. At each end of my upswing, the lower edge of the canopy would flap violently as though it might collapse. I was now only a few feet above the ground and if I didn’t get that oscillation stopped, it would either collapse the canopy or slam me sideways into the ground. I used the procedure to dampen oscillations which stabilized me instantly.
I looked around to see if I could spot my F-100. I saw it a couple of seconds before it impacted. It was in a perfectly level attitude and hit in a wheat field. The impact caused the wheat to lay over in a pattern radiating out from around the aircraft. The engine separated and went tumbling across the field toward a farmhouse. I was holding my breath and praying that it would not hit the house. It stopped a matter of a few yards short of the backyard. In another few seconds, I was on the ground – in a wheat field. I was uninjured! Thank you, Lord! In the brief time of my parachute descent, with the oscillations and many other thoughts running through my mind, I had forgotten to deploy my survival kit which was attached by quick releases to my parachute harness seat-sling.
Upon my landing, I immediately went down on my rear-end sitting back on my survival kit. I was fortunate indeed because such landings have popped knees of pilots as they sat back with the kit caught between their thighs and calves of their legs. The normal parachute landing fall (PLF) is to land with feet together, knees slightly bent, and on impact roll to one side in a shock-absorbing procedure. My PLF would have brought the toughest paratrooper jump master to tears of shame and disgust. But at least I was safe and seemly uninjured! Years later I would be found to have compressed discs in my upper spine; typical of an aircraft ejection incident.
I stood up and shed my parachute harness. A small group of Korean civilians began to gather around but remained a short distance away. I had indicated that I was OK. In a matter of about five minutes, an Army helicopter having heard the calls on the emergency radio frequency landed to pick me up. A crewman retrieved my parachute and I climbed aboard. They delivered me to nearby Osan AB where I was met by the Air Force Flight Surgeon and medical crew for the required physical exam following such incidents. In a couple of days, I was back at Kunsan, having to explain everything to my squadron commander and every other safety and investigating official. It was in very short order that I was before the accident investigation board. The finding was – as expected – pilot error in that I did not divert to Osan once I was told the weather to be 400 feet and 10 miles visibility. Again, that would have been a piece of cake had the weather actually been 400 feet and 10 miles. Weather did get a “contributing factor” statement in the final report.
About two weeks following my accident, the Tactical Air Command Headquarters at Langley AFB, Virginia, issued a command-wide priority message to all tactical fighter wings and squadrons warning of possible F-100 afterburner “eyelid” malfunction. The message stated that the “eyelids” could fail to close properly if the afterburner is cycled on-and-off in repeated and frequent succession. This is exactly what my flight had been doing on the gunnery ranges. The message went on to say that the repeated use of the afterburner has been found, in some cases, to cause the eyelids to only partially close after afterburner use; thus requiring more power (and fuel) to maintain normal thrust and airspeed. This sounded exactly like the scenario that could have caused me to use fuel at a more rapid rate than normal; and why I was using more fuel than my wingman which is also an abnormal situation.
I submitted a request to the accident board that they amend their finding to include this phenomenon (unknown at the time) as an additional contributing factor, the sum of which ultimately ended in my having to eject from my F-100. They refused to do so.
My only consolation is that a couple of my fellow pilots told me that with the fuel situation I had and the current weather information provided to me, they would have done the same thing.