Dick Rutan – Caterpillar Club

First Ejection — Misty Bail Out

Dick Rutan – Chuck Shaheen

15 August 1968

Air Combat, North Vietnam

Dick Rutan“Hey Chuck, how about I go along on your champagne Misty flight?” It would be perfect “hometown” press – “Two local boys fly last mission together.” Even though we went to rival high schools, we hung out at the same places, we chased the same skirts down and around the same country roads.

We teamed up. This was to be Chuck’s last Misty flight by design and would turn out to be mine by providence with the help of a “9” level North Vietnam gunner.

It would be my 105th Misty Mission, and I figured with DEROS coming up soon, I could total at least 118 Misty Missions before going home. I have always considered adventure as being the “essence of life” and Misty was where the action was.

I climbed into the back seat with all the typical GIB stuff – camera, tape recorder, extra film and cassettes, detailed maps, authorization codes, grease pencils, and base altitude of the day. We also had an authentication code where we could code numbers with letters to fool the Cong. I had to laugh one day when Hillsboro (ABCCC C-130) asked us to look for a crash site and the code for the type aircraft was “F-AAA.” I did not even have to get out the code book to know it was one of Robert “Strange” McNamara’s creations that were being launched at night out of Thailand, never to return (F-111). It was probably the worst kept secret and anyone listening to radio traffic could easily figure it out.

As any Misty would agree, the bombing accuracy up north left something to be desired. There were exceptions, but the norm was: dip the nose, toggle them off, and log one more hash mark on the “go to hell” hat. One hundred nose dips and you go home. I can’t tell you how many times my BDA was “All bombs hit the ground but none were anywhere near my target.” It never seemed to faze them, just a happy “Thank you Misty” and sign off. But there’s an entirely different story about the Vietnam Air War in the north.

We had been politicking to get some “in country” fighter pilots up north in the hope we could improve the BDA. After a lot of heavy, high-level brass arm twisting, we got one test mission approved. Three F-100s out of Phu Cat flown by the best (patch wearers – fighter weapons school grads). Chuck and I were to fly up about an hour earlier and find a safe target for the close air support patch wearers. These guys could gingerly place an M117 right in a Cong’s knapsack.

So in the pre-dawn hours of this fateful day, we launched off, headed north, and refueled with the Brown Anchor tanker off Tiger Island. With a full fuel load, we turned west, pushed it up, and wondered what the next few hours of our lives were going to be like. At 4,000′, 500 knots, Chuck banked, pulled, and threaded our way through the curtain of 50 CAL/23 MM ZPU tracer fire that always greeted the morning Misty as we went feet dry.

Now we had to find that “milk run” target and safely bring home the three “in-country Huns” with a super BDA. Chuck and I both knew where the hot spots were and knew to steer clear of them. These patch wearers were on their first time up north and we wanted zero ground fire for their first mission. I recalled my own first Misty Mission with Mick Greene, where I was all eyes and worthless.

I suggested to Chuck that we go up the Quang Key River Valley. There were a lot of hot areas where the river empties into the Gulf, but northwest up the valley I had not had much AAA at all. I hit some railroad cars on the rail line once, but saw no ground fire.

Then Chuck spotted it – a lousy truck just off of the road at the bottom of a 400 to 500 foot vertical limestone karst wall. This was it; Even though it was one parked truck, they generally off-loaded the trucks during the day and hid the cargo on the opposite side of the road. Our plan was to kill the truck with the first bomb (remember, we were putting in close air patch wearers), then go after the supplies.

Chuck checked the fuel and figured we could do another 30 to 40 minutes of VR, then out feet wet to top off with the tanker. If we were unable to find anything better, this truck would be our target for the big test. We would have liked to have found a parking lot full of trucks at some other place, but that almost surely would be more AAA. We had a good plan, we decided. We’ll play it cool, and if it works, maybe we can get more fighters up here that can actually hit something. You know, God, country, win the war, protect the females, and all that.

It’s off to the tanker, off-load a full load, and rendezvous right on time with our guys from Phu Cat. Crisp check in, impeccable RT … boy, was it good to be around real fighter pilots. I briefed the target, field elevation, altimeter setting, wind, and bail out areas, etc.; wow, we were looking good. But when we all arrived back at the truck, there was a big towering CU almost right above the target! Rats!!! We’ll have to fly around the CU and make the runs down the road and parallel the cliff face with the CU just off the left wing tip. Still okay, but with the CU and the cliff face, the run in heading would be very restricted.

I don’t remember if Chuck marked it or not, but we all had the truck in sight and the most critical decisive military event of the whole Vietnam war was about to begin. Chuck calls, “Okay, Ringdove O1 Lead, you’re cleared in hot. Put them all right on the truck.” He reminds them to stay above some HQ directed altitude that was set ridiculously high. But these are patch wearers and they could get a shack from any altitude, right? This should be no sweat. Chuck and I watched him roll in, and we watched the bombs come off, but — “Oh Shit!” they hit 100 meters long! Lead called sheepishly, “Sorry about that. I forgot to set my sight.”

Gulp! How could this happen? – Not our very own in-country guys!

Chuck was real cool now, like the granddaddy of all fighter pilots, but maybe a little condescending. “Okay guys, let’s settle down, recheck the switches and do it right.” In stunned silence we watched the next two Huns make their runs with almost identical results. The excuses continued. “The cloud was in my way”, or “I forgot to set my altimeter.” What we should have responded with was something we’ve said to hundreds of F-4 pilots, “No bombs on target, have a nice day and contact Waterboy on 232.4 for RTB.”

But this was Chuck’s champagne mission, and these were Phu Cat patch wearers – the best of the best. The pressure was on, this was the big test – a new direction for North Vietnam bombing was on the line. I don’t know who mentioned the next words, whether it was Chuck or me, but one of us said it, “High Angle Strafe.” If we torched off the truck or the supplies, then this mission wouldn’t be a total bust. We recalled that 20 mm Strafe in North Vietnam was strictly forbidden except for SAR or flak suppression and the hard deck was 4,500 feet, but this was an important test mission and the pressure was on. We just couldn’t bear to fail!

No one, even after four to five passes saw one round of AAA, no small arms or anything else. With no ground fire to worry about, we decided to give it a shot. Someone should have reminded us that the 20 mm beyond 3,500 feet slant range tumbles and is worthless. Sure enough, frustrated, we joined the circuit; each took a pass down the same shoot between the cliff and the cloud, high angle strafe … nothing!

Up until now, we had all pretty much stayed above the 4,500 hard deck. Well, not to be denied this stupid truck that seemed to just sit there laughing at us, Chuck was in. We came around the cloud, wings level on final, right next to the karst cliff. I waited and waited with anticipation, but there was no open fire. I checked the ADI … gulp! 5-8 degrees dive angle, we were flat, and still no open fire. The karst cliff was now a blur right next to me, and I could even see pebbles on the road. We were now “in amongst ’em”. This was a no shit, low angle Luke Gun School strafe pass. Chuck had it in burner, real steady, as only Chuck can fly. In the weeds now, he opened fire and put a long, concentrated burst right on? I could not see the truck from the back seat, but I was certain he plastered it — great! We got some BDA now, the test is successful, the champagne sweet.

What happened in the next two seconds would make everything we had done null and void. Chuck came off the trigger and just as the “G” came on, there was a loud BANG right at our feet! It sounded as if Pete Rose had hit the bottom of the fuselage with a baseball bat on a home run swing. There was a “whoosh” and my rear view mirror was filled with fire. I also thought I could see the fire’s glow on the cliff wall. As Chuck pulled up, I looked around and there was no good place to go to eject. It’s “Hanoi Hilton, here we come.” The drop tanks had just gone dry and one of us called for heads up, we were going to clean the wings. The other F-100s were on our wing and reported us as “just torching.” Just then, Chuck pulled it out of burner, and the angry red fire in the mirror changed to a white vapor. The afterburner flame ignited the fuel stream and without the afterburner, the fire choked itself out.

The fire was out, but we were dumping fuel like mad. There was talk about turning off generators, transfer pumps, looking for a tanker, etc; no practical solution presented itself. Pilots have great judgment. As we looked at the coast coming up in the distance, and watched the fuel gauge rapidly unwinding, it was painfully obvious the gauge would read empty long before we reached the coast. The only thing left to do was to re-light the afterburner and use the fuel for speed and maybe we could make the coast. The guys on our wing looked closely to see if fuel was going inside the fuselage where it might blow us out of the sky with the re-lighting of the afterburner. He let us know it didn’t look like it, but there was no real way to know for sure. Fighter pilots like to fly close – feels like the closer you get the more help you can lend a stricken comrade. Chuck calls, “Okay, we are going to re-light the burner.” In that moment, you have never seen three wingmen go from close fingertip to high forward spread route formation so quickly.

Chuck mumbled something about “candy asses” and lit the burner. The white vapor in my mirror again turned red with fire. The wing guys said, “No sweat, it’s only torching.” Wow, some torch – it was over 700 feet long! We were now accelerating in a slight climb, light on fuel, clean wings, going like stink – I think we even went supersonic. Chuck’s decision to re-light the burner was a good one, and we now had feet wet made. Pilots seem to prioritize things. I only remembered this after we got back to Phu Cat, but I remember hearing a rattlesnake sound in the head set, and noticed something on the glare shield – the RHAW gear was going wild. There was a strong fishhook strobe at 10 o’clock and the SAM launch light panel was lit up like a Christmas tree. Even though we were four F-100s in a straight and level flight cruising out to the coast, no one in the flight gave it anything more than a passing glance.

Normally, we would have called SAM-SAM and broke for the deck. Afterward, Ringdove 01 lead told me, “Yes, I do remember that and I just reached up and turned the RHAW off.”

Until I ejected, I only remember a few things, but not in any sequence. I recalled there were a lot of towering cumulus clouds off the coast, and we looked for a hole into which we could eject. I remember us running out of fuel. Chuck had the aircraft in afterburner as the total fuel gauge unwound to zero.

I always wondered how accurate the gauges were and wanted to make a special note of the moment. The gauge dropped to zero and as the needle showed minus 100 pounds, the engine quit. Not a sudden flame out, more like a pilot slowly pulling the throttle back to idle, only the RPM did not stop at idle, it just kept right on unwinding. We broke out into a nice hole in the weather, the HC-130 Hercules SAR bird had just popped out into our hole. Somewhere around 10-12 K feet, I told Chuck that this was as good a place as any and I was going to get out. I had the cassette recorder going, but forgot to remove the tape and put it in my pocket before I ejected-bummer.

As soon as we went feet wet, I felt real calm, for I knew this was to be my final combat mission. For the first time I thought I may actually make it out of this war alive. I was going home to see my family. All I had to do now was simply eject and get rescued. I had complete faith in my equipment, the weather was good, the gulf was glass smooth, the Crown bird in sight–yes, this was going to be a piece of cake. I said something to Chuck about not forgetting the 1/2 second delay on his seat and not to move before it fires. Chuck responded, “No, if you go first, there’s no delay.” I started to argue but thought better of it. Visor down, straps tight, elbows in, head back hard on the headrest. I closed my eyes, lifted the handles and squeezed both triggers. The “E Ticket” ride up the rails was slow, smooth, and wonderful.

I kicked the seat away and my chute opened with a jerk. I looked around and could see the three F-100s, the HC-130 Crown Bird, and a couple of F-4s who had joined the orbit. I looked around for Chuck, but could not spot him or our crippled F-100F. I got the survival radio out, turned it on, and expected to hear my chute beeper, but heard nothing (I eventually made two ejections and the chute beepers failed on both). I tried to call, but couldn’t work the damn thing with my helmet on, so I put the radio away.

The next item was the four-line parachute cut. Sure enough, with the conical C-9 chute canopy, it would oscillate side to side as air spilled out one side, and then the other. I was kind of a life support “freako” anyway, and had made about 50 sport sky dives. I was actually eager to test the four line cut. I got my hook blade knife out, reached for the two shroud lines on my right rear riser, pulled them down, cut them and released the riser. Next, I grabbed the left rear riser and pulled it down in front of my face, hooked the knife around the two shroud lines and thought, “Why don’t I just let go of the riser and let the upward force do the cutting?” So I held the knife and let go of the riser. It jerked up and back, cutting the two lines clean, but to my horror there was another cut. I had accidentally cut into the left rear riser. I slowly turned to survey the damage and saw the riser was cut 90% of the way through. Had it cut completely, the chute would have collapsed and I would have streamered into the Gulf. My heart was in my throat “My God!

“Fly 105 Misty Missions and die by my own hand?” This scenario was dumb, real dumb. I think Jonsey did the same thing on his “last mission bail out.” Someone in PE finally got smart and took the knife away from flailing fighter pilots and replaced it with a “4 line release” system.

I got the seat kit raft deployed, but I was so badly shaken from my knife skills; I had almost forgotten to deploy my LPUs until just before I hit the water. With all the extra survival gear, big knife, survival vest, pistol, ammo, batteries, etc.; without an LPU, I would have sunk straight to the bottom of the gulf like a brick. I had just gotten one side of the LPU inflated when my feet hit the warm, clear waters of the Gulf of Tonkin. With no wind, the chute settled right on top of me. What a mess! I got untangled, pulled the raft over to me and got in. I looked up, and there was the HC-130 Crown Bird, 500 feet high, more or less coming right at me. I got the radio out and called him. He said he had followed me down in the chute, but lost sight of me after I hit the water. “My God!” I thought, “How could this be? He was right there! How could he not see me?” I gave him a couple of quick vectors. “Turn left 20 degrees, half mile out. Just going under your nose. Now, do you have me?” There was relief in hearing him finally report, “Oh, yes, we’ve got you now.” Was the survival radio worth its weight? You bet it was!

The HC-130 dropped a smoke marker nearby and left to look for Chuck. I was suddenly very alone for what seemed like a long, long time (three hours perhaps). I could see the coast in the distance and wondered if the Cong would try to come out and get me.

The Jollys were scrambled out of Da Nang, but were told the downed jet was an F-100, so they turned south thinking it was going to be an in-country ejection rescue. They flew a long way south before getting the word it was a Misty Hun off Route Pack One and turned back north.

Finally, I saw two HH-3 Jolly Green Helos break the horizon. I popped a smoke and one broke left toward me and the other continued on disappearing from sight. I gathered all of my stuff: helmet, gloves, mask, survival goodies I had been playing with and tossed it all overboard. Remembering from survival school how this was to work, I was to get out of the raft, and the Helo would hover, drop the sling, and then hoist me up. I rolled out of the raft, swam away to not get it tangled up with the hoist. Well, surprise, surprise. The Jolly did not hover. It landed and water taxied right up to me. Boy, did I feel like a jerk! I could have stayed in the raft and not even have gotten wet again. They pulled me on board and then the PJ jumped into the water swimming around and policed up my raft, helmet and litter. I sat down, wrapped in a warm blanket and in a few minutes we joined up with Chuck in the other Jolly. He and I exchanged a thumbs up and tried to relax for the long trip back to Da Nang. Then I had a horrible thought. I remembered awhile back that I had bad mouthed the Jollys for not coming to get an F-105 pilot who was down just north of the DMZ with a broken back. I found out later that it had nothing to do with the Jolly Greens’ courage, but everything to do with White House approval. It was the middle of the night back in the states and no one wanted to wake up the powers that be to approve a border crossing for the Jollys.

Great way to run a war, huh? Real frustrated with this Thud pilot’s plight, I had said something to the effect of, “Why don’t you guys (the Jollys) get up here and earn all these medals you get!” Now I’m wallowing at the thought of my harsh words coming back haunt me. “Not too swift a comment, Rutan,” I tell myself. I decided I should go up to the cockpit and thank the pilots for coming to get me. How could they possibly know who had bad mouthed them? So I stuck my head in the cockpit and was shocked to see how close he had joined in formation with Chuck’s Jolly. There was major rotor overlap. The pilot, a real hard core, cruel looking guy, looked at my name tag, and said with a half grin of satisfaction, “Rutan, you son of a bitch, they finally got you.” I left the cockpit and silently hoped he would not decide to throw me back into the water.

When we got back to Da Nang, one of the helos could not get his gear down. I think it was mine, but after some effort, they blew it down with a loud bang and landed. Looking out the door, all I could see was a sea of brass waiting for our arrival.

Everyone wanted to know where we got hit, what hit us, what our altitude was, etc. As it was, we had violated every limitation in the book. I eased over to Chuck and he whispered, “Dick, what do we tell them?” I said, “you’re the PIC. Tell them any thing you want and I’ll agree to it.” For a few minutes we were the center of attention and it seemed our every wish was their command. A few minutes later we were in an open jeep being driven to the hospital that was some place in downtown Da Nang, a long, long way from the familiarity of the flight line. We got a quick doctor check up, a jigger of the traditional cognac and were pronounced fit.

The PJs had collected all of our survival equipment and Chuck and I found ourselves standing alone outside the hospital in a driving rain storm, lugging all of this gear, trying to hitch a ride back to the flight line. We were no longer the center of anyone’s attention, but were now just a couple of soaked, nondescript fighter jocks looking for a ride. After some hours, we were in the back of an Army Caribou on our way south to Phu Cat. They dumped us off completely across the base on the Army cargo ramp.

We were still sopping wet, and still surrounded by hard rain that splashed the ground like a cow peeing on a flat rock. It was now well after sundown, and while dragging our rafts full of gear, we searched for a ride back to the fighter area. Finally, we made it to the O’ Club. There was a huge banner announcing “Welcome Home” and most of our fellow Misty’s were already well into the party. Chuck asked, “Why the hell didn’t you guys pick us up? We had to drag this crap clear across the base!” They all laughed and one of them said, “Are you crazy? It’s dark outside, and it’s raining like hell!”

The next day we debriefed the brass and told them exactly what we had done and how low we were. I thought we would catch hell; first for violating orders, and second for losing an aircraft. We had to come clean, for if we were losing aircraft at 4,500 feet, they may have jacked up the hard deck to 10,000 or so. The Colonel said he understood and thanked us for being forthright. I still had about two weeks of combat flying to go, but on my way torching out to the Gulf, I promised myself if I make it feet wet and get rescued, I wouldn’t go up North ever again.

“Sir, would it be all right if I don’t go up there anymore?” He smiled and said, “Rutan, your war is over. Go check with maintenance and help with some FCFs.” Doc Eckenberg, the Misty Flight Surgeon, and I went over to CBPO and forged some forms to get another R&R, this time to Sydney. Boy, that town had everything a tired fighter pilot could want or dream of.

I had a lot of fun with the 100 Mission patch the Thud drivers wear. I got one and changed it to read, “North Vietnam, 105 Missions in an F-100.” I remind Chuck that he got us shot down, but he reminds me that he saved my life. There’s no argument there. Thank you, Chuck. It was an honor to fly with you. — Dick Rutan

Ejection Number Two

It was the summer of 1970, and I had just completed a combat tour in Vietnam. My new assignment was at Lakenheath Air Base in England, about 60 miles north of London. This was the same field that launched B-17 Bombers during WWII. The primary mission of our 48th Tactical Fighter Wing was to provide close air support of the ground troops in Germany and a nuclear strike mission into the Soviet Union from our home base and forward alert bases in Turkey and Italy.

I was bored with the nuclear alert routine, and got checked out as a test pilot doing functional check flights (FCF) on newly overhauled F-100s before returning them to operational status. Due to a long period of typical lousy English weather, we had a large backlog of aircraft in need of FCFs and our wing was close to not being able to meet it’s nuclear operational commitment. This was a BIG no no during those cold war days. Before long, the wing’s higher ups, under the pressure of operational readiness, signed a weather waiver to launch me into the English murk to check out an F-100 that had just days before been in pieces all over the hangar floor.

Still soggy from the continuous downpour, I strapped into the sleek, single seat, single engine fighter, lit the after burner and blasted off into a ragged overcast. Seconds after lift off, I was in cloud and did not see the sun until I broke out in the clear at about 40,000 feet. Now, over the North Sea, I pulled the “HUN” out of burner and started the long litany of checks to make sure all was well with the aircraft. One check was to fly inverted (negative G) to make certain nothing was loose and the engine would keep running. When I rolled over and pushed the stick forward, I heard and felt a huge shift of weight right behind me. When I rolled back to level flight, the weight crashed down, making a loud bang. Being curious, I had to check it again. I pulled the nose up and pushed the stick hard forward into negative G, and sure enough, the same shift of weight and huge noise happened again. I pulled back on the stick and returned to normal flight, only this time, simultaneous with the crunch, the oil pressure went from 42 psi (normal) to zero within the blink of an eye.

“Oh, my God!” I thought to myself, “I am at 40,000 over the North Sea with weather all the way to the deck and I have zero oil pressure!” The good news is jet engines will run a handful of minutes without oil if you don’t move the throttle too much. So I set 83% RPM, about the power setting I needed for final approach, put out the speed brake and headed home, straight into the English murk.

My first thought was that the whole engine was loose and as it shifted up and down, it must have pulled a wire off the oil pressure gauge sender, which wouldn’t be a big problem. I was about ready to push the mike button to call for help, when I thought I had better make an ops check of my voice. Sure enough, the first attempt aloud in the cockpit was a broken, squeaky and full of panic voice. So, with a couple of deep breaths and a few practice calls, I conjured up a fairly good “Yeager cool” voice and called “Pan-Pan- Pan” on the Guard emergency frequency. The radar controllers did their magic to get me back ASAP. So far, all was fine. The engine seemed happy ,and as I intercepted the radar Ground Control Approach (GCA) glide path, I retracted the speed brake, extended the landing gear, and put down ½ flaps. With an engine problem, the procedure is to use ½ flaps to reduce drag, and 20 knots extra so if the engine fails there is enough speed to level off and eject. If you are not level, the chute simply won’t open in time.

At about 600 feet, and more than half way down the glide path, I was beginning to break out of the ragged overcast. Twelve and a half minutes had passed since the oil pressure had gone to zero. Suddenly, there was a slight vibration that grew rapidly into a horrible grinding noise. That was followed by a loud BANG, as the engine compressor disintegrated and stalled, and then fire shot out of both ends of the stricken Hun. The compressor stall was so violent it knocked my feet off the rudder pedals and blew dirt up in my face. Every light on the fault-warning panel lit up like a Christmas tree. I was coming back on the stick to get level and, looking ahead, I still could not see the runway, but did see the little village of Brandon directly in front of me.

The airspeed was bleeding off rapidly and I was at that small corner of time when the aircraft is just level before the stall, when one must eject. With no time to turn, I reached for the left ejection handle, and, with my right hand still on the stick, gave the aileron a couple shots of left roll trim. I then squeezed the left seat ejection trigger and an explosive charge blew the canopy off. I did not have enough time to get my head back against the headrest and as the engines seized beneath me, the rocket seat fired me up the rails, and out of the cockpit I went; my head slamming forward onto my chest.

The parachute opened immediately, and I swung twice and just before going into the trees, I could see the runway and the doomed F-100 in a gradual left turn. It impacted the trees in a huge fireball, just to the left of the little village.

Meanwhile, the entire base was aware of the emergency, and all were listening to the radio. The mobile controller, located in a small windowed trailer next to the runway to check gear down and grade landings, had seen my aircraft come out of the clouds with its landing light on and watched it crash into the trees about two or three miles short of the runway. He did not see a parachute deploy. The mobile controller hollered, “No chute! No chute! Get out there quick!” It was no secret that if you didn’t bail out, there was no chance of survival.

As I came crashing through the trees, my parachute snagged on the branches and slowed my decent. I landed literally at the feet of a typical English gentleman trimming trees in the Queen’s forest. He had heard the explosion, he saw the rocket seat go out, and now here before him stood this man in a white helmet with a gold visor and oxygen mask on – an alien from outer space.

With adrenaline pumping through my veins, I ripped off my helmet and hollered, “My name is Major Rutan and I am alive!” Being fresh out of combat in SEA, my first sense was to escape and evade. Checking my parachute emergency radio beeper, I saw that, just like my bail out in Vietnam, the beeper had failed and I had to get to the other radio in the seat kit to call for rescue. Finding the kit, I pulled the release handle and there was a loud hissing noise as the life raft started to inflate. This added commotion had scared the English bloke so badly he had started to run away. I took off my parachute harness and went running after him. I said, “Come back, come back! Please! I need your help!” He stopped and very reluctantly came back and helped me get the parachute down out of the trees. I located the emergency survival radio and made the call; “This is Ring Dove Flight Test Two One. I’m down. Come and get me.” From the time I squeezed the ejection trigger until I made the first radio call, a mere 90 seconds had passed.

At the time, I didn’t know that my parachute had not been spotted, and since my radio beeper had failed, the consensus was that I had gone in with the aircraft. My good buddy, who flies the base helicopter rescue, knew I was coming home with a bad engine and he was airborne in a HH-43 Husky air base rescue chopper. Underneath his helicopter is a round, pressurized container that  holds the fire fighting suppressant. His job was to land that unit right next to the crash site, where the helicopter rotor would blow the flames away. The firefighter corpsman would don his fire resistant gear and, with the suppressant hose, fight his way through the fire into the cockpit, pull the pilot out, and drag him out of the flames. That was the standard procedure.

When the mobile controller started hollering, “No chute! No Chute! Get out there quick!” my helicopter buddy, sensing the urgency, inadvertently jettisoned the fire suppression bottle to get to me ASAP. He knew his good buddy, Dick Rutan, whose wife was two weeks overdue with their second child, was inside that fireball and it was up to him to save his friend. As he orbited the burning wreckage, the thought that he had just lost a very good friend was overwhelming. And then he heard my radio call. “Hey, come out and get me!” With the mobile controller yelling “No chute!” my copter buddy thought I was inside the fireball calling for him, and then he realized that in his haste he dropped the fire suppressant container. This was the kind of emergency he was trained for – to land, fight the fire, rescue the pilot – but he had dropped the fire suppressant containers three miles back at the base. He was heartsick, and all he could do was sit there circling the crash site and watch the fire burn. When he heard me call again, it began to dawn on him that no one could be in that fireball alive and be calling on the radio.

In disbelief, eyes still on the fire, he pleaded, “Dick, where are you?” I heard his call on my survival radio and said, “I bailed out about two miles short. Get your tail out here and get me!” Reluctant to believe I was still alive, he responded, “You bailed out? You’re okay? You’re not in the fireball?” With a great sigh of relief, he flew over to a nearby soccer pitch (football field), landed, and I climbed in. While we flew back to the base, I was assessing my injuries. There were none sans a few scratches and a very sore neck.

Weeks later, the accident investigation team found an oil sample bottle in the oil tank, dropped by an errant crew chief, had floated up during the negative G check and lodged in the oil pickup  tube, ceasing the oil flow. The loud noise was the lead ballast in the ammunition bay that had not been secured properly. The noise and weight shift had nothing to do with the oil failure. But  needless to say, the Hun did not pass its FCF and would never again pull nuclear alert!

~ Dick Rutan