Jim Miholick – Caterpillar Club

Jim MiholickThe date was 23 June 1961, and I was flying F-100C 54-1819 on one of the low-level training missions at Nellis. I was a student in the Advanced Gunnery School at the time (Leroy Schwartz was my Instructor). We took off as a two-ship (with Leroy chasing me) and were heading north on the first leg of the low-level. I was just cresting a ridge line about 15 minutes after takeoff. The “glare shield” over the instrument panel had vibrated loose on the right side and was covering the Fire and Overheat warning lights, so I decided to re-fasten the dzus fastener which held it up. I did this, and when I took my arm away, I noticed the Fire Warning light was on. I immediately pushed the power up and started a zoom climb and a left turn back toward Nellis. I asked Leroy if he saw anything wrong with my airplane and he said, “There’s a pretty big hole in the side of the fuselage about 3 feet in front of the star and I can see the engine; there’s also fire coming out of it.”

At that time, everything in the cockpit looked fine (except for the Fire light), and everything was working. Within about 10 seconds, the Utility system pressure went to zero, so I switched to P1 then to P2 that also went to zero, and the “panic panel” lights had started to come on. By this time, I had zoomed up to about 9,500′ and turned back toward Nellis, when the stick turned to “concrete” in the floor, and I knew I was going to have to punch out. I didn’t make any radio calls back to Nellis (Leroy was doing that for me), and I remember being thoroughly ticked that I had gotten up early that morning to make my low-level map, and wasn’t about to leave that in the airplane. With my left arm I tucked my “booklet” into the front of my G-suit and raised the right armrest. The canopy jettisoned as advertised, but the “trigger” didn’t come up out of the bottom of the armrest like it was supposed to.

The airplane had stopped climbing and started a slight descent, still in a left turn at about 250 kts. At this point I got really mad, lit the burner, and leaned forward to put my finger under the trigger, intending to get back into the correct position for the ejection. As soon as I got my finger under the trigger, the seat fired. I went out of the jet “butt-first,” leaving my visor on the windshield bow and breaking my oxygen mask on my right leg. The next thing I knew was I was hanging in the chute; all the automatic stuff worked as advertised. I looked up to check the canopy, and noticed that there was a great big olive drab “patch” sewn into the otherwise orange and white canopy.

I remember thinking that those liars told us we all had brand new parachutes, and that they’d never been used. So much for that fairy tale. I couldn’t find the airplane, which had already hit the ground (they told me later that it hit the desert going about 700+ kts in a 90 degree left bank and steep dive), so I assume the engine was still running after I left the thing. I did notice that it was really quiet, and Leroy would occasionally fly by me, then go out, turn around, and come back. I also noticed that I would feel a breeze that would make me start oscillating in the chute, which was OK until I noticed the “downhill” side of the canopy start to curl under. I pulled on the risers alternately to stop the “swinging” whenever it happened. It also took me about 20 minutes to get to the ground, which I thought was a bit much. Leroy later told me that the swinging in the chute was probably due to updrafts, since he’d come by and I had actually gained altitude since his last pass. I finally hit the ground about 15 miles south of Beryl Junction, Utah, gathered up my stuff, and proceeded to wait for the rescue chopper.

I did have a couple of “visitors,” including one female who REALLY wanted the parachute. She made it fairly clear that she would do virtually anything if I would give her the chute, but since my back was kind of sore, I didn’t take her up on the offer (at least that’s my story and I’m sticking to it). I remembered that in training they said to wait wherever we hit the ground because that’s where the rescue chopper would look for us. Well, I bailed out at 1330 in the afternoon, and finally at 1830 that evening, a black-and-white Dodge station wagon belonging to the “Iron County, Utah” sheriff came bounding out across the desert, and the deputy told me that he’d been sent out to pick me up. Apparently the rescue chopper somehow “broke” and wasn’t going to make it. We put all my gear into the deputy’s car, went by the “crater” at the crash site, where I picked up the biggest piece of the airplane I could find (part of a wing) and put it in my G-suit pocket.

We then went to Cedar City, Utah, where I got a ride in the Nellis range officer’s Otter back to Nellis. On the way back, we did see the “rescue chopper” parked at a scenic overlook on I-15 with some poor sky-cop guarding the thing. We finally got back to Nellis about 1930 that evening. I found out later that I had apparently caused quite a stir back at Nellis, because the airplane crashed about 1/4 mile from a farmer’s house. The farmer went to the crater, then called Nellis and told them one of their airplanes had crashed and the pilot was in the crater. Leroy had radioed and told them I was OK and in the chute, and since it was a single-seat airplane, they weren’t really sure who to believe.

Turns out the farmer had seen pieces of the drag chute in the wreckage, which he assumed was my personal chute. I also remember thinking it was pretty bogus that they wouldn’t let me log “takeoff to landing” time (which would have been 35 minutes); they said I could only log the time actually in the airplane (15 minutes). To a young lieutenant trying to build up flying time, this was a pretty big deal. A couple of weeks later, the accident board discovered that a Marmon clamp on the main bleed air line had come loose, and that started the fire.

-Jim Miholick