John Wagner – Caterpillar Club

John WagnerIt was late Good Friday afternoon of 1959 [4/27/59] and I was manning the Group Scheduling Desk at Luke AFB. My old roommate, George Black (later killed in a T-33 crash in Japan) called in from the 14th Squadron that he wasn’t feeling well and needed someone to take his fight. George said the student was all briefed and ready to go. Rather than call around to other Squadrons for a replacement IP or cancel the flight, I told him I’d take it and asked “What’s the mission?”. He said “Air to Air – one on one” and he’d tell the student to use my “Ugly” call sign. It was one of the last missions of the day and we were running late, so I skipped the pre-flight, strapped in, contacted Ugly #2 and got airborne for the air-to-air range south of Ajo, AZ, over the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument.

We briefed on the way down that once over the range at 25,000 ft. the “stud” would take a position off my right wing at 30,000 ft. and then he’d be cleared to attack. After the first rat race, he was re-positioned on the left wing and we went at it again. I was pulling in hard to get him in a scissors when the old J57 came unglued, the cockpit filled with thick smoke and I couldn’t see a thing. I released Gs and jettisoned the canopy. Things cleared up considerably so I switched to Guard channel an informed the world I was about to stopcock and solo my F-100C. The student was now in trail and he said he was surprised to see me flying by off his wing without my airplane. He later told me he felt a surge of pride in getting his first kill!

The ejection sequence went as well as advertised and I extended arms and legs to stop the tumbling and began to free fall. Then I realized that the lanyard, aneriod and auto opening had not taken place. They were set to deploy at 14,000 ft. (Flagstaff Mountains) and I was sure something was wrong. I wanted to see a canopy over my head so I grabbed the rip cord handle and pulled. The canopy looked great and so did the view from 20,000 ft., but a couple of things crossed my mind: 1) I wondered what I might have missed by skipping the preflight. 2) I wondered why I was getting light headed. I had forgotten to hook up my oxygen bottle so I pulled the apple and stuck the tube in my mouth. The head cleared and I realized it would take a while to hit the ground.

My radio call and the student had alerted Luke AFB. Walt McMeen and his jet copter were well on the way before I pulled on the risers to avoid a barbed wire fence and hit the ground. I spread out the canopy and laid down in the middle. A couple of ranchers drove up a nearby road and walked over with a welcome canteen of water. Except for a scratch on my chin from the helmet strap everything was fine and trip back to Luke greatly appreciated.

Col. Spain met me at Luke, an accident board headed by old friend Dan Neff was appointed. Walt confirmed the fence I avoided was the U.S. – Mexico border and I’d actually landed in Mexico. This wasn’t mentioned in any report. The aircraft was trimmed up and landed among the cactus in relatively good shape. The doubled spool J57 engine was the material failure cause of the accident.  A bearing had failed. Seems like the airlines got 2,000 hours between overhaul on the J57, SAC got 1,000 hours and TAC 500. This confirmed Bob Hoover’s comment that the early F-100s were flying test beds.

This incident woke me up to the fact that I wasn’t immortal and it was time to get married. I’d been dating Adele French for two years and proposed to her the next evening. We’re still going strong after 55 years of world travel and adventure.

~ John Wagner