Ken Kerwin – Caterpillar Club

Ken KerwinFred Ogel and I joined the Caterpillar Club in the early ‘60s whilst flying a 20th FW/79th FS F-100F out of Spain headed to England. We were at about 35,000 ft over France when our feet were blown off the rudder pedals and the cockpit went IFR.

We tuned in Chateroux on the TACAN, as it was the nearest known field, and turned in that direction. When we contacted the tower they said the field was under construction and the left side was closed. When asked if there was still room for an F-100, they said it was OK with them if we wanted to try. (Ever notice how many red cockpit lights and unwinding gauges seem to limit your options.) So we decided, “Why not, lets give it a go.” By the way, I still remember the aircraft tail number … AF-63888.

Fred was the cool one, for some unknown reason I had pulled the oxygen bottle on my chute and had to fight the constant pressure to talk.

We set up a glide toward the field and talked about landing. At about 10,000 feet our wing man said in a rather commanding voice, “GET OUT, YOU’RE ON FIRE!!!” Seems the whole tail section had burst into flames from the internal engine fire. That must have been some sight, wish I could have seen it. That also seemed to limit our options even more.

Without so much as a “by-your-leave,” I pulled the handles.

Boy, does it get quiet outside of a trusty F-100 at 10,000 feet. After a ride of my life, looked up and saw that big beautiful chute in full bloom. Could also see a large fire ball with wings and a wingman departing in the distance.

After releasing my survival kit and enjoying the panoramic view of the beautiful French countryside, I landed in the trees straddling a barbwire fence. Thought to myself, now you’re in trouble,  what if the chute slips and you land on the fence.

Rather than releasing the chute harness, decided to trim a few lines to swing to the side then release. Took out the secret orange knife from its hiding place on my left leg. We carried the knife with the hook blade ready for just such an emergency. Reached up and cut one of the risers … or at least tried. The hook blade just rolled over and didn’t even mark the riser. Must have happened to other fighter pilots also, because it was not long until they all tore the pocket off their flights suits.

Thanks to an old French farmer, I finally got out of the trees. He climbed up in the tree and, using a small pocket knife with the blade almost worn off from use (just like one my Grandfather had), cut through the risers like butter and set me free. I called the Gooney Bird circling overhead to say I was OK and check on Fred. Later found out he was not on Guard Channel. The French farmer and some friends loaded me in the rear of an old pick up truck with all my gear and headed to Chad. About half way there a rescue chopper from Chad picked me up. I used all (both) French words I knew to thank all the farmers for their wonderful help and departed in the chopper.

The Base Commander bought us dinner in the club that night and soon we departed on a 20th FW Gooney Bird for home. Our free ride home had a generator problem. The crew chief opened a
panel in the floor and took a screwdriver to some wires. Sparks flew everywhere… and he kept it up. I had not had enough Vodka Tonics yet to not care, so I tapped him on the shoulder and asked him to stop, at least until they let us off.

As I said, Fred was the cool one, he and Kay still are every time I see them!

Ken (K2) Kerwin