Ken Peterson – Caterpillar Club

peterson02 Apr 1968. Vietnam. CAS, troops in contact, restricted run in heading, multiple low level passes over the same target area, moderate small arms fire. The odds shifted in favor of the golden BB, and soon the engine was no longer sucking and blowing. The cockpit indicator lights offered a red dominated multi colored display that was diffused by a surreal hazy smoke. No time to attempt to fix things, so it was move on. Zoomed, got ready to boom, and told the flight lead (Capt. Mick Doty) I was going to need alternate transportation home (or words to that effect). Assumed the position, pulled the handles and — nothing. Nuts, how does that manual bailout procedure work again? Then slowly—ever so slowly—the canopy began to slide aft and up, and it left the jet. Step one complete. Squeezed the triggers. Again, nothing. Man, this is not my day. Okay, actuate the bailout bottle, disconnect the personal leads, trim nose down, invert the jet, unfasten the lap  belt/push free and then pull the D-ring. But first, try one more squeeze—lo and behold, the seat started up the rails. The fire spewing dragon pushed me out (up? sideways? down?). Now of course all who have “been there and done that” realize the truth—everything worked as it should, in well under a second, but temporal distortion was giving me the (very) slow motion version of the movie.

As the seat and I tumbled through the air, the belt release mechanism fired, and the butt snapper did its thing. Now the (streaming) chute appeared between the legs (between the legs??). Wonder what it is going feel like when it —–Man, what a crack-the-whip.

Checked the chute, prepared for the four line cut—-more nuts. Three panels were shredded, and the ejection seat was sitting on top of the chute. So instead of an umbrella, I had a Dolly Parton. Skipped the four line cut and tried to shake the seat off the canopy. Nearly collapsed ½ the remaining chute, so abandoned that plan. Got ready to land (soon). Notwithstanding the bullets  whizzing all around, I figured at least the rice paddy was bound to be soft. Yeah, soft like a concrete parking lot. Fortunately I didn’t know at the time how fast I was coming down with the damaged chute et al., or I might have really been scared. Crash. The PLF was more of a PFL (Poor Freakin’ Landing).

The ejection seat landed very soon thereafter—on my head. Dazed and with a cracked helmet, I figured I might still have to take on Charlie, so I drew my trusty USAF .38 revolver which was coolly strapped to my hip in the best John Wayne holster ever seen. Gunfire was inbound from seemingly every direction.

It wasn’t too long before I heard the greatest sound every downed pilot hopes for—WHAP, WHAP, WHAP. The good guys were in range. Two Hueys approached, one hovering to pick me up, the other laying down suppression fire that would have made Rambo proud. I crawled over to and got in the lead Huey, gave a thumbs up to the AC, and waited for lift off. Nothing. I gave him another thumbs up, and he just pointed over my shoulder, outside the chopper. Being in the relatively safe confines of the Huey and not in the best of condition, I was reluctant to get back out and request official permission to
board, so I hesitated. The “crusty old chopper AC” (at least 30 years old), threw his hands up in the air, unbuckled, and got out. Meanwhile the co-pilot maintained a hover while the two 19 year old kids [“Guts” on the left side and “More Guts” on the right] were spewing out automatic fire at the very unfriendly tree lines. The AC strolled around, picked up my chute and life raft (there had been a possibility of landing in a river), plus the ejection seat (I couldn’t convince him it was a no deposit, no return item), placed it all next to me (directing me to hold on to it), strapped himself back in, and off we went.
The ride back to Bien Hoa was exhilarating to say the least. The heli guys figured that the lower and faster (we are talking chopper faster here) the better, to create less exposure to the always possible ground fire. We were nearly clipping the tree tops along the way. I was picturing the curved up leading portion of the landing skid snagging a tree branch, and all of us winding upside down in another rice paddy. Midway home, the AC asked in a very polite, non profane, unsarcastic tone, if it would be possible for me to turn off my ELT so the rest of them could continue to fight the *&^%$# war. The terrific hospital personnel cleaned up the blood on the upper torso and the brown stuff on the lower torso, and much later, the Buzzard [510th TFS] fighter pilot bar provided additional antiseptic.
~ Ken Peterson