Robert L. Dunham

Robert H. Dunham(Photo taken at 181st TFG(ANG), Hulman Field, Terre Haute, IN the day prior to the ejection.)

On 24 Feb 1978, 1009 EST, a flight of three F-100s from the 181st TFG departed Hulman Field, Terre Haute, IN for a local training mission. The mission was briefed as an air support tactics and low level training on TR779 Low Level Route. The flight entered the Low Level Route less than 5 minutes after takeoff.

The lead element moved to tactical route formation at 1,000′ AGL and 335 KIAS. After one tactical turn and evasion maneuver, the Lead noticed white vapor trailing from Two. Seven to ten seconds later, Two called that he had both a Fire Light and an Overheat Light illuminated. Two to three seconds later, the vapor turned to black smoke then to visible flames. Lead transmitted confirmation of the fire and told Two: “You are on fire, get out.” Two acknowledged and ejected. A total of 10 seconds had elapsed since the first indication of a problem.

From the cockpit, I felt and heard a “thump” that led me to believe I had hit a bird. I turned left to check the wing, and when I swept through the cockpit to check the right wing, I noticed the Fire and Overheat lights were both ON. I made the initial radio call then. I saw the oil pressure decrease rapidly to zero, and other engine instruments start to unwind, so I made the decision to eject.

My plan was to stay “eyes wide open” to watch the whole ejection sequence, but I soon found that the “G” forces and windblast were more than I had anticipated.

The Ejection System was equipped with the DART Snubber modification and a ballistic drogue chute in the parachute. I initiated the ejection at about 1’000′ AGL and with something over 300 KIAS. I didn’t zoom, as I decided airspeed and time were better than altitude as I didn’t know what was next for the airframe. BAD decision.

I placed my feet in the stirrups, sat erect, and pulled the handles. When the rocket fired and the windblast hit, I thought it would break my legs under the seat – it was pretty strong. My first real recollection was in free-fall waiting for the opening shock of the chute. I noticed something flailing out of my right peripheral vision. I reached out and gathered it in, only to realize it was my right leg and combat boot. That occurred about the time of opening shock, so I was left holding my leg with my right hand and trying to steer the chute with only my left.

Analysis of the seat showed that the DART snubber system worked properly through the line play out. However, the Development Test Report of the DART Snubber system states that “at approximately 300 KIAS, the seat will reach the end of the lanyards and the “dummy” will not completely separate from the seat. In my case, this proved to be true. The seat hit the end of the lanyards, the lap belt had opened, so there was not enough weight in the seat to break the frangible links, yet the butt snapper had not (yet) fired to get me away from the seat. The left snubbing lanyard held as advertised, but the right lanyard failed to hold, causing the seat to do a snap roll to the left.

With my right foot held firmly in the stirrup, the seat snapped my right femur just below the hip joint, leaving a length of about 10″ of bone shards no bigger than a thumbnail. Yet the skin was never broken and no blood was lost.

Once I achieved touchdown in the chute – FAH (foot, ass, head), I was so relieved to be safely on the ground. The weather was cold, with about two feet of snow on the plowed field. I let the chute drag me for about 100 yards before jettisoning the canopy.

I was picked up by local civilians and carried to the highway where they put me on a stretcher and laid me in the middle of the road. That was the first moment of fear – because I just knew I would be run over by a truck by lying there. My recollection to that point was no pain, just a lot of adrenaline.

I was taken to Jewett, IL, hospital for an initial medical evaluation and then transported to Chanute AFB by ambulance. I was to become very familiar with the Chanute AFB Hospital, as I spent 5 months there in traction and learned to put up with my hospital roommate – Ted Turza.

As for the airplane – it was a smoking hole. It turned out that the engine developed a cracked weld in the Number 7 nozzle cluster that allowed hot air to stream out under the fuel-oil cooler, initiating the fire and releasing fuel into the lower engine compartment. -Robert Dunham