Sam Gore – Caterpillar Club

Sam GoreIt has been 53 years since I “punched out” of F-100D 179 over the desert in Libya, and I should not be writing this account. I should be stone cold irrevocably dead. It was the summer of 1958 and I was a pilot in the 494th Sq, 48th Fighter Wing based at Chaumont, France and was TDY to Wheelus AB, Tripoli, Libya, where there was a practice gunnery and bombing range located about 20 NM out in the Sahara desert. The primary mission of the 48th was to deliver nuclear weapons to targets in Russia and its satellites in event of war. So, we spent a lot of time in Libya practicing the maneuver that fighter pilots use to deliver a nuke. This maneuver consisted of a high-speed run-in at ground level, then a 4G pull-up over the target. This was supposed to fling the nuke to an altitude high enough so that by the time the bomb fell back to earth and detonated, the pilot would have had time to escape the blast.

On this particular day, I was one of three aircraft practicing these maneuvers on the range at Wheelus using 4 25LB practice bombs. My first three deliveries were good enough to complete my re-qualification, so I decided to use my remaining bomb to do the maneuver without using the afterburner at pull-up. I added another 25 KTs to the run-in speed to do this. I was about 1/3 of the way down the run-in line at 100 FT above the ground with 525 KTs indicated airspeed and the throttle at full military power when it happened. There was a loud bang (much louder than any compressor stall), all warning lights came on, and dense smoke filled the cockpit. All of this occurred in about 2 seconds and I had no idea what had happened. Visibility in the cockpit was zero and aircraft attitude unknown, so with no hesitation, I made the decision to eject. With my left hand, I raised the armrest squeezed the trigger and was out of there. I probably followed the departing canopy by about 1 second. When the ejection seat fired, I still had both feet on the rudder pedals and one hand on the stick and hadn’t assumed the proper ejection position, so when my head popped up into that 525 KT slipstream, it was lights out for me. The accident investigators found my busted helmet in the desert and theorized it split when the slipstream slammed my head against the headrest. When I regained enough consciousness to somewhat function, I found myself being dragged slowly across the desert by what was left of my chute and even though I was only half conscious I managed to release one shoulder strap to collapse the chute. I was told that some chute panels were damaged or missing and many had burn marks caused by friction from the risers when the chute deployed. I have always wondered what my rate of descent must have been when I hit the ground. After I got the chute deflated, I must have passed out again for a while, because the next thing I remember was a chopper being there and medics lifting me onto a stretcher. I don’t remember the chopper flight to the base hospital at Wheelus where I spent the night under observation. An exam the next day revealed only a fractured coccyx and I was released. I was back flying in a few days although I had a sore butt for a month. I still can’t believe that I had no serious injuries. My wife, however, maintains that the severe blow to my head knocked me senseless and that I have not yet recovered. I was lucky in that I had all my equipment set up correctly.

My chute had just been repacked and re-fitted, my visor was down, D-ring lanyard disconnected, etc. and against all odds, everything worked exactly like it was supposed to work. The accident investigation determined that the explosion was caused by the #1 turbine wheel disintegrating and causing catastrophic failures of everything aft of it.

I stayed in the AF for another 8 years, flew 160 Nam missions in the F-5, then resigned and flew 23 years for Eastern Airlines. When Eastern went under, I completed crop dusters school at Ag-Flight in Bainbridge, GA, and dusted for a short while, then spent 10 summers bush-flying and commercial salmon fishing in Alaska. I still practice short field landings in my C-180 with the big bush tires in the pasture behind my house. One might say that at my age (born in 1933), I am still trying to kill myself by lethal airplane. If I am lucky, one of these days I’ll succeed.

-Sam Gore