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Bailing Out of F-4D-28MC SN 65-761

Lt.Col. Glen W. Clark, Jr., USAF (Ret).

In May of 1970 my wife, infant daughter and I were greeted upon our arrival at the Frankfort, West Germany, Airport by Les and Judy Alford who had the good fortune of being our assigned 10th TFS (Tactical Fighter Squadron) sponsors.  As such, their responsibility was to transport us to Hahn Air Base (AB) and thereafter assure our successful assimilation into the 10th TFS family.  An undertaking for which we were most grateful, and which Les (with certain exceptions hereinafter discussed) and Judy (with no exceptions whatsoever) admirably performed.

My wife, Lynda, was new to Air Force life.  Hahn AB was our first assignment as a married couple and this was her first experience outside CONUS (Continental United States).  I, on the other hand, had been an Air Force brat and had already lived a number of years outside CONUS, most recently spending a year in Viet Nam.  All of this to say that my dear wife had no idea what she had gotten herself into.

Our first week at Hahn AB was spent procuring transportation, a VW of course, and looking for a place to live.  With Les’ and Judy’s help we found a house in the community of Liederbach and began the lengthy process of getting settled.  However, as I knew from my childhood, the Air Force’s patience in these matters was limited and the time to resume my aviation pursuits was soon at hand.  As fate would have it, Les was going to be my instructor and front seater for my initial flights in the 10th TFS.

The runway at Hahn AB being temporarily closed for resurfacing, on Monday, May 25, 1970, I piled into Les’ Porsche 356 for the harrowing, yet beautiful ride through the Mosel River valley to Spangdahlem AB, often referred to as “Spang”, where a contingent of the 10th TFS was operating.  I don’t remember much about our flight that day other than it was my first flight after Viet Nam and that I was poorly equipped.  My flight gear, such as my helmet, g-suit, parachute harness, etc., had not yet arrived from my last squadron and I was forced to borrow these items from my new squadron mates.  The bigger equipment problem, at least from the Air Force perspective, involved my boots.  In Viet Nam we flew in boots having an olive green nylon upper, which were known as “jungle boots”.  In USAFE (US Air Forces in Europe) the wear of jungle boots was strictly prohibited for any purpose.  For flight wear, an all leather lace-up boot generically known as the “combat boot” was required, but for other uses a black leather boot frequently referred to as a “Wellington” boot was permitted.  The dilemma I faced was a critical shortage of regulation combat boots in the supply chain.   There simply weren’t any, and all I owned were jungle boots as well as my beloved Wellingtons, which had been custom made in Korea.  A decision had to be made, and I went with the Wellingtons.  A decision I would later be required to explain.

Our flight on Tuesday, my second flight in the 10th TFS, is one I remember well. Les was to give me another orientation ride while administering a check ride to another crew piloted by Capt. Paul Seiler.  As I recall, this mission involved a low level navigation problem which culminated in the simulated delivery of a tactical nuclear weapon.  Our primary mission in the 10th TFS was nuclear, with most of our targets located in former Soviet satellite countries. 

The mission progressed without incident until we passed over the target at the planned speed of 520 knots at 500 feet above the ground, when the left engine fire warning light chose to illuminate.  In the F-4 Phantom a fire light could indicate a fire or an overheat condition, just as an overheat light could mean either depending on the location of the problem.  Praying for an overheat condition, the left engine was retarded to idle in hopes that the problem might resolve itself.  No such luck as the light stayed on.  Then assuming the worst, the engine was completely shut down.  Unfortunately, the light remained on.  Other than the light, there were no indications of a fire noted from the cockpit.

While Les and I were dealing with the fire light, Capt. Seiler maneuvered his aircraft into an observation position from which he confirmed the existence of a “big fire”.  By now we had climbed to approximately 2500 feet, slowed to 300 knots and Les had turned us in the direction of an unpopulated area.  And, not surprisingly, our conversation quickly changed from the obviously faulty Fire/Overheat warning system to the merits of our Martin-Baker ejection seats.  In fact, in that moment I remember the following exchange: Les, “Do you think we should eject?”  Me, “Don’t ask me, you’re the flight examiner!”

In any event, Les gave the command and I wasted no time in executing the ejection procedure, which I am pleased to report worked perfectly.  To this day I can remember it seeming to take minutes for my canopy to jettison, an event requiring mere milliseconds; and I remember clearly the sight of that burning airplane passing under my feet as the Martin-Baker ejection seat did its job.  There was little doubt, it was an actual fire.

Somewhere in the ejection sequence I became aware that Les had also successfully ejected.  We waved at each other, and then I heard the unmistakable sound of a US Army Huey helicopter.  This one, I was thrilled to see, had a big red cross painted on it.  I marveled at the Army’s near instantaneous response, with medics no less.  What I didn’t know was that while we were dealing with the emergency we had flown into a parachute drop zone where the Army was actively engaged in paratrooper training.  Immediately upon the completion of my PLF (parachute landing fall) I was greeted by a US Army soldier who informed me that his orders of the day were to take prisoner anyone landing in a parachute.  After several unpersuasive comments about us being on the same team, he began the necessary paperwork for my incarceration.  Fortunately, that Huey helicopter, mistakenly believed to be carrying medics, landed and my capturing soldier’s commanding officer disembarked and proceeded to explain that this was an exception to the orders of the day.   I was promptly released. We boarded the helicopter and went off in search of Les. 

Upon arrival at Les’ position I observed that he had also been taken prisoner (a fitting reward, I thought, for the mess he had gotten me into).  However, Les’ paperwork had been completed and he was much closer to POW status than I had achieved.  Thereafter, the Huey delivered Les and me to the crash site where a number of German souvenir hunters were already at work.  Les, now exercising command skills I had yet to observe, had the Army establish a perimeter around the remains of our broken Phantom and we began our wait for the arrival of the Air Force. I will add that among the more impressive sights up to this point in my day were the multiple low passes executed by Capt. Seiler in his effort to observe events on the ground, or perhaps in his effort to free Les and me from captivity.

Sometime later the Air Force helicopter arrived for our rendezvous with the authorities at Ramstein AB.  Brigadier General Chuck Yeager was at this time the Vice Commander of 17th Air Force and one of his many responsibilities was the oversight of aircraft accident investigations.  Fittingly, our first stop was the General’s office.

The scene in the hall outside the General’s office was, as I recall, reminiscent of a similar scene in the movie “Top Gun” involving a humorous exchange between Maverick and Goose.  In any event, we were invited in for General Yeager’s initiation of the accident investigation.  The General’s first question, directed to Les, involved the apparent nose bleed which Les had suffered.  Les explained that he was fine, but had lost his helmet during the ejection which caused the nose bleed.  The General’s next question was directed to me.  Because Les’ helmet had been lost, the General wanted to know if, in a like manner, I had lost my boots.  The reason Wellington type boots were not permitted for flying was the fear that they might come off your feet during an ejection.  I explained to the General that unlike Les’ regulation helmet, my boots had performed perfectly.  That was it.  For the next 30 minutes we drank coffee in Gen. Yeager’s office and listened to his story about the time he bailed out of an F-104 at Edwards AFB.  He even had a drawer full of pictures, and I’m sure he got to tell his story more frequently than I have told mine.  Or, maybe not.

Following our meeting with Gen. Yeager, we were taken to the hospital where they proceeded to run more tests and take more x-rays than I thought possible.  We were then released to our squadron. They had come to pick us up in the base T-29, the executive aircraft of the era. Our squadron buddies had stocked with beer and champagne for the return trip to Spangdahlem AB.  Upon arriving at Spang we were met at Base Operations by our Squadron Commander who was most interested in my boot selection, more so even than in the aircraft he had just lost.  This was my first introduction to my new commanding officer and I was fearful that it might not go well.  I explained to my Commander that I had little choice in the boots because the supply system was out of combat boots and my only other choice would have been the prohibited jungle boots.  He must have checked out my story with the supply people because I never heard another word about it and the jungle boot prohibition was soon lifted pending the availability of regulation combat boots.

After a brief stop at the Officers’ Club for another drink or two, and to tell our story, we piled into Les’ Porsche and headed home to Hahn.  I’m sure that ride home was far more hazardous than our experiences of the day, but we made it safely – God was certainly with us.

Lynda, being new to the Air Force, probably didn’t grasp the excitement in all of this, at least until the hospital ambulance showed up at our house after dinner.  The medic explained that Air Force procedure required that I spend the first night in the hospital for observation.  If they had wanted to be truly helpful, they should have met us at Spangdahlem with the ambulance.  As it turned out, the hospital was a good place to be because the next morning I could hardly move.  Due to the ejection, and perhaps the alcohol, every muscle, joint and organ in my body ached.

Les and I were back to flying within several days, but that is not where the story ends. Several weeks later, and after a number of additional flights, I received a call from the flight surgeon.  He had been reading my x-rays and had found a foreign object in my abdomen which, he thought, might have been the result of a puncture wound.  I assured him that here were no puncture wounds, but I still went to the hospital to prove my claim.  When I saw the x-ray, I quickly identified the foreign object as a small curtain rod screw which I had accidently swallowed several nights before while attempting to assemble a curtain rod in our new home.  The disposition of that screw remains unknown, which may explain why that curtain rod never functioned properly.

The accident investigation board determined that the fire was caused by the chafing of a hydraulic line.  Hydraulic fluid is highly flammable, operates under extremely high pressures, and causes fires when exposed to jet engines.

I flew the F-4 for an additional seven years without further incident.  And, my friend Larry Herzinger, from whom I borrowed the parachute harness, flew a number of uneventful years wearing that harness.  Unbeknownst to Larry, after my ejection the harness had been condemned.