I pulled a few pranks in the military, but the one that got pulled on me took years off of my life.
Alone in the Cockpit
There isn’t anything cooler for a 19-year old then getting into the cockpit of a fighter plane. While most of my time was spent in the shop repairing electronic warfare receivers, every once in awhile I got called out to the flightline to troubleshoot a problem that couldn’t be duplicated on the bench. In the year and a half I was in Thailand I climbed in and out of the cockpits of F-4’s, F-105 Wild Weasels and A-7’s.
If you worked during the day, the flightline felt like organized chaos and viewed from above it might have looked like an anthill (if it had 500lb bombs.) Planes were prepped for maintenance and had all the service equipment you needed and a crew chief nearby. But at night the flightline had a different, slower tempo. You’d catch a ride to the revetment, and you’d be out there alone watching the moths and baht bugs dance in out of the beams of the portable light carts. You’d have a “start cart” towed to the plane, lug a power cord the size of a fire hose and plug in the external power to the plane, climb the ladder, open the canopy, and get into the cockpit, turn on the aircraft circuit breakers and power up my electronic countermeasures equipment (no I never got to start the engines.) It was way cool. Even more so at night when the cockpit lighting and displays and the stars above made you realize that even a delivery vehicle of death could be beautiful.
It made you forget you were sitting on top of a rocket two inches from your rear end.
All military fighter and bomber aircraft are equipped with ejection seats. If the plane is damaged in combat the pilot (and crew) can escape before the plane crashes. To eject the pilot pulls a handle and the next thing he knows he’s hopefully seeing his chute above him and damaged plane spiraling into the ground. Ejection seats work on a simple principle. Underneath each of the seat(s) is a rocket designed to shoot the crewmember out of the damaged plane. The seat is mounted on rails that guide the seat out of the plane. After clearing the plane the seat then falls away and a parachute deploys to gently land the crewmember/pilot.
Each type of military plane has a slightly different ejection sequence. On fighter planes they work by blowing the cockpit canopy off and then firing the rocket under the seat. On bombers they worked by blowing hatches off and then firing the crew up, or in some cases down, away from the aircraft.
The last thing you want is a seat going off by accident when some maintenance guy sticks his hands to rummage under the ejection seat when he dropped his screwdriver. (Something I did many times.)
When the airplane is parked the crew chief inserts safety pins to “safe” the seat. These pins stop the mechanical systems used to fire the seat. The pins had long red streamers attached to them that said “Remove before flight.”
Into the Hanger Ceiling
Each time you got to an airbase you’d get briefed on aircraft safety on the “egress” systems. Someone in your shop would take you out to an aircraft and show you where each of the pins were supposed to go and make sure you knew what not to touch, kick or remove.
The accidents that happened when something did go wrong were gruesome. When I got to my first airbase in Florida they first thing they told me was, “You might want to pay attention, we scraped some airman off the hanger ceiling three months ago.” And a few months later at my base in Thailand the same thing happened again.
B-52 Egress Training
When I came home from Thailand I was stationed on a B-52 bomber base. These 8-engine bombers carried nuclear weapons and had a crew of six in a two-story cockpit. On the upper deck the pilot and co-pilot faced forward, and right behind them sat the Electronic Warfare Officer and the Tail Gunner facing backwards. All four crewmembers had upward firing ejection seats just like the fighter planes I had worked on.
But on the bottom deck sat the Navigator and the Radar Navigator (the bombardier) and their seats ejected downwards.
Two of my new shop mates took me out to my first B-52 to get me “checked out.” You entered the plane from a hatch in the bottom deck and climbed a ladder to the top deck. We started on each of the four seats on top as they taught me where all the safety pins went.
As they showed me around the cockpit they kept emphasizing how much more dangerous the B-52 ejection systems were than those I was used to on fighters. “These are really old planes and these ejection systems are really, really touchy.” By the time we got to the bottom deck, I was gaining a real respect for these seats. “Oh, these seats down here? If they ever went off you’d be fired right into the ground and then burned to death by the rocket.”
They sat me in the Navigators seat as they kept telling me more and more horrific B-52 ejection seat stories. “Yeah on these seats the ejection sequence automatically starts when it grabs your legs. The rocket fires in 10 seconds.” Sitting in the navigators seat, I was processing that when they said, “Move your legs back to get some more room.” I kicked my legs back and then heard a loud metallic noise.
All of a sudden my legs couldn’t move. Something had grabbed my ankles.
My shop mates looked at me and yelled, “Holly sxxt! He’s initiated the ejection system! The rocket is going to fire!! Lets get out of here!”
I looked in horror as they jumped out of the hatch and left me alone to die. I struggled to find a way to get out of the seat. Through the open hatch I could hear my shop mates counting down waiting for the seat to fire. 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1
I closed my eyes and prepared to die.
Time passed. I was still alive. I could hear laughter coming from the hatch as my shop mates came back up and unlocked the leg restraints. (They were just mechanical devices that didn’t arm the ejection system.)
As they helped me down out of the hatch there must have been 10 more of my shop mates gathered on the tarmac.
“Hey, he didn’t even wet his pants.”
I had just been initiated as a maintenance technician on the B-52.