Any mishap involving an airplane is bad, but there are some that are born in of the bowels of Murphy’s darkest, cruelest imaginations. This is certainly one of those, and truly a story for the ages.
On 9 July 1991, the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln was at sea, transiting the Indian Ocean on its way to the Persian Gulf when one of the most freakish accidents in Naval Aviation history occurred. A Grumman KA-6D Intruder from VA-95 was at a stage of flight known by tanker crews as “mid-cycle” when it developed a problem: one of the drop tanks feeding the refueling system had stopped transferring gas, even though approximately a thousand pounds remained in the tank.
The pilot, Lieutenant Mark Baden, discussed the issue with his Bombardier/Navigator, Lieutenant Keith Gallagher. They two agreed that perhaps adding some positive and negative G onto the airframe would coax the tank back into transferring fuel properly. Nothing crazy–just a little jostling.
It was when Baden gently pushed the nose over and got approximately half a negative G–just enough to “float [him] in the seat,” he heard a loud bang and the cockpit instantly depressurized. He expected to find a gap between the canopy and windscreen, but there was none, and as he glanced over at the B/N, everything changed.
In Baden’s own words, here’s what he saw:
“My scan continued right. Instead of meeting my B/N’s questioning glance, I saw a pair of legs at my eye level. The right side of the canopy was shattered. I followed the legs up and saw the rest of my B/N’s body out in the windblast. I watched as his head snapped down and then back up, and his helmet and oxygen mask disappeared. They didn’t fly off; they just disappeared.”
So here’s a breakdown of what happened to cause the problem in the first place.
The Martin-Baker ejection seat in the Intruder is held in place by something called the “Top Latch Mechanism.” It is comprised of a spring-loaded plunger which, when locked, extends through a window in a tab at the top of a component called the ejection gun. That part, in turn, is mounted to the cockpit structure. Basically, the Top Latch Mechanism is the only thing keeping the seat in the jet. Under normal operating conditions, the mechanism is locked by spring pressure; the firing of the ejection gun–accomplished when the seat’s occupant pulls the handle to eject–presses the plunger from the window, allowing the seat to depart the aircraft in its prescribed fashion.
Still with me?? Okay, good. Here’s where it gets scary.
In the case of Gallagher’s seat, the metal in the window had fatigued to the point where it actually cracked, most likely because of repetitive stress of the combined weight of the seat and its occupant(s) over the years during increased G loads–especially negative. So when Baden loaded up the aircraft with first positive G, and then negative, it simply met its limit because of the crack…and let go completely. The negative G actually allowed Gallagher’s seat to move far enough up the rails that it activated the ejection sequence due to inertia–not by anyone deliberately activating the mechanism.
So in the back of the seat, there are two rods that actuate the timer mechanisms that come into play during a standard ejection sequence. Both of those mechanisms are activated when the ejection gun portion is fired, sending the seat up the rails. One of the control rods governs the drogue parachute’s deployment and the firing of the rocket motor under the seat to finish getting the crewman out of the airplane. The other rod dictates when the harness release occurs and the main parachute deploys. Again, both of those functions are completely automatic as a part of the ejection sequence.
If you can imagine, as far as the seat was concerned, Gallagher had ejected out of the aircraft–so those automatic functions came into play and all was well…except for the fact the seat didn’t move far enough for the rocket motor to fire. In fact, the seat initially moved far enough that it cracked the canopy and caused the structural failure, then as the other components activated, he got pushed even further out of the aircraft. So with both of the control rods activated, he was effectively released from his seat, and the main canopy deployed. The parachute promptly got blown out into the slipstream above the airplane, and wrapped itself around the tail of the aircraft, promptly locking Gallagher into place, seat half-out of the jet. Thankfully, the chute was pulled tight enough to keep the man in place, but not tight enough to bind the flight controls on the horizontal or vertical stabilizers. No small miracle there.
As if that wasn’t bad enough, due to the immediate loss of his helmet and oxygen mask, Gallagher was no longer able to breathe because of the air crashing into his lungs at over two hundred knots. Baden immediately rolled the throttles back to idle and deployed the aircraft’s speedbrakes, knowing full well if he didn’t, the air pressure and flailing would kill his partner. Baden declared the emergency over the radio and requested an immediate return to the ship, which was approximately seven miles away at that point. The response from the Air Boss was immediate and in the affirmative, so Baden began his approach. Another look at Gallagher told him the man was unconscious and possibly even dead, which made an incredibly dire situation even worse.
Baden had to be careful to keep the aircraft slow–just above stall speed in its dirty (gear and flaps down, tailhook extended, and speedbrakes deployed) configuration as he made his return, which meant he had to manage his sink rate and power in such a way to keep the jet flying, but not so fast it would punish Gallagher even more severely than it already was. Also, the section of canopy that had failed left behind a jagged, sawtooth edge of plexiglass, aimed at Gallagher’s torso like Roman spears poised to impale him.
Aware of that horrific possibility, Baden formulated a plan for his approach: settle low over the fantail–lower than what was normally prudent, snag the first wire, and keep the nosewheel off the deck as long as possible during the deceleration to keep his B/N from getting skewered.
Miraculously, the plan worked as the Intruder snagged the first wire, bringing the jet mercifully to a stop. Baden shut down the aircraft’s engines, then set about safing Gallagher’s seat as best he could, and also releasing the man from the fittings on the parachute harness. It was at that moment when Gallagher regained consciousness and asked, “Am I on the flight deck?”
So what began as a normal tanker sortie exploded into chaos and panic, but ultimately ended in a series of miracles. Baden received an Air Medal for his heroic efforts to save his friend’s life and successfully returning the jet to the flight deck less than six minutes after the initial catastrophic event. Baden is now a Captain for United Airlines.
Lieutenant Gallagher was severely injured, but none of the damage to his body (his right arm and shoulder especially) was permanently debilitating. In fact, he returned to flight status six months to the day later. Also out of the Navy, Gallagher lives in the southeastern United States and works in the telecommunication industry. A more detailed account, told by the men involved in the incident and its aftermath, can be found here.
So tell us, Bremont, did Gallagher get a watch for this one?!?!