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An Amazing Story of Underwater Pilot Ejection! By Howard Wheeldon, FRAeS, Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd.

This being Friday and with some kind of normality soon to resume for me following the raft of interim company results that I have needed to write during this week, I thought that, this being Friday and with so many people away over the following three weeks, I would reprint a most interesting story published in an edition of the RAF’s ‘Air Clues’ magazine in February 1966.

While in its fuller context the story below is hardly relevant to the new generation of Royal Air Force and Royal Navy F-35 lightning ll Joint Strike Fighter pilots, in particular those who will eventually fly off the UK’s two new aircraft carriers, HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales (these aircraft being STOVL -Short-Take-Off Vertical Landing variants) due to the decision taken not to fit with ‘cats’ and traps’ to the two new ships, from the perspective of a possible future underwater ejection, the story below does have a degree of potential  relevance for the RAF and Royal Navy airmen of today.

In case, by the way, you are wondering where my original interest in this amazing incident account came from, the particular copy of Air Clues was, if I remember correctly, given to me when, as a seventeen year old member of the Air Training Corps in 1966, I was doing my ejection seat training:

“A US Navy pilot lined up in a Chance-Vought F8 to be launched from a carrier; the launch had just started when the catapult failed.

After shutting the engine down the pilot braked as hard as possible but the aircraft continued over the port side of the ship. The aircraft left the deck at approximately 30 kts and at this point ejection was considered but abandoned due to low air speed. It was decided that with the engine winding down rapidly, a safe ditching could be made. Just prior to striking the sea in a 45-degree nose down attitude the canopy jettison console lever was pulled but the canopy did not jettison before impact.

The aircraft plunged into the sea and dived to an unknown depth. The canopy was open about six inches at this time and the water entered the cockpit at high pressure. The pilot attempted to push the canopy off but it slowly closed against his efforts and eventually shut tight.

At this time the aircraft rose back up its entry path and lay nose down just below the surface. In accordance with instructions, the Commander was on 100% Oxygen at launching and was thus able to breathe throughout the emergency. As the water rose in the cockpit the aircraft assumed an approximate 30 degrees nose-down attitude and began to slide down to the sea bottom.

At this point the Commander realised that his only remaining chance to leave the sinking aircraft was to use the ejection seat. He looked up and could see the lighter water above the canopy, he pulled the face curtain smartly down and immediately there was a rush of water.

The actual ejection was more like a very powerful push but no discomfort was noticed although the water pressure on his thighs was very considerable. He exploded clear of the surface and could see the side of the [aircraft] carrier only some 10 to 15 feet to his right side. He reached a peak trajectory height of approximately 20 feet and, after somersaulting forward twice, he struck the sea face first, separation occurring just prior to sea impact.

As he submerged on impact he could hear the ship’s screws very close by and he states that this was the only time he was really afraid during the whole emergency. His parachute deployed underwater and he was dragged down and backwards by the turbulent water of the ships wake. He was unable to release the harness because of the load imposed by the dragging chute. However, by grasping one lift web he was able to release one fitting whereupon the other fitting was released without difficulty.

He inflated his life vest and rose to the surface to find a rescue helicopter waiting right above him. He was pulled aboard and was returned to the carrier less than four minutes after his launch started”.  

(Note that due to the holiday season, ‘Commentary’ will occur less frequently over the next three weeks. The UK Defence series will resume on September 4th with a view looking at the future of UK ISTAR).

CHW (London – 4th August 2017)

Howard Wheeldon FRAeS

Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd,

M: +44 7710 779785

Skype: chwheeldon




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