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Supersonic Escape

Sixty-four years ago this month, North American test pilot George F. Smith became the first man to survive a low altitude, high dynamic pressure ejection from an aircraft in supersonic flight. Smith ejected from his F-100A Super Sabre at 777 MPH (Mach 1.05) as the crippled aircraft passed through 6,500 feet in a near-vertical dive.

On the morning of Saturday, 26 February 1955, North American Aviation (NAA) test pilot George F. Smith stopped by the company’s plant at Los Angeles International Airport to submit some test reports. Returning to his car, he was abruptly hailed by the company dispatcher. A brand-new F-100A Super Sabre needed to be test flown prior to its delivery to the Air Force. Would Mr. Smith mind doing the honors?

Replying in the affirmative, Smith quickly donned a company flight suit over his street clothes, got the rest of his flight gear and pre-flighted the F-100A Super Sabre (S/N 53-1659). After strapping into the big jet, Smith went through the normal sequence of aircraft pre-launch flight control and system checks. While the control column did seem a bit stiff in pitch, Smith nonetheless decided that his aerial steed was ready for flight.

Smith executed a full afterburner take-off to the west. The fleet Super Sabre eagerly took to the air. Accelerating and climbing, the aircraft was almost supersonic as it passed through 35,000 feet. Peaking out around 37,000 feet, Smith sensed a heaviness in the flight control column. Something wasn’t quite right. The jet was decidedly nose heavy. Smith countered by pulling aft stick.

The Super Sabre did not respond at all to Smith’s control inputs. Instead, it continued an un-commanded dive. Shallow at first, the dive steepened even as the 215-lb pilot pulled back on the stick with all of his might. But all to no avail. The jet’s hydraulic system had failed. As the stricken aircraft now accelerated toward the ground, Smith rightly concluded that this was going to be a short ride.

George Smith knew that he had only one alternative now; Eject. However, he also knew that the chances were quite small that he would survive what was quickly shaping-up to be a quasi-supersonic ejection. Suddenly, over the radio, Smith heard another Super Sabre pilot flying in his vicinity frantically yell: “Bail out, George!” So exhorted, the test pilot complied.

Smith jettisoned his canopy. The roar from the airstream around him was unlike anything he had ever heard. Almost paralyzed with fear, Smith reflexively hunkered-down in the cockpit. The exact wrong thing to do. His head needed to be positioned up against the seat’s headrest and his feet placed within retraining stirrups prior to ejection. But there was no time for any of that now. Smith pulled the ejection seat trigger.

George Smith’s last recollection of his nightmare ride was that the Mach Meter read 1.05; 777 mph at the ejection altitude of 6,500 feet above the Pacific Ocean. These flight conditions corresponded to a dynamic pressure of 1,240 pounds per square foot. As he was fired out of the cockpit and into the harsh air stream, Smith’s body was subjected to an astounding drag force of around 8,000 lbs producing on the order of 40-g’s of deceleration.

Mercifully, Smith did not recall what came next. The ferocious wind blast stripped him of his helmet, oxygen mask, footwear, flight gloves, wrist watch and even his ring. Blood was forced into his head which became grotesquely swollen and his facial features unrecognizable. His eyelids fluttered and his eyes were tortuously mauled by the aerodynamic and inertial load of his ejection. Smith’s internal organs, most especially his liver, were severely damaged. His body was horribly bruised and beaten as it flailed end-over-over end uncontrollably.

Smith and his seat parted company as programmed followed by automatic deployment of his parachute. The opening forces were so high that a third of the parachute material was ripped away. Thankfully, the remaining portion held together and the unconscious Smith landed about 75 yards away from a fishing vessel positioned about a half-mile form shore. Providentially, the boat’s skipper was a former Navy rescue expert. Within a minute of hitting the water, Smith was rescued and brought onboard.

George Smith was hovering near death when he arrived at the hospital. In severe shock and with only a faint pulse, doctors quickly went to work. Smith awoke on his sixth day of hospitalization. He could hear, but he couldn’t see. His eyes had sustained multiple subconjunctival hemorrhages and the prevailing thought at the time was that he would never see again.

Happily, George Smith did recover almost fully from his supersonic ejection experience. He spent seven (7) months in the hospital and endured several operations. During that time, Smith’s weight dropped to 150 lbs. He was left with a permanently damaged liver to the extent that he could no longer drink alcohol. As for Smith’s vision, it returned to normal. However, his eyes were ever after somewhat glare-sensitive and slow to adapt to darkness.

Not only did George Smith return to good health, he also got back in the cockpit. First, he was cleared to fly low and slow prop-driven aircraft. Ultimately, he got back into jets, including the F-100A Super Sabre. Much was learned about how to markedly improve high speed ejection survivability in the aftermath of Smith’s supersonic nightmare. He in essence paid the price so that others would fare better in such circumstances as he endured.

It is possible that George Smith was not the first pilot to eject supersonically. USN LCdr Authur Ray Hawkins survived ejection from his stricken Grumman F9F-6 Cougar in 1953. Aircraft speed at ejection was never definitively determined, but was estimated to be between 688 (Mach 0.99) and 782 mph (Mach 1.16). In any event, the dynamic pressure and therefore the airloads associated with Hawkins ejection were less than half that of Smith’s punch-out.

George Smith was thirty-one (31) at the time of his F-100A mishap. He lived a happy and productive thirty-nine (39) more years after its occurrence. Smith passed from this earthly scene in 1994.

Posted in Aerospace, History

USAF YF-16 First Flight

Forty-five years ago this month, the USAF/General Dynamics YF-16 Lightweight Fighter (LWF) took to the air on its official first flight with General Dynamics test pilot Phil Oestricher at the controls. The YF-16 would go on to win the high stakes Air Combat Fighter competition following a head-to-head fly-off against Northrop’s very capable YF-17 Cobra.

The YF-16 was General Dynamics entry into the USAF Lightweight Fighter Program of the 1970’s. Its basic design was based on USAF Colonel John Boyd’s Energy Maneuverability (EM) Theory which posited that an aircraft with superior energy capability would defeat an aircraft of lesser energy capability in air combat. To achieve such, EM Theory dictated a small, lightweight aircraft having a high thrust-to-weight ratio, which permitted maneuvering at minimum energy loss. The YF-16 was an embodiment of this requirement.

The official first flight of the YF-16 (S/N 72-1567) took place on Saturday, 02 February 1974 at Edwards Air Force Base, California. General Dynamics test pilot Phil Oestricher (pronounced Ol-Striker) did the piloting honors. The nimble aircraft performed very well and was a delight to fly. Oestricher landed uneventfully following a brief test hop that saw the YF-16 reach 400 mph and 30,000 feet.

Interestingly, the real first flight of the YF-16 inadvertently occurred on Sunday, 20 January 1974 during what was supposed to be a high-speed taxi test. As the aircraft accelerated rapidly down the runway, Oestricher raised the nose slightly and applied aileron control to check lateral response. To the pilot’s surprise, the aircraft entered a roll oscillation with amplitudes so high that the left wing and right stabilator alternately struck the surface of the runway.

As Oestricher desperately fought to maintain control of his wild steed, the situation became increasingly dire as the YF-16 began to veer to the left. Realizing that going into the weeds at high speed was a prescription for disaster, the test pilot quickly elected to jam the throttle forward and attempt to get the YF-16 into the air. The outcome of this decision was not immediately obvious as Oestricher continued to struggle for control while waiting for his airspeed to increase to the point that there was lift sufficient for flight.

When the YF-16 finally became airborne, it departed the runway on a heading roughly 45 degrees to the left of the centerline. Oestricher somehow maintained control of the aircraft during the rugged lift-off and early climbout phases of flight. The pilot then successfully executed a go-around, entry into final approach, and landing back on the departure runway. A tough way to earn a day’s pay by any standard!

History records that the YF-16 went on to win the Air Combat Fighter (ACF) competition with Northrop’s YF-17 Cobra. The production aircraft became known as the F-16 Fighting Falcon, of which more than 4,500 aircraft, in numerous variants, were built between 1976 and 2010. The now-famous aircraft has clearly fulfilled the measure of its creation as evidenced by its presence in the military inventory of more than 25 countries worldwide. Significantly, America’s Ambassadors in Blue, The United States Air Force Thunderbirds, have flown the F-16 in air demonstrations since 1983.

While its initial foray into the air did not necessarily lend confidence that such would be the case, the YF-16 did survive its flight test career. Aviation aficionados may view the actual aircraft at the Virginia Air and Space Center located in Hampton, Virginia.

Posted in Aerospace, History
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