A fighter pilot’s account of the F-86 Sabre – Part 2: Punch! Pull! Eject! Ejection rejection in a rattling Sabre

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Wing Commander Irfan Masum (Rtd) flew the Sabre in the Pakistan Air Force. In his second interview he shares his dramatic experiences of a low-level Sabre mission that went catastrophically wrong, and his rebellious response to an order to eject.

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“The time I brought a badly damaged F-86F back to base happened during my fighter conversion course, but the details come rushing back, just as if it happened today. It was perhaps the most bizarre experience of my life. A three-ship formation with Flying Officer Tariq Awan in the lead for a low-level mission; No 2 on his wing was my instructor, Flt Lt Farooq Zaman, and I was detailed as No 3 to fly low-level battle formation with the lead. An uneventful take-off was accomplished with a righthand turn out of the traffic area. After 150 degrees, the course was set for the first leg, gradually descending to 250 feet AGL (distance from the ground). At the time of setting course, the instructor had already joined the lead in the wingman position on his right side (somewhat closer than 600 feet). Was I in the correct battle formation (element lead) position at the time? Of course not, I was lagging behind a little. Not wanting my instructor to fire a volley of verbal shots at me, I accelerated to 420 knots to catch up and get in to position. Our low level speed for the mission was 360 knots, so I was a good 60 knots faster to make up the lag.  Approaching the correct position I retarded the throttles to match my speed with the other formation members. Just as soon as I retarded the throttle there was a loud noise and shaking of the aircraft. The Sabre was rattling so badly that I could not read any instrument when I looked inside the cockpit to ascertain what had gone wrong. I didn’t know what had happened, but I knew instantly that I had to get out of the aircraft.

 

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Reflex memory reminded me – ‘punch, pull and eject’ — the actions drilled into us every morning in the pre-flight Emergency Session. ‘Punch’ meant jettisoning the drop tanks – and the extra weight of their fuel. ‘Pull’ required pulling up to gain as much height as possible. And ‘Eject’ meant carrying out the ejection sequence.

The Sabre ejection sequence was far from ideal. The seat could not be fired through the canopy, as was the case with Martin Baker seats. Therefore, you had to fire the canopy first. This meant keeping your head down as the canopy would slide backwards to depart the airframe. After this, you had to sit straight with the head against the head rest and feet pulled back and then squeeze the trigger which would fire the rocket in the seat to throw the pilot up cleanly away from the aircraft.

Hence, I started my reflex actions of punch, pull and eject. I punched (ejected) the drop tanks, pulled the nose up to gain height and lowered my head and got hold of the canopy firing trigger – for which I had to leave the stick for that moment. But as soon as left the stick, the Sabre rolled rather rapidly to the left. Within no time I was past the 90 degrees bank and still rolling. This forced me to leave the trigger and grab the stick again. I had to fight the Sabre hard to bring it up-right again. Once upright and somewhat in control, I realized that the Sabre was not going to fall out of the sky as I had thought it would. Gosh!! I must get help from my instructor. So I radioed him, “Papa Leader, Papa 3”, there was no modulation in my transmitter as no voice came out from me. That pretty much summarises my condition, – completely chocked throat, scared to death and trembling. I tried again and this time a squeak came out which I am sure no one could have deciphered it. Taking a deep breath, I yelled into the mike – or almost. Leader heard me but could not locate me as I was already much higher than him. I told him that something is wrong the plane. He advised me to keep flying straight and level and stay calm – and that he will locate me and join up.

Next he asked me to survey the outside structure of my wings etc to see if there is any damage from a bird hit. I looked right and left and did not see any abnormality and told him so.

He joined up on my right wing and told me that everything was fine on that side  After moving to the left, his first call was a far less reassuring, ‘Oh shit!’. That scared me even more and I most hesitantly looked left. I was completely horrified to see that the left wing was cut in half from the wing-root all the way to the tip!”

He joined up on my right wing and told me that everything was fine on that side. After moving to the left, his first call was a far less reassuring, “Oh shit!”. That scared me even more and I most hesitantly looked left. I was completely horrified to see that the left wing was cut in half from the wing-root all the way to the tip! There was no leading edge  and no slats. The drop tank, which I thought I had successfully ‘punched’, was still hanging under the wing with fuel gushing out of it. How could such extensive damage have taken place? Now was not the time to answer this question. I was having difficulty keeping my wings level. I had deflected the stick fully to the right and shoved in the right rudder too to fly straight and level. My instructor made me climb to 18,000 feet to do a controllability check to test the minimum controllable speed. That speed would determine a return and a landing was possible.  

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Computer generated graphics: DCS

As we reduced the speed to 195 knots, the Sabre rolled out of control to the left. Recovering from that roll was extremely hard. Even with full right deflection of the stick and the rudder, it was slow to straighten out, and lost altitude rapidly during the recovery. If I remember correctly our flare out speeds was some 125 knots and so, my instructor decided that we could not land and must carry out a planned ejection.  F/L Farooq started explaining the planned ejection sequence to me, and it went something like this:

  1. Irfan, on my command you will lower your head and fire the canopy.
  2. You will then assume correct posture i.e. sit straight, head against the head rest and withdraw your feet and pull the ejection trigger. Never mind if the plane rolls to the left, we have plenty of height.
  3. Since we are below 14,000 feet, rest of the sequence will be automatic till you will find yourself hanging by the parachute. Make sure you steer to clear area for touching down and make the fall correctly, falling off to your side (if ejection was done above 14,000 feet the seat would free fall till 14,000 feet and then the automatic sequence would start).

I was fine till this stage. But what was explained to me next completely discomposed me. Here is what my instructor explained:

Irfan, if you find yourself tumbling in the seat be sure that the automatic system of the ejection has not functioned. In that case you will have to do the following manually:

  1. While you are tumbling you will have to open the seatbelt yourself.
  2. Then kick the seat away with your feet to separate from it.
  3. Find the ‘D’ ring of the parachute on your chest-strap and pull it.
  4. You will have to pull it to its full extent or else it will not release the small chute, which will then pull the main shoot and deploy it.

While the instructor was briefing me the manual ejection procedure, I was mentally visualising it as a live event – you know, like a slow-motion video. I saw myself tumbling in the seat. I saw myself struggling to find the seat-belt buckle – while still tumbling and my arms and hands flying all over. I saw myself kicking free of the seat while my whole body is fluttering with the gushing air pressure all around me. I saw myself, desperately, getting hold of the ‘D’ ring and trying to pull it with all my might. I saw myself still tumbling and waiting for the chute to open and stabilise my fall. That this slow motion sequence of events was going to take place scared me no end. “Am I not safer inside the cockpit, than throwing myself into the empty space so far above the earth?” I asked myself.  The answer I got was a firm, ‘yes’. So, I decided, in my mind, that I would not eject and attempt to land instead. But I could not convey this decision to my instructor.

Papa 3, eject

The episode, till this point in time, was taking place while we were on the manual frequency allocated to my instructor. Now was the time to let the Base and ATC know of our intentions. So, I was asked to switch to Channel 1 — the radio frequency station of the Air Traffic Controller.  F/L Farooq calmly narrated, briefly, what damage had taken place to the ATC, and advised the controller that we were going to execute a planned ejection in such and such area. He did not fail to mention that he had gone over the ejection procedure with me and that I was ready to undertake the ejection. He also asked for the rescue helicopter to get airborne and head towards the area where the ejection was going to take place to recover me.

So, we are now on the ATC channel, which is recorded. The most dreaded call of my life came crackling through the radio: “Papa 3, Eject”. I was snuggly numb, seated in the cockpit, and did not respond. Second call came through, “Papa 3 start the ejection procedure”. My silence must have been eerie. The third call was stern to say the least, “Papa 3 go manual and check!”. I quickly changed to the manual frequency beyond the reach of the listening ATC.

 

Ejection rejection 

“What seems to be the problem?” was a hard question to answer, but I plucked up the courage to explain that I did not want to eject. “You know the aircraft and you can not stay in the air for the rest of your life” was the funny response from my instructor.  I was scared of the ejection – but I could not bring myself to say that. Instead, I shared my plan. It was a simple one. I will go for landing maintain speed of 210 knots – some 15 knots above the speed where the Sabre would get out of control. I will flare really close to the runway surface still at 210 knots, then retard the throttle to idle. When the speed will drop to 195 knots the left wing will fall and the left gear will immediately touch the runway, followed by the right gear. Later, if I can not stop the aircraft, I will engage the barrier. I thought it was good plan. However, it was shredded to pieces by F/L Farooq Zaman: gear lowering at that speed had never been tested and there is no knowing what how the change of the airflow with gears down will affect controllability; Flaps might get twisted if you try and lower them at that speed or might not extend at all; Both main tyres will burst on touch down because of excess speed on touch down. Thirdly, you will burn the brakes while trying to stop on the runway with that kind of touch down speed and cause a fire. Besides, he could not allow me to take a chance, especially on the approach, if the speed drops to 195 knots. I would have neither the time or the altitude to eject. Hence, you have to eject. I stood firm in carrying out my plan and conveyed to him that I am ready to take the chances, but I will not eject.

Back on the ATC frequency, F/L Farooq Zaman conveyed our plan to the ATC and was very specific in stating that Papa 3 does not want to eject in spite of having been explained the perils that lie in attempting to land.

A frightening approach 

As we started our descent for the approach I realised I was trembling. I was tired from holding the full deflection of the stick and the rudder to the rightside required to keep wings level. Also, I was mindful of the fact that I had very little margin available to turn right, so I must not allow myself to drift off the centreline on the approach and not have enough control input to correct it. My total focus was on the speed. I recall that I kept reminding myself aloud to keep speed 210 knots — 210 knots  — 210 knots. Time to lower the gears – speed 210 kts. My instructor, who was in close formation on my right wing during the chase down, confirmed that all three gears seemed down — and locked; I confirmed the same with three green indication lights. Phew, that went alright. My instructor was talking me down every step of the way. Papa 3 don’t lower flaps – can’t afford to disrupt the airflow or cause further damage.  That was fine with me.

Still 210 knots, good. Entering the threshold area, I got another reminder not to retard the throttles till I was instructed by him. Completing the flare, the call to retard throttles came after what seemed like an eternity after the flare. I really can’t recall when the touch down took place. All I knew was that I was on the runway and belting down towards the barrier. Breaking hard didn’t seem to be slowing me enough. The Sabre did not have a drag chute to slow the plane as other fighters did. With trembling legs and feet I did not let go of the brakes and managed to stop before engaging the barrier. Tyres did not burst. Brakes did not catch fire. I did not engage the barrier. Once the ATC spotted me stationary on the runway, it asked me to taxi forward and clear the runway at the end. No way I was going to do that. Didn’t have the energy. With a short call of ‘negative’ I switched off the engine. By this time all the crash tenders had surrounded me and the fire marshal was climbing up to the cockpit with an axe in hand.  Silly of me to think that he had fatal intensions with that axe. He actually had to rescue me in case the canopy wouldn’t open  Fortunately, he didn’t have to use it. While this ordeal left me completely sapped of energy to even get out of the cockpit on my own strength, what I feared most was disciplinary action against me with the thought of getting suspended from fighter flying was bothering me the most.

Off the hook? 

I was taken in the ambulance by the Flight Surgeon to the hospital, where they took my blood for testing.  While I was still there, my instructor arrived and took me in the crew van straight back to my room in the Officer’s Mess.

He told me to go to sleep and not to open the door for anyone or answer any phone calls. I knew there was trouble in store for me in the days to come.  However, the next day when I reported to the Squadron, all seemed well, though a technical investigation had been ordered. I wasn’t asked to give any statement. My instructor had already done that being the Formation Leader and Instructor. I saw my name on the flying schedule, which meant that I was off the hook. How F/L Farooq Zaman managed to shield me from any negative fall-out remains a mystery to this day.

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