Bad Day over the North Sea, 1975

Here’s audio-only 1975 peacetime ejection, resulting from a compression stall and inflight fire in an F-4E Phantom. Only the audio is live; the photographic slide show is a retrospectives on the mishap pilots career. The first 2 minutes, before the emergency audio begins , is accompanied by some pretty dreadful New Age music, so consider yourself warned.

The downed plane’s wingmen have a hard time coordinating the rescue for several reasons.

  • First, the weather’s crummy — not that they aren’t used to that, flying from England in the first place. But they have to fly low, under the overcast, and have limited visibility in the humid, misty air;
  • Second, crew visibility out of the F-4 Phantom, even with two sets of eyes per plane, is lousy. The jet was designed to grope its way to enemy targets by radar, and pilot visibility wasn’t something the designers at McDonnell took seriously in the 1950s. (This unlovely quality of the Phantom II is one reason the next generation — F-15 -16 and -18 — all had superior visibility).
  • Third, the lack of maneuverability of the F-4 (another artifact of its design as a missile-armed carrier-based interceptor) means that the pilot can’t simply turn around a point while keeping eyes on his buddy in his scroungy little raft, like he might have done in a 100-knot bugsmasher (or even a 150-knot C-130).
  • Fourth, the dynamic nature of the sea meant that the pilots and their rafts were easy to lose sight of in the waves, and that they were constantly being moved by wave action, currents, and especially wind — and so were the orbiting jets. It would be very difficult for an F-4 to orbit over a downed airman, or recover sight of one he’d lost his lock on, on terra firma; on the open ocean, it’s an order of magnitude more difficult.
  • Fifth, the state-of-the-art navigation system in the F-4E was unsuited for this task. It was  an inertial navigation system: good enough for bomb-dropping — if the bombs were nuclear. It was also prone to drift, to dump its data, and to lose its lock. And you could only put one thing in it at a time. (Listen to how nervous they were anytime the pilot had his navigator mess with the INS).

In the end, everybody got back home safe, with only one airplane lost (and one emergency-landed on a strip away from home). That’s a fantastic result, considering; every year of the Cold War, men ejected in these waters and died. Some of them were just never seen after bailing out. The water is so cold that surviving a night out here without an exposure suit (even in a survival raft) is probably not in the cards.

The wingmen really struggle to keep eyes on the ejectees, and to reacquire them when visual is lost. Not surprising: the deck is stacked against them.

The essential aerodynamic problem is that the F-4, despite having a very wide speed range, still had a speed range that was too high to let it operate with visual reference to a point on the ground. It’s a mathematical fact that the faster an airplane flies while orbiting in a turn of any given rate or at any given acceleration load, the bigger the circle has to get. The bigger the orbit, the greater the slant range to the airman in his raft (the slant range is the hypotenuse of an imaginary right triangle with its base the absolute range to the target and its height being the altitude above mean, or in this case, actual, sea level). The greater the slant range, the less of an arc the downed airman and his raft subtends in the eye of the orbiting airman — and the harder he is to see.

So how did these pilots beat the math and the aerodynamics, and get their two bailed-out buddies rescued? While dumb luck (or divine Providence) surely played a role, if you listen to that tape it seems like the key factor was sheer dogged persistence.

In the tag line of the greatest science-fiction series that never was, “Never give up. Never surrender!”

Thanks to the never-quit efforts of the crews of the orbiting Phantoms (not to mention the British rescue crews, and those merchant seamen or fishermen who turned their vessels towards the scene), two guys got to go home to their families, even as their jet sank forgotten in the muck at the bottom of the North Sea.

4 thoughts on “Bad Day over the North Sea, 1975

  1. DSM

    I’ll have to find it but there’s a YouTube audio of an F4E pilot cashing out in his g-suit. It was an ANG crew on their AT overseas so much drinking the day before turned into shart-apocalypse the next. He didn’t declare an IFE but he still canx’d the flight shortly after take off. Of course this has nothing to do with the above story.

  2. bloke_from_ohio

    The orbit problem you mention is one of the reasons why the A-10 is so well suited to the Sandy portion of the SAR/CSAR mission. Its ability to ruin any would be ground based opposition to the incoming rescue helicopter is also useful.

    Modern targeting pods probably help with the eyes on problem, but like all soda straw type sensors they add their own challenges. One of the test pilots I worked with would use his pod to look for sharks in the Gulf of Mexico when bored. In testing max endurance orbits are sometimes called for to wait for things like safety clearance or the drone/target to get into position. It made for interesting debriefs. I always like his gun camera footage even when he was not the “shooter” for a given sortie.

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