These 10 aviation tales prove that sometimes truth really is stranger than fiction.
On February 14, 1945, Leading Aircraftwoman Margaret Horton, an RAF WAAF, was assigned a familiar job: sit on the horizontal stabilizer of a Spitfire to help hold the tail down while it taxied on a windy day. Unfortunately, nobody thought to tell the pilot, Flight Lt. Neill Cox, that she’d be jumping aboard. (Horton later admitted that “the squadron was run in a slap-happy way.”) The normal drill was for the tail-sitter to grab the aircraft’s elevator and waggle it before the pilot turned onto the runway, so he’d know she was hopping off. But this time Cox made a casual gesture out of the cockpit that Margaret took to mean “Hang on, don’t go yet.” Big mistake. As the Spitfire accelerated down the runway, Horton had the good sense to quickly flop across the tail cone, where she was held in place by the vertical fin, her legs to the right and her torso to the left. Another WAAF who’d seen what was happening dashed off to tell a flight sergeant, who ran to the control tower. Cox was ordered to make a quick circuit and land, but wasn’t told why. Between Horton’s death grip on the elevator with her left hand plus the Spitfire’s tail-heaviness, Cox had already figured that something was amiss, but he couldn’t see as far aft as his airplane’s empennage. Relieved to be back on the ground, Horton announced that after a change of panties and a cigarette, she’d be good to go back to work. She was later fined for losing her uniform beret during the short trip around the pattern.
On June 21, 1963, Marine Lieutenant Cliff Judkins was tanking from an Air Force Boeing KC-97 over the Pacific, on his way from California to Hawaii, when the automatic shut-off valve of his F-8 Crusader failed and the internal fuel bladder burst from the pressure of the still-flowing fuel
Seat Belt Fastened at All Times
There weren’t many old BAC One-Elevens still flying in 1990, but one of them, British Airways 5390, was en route from Birmingham to the Spanish island of Malaga on June 10. It was a sunny Sunday, with 81 happy beachgoers aboard, when the entire pilot’s-side windscreen blew out as the One-Eleven climbed through 17,300 feet. The captain, Tim Lancaster, was almost instantly sucked out the opening—he’d removed his shoulder harness after takeoff and loosened his lapstrap—but fortunately the backs of his knees jammed against the top of the windscreen frame while his feet were caught under the yoke of his control column. Steward Nigel Ogden, who had just entered the cockpit, grabbed Lancaster by the legs while the first officer got the airplane under control. Ogden was on the verge of being dragged out as well when a second steward reached the cockpit and secured him with a strap from the captain’s shoulder harness. By this time, Lancaster had slipped sideways from the roof of the cockpit, and his bloodied head was flailing against the left side window. The crew assumed that he was already dead. “His eyes were wide open,” Ogden recalled. “I’ll never forget that sight.” Lancaster was actually comatose, his systems shut down as a result of the incredible shock and the excruciating cold of the high-speed slipstream. A second steward eventually had to relieve Ogden, who was frostbitten and losing his grip, and by the time the airplane landed at Southampton, England, Lancaster was being held only by his ankles. He in fact survived with a fractured arm and wrist, and his first words after being pulled back into the cockpit were “I want to eat.” (“Just like a pilot,” Ogden reportedly said.) It was soon determined that an overworked mechanic had used undersized bolts on 84 of the windscreen’s 90 hold-down fittings.
On Christmas Eve 1971, a Peruvian Lockheed L188 Electra, LANSA Flight 508 en route from Lima to the small Amazon jungle city of Pucallpa, came apart in a thunderstorm: A lightning strike ignited a fuel tank, and the fire caused the right wing spar to fail. The four-engine turboprop had been cruising at FL210, and the flaming pieces fell unseen into a 15-square-kilometer area of the tropical void below. There had been 86 passengers and a crew of six. All but one were killed. That sole survivor was a 17-year-old high school senior, Juliane Koepcke, the daughter of a German zoologist and his wife, a Peruvian ornithologist. Juliane’s mother, sitting next to her, died in the crash of LANSA 508 while Juliane’s father awaited them at Pucallpa. Two things were remarkable about the crash: how Juliane survived it, and how she then saved herself from death in the jungle. Koepcke had her seat belt fastened, and when the airplane came apart, she fell, still strapped into the window seat, while her mother and the aisle-seat occupant fell free. Like a maple-seed pod at the end of its winglet, Juliane and the three-seat row helicoptered all the way down and landed in an area of jungle trees interlaced with vines that cushioned her fall. The teenager had broken a collarbone, suffered deep cuts and all but lost her vision, her eyes were so bloodshot and bruised in the fall. Koepcke had spent a good part of her young life with her parents in the backcountry of Peru, and they had taught her survival skills. One lesson was that every rivulet of water flows into a brook, then into a stream, a tributary and eventually into a river. Dressed in a miniskirt and wearing just one sandal, barely able to see, Juliane followed the water. Twelve days later, it led her to Pucallpa. Koepcke’s fall is the subject of a Werner Hertzog documentary, Wings of Hope, which can be viewed on YouTube (posted as a series).
A Consolidated C-87, the cargo version of the B-24, took off at 1 a.m. on February 9, 1943, from West Palm Beach, Fla., bound for the Azores en route to North Africa. The crew leveled the Liberator Express at 9,000 feet, but the pilot was barely able to maintain altitude. Worse, the elevator and rudders began to vibrate violently through the control column and rudder pedals. With the airplane only about 90 miles east of Florida, the pilot initiated a return, and the crew lightened their load by tossing out baggage and cargo. By the time they were inbound and descending just 10 miles east of Miami, the C-87 had become so uncontrollable that the pilot ordered the crew and passengers to jump, then followed after turning on the autopilot. Presumably, he didn’t have enough control to turn the airplane seaward rather than leaving it on course toward the heavily populated Florida coast. The Coast Guard and several civilian boats pulled six of the eight jumpers from the water, but two were never seen again. Meanwhile, the C-87, having shed another 1,500 pounds of its load, shrugged its aluminum shoulders and climbed back to altitude, now headed west and under the control of the autopilot; if its tail surfaces were still vibrating, it didn’t seem to bother George. About 4½ hours later, after crossing the Gulf of Mexico, the C-87 had traveled 1,300 miles and reached Zaragoza, Mexico, 25 miles southwest of the U.S. border. For two hours the Liberator Express carved lazy orbits over the Mexican town and finally crashed into a nearby mountain.
He’s Out! He’s In!
During a dogfight in January 1918, Royal Flying Corps pilot Captain Reginald Makepeace bunted his Bristol F.2B into a steep dive, and the negative Gs tossed his gunner/observer, Captain John H. Hedley, out of his seat. The RFC didn’t issue its airmen parachutes in those days, thinking it would make them less aggressive if they had such an easy out, so Hedley was doomed. Or was he? Hedley fell several hundred feet, but so did the F.2B. Gunner and airplane somehow came together, and Hedley found himself clinging to the flat-topped aft fuselage of the fighter. He managed to crawl back to his pit and went on, apparently nonplussed, to score 11 victories before being shot down and imprisoned two months later. (Makepeace himself had 17 victories scored with his forward-firing gun, so they were literally a deadly duo.) After the war, Hedley became an American, moved to Chicago and at least for a while made a living billing himself as “The Luckiest Man Alive” and giving lectures about his adventure. Had he instead moved to Berlin, he’d have had to share the stage with 1st Lt. Otto Berla, who on May 24, 1917, had been the observer aboard an Albatros C.V when a sudden bout of turbulence bunted the airplane’s nose down and popped an unbelted Berla up and out of his rear seat. He and the airplane briefly formated until a second updraft forced the tail up again just in time to meet the rapidly descending Berla, who punched feet first through the plywood-skinned turtledeck just aft of his cockpit. Very happy to be back aboard, Berla rode back to base in his new temporary office.
On March 10, 1967, after a bombing run near Hanoi, U.S. Air Force Captain Robert Pardo used his F-4 Phantom to literally push his wingman’s badly damaged F-4 to relative safety over Laos, where both pilots and their backseaters then ejected and were rescued. Captain Earl Aman’s Phantom was holed by anti-aircraft fire, and the damage drained most of his fuel. Knowing that Aman would run dry within minutes, Pardo had him jettison his braking parachute and then tried to put his F-4’s nose into the small tail-cone cavity left by the departed chute. No luck: too much turbulence directly behind Aman’s Phantom. Pardo then had Aman drop his tailhook and maneuvered behind and under Aman’s airplane until the hook was snug against the base of Pardo’s windscreen. The slightest lapse in airmanship would, of course, have put the big steel bar straight through the glass and into Pardo’s face. Even though Aman had by now shut down his engines and Pardo was flying on only one with his other engine afire, “Pardo’s Push” got the job done for almost 90 critical miles. Without the help from behind, Aman’s engine-out glide would have ended well inside North Vietnam. The Air Force wasn’t pleased, however: Pardo had lost not one but two airplanes and was rebuked for his poor sense of economy. Bob Pardo may well have known about the similar maneuver attempted by Captain James Risner over North Korea on September 15, 1952, for it was an honored part of USAF lore. Like Pardo, Risner found himself with a wingman losing fuel through a tank holed by groundfire. Both were flying F-86 Sabres, so Risner told 1st Lt. Joseph Logan to shut down his engine while Risner maneuvered the nose of his Sabre into Logan’s tailpipe. He tried pushing Logan to a safe runway in South Korea, but ultimately only got him over the sea; jet fuel and hydraulic fluid streaming out of Logan’s engine bay threatened to flame out Risner’s engine, so he had to disengage. Logan bailed out but drowned. Risner survived to become the first double recipient of the Air Force Cross, as an F-105D pilot and then POW during the Vietnam War. But again, the Air Force chastised him for attempting “a dangerous maneuver.”
Carroll Rex Byrd, cross-trained as both a pilot and a radioman, was a crewman aboard a Grumman JRF-5 Goose on September 21, 1943. The small twin-engine amphibian had just been transferred from the Navy to the Coast Guard and was en route from NAS New York, at Floyd Bennett Field, to CGAS San Francisco. Byrd, 26, never made it to California. A farmer picking tomatoes near Kratzerville, Pa., heard the Goose overhead and looked up just in time to see what he thought was a mailbag falling from the airplane. The “mailbag” was Byrd, who hit the ploughed ground and bounced 8 feet back into the air. The airplane, to the farmer’s amazement, simply continued droning westward. Had Byrd been a suicide jumper? Had he been pushed? Fallen unnoticed through an unlocked door or hatch? The story that eventually came to light was that Byrd had told the pilot he was going to fix an inoperative radio antenna and had pulled himself out of the cabin door onto the airplane’s roof to work on the aerial in flight. When he hadn’t returned in 20 minutes, a crewman poked his head out and saw that Byrd was gone. That remains the official version, yet it seems strange that the Goose pilot didn’t at least assign a crewman to more closely monitor Byrd’s crazy mission and immediately see that he’d fallen, and that the crew apparently reported the loss rather casually. It took days for a Navy accident investigation team to identify Byrd and figure out where he’d come from while the Goose continued to California. The Kratzerville farmer later found a yard-long piece of metal in his tomato field that may or may not have been part of an aircraft antenna. Was Byrd gripping it when it broke off? We’ll never know, and maybe we should chalk this one up to “There’s a war on, we have more important things to worry about.”
Stranger Than Fiction
Luftwaffe ace Erich Paczia, the pilot of an out-of-control Me-109, was probably dead when his Messerschmitt’s wing sliced into the fuselage of the B-17F All American over Tunisia on February 1, 1943, but the collision nearly did the job that Paczia’s silent guns couldn’t. The bomber’s left horizontal stabilizer and elevator were sliced off, and the entire empennage was barely held in trail by a few longerons and a narrow strip of aluminum skin. The crew considered their chances—bail out over German-held ground or try to make it back to base—and decided to stay with the ship, knowing that if the tail did come off, their chances of getting out of a gyrating bomber were probably nil. Lieutenant Kendrick Bragg, the pilot, slowed down the Flying Fortress to 140 knots to keep the tail from literally wagging itself off and flew as gently as possible back to Biskra, Algeria. After circling for some minutes while the rest of his formation landed, Bragg made a careful approach and touched down normally, though without a tail wheel. An ambulance wheeled up to collect injured crewmen, but Bragg waved it off; not a single person was hurt. All American, undamaged except for the 109’s slash, was mated to the tail of another grounded B-17 and flew—slowly and badly, as reports have it—until the airplane was finally scrapped two years later. Internet accounts of the All American incident are filled with imaginary details. The airplane is described as continuing on its bombing run after the collision…returning to its base in England (a 1,100-mile trip over occupied France), with P-51 escorts joining it over the Channel…the tail gunner heroically remaining at his station because his weight is the only thing stabilizing the tail section…crewmen sacrificing their parachute harnesses to strap the empennage to the fuselage…two engines are out and a third is failing…the turn back toward base has to be made so gently that it takes 70 miles to accomplish…Bragg flies a final approach 40 miles long…and, poignantly, the tail sags to the ground just after the crew debarks. None of that is true, but the truth remains stranger than fiction.
Air Isn’t Oxygen
An aerial photographer and his assistant on April 1, 1997, climbed to almost 28,000 feet in an unpressurized Cessna 337D Skymaster that had been modified to carry a through-the-floor camera. They were “on oxygen,” of course, breathing through face masks. The assistant remembers the pilot reaching back to turn on the oxygen tank valve; she felt the flow of cool air into her mask and noted that the indicator in the oxygen line had flipped from red to green, indicating a positive flow. As the Cessna climbed through 20,000 feet, however, she felt dizzy and disoriented, and she closed her eyes—the last thing she remembers about the flight. Air Traffic Control was unable to contact the pilot, though its radar painted the airplane climbing through its assigned altitude—FL250—and reaching 27,700 feet, then descending rapidly to 26,000 before disappearing from the scope about 15 miles west of Pittsburgh, Pa. The Cessna had come apart because of the extreme stresses of an uncontrolled high-speed spiral dive, with a pilot dead of hypoxia at the controls. Through a horrible April Fool’s Day mix-up, the airplane’s portable oxygen tank had been filled with ordinary compressed air, not oxygen—fine for scuba divers, fatal for pilots. Shedding its left outboard wing, tail booms and empennage, the four-seat cabin, a pod about the size of a subcompact car, fell nearly five miles and ended up in a tree on a golf resort. With the right wing remaining and the cabin and two engines at one end of it, again a maple-seed spiral almost certainly slowed the descent. The woman in the right seat survived with minor cuts and bruises, apparently having been better acclimated than the pilot to flying at Everest altitudes while breathing what was essentially ambient air.