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Rescue at 32,000 Feet

By Warren E. Thompson
1/31/2018 • Aviation History Magazine

How do you get the pilot of a single-seat fighter down from altitude if he’s unconscious?

For the men of the U.S. Air Force’s 154th Fighter Bomber Squadron, November 16, 1951, started out just like any other day at a forward com- bat base in South Korea. On this particular mission, several flights of Republic F-84E Thunderjets would strike the vital rail lines coming into North Korea from Manchuria, in an effort to slow the movement of supplies to Chinese forces along the main line of resistance. The mission went according to plan, with good results—and to top it off, they didn’t have to avoid or fight any MiG-15s.

As they left the target area, the formation climbed to around 35,000 feet, then eased back down to 32,000 feet, where a tail wind gave them an airspeed of approximately 500 mph. Suddenly, without warning, the oxygen apparatus in Captain John L. Paladino’s cockpit malfunctioned, and he soon slumped into unconsciousness. Fortunately for Captain Paladino, there were two exceptionally skilled pilots in his flight: Captain Jack Miller and 1st Lt. S. Wood “Woody” McArthur.

Paladino only recalled what happened that day up to a certain point; after that, he was out of it. He later remembered nothing that went on while his two fellow pilots were saving his life. “I was flight leader that day,” he said, “and our mission went well. Unknown to me, my oxygen had been cut off because of a malfunction. When you are not getting enough oxygen, you really aren’t aware of it. You feel wonderful, sort of euphoric, like you had just had a strong drink. Your coordination and reasoning are a little off, but you think everything is OK. That was the way it hit me, and by the time I realized what the problem was, it was too late; this was when I started losing my vision. The instrument panel was hazy for a few seconds, and I could not see the other F-84s in my flight. I do recall Captain Miller telling me how many rail cuts he had made on his bombing runs, and after that I cannot recall anything until I came to just north of Taegu Air Base with both of them yelling at me on the radio!”

Miller first noticed something was wrong when he saw Paladino’s Thunderjet alter course. He figured that Paladino was going to make a 360-degree turn, so the other flight ahead of them could get ahead, putting more distance between flights. But Paladino only turned about 90 degrees before he suddenly went into a steep dive to the left. For a few seconds his flight mates thought he might be practicing evasive action.

After Paladino had dropped several thousand feet, his aircraft abruptly pitched up, indicating that it had gone through the speed of sound. This was a characteristic of the F-84. It continued in a steep climb until suddenly its nose dropped once again. This time the Thunderjet went into a steep dive to the right, and then the same maneuver was repeated. Even then the other pilots in Paladino’s flight thought he was only fooling around. But when he leveled off at 32,000 feet and took a wrong heading, they knew something wasn’t right.

Lieutenant McArthur radioed Paladino: “Fox Leader, this is Fox Two….Are you all right?” Paladino replied that he was OK (by that time he was actually in a euphoric state and unaware of his situation). “He sounded normal, and at that time he was flying level and straight,” McArthur said. “I moved up on his wing and noticed that he was tugging at his oxygen mask. I told him to throttle back for the descent home. He didn’t respond, so I told him again, and this time he slowed down.” Miller and McArthur pulled up on either side of the stricken pilot’s aircraft, and both noticed that Paladino’s head was resting against the side of his canopy. Then he slumped forward, after which further radio transmissions to him went unanswered. They realized the problem was serious.

In an effort to wake Paladino, Miller told McArthur to pull up in front of the unconscious pilot. Miller thought maybe the bouncing around from the turbulence would rouse him. But they decided not to try it because it might have sent the unconscious pilot’s aircraft into a bad spin. “Lieutenant McArthur heeded my next suggestion and put his wingtip under one wing—and I did the same on the opposite side,” Miller recalled. “This leveled off his aircraft, and we tried to hold that position, hoping that Paladino would come to. This didn’t last but a couple of minutes when his plane fell off into a steep turn toward Woody, so I radioed him to catch him, and he bumped the wing back level, but he continued on over toward me, so I nudged him back the other way. A couple more times of this, and we were able to keep him straightened out.”

It should be noted that during these “contacts” the other F-84s’ wingtips never actually touched Paladino’s plane. The flow of air over the tip tanks formed a shock absorber or cushion between the aircraft, a phenomenon that an aeronautical engineer might have explained to a pilot on paper. In reality, however, it took exceptional piloting skills to pull off the kind of gentle maneuvering Miller and McArthur were attempting, especially since the airplane in the middle had an unconscious pilot. Miller noted, “I could probably have banged my wing against his, but it would have taken all of my strength on the stick to break through the air flowing around his wing.”

Miller and McArthur continued to ease back on the power, resulting in a gradual decrease in altitude. They knew the lower they got, the better the chances of Paladino regaining consciousness. By the time they had descended to about 15,000 feet, both pilots noticed that he was moving his head a little. Miller radioed Paladino to switch his oxygen output to 100 percent. Paladino was clearly still very groggy, but Miller’s calm instructions gradually brought him to a state in which he could comprehend what he needed to do.

After the ordeal was over, Paladino stated that he did not remember Miller telling him to switch the oxygen output, even though he had been sufficiently conscious to follow directions. As the scene continued to play out, he tried to twist the oxygen control, but he was so weak that he could only get it about halfway before giving up.

Right before he lapsed into unconsciousness, Paladino had instinctively followed instructions, especially when Miller told him to decrease power. That move probably saved his life, because at a higher power setting the other two Thunderjets would have had major problems getting into position to level him off. By the time he started regaining consciousness, all three aircraft had traveled at least 100 miles within 15 minutes. All this time, the other two pilots managed to keep their wingtips properly positioned.

Finally, when they let down through 13,500 feet, Paladino began to revive because he was getting enough oxygen from the outside. Once again Miller radioed to him to snap out of it, but there was no answer. No one knew at the time that his radio had also malfunctioned. But then he held up his fingers in a “V,” to let them know he was OK, while nodding his head yes. He also changed channels as Miller suggested with hand signals, and at that point the other pilots could finally talk with him and explain what had happened. For the short remainder of the flight, Paladino was clearly capable of piloting as well as landing his aircraft safely.

When the trio taxied up to the 154th Squadron parking area and climbed out of their cockpits, Miller and McArthur were astonished to discover that Paladino’s face was deep purple. He was still groggy and complained of a severe headache that lasted several hours. Despite that, he contributed accurate statements during the mission debriefing. All three pilots reported that their bombs had resulted in several rail cuts. They also noted having sighted several MiGs, which had remained at extreme altitudes and did not try to interfere with their bomb runs.

Most of the squadron pilots made an effort to congratulate all three pilots involved in the harrowing incident. Captain Miller was often asked where he got the idea of putting his wingtip under Paladino’s. “We used to touch the wings of our fighters in Europe during World War II,” he replied. “Sometimes, when a pilot’s bombs got hung up, one of us would move in and nudge them loose…just for fun. We flew so much during that war that our skills in the air were razor sharp. It was great that both Lieutenant McArthur and I were in the same flight with Captain Paladino and were able to execute the rescue. All’s well that ends well!”

The three pilots continued to fly combat missions on a regular basis after the incident. Paladino and McArthur finished their 100- mission obligations several weeks before Captain Miller did. All returned to civilian life when they headed back to the States.

 

For additional reading, frequent contributor Warren E. Thompson recommends his F-84 Thunderjet Units Over Korea and Republic F-84: A Photo Chronicle, by David R. McLaren.

Originally published in the March 2010 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here

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