The Wrong Way Ejection Seats

Aviating with Evans

by Norvin "Bud" Evans
USAF flight test pilot of all models of the F-104 A, B, C, D, G, CF, and J models at Edwards AFB, California starting 1956
Chief Test Pilot Category I and II and USAF Flight Test Advisor on Category III
Commander of the Fighter Test Operations Division at Wright-Patterson AFB 1963

Not too many people seem to be aware of the design flaw in the early F-104A aircraft. Those of us in flight test at the time accused the F-104 Star Fighter builders of turning the plans upside down when the production engineers got the design plans. They had the wing dihedral in the wrong direction (Negative), the horizontal stabilator on top of the vertical stabilizer and the ejection seat firing downward instead of upward. Well we could live with the aircraft's uncontrollable pitchup at the stall but most pilots who used the downward seat ejection system didn't live to complain about it. I am one of the few lucky ones and the last to use the downward seat before Lockheed retrofitted all of the F-104's with upward firing seats. Ironically my ejection didn't happen on an experimental test flight.

It was June in the Mojave Desert at Edwards AFB, Calif. I had just returned from a couple of weeks leave on the East Coast and stopped by Test Operations to check on the status of the F-105 that was my "Stability and Control Test Program". When my boss, Lt. Col. C. E. "Bud" Anderson saw me, he asked if I would stand-by for a safety chase flight he was scheduled to fly. He told me it had been delayed all day and probably wouldn't go, as it was already 5:30 PM. He had to leave to meet with visiting RAF Test Pilots at the golf club. Just as soon as he cleared the building, the phone rang and it was the pilot Bud was scheduled to chase.

The aircraft I was chasing was a Grumman F-11F-3 which had a GE J-79 engine installed in an effort to give it enough power to reach Mach 2. (The same engine that was in the F-104). It was being flown by an RCAF Test Pilot who was evaluating it for a possible new Fighter for the Canadians. I was flying the safety chase in one of our Test F-104A's which were the only aircraft that we had that would reach twice the speed of sound. We were forced to use them even though they were still in USAF test status. Flt. Lt. Jack Woodman, the RCAF pilot and I were slowly accelerating towards Mach 2 and had reached 1.87 Mach when my Starfighter began to have an excessive engine vibration. A quick glance at my engine instruments told me that I was losing oil pressure. That was a recurring fatal problem with the early J-79 engines. At the time we were at 35,000 feet and 65 miles west of Edwards heading away from the Base.

I immediately reduced power, turned back towards the base and thinking this really can't be happening to me! I knew the procedure for placing the minimum load on the bearings and had throttled back to 88% power. After a stressful 12 minutes I arrived six miles from the main runway at 12,000 feet and 475 Knots airspeed. (The oil pressure had reached "O" at least 3 ˝ minutes earlier)! I could see that I was going to overshoot the main runway at Edwards but there was another 7 miles of over-run on the dry lakebed so I was not too worried about that condition. I did not want to touch the throttle so I tapped the speed-brake switch was my fatal mistake. Immediately the aircraft shuttered, the fire warning light illuminated, the engine ground to a stop and the cockpit filled with smoke all at the same time. In a matter of just a second or two I was able to see my altimeter as it was rapidly passing 7,500 feet and the airspeed was unwinding through 275 knots. (The ground elevation in that area was 3,000 feet).

I reached down between my legs and pulled the ejection "D" ring and nothing happened. I pulled again within a mili-second and still nothing happened!! I looked down to make certain I had it gripped properly a pulled again with all my strength and the next second I felt a tremendous blast of wind as I was fired towards the ground by the "downward ejection seat". I had always been told that if you had time to think about the parachute being deployed, then it meant the automatic deployment system hadn't worked. I looked down at my lap to see if my seat belt had opened, which it had. At the same time I reached for my parachute "D" ring and found it still in place on my chest strap. As fast as possible I grabbed it and threw it as far away from my chest as I could and watched as the parachute canopy began to stream out from my left side. I could also see that I was still riding in the low-pressure area created by the seat but as the chute came out it immediately separated me from the seat vacuum. The next thing that happened was a tremendous shock that I felt on my shoulders as the chute deployed with me plummeting headfirst towards the desert. It snapped me around like a rag doll and the next shock was in my groin when the chute fully deployed with the canopy above my head. I can tell you it was the most beautiful sight that I have ever seen even if the horizon was running directly through the middle of it. (Indicating that my body was horizontal to the ground, which was very, very near)!

Using all of the strength I had left, I pulled the top shroud lines and stopped my pendulum swing almost directly under the canopy. At the same moment I saw that the ground was racing towards me and before I could get turned around to face the direction of drift in a 20-knot wind, I hit the ground going almost backwards. I landed in what had been Pancho Barnes "Happy Bottom Riding Club" dump and was dragged for 40 yards on my back through broken glass and tin cans until my chute got hung up on a yucca tree.

The aircraft impacted the ground 5 miles short of the runway at Edwards AFB. I can tell you I was a happy aviator, even though I had a broken back, almost got run over by an air police pick-up truck and dropped off of the stretcher a couple of times while being lifted into the rescue helicopter.

As a result of my accident the F-104 was modified with an upward ejection seat, an oil pressure warning light and a "Butt Kicker" system that throws the pilot out of the seat after it clears the aircraft on ejection. Of course these modifications were probably in the works before my ejection but because I lived to describe what had happened the F-104's were quickly modified. After all, that is what "Test Flying" is all about!

The seat was recovered and it was discovered that the cable connecting the ejection handle to the initiator had been wedged between the cable cover and the front portion of the seat. It was still in that condition and the cable strands on the inside of the cable had stretched just enough to move the initiator the necessary 1/16th of an inch to fire the seat charge. They estimated that I had to have pulled hard enough to create a force of over 450 pounds in order to have stretched the interior strands of the cable enough to execute the seat firing.

Someone up there must like me.

April 30, 2008

56-0768 AFFTC support aircraft, crashed at Edwards AFB after a broken oil-line causing a fire on June 30, 1959, pilot Capt Norvin C. "Bud" Evans

Copyright by Norvin "Bud" Evans

Norvin C. “Bud” Evans: September 10, 1924 to May 16, 2020