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By Ron Knott
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[Webmaster's Note: Ron Knott's new book, "Supersonic Cowboys", tells the humorous, sad, and exciting stories that fighter pilots experienced in the Crusader. Click-: To order Supersonic Cowboys --Printed with permission]
I FELL 15,000 FEET AND LIVED
“Jud, you’re on fire, get out of there!”
Needless to say that startling command got my attention. As you will
read in this report, this was just the beginning of my problems!
It had all started in the brilliant sunlight 20,000 feet above the
Pacific Ocean as I nudged my F-8 Crusader jet into position behind the
lumbering, deep-bellied refueling plane. After a moment of jockeying for
position, I made the connection and matched my speed to that of the
slowpoke tanker. I made the graceful task of plugging into the trailing
fuel conduit so they could pump fuel into my tanks.
This in-flight refueling process was necessary, and routine, because the
F-8 could not hold enough fuel to fly from California to Hawaii. This
routine mission was labeled “Trans-Pac,” meaning Flying Airplanes across
the Pacific. This had been going on for years.
Soon, after plugging-in to the tanker, my fuel gauges stirred, showing
that all was well. In my cockpit, I was relaxed and confident. As I was
looking around, I was struck for an instant by the eeriness of the
scene: here I was, attached, like an unwanted child, by an umbilicus to
a gargantuan mother who was fleeing across the sky at 200 knots as
though from some unnamed danger. Far below us was a broken layer of
clouds that filtered the sun glare over the Pacific.
In my earphones, I heard Major Van Campen, our flight leader, chatting
with Major D.K. Tooker who was on a Navy destroyer down below. Major
Tooker had ejected from his aircraft, the day before, in this same area,
when his Crusader flamed out mysteriously during the same type of
At that time no one knew why his aircraft had flamed out. We all
supposed it had been some freak accident that sometimes happens with no
explanation. One thing we knew for sure, it was not pilot error. This
accident had to be some kind of mechanical malfunction, but what? Our
squadron had a perfect safety record and was very disturbed because of
the loss of an airplane the day before.
“Eleven minutes to mandatory disconnect point,” the tanker commander
I checked my fuel gages again, everything appeared normal.
My thoughts were, “In a few hours I knew we’d all be having dinner at
the Kaneohe Officers Club on Oahu, Hawaii. Then after a short rest, we’d
continue our 6,000-mile trek to Atsugi, Japan, via Midway and Wake
Island.” Our whole outfit - Marine All Weather Fighter Squadron 323 -
was being transferred to the Far East for a one-year period of operations.
“Nine minutes to mandatory disconnect.” the tanker commander
My fuel gages indicated that the tanks were almost full. I noticed that
my throttle lever was sticking a little. That was unusual, because the
friction lock was holding it in place and was loose enough. It grew
tighter as I tried to manipulate it gently.
Then - thud! I heard the crack of an explosion.
I could see the rpm gauge unwinding and the tailpipe temperature
dropping. The aircraft had lost power – the engine had quit running –
this is a flame-out!
I punched the mike button, and said, “This is Jud. I’ve got a flame-out!”
Unfortunately, my radio was already dead; I was neither sending nor
receiving anything via my radio.
I quickly disconnected from the tanker and nosed the aircraft over, into
a shallow dive, to pick up some flying speed to help re-start the
engine. I needed a few seconds to think.
I yanked the handle that extended the air-driven emergency generator,
called the Ram Air Turbine (RAT), into the slipstream, hoping to get
ignition for an air start. The igniter's clicked gamely, and the rpm
indicator started to climb slowly, as did the tailpipe temperature. This
was a positive indication that a re-start was beginning. For one
tantalizing moment I thought everything would be all right. But the rpm
indicator hung uncertainly at 30 percent of capacity and refused to go
any faster. This is not nearly enough power to maintain flight.
The fire warning light (pilots call it the panic light) blinked on. This
is not a good sign. And to make matters worse, jet fuel poured over the
canopy like water from a bucket. At the same instant, my radio came back
on, powered by the emergency generator, and a great babble of voices
burst through my earphones.
“Jud, you’re on fire, get out of there!”
Fuel was pouring out of my aircraft; from the tailpipe; from the intake
duct; from under the wings, and igniting behind me in a great awesome
trail of fire.
The suddenness of the disaster overwhelmed me, and I thought: “This
can’t be happening to me!”
The voices in my ears kept urging me to fire the ejection seat and
abandon my aircraft.
I pressed my mike button and told the flight leader, “I’m getting out!”
I took my hands off the flight controls and reached above my head for
the canvas curtain that would start the ejection sequence. I pulled it
down hard over my face and waited for the tremendous kick in the pants,
which would send me rocketing upward, free of the aircraft.
Nothing happened! The canopy, which was designed to jettison in the
first part of the ejection sequence did not move. It was still in place
and so was I.
My surprise lasted only a second. Then I reached down between my knees
for the alternate ejection-firing handle, and gave it a vigorous pull.
Again, nothing happened. This was very surprising. Both, the primary,
and the secondary ejection procedures had failed and I was trapped in
the cockpit of the burning aircraft.
The plane was now in a steep 60-degree dive. For the first time, I felt
panic softening the edges of my determination. I knew that I had to do
something or I was going to die in this sick airplane. There was no way
out of it. With great effort, I pulled my thoughts together and tried to
imagine some solution.
A voice in my earphones was shouting: “Ditch the plane! Ditch it in the
It must have come from the tanker skipper or one of the destroyer
commanders down below, because every jet pilot knows you can’t ditch a
jet and survive. The plane would hit the water at a very high a speed,
flip over and sink like a stone and they usually explode on impact.
I grabbed the control stick and leveled the aircraft. Then I yanked the
alternate handle again in an attempt to fire the canopy and start the
ejection sequence, but still nothing happened. That left me with only
one imaginable way out, which was to jettison the canopy manually and
try to jump from the aircraft without aid of the ejection seat.
Was such a thing possible? I was not aware of any Crusader pilot who
had ever used this World War II tactic to get out of a fast flying jet.
I had been told that this procedure, of bailing out of a jet, was almost
impossible. Yes, the pilot may get out of the airplane but the massive
20-foot high tail section is almost certain to strike the pilot’s body
and kill him before he falls free of the aircraft. My desperation was
growing, and any scheme that offered a shred of success seemed better
than riding that aircraft into the sea, which would surely be fatal.
I disconnected the canopy by hand, and with a great whoosh it
disappeared from over my head never to be seen again. Before trying to
get out of my confined quarters, I trimmed the aircraft to fly in a kind
of sidelong skid: nose high and with the tail swung around slightly to
Then I stood up in the seat and put both arms in front of my face. I was
sucked out harshly from the airplane. I cringed as I tumbled outside the
bird, expecting the tail to cut me in half, but thank goodness, that
never happened! In an instant I knew I was out of there and uninjured.
I waited . . . and waited . . . until my body, hurtling through space,
with the 225 knots of momentum started to decelerate. I pulled the
D-ring on my parachute, which is the manual way to open the chute if the
ejection seat does not work automatically. I braced myself for the
opening shock. I heard a loud pop above me, but I was still falling very
fast. As I looked up I saw that the small pilot chute had deployed.
(This small chute is designed to keep the pilot from tumbling until the
main chute opens.) But, I also noticed a sight that made me shiver with
disbelief and horror! The main, 24-foot parachute was just flapping in
the breeze and was tangled in its own shroud lines. It hadn’t opened! I
could see the white folds neatly arranged, fluttering feebly in the air.
“This is very serious,” I thought.
Frantically, I shook the risers in an attempt to balloon the chute and
help it open. It didn’t work. I pulled the bundle down toward me and
wrestled with the shroud lines, trying my best to get the chute to open.
The parachute remained closed. All the while I am falling like a rock
toward the ocean.
I looked down hurriedly. There was still plenty of altitude remaining. I
quickly developed a frustrating and sickening feeling. I wanted
everything to halt while I collected my thoughts, but my fall seemed to
accelerate. I noticed a ring of turbulence in the ocean. It looked like
a big stone had been thrown in the water. It had white froth at its
center; I finally realized this is where my plane had crashed in the ocean.
“Would I be next to crash?” were my thoughts!
Again, I shook the parachute risers and shroud lines, but the rushing
air was holding my chute tightly in a bundle. I began to realize that I
had done all I could reasonably do to open the chute and it was not
going to open. I was just along for a brutal ride that may kill or
severely injure me.
I descended rapidly through the low clouds. Now there was only clear sky
between me and the ocean. This may be my last view of the living. I have
no recollection of positioning myself properly or even bracing for the
impact. In fact, I don’t remember hitting the water at all. At one
instant I was falling very fast toward the ocean. The next thing I
remember is hearing a shrill, high-pitched whistle that hurt my ears.
Suddenly, I was very cold. In that eerie half-world of consciousness, I
thought, “Am I alive?” I finally decided, and not all at once, “Yes, I
think I am . . . I am alive!”
The water helped clear my senses. But as I bounced around in the water I
began coughing and retching. The Mae West around my waist had inflated.
I concluded that the shrill whistling sound that I had heard was the gas
leaving the CO2 cylinders as it was filling the life vest.
A sense of urgency gripped me, as though there were some task I ought to
be performing. Then it dawned on me what it was. The parachute was
tugging at me from under the water. It had finally billowed out (much
too late) like some Brobdingnagian Portuguese man-of-war. I tried
reaching down for my hunting knife located in the knee pocket of my
flight suit. I had to cut the shroud lines of the chute before it pulled
me under for good.
This is when I first discovered that I was injured severely. The pain
was excruciating. Was my back broken? I tried to arch it slightly and
felt the pain again. I tried moving my feet, but that too was
impossible. They were immobile, and I could feel the bones in them
grating against each other.
There was no chance of getting that hunting knife, but I had another,
smaller one in the upper torso of my flight suit. With difficulty, I
extracted it and began slashing feebly at the spaghetti-like shroud line
mess surrounding me.
Once free of the parachute, I began a tentative search for the survival
pack. It contained a one-man life raft, some canned water, food, fishing
gear, and dye markers. The dye markers colored the water around the
pilot to aid the rescue team in finding a down airman. All of this
survival equipment should have been strapped to my hips. It was not
there. It had been ripped away from my body upon impact with the water.
“How long would the Mae West sustain me?” I wondered.
I wasn’t sure, but I knew I needed help fast. The salt water that I had
swallowed felt like an enormous rock in the pit of my gut. But worst of
all, here I was, completely alone, 600 miles from shore, lolling in the
deep troughs and crests of the Pacific Ocean. And my Crusader aircraft,
upon which had been lavished such affectionate attention, was sinking
thousands of feet to the bottom of the ocean.
At that moment, I was struck by the incredible series of coincidences
that had just befallen me. I knew that my misfortune had been a
one-in-a-million occurrence. In review, I noted that the explosion aloft
should not have happened. The ejection mechanism should have worked. The
parachute should have opened. None of these incidents should have
happened. I had just experienced three major catastrophes in one flight.
My squadron had a perfect safety record. “Why was all of this
happening?” was my thinking.
In about ten minutes I heard the drone of a propeller-driven plane. The
pot-bellied, four-engine tanker came into view, flying very low. They
dropped several green dye markers near me, and some smoke flares a short
distance from my position. They circled overhead and dropped an inflated
life raft about 50 yards from me.
I was so pleased and tried to swim toward the raft. When I took two
strokes, I all most blacked out due to the intense pain in my body. The
tanker circled again and dropped another raft closer to me, but there
was no way for me to get to it, or in it, in my condition.
The water seemed to be getting colder, and a chill gripped me. I looked
at my watch, but the so-called unbreakable crystal was shattered and the
hands torn away. I tried to relax and surrender to the Pacific Ocean
swells. I could almost have enjoyed being buoyed up to the crest of one
swell and gently sliding into the trough of the next, but I was in such
excruciating pain. I remembered the words W.C. Fields had chosen for his
epitaph: “On the whole, I’d rather be in Philadelphia.”
In about an hour, a Coast Guard amphibian plane flew over and circled me
as though deciding whether or not to land. But the seas were high and I
knew he couldn’t make it. He came in very low and dropped another raft;
this one had a 200-foot lanyard attached to it. The end of the lanyard
landed barely ten feet from me. I paddled gently backward using only my
arms. I caught hold of it and pulled the raft to me. Even before trying,
I knew I couldn’t crawl into the raft due to my physical condition. I
was able to get a good grip on its side and hold on. This gave me a
The Coast Guard amphibian gained altitude and flew off. (I learned later
that he headed for a squadron of minesweepers that was returning to the
United States from a tour of the Western Pacific. He was unable to tune
to their radio frequency for communications. But this ingenious pilot
lowered a wire from his aircraft and dragged it across the bow of the
minesweeper, the USS Embattle. The minesweeper captain understood the
plea, and veered off at top speed in my direction.)
I was fully conscious during the two and a half hours it took the ship
to reach me. I spotted the minesweeper while teetering at the crest of a
wave. Soon, its great bow was pushing in toward me and I could see
sailors in orange life jackets crowding its lifelines. A bearded man in a
black rubber suit jumped into the water and swam to me.
“Are you hurt?” he asked.
“Yes,” I said. “My legs and back.”
I was now very cold and worried about the growing numbness in my legs.
Perhaps the imminence of rescue made me light-headed, for I only vaguely
remember being hoisted aboard the ship. I was laid out on the ship’s
deck as they cut away my flight suit.
“Don’t touch my legs! Don’t touch my legs!” I screamed.
I don’t remember it. Somebody gave me a shot of morphine and this erased
part of my extreme pain.
An hour or so later a man was bending over me and asking questions. (It
was a doctor who had been high-lined over from the USS Los Angeles, a
cruiser that had been operating in the area.)
He said, “You have a long scar on your abdomen. How did it get there?”
I told him about a serious auto accident I’d had four years earlier in
Texas, and that my spleen had been removed at that time.
He grunted, and asked more questions while he continued examining me.
Then he said, “You and I are going to take a little trip over to the USS
Los Angeles; it’s steaming alongside.”
Somehow they got me into a wire stretcher, and hauled me, dangling and
dipping, across the watery interval between the Embattle and the cruiser.
In the Los Angeles’s sickbay, they gave me another shot of morphine,
thank God, and started thrusting all sorts of hoses into my body. I
could tell from all the activity, and from the intense, hushed voices,
that they were very worried about my condition.
My body temperature was down to 94 degrees; my intestines and kidneys
were in shock. The doctors never left my side during the night. They
took my blood pressure every 15 minutes. I was unable to sleep. Finally,
I threw-up about a quart or more of seawater. After this my nausea was
relieved a bit.
By listening to the medical team, who was working on me, I was able to
piece together the nature of my injuries. This is what I heard them
saying. My left ankle was broken in five places. My right ankle was
broken in three places. A tendon in my left foot was cut. My right
pelvis was fractured. My number 7 vertebra was fractured. My left lung
had partially collapsed. There were many cuts and bruises all over my
face and body, and, my intestines and kidneys had been shaken into
The next morning Dr. Valentine Rhodes told me that the Los Angeles was
steaming at flank speed to a rendezvous with a helicopter 100 miles from
Long Beach, California.
At 3:30 that afternoon, I was hoisted into the belly of a Marine
helicopter from the USS Los Angeles’s fantail, and we whirred off to a
hospital ship, the USS Haven, docked in Long Beach, CA.
Once aboard the Haven, doctors came at me from all sides with more
needles, tubes, and X-ray machines. Their reaction to my condition was
so much more optimistic than I had expected. I finally broke down and
let go a few tears of relief, exhaustion, and thanks to all hands and God.
Within a few months I was all systems go again. My ankles were put back
in place with the help of steel pins. The partially collapsed left lung
re-inflated and my kidneys and intestines were working again without the
need of prodding.
The Marine Corps discovered the cause of my flame-out, and that of Major
Tooker, the day before, was the failure of an automatic cut-off switch
in the refueling system. The aircraft’s main fuel tank was made of
heavy reinforced rubber. When the cut-off switch failed, this allowed
the tank to overfill and it burst like a balloon. This then caused the
fire and flame out. We will never know why the ejection seat failed to
work since it is in the bottom of the ocean. The parachute failure is a
mystery also. Like they say, “Some days you are the dog and others you
are the fire-plug.”
Do I feel lucky? That word doesn’t even begin to describe my feelings.
To survive a 15,000-foot fall with an unopened chute is a fair enough
feat. My mind keeps running back to something Dr. Rhodes told me in the
sickbay of the Los Angeles during those grim and desperate hours.
He said that if I had had a spleen, it almost certainly would have
ruptured when I hit the water, and I would have bled to death. Of the 25
pilots in our squadron, I am the only one without a spleen. It gives me
something to think about. Maybe it does you as well.
[Author’s Note: Amazingly, Cliff Judkins not only survived this ordeal
but he also returned to flight status. He was flying the F-8 Crusader
again within six months after the accident. After leaving the Marine
Corps he was hired as a pilot with Delta Airlines and retired as a
Captain from that position.]
Information about the book and Ron Knott
Supersonic Cowboys is a book of heroes; in fact more than forty heroes are listed in the book. And there are many, many, many, more. The heroes in Supersonic Cowboys were not just a hero for a day, or a one time event hero, but they were heroes almost every day, day-in and day-out, for months at a time for our country. I was honored to serve with the likes of these heroes. We were all one bullet - or one crash away from eternity. After flying for the Navy for only seven years more than 200 of my pilot friends had lost their lives flying Navy aircraft. Needless to say, this is a dangerous profession. In fact I am the only living pilot left that was in my flight school graduating class. James Michener was quick to recognize and report the heroic actions of Navy and Marine Aviators when he wrote the following statement in The Bridges at Toko-Ri, “Where do we get such men?”
Supersonic Cowboys is not a Hollywood story made up to appease the masses, but it is full of true life courageous stories, conveyed by the heroic pilot about his life and near-death daring experiences. His script was literally written in his own blood, sweat, and tears, no matter if he was on active duty or in one of the Reserve Squadrons. Injury and death made no distinction between the two groups.
Many of the stories in this book have been asleep for more than 30 years. And all too often many like stories are “laid to rest” each year; forever. My motivation for writing these stories is because my kids, grandkids, and associates continue to ask me what it was like flying Navy Jets from the decks of aircraft carriers. That is the reason I have included so much detail about some of the normal procedures, abnormal procedures, and emergency procedures. For example, I go to great detail in explaining how the ejection seat works, how it feels to be catapulted off the aircraft carrier, the excitement of flying supersonic speeds and many more like adventures that the earth-bound people will never experience except through these stories.
All the chronicles conveyed herein are by pilots who are still living at the time of this publication. For each story in Supersonic Cowboys there are at least ten other stories where the pilot did not survive. The sad part of this report is the fact that the others may have performed flawlessly, yet they did not survive. They too were courageous heroes and did their best, but a posthumous recognition is all we can give them now. Yet, we will meet them again in the great “Eternity Fraternity.”
You will read in Supersonic Cowboys reports of pilots ejecting from their crippled aircraft, crashing on land, boat, and sea, being shot down by the enemy, taken captive as POWs, saving airplanes that have experienced many major malfunctions, and yet they were usually flying again within a few hours if they have not sustained long term injuries. That takes real “guts” as the old saying goes. Herein are true tales of real people who overcame fear with courage and valor. These are a very special group of Fighter Pilots.
I chose to publish personal stories of Crusader Fighter Pilots because I was a Crusader Fighter Pilot for about ten years. Also, I know the thrills of flying this machine and the dangers involved as well. And I know many heroic Crusader pilots who risked their lives in this unforgiving machine. This sleek supersonic fighter commanded the respect of all who were fortunate enough to take her screaming through the skies at the speed of heat. This bird would kill you as quick as an enemy missile if you did not stay within her performance envelope. She was a touchy thoroughbred that demanded fair treatment. With fair treatment she would give you awe-inspiring performance. Just lead her off the forbidden path and she would throw you into eternity very quickly, but she sure was fun to fly.
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Created on ... June 15, 2009