Air-Minded: Give Me Some Incentive

A small item in a flood of more pressing news: a 64-year-old civilian being given an incentive ride in a French military fighter inadvertently pulled the handle on his ejection seat and returned to earth via parachute.

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Photo from French investigation report

The report on the incident, which occurred in March 2019, came out earlier this month. You can read more here, but here are some details that jump out at me:

  • A 64-year-old employee of a French defense manufacturer … was offered a discovery flight on a Dassault Rafale B fighter jet as a surprise by four of his colleagues, including a former pilot of the French Air Force that organized the gift.
  • The passenger who fired his ejection seat was cleared for the flight only four hours prior, and only under the condition that he not be subjected to negative G’s during the flight … but the doctor failed to communicate with the pilot. …
  • … the passenger may have only accepted the aircraft ride under pressure from peers who arranged the surprise flight.
  • … the pilot took off and climbed at 47°, generating a load factor of around +4G. Then, as he leveled off, he subjected his passenger to a negative load factor of about -0.6G.
  • Discovering the feeling of the negative load factor, the insufficiently strapped and totally surprised passenger held onto the ejector handle and activated it unintentionally.

Oh, and this:

  • … a technical malfunction … prevented the pilot from also being ejected from the aircraft along with the rear-seat passenger. The normal ejection sequence … would cause both crew members to be ejected even if only one initiates the ejection sequence. This means the rear seat passenger accidentally pulling the ejection seat handle between their legs should have ejected the pilot as well. In this bizarre incident, both the front and rear canopies were disintegrated and ejected by explosive charge, the rear seat left the aircraft, but the pilot’s seat remained inside the aircraft. In other words, a technical glitch saved the aircraft.

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Photo from French investigation report

When I flew for the US Air Force, the incentive ride nightmare scenario was that a passenger along for the ride would (intentionally or unintentionally) pull the handle and punch out. This is the first time I’ve ever heard of that it actually happened.

Another nightmare incentive ride scenario come to life happened in 2006, when the US Air Force gave a 40-year-old reservist a ride in an F-16. I’m sure the passenger got some kind of medical screening before the flight, but something must have slipped through the cracks, because the poor guy up and died during the flight. Who’d have seen that coming?

In the US military, we call them incentive or orientation rides. Broadly, incentive rides are given to non-rated (non-flying) military members as rewards for outstanding performance; orientation rides are usually for civilians … celebrities, VIPs, and journalists … who can give the military some good PR afterward. As an Air Force pilot, I conducted several of each over the course of my career.

I started my military flying career as an instructor pilot in the Cessna T-37, in those days the USAF’s primary jet trainer. Every summer my fellow IPs and I would give incentive flights to Air Force Academy and ROTC cadets about to graduate and become officers. They were medically cleared beforehand by our flight surgeon, then given a day’s worth of egress training by the life support techs. I’d brief them once again before we flew, and when we got to the jet I’d make them demonstrate that they knew what was safe to touch and what to keep their hands away from.

Passengers can’t ride in an F-22, F-35, or A-10, because those aircraft have only one seat. Other “single-seat” fighters, though, come in both one- and two-seat configurations, and the F-15 Eagle is one such. Every tenth F-15 was built as a two-seater. Operational squadrons typically have one or two “family models” on hand to use for training missions and check flights … as well as for incentive and orientation rides.

The F-15 Eagle was the jet I flew for 20 of my 24 Air Force years. Though 90% of the time I flew alone in single-seater Eagles, I’d occasionally fly the family model … sometimes with an empty back seat, sometimes with another squadron pilot along for the ride, sometimes with a passenger getting an incentive or orientation flight.

F-15s, like all fighters, are high-performance aircraft and there’s always an element of risk involved in flying or riding in one. They spend most of their time pulling multiple Gs, positive and negative, or upside down, or pointing straight up … or down. If you’re along for the ride you may find yourself hanging on the boom underneath a gigantic tanker, or hurtling along wingtip to wingtip with another F-15 (which is also upside down or pointing straight up or down).

Add to that the fact that the ejection seats in two-seat fighters are sequenced so that if the occupant of one seat pulls the handle both occupants are going … well, yeah, all kinds of bad things can happen and that’s why we train and brief the shit out of passengers.

I know of incidents where passengers riding along on incentive or orientation flights died, along with their pilots, in crashes. I investigated one such crash when I flew F-15s in Alaska (as with the French flight, training and briefing was rushed and incomplete, setting a fatal chain of events in motion even before the pilot, a buddy of mine, and his passenger, a young airman with a wife and child, stepped from the squadron building to the jet).

I know of other incidents where both pilot and passenger had to eject during incentive flights. Then there are non-incentive ride events involving ejection seats. A couple of years ago a Royal Air Force fighter pilot was ejected from a parked aircraft, the seat having apparently fired by itself during engine start … that pilot died when the parachute didn’t deploy. In 1980, a kid at an air show got into a Navy S-3 Viking on the ramp, sat down on an ejection seat, pulled the safety pin and then the ejection handle, and blew himself through the top of the canopy. He died too, and ten bystanders were injured. One of the scariest incidents happened on a normal military training sortie in the early 1990s, when the right seat of an A-6 Intruder partially fired without activating the dual-seat ejection sequence, trapping the weapon systems officer half inside and half outside the aircraft’s canopy in flight. That guy lived, miraculously.

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Another nightmare

A friend who’d been one of my T-37 students in pilot training later became a T-37 instructor pilot himself, and on one of the same kind of incentive flights I used to perform, took a turkey vulture in the face. Momentarily blinded by shards of windscreen plexiglas, feathers, guts, and blood, he kept the aircraft flying straight and level. As he wiped the mess off his visor, the first thing he saw was his passenger’s hands on the ejection handles. The passenger, an ROTC cadet, thought his pilot’s head had exploded was getting ready to punch out. If my friend hadn’t reacted as quickly as he did, that’s exactly what would have happened.

All of which, I guess, goes to show that anything can happen, and eventually will.

So what’s the worst thing that ever happened on one of my incentive flights? Puke. I was, if I do say so myself, one of the smoothest pilots ever to give incentive rides. Other pilots, with a passenger aboard, would go out of their way to show what the jet could do. Not me, unless my ride-along was feeling great and wanting the full E-ticket experience. I wanted my passengers to have good memories of a once-in-a-lifetime event. But the passenger’s friends and co-workers would invariably have poisoned the waters beforehand, psyching him or her up to barf. And barf they would, nine times out of ten. Copiously, and with great force and volume. I’ve seen rivulets of vomit on the canopy rails up front, 14 or so feet forward of the groaning wretch in the back seat.

The second worst thing happened with a tech sergeant at Kadena, who was married to an airman who worked in my squadron. When her husband was selected for the incentive ride, she went to the scheduler and asked that I be his pilot, because she knew me and trusted me to give him a good ride. And I did. And he was one of the rare ones who didn’t get sick! But during preflight, as I helped him strap in, I accidentally knocked his video camera off the top of the air intake and it fell to the ground and was smashed. I still feel bad about that!

© 2020, Paul Woodford. All rights reserved.

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5 thoughts on “Air-Minded: Give Me Some Incentive

  • My next assignment after being with you at Soesterberg was at Wright-Patterson AFB as the Base Deputy Staff Judge Advocate. The worst orientation ride disaster I know of happened while I was there. An EC-135N crashed on 6 May 81 with 17 crew and 4 passengers aboard. All 21 were killed. I had some involvement in the accident investigation, in providing legal assistance to the families of the victims, and providing legal counsel to the command of Aeronautical Systems Division (a base tenant and owner of the crashed plane). My wife was the incoming president of the W-P Officers’ Wives Club and was very involved in planning and running the memorial service as 2 OWC members were among the victims

    Two passengers were wives of crew members participating in the HAVE PARTNER Program. One passenger, SSgt Joseph T. Brundige, Jr., was an Administrative NCO assigned to the Wing. He was onboard as an official observer for an orientation and motivation flight. The fourth passenger, Michael W. Reilly, was a Contract Engineering Technical Services representative For Bell and Howell Company. He was onboard the aircraft to complete an engineering evaluation of the recorder system recently installed by his company.

    Officially ‘for undetermined reasons, the aircraft pitch trim moved to the full nose-down position” and disaster followed. Unofficially there was much speculation that the wife in the left pilot seat ‘fiddled’ with the trim tab on the wheel, probably unconsciously, causing the autopilot to go offline resulting in the pitch down, loss of electrical power, and crash.

    Accident report is here: http://www.show-the-house.com/id36.html

    Summary: On 6 May 1981, EC-135N, Serial Number 61-0328, call sign AGAR 23, departed Wright Patterson AFB, Ohio, at 1005 Eastern Daylight Savings Time (EDT) on a routine training mission. On board the aircraft were 17 crewmembers and four authorized passengers. The flight proceeded uneventfully as planned for approximately 45 minutes. Then in a few brief moments, a sequence of very rapid events resulted in a crash with the loss of all onboard. At 1049:48 EDT, The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) lost radar contact with AGAR 23. The aircraft was cruising at Flight Level 290, at .78 Mach while performing a navigational training leg. The aircraft commander, Capt Emilio, occupied the right pilot seat and a passenger, Mrs. Emilio, occupied the left pilot seat. Also in the crew compartment were the 2 navigators, Lt Col Frederick and Capt Fonke, and 2 passengers, Mrs. Fonke and SSgt Brundige. For undetermined reasons, the aircraft pitch trim moved to the full nose-down position. The aircraft then a rapidly pitched over, most likely upon release of the autopilot, and induced sufficient negative “G” forces to cause the generators to trip off line, resulting in the loss of all AC electrical power. The pitch trim could not then be moved electrically. This condition, while unusual, can be controlled if prompt corrective action is taken; however, if corrective action is delayed approximately 8 seconds, the aircraft pitch angle will be greater than 30 degrees nose-down in the airspeed in excess of 350 knots indicated airspeed. Under these conditions, the aircraft cannot be controlled until the pitch trim is moved toward neutral. While it is evident that recovery was delayed, the reason for the delay is unknown. The aircraft became uncontrollable and entered a steep descent. During the rapid descent, an explosion occurred at approximately 1300 feet above ground level followed immediately by catastrophic failure, and complete break-up of the aircraft. The wreckage was found north of Walkersville and all 21 occupants were killed.

  • I remember standing watch as Engineering Officer of the Watch in HARRY S TRUMAN (CVN-75) in ’98. We had an ILARTS screen in Central Control to give us SA wrt the goings on up on the flight deck.

    A Tomcat came in, caught a wire, went to full throttle and as he did so, his seat failed launching him through the canopy. The RIO remained in the aircraft. Problem was the jet was arrested but both engines were at full power and hanging on by the arresting gear. The crash and salvage crew tried to FOD the engines using 4″ fire hoses, straight down the intake to no avail until some flight deck chief (the man with the largest balls in the world) calmly waked up, released a panel and hit some sort of emergency shutdown.

    The story went on that this was the pilot’s third or fourth ejection incident. No idea how credible that was, but I watched the fella shoot through this one. Fortunately for him he had enough forward momentum to clear the flight deck and land in the water.

    Haven’t even thought about ejection seat mechanisms until I read about the Rafael the other day and even then didn’t give it much thought.
    Thanks for sharing your experience. I thoroughly enjoyed it.
    If you’d like to hear about the other side of an aircraft carrier (below the flight deck) let me know. I’ve got heaps of tales

  • Back in the day each of just a very few incentive rides I had with the Navy required the altitude chamber with mask, and the Dilbert Dunker and the Martin Baker ejection seat. Typically it all took a couple of hours, so you’d do the checkout the day before the flight.

  • Thanks for the great comments! Last first: Tom, I don’t recall that we put orientation candidates through the altitude chamber or gave them the pussy USAF version of the Navy’s dunker (tossing them in a heated pool). But they did get seat training and spent some time in the hanging harness. Gopher, please do share some of your Navy experiences! And Alan, I remember that mishap well, and all the scuttlebutt about it. It was only a few years later that Donna and some of our other squadron wives in Alaska got an orientation flight on a Tennessee ANG KC-135, and Donna took photos of me on the boom. When I got home after a long day of flying and debriefing, the entire tanker crew was at my house and all the booze was gone … I had to make an emergency run to the Class 6 store.

  • Oh, yeah, the no-notice hospitality check. Did you ever get roof stomped? Squadron rituals-fodder for another blog?

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