Eject! Eject! Eject!

April 18, 1993|By George C. Wilson

From inside the airplane, the sound of disaster was like that o a treetop snapping off during a windstorm: Crrr-rack!

Navy Lt. Sean Brennan, the test pilot, suddenly could not control the Lockheed S-3 Viking anti-submarine plane he had been putting through punishing maneuvers over the Chesapeake Bay near his base, the Patuxent River Naval Air Test Center in Lexington Park.

Neither Brennan nor Navy Lt. Cmdr. Steve Eastburg, sitting alongside him in the co-pilot seat, knew what had happened to their twin-engine jet. All they knew was that the plane would kill them in the next few seconds unless they regained control of it or got out.

Only afterward would the Navy learn that a big part of the S-3's tail had snapped off during the stressful swerving maneuvers. As a result, the pilot couldn't make the plane move left or right with the rudder pedals; also snapped off was one of the elevators, the mechanisms that make the plane go up and down. Brennan would not be able to control the plane no matter what he did as it hurtled through the sky at about 400 miles an hour this sunny afternoon of April 29, 1992.


The out-of-control plane lunged this way and that like a frenzied shark. Every new lunge exerted tremendous gravitational force on the two 33-year-old aviators, pinning them into their seats as if they were swimmers pressed against a rock by swift currents. Moving a head, hands or feet against these gravitational currents was becoming more difficult with each succeeding, violent lunge of the plane.

With effort, Eastburg twisted his head to the left to see Brennan. The pilot was struggling with the control stick and rudder pedals. Gravitational forces had the pilot pinioned in an awkward position.

Eastburg managed to get his hand around the ejection handle under his seat as Brennanstarted the "Eject, eject, eject" command. Eastburg pulled the ejection lever out and up, a motion that would set off the rockets under both their seats, if everything worked right.

Wham! Wham! The two aviators felt the biggest kicks in the butt of their lives. The ejection rockets had gone off. The aviators were shot, seats and all, through the plastic roof of the cockpit. The high backs of their seats, not their heads, served as the battering rams against the tough plastic, which small explosive charges had cracked open.

At 3:18 p.m. Brennan and Eastburg were sailing through the open sky in their seats at a speed of almost 400 miles an hour. Brennan had been knocked out during his ejection, which was merciful because his right shoulder had hit something hard and had broken. Eastburg was conscious but disoriented.

"Am I still alive?" he asked himself. He was flying through the sky along with plane wreckage. They were flotsam together in a surrealistic world where nothing was rooted to anything.

He looked up. The white blossom of his parachute made him feel tied to something. He was beginning to understand his situation. He wondered how Brennan was doing and looked around for him. He saw Brennan's limp figure hanging from a parachute a long way from him. Eastburg gave Brennan the thumbs-up sign. No response.

A split second after they ejected, the plane hurled around until it was flying backward. The wings were bent back the wrong way as they hit the thick air 5,000 feet above Bloodsworth Island. The right wing broke off, ripping the fuel tanks open. The rushing air scooped the kerosenelike jet fuel out of the tanks, and atomized the fuel into a deadly cloud. Fiery exhaust from the ejection-seat rockets or from the airplane engines ignited the cloud. A giant, orange fireball blossomed in the sky over the Chesapeake Bay.

Boaters and fishermen on the bay below were shocked to see two tiny-looking, sticklike figures falling out of this fireball. What had happened up there in the sky this peaceful afternoon?

Cpl. Thomas Shores and Officer Victor Kulynycz of Maryland's Department of Natural Resources, patrolling the bay near Bloodsworth Island in a Boston Whaler skiff, did not know what had happened. But they did know two men were falling toward the water and would need help. They sped toward the spot where they thought the aviators would hit.


Eastburg, floating toward an unwelcome landing in the bay, forced his mind to concentrate on what he should be doing to save himself.

Navy survival training burned through the fog coating his mind and asserted itself in the big headline his instructors had written on the blackboard in giant letters: IROK!

The "I" was for "Inflate your life preserver."

He did this by pulling beads at his waist outward.

"R" for raft.

He pulled the handle on the metal seat he was still sitting on. This allowed the raft and survival gear to fall out of the metal seat pan and dangle below him on a long cord. When the raft fell to the end of the cord, the yank would trigger the raft's inflating gas.

"O" for optional equipment, like gloves and face visor.

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