“I looked down and saw a sight that I will never forget: the top of the canopy, close enough to touch, and through the canopy I could see the top of my pilot’s helmet. This was worse than I ever could have imagined – I was sitting on top of a flying A-6!” Keith Gallagher KA-6D “Texaco” Intruder B/N.
This post features the incredible story of Keith Gallagher, former Bombardier/Navigator (B/N) on the mighty KA-6D “Texaco” Intruder tanker aircraft. Gallagher, while attached to VA-95 Green Lizards aboard aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln in the Indian Ocean, survived partial ejection from his A-6 aircraft on Jul. 9, 1991, a very unusual and life-threatening incident. Nevertheless, Gallagher recovered from his accident, returned to flight status, and completed his service in the U.S. Navy.
The following is Lieutenant Keith Gallagher’s Account of his unusual Incident which appears on GallagherStory.com.
Murphy’s Law says, “Whatever can go wrong, will, and when you least expect it.” (And, of course, we all know that Murphy was an aviator.) Murphy was correct beyond his wildest dreams in my case. Fortunately for me, however, he failed to follow through. On my 26th birthday I was blindsided by a piece of bad luck the size of Texas that should have killed me. Luckily, it was followed immediately by a whole slew of miracles that allowed me to be around for my 27th. Not even Murphy could have conceived of such a bizarre accident (many people still find it hard to believe), and the fact that I am here to write about it makes it that much more bizarre.
We were the overhead tanker, one third of the way through cruise, making circles in the sky. Although the tanker pattern can be pretty boring midway through the cycle, we were alert and maintaining a good lookout doctrine because our airwing had a midair less than a week before, and we did not want to repeat. We felt we were ready for “any” emergency: fire lights, hydraulic failures and fuel transfer problems. Bring ’em on! We were ready for them. After all, how much trouble can two JO’s get in overhead the ship?
After my third fuel update call, we decided that the left outboard drop was going to require a little help in order to transfer. NATOPS recommends applying positive and negative G to force the valve open. As the pilot pulled the stick back I wondered how many times we would have to porpoise the nose of the plane before the valve opened. As he moved the stick forward, I felt the familiar sensation of negative “G”, and then something strange happened: my head touched the canopy. For a brief moment I thought that I had failed to tighten my lap belts, but I knew that wasn’t true. Before I could complete that thought, there was a loud bang, followed by wind, noise, disorientation and more wind, wind, wind. Confusion reigned in my mind as I was forced back against my seat, head against the headrest, arms out behind me, the wind roaring in my head, pounding against my body.
“Did the canopy blow off? Did I eject? Did my windscreen implode?” All of these questions occurred to me amidst the pandemonium in my mind and over my body. These questions were quickly answered, and replaced by a thousand more, as I looked down and saw a sight that I will never forget: the top of the canopy, close enough to touch, and through the canopy I could see the top of my pilot’s helmet. It took a few moments for this image to sink into my suddenly overloaded brain. This was worse than I ever could have imagined – I was sitting on top of a flying A-6!
Pain, confusion, panic, fear and denial surged through my brain and body as a new development occurred to me: I couldn’t breathe. My helmet and mask had ripped off my head, and without them, the full force of the wind was hitting me square in the face. It was like trying to drink through a fire hose. I couldn’t seem to get a breath of air amidst the wind. My arms were dragging along behind me until I managed to pull both of them into my chest and hold them there. I tried to think for a second as I continued my attempts to breathe.
For some reason, it never occurred to me that my pilot would be trying to land. I just never thought about it. I finally decided that the only thing that I could do was eject. (What else could I do?) I grabbed the lower handle with both hands and pulled-it wouldn’t budge. With a little more panic induced strength I tried again, but to no avail. The handle was not going to move. I attempted to reach the upper handle but the wind prevented me from getting a hand on it. As a matter of fact, all that I could do was hold my arms into my chest. If either of them slid out into the wind stream, they immediately flailed out behind me, and that was definitely not good.
The wind had become physically and emotionally overwhelming. It pounded against my face and body like a huge wall of water that wouldn’t stop. The roaring in my ears confused me, the pressure in my mouth prevented me from breathing, and the pounding on my eyes kept me from seeing. Time had lost all meaning. For all I knew, I could have been sitting there for seconds or for hours. I was suffocating, and I couldn’t seem to get a breath. I wish I could say that my last thoughts were of my wife, but as I felt myself blacking out, all I said was, “I don’t want to die.”
Someone turned on the lights and I had a funny view of the front end of an A-6, with jagged plexiglas where my half of the canopy was supposed to be. Looking down from the top of the jet, I was surprised to find the plane stopped on the flight deck with about 100 people looking up at me. (I guess I was surprised because I had expected to see the pearly gates and some dead relatives.) My first thought was that we had never taken off, that something had happened before the catapult. Then everything came flooding back into my brain, the wind, the noise and the confusion. As my pilot spoke to me and the medical people swarmed all over me, I realized that I had survived, I was alive.
It didn’t take me very long to realize that I was a very lucky man, but as I heard more details, I found out how lucky I was. For example, my parachute became entangled in the horizontal stabilizer tight enough to act as a shoulder harness for the trap, but not tight enough to bind the flight controls. If this had not happened, I would have been thrown into the jagged plexiglas during the trap as my shoulder harness had been disconnected from the seat as the parachute deployed.
There are many other things that happened, or didn’t happen, that allowed me to survive this mishap, some of them only inches away from disaster. These little things, and a s-hot, level headed pilot [Lieutenant Mark Baden was the pilot crewed with Gallagher during the mishap] who reacted quickly and correctly are the reason that I am alive and flying today. Also, a generous helping of good old-fashioned Irish luck didn’t hurt.
Special thanks to Mark Gallagher owner of GallagherStory.com
Photo credit: U.S. Navy via GallagherStory.com