US Navy A-4 pilot recalls when he had to eject after a catastrophic turbine failure turned his Skyhawk into a Fireball while he was flying at 500 knots during a low-level mission

US Navy A-4 pilot recalls when he had to eject after a catastrophic turbine failure turned his Skyhawk into a Fireball while he was flying at 500 knots during a low-level mission

By Dario Leone
May 26 2023
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‘I had a catastrophic turbine failure that buzz sawed the back end of my plane and turned the plane into a fireball. I was going about 500 knots indicated. I ejected through the fireball,’ Ken VanderHorst, US Navy A-4 Skyhawk pilot.

In a military aircraft, an ejection seat is a system designed to rescue the pilot or other crew of an aircraft in an emergency. In most designs, the aircraft canopy comes off and the seat is propelled out of the aircraft by an explosive charge or rocket motor, carrying the pilot with it. Once clear of the aircraft, the ejection seat deploys a parachute. In two seat aircraft, the seats are ejected at different angles to avoid a collision.

Before ejection seats, pilots would have to remove the aircraft canopy manually to climb and jump out.

Ejection seats can save lives.

But can fighter pilots eject if a catastrophic failure turns their aircraft into a fireball?

‘Yes,’ Ken VanderHorst, former US Navy A-4 Skyhawk pilot, recalls on Quora.

‘Many years ago I was flying a sand blower mission in an A-4 Skyhawk over the California desert.

A-4 Print
This print is available in multiple sizes from AircraftProfilePrints.com – CLICK HERE TO GET YOURS. A-4F Skyhawk VA-212 Rampant Riders, NP306 / 155019 / 1970

‘I had a catastrophic turbine failure that essentially buzz sawed the back end of my plane and turned the plane into a fireball.

‘There were absolutely no strange noises or other warnings of any kind

‘I was going about 500 knots indicated. I ejected through the fireball. I had some burns and some serious flailing injuries, but survived. I later returned to flight duty. So yes, you can eject while on fire. Indeed that is almost certainly your best option for a serious fire.’

VanderHorst concludes;

‘At 500+ knots your extremities get caught by the air blast and they “flail” around. Injured my left leg and left arm. I recovered and flew again. But I was warned that when I turn 60 my old injuries would come back to haunt me. I’m 70 this year and now I understand what the flight surgeon meant. Lots issues.’

A-4 model
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U.S. Air Force photo by Jet Fabara


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Dario Leone

Dario Leone

Dario Leone is an aviation, defense and military writer. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviation Geek Club” one of the world’s most read military aviation blogs. His writing has appeared in The National Interest and other news media. He has reported from Europe and flown Super Puma and Cougar helicopters with the Swiss Air Force.

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