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Pteromerhanophobia: When The Sky Attacks

There are some things the human body hasn't evolved to do. Supersonic ejection is one of them.

F-15

Photo: Montana National Guard (Flickr)

Three F-15s of the type Captains Udall and White were flying when things went horribly awry.

Whether it’s vampires, zombies, poltergeists, or chainsaw-wielding sadists, Halloween is a celebration of all things that get our adrenaline pumping.

While the following horror story is a little unconventional, what it lacks in metaphysical spooks or psychotic chills is easily compensated for by intensity of experience and grievous injury.

Our protagonists are two United States Air Force pilots — our antagonist, an out-of-control F-15.

Two humans versus one very scary machine.

From Routine Maneuver To Supersonic Nosedive

Apr. 18, 1995: Capt. Brian J. Udell takes off in an F-15 from Seymore Johnson Air Force Base for an oversea, air-to-air intercept training mission. Capt. Dennis White is behind him in the gunner’s seat. It’s night, so they’re flying by radar.

At first, instrument readings are normal — 400 knots, 24,000 feet. Everything’s perfect. But suddenly, out of the blue, the crewmen start hearing wind rush, an indication of speeds in excess of 500 knots. Something’s not right.

This is confirmed when a second instrument check reveals the jet to be plummeting towards earth faster than the speed of sound.

Altitude peels off at more 1,000 feet-per-second at this velocity. Do they bail? Do they try to ride it out? There’s no time for hesitation.

Eject!

Anyone’s who’s been outside during a severe windstorm knows even a 60 mile-an-hour gust can bowl you over. 120 mph gales can literally blow you away.

At this point, not only do Udell and White have to worry about winds in excess of 780 mph, they also have to worry about impact with the shock cone being dragged in the aircraft’s wake. If you think a sonic boom is deafening from the ground, imagine experiencing one a few yards from its source. Bones will break.

(See the Wikipedia article on sonic booms below for a good overview of the technical details.)

At this point, however, the plane’s only 6,000 feet from the ocean’s surface. Prospects are grim. Stay on board and surely die, or eject and probably die. Udell pulls the handles, and, at an altitude of just 3,000 feet, the men’s seats rocket out of their doomed $40 million fighter.

Aftermath

Capt. Dennis died instantly as his body was rocked by the wavefront.

Amazingly, though, Udall survived. The Coast Guard located him about four hours later, floating in cold, dark waters with helmet and oxygen mask blown off and t-shirt in tatters under his flight suit. One leg clung to his body by skin, nerves and blood vessels alone.

When the battered pilot reached up to feel his face, it “felt like a dish of Playdough.”

A nightmare indeed. Pass the Xanax.

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Ben Alford

Ben Alford works in Indiana Public Media's online dimension and holds an M.A. from Indiana University Bloomington's History and Philosophy of Science department. When not vegetating in front of a computer screen or geeking out over a good book, he can be found outside exploring.

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