Amazing Aviation Tales: Miracle in the North Sea, Part 2

[When we left off, Keeney and his wingman had just arrived at the last known location of the downed pilot in the North Sea …]

Keeney knew it would be difficult to find the downed pilot amid the 12-foot swells below, and he didn’t realize yet that the pilot wasn’t in his life raft, making for an even smaller target. A stiff wind whipped up white caps on the waves that masked smaller floating objects, including those of human size, and made it difficult to pick out even larger objects.

Keeney told his wingman to stay at a high altitude to conserve fuel, and then dove to less than one thousand feet above the water to search for a tiny fleck bobbing in the sea. It was akin to standing on a tile floor covered with ground pepper and looking down for a broken piece of lead from a mechanical pencil that had fallen into the fray.

And although no one knew it, things were getting worse by the minute for the downed pilot. The force of the ejection had ripped away his flight boots and the rubber “booties” that were part of his Anti-Exposure Suit, and 50-degree water was wicking its way up the suit’s flannel liner. He was rapidly losing feeling.

Despite the odds against finding the pilot, Keeney had one thing going for him – the weather was unusually clear that day. Also lucky for the downed pilot, Keeney’s call sign (nickname) was “Keeneyes,” a reference to both his last name and his unusually good eyesight. As he searched, a tiny dot suddenly jumped out from the sea foam and white caps, and when he flew closer, he realized he was looking at the pilot. But he also realized that he didn’t see a raft, and he feared the pilot was already dead. But, unwilling to leave behind a fellow airman no matter his fate, Keeney and his wingman kept a visual on the dot, and within a few minutes, he U.K. controllers had vectored a C-130 overhead, followed by a rescue helicopter, which plucked the pilot to safety using a parajumper lowered on a sling. [Click here to read more about parajumpers]

Many things went wrong that day for the downed pilot, but just enough things went right to keep him from becoming another accident statistic. From the F-5 pilots who stayed with him long enough for the U.K. controllers to pinpoint his position to Keeney for declaring an emergency takeoff that let him and his wingman arrive at the scene quickly for continuity to the helicopter crew that eventually pulled the pilot from the waters, there are plenty of heroes in this story. But one has to also wonder if the downed pilot didn’t also have a guardian angel that day, someone somehow tapping Keeney on the shoulder and guiding his eyes to the lone speck that mattered most among the mosaic sea below. Clearly he did, but we cannot forget the skills of those involved. Both Keeney and one of the Aggressors had learned search and rescue procedures from previous A-7 Sandy assignments in Southeast Asia, and the U.K. radar controllers were highly proficient in giving precision vectors that sent the flow of aircraft to the pilot.

And what happened to the reporter who had just witnessed probably one of the most amazing stories in his life? Keeneyes confiscated all of the reporter’s film to use in the upcoming accident board, and, being very cooperative, he never filed a story on the event.


Amazing Aviation Tales: Miracle in the North Sea, Part 1

Here’s another tale from the late 1970s, as told to Tom Mead by Captain Bob Keeney, an F-15 pilot stationed at Bitburg Air Base, Germany at the time. It’s an incredible story involving quick thinking, top-notch talent, and some angels steering one pilot’s eyes to save another.

F-15A, photo courtesy of USAF

F-15A, photo courtesy of USAF

Keeney’s squadron was deployed to RAF Alconbury, U.K. for training and he was getting ready to depart for a flight with a reporter in his backseat to demonstrate the capability of his F-15 against a flight of Aggressors, USAF fighter pilots flying F-5 aircraft and simulating Soviet tactics. He and his wingman had just started their engines when they heard a radio call on the “Guard” emergency frequency that another F-15 pilot had ejected over the North Sea. The downed pilot’s flight lead had maintained visual contact with him as he descended in his parachute, but the flight lead ran low on fuel and had to return to Alconbury. At that point, the two F-5 pilots who had been tangling with the F-15s just minutes earlier maneuvered to keep track of the pilot, now a speck bobbing in the chilly waters below.

F-5, photo courtesy of USAF

F-5, photo courtesy of USAF

The ejected pilot’s nightmare had gotten worse during his descent. His life raft had been damaged during the ejection sequence and failed to inflate; fortunately, he had the presence of mind to cut the raft away, or it would have dragged him under the water. But without the raft, his lifespan had dropped from several hours to under an hour as he floated in the water in his life vest. And in losing the raft, he had also lost his survival radio and homing beacon, so he couldn’t even help his would-be rescuers find him or tell them he had lost the raft. If the F-5 pilots lost sight of the downed pilot before a rescue ship or helicopter arrived, it would likely be fatal.

Keeney had previously been an A-7D “Sandy” pilot in Southeast Asia, which involved locating downed pilots using radios and direction finders and then coordinating a rescue mission with helicopters, so he knew how time-critical the situation was. From the radio transmissions, he also could hear that the F-5 pilots were running low on fuel.

A-7D, photo courtesy of USAF

A-7D, photo courtesy of USAF

Eager to help his fellow pilot, Keeney normally would have had to wait for an instrument flight clearance to be issued by the tower before he took off, but knowing that every second was precious, he ordered the reporter, “Turn off your microphone and don’t say a word.”

Next, he called the control tower and said, “We need to make an emergency takeoff and join the search and rescue operation.”

The startled tower controller agreed, and issued a clearance for one of the few emergency takeoffs in the history of aviation. Keeney and his wingman were airborne within minutes and heading to the downed pilot at near supersonic speed.

The F-5 pilots, with help from some superb U.K. air traffic controllers, had managed to pinpoint the downed pilot’s position within ¼ mile, but the Aggressors had run short on fuel and made an emergency landing at RAF Sculthorpe to the south, stranding the pilot without a set of eyes. After Keeney and his wingman took off, the U.K. controllers vectored them to the position the F-5s had marked. But when the two F-15 pilots arrived, they saw no raft and heard only an ominous silence. Where was the pilot?

Up next (in a few days, I promise!): Finding a speck in the sea.


Amazing Aviation Tales: Homeless French Fighter Aircraft

I’ve been caught up in moving so have been away from the blog for a while. But I’m back with another Amazing Aviation Tale, this one brought to you by Tom Mead, a retired Air Force colonel. Tom was a fighter pilot and later a test pilot, and he once stumbled across an interesting sight while visiting his 1970’s stomping ground in Europe. I think this one is best told through Tom’s words, and then I’ll add my thoughts at the end. Here’s Tom’s narrative:

In 1986, while I was attending Command and Staff College, I had the opportunity over the Christmas break to take a quick trip to the Headquarters of the United States Air Force in Europe (USAFE) at Ramstein Air Base (AB), Germany, to research some material for a school project. During my stay, I had time to visit my old squadron at nearby Bitburg AB for a day, and while winding along the flight line, I noticed two ragged-looking French Etendard fighters parked near the end of the runway, well away from the transient aircraft ramp where visitors would normally park. [Eileen note: The photo below is not from Bitburg — the aircraft below is on display at Fréjus Saint Raphael, France.]

Etendard IV Fighter ("Dassault Étendard IVM" by - Courtesy of Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons -

“Dassault Étendard IVM” by – Courtesy of Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons –

I drove on to see my old squadron, and during that visit, I asked a pilot in the squadron what the French aircraft were doing on the base. He explained that one day, two French fighter pilots flew the airplanes in, parked them on the transient ramp, shut down, and walked into the Base Operations building (like all visitors). However, unlike most visitors, this pair each carried a two-foot stack of aircraft maintenance forms. They found the Dispatch Office, entered, and dropped all the forms on the desk, saying, in that understated way that only the French can pull off, “Here are your aircraft back.”

Before any of the stunned airmen at Base Ops could think of what to do, the pair had disappeared.

It turned out that these aircraft were part of some very old loan agreement with the French military and when the loan period was up, the French returned the aircraft per terms of the agreement. No one on the US side (at Bitburg, anyway) was aware of this, so were totally caught off guard. With no way to fly the airplanes (no mission, no trained pilots, and no spare parts, among other things), the base leadership decided to use the aircraft as decoys. At some point, they were finally disposed of.

Eileen here again. I love this story, but after scouring the Internet, I can’t figure out what the US was doing leasing/loaning French airplanes to the French! There were some programs back in the sixties where the US was trying to help NATO forces acquire more equipment like tanks and fighter aircraft to help achieve a better balance between nuclear and conventional forces, but I can’t find any evidence that these aircraft were part of that.

I looked on some website pages for Bitburg AB, hoping to find a photo of the “Bitburg Etendards,” but came up with nothing.

Does anyone out there know anything more about this story? Please pass the story along to others who may have been stationed at Bitburg AB in the 1980s. If anyone has any more information or some pictures, please pass them along and I will post them with the next tale!


Local History: Paine Field in Everett

Some of you may remember that Arnold took off from Paine Field in Everett, Washington, to set his world record. Although he normally flies from Harvey Field in nearby Snohomish, Paine Field offered a longer runway for the fuel-heavy E-1 and a control tower in case there were any problems with the take off.

Paine Field is also home to the plant where Boeing manufactures their wide-body aircraft — 747, 767, 777 and 787 — so I see big airplanes flying around here all the time.

There’s a new book out about the history of Paine Field, and I learned that the airport was originally constructed in the 1930s. It was planned to be a large passenger airport, but during WWII, the Korean War and much of the Cold War, it was mostly a military facility, housing P-51s, F-86s, and F-89s at one time or another. Boeing didn’t move to the airport until the late 1960s.

I also learned that Paine Field is named for Topliff Olin Paine, who was a local airmail pilot. Most airmail pilots who have airports named for them died in plane crashes, but Paine was killed by an accidental gunshot wound in 1922, just a few days after his 29th birthday. He is buried at a cemetery near my house, so I walked there on Saturday with my sister and found his grave. From the marker in the picture below, you can see that he was also in the military during WWI. The larger headstone behind his marker is for his parents.

Paine Grave

Topliff Olin Paine grave marker — Paine Field in Everett is named for him

Up next: Another Amazing Aviation Tale!

Bleriot Medal Winners

I’m almost done with another Amazing Aviation Tale, but in the meantime, here’s a picture I took tonight of Arnold along with another Bleriot Medal winner, Norm Howell, at our Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA) Chapter 84 meeting. Since only 62 people have ever been awarded the Bleriot Medal, having two awardees in the same place at once is quite unusual (although it did also happen last summer when Gary Hertzler and Arnold gave their presentations at AirVenture in Oshkosh).

Norm Howell and Arnold Ebneter, Bleriot Medal Awardees (Eileen Bjorkman photo)

Norm Howell and Arnold Ebneter, Bleriot Medal Awardees (Eileen Bjorkman photo)

Norm is a test pilot at Boeing, and I’ve known him since the early 90s at Edwards AFB. He received his Bleriot medal in 1987 for straight-line distance in a 300 kg “Quickie” airplane. According to the FAI website, Norm has held thirteen aviation world records at one time or another, and he currently holds seven records, including one which has been retired by rule changes (meaning it will never be broken).

The Louis Bleriot Medal was established in 1936 in memory of Louis Bleriot, who was the first to cross the English Channel in an airplane and was also a former Vice-President of the FAI. Three Medals may be awarded each year to the respective holders of the highest records for speed, altitude and distance in a straight line for airplanes weighing less than 1000 kg. The medal is not awarded every year; in fact, the medal awarded in 2014 to William Yates for an altitude record is the first one since Arnold and Richard Young received theirs in 2010 (Arnold for distance and Richard Young for speed).

You can also read more of Arnold’s F-100 adventures in the March 2015 issue of Aviation History (available in stores now). Unfortunately, the article isn’t available online — sorry! The article starts on p.54 and is called “Cold War Airpower Laboratory.”

Amazing Aviation Tales: The Lead Bombing

I’ve been talking with a friend for a while about starting another blog called, “Amazing Aviation Tales.” I’ve got the domain name, but I thought I’d post a few items on this blog to see how it goes before I activate the other website.

The idea is to tell true stories of amazing things that have happened in airplanes that people have lived to tell about. The stories will be kept as generic as possible to protect both the innocent and the guilty. If anyone has a story they would like to submit, please contact me at You can either write the story yourself (and I will give you credit if you want your name used) or you can provide me the details and I’ll do the actual write up.

So here we go for the first story, which is in two categories: “Things falling off of airplanes” and “I’d rather be lucky than good!”

Two test pilots were flying a bomber on a mission to do what’s known as “flutter and loads” testing – basically, taking the airplane to its speed and g limits to make sure the wings (or other parts of the airplane) don’t fall off. We’ll call the pilot in command Major Paul.

For the test, the bomber had 1,500 pounds of lead ballast inside the rear fuselage to simulate ammunition normally carried in the tail. The airplane also carried a dozen missiles attached on the wings.

The test points required the pilots to make abrupt, full deflection control inputs that rattled the airplane and pilots like a freight train, especially when using the rudder. Another pilot also flew in a chase airplane to watch the bomber during each test point and check for damage after each maneuver.

During one test point, Major Paul dove the bomber from 27,000 feet to 22,000 feet to get the airplane to its airspeed limit and then abruptly moved the yoke and rudder as required. As he finished the maneuver, the chase pilot called on the radio, “A panel just fell off back by the tail.”

“Which panel?” asked the bomber co-pilot.

“I don’t know. I’m not familiar with your airplane.”

Major Paul called the test director in the control room on the ground, “Any idea what just fell off?”

“Negative. We’re baffled too.”

Major Paul started a slow turn back to the base to set up for a landing. The two airplanes remained at 20,000 feet as the chase pilot continued to describe what he saw and added, “It looks like there are some wires hanging from the opening.”

Major Paul flew over the housing area at the base and turned the plane towards the east. Just as he finished his turn, the chase pilot called out, “Whoa! Something big just fell out!”

At that instant, Major Paul realized that 1,500 pounds of lead was heading for the ground.

People at the base working outside said the ballast sounded like a bomb as it came down and smashed into the ground, spraying up a 100-foot tall mushroom dust cloud.

The “bomb” had landed right next to the center taxiway, narrowly missing a pilot in a fighter airplane taxiing in from a mission.

The wing commander met our heroes, but they weren’t in trouble. Instead, the contractor that built the airplane was. They had to go back and redesign the rack holding the lead in the tail so it wouldn’t fall off again!

E-1 Getting an Upgrade

We’re into the rainy season in the Pacific Northwest! The forecast said the fog would burn off by 10 a.m. this morning, but I took the picture below at 10:05:


Even if it does clear up here, because a valley separates my house and Harvey Field, where I keep my Decathlon and Arnold keeps the E-1 and his other airplanes, it’s not unusual for the weather to be clear over my house but still foggy at the airport.

Fortunately, the Harveys have this nifty weather cam you can use to check the weather (click here for the weather cam). One good thing about days like this is there is no temptation to go fly, so I should be able to get some work done. Unfortunately, I have yet to drive a single rivet on my RV-8 tailkit. But I have managed to do a few things towards setting up my workshop.

In other news, click here for a story of mine that ran in the October issue of Air&Space/Smithsonian. I don’t think Arnold had this same problem on his record-setting flight!

And yes, the E-1 is getting an upgrade to the engine! Arnold has found a modification kit that should make the engine run a bit cooler and take care of the problems that have grounded the E-1 since last summer.

It’s not unusual for experimental aircraft to have problems with the engine overheating. The vast majority of small piston-driven aircraft use air-cooled engines, and getting the cooling right is more art than science. You want the cowl that covers the engine to be as small as possible to reduce drag and weight, but a smaller cowl also means less room for the air to move around.

No word yet on an installation schedule for the modification, but I’ll let you know as soon as I have more details. In the meantime, the E-1 move to the Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA) Museum in Oshkosh has been rescheduled for next spring.

E-1 Schedule Update

Arnold got the original engine on the E-1 back together again and, after doing some additional engine runs, he thinks the current engine may be okay after all. But given that we are now into late fall, he has decided to wait until next spring to take the E-1 to the EAA Museum in Oshkosh. The E-1 has no heater, and the weather is also getting a little too iffy to launch on a long cross-country flight that has to be made without flying in the clouds. The delay will also give Arnold a chance to do some more troubleshooting on the engine and perhaps make another attempt at the efficiency record, so stay tuned!

In the meantime, here is a link to a short article I wrote about the control tower at Paine Field in Everett, Washington, which was the departure airport for Arnold’s record-breaking flight in 2010:

I haven’t gotten much more done on the RV-8 — I hope my next post will show a little progress!

Getting Some Tools for My RV-8

But first, the E-1 status update. Arnold got the parts this week for the engine repair, but then he found he needed yet some more parts. He was also looking at some engine operating data from some previous flights, and now he thinks he might have yet another problem, so ….

Long story short, he is reviewing his options, including possibly replacing the engine altogether. I’ll keep you posted!

I’ve been matching my tools and Arnold’s tools against the Van’s recommended list, and I just about have everything I need to start working on my RV-8 kit. I took advantage of an online sale at Grizzly to pick up a 1″ belt sander and some unibits (see picture below — the unibits are in the small box).

My new toy

My new toy

There just happens to be a Grizzly store near me in Bellingham, so this project may require a trip up there to see what other sorts of interesting things I might need (make that want). While I’m at it, maybe I’ll just go ahead and cross the border into Canada and do some Christmas shopping … oh wait, I’m supposed to be building an airplane!

I hope to start setting up my workshop in about two more weeks. Stay tuned!

E-1 Status Update

We are still hoping that Arnold will be able to fly the E-1 back to Oshkosh this fall so it can enter the EAA Museum. However, he is still waiting for an engine part to arrive, so we don’t have a good estimate on when the engine will be repaired. I will keep you posted!

In the meantime, I didn’t have enough to do in my life already, so I decided to start building an airplane. I visited Aurora, Oregon two weeks ago planning to just fly an RV-7 or RV-8 at Van’s Aircraft to help me decide whether to buy a kit. I had so much fun on the demonstration flight that I drove home with an RV-8 empennage kit in my trunk! The empennage consists of the elevator, rudder, horizontal stabilizer and the vertical stabilizer.

The first order of business was to unpack everything and take inventory of all the parts. The picture below shows all the pieces. Some assembly required, but just think of it as a giant piece of IKEA furniture — anyone who has dumped out a bag of 1,000 small parts from an IKEA box knows what I’m talking about!

RV-8 Empennage Kit Unpacked in My Basement

RV-8 Empennage Kit Unpacked in My Basement

The packaging material makes for a good cat toy as well.


Next up is to get my workshop set up, make sure I have all the tools I need, and then do a little practice riveting on some scrap sheet metal. With all that, it will probably be at least another month before I actually start doing any real assembly on my RV-8. Wow, it feels good to say “my RV-8!”