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.