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!


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!