From inside the airplane, the sound of disaster was like that o a treetop snapping off during a windstorm: Crrr-rack!
Navy Lt. Sean Brennan, the test pilot, suddenly could not control the Lockheed S-3 Viking anti-submarine plane he had been putting through punishing maneuvers over the Chesapeake Bay near his base, the Patuxent River Naval Air Test Center in Lexington Park.
Neither Brennan nor Navy Lt. Cmdr. Steve Eastburg, sitting alongside him in the co-pilot seat, knew what had happened to their twin-engine jet. All they knew was that the plane would kill them in the next few seconds unless they regained control of it or got out.
Only afterward would the Navy learn that a big part of the S-3's tail had snapped off during the stressful swerving maneuvers. As a result, the pilot couldn't make the plane move left or right with the rudder pedals; also snapped off was one of the elevators, the mechanisms that make the plane go up and down. Brennan would not be able to control the plane no matter what he did as it hurtled through the sky at about 400 miles an hour this sunny afternoon of April 29, 1992.
'EJECT, EJECT, EJECT'
The out-of-control plane lunged this way and that like a frenzied shark. Every new lunge exerted tremendous gravitational force on the two 33-year-old aviators, pinning them into their seats as if they were swimmers pressed against a rock by swift currents. Moving a head, hands or feet against these gravitational currents was becoming more difficult with each succeeding, violent lunge of the plane.
With effort, Eastburg twisted his head to the left to see Brennan. The pilot was struggling with the control stick and rudder pedals. Gravitational forces had the pilot pinioned in an awkward position.
Eastburg managed to get his hand around the ejection handle under his seat as Brennanstarted the "Eject, eject, eject" command. Eastburg pulled the ejection lever out and up, a motion that would set off the rockets under both their seats, if everything worked right.
Wham! Wham! The two aviators felt the biggest kicks in the butt of their lives. The ejection rockets had gone off. The aviators were shot, seats and all, through the plastic roof of the cockpit. The high backs of their seats, not their heads, served as the battering rams against the tough plastic, which small explosive charges had cracked open.
At 3:18 p.m. Brennan and Eastburg were sailing through the open sky in their seats at a speed of almost 400 miles an hour. Brennan had been knocked out during his ejection, which was merciful because his right shoulder had hit something hard and had broken. Eastburg was conscious but disoriented.
"Am I still alive?" he asked himself. He was flying through the sky along with plane wreckage. They were flotsam together in a surrealistic world where nothing was rooted to anything.
He looked up. The white blossom of his parachute made him feel tied to something. He was beginning to understand his situation. He wondered how Brennan was doing and looked around for him. He saw Brennan's limp figure hanging from a parachute a long way from him. Eastburg gave Brennan the thumbs-up sign. No response.
A split second after they ejected, the plane hurled around until it was flying backward. The wings were bent back the wrong way as they hit the thick air 5,000 feet above Bloodsworth Island. The right wing broke off, ripping the fuel tanks open. The rushing air scooped the kerosenelike jet fuel out of the tanks, and atomized the fuel into a deadly cloud. Fiery exhaust from the ejection-seat rockets or from the airplane engines ignited the cloud. A giant, orange fireball blossomed in the sky over the Chesapeake Bay.
Boaters and fishermen on the bay below were shocked to see two tiny-looking, sticklike figures falling out of this fireball. What had happened up there in the sky this peaceful afternoon?
Cpl. Thomas Shores and Officer Victor Kulynycz of Maryland's Department of Natural Resources, patrolling the bay near Bloodsworth Island in a Boston Whaler skiff, did not know what had happened. But they did know two men were falling toward the water and would need help. They sped toward the spot where they thought the aviators would hit.
A COLLISION WITH THE BAY
Eastburg, floating toward an unwelcome landing in the bay, forced his mind to concentrate on what he should be doing to save himself.
Navy survival training burned through the fog coating his mind and asserted itself in the big headline his instructors had written on the blackboard in giant letters: IROK!
The "I" was for "Inflate your life preserver."
He did this by pulling beads at his waist outward.
"R" for raft.
He pulled the handle on the metal seat he was still sitting on. This allowed the raft and survival gear to fall out of the metal seat pan and dangle below him on a long cord. When the raft fell to the end of the cord, the yank would trigger the raft's inflating gas.
"O" for optional equipment, like gloves and face visor.
Eastburg made sure his gloves were on and his helmet visor down, to reduce the risk of injury during the coming collision with the Chesapeake Bay.
"K" for Koch fittings. The fittings were like buckles that had to be unsnapped to release Eastburg from the parachute when he hit the water. Aviators worship their parachute when they are in the air; curse it when they are in the water. Many aviators have been drowned by parachutes filling up with water and pulling them under.
"IRO" implemented and "K" remembered, Eastburg realized he still had a long way to fall. He had time to do something else to help himself and Brennan. He reached into the right pocket of his survival vest and pulled out an emergency radio. He turned the radio on and began speaking into it:
"Mayday! Mayday! Mayday! This is one of the S-3 crew membersJust had mishap one mile east of Bloodsworth Island. I'm OK. Condition of other aircrew unknown."
He remembered that there was an automatic emergency beacon blasting out from the seat pan beneath him. Its signals would drown out his own radio's -- unless he switched channels. While floating through the air toward his landing on the bay, he calmly flipped the dial from 243.0 megahertz to 282.8 megahertz and repeated his Mayday calls.
Eastburg could think of nothing more to do to save himself and Brennan. He allowed his mind to wander to his comfortable, familiar world. The face of his wife, Cathy, lit up inside his head.
"Boy! I've got to call her!" he told himself. "She's going to be worried."
The bay now was rushing up at him. He was close to splashdown. He released the Koch fittings as his feet hit the water -- just as he had been trained to do in Navy swimming pools. The parachute went its own way, no longer imperiling him.
He reeled in the raft, which was bobbing on the water. He climbed inside it. He would cheat death if somebody reached him before he froze. The cold knifed into him. The water he had just left was only 52.3 degrees Fahrenheit.
As he shivered in the raft, he examined himself. He had gashed his right knee, nose and chin. He was bleeding, but not profusely.
He saw the Boston Whaler operated by Shores and Kulynycz coming toward him. While waiting, he looked all around for Brennan but could not see him amid the 2-foot waves.
"Did you see the other man?" Eastburg asked his rescuers. They said they had. They would rescue Brennan next.
Eastburg recoiled in horror when he saw Brennan bobbing on the waves, seemingly lifeless.
The test pilot's face had been burned black when he shot through the plume of the ejection rocket that propelled Eastburg out of the cockpit just ahead of him. He had no eyebrows; the hair protruding from his helmet was frizzled; the front of his flight suit had been burned off.
And, if luck or divine intervention had not prevented it, he would have drowned. His life preserver had inflated automatically when it sensed water, just as it was designed to do. But the unconscious man could not snap the life preserver across his front. If his head had fallen forward rather than backward when he landed on the water, nothing would have held his face out of the water.
Brennan's still-attached parachute was filling up with water. It could pull him under in a few minutes.
As gently as they could, Eastburg, Shores and Kulynycz released Brennan from his parachute and lifted him into the Boston Whaler. They laid him on a flat spot in the bow, and turned the boat toward the dock at Deal Island.
"You're going to be OK, you're going to be OK," Eastburg keptelling his friend. As he knelt over him in the bow of the Boston Whaler, he said, "We'll be there in just a few minutes."
Eastburg thought he heard Brennan mumble, in a brief break out
of his unconscious state, "Steve, are you OK?"
'DID I KILL ANYBODY?'
Maryland Trooper 1st Class James C. "J. C." Collins Jr. was in the state helicopter that had responded to the Mayday call and set down near the Deal Island boat landing.
Collins had 10 years' experience as a medic and had been trained in treating burn victims. He studied the unconscious lieutenant and detected foam flecked with blood in the corners of his mouth. This told the trooper the aviator's breathing passages had been singed and ruptured and might swell shut. He decided he might need devices to slide down the lieutenant's throat to keep the passages open if the foaming got worse.
A helicopter from the Naval Air Test Center had landed near the Maryland chopper. An ambulance from Princess Anne Volunteer Fire Company was standing by also. Collins believed that only his chopper had the medical equipment needed to keep Brennan alive until he reached the hospital.
Collins, a former Marine, told Rear Adm. Barton D. Strong, the top officer from the Pax River base who had flown across the bay in the Navy rescue helicopter, "Captain, my name is Trooper Collins. I have your pilot. He's got first-, second- and third-degree burns over 50 percent of his body. He's got to go to the [Baltimore] Regional Burn Center. This man has got to get there."
Strong agreed. The state police helicopter, with civilian Joe McNair at the controls up front and Collins working over Brennan in the back, lifted off from Deal Island at 4 p.m. Its approach to the Baltimore Regional Burn Center at the Francis Scott Key Medical Center was announced by the thwack-thwack of the propellers.
Brennan came to intermittently during the helicopter ride north. He kept asking Collins questions: "Where's Steve?"
"What happened to the plane? Did I kill anybody? Did it land on a house?"
He was assured that the accident had occurred over water. To his questions about the airplane, Collins replied, "Pal, don't worry about it. Your airplane is gone. They make them every f-- day."
L After a long pause, Collins asked Brennan: "How you feeling?"
"I feel I've got a case of really bad sunburn all over," Brennareplied.
When the helicopter was on the ground beside Francis Scott Key Medical Center, Dr. William P. Fabbri took over from Collins. Fabbri and his team raced through procedures to stabilize Brennan and prevent infection from setting in, a constant danger for burn victims.
AN INCOMPREHENSIBLE EVENT
Eastburg was taken by the Navy helicopter to the base hospital at Pax River, where his wounds were treated. That same evening of April 29, 1992, he found himself at home, reading Dr. Seuss and Sesame Street bedtime stories to his 2 1/2-year-old son, Gregory.
"It was incomprehensible to me, surrealistic," he says now. "Here I was, five hours after almost losing my life, reading stories to my son. I had gone from something incredibly violent to a world of peacefulness with my little son and his innocent mind. I thank God every morning for sparing me."
Eastburg went back to flying at Pax River in a few weeks. The accident had not made him any more afraid of airplanes than a fender-bender makes the rest of us fearful of cars. He felt his rightful office was in the sky. He was glad to be back up there, evaluating airplanes to reduce the chance that an accident like the one he had survived would happen to others.
Brennan recovered. The treatment of his burns -- which included frequent baths during which burned skin was scraped off so a brand-new layer could grow in its place -- had left him unscarred. Six months after his accident, his skin was smooth and tight: It was new.
However, his right shoulder was still stiff from the terrible crushing it received when he was rocketed out of the cockpit. How much use he regains of the shoulder will determine whether returns to test piloting or finds other work within the tight-knit fraternity that is Naval Air.
The Navy launched an investigation of the crash that concluded the testing team that planned the Brennan-Eastburg flight had an inadequate understanding of the stress that would be imposed on the S-3 airframe. The testing team should have done more research on the plane's structural limits, the Navy said. However, the report praised the conduct of Brennan and Eastburg once the plane started falling apart, citing Eastburg's clearheadedness in ejecting himself and Brennan at the crucial second.
The real life of today's test pilot is mostly one of precise, tedious flying followed by hours of writing detailed reports complete with charts and graphs worked out on a computer. The modern test pilot is an engineer first and a flier second. White-scarfed daredevils need not apply.
Eastburg, for example, has the high-tech education that industrlusts for: a mechanical engineering degree from the U.S. Naval Academy and three master's degrees, one in systems management from the University of Southern California and two in aeronautical engineering from the Naval Post Graduate School in Monterey, Calif.
Brennan holds a bachelor of science degree in geology from the University of Wisconsin and took high-speed engineering courses while going through the U.S. Naval Test Pilot School.
As aircraft and weaponry become ever sophisticated and computerized, aviators are forced to be more like office managers running high-test systems -- and less like Chuck Yeagers trying to break the sound barrier.
However, despite all the high-tech and elaborate precautions, airplanes still break and kill their managers -- no matter how smart or well-educated these managers are.
Brennan and Eastburg are among the lucky ones who live to tell about sudden catastrophe. But scores of other test pilots flying out of Pax River have died trying to find out what an airplane could or could not do. Most of the streets on the base are named after aviators who were killed pursuing excellence by flying aircraft on the edge between life and death.
This pursuit at Pax River marked its 50th anniversary on April 1 -- with no end to the effort in sight.
GEORGE C. WILSON has covered the military as a reporter for Aviation Week & Space Technology and a correspondent for the Washington Post. This article was adapted from his latest book, "Flying the Edge: The Making of Navy Test Pilots" (Naval Institute Press; 1992).