Unbelievable! * Phantom FireThere are times when one’s eyes behold strange and unexpected sights, things so unlikely that you doubt your senses. Everyone has seen weird things in their lives, especially me! Every day or so, I’ll be adding personal anecdotes to this posting under the primary title of "Unbelievable," stories that describe moments when I said, “Am I REALLY seeing this?”
It was 1981 at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base. I stepped out of the relative quiet of one the Aircraft Generation Squadron buildings, and into disquieting noise, a racket that is ever-present on any active fighter aircraft flightline. I had just turned a piece of test equipment back in after using it to work on an F-4E Phantom, the aircraft then assigned to that base.
Above the usual flightline din, I heard what sounded like a small explosion that I knew immediately to be from a “cart start.” That’s when an aircraft is started without the use of a “huffer, ” which is a large, wheeled air-blowing machine. In an emergency situation, such as combat, a crewchief might help an aircrew start an engine using an explosive cartridge, or “cart.” This cart looks like a large shotgun shell, and when “fired,” forces a blast of air through the engine, spinning it’s turbine, and starting the engine. To stay in practice, cartridge starts were done on occasion, and that’s what was going on as I stepped outside.
I glanced over in the direction of the cart start; and there, about 200 feet away, was the cart-started F-4. Incredibly, I saw flames, at least 20 feet high, enveloping the entire back end of the huge aircraft. The engine was running normally, but half the airplane was covered in fire. Just as I noticed the towering flames, the enlisted crewchief standing in front of the airplane, whose job was to help “launch” the aircraft, also saw them. Overcome with panic, he ran, throwing down the headsets he’d been using to talk to the pilot in the front seat, and to the Weapons System Officer (WSO) in the back.
Inside their closed canopies, the pilot and WSO continued with their preflight checks, unmindful that they were sitting in a burning airplane. After a few seconds they realized their crewchief was no longer on mic. I could see them turn their heads left and right looking for him. Then the “back-seater” spotted the flames soaring directly over and behind him. His helmeted head struck the inside of the canopy as he rose up in alarm after releasing himself from his seat restraints, probably in record time. By this time he must have been yelling like a mad man into his microphone, because simultaneously the pilot’s head also whipped around, then both canopies popped open.
For the first and last time ever, I saw men leap directly from an F-4 cockpit to the ground. It was amazing. These two guys made that jump of more than ten feet look like they were merely exiting from a low-slung convertible; and when they hit the ground they did so with legs churning, cartoon style.
By then, everyone on the flightline saw the flame-engulfed F4, and a frightening sight it was. At first, I watched scores of airmen instinctively run away from the plane, knowing that it might explode. After less than a minute, however, they realized that that was NOT their duty, and overcoming their fear, everyone ran back. One crewchief, a Staff Sergeant, threw open the door that I had just exited, and screamed at the counterman for the Coleman keys. The young kid behind the counter was nonplussed, so the Sergeant vaulted the counter and grabbed the keys. A Coleman is a towing vehicle. The sergeant knew that the first order of business was to tow adjacent fighters away from the fire, and that’s exactly what was going on as I continued to observe the chaotic happenings around the burning aircraft, while staying out of the way of the flightline boys.
In no time at all the fiery fighter sat alone on the tarmac, while a single fellow, a young lieutenant maintenance officer I later learned, battled the blaze with a wheeled fire extinguisher. He might as well have been spitting at the huge flames, which by then must have been more than 30 feet high. The awesome inferno crackled like a grassfire, and belched ugly black smoke high into the air. A fire engine approached, blasting its horn at the lieutenant, trying to get him the hell out of the way, so they could use their top-mounted foam sprayer. At last, he understood and skedaddled. In a few minutes the sprayed foam beat the flames down and then distinguished them all together. Believe it or not, a depot-level team of metal workers rebuilt that burnt out F-4, and it flew again within a year.