Saturday, May 9, 2009

Testimony of a satisfied customer

By Lt. Col. (ret.) Jim Preston

(Published by 442nd Fighter Wing Public Affairs)

Editor's note: On March 22, 1982, while flying an A-10 Thunderbolt II on a two-ship training mission in the skies over Germany then 1st Lt. Jim Preston, forward deployed from R.A.F. Bentwaters, England, found out what it is like to have to use the A.C.E.S. II ejection seat. Fortunately, it was an experience he was able to walk away from. This is his story.

It was supposed to be a low-level navigation sortie, but the weather was bad down low, so we climbed into reserved airspace for some air-to-air engagements. Both engines compressor-stalled during an engagement. While I won the engagement, you might say, "I lost the war."

The total time from losing both engines to making the decision to eject was less than three minutes, coming down from around 12,000 feet to about 500. I was completely focused on getting the engines restarted, and when it was finally apparent that it wasn't to be, there was no question of the seat working…it either would or it wouldn't, but either way, I didn't have a choice.

There were seven or eight A-10 crashes at Bentwaters during the time I was stationed there. Mine was the sixth, but only the second where the pilot survived. The first four were all fatal; two pilots had ejected, but for various reasons the pilots didn't survive. However, in none of the cases did the seat malfunction. I was convinced early on that the ACES II was an outstanding ejection seat.

It was textbook perfect! Because of temporal distortion (a phenomenon where time seems to slow down during very stressful situations), the whole sequence went by in slow motion. Because of our great lifesupport training, I knew what to expect, and watched each step of the sequence occur—the inertia reel tugging me back into the seat, the canopy separating, the rocket firing underneath the seat, the ride up the seat rails, and being tilted backward as the drogue chute began pulling out the main parachute.

It was like sitting in a chair with people rocking it from side to side, but not violently. In fact, there was no pain, no sensation of wind or high Gforces. The only "violence" was the parachute opening shock, which brought me back into real time immediately. There were absolutely no surprises, which in my mind is a testament to the training I received from life support and the skills of the technicians in the Egress shop.

My perspective did change afterward. My faith in the seat, already pretty substantial, was strengthened even more. My appreciation for its designers, its builders, its maintainers and our lifesupport folks went deeper than ever.

The environment we work in can be pretty unforgiving, and we rely on our training to, first, keep us out of trouble, and second, to get out of that trouble alive. We depend 100 percent on the expertise of our life support techs and our maintenance people, including the Egress folks. There's a bond between us, and while it's not acknowledged as often as it should be, it's the basis for the inherent trust between the guy who works on the jet for hours at a time and the guy who gets to borrow it for a couple of hours to try to break it.

When I got back to Bentwaters, I went to the Egress shop. I brought a case of beer and a bottle of Jack Daniels. The guys were extremely humble, and just seemed to be happy the seat worked.

At the time it didn't click with me, but can you imagine a job where if your product, or the thing you work on, doesn't work, somebody dies? Conversely, how good would it feel to see someone come back from what would have been certain death, solely because what you did saved his or her life?

This experience, more than any other, brought home the reality of what a great team we are in the Air Force, and even more so in the Air Force Reserve.

The experiences I had, and the friendships I made, while serving with the 442nd will stay with me forever.

If I could have done one thing differently during my career, it would have been to spend more time in the hangar with the people who kept me safe over the years. They are the lifeblood of the 442nd Fighter Wing, and they remain very important to me.

Lt. Col. Preston, a long-time member of the 303rd Fighter Squadron, retired from the Air Force Reserve in June, 2006 and now resides with his family in northern Virginia.

- This story was published in 442nd Fighter Wing's newspaper Mohawk, May 2009 issue, as additional background info related to the news article "Pilots can take comfort in knowing that 442nd MXS Egress troops are dealing A.C.E.S." (see 442nd FW PAO's HTML version 442nd Maintenance Squadron Egress troops are dealing ACES, also posted on Warthog News).
- According to Andy Mower: "USMIL - United States Military Aircraft Serials", Aviation Associates, London, 1993, and other sources, written-off on March 22, 1982, was A-10A 80-0148 (c/n A10-0498) from the 81st Tactical Fighter Wing "Blue Dragons" (tailcode 'WR').

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