The U.S. Naval aviator who managed this feat was Lt. Geoff Vickers from Fighter Squadron 213 (VF-213) Black Lions. His intriguing story of successfully landing in an “unusual configuration” unfolds as follows.
In 2002, Vickers and his squadron were stationed at Naval Air Station (NAS) Fallon, Nevada, for strike training. He was assigned to provide the battle-group-air-warfare commander an orientation flight in the F-14D.
As the leader of the cruiser managing the battle group’s air defenses, he had experienced several E-2C and EA-6B flights, noting that the Prowler pilots hadn’t been able to make him ill.
Vickers shared with VFP62.com that his mission during that flight was “to showcase the Tomcat’s performance and tactical abilities.”
Even though it was his first flight without a qualified radar-intercept officer (RIO) in the back seat, he had previously flown with several aviators with limited Tomcat experience.
The battle-group-air-warfare commander reached the squadron thirty minutes early for his cockpit-orientation lecture and ejection-seat briefing.
Once in the ready room, Vickers and his wingman went through the flight brief.
Vickers remembers, “I informed the Captain that after the G-awareness maneuver, we would perform a brief inverted check to confirm cockpit security.
In hindsight, I should have noticed his nervousness when he teasingly replied and said, ‘Just a quick inverted check?’ then laughed. I didn’t realize hanging upside down with nothing but glass and 11,000 feet of air separating you from the desert floor might not be the most comfortable situation in the world for a surface-warfare officer.”
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Vickers informed the battle-group-air-warfare commander that the flight should include an F-14 performance demonstration, a few intercepts, and an air-to-air refueling from an S-3 Viking. “I was determined to avoid the temptation to intentionally make him sick and uncomfortable” says Vickers.
A Lot of Negative G
After taking off, Vickers checked the airspeed, and since it was above the recommended 300 knots for the check, he rolled the aircraft inverted. “I decided not to really put on a lot of negative G and unloaded to about .3 to .5 negative G’s-just enough to make anything float that wasn’t stowed properly.
If he was uncomfortable in such a benign maneuver, it would be better to find out then, rather than when we were racing toward the earth during a radar-missile defense.”
Vickers began to push on the stick, then heard a loud pop and a roar. Smoke filled the cockpit, and cabin pressure abruptly dropped. “I first thought a catastrophic environmental-control system (ECS) had failed. I said to myself, ‘This is new. I’ve never even heard of something like this happening.’
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Time dilation made the ensuing seconds feel endless. I knew my initial step was to roll the jet upright and evaluate the situation. Roughly three seconds after the first sign of trouble, I had the jet upright and fully understood what had occurred. I communicated, ‘Lion 52. Emergency, my RIO just ejected.’ “
“Negative, my RIO Ejected”
Vickers assumed he would have to make all the comms without feedback, believing the noise from flying at 320 knots without a canopy would prevent communication.
However, he heard Desert Control reaching out to him: “Understand your wingman ejected?” “Negative, my RIO ejected. I’m still flying the plane.” “OK. Understand your RIO ejected. You’re flying the plane, and you’re OK?”
Vickers responded that he was okay but didn’t mention he was piloting an F-14 without a canopy.
“I was relieved to see a good parachute below me, and I passed this info to Desert Control. Very quickly after the emergency call, an F/A-18 pilot from the Naval Strike and Air-Warfare Center, who also was in the area, announced he would take over as the on-scene commander of the search-and-rescue (SAR) effort.”
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Vickers instructed his wingman to relay the battle-group-air-warfare commander’s location because “I could not change any of my displays.
Once my wingman started to pass the location, I started dumping gas and put the needle on the nose back to NAS Fallon. One of our air-wing SH-60s was in the area and responded, along with the station’s UH-1N. The Captain was recovered almost immediately and transported to the local hospital for treatment and evaluation.”
After raising his seat for a better view during landing, Vickers reduced speed and chose to return to base.
“I did consider the controllability check, and I directed my wingman to check for damage to the vertical stabilizers-he found none. The faster I got on deck, the faster I would get warm.
I slowed to approach speed in 10-knot increments at about 3,000 feet AGL (Above Ground Level) and had no problems handling the jet. As I approached the field, I was surprised at how quiet it got. The noise was only slightly louder than the normal ECS roar in the Tomcat.
I’ll admit I felt silly saying the landing checklist over the ICS (the Intercom system, which allowed the F-14 pilot and RIO to communicate via the microphones built in to their oxygen masks and headphone speakers in their helmets) when no one else was in the cockpit, but I didn’t want to risk breaking my standard habit patterns.”
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The landing proceeded without incident, and Vickers was surprised by the number of people who came to witness the spectacle. “The magnitude of the situation finally set in when my skipper gave me a hug after I got out of the jet.”
Vickers and the battle-group-air-warfare commander were fortunate as all ejection and aviation-life-support-systems (ALSS) equipment worked properly. Indeed, the commander reported only two minor facial injuries. However, when Vickers spoke to him, it became clear that, despite detailing every aspect of the mission during the briefing, he hadn’t fully considered the captain’s perspective.
“He said he didn’t know where to put his hands. Consequently, he just left them in loosely clenched fists on his lap, about two inches away from the ejection handle. It never occurred to me that someone would not know what to do with his hands.
Obviously, I fly with the stick and throttle in my hands 95 percent of the flight, but I failed to consider his situation. The mishap board surmised that, during the inverted maneuver, he must have flinched when he slightly rose out of the seat and pulled the ejection handle. Now, before any brief, I try to place myself in the other person’s shoes (even if they are black shoes) and imagine what the flight will be like for him.”