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The flight had begun simply enough. The year was 1949. I was a young Air Force aviation cadet with a little more than 200 flying hours, all of which had been in the North American T–6 aircraft. Here, in advanced fighter training, I had only a few hours of solo time in my new F–80 jet fighter.
It was a beautiful day and life was good. This was my first cross-country flight in the Shooting Star, originating from Williams Air Force Base in Arizona via Tucson, Arizona, to March AFB in California and return. The mission was VFR map reading with the radio automatic direction finder for backup.
During planning, I noticed the Santa Catalina Mountains, northeast of Tucson, near the route of flight. This seemed inconsequential, as conditions were forecast to be VFR, and I would be cruising at 36,000 feet. A no-sweat exercise.
I ran through the start sequence. Climbing from the runway the little bird accelerated as the landing gear retracted into the bays with a soft thunk. Fingertip touch on the stick, and the airplane rolled with ghostly smoothness into a climbing southbound turn.
Climbing through 20,000 feet on a heading to Tucson, I encountered an unpredicted cloud layer with ragged bases. I trimmed forward on the stick, hoping to stay clear and resume the climb shortly, not realizing the deck was thickening and lowering—and that I was actually losing altitude just to maintain contact with the terrain. In the fringes of the cloud base and staring at the scrub-covered desert, I wasn’t cross-checking my instruments.
When I finally glanced at the panel, I was stunned to see the altimeter winding up through 7,000 feet and my gyro instruments were tumbling.
The airplane was out of control. I was in shock. There was a sense of vertical aileron rolls, but I couldn’t confirm anything. This was a formless void, and my gyro instruments had tumbled.
As airspeed became low I worried about negative G forces, recalling that the engine would flame out if the fuel was displaced away from the tank bottoms. With tentative back pressure on the stick to maintain positive Gs, the jet seemed to come over the top of some kind of trajectory. The altimeter had passed through 16,000 feet and now began to unwind. The airspeed indicator raced toward the redline. The now-useless gyro horizon and DG floated crazily in their gimbals.
In panic, I didn’t throttle back or extend the dive brakes. With airspeed indicating more than 500 mph in a screaming powered dive, I shot out of the cloud base. Tree-covered mountains rising up on all sides disappeared into the overcast. Hyperventilating, I hauled back on the stick. As I overcontrolled, the little fighter shuddered through the approach to a high-speed stall, and I began to gray out.
Still overcontrolling, I shot back into the overcast in a powered vertical climb. But now I knew I had to be somewhere among the Catalina Mountains, in solid cloud, and totally out of control.
Drenched in perspiration, I heard my voice from somewhere, muffled in my high-pressure oxygen mask, calling to God for intervention. (It’s amazing how we remember our Creator when we’re in extremis). My youthful arrogance was now replaced by paralyzing terror. And I couldn’t eject; the seats in our A models were unarmed.
The climb progressed, airspeed again decayed, and the inevitable dive began. Shaking like a malaria victim, I finally found the wits to retard the power and deploy the dive brakes. As the F–80 plunged out of the overcast a second time, millions of trees on mountainsides that rose into the murk blurred past below my wings. Diving steeply into a wide, deep valley that appeared to be several miles long, I was able to visually recover.
My hands were shaking as I caged and reset the artificial horizon and directional gyro, and tried to reengage my brain. At this low altitude the fuel totalizer was clicking away the numbers on my remaining fuel.
There was no visual exit from this cloud-enshrouded trap. At the extreme end of the valley, I throttled up to 100-percent power, built up airspeed, and climbed into the overcast, this time on instruments, praying that none of the gyro bearings had failed and that the mountains were not climbing faster than I was.
Finally level at 20,000 feet, on a northerly heading in solid cloud, I began receiving the air base’s radio beacon. Still shaking from the experience of the past few minutes, I wasn’t having much luck getting my brain up to speed. About the time the ADF needle began to swing, a providential hole suddenly appeared through those thousands of feet of murk. At the bottom of this hole appeared those beautiful runways of Williams AFB. Throttling back, dive brakes out, and almost vertical, I shot down through that hole like a rabbit.
The field had gone, unpredictably, to visual minimums. A gaggle of F–80s, all flown by aviation cadets, was daisy chaining around the traffic pattern, flitting in and out of wisps of low-hanging scud, jockeying for a landing position. I was finally cleared for the 360-degree overhead approach, and was soon on the runway as the wheels rumbled on the asphalt.
At the hardstand with the shutdown checklist completed, and with my knees still like water, I climbed down the ladder and wobbled over to debriefing. As it turned out, a lot of the guys had aborted because of the onset of unforeseen marginal weather.
Worried that this could get me pushed out of advanced training, I never shared the experience. In afterthought, however, I believe I know the single thing that finally led to my abrupt and total loss of control. Being a bit left of course, much lower than intended, and in highly restricted visibility, I believe I inadvertently entered the Catalina Mountains at a very low altitude and eventually started flying up the slope of a mountainside without realizing it. By the time I looked at my instruments it was too late.
Over later years and thousands of hours of flying, I never again dabbled with scud running, having learned the hard way that you’ve got to deal with existing flight conditions realistically, and not as you hope they’ll be. Unfortunately I was consumed with the thought, I think I can make it. As for scud running; the operating phrase is “never again.”
Lloyd Herman of Sarasota, Florida, retired from the Air Force in 1968. He has flown more than 3,000 hours as pilot in command and approximately 4,000 as a military navigator.