Excerpt from Volume 1, Chapter 15: Midair, by Wilcox (Will) J Creeden, USAF
B-52D, July 7, 1967
Date of hire by Western Airlines: 2/24/1969
As the sun came up behind us, John signaled the wingmen to join in close formation. We were approaching Point X-ray, the beginning point of the bomb run. As I looked toward the target area, I saw a low cloud deck that started at 5000 feet. Out my right side window I saw Red 2 moving into position. Our navigator reported Point X-ray and asked for a right turn to the northeast. John began the turn and I contacted the ground radar controller. I could see that Capt. Westbrook in Red 2 was having a hard time maintaining position and I could see his aileron move as he tried to stay in place. He was too close and I thought that his left wing was overlapping our right wing. At this point the ground controller called, “Red 1, your beacon (transponder for radar position) is inoperative. Suggest Red 2 take lead.” I replied “Understand you want Red 2 to take lead.” As I looked out to the right, Red 2 started to pull off to the right; suddenly his airplane rolled into a hard bank back to the left. Alarmed, I keyed the interphone and told John, “Number two is coming in on us! Roll out!” Our aircraft was still in a right turn at that point.
John smoothly rolled our wings level and I watched Red 2 just miss our right wing and move quickly under us, still in a left bank. As I released the interphone switch, I heard part of a transmission to us from Red 2. Most of the transmission had been blocked during my call to John, and because I had not heard what Red 2 had transmitted, I radioed to the entire cell, “Red 1 turning to a heading of 020.” My intention was to get Red 2 back on our right hand side and give him our new heading.
At the same time, John shouted, “Oh my God.”
When I looked over at him, I saw a B-52 filling his side window, coming up from below.
The collision occurred a heartbeat later. The ripping, grinding, tearing lasted an eternity. I tried to grab the controls but it was like trying to grab a speeding freight train. All the forces from the crippled airplane were transmitted back through the cables to the control column. My hand was slammed into the right side panel and the entire airplane flipped and dove to the left. The right wing and tail section rotated over the nose. The cockpit was filled with flying clipboards, pencils, and trash and, as the airplane decompressed, a smoky mist filled the cockpit. I was amazed at how clear my mind was, focused on one goal – survival.
The G forces from the spinning forced my head down into my lap and all I could see was different shades of gray as the airplane spun around the horizon. I couldn’t move when I tried to reach the ejection handle in my armrest. As the airplane rotated, I was immobile for most of the spin but, for a brief second, the G forces let up and I grabbed the handle on the second spin. I was able to jettison the hatch above me and arm a lever in my armrest but before I could squeeze the lever that would fire me out, the G force pushed me back to the left and I couldn’t hold on. On the third rotation I lunged at the handle and squeezed the trigger.
I knew I was in the wrong position to eject; my right arm was going to be outside the ejection envelope and my head would be on my lap. To eject properly I should have been sitting up straight with my arms and legs in position to clear the small hatch. However, because of my small size, I felt my head would clear the hatch but my right arm would not.
As the shell in my ejection seat fired, my head hit my left knee and the G forces kept me pinned until I hit the slipstream. The airplane was traveling at about 500 mph just prior to the collision but I have no idea how fast the wreckage was going when I left. The wind threw me back into my seat and ripped off my helmet and oxygen mask.
Through closed eyelids, I saw a giant ball of fire and I was going right up into it. I thought, “I’ll hold my breath so I won’t breathe in the flames.” My left hand reached up and patted out the flames in my hair above my left ear and then I fell out of the fireball and tumbled through the air. My training reminded me that if I would just spread eagle, I would stabilize the tumbling. I stretched out and ended up face down, spinning slowly to the right. I still had my right arm and hand but they were cut and possibly broken.
Since the collision, everything had moved in slow motion and at this time it became a problem; I had no idea how long I had spent in the airplane. I couldn’t calculate my altitude because I was still in a slow spin and couldn’t focus on the cloud deck below. If I was still above 14,000 feet, my parachute would deploy automatically at 14,000 feet. If I had fallen below 14,000 feet my parachute would not open automatically. I could deploy the chute manually with the risk of hypoxia (loss of consciousness from lack of oxygen) if my altitude was far above the 14,000 foot level. To deploy my chute, I needed to use my damaged right hand so I reached over and got a grip on the T handle and pulled. My parachute deployed slower and with less opening shock than I expected.
For the first time I was able to focus on the world around me. I was higher than I had estimated, probably above 20,000 feet. Unrecognizable pieces of airplane fell around me; sheets of metal were falling like gigantic leaves. Below me, other chutes began to open and I said to myself, “There were other survivors. I don’t know who made it.” I thought I was the only one from my airplane because it had exploded. I counted six parachutes and one that looked like a drag chute (used to slow the aircraft on landing roll) as I fell for approximately 15 minutes. Then I began to plan my landing. The low clouds would conceal me from anyone on the ground until just before I landed and I might have a little time to hide or escape. Although bombing in South Vietnam, we were so close to the target that I had to assume anyone I would see was the enemy.
I pulled the handle on my seat pack to deploy my survival gear. The life raft fell out, inflated, and then started to deflate – it must have had a leak. Below me, two of the other survivors were just entering the clouds and it looked like I would land close to them. As I approached the clouds, I was shocked at how fast I was falling. I passed through the cloud deck very quickly and below was water, brown and muddy. I was drifting beyond the brown water towards the blue ocean so I inflated my Mae West life vest in preparation for a water landing. I reached up with my hands for the parachute canopy releases and decided to wait until my raft hit the first wave to open them.
My raft hit and I opened the releases and pulled the rings to release the parachute canopy. I hit the water, went under and then I popped to the surface. My raft was attached to my leg and I pulled it towards me but it was only half inflated. I swam around it until I could find the oral inflation tube but there was no valve cover so I blew and inflated the raft, held my thumb over the end, and climbed in. How could I stop the leak? I looked in the storage pocket for the oral tube, found the valve cover and jammed it on the end of the tube. It held and the leak stopped.
I sat back in my raft; I was alive and even with the pain and anxiety, I was elated. The waves were at least ten feet high, occasionally breaking over the raft and filling it with water. Would I capsize? I secured the survival gear to the raft and rechecked that the raft was still attached to me. I washed off my right hand and arm in the water in the raft. I did not want the blood in the ocean so it would attract sharks. My right forearm had deep puncture wounds and my right hand was swollen double and felt broken. Otherwise, I was OK.
I took out the radio from my survival gear but when I turned it on I only received an emergency beacon. I remember thinking, “Someone didn’t turn off the emergency beacon activated by his parachute.” It never occurred to me that it was my own beacon.
Within minutes fighter jets flew low over me and when the two other survivors nearby set off orange smoke flares, the jets dipped their wings in response. Help was on the way. I was within a mile or so of the other survivors, but because of the waves and distance, I could not see them.