On February 14, 1945, Leading Aircraft woman Margaret Horton, an RAF WAAF, was assigned a familiar job: sit on the horizontal stabilizer of a Spitfire to help hold the tail down while it taxied on a windy day. Unfortunately, nobody thought to tell the pilot, Flight Lt. Neill Cox, that she’d be jumping aboard. (Horton later admitted that “the squadron was run in a slap-happy way.”) The normal drill was for the tail-sitter to grab the aircraft’s elevator and waggle it before the pilot turned onto the runway, so he’d know she was hopping off. But this time Cox made a casual gesture out of the cockpit that Margaret took to mean “Hang on, don’t go yet.” Big mistake.
As the Spitfire accelerated down the runway, Horton had the good sense to quickly flop across the tail cone, where she was held in place by the vertical fin, her legs to the right and her torso to the left. Another WAAF who’d seen what was happening dashed off to tell a flight sergeant, who ran to the control tower. Cox was ordered to make a quick circuit and land, but wasn’t told why. Between Horton’s death grip on the elevator with her left hand plus the Spitfire’s tail-heaviness, Cox had already figured that something was amiss, but he couldn’t see as far aft as his airplane’s empennage. Relieved to be back on the ground, Horton announced that after a change of panties and a cigarette, she’d be good to go back to work. She was later fined for losing her uniform beret during the short trip around the pattern.
On June 21, 1963, Marine Lieutenant Cliff Judkins was tanking from an Air Force Boeing KC-97 over the Pacific, on his way from California to Hawaii, when the automatic shut-off valve of his F-8 Crusader failed and the internal fuel bladder burst from the pressure of the still-flowing fuel from the tanker. With flames streaming from the big Vought fighter, Judkins tucked in his legs and jerked the canvas face curtain to eject. Nothing happened. He quickly pulled the alternate firing handle between his knees, but still…nothing. Now Judkins’ only choice was an old-fashioned bailout. Nobody had ever tried stepping out of a Crusader, with its vertical stabilizer a tall machete aft of the cockpit, but Judkins trimmed the ship to skid, manually jettisoned the canopy and at 220 knots and 15,000 feet was quickly sucked out of the cockpit. His troubles weren’t over. When he pulled his parachute’s D ring, Judkins got a streamer: The little pilot chute deployed and the shroud lines pulled out normally, but the main canopy remained an unopened bundle, wrapped like a moth in a spiderweb by the shrouds. Judkins fell nearly three miles into the Pacific, the streamer slowing his terminal-velocity plunge by perhaps 10 percent—likely still a good 110 mph straight down. He survived the fall with two severely broken ankles, a fractured pelvis and vertebra, a partially collapsed lung and various lesser injuries. Four years earlier, after Judkins had been in a bad automobile accident, he had had his spleen removed during surgery. A doctor later told him that if he’d still had his spleen, the fall from the F-8 would have killed him when the impact ruptured it.www.navalaviationmuseum.org/event/discovery-saturday-i-fell-from-the-sky-and-managed-to-live
There weren’t many old BAC One-Elevens still flying in 1990, but one of them, British Airways 5390, was en route from Birmingham to the Spanish island of Malaga on June 10. It was a sunny Sunday, with 81 happy beachgoers aboard, when the entire pilot’s-side windscreen blew out as the One-Eleven climbed through 17,300 feet. The captain, Tim Lancaster, was almost instantly sucked out the opening—he’d removed his shoulder harness after takeoff and loosened his lapstrap—but fortunately the backs of his knees jammed against the top of the windscreen frame while his feet were caught under the yoke of his control column. Steward Nigel Ogden, who had just entered the cockpit, grabbed Lancaster by the legs while the first officer got the airplane under control. Ogden was on the verge of being dragged out as well when a second steward reached the cockpit and secured him with a strap from the captain’s shoulder harness. By this time, Lancaster had slipped sideways from the roof of the cockpit, and his bloodied head was flailing against the left side window. The crew assumed that he was already dead. “His eyes were wide open,” Ogden recalled. “I’ll never forget that sight.” Lancaster was actually comatose, his systems shut down as a result of the incredible shock and the excruciating cold of the high-speed slipstream. A second steward eventually had to relieve Ogden, who was frostbitten and losing his grip, and by the time the airplane landed at Southampton, England, Lancaster was being held only by his ankles. He in fact survived with a fractured arm and wrist, and his first words after being pulled back into the cockpit were “I want to eat.” (“Just like a pilot,” Ogden reportedly said.) It was soon determined that an overworked mechanic had used undersized bolts on 84 of the windscreen’s 90 hold-down fittings.
On Christmas Eve 1971, a Peruvian Lockheed L188 Electra, LANSA Flight 508 en route from Lima to the small Amazon jungle city of Pucallpa, came apart in a thunderstorm: A lightning strike ignited a fuel tank, and the fire caused the right wing spar to fail. The four-engine turboprop had been cruising at FL210, and the flaming pieces fell unseen into a 15-square-kilometer area of the tropical void below. There had been 86 passengers and a crew of six. All but one were killed. That sole survivor was a 17-year-old high school senior, Juliane Koepcke, the daughter of a German zoologist and his wife, a Peruvian ornithologist. Juliane’s mother, sitting next to her, died in the crash of LANSA 508 while Juliane’s father awaited them at Pucallpa. Two things were remarkable about the crash: how Juliane survived it, and how she then saved herself from death in the jungle.
Koepcke had her seat belt fastened, and when the airplane came apart, she fell, still strapped into the window seat, while her mother and the aisle-seat occupant fell free. Like a maple-seed pod at the end of its winglet, Juliane and the three-seat row helicoptered all the way down and landed in an area of jungle trees interlaced with vines that cushioned her fall. The teenager had broken a collarbone, suffered deep cuts and all but lost her vision, her eyes were so bloodshot and bruised in the fall. Koepcke had spent a good part of her young life with her parents in the backcountry of Peru, and they had taught her survival skills. One lesson was that every rivulet of water flows into a brook, then into a stream, a tributary and eventually into a river. Dressed in a miniskirt and wearing just one sandal, barely able to see, Juliane followed the water. Twelve days later, it led her to Pucallpa. Koepcke’s fall is the subject of a Werner Hertzog documentary, Wings of Hope, which can be viewed on YouTube (posted as a series).