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AJ Bauer's bailout from a Sabre

1966 430 AJB

W/C AJ "Arnie" Bauer
June 64 – June 66

The family of Group Captain (Ret'd) AJ Bauer was most appreciative and grateful to the CAHS for the report with photographs on the Celebration of Life for AJ in the May Newsletter. We would also like to tell the story of one especially memorable occasion in AJ's life for the history books, his rather harrowing bailout from a Canadair Sabre after an engine failure over Germany in December, 1954. Nancy Blair, one of his daughters, mentioned the episode in a Lives Lived tribute published in The Globe and Mail on May 22. As Nancy recalled, AJ found himself "falling head first with his legs tangled in the parachute lines. He landed upside down in a pine tree. The following night he attended a dance on base with Bette, his dancing none the worse for the bailout, Bette later reported."

Here is AJ's description of the bailout as he wrote in a 1978 letter to John Churchill Down, a prominent BBC broadcaster:

30 December 1978

John Dunn, BBC

Regrettably, I am not normally a listener to your late afternoon program on BBC 2. However, on Friday, 29th December, having closed down my office somewhat earlier than usual, I listened as your guest (whole name and position I did not catch) unfold a story of a ‘miraculous’ recovery from a hopeless situation in a Bristol freighter aircraft.

As a military pilot, I found the account intriguing. Although my background is mostly jet fighter flying, I am acquainted with the Bristol, in that the Royal Canadian Air Force in Europe, with which I was serving in 1954, was equipped with Bristols. I recall clearly that the engine noise was deafening for cabin passengers, and my memory holds that one could peer down through a gap in the fuselage floor and watch the countryside passing by below.

For all her noise and primitive air-conditioning, the Bristol served us very well indeed.

At the conclusion of that particular episode on your Friday program, you invited listeners to report to you any “strange story” in their experience. That invitation prompts this letter.

In 1954, I was attached to an RCAF Squadron equipped with F-86 Mark V Sabre aircraft. On 30th December, 1954 (24 years ago today, I note), I was flying an aircraft that had a sudden and total engine failure. I was flying at about 20 thousand feet at the time, above unbroken cloud, topped at about 10 thousand, which extended (as I had been briefed earlier) down to the hilltops. My geographical position was over the ‘Pfalz’ area of central Germany, near Kaiserslautern.

Of course, in a single-engine aircraft, such a failure as that I experienced is most drastic, and if engine power cannot be regained, the pilot is obliged to eject from his crippled aircraft and use his parachute to survive.

This I proceeded to do, having had time to make radio calls to my control tower, to determine that I was over a mountainous area and that there was every likelihood that the aircraft would impact in an unpopulated area and, in fact, having had time to review the ejection procedure manually to prepare myself for the forthcoming experience.

I lowered my ejection seat, placed my heels in the stirrups on the base of the seat, jettisoned the cockpit canopy, then consciously pushed my head back against the head-rest, ensured that my spine was vertical, and squeezed the ejection triggers on the arm rests. With a loud “bang”, the aircraft was yanked suddenly and irretrievably from me, and I was tumbling very rapidly. My arms were secure, (I was still grasping the ejection handles), but because my heels had slipped off the stirrups, my legs were flailing uncontrollably.

In preparing to eject and in calling Base, I had sacrificed some 10 thousand feet of altitude, and was now in cloud. Many improvements have now been incorporated in the ejection sequence for modern aircraft and much of the sequence is now an automatic ejection, but in 1954, my next steps were to separate the ejection seat from myself, and then pull the parachute ripcord.

This I proceeded to do. First, I unfastened the harness buckle that kept me in the seat and of course I expected the seat to leave me, whereupon I would be able to perform step two (i.e., open the parachute).

But the seat was apparently reluctant to leave. I was aware that I was tumbling but not with the degree of initial violence. I re-checked the seat harness, and saw that it was, in fact, free-the shoulder straps and leg straps were unrestricted. The “capture” I was experiencing seemed to come from below, from the “pan” of the ejection seat-my (back-pack) parachute was apparently free of the seat-back, but of course was not yet deployed.

Aware that the earth and I were fairly soon due to meet, I pushed vigorously with my feet (in the stirrups of the ejection seat) and my arms (against the arm rests) and suddenly was free.

Now of course, ideally, in time one should separate from the ejection seat by some distance before pulling the chute rip-cord. However, I knew that I had lost much valuable height struggling for freedom from the seat, and the “one thousand and one, one thousand and two, one thousand and three” routine went through my mind in a flash and I believe now that I deployed the parachute almost immediately, the seat separated from me.

My body was then jerked very abruptly and, despite the disorientation (I was still in cloud), I was delighted to realize that the chute had opened. However, my delight was short-lived when I became aware that my right leg was captured by chute shroud lines (the lines connecting the parachute canopy itself with the pilot’s harness), and that the ejection seat had been caught in the shroud lines up near the canopy.

Obviously, this was not a very satisfactory situation from the point of view of the forthcoming contact with the ground. I would be landing on one leg, with the other stretched toward the ejection seat which, with all its sharp edges, would almost certainly do me damage as we came to rest together on terra firma.

It occurred to me that I might free the seat from the shroud lines and permit it to fall free, so I proceeded to “crawl up” the lines toward the seat. However, when very close to reaching the point where the lines were entangled in the seat stirrups, I slipped and my subsequent situation was even more distressing than that I had held earlier: both legs were now entangled in shroud lines and I was hanging head down; in other words, to see the chute canopy I looked down to my feet. To make matters somewhat worse, I became aware that the canopy area had been
significantly reduced by the number of shroud lines gathered in by the seat.

My only hope was to minimize very serious injury on contact with the earth and I planned to pull as firmly as I could on the shroud lines holding the seat just before the moment of impact. I hoped to effectively bring “up” my head and shoulders and also expected that the seat would not continue its descent directly onto my body. (I reckoned that the open part of the canopy would serve as a “deflection” purpose. That, because of the still inflated portion of the chute, I would, in fact, not be able to pull the seat onto my body if I deliberately tried to do exactly that.)

My plan was all set; I was still in cloud, and I was aware that the impact would occur very soon. Suddenly the ambient light was reduced significantly (a sign of breaking out of cloud) and I prepared to put my plan into action.

The next awareness I have is that I was suspended in a tall fir tree: the open portion of the chute had very neatly been captured by the top of “my” tree and the canopy, now deflated but still containing the ejection seat, was draped down around the top of the trees. I was still captured by the legs, of course, but realized immediately that all I had to do now was to free my legs, unfasten the parachute harness, and slide down the tree.

After I’d tested ny strength, I proceeded to do exactly as intended, and found myself on a woodman’s path. I could hear ammunition exploding as my aircraft burned on a hill across from my location.

Apart from bruising of my calves (from the tumbling) some minor facial scratches from tree branches, the only injury I suffered was a slight puncture wound in my right leg caused, I believe, by a small “stubby” screwdriver we pilots carried with us at that time, to open and close panels on the aircraft during preflight inspections.

It was determined by a Board of Inquiry that the engine failure was caused when the turbine portion disintegrated. No conclusion was drawn regarding the reason I could not gain instant seat ejection, although I believe after all the years of hindsight, that the emergency pack on which we used to sit may somehow have been the culprit: as I clung to the tree, having freed my legs, I unstrapped the emergency pack and, finding it amazingly light in weight, I realized it was empty. The fully inflated life raft which it had contained, was discovered later, some distance from my eventual landing position. It had obviously come free at some time during the sequence, and probably at the instant of my separation from the seat.

This account has, in the retelling, become much longer than it ought to be, but I thought that you might be interested in reading it and, in view of the anniversary of the occasion, I did not hesitate very long before determining to write to you.