An Unexpected Flying Experience, Decompression!

Have you ever been unexpectedly whomped  across  the chest with a club? While at night? While at 36,000 feet? While piloting a B-52 eight engined jet bomber?  Well I was, and it is something I will never forget! In airplane jargon, it’s called an EXPLOSIVE DECOMPRESSION.  It is an incident that can’t be enjoyed, no crew member ever wants nor looks forward to having this happen. What happened affected all persons aboard the aircraft in pretty much the same way, but the story I tell is how it affected me

On Sep. 5, 1958 my crew and I were flying a B-52D bomber on a night proficiency training mission. We departed our home base of Fairchild AFB, WA shortly after dark, and had  completed several hours of  training. We headed to our assigned refueling area to join a KC-135 tanker aircraft. By now it is good and dark, stars were really sparkling, the air was cold and crisp.  This was just another training mission, we were doing what we  trained for and had done many times before.

The time arrived for us to rendezvous with the KC-135 tanker aircraft  to practice in-flight refueling. We went through the preparatory phases, and descended to his altitude to make contact. All went well, we spent our scheduled time practicing maneuvering into position, hooking up and taking on fuel. At the end of our scheduled time we separated from the tanker.

We started climbing on a westerly heading to an  assigned altitude near  40,000′ to continue training. Following normal procedures, all crew members had  oxygen masks  securely  fitted to their  face. When passing 36,000 feet, it happened! All of a sudden, I felt as if I had been  hit across the chest with a 2×4. Instantaneously the air in my lungs expanded and forced its way from my body. The oxygen system regulator immediately went to the  pressure mode and was trying to force oxygen back into my lungs. At the same time, the moisture  inside the aircraft condensed into a very dense fog. Although the flight instrument panel was less than two feet from me, I could not see it. It didn’t take a rocket scientist to figure something was wrong, but what?

In a few seconds, the fog cleared and the flight instruments were again visible, we were still climbing, all instruments were normal except one. This was the one showing cabin pressure. It should show  a pressurized altitude of around 8,000 ft., instead it was showing something like 37,000ft.. As the crew checked in on interphone, a member on the upper flight deck reported that the “escape hatch” for his ejection position was missing. This is a hatch, about four feet long and nearly three feet wide. It had become unlocked and was missing  from the aircraft, leaving a rather large hole. When it flew off, the  pressurized air inside the aircraft escaped in an instant which created a strong  sucking force that took out any and every thing that was nearby and loose. Some insulation paneling around the hatch was torn off and taken, as were several other objects. The person sitting in the seat below this now open hatch had his helmet and oxygen mask torn from his head. We still had control of the aircraft, we’d just lost pressurization. We descended to a lower altitude, returned to our home base, our excitement over.

What happened? When the crew member who regularly sat in that seat got out to do other duties, another crew member  took his place and proceeded to “buckle” in. While doing this, he inadvertently activated the handle that began  the ejection sequence. This caused the hatch to leave the aircraft.   Had the “seat belt” not been securely fastened, he would have been sucked from the aircraft. Not a happy prospect. Had he activated the second handle, he  and the seat would have ejected from the aircraft. Luckily, it was not a major incident, no one was injured. A rancher found the panel and returned it some months later.

This is just another episode in the nearly fifteen years I spent  as an Aircraft Commander/instructor pilot flying  SAC bombers. These incidents, which  gave a  few minutes of adrenalin pumping  real concern are often the ones most vividly remembered.

Francis H. Potter

Col. USAF Ret.

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