A BROKEN WING AND A PRAYER - Two survivors talk about how they miraculously walked away from near certain death when the wing of their T-38 Talon fell off during an acrobatic training maneuver

  • Published
  • By Tim Barela
  • Torch Magazine
Capt. Mike Hainsey slumped inside the T-38 Talon cockpit, which shook so violently it was as if God were using the jet as a salt shaker. Losing the tug-of-war with gravity and plummeting toward earth at breakneck speed, the metal fireball that used to be his aircraft would quickly become his tomb if he did not wake up. Hainsey's student pilot, 2nd Lt. Plato Rhyne III had somehow managed to escape the deathtrap, but his troubles were far from over. He was in free fall, and his parachute had suffered a total malfunction during the brutal ejection from the spinning jet. The chute had become twisted in the risers and transformed into nothing more than a trash bag flapping uselessly above his head. After a couple of desperate attempts to untangle it failed, Rhyne looked at the rapidly approaching trees, and thought, "This is gonna hurt."

Hainsey and Rhyne have been linked together for the past 26-plus years because they did something that not many pilots do when the wing falls off of their aircraft in mid-flight: They lived.

These unlikely survivors reunited for a day -- the first time they had seen each other since shortly after the mishap ­-- to tell their riveting story and share lessons learned to nearly 100 aviators at Columbus Air Force Base, Miss., the base they had been assigned to at the time of the crash on Jan. 17, 1986.

Ironically, Hainsey was only a month shy of a permanent change of station move to Randolph AFB, Texas. And to graduate from undergraduate pilot training, Rhyne only needed to fly the T-38 for 1.2 hours and make a successful landing. ... He wouldn't get either.

"We were flying in the operating area west of the base," Hainsey said. "Weather was good, and we were taking turns doing acrobatic maneuvers."

On one of Hainsey's turns, they accelerated to 500 knots as the instructor pilot set them up for a loop.

"I told Plato, 'Here come the Gs!' " Hainsey said. They reached 5.5 Gs when the left wing snapped.

"We had no idea what had happened," Rhyne said. "One second you're flying, the next it feels like the aircraft blew up and went out of control."

Even with their safety restraints, the pilots felt like ragdolls inside the chaotic cockpit.

"There's massive flailing, deafening noise, smoke, confusion," Hainsey said. "You know only one thing: You have to get out of the aircraft ... fast!"

Easier said than done.

When the wing broke, the aircraft immediately starting rolling -- investigators later estimated that it was spinning at five or six revolutions per second. But the jet also was tumbling. That meant the pilots were experiencing up to 10 Gs one second and a negative 6 Gs the next. Positive Gs force the blood to your feet; negative ones push it to your head, like being hung upside down. The human body isn't designed to withstand such powerful opposing forces.

Additionally, the left wing didn't immediately separate from the aircraft when it snapped. Instead it folded and went through the backbone of the airplane, hitting a fuel bladder that was right behind Hainsey's seat in the back of the cockpit. That's what caused the explosion on the aircraft and the ensuing fireball.

Every Man for Himself
"We couldn't communicate with each other," Rhyne said. "The noise in the cockpit was far too loud. But it didn't matter. We were below 10,000 feet in an out-of-control aircraft, and that means every man for himself."

Barely able to control his arms, Rhyne desperately looked for the ejection handles but couldn't see a thing.

"I don't know how I figured it out in all the confusion, but my face had slammed so hard into the canopy that my helmet made a quarter turn on my head," he said. "My oxygen mask was on my right ear."

He fixed his mask and helmet, and located the right ejection handle. He grabbed and was going to pull it, but stopped himself.

"Once I had the ejection handle, it calmed me down for a second," Rhyne said. "I took the time to get in a better ejection position. I got both hands on the handles, got my elbows inside the elbow guards, sat up, put my head against the seat, pulled my legs out from under the dash, and got in the ejection position. Then I pulled both ejection handles as hard as I could."

Those last preparations probably saved him from some major flail injuries, as he shot out of the spinning tube at 19 Gs into granite-hard shock waves.

Trapped in the Cockpit
Meanwhile, Hainsey was still trapped in the cockpit slipping in and out of consciousness. Investigators would later find 20-plus gray marks where his helmet kept striking the canopy.

"The problem was we weren't just fighting one type of G," Hainsey said. If you're pulling negative Gs, you can focus on that. If you're pulling positive, you can focus on that. But the airplane was tumbling so bad, it was positive, negative, transverse. I was flailing around on the edge of consciousness most of the time. I was fighting to stay awake."

He was losing the fight.

But then a bit of a miracle. The faulty wing finally totally separated from the aircraft, and the jet settled into a decent that was more like a falling leaf.

"That cut out some of the randomness of the Gs and allowed me to focus on just one handgrip," Hainsey said. "My training kicked in, and I tucked my elbows into the guards. If your elbows are outside of the guards, you've got a good chance of smashing them, breaking them or even losing the entire arm."

By the time Hainsey ejected, the fire on the aircraft had turned from a fuel blaze to a searing alloy fire.

"When the canopy shot off during the ejection sequence, the fire came in and burned my parachute through the pack, burned my neck, burned my arm, burned my back and melted the flight suit in some places," he said. "I was only exposed to it for a split second, but that's how hot it was."

Hainsey felt the burns; but an instant later, he also felt the tug of his parachute. He was so relieved to get a good chute that he didn't think about his scorched skin.

But the good feelings were short lived.

"I looked up, saw the parachute, and that was a wonderful feeling," he said. "Then I looked out, and I was already below the treetops."

How could he possibly maneuver through the cluster of pines?

'Where's My Parachute?'
Though Rhyne had punched out earlier than his instructor pilot, he encountered his own troubles.

He had ejected at about 7,000 feet, and came out of the clouds in free fall.

"I was calm during the free fall because I used to skydive in college -- I was in a familiar place," he said. "Plus, at first I was just happy to be alive."

Then it dawned on him that he was at 6,000 feet, falling to the ground like a sack of potatoes and still no chute.

"Where's my parachute?" he asked himself.

He flared out to slow his decent a bit.

"That's when I realized I was in serious trouble," Rhyne said, "because my left hand was inside the pilot chute and the bridle line was wrapped around my arms. I was holding on to the top of my parachute!"

During the violent ejection, he'd gotten tangled up in the chute. He grabbed the deflated canopy with his left hand, shook the bridle line off and threw the pilot chute away from his body as hard as he could.

"I watched it go up -- straight into the left risers," he said.

The tangled mess didn't even slow him down.

"I knew I needed to fix the situation ... and fast," Rhyne said. "I grabbed the risers and started pulling the canopy in."

He pulled half of it down and let go. Nothing. He did it again. Still nothing.

"Well, this is it. It's over. I'm going to hit the ground," Rhyne thought with all too much clarity.

But then it came to him. That old life support joke where the student asks the instructor, "Sir, what do I do if my parachute doesn't open?" And the instructor answers, "You have the rest of your life to get that chute open."

"It's funny, but that's what went through my mind," Rhyne said. "So I looked at the ground and said, 'OK, I'm going to fight this thing until I hit those trees."

This time, he tried to pull the chute all the way in.

"I got the canopy to just above my helmet," he said. "But there are 14 suspension lines and two risers you can't just put in your pocket at 100 miles an hour. So I'm getting beat up by all the lines that I've pulled in. And the riser buckles are hitting me in the face."

With one last heave, he let go of the chute, pulled his elbows in and turned his head in to try to keep everything tight.

"I got opening shock," he said with relief. "The lines were twisted from my helmet all the way to the canopy, but I had a good canopy."

And none too soon ... he had free fallen for nearly 6,000 feet and was now at about 1,200 feet to impact.

"Now I'm doing the post ejection checklist, and nearly pass out," he said. "The flight doc told me it was probably because I had barely taken a breath since bailing out."

His breath probably caught again when his ejection seat almost hit him.

Into the Trees
Meanwhile, Hainsey, unable to avoid the stand of trees, slammed into a tall pine not far from where the jet crashed.

"I hit the tree face on -- as in knocked out cold," Hainsey said.

Like a lifeless puppet, he dangled from strings nearly 40 feet above the ground.

Rhyne, on the other hand, was wide awake and far from being out of the woods.

"I saw our airplane hit the ground and spotted Mike in the trees down below me," he said.

The student pilot then heard the distinctive "whop, whop, whop" of a helicopter. The hair raised on the back of his neck as he knew they were smack dab in the middle of a low-level training route for National Guard helicopters.

"So here's what I'm thinking: Airplane tries to kill me, parachute tries to kill me, seat tries to take me out, and now I'm going to get hit by a helicopter," Rhyne said.

What he didn't know was that the helicopter crew had been in the area and was responding to the emergency beacon. They had spotted him, Hainsey and the wreckage. They were there to rescue the downed pilots.

Rhyne aimed his chute for a small clearing.

"My landing couldn't have been any softer," he said. "I landed on my feet and just kind of sat down."

Unfortunately, he sat down in a bed of sandspurs.

A farmer and his daughter, who had witnessed the accident, drove a truck to pick up Rhyne, while the rescue helicopter went to get Hainsey.

Hainsey came to while still dangling in the tree.

Lucky to Be Alive
"My brain was in a fog ... I was dazed, confused and had no idea how I had gotten there," he said. "I could hear the helicopter, and my first thought was I better get out of this tree so they can see me."

So he reached up and popped open one of the releases on the chute.

"Well I'm still 40 feet up, and now I'm thinking this may not have been the best move," he said. "But now I'm committed. I was close enough to the trunk of the tree that I held onto that and then popped the other release."

He climbed down about 10 feet and then stepped on a thin branch about an inch thick.

"The branch broke, and I became a tree hugger," he said.

He slid down the tree out of control for about 20 feet, and then fell the last 10.

The helicopter picked him up and then flew to get Rhyne.

Both pilots had blood red eyes as the whites of their eyes had hemorrhaged from the negative G forces. Rhyne's injuries were fairly minor: a neck spasm, pelvic bruises, and contusions on his right lower leg and left knee, as well as more than a few puncture wounds from the sandspurs. Hainsey, however, suffered some major injuries, including a compression fracture of his lower back; second degree burns on the right side of his neck, left back and upper left arm; and abrasions on his face and hands from the tree landing.

"We were lucky, but our training also helped," Hainsey said.

Two weeks after the crash, Rhyne finally finished his last flight in the T-38 and graduated.

"I had needed 1.2 hours and a landing to graduate," Rhyne said. "Unfortunately, on the flight with Mike, we only got .6 hours and no landings."

"Well," Hainsey said with a coy chuckle, "no landings in the aircraft anyway."