Even though he had to eject from one of the first A-10 attack aircraft, this former Air Force test pilot is still High on the Hog

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Parker Gyokeres
  • 23rd Wing Public Affairs (ACCNS)
Maj. Gen. Francis Gideon holds the dubious honor of being the first pilot to successfully eject from an A-10 Thunderbolt II. Even though the experience destroyed his aircraft and nearly killed him, the general remains a strong advocate of the aircraft affectionately known as the "Warthog."

In 1978, Gideon, who retired in 2000 as the Air Force's chief of safety and now resides in Twin Falls, Idaho, was one of the first test pilots assigned to the A-10 joint task force. He retold his story during a visit to Moody Air Force Base, Ga., in March.

During the early years of the A-10A program, a common problem with the gun system was known as secondary gun gas ignition, or unburned propellant re-igniting outside the confines of the gun, the general said. The glitch produced a large fireball and a pocket of hot gas that could snuff out an engine.

"In an effort to combat the risks of (secondary gun gas ignition), the test wing was tasked with validating three different manufacturers of new ammunition," Gideon said.

The first passes went off without a hitch. But when the general fired the third manufacturer's rounds, his aircraft experienced the dreaded secondary gun gas ignition.
"I immediately let go of the trigger," he said. "These gasses went straight into my engines, and I had a dual engine compressor stall."

While there had been instances of a single engine failure from gas ingestion, this proved to be the first time both engines had failed in this circumstance, the general said.
A compressor stall occurs when airflow through an engine ceases. In addition to the major side-effect of losing all thrust needed for sustained flight, the engines continue to burn fuel and will overheat rapidly if left uncorrected.

"I saw my temperature gauges peg, so I chopped the power, performed all of my emergency procedures and realized I had no steps remaining until the engines cooled down," he said. "So I sat there, for two long minutes, with absolutely nothing to do but lose altitude and watch the temp gauges slowly fall back into range."

As the aircraft's engines cooled enough to start relighting, the plane quickly sank below 2,000 feet. To make matters worse, a mountain ridge loomed in the flight path.

As Gideon began the process of starting one engine, he realized it would take another 45 seconds to produce usable thrust. After doing the math for a successful recovery of his sinking airplane, it just didn't add up.

He announced his decision to eject.

"Seeing what was coming, the (pilot in the) camera chase-plane was considerate enough to position himself perfectly up-sun for the ideal shot of me coming out of the aircraft," the general said. "Pretty much every A-10 pilot since that day has seen the footage of my ejection."

The ejection seat the general used was an older style seat called an Escapac. At the time, it was being replaced in front-line A-10s with the newer ACES-II seat because of safety concerns. His test airframe was not slated for upgrade until the end of the program.

"A number of pilots had already been killed trying to eject from the A-10 in an Escapac, but I was in the proper envelope and prepared in every way possible," he said. "Still, the ejection slammed my head down into my chest and left me in quite a bit of pain."

Upon landing, the back of his neck struck a rock. Flight doctors believed this caused his most severe injury --- a broken neck.

Following the mishap, the program to upgrade the ejection seat was accelerated, he said.

Additionally, the Air Force began looking at better gun-gas diverters designed to push the blast fumes below the aircraft instead of above it and into its engines. Manufacturers also created new propellant mixtures that were less prone to secondary gun gas ignition, but the general recalls these produced problems of their own.

"The new compounds in the propellant were sticky and caustic after firing," he said. "They would get on the engine blades and cause damage, so after every flight they had to be scrubbed off."

Additionally, every time they fired the gun, the windshields would get covered with a sticky film that blocked their vision, Gideon added.

"We ended up strapping a five-gallon plastic tank full of alcohol wash into the nose wheel well and hooking a windshield washer pump to it," the general said. "You would get five shots of the stuff, and it gave you a small spot on the windscreen so you could fly home."

That windshield washing system has since been upgraded with engine gasses to blast soot cleaner over the windshield. But the tank is still mounted in the same place they rigged the first one -- the nose wheel well.

"(After 28 years), the resources and weapons available to today's generation of pilots bring a level of complexity and information into the cockpit that I never dealt with," the general said. "The A-10 is an amazing jet to have done so well for so long."

Late in his career when Gideon went on to command the Air Force Safety Center at Kirtland AFB, N.M., his aircraft wreckage also was shipped to the center to be used as a training tool for accident investigators. On the last day of his Air Force career, man and mangled machine crossed paths one last time.

"As it turns out, my retirement date was exactly 20 years to the day after my accident," the general said. "The safety staff at Kirtland removed a blade from one of my engines and mounted it on a plaque that said, 'Together again, after all these years.' "