Keep Oral Histories coming through your tax-deductible donation now.

Captain Arthur R. Hawkins, USN (Ret.) (1922-2004)

After enlisting in the Naval Reserve in April 1942, Hawkins went through cadet training in Texas prior to being designated a naval aviator and commissioned in January 1943. During World War II, as a fighter pilot in VF-31, he flew in combat from the light carriers USS Cabot (CVL-28) and Belleau Wood (CVL-24). In all, he shot down 14 Japanese aircraft. He became a regular Navy officer in 1946, subsequently serving as a floatplane pilot in the cruiser USS Portsmouth (CL-102). He had two tours with the Blue Angels flight demonstration team, sandwiched around Korean War duty in Fighter Squadron 101, which operated from the carrier USS Princeton (CV-37). As skipper of the Blue Angels in 1953 he made the first through-the-canopy ejection from a jet aircraft, an F9F-6 Cougar. Subsequently, interspersed with tours of shore duty, Captain Hawkins commanded Attack Squadron 46, served as air officer on board the USS Franklin D. Roosevelt (CVA-42), and commanded Air Group One and the oiler USS Caloosahatchee (AO-98). He became a programming specialist during the McNamara years in the Pentagon, and he had a satisfying tour as commanding officer of the U.S. Naval Air Station Atsugi, Japan. He retired in June 1973.

Based on two interviews conducted by Paul Stillwell in July 1983, the volume contains 100 pages of interview transcript plus an index. The transcript is copyright 1996 by the U.S. Naval Institute; the interviewee has placed no restrictions on its use.

An index to this volume can be viewed here (.pdf).

In this excerpt from his second interview with Paul Stillwell at the Naval Aviation Museum in Pensacola, Florida, on 15 July 1983, Captain Hawkins speaks about his becoming the first man to perform a through-the-canopy ejection from a jet aircraft on 4 August 1953, when his aircraft, an F9F-6 Cougar of the Blue Angels, encountered trouble at 42,000 feet.

Captain Hawkins: Then in 1952 I took over from [Lieutenant Command Butch Voris] as commanding officer of the Blues.

We were then flying the F9F-5s. We had flown the F9F-2s when we went into combat in VF-191, and the F9F-5, which is the next step in the series, had a little better engine and some other improvements. We flew the F9F‑5s on up through '53. At the end of '53 we were assigned the F9F-6, which was our first swept-wing fighter.

Paul Stillwell: How did they compare in performance to what you had had before?

Captain Hawkins: The new ones were Mach 1. They were faster than the speed of sound, and they were just much more advanced aircraft. They had all the electrical trim tabs on the stick. They had the flying tail, the first one we ever had. And, of course, the engine was a little more powerful.

Paul Stillwell: What do you mean by flying tail?

Captain Hawkins: Well, on a normal aircraft, the elevator is part of the stabilizer. When you pull back the stick, it'll go up and down. When you go to a flying tail, if you rigidly lock that elevator to the stabilizer and free the stabilizer, then the whole stabilizer moves. It's done hydraulically. Instead of just the small elevator you're working with, you're working with the whole stabilizer. It was the first flying-tail aircraft that the Navy had, and it was hydraulically operated, which is like power steering. You pull back on the stick and the hydraulic system makes the whole stabilizer move. But you could freeze it and adjust to the regular elevator for low altitudes. All that did was give you a bigger bite at high altitudes, which let you turn tighter. And, because of the skinny air up there, it just gave you more control of the airplane. It was well designed but not too well thought out.

When we picked up the new aircraft for the Blues, we got six of the first 13 that the factory built.[1] We went up and checked out in them, then started home with them. I didn't make it home.[2] I had a little problem at about 42,000 feet as we climbed out on our way back to Corpus Christi. The flying tail ran away on me, and we found out later what happened. It was hydraulically operated, and it had a slip valve. When you pulled the stick back, it opened a little hole. The pressure went in and slid this valve back and forth, which made the stabilator go up and down.

Well, I developed a leak on the downside of this valve as we were going along, so it started nosing the airplane a little. It just nosed it on over and over and over, and it was going into an outside loop at 42,000 feet. At the bottom of this outside loop, which was at about 32,000 feet, I started redding-out, which is the opposite of blackout. You know, with negative G's your blood goes to your head, while in blacking out the blood is being pulled away from your head with positive G's. So I had to bail out of the thing.

It also had a new feature of being able to eject yourself through the canopy, which had never been done before, but which we had pioneered after Johnny Magda's death in Korea. We needed some way to get out of the airplane when you couldn't get rid of the canopy, because the normal procedure for ejecting from an airplane was first to blow the canopy off and arm your seat. This was done with one handle below in the cockpit. Then you had to pull the face curtain over your face to eject yourself out of the airplane. Well, Johnny Magda was killed in Korea, and we were almost sure that he couldn't eject his canopy. If you couldn't get the canopy off, you couldn't arm your seat. He went in and hit the water still in the cockpit and then was thrown out of the airplane.

So this F9F-6 had that feature built in. You could arm your seat with the canopy still on by an emergency arming device up next to your head. So in this situation of negative G's that I was in, this outside loop that was being forced upon me by the flying tail going out of whack, I tried everything to get it out, but it just kept going under.

So with all those negative G's, I was pulled almost up into the canopy, and the arming device for arming and blowing the canopy was down on the left side. So there was only one thing to do: go through the canopy. It had never been done before, but somebody had to do it first, I guess. So I armed the seat and blew myself, seat and all, right through the Plexiglas of the canopy. Doing it that way probably saved my life, because the plane was already through the speed of sound. If I'd have blown the canopy, the slipstream would have just whipped me to death.

We knew of the case of an F-86 where a pilot had bailed out above the speed of sound, and he didn't live through it.[3] When they recovered his body, his face was just torn up where the wind had pulled his mouth open and all kinds of weird things. But in my case, going through the canopy, I had started slowing down immediately as soon as I had left the airplane. I was on the slow-down, not having to sit there in the seat with a canopy gone and this Mach 1 slipstream coming through. Although when I hit the slipstream, it tore off my oxygen mask and everything.

Here I was up at 32,000 feet with no oxygen and wanting to free-fall, because that was the only way to get down quickly to an altitude where I could breathe. I saw I was going to pass out, and I wasn't going to hit the ground passed out, so I deployed the chute anyway. So I was hanging in the chute while passed out. Now, we had been taught grunt breathing during training. There's oxygen at 30,000; it's just that the pressure's not there to force it into your lungs. So the basic pretext is to suck in a big breath and force pressure on your lungs to try to force some in your bloodstream, which I started doing. And it worked. I'd grunt-breathe and then force real hard and then be in the gray area, about to pass out again. Then I'd clear up as that blood with oxygen in it hit my heart. I did that grunt-breathing down to 15,000, until the area where oxygen was plentiful enough to breathe. It took about 22 minutes from the time my chute deployed until I hit the ground, so I was there for a while.

Paul Stillwell: You were keeping time of all this?

Captain Hawkins: No. There were six of us together, and I was leading the six back to Corpus Christi. The others saw me pitch out of the formation and start down. Two of them started following me down. They never did see me bail out. They stayed with the airplane, because I bailed out upside down. I was hanging in the bottom. They followed the plane all the way down till it hit the ground and exploded. They started climbing back up and then they saw me coming down in the chute. They came up and started circling me, and I was at 22,000 then. So, all in all, they were the ones that did the timing--not me. I was too busy doing other things.

I came on down in the chute, and I hit in a cotton patch just outside of Pickens, Mississippi. There was a little town up there. In fact I was just driving through the other day past Pickens, Mississippi. I remembered my ordeal. Anyway, a farmer was in the local area and saw me coming down. People on the ground had heard the claps from the airplane passing through the sound barrier up there, and they looked up. There wasn't a thunder-bumper around anywhere, and then all of a sudden they saw this plane screaming down. They saw it hit and crash--luckily enough in a wooded area where it didn't bother anybody. So they came over to pick me up, and the planes were buzzing me back and forth to see if I was all right. I finally gave them a "Roger" signal to shove off. I assumed I was okay; I was alive. Three of them went into Memphis and landed there. Two of them went on into Barksdale in Shreveport.[4] They had stayed up and passed out messages to Barksdale to let them know what was going on, to tell them we had lost an airplane.

So the highway patrol came and picked me up in Pickens and took me to Jackson, Mississippi, where a Navy plane came to pick me up and flew me into Memphis. There they took me to the hospital, looked me over, decided I was all right, and turned me loose. I stayed in Memphis that night and got to Corpus the next day. I had a few bruised ribs and frost-bitten ears, but other than that I was in great shape. I flew a show six days later, so I guess I was in much better shape than I should have been.

Paul Stillwell: It says something for Navy training that you had the presence of mind to do all the things you had to do.

Captain Hawkins: That's what your training is supposed to do, so it's done automatically. Without the training you wouldn't make it. You've got to do the training, have it instilled in you, and when the time comes you follow that procedure and then away you go.

At that time we did not have the modern-day things like chutes that would deploy themselves and oxygen bottles and that type of thing for bailing out. You free-fall and don't worry about it, because you have a barometer on your seat which is at a preset level, say, 5,000 feet, which pops and opens the chute for you; you don't have to do it yourself. During that time--that was '53--those things were there, but they hadn't started putting them in the aircraft yet. Now they have a chute that you can deploy the seat chute and everything off the catapult. It's a Martin Baker seat, which is a rocket-type seat that when you eject, the rocket shoots you up high enough for the chute to deploy. Everything is done automatically. You just have to do the ejecting. When you decide to go, you go, and then you depend on the automatic devices to take care of the rest of it to deploy and things like that.

So that was my only bail-out during my 31 years of flying.

[1] The Blue Angels picked up their new planes at the Grumman plant at Bethpage, Long Island, New York.

[2] This incident occurred on 4 August 1953.

[3] F-86 was the designation for the Air Force version of the Navy‑developed FJ Fury.

[4] Barksdale Air Force Base, Shreveport, Louisiana.



Conferences and Events

WEST 2017

Tue, 2017-02-21 - Thu, 2017-02-23

San Diego Convention Center, San Diego, CA

Tuesday, 21 February - Thursday, 23 February 2017 Co-Sponsored by AFCEA International and the U.S. Naval Institute. Registration...

2017 U.S. Naval Institute Member Event

View All

From the Press

Network Television Interview

Mon, 2017-01-23

Admiral James Stavridis

Guest Lecturer & Book Signing

Wed, 2017-01-25

Maj. Gen. Bob Scales, USA (Ret.)

Why Become a Member of the U.S. Naval Institute?

As an independent forum for over 135 years, the Naval Institute has been nurturing creative thinkers who responsibly raise their voices on matters relating to national defense.

Become a Member Renew Membership