Lest We Forget: Blue Angel Out Through the Canopy

By A. Denis Clift

From 1948 to 1950, Hawkins flew Grumman F8F Bearcat prop and Grumman F9F-2 Panther jet aircraft with the Blue Angels. With the start of the Korean War, however, the Blue Angels halted operations, and Hawkins became executive officer of Fighter Squadron 191, flying some of the earliest bombing missions from the USS Princeton (CV-37).

Returning to Corpus Christi in August 1951, he rejoined the Blue Angels and from 1952 to 1954 was commanding officer of the flight team. “We were flying the F9F-6 Panthers then,” Hawkins recalled in his Naval Institute oral history .

When we picked up the new aircraft for the Blues from the factory, we got six of the first 13.

We went up and checked out in them, then started home. This was August 4, 1953. I didn’t make it. I had a little problem at 42,000 feet as we climbed out on our way back to Corpus Christi. The flying tail ran away on me. It was hydraulically operated, 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 stabilizer go up and down.

Well, I developed a leak on the downside of this valve, and it started nosing the airplane. It just nosed it over and over, and it was going into outside loops at 42,000 feet. At the bottom of this outside loop, which was about 32,000 feet, I started redding out, with negative Gs forcing the blood into the head. I had to bail out.

The F9F-6 had a new feature of being able to eject yourself through the canopy, which had been pioneered after Johnny Magda’s death in Korea. We were almost sure he couldn’t eject his canopy. He couldn’t arm his seat to eject; he went in and hit the water still in his cockpit.

So, in those outside loops with all those negative Gs, I was being pulled almost up into the canopy, and the arming device for blowing the canopy was beyond reach down on the left side. There was only one thing to do—go out through the canopy. It had never been done before. I blew myself, seat and all, right through the Plexiglas. Doing it probably saved my life, because the plane was already through the speed of sound. If I’d blown the canopy, the slipstream would have whipped me to death. In fact, it tore off my oxygen mask.

There I was 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 was about to pass out, and I didn’t want to hit the ground passed out, so I deployed the chute. I was hanging in the chute. We had been taught grunt breathing. There’s oxygen at 30,000 feet, just not enough pressure to force it into your lungs. I’d suck in a big breath, grunt to put pressure on to force oxygen into the bloodstream bringing blood with oxygen to the heart, clearing the mind. Then I’d start to pass out again. It took about 22 minutes in the chute before I hit the ground.

There were six of us flying back. The others saw me pitch out. I landed in a cotton patch just outside Pickens, Mississippi. The planes were buzzing me. I gave them the “Roger” sign, spent the night in a Memphis hospital, then got back to Corpus. I had a few bruised ribs and frost-bitten ears, but I flew in a show six days later.

Mr. Clift is the U.S. Naval Institute’s vice president for planning and operations and president emeritus of the National Intelligence University.


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