Mayday! Pilots In Distress Describe 'Punching Out' When a military aviator's plane is in trouble — big trouble — sometimes the only option is to "punch out," to bail out of the aircraft in the rocket-powered ejection seat. In Punching Out, Air Force veteran James Cross shares stories of aviators who have rocketed out of their planes — and survived.
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Mayday! Pilots In Distress Describe 'Punching Out'

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Mayday! Pilots In Distress Describe 'Punching Out'

Mayday! Pilots In Distress Describe 'Punching Out'

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Two pilots in the Turkish air force today joined a small club. They ejected to safety from a fighter jet in serious trouble. Perhaps the best-known member of that club is John McCain. The future senator and presidential candidate was knocked unconscious when his rocket-powered seat catapulted him out of a badly damaged fighter over North Vietnam. He landed in a lake and spent five years as a prisoner of war.

In his new book, James Cross collects the stories of pilots and other air crew who punched out - stories of pain, delirium, fear and that curious sense of peace some feel while floating thousands of feet to the ground.

If you've ever punched out, give us a call. 800-989-8255 is the phone number. Email us: You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Jim Cross joins us from the studios at NPR West in Culver City, California. His book is called "Punching Out: Stories of High-Speed Ejections."

Nice to have you on the program today.

Mr. JAMES CROSS (Air Force Veteran; Author, "Punching Out: Stories of High-Speed Ejections"): Nice to be here. Thank you.

CONAN: And one of the striking themes in so many of those stories is that startling change from a cockpit of confusion and noise and danger to sudden peace when you're floating down in the parachute.

Mr. CROSS: Well, you may have jumped ahead there just a little, because before they get - the pilots who eject get any sense of peace or tranquility, they first have to face windblast four, 500 miles per hour and possibly an exploding aircraft all around them. There's quite a distance between pulling a lever and any peaceful feelings.

CONAN: The ejection itself is, well, unlike anything anybody has ever experienced, except for those few who've done it twice.

Mr. CROSS: Well, and there are a few. Dick Rutan has done it quite a few times. Jimmy Doolittle, before there were parachutes, bailed out several times.

CONAN: Before there were ejection seats. He had a parachute.

Mr. CROSS: I'm sorry, before ejection seats. And so we had to learn the hard way, after manual exiting of an aircraft, what it would take to eject somebody and design those seats.

CONAN: You have the story of pioneer American fighter pilot Raoul Lufbery, the inventor of the Lufbery Circle, who was training fighter pilots, including Eddie Rickenbacker, back in World War I. And his plane caught on fire and he jumped out, but he didn't have a parachute.

Mr. CROSS: Well, and that's where they were in the '20s and '30s, when this began. So the need for some sort of life-saving equipment was very pressing.

CONAN: Those - the thought in those days was if a pilot had a parachute, well, he wouldn't - he would use it too easily and not nurse an expensive aircraft down to the ground.

Mr. CROSS: Well, that kind of thinking led to not wearing parachutes and some sort of sense of bravado, but it only had one result: Pilots need parachutes.

CONAN: Pilots need parachutes. And, of course, once you got to high speeds, basically jet aircraft, the idea of just jumping out of the cockpit, well, that wasn't realistic anymore.

Mr. CROSS: Well, almost every one of those exits where people climb out of spinning, burning aircraft - that includes the first President Bush, during World War II - is an unbelievable set of unlikely events. The ejection seat is a scientific device. We can predict that that's going to work pretty well. But climbing out of an airplane, not so much.

CONAN: Not so much, particularly - obviously, if they're - and there are several categories of planes in trouble, obviously, if it's been riddled by gunfire, if it's a training accident. And, well, there's also all kinds of stories that you have about planes in grave difficulty landing on carrier decks.

Mr. CROSS: Well, there are many stories of pilots in distress, but it bears mentioning that all of these systems - the aircraft, ejection seats, all of it - has been tested by test pilots. And that's where they discover the problems and the dangers, and they try to fix it so that any man or woman fighter pilot who gets into that jet in combat can't go anywhere they haven't already been. They press it to the edge or go over. The test pilots have been there, and they have been there, and they have some understanding to pass along. And that's true in this case too.

CONAN: And we think of this as a male club. There's one story in your book about Lieutenant Linda Mahoney back in 1991.

Mr. CROSS: She got bruised and battered just like the guys, getting out of her emergency situation. And now we have quite a few women fighter pilots, not just test pilots. And so occasionally, that's going to happen.

CONAN: She said the search and rescue crew was a little startled when they realized she was a woman.

Mr. CROSS: There are certain places where people are still getting over it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: I can see that. Here's an email that we have. This is from Hans. What about Neil Armstrong? He punched out at least twice.

Mr. CROSS: Well, he did. And one of them, perhaps the most notable was from the looning land - lunar landing module. I'm not sure exactly what the official name was, but they had something like what landed on the moon out in the desert at Edwards Air Force Base for them to - the astronauts to practice on. And they had the wisdom, foresight to install an ejection seat or Neil Armstrong would not have made it to his Apollo launch. He had to eject from the lunar lander out into the desert, and he was able to do that.

CONAN: There are other stories. There are famous people. We mentioned John McCain. His story is not among those in this book, but there are famous pilots who have experienced this - well, this ultimate - it's not ultimate, but they did join an organization called The Caterpillar Club. Is that right?

Mr. CROSS: Well, that's a World War II organization founded by the preeminent maker of the ejection seats, Martin-Baker, United Kingdom, and it was such an unusual phenomenon when it first began. People would bail out of a plane before an ejection seat and use the silk of a parachute to save their lives - that they called it The Caterpillar Club. They still do.

And I think the most impressive part of all of this ejection story research is that they now have over seven or 8,000 lives that have been saved by ejection seats.

CONAN: Seven or 8,000 lives. And I think people don't understand quite how they work. They think that somehow they have sprung out of the seat. There is a rocket that fires you out of the seat.

Mr. CROSS: Actually, it's worse than that. The rockets are not sufficient to -in the process of igniting and powering up to get a man out of the cockpit in time. They tried that quite a bit, tried everything under the sun. But what they found worked, I guess to their horror, was an explosive charge. Nothing, except a small piece of dynamite or explosive underneath the pilot would get that seat up, out and moving fast enough for the rockets to even engage.

CONAN: So first, there is an explosive charge, then rockets.

Mr. CROSS: Yes. First, you explode up and out, and then, as the rockets are kicking in, they attempt to get you away from the problem that your aircraft has become.

CONAN: And then there has to be a separation. You don't want to float down with the seats you're in either.

Mr. CROSS: Well, that's all a beautifully choreographed set of scientific advances, one after the other. It took years and years of experimentation to reach that stage, where it predictably separates from the pilot and lets him parachute down. None of it was easy.

CONAN: None of it was - I just wanted to read an excerpt from Chuck Yeager's story, when he's talking about an ejection from a high-speed jet at considerable altitude back in 1963.

I went ahead and punched out. My pressure suit was inflated, a rocket charge underneath blew me and my seat straight up at 90 miles an hour. An automatic device unhooked my seatbelt and released a parachute ring from the seat. A seat butt kicker, another small charge, kicked me out and straight down. I began falling, picking up speed, tumbling headfirst toward Earth, and I saw the damned seat tumbling with me, somehow coming entangled in my chute lines.

There was still residual on the back of that seat from the rocket charge and my shroud lines began to smolder. Boy, I saw that clearly. The chute popped, jarring me, and I sweated those lines hadn't burn through. I had a quick sense of relief, though, because the popping chute dislodged the seat, then the seat smashed into my face. I got clobbered by the tube end of the rocket glowing red hot. So this is not always the easiest thing to do.

Mr. CROSS: I once knew an astronaut who said there's no such thing as a routine ride on a rocket. And that day, Yeager, and there's none better, was experimenting with a rocket-assisted fighter jet. And what's interesting about that particular story - and Yeager in general, who's kind of a lifelong idol -since I was a kid, he's been a hero - was that the movie "Right Stuff" was really what motivated me to do some television programs on test pilots and on ejection.

We're currently putting together a show called "Extreme Ejections." All of this was caused by my interest in "The Right Stuff."

CONAN: That movie ends with Chuck Yeager coming back from that incident described that I just read about. You put his story at the end of your book too.

Mr. CROSS: It is that very incident. And for me, it was not only a full circle but it was a great adventure to - as Tom Wolfe said, no one knew their names, but I had a chance to meet some.

CONAN: We're talking with James Cross about his collection of stories, "Punching Out: Stories of High-Speed Ejections." One of those essays is by William Weaver. He doesn't remember punching out. He blacked out. When he came around, he thought for sure he was dead. Of course, he wasn't. You can read his recollections from the day he ejected from an SR-71 Blackbird in an excerpt from "Punching Out" at our website. Go to, click on TALK OF THE NATION.

And this is TALK OF THE NATION coming to you from NPR News.

And let's get a caller on the line. This is James, James with us from Superior in Wisconsin.

JAMES (Caller): Hi. I'm a naval aviation veteran from the '60s. And when I was in the - I read a story in the naval aviation magazine about a navy pilot who was caught in a thunderstorm in the late '50s, early '60s in his F8U, and had to bail out at 30,000 feet, and that was before Raypack(ph) seat. They used to have a big shell that shot you out. And as he come out of the aircraft, his parachute was destroyed and he came down 30,000 feet without a parachute and landed in a tree and broke both his ankles, and has lived.

Mr. CROSS: That book is called "The Man Who Rode the Thunder," and...

JAMES: That story.

Mr. CROSS: And he was extremely well-trained Marine, who had prepared himself for any and everything, and he lived through - he fell through a thunderstorm and survived.

CONAN: Wow. James, thanks for that recollection. Appreciate it.

JAMES: You're welcome.

CONAN: Here's an email we have from Lisa: I'm in corporate communications at Goodrich Corporation, the only U.S. manufacturer of ejection seats. I'd wager we made most of the seats that are featured in the book. We're extremely proud to have saved the lives of so many aircrew here in the United States and elsewhere. You mentioned a company, a British company, that designed them. Does Goodrich make them?

Mr. CROSS: They do, indeed, and they have, for quite some time, excellent ones. They are called ACES II. I'm not sure what that acronym is for. It's a - but it's been a regular part of the Air Force inventory from a very long time. But in deference to Martin Baker and all the other players on this journey, there have been people everywhere from Saab in Sweden to South America and all throughout Europe that have contributed one step at a time to this building of knowledge, and that even includes the Russians, who are well-known, among other things, for excellent ejection seats. So we've all kind of pursued that same goal in different ways.

CONAN: Well, the stories of many pilots who punched out is in "Punching Out," stories of high-speed ejections. James Cross, thanks very much for your time today.

Mr. CROSS: Thank you.

CONAN: James Cross joined us from our bureau at NPR West in Culver City, California.

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