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Article: Jud, you're on fire!

Jud, you're on fire!

Sometimes the truth really is stranger than fiction!

It's June 21, 1963, and a routine ferry flight of a US Navy F-8 Crusader from California to Hawaii meets up with a KC-97 aerial refueler out over the Pacific to receive some additional fuel. 

KC-97 Stratotanker in flight refueling tanker
US Air Force KC-97 4-engine refueling aircraft in flight.

This was a normal operation as the F-8 Crusader did not carry enough fuel to make the flight from California to Hawaii, and these refueling flights had occurred many times in the past without incident.

Not this time.

Aerial Refueling

Aerial refueling was a new method of extending both the mission and ferry range of tactical aircraft which allowed them to be instantly deployable to distant bases on other continents.

The first air tankers were Boeing's KB29 and KB-50, both of which were modified heavy bombers. 

These first-generation tankers could not carry enough fuel for more than a few tactical aircraft per tanker sortie.

At this same period in aviation history, airlift had become a priority for the military after World War II. During the war airlift was provided by the Curtiss C-46 Commando and the Douglas C-47 Skytrain. 

The next generation of airlift aircraft like the Boeing C-97 Stratofreighter, Northrop's C-119 Flying Boxcar, and the C-123 Provider were being developed and likely the best aircraft to execute aerial refueling as it was no longer acceptable to modify the nation's bombers into tankers.

The requirements for increased internal fuel tankage capacity and a fuselage configuration that would work for refueling boom installation made the C-97A a logical choice for the second generation of aerial refueling tankers.

The refueling boom and operator's station were located in the rear of the aircraft and still is the standard for boom refueling.

Palletized Fuel Tanks in the cargo hold of a KC-97 in-flight refueling tanker.
Palletized Fuel Tanks in the cargo hold of a KC-97 in-flight refueling tanker.

Taking On Fuel 

Cliff Judkins was a Marine Lieutenant who was tasked in June of 1963 to ferry an F-8 Crusader from California to Hawaii.

Jud (as Cliff Judkins was fondly called) had reached the mid-way point between California and Hawaii in his thirsty F-8 Crusader in need of fuel.

Cruising along at 20,000 feet was a KC-97 tanker as the pair of F-8 Crusaders nudged their way into position behind the lumbering, deep-bellied refueling aircraft.

After a little maneuvering, Jud gets into position behind the KC-97 and connects with the trailing boom while matching his speed to that of the tanker in front of him.

This in-flight refueling process was necessary, and routine, because the F-8 could not hold enough fuel to make it non-stop from California to Hawaii.

In-flight refueling had become commonplace, and routine.

Soon after plugging into the tanker, Jud's fuel gauges stirred showing that all was well.

As the refueling operation began Jud was relaxed and comfortable, so he looked around at the huge KC-97 cruising along at 200 knots in front of him and the broken clouds far below him.

In his earphones, Jud heard Major Van Campen, the flight leader, talking to Major D.K. Tooker who was on a US Navy destroyer down below.

He had ejected from his F-8 Crusader the day before in the same area when his aircraft flamed out during aerial refueling. Everyone was trying to figure out what happened.

Everyone thought it must have been a freak accident because for sure it was not pilot error.

Shortly Jud receives a message from the tanker commander telling him "Eleven minutes to mandatory disconnect point."

Jud quickly checked his fuel gauges and everything appeared normal. His thoughts turned to the fact that in a few hours, they would be having dinner at the Kaneohe Officers Club on Oahu, followed by a short rest, and then continue the 6,000-mile trek to Atsugi, Japan via Midway and Wake islands.

"Nine minutes to mandatory disconnect" crackled through Jud's headset.

While the fuel gauges showed the tanks almost full, he noticed that his throttle lever was sticking a little, and that was unusual.

The Explosion

Suddenly he heard an explosion followed by the engine rpms falling and the tailpipe temperature falling.

Keying his mike button Jud announced, "This is Jud, I've got a flame-out!" Unfortunately, the aircraft radio was already dead and he could no longer send or receive anything via the aircraft radio.

Quickly Jud disconnected his aircraft from the tanker and nosed over into a shallow dive to gain some airspeed to restart the engine. He yanked the handle to extend the air-driven emergency generator hoping to get ignition for an air start.

The igniters clicked on, the rpms began to climb and the tailpipe temperature started to rise. Jud breathed a sigh of relief that everything was going to be alright until the rpm hung at 30% and refused to climb any further.

That was not enough power to maintain flying speed.

Then, the fire warning light comes on, and this is not a good sign! To make things worse, Jud notices jef fuel pouring over his canopy like heavy rain.

Suddenly his radio comes alive and a bunch of voices burst through Jud's headphones yelling "Jud, you're on fire, get out of there!"

Looking around his aircraft Jud noticed fire everywhere: from the engine intake, under the wings, and trailing behind an awesome trail of fire!

At first, Jud could not believe this was happening to him while his earphones were full of voices urging him to eject and abandon the aircraft.

The Fall

Reaching over his head Jud pulls down the canvas curtain that would start the ejection sequence waiting for the kick in the pants that would rocket him upward and away from the buring aircraft.

Nothing happened!

Jud then reached down between his legs and pulled the alternate ejection firing handle.

Nothing happened!

By now the F-8 Crusader was in a steep 60-degree dive, and for the first time, he felt panic coming. 

The watchers down below now began shouting "Ditch the plane! Ditch it in the ocean!"

I remembered that you can't ditch a jet and survive.

Now what?

That left Lt. Jud with only one alternative - manually jettison the canopy and try and jump from the aircraft without using the ejection seat.

Jud had been told that bailing out of a jet was almost impossible. Yes, you could get out of the aircraft but you are almost certain to strike the vertical stabilizer and kill you before falling free of the aircraft.

So, Jud disconnected the canopy by hand, and it disappeared over his head. 

Before bailing out Jud trimmed the aircraft for a slightly nose-high sidelong skid, then stood up, but both harms in front of his face, and was immediately sucked out of the airplane. 

F-8 Crusader falling towards the ocean while the pilot ejects from the aircraft.

As Jud tumbled outside the aircraft he expected to be cut in half... but, thank goodness, that did not happen! In an instant, Jud knew he was out of the aircraft and uninjured.

Jud waited to clear the aircraft and to slow down (remember, the aircraft was going 225 knots when he jumped out), pulled the D-ring on his chute, and braced for the opening shock.

Again, nothing happened! This was getting old!

The Journey To The Ocean

Jud looked up and saw that the pilot chute had opened, but the main, 24-foot parachute was just flapping in the breeze tangled in its shroud lines!

Jud tried frantically to get the main chute open without success. He descended rapidly toward the ocean, passing through the low clouds and straight into the ocean. 

Jud was traveling toward the ocean likely around 110 mph straight down.

The next thing Jud remembers is hearing a loud shrill high-pitched whistle that hurt his ears. Suddenly, he was very cold and realized he was still alive! 

His Mae West flotation device deployed and a sense of urgency gripped him. Jud thought there must be something he should be doing, but had no idea what.

Jud grabbed a small knife from his flight suit and cut himself free of the parachute package.

Free of the chute Jud began searching for his survival pack which should have been strapped to his hips, but it was gone.

The Rescue 

Ten minutes or so Jud heard the drone of a propeller-driven airplane as the KC-97 came into view flying very low. The crew dropped dye markers into the ocean around Jud and then dropped two life rafts (one quite a ways away and another much closer).

Immediately when Jud tried to swim toward the raft he experienced incredible pain and almost blacked out from the pain.

An hour or so later a Coast Guard amphibian aircraft came over him and dropped another raft, this one with a 200-oot lanyard attached to it.

Jud grabbed the lanyard, pulled himself to the side of the raft, and held on to it.

The Coast Guard aircraft gained altitude and flew off. The pilot of the Coast Guard aircraft new there were some minesweepers returning to the US from a tour of the Western Pacific nearby.

Even though the pilot of the Coast Guard aircraft couldn't tune to the radio frequency of the minesweepers he lowered a wire antenna from his aircraft and dragged it across the bow of the minesweeper USS Embattle.

The Captain figured out what this meant, veered off in Jud's direction, and 2 1/2 hours later found Jud floating in the ocean.

One of the sailors in a black rubber suit jumped into the water and swam to Jud.

The first thing he asked Jud was if he was injured, to which Jud replied "My legs and back."

Jud did not remember what happened next, but an hour or so later a man was bent over Jud asking him a lot of questions. It turns out he was a doctor who was high-lined from the USS Los Angeles, a cruiser that had been operating nearby.

(High-lined is when they move personnel from one ship to another, kind of like a zip-line.)

They placed Jud on a wire stretcher and hauled him over to the cruiser. There a medical team went to work on Jud where they found his left ankle was broken in five places, his right ankle was broken in three places, a tendon on his left foot was cut, his right pelvis was fractured, his number seven vertebra was fractured, and his left lung had collapsed.

There were also many cuts and bruises all over Jud's face and body.

The cruiser USS Los Angeles steamed towards a rendezvous with a helicopter 100 miles off the coast of Long Beach, CA.

After being hoisted off the fantail of the USS Los Angeles to the Marine helicopter Jud was taken to a hospital ship in Long Beach.

Soon the newspapers got word of this event, and Jud was featured on the front page:

Marine Pilot Falls 15,000 Feet and Survives Article
Marine Pilot Falls 15,000 Feet and Survives!

The Culprit

The cause of the flame-out of Jud and Tooker was the failure of an automatic cut-off switch in the refueling system.

When this switch failed it allowed the rubber fuel bladder to overfill and burst like a balloon, which then resulted in the fire and flameout.


Marine Lt. Cliff Judkins was especially lucky because four years earlier he was in a bad car accident, and as a result, his spleen had been removed.

The doctors told Jud that had he still had his spleen the impact with the water would have ruptured and he would have bled to death.

Six months later Lt. Judkins was back in the cockpit of the F-8 Crusader again.

When he left the Marine Corps he hired on as a pilot with Delta Airlines, retiring as a Captain from that position.

Sometimes the truth really is stranger than fiction!

I hope you enjoyed this trip through some of the history of aviation. If you enjoyed this trip, and are new to this newsletter, sign up to receive your own weekly newsletter here: Subscribe here:

Until next time, keep your eyes safe and focused on what's ahead of you, Hersch!


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