IAF Magazine Articles

Airborne Alone

Recently, a young pilot in training was forced to abandon its "Efroni" (T-6A) aircraft. When a pilot is forced to abandon its aircraft, he is forced to also abandon the feelings, thoughts, and understandings that accumulated over time. The physical challenge of ejecting from the plane is often accompanied by a mental challenge, which persists long after the pilot safely parachuted onto the ground. How to deal with an aircraft that "betrayed" you? How to handle the "noises" coming out of the engine of the next plane? Apparently, there is more than one answer

Yael Harari | Photography: Lior Dayan | Translation: Nikolai Avrutov

 A few seconds left for takeoff. The pilot takes a deep breath to "feel" the plane. He is focused on the mission which he studied so well, and now he is ready to go to fulfil his duty. The aircraft gains speed, and the laws of physics pin him to his chair, as the plane becomes airborne. The pilot is thinking that if all goes well, the wheels are soon going to touch ground again.

All of a sudden, a blast is heard from one of the engines, and a worrisome smell fills up the cockpit. There is no room for mistakes now, and there is only a brief moment for the pilot to run the procedure through his mind. "Fire on board", sounds the leader's voice in the radio, and at this point there no choice left: he tilts the head back, and pulls the handle. Within seconds the pilot is in the air, parachuting down. At the corner of his eye, he can see his plane crashing down to the ground.

Last July, a flight cadet abandoned its "Efroni" (T-6A) aircraft, during her first solo flight. All "Efroni" planes were grounded after the accident, to allow for thorough investigation for the reason of the crash, so untypical for this stage of training.

The incident drew a lot of public attention to the importance of ejection option in aircrafts. The air force always regards it as a priority of top importance: every day, many flight hours are logged by the force, with numerous takeoffs and landings. The high level of activity means that something can go wrong at any time, prompting the pilot to eject (a last resort in case of emergency). "I am not familiar with a modern combat jet that is not equipped with an ejection seat", says Lieut. Col. Z, head of investigations unit at the quality and safety assurance board. "The bottom line is that once the pilot is airborne, the ejection seat is his only life insurance policy".

Five Blasts

It's the last moment before ejection. The fingers already grabbed the handle, and it is obvious that there is nothing else left to do, but the abandon the plane. With no room for additional contemplations, the decision has been made. Next time the pilot will have time to think again is after the parachute opens up. A self-investigation will cross his mind, the kind he was trained for at the flight academy: "did I do the right thing? Am I at fault?"

When Major G. abandoned his plane in 2000, he was at the advanced post-flight academy stages, flying the "Netz" (F-16A/B) only a few times before hand. "It was morning time, and we were flying in a formation with several tasks to complete while airborne", he recalls. "We reached the required training altitude, when all of a sudden I heard five strong blasts. I reported to the formation leader, while noticing that all jet's systems crashed. I attempted to restart the jet. On the second try, fire erupted".

"Abandon jet now", ordered the leader, when Major G. reached the lowest altitude, leaving no other options. "Without thinking twice, I pulled the handle. I felt a strong thrust, great noise and wind. For a moment, everything was blurred. And then the chute opened up, and I was quietly hanging up in the air. A few seconds later, I saw the plane explode as it hit the ground and I started thinking: did I act properly? Was I okay? What is going on?"

Major G., today a Bachelor student of Psychology and economics, and a pilot at the "First Combat" squadron in Hazor airbase, managed to quickly escape the persisting sense of guilt that so many who abandoned their aircraft experience. It's the same kind of feeling that come up when thinking of the worst scenarios possible: malfunctions, accidents, and loss of the plane. Since at the time, Major G. Was a young Cadet, he did not have a say in the decision making process. "I felt confident in my actions", he describes. "Obviously, there are doubts, and questions, but I was guided by the formation leader who made the choices together with me. I was regarded a young and inexperienced pilot. If the leader tells me to land - I land. He told me to abandon, so I abandoned.

As long as I am in one piece

It's been 10 years since Major G. Abandoned his plane. Many things have changed, and the IAF continues to improve the "pilot's insurance policy" - the ejection seat. The new technologies of modern aircraft complicated the task of ejection safe and possible. Another major development is in the psychological aspect of abandoning the plane. The Psychology department at the air force has dedicated a great deal of effort in understanding the coping process of the pilot and on the best course of action upon surviving the incident. In the past, it was considered imperative for the pilot to return to active duty with no delay. Today, an emphasis is placed on coping with the stress, involving the family, and advising pilot's commanders on further course of action while the pilot gradually returns to active duty.

"After the incident, I didn't talk about my feelings much", recalls Major G. "I did experience anxiety after the accident. But it was suppressed at the unit. There was pressure to demonstrate that ‘everything is OKAY'".

Major A. Ejected from his plane three years ago, when he was a young pilot at the "Flying Tiger" squadron. Following a successful exercise in Ashkelon area, the instruments warned of a malfunction. The formation leader instructed to fly towards the Hazor base. En route, Major A. Tried to apply everything he learned. After several ignition attempts, it became obvious that he will not make it to the base. "At that point, I realized that the base is too far, and the idea to eject crossed my mind", describes Major A. "And, as if the formation leader heard my thoughts, he said ‘fly west, we will eject above the sea'". The leader read to Major A. The protocol over the radio, making sure he follows all instructions to survive the incident in one piece. Strapped to the chair, chin up, head to the back "roger. Ejecting", replied Major A.

"After I recovered from the momentary blackout of the ejection, a beautiful pastoral landscape unravelled in front of my eyes", he describes. "Slowly parachuting down, the shores of Ashkelon stretch out beneath me. I take a deep breath and make sure that I am still in one piece and I am struggling to comprehend what just happened".

Major A. Landed into the sea, and was rescued by a helicopter of "The Rolling Sword" squadron. After a medical examination he was sent to a psychological check up. She gave him and his family the feeling that they are not alone, and that now there is a person that they can't take their feelings of anxiety to, should they come up. "It is very important that the pilot is informed about what feelings might come up, and that they are completely normal given the traumatic experience he survived", explains Orit Loriya, head of the Psychology department at the force. "We also advise the squadron commander on the recovery process, and how best to support the pilot. At times, the families react in a way that does not allow for quick return to active duty. Sayings like ‘this is a sign that you should stop flying' are common, and have an adverse effect on the pilot. We are doing everything we can to provide the necessary support and consult to help the families cope together with the pilot".

Airborne Again

After emergency ejection, it is extremely challenging to trust your life in the same aircraft. The same planes that accompanied the pilot since the flight academy appear to have turned their back on him. All of a sudden, they seem not as stable and reliable as they used to, and the entire perspective is changed. Studies have showed that 30%-40% of pilots, who experienced emergency ejection, are having a great difficulty becoming airborne again. "They put me back on active duty right away", describes Major G. "But I felt like I am flying under great pressure. I was less inclined to take risks, and in some ways it may even delayed my professional development. In general, I lacked confidence in the aircraft. It did not affect me in the long term though. Perhaps it made be a more careful pilot".

The department of Psychology at the force pointed out several common symptoms among pilots coping with ejection trauma: insomnia, increased heart rate during takeoff, and even "Solo Noises", when there is a fear the pilot might lose confidence in his senses. "After the accident, I was accompanied by the squadron commander on the first flights. Flying with a more experienced pilot, shifted some of the responsibility away. On the first couple of flights, I became acutely aware of the engine", recalls Major A. "During radio silence, I kept hearing suspicious noises and bothersome thoughts kept crossing my mind ‘did I hear the engine? Where will I go to if I have to make emergency landing?'".

A new perspective

"How are you dad? I am in Tel-Ha-Shomer hospital right now but everything is okay", tells Major A. to his father over the phone. "What happened? Is your cold worsened?", he asks. "No, I think I abandoned an airplane this morning". "You think?!" asks the father. "I mean, yes I abandoned, but I am still having a hard time processing it".

As the years go by, the absolute majority of those who ejected from a plane return to active duty. They learn to trust their planes again and they become airborne again. Major A. successfully returned to active duty, but in his own special way. Several months after the emergency eject, still a young cadet in the squadron, it's been decided that he is not suitable for combat flight. He was recommended to move to transport squadron. Major A. had another idea.

"I asked to be transferred to a helicopter squadron. I wanted to remain in combat duty, and I longed for the special team work", he tells. "I said I want to become part of the "Rolling Sword" squadron, the same one who's helicopter rescued me on the day I ejected from my plane". Today, following successful completion of the advanced flight course (again, but this time with helicopter specialization), he flies the same type of helicopters that rescued him in the sea on that day three years ago.

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