40 years ago, I was involved in the crash of a 2 seat CF-5 attempting a landing on a snowy runway. My instructor in the front seat was severely injured, I luckily walked away without a scratch. The life lessons that I took from that accident helped shape my life and flying career for the many decades after. I learned how ‘good judgement comes from experience, and a lot of that comes from bad judgment’. I learned about Crew Resource Management and how everyone gets a say in decisions regardless of their experience level. I saw how Elasticity came to help save us though often said in Hollywood terms about ‘Ice running through their veins’. The value of ‘Sets and Reps’, getting extra simulator time and practice is crucial. When something life threatening happens, getting back in the saddle as soon as possible gets us past self-doubt and messing with our minds. Finally, as a young fighter pilot, I was reminded that we only get one life and not to waste it. All those lessons from a single crash landing. Invaluable yet sadly very expensive at the cost of a $Million fighter jet.
The Shortest F-5 Landing Ever
The nose of the jet slammed down on the runway, not on the nose wheel, it had been sheared off, but all the way down on the broken nose. Mark Leeson’s helmet slumped forward against the instrument panel. He later told me that he was just waiting to die. It was my first indication of where we were on the runway, the snow-covered side. I didn’t have time to process how that had happened before the airplane left back in the air, yawed to the right and I was looking out to my left as we were heading down the snow-covered runway surface. Mark might have been ready to die but I wasn’t. We weren’t going straight and in two simultaneous movements, I reached out and pulled the drag chute handle while kicking full left rudder with my foot to straighten us out. For years, I would tell people that this is how I straightened out the jet. In reality, the jet crashed back down on the runway shearing off the left main landing gear, all three external fuel tanks, the luggage pod made from an old Napalm can and the right main gear. The side shear force that wiped off the bottom of the jet probably helped straighten us out more than my actions. Regardless of how, the jet settled down on the snow.
I don’t remember the entire slide of 1600 ft from the initial touchdown until the jet came to a stop on the left side of the runway. But we did come to a stop. I was locked in my harness and still in one piece. I opened the canopy. There’s a mnemonic that we learned in pilot training to unstrap from a cockpit and egress quickly. “Oxygen 1-2-3, Lap Belt, Lanyard, QRB.” It’s to help remind us of the connections to undo from our oxygen mask and harness to be able to get out of the ejection seat. Say it fast; I went through all the steps and out of the harness before I could finish saying it all. I went to step out of the jet and instead of walking down a ladder, I simply stepped over the side… the landing gear was gone, and we were at ground height. I stepped out into the snow, wet rain, water, and JP-4 fuel. The entire area was flooded with fuel and the jet engines were still running. I knew we were about to explode.
By this time, Mark had sat up; he was not dead after all. I reached around his cockpit to access the engines to shut them off, but the throttle quadrant was gone. It was just a matter of time until the running engines with the heat of the exhaust was going to ignite all that fuel. Mark had taken an assessment of his situation. Both of his legs were pinned by the metal of the nose section that had crushed around his legs. His forehead and nose were bleeding from being slammed into the instrument panel on initial impact. Mark reached down with two hands, grabbed each side of his winter flying boot and pulled his right foot up and out of the metal jam. The boot now sat on top of the cockpit side panel except his knee was not high up in the air as if logically would have been. His lower leg was broken into separate places and the knee set low as the two broken pieces zigzag and shattered.
I could not dig the other leg out. There was metal all around it and pinned the leg in. I cannot remember the time duration but eventually all the water snuffed out the engines. And we waited and waited and waited for the firefighters to come.
December 22nd, 1983, flying from Wurtsmith Air Force Base (AFB), Michigan to Westover Air Base in Springfield Massachusetts, Captain Mark Leeson, a US Air Force exchange instructor pilot on 419 Tactical Fighter Training Squadron based in Cold Lake, Alberta in the front cockpit and myself, then a young Lieutenant soon-to-be fighter pilot, crashed a two-seat CF-5 fighter landing on a snowy runway. We had left Canadian Forces Base Cold Lake a day prior, flew two flights working our way towards Hartford Connecticut, where my parents lived. I was planning to spend Christmas with them. My girlfriend at the time had flown from western Canada to Ottawa, was picked up by my mother and they were driving down to Connecticut together so that we could all spend the holidays in Connecticut. The plan went all bad…quickly.
Mark and I had spent the prior night with a friend of his at Wurtsmith AFB, had supper, drank some beers, and got to bed expecting to complete a couple of flights the next day. Mark was the instructor; I was a qualified pilot, almost finished on the CF-5 fighter pilot training course. An instructor with a lot of experience in the US F-5E fighters and now the CF-5, he was flying, and I sat in the back seat as a co-pilot but really still treated as a student.
Bad East Coast storms happen often in winter. Lake Effect storms crush states and provinces close to the Great Lakes; this was one of those storms. When we got up on the 22nd of December and went to the weather office on base at Wurtsmith, we had a lot of work to do to find a suitable place to land near my parents’ home. By any measure, none of the weather forecasts were acceptable. Most of the airfields were closed due to the snow accumulation overnight. Worse, the snow had transitioned to rain which would have turned it into cement making snow removal on runways nearly impossible for the time frame that we needed. Westover Air Force Base was the single exception that seemed legal, and we could justify having a legal alternate airfield per the rules. Ultimately, it was discovered that was not true.
I called the Base Operations Office at Westover Reserve AFB and told them who we were, what we needed for gas and what time we were going to arrive based on Greenwich Mean Time, the universal time measure in aviation. I was going to be dropped off by Mark who would then refuel and carry on to a base in Canada to spend the holidays with a girlfriend. We would rendezvous in the New Year in Canada for our return trip to Cold Lake. We expected to arrive at 1500 hours local time, and I gave the Operations Officer that time in Greenwich Mean Time. The flight to Westover was unremarkable and we were vectored for an instrument approach. I could not see forward from the back seat. I had laid a gym bag of clothing between the cockpits. Illogical now, but all legal by Canadian Air Force rules. What it meant was that I was blind looking out the front of the CF-5. Mark flew the approach, but we were told to go around before being given landing clearance because there were snowplows on the runway. The snowplows had cleared only the left half of the 200-foot wide, 11,500-foot-long runway; the right half was still full of snow. Directions were given by air traffic control to set up for another approach, snowplows would be clear of the runway this time, and we would land. Mark and I did not discuss the plan. He was the instructor and was flying. I was still considered a student in his mind and just along for the ride. We should have discussed his plan. We lined up for the second approach, me still blind in the backseat. The point in time when I realized what his plan had been was the instant when the nose gear was ripped off by the heavy snow and we crashed down on the runway.
Mark had grown up in the south of the US and his flying experience had come from flying F-4s in the Philippines and later AT-38s and F-5E’s in the south of the United States in New Mexico. He had zero experience in snow. Mark had thought that he would land in the snow, roll out and migrate to the cleared, open wet pavement as the jet slowed down. He had no sense of the consistency of the thick snow, turned cement by the rain and the barrier of wind rows that were left by the snowplows built over each pass as they went down the runway. The plan failed, and that first wind row sliced off the nose gear. After that, the jet plowed through the heavy snow and sheared off the other landing gear, external fuel tanks and luggage pod. I recall Mark saying before landing that he didn’t want to use the drag chute since we only had one left and wanted to let the jet roll out along the long runway. Maybe that contributed to his thinking about where to land in the snow.
Why were the snowplows so late clearing the runway? When I told the Westover Base Operations Officer to confirm Greenwich Mean Time for his local time conversion, he took out a publication from their library at Base Operations. It turns out that the publication was out of date, giving the Greenwich Mean Time 1 hour later based on Daylight Savings Time of the summer months, not December. He had sent the snowplows out 1 hour late which is why they weren’t finished plowing when we arrived for our first attempt to land.
It took an eternity for the fire trucks to reach us. Westover Air Force Base is a US Air Force Reserve Base supporting Air Force cargo planes. Activity there is infrequent, and they are certainly not be prepared for this kind of accident response. I swear it took 15 minutes for them to get to us even if the time was really 5 minutes; it certainly wasn’t quick.
When the fire crews arrived and tried to assess how to get Mark out of the jet, they realized the ‘Jaws of Life’ were needed to move the metal. Before even neutralizing the fuel that we were all standing in, one of the firefighters tried to start up the machine, essentially a chainsaw with arms to push metal apart. I realized what was happening in screamed at them to stop. The first spark was going to ignite the fuel and kill everyone. The crew managed to pivot, foam the area, and neutralize the fuel.
It was clear that it would take time for the firefighters to extricate Mark. I had an official drive me from the crash site to their Base Operations building. I had phone calls to make. I instructed the Base personnel that no media or TV Crews were allowed to access the accident site. This was a Canadian Air Force jet and needed to be kept out of the news. As I would learn hours later, they ignored me. I called my father who was at work at Bradley Field in Hartford, Connecticut, an hour or so from Springfield and told him where to meet me at the hospital I was going to. I needed to give blood and urine samples, standard after an airplane accident, to prove that I had no drugs or alcohol in my system. I called back to our Squadron in Cold Lake and asked to speak to the Squadron Commander. I, the Lieutenant, asked the Lieutenant Colonel to sit down and then related what had happened. I don’t recall how I was transported to the local civilian hospital. They arranged for that testing needed and my father arrived at some point after Mark had been transported there. He had both legs broken and would need surgery. Ultimately, he would be transferred to a hospital near Boston for more surgery on the leg that he had pulled out immediately after the crash, the one broken in two places. After it was all done years later, his one leg would be one inch shorter than the other and he spent years with a metal 12-inch ruler bolted into his tibia to give it stability.
When I was released from the hospital, my father drove me back to my parents’ house. He had some bottles of Yukon Jack Whiskey in the car, the little bottles you see in airlines and what he and his crews carried for their passengers on the executive planes he flew. I opened one and sipped it. He told me to drink it all and gave me another and another. I finished three of them by the time we reached my parents’ home. This was not my father’s first aircraft accident. He had crashed an F-86 Sabre back when my mother was pregnant with me and there had been plenty of accidents of friends and colleagues over his long flying career. My mother and girlfriend arrived from their drive from Canada during this time frame. My father met them in the garage, told them what had happened and to go up, say hi and leave me alone until I had finished writing my ‘Witness Statement’. My mother was okay with it; my girlfriend freaked out.
At some point later, I finished writing my notes recalling what I believed had happened, we all ate something, and I settled down in the TV room with my father to get drunk and to get this out of my system as fighter pilots do. As the 10:00 local nightly news came on, the lead story was my crash including TV footage of the crash site. So much for my demand to quarantine the crash from the media. Reality hit me then what had happened.
After an accident, the Air Force assembles a team of experts to investigate the crash scene and to determine what happened. That team arrived in Springfield, Massachusetts on December 24th. In an unusual twist, my father and I were allowed to walk out to the crash site with them. The snow and rain of the accident had turned with the freezing temperatures and the runway was an ice rink. The shock of seeing aircraft parts disintegrated and spread all over the runway cut to the core. But there were some funny things to see. I had brought smoked salmon and huge prawns from a famous BC fish shop home for Christmas. As we walked the crash wreckage trajectory, prawns were laid along that path, frozen in the ice, kind of like the crumbs in the tale of Hansel and Gretel. Mark Leeson had packed a luggage pod full of Duty-free alcohol to take to his Christmas holiday. In the middle of the runway was a bottle of Baileys Irish Cream, upright, intact, frozen in the ice. Someone would eventually dig it out and Mark presented it later to the firefighters who had rescued him.
My parents, girlfriend and I went to a Christmas Eve church service that night down the road from my parents’ house. My father said that he had never heard anyone sing so loudly in church as me on Christmas Eve. I was glad to be alive.
The accident board finished up most of their investigation over the holidays and I returned to Canada on my own. Mark stayed for a long time recuperating in a Massachusetts hospital. I made an agreement with the fighter pilot member of the investigation team, Captain Jeff ‘Beck’ Beckett, to fly with him back to Cold Lake a week or so later, having him pick me up in Ottawa on his way from Bagotville to Cold Lake in a CF-5. He needed to fly to Cold Lake to debrief the results from the accident investigation. Beck landed in Ottawa early in January to pick me up. We planned to fly through Wurtsmith Air Force Base Michigan then on to Cold Lake. I remember going to the plane ready to hop in the back seat as a co-pilot. Beck said “No… you’re flying”. He forced me back in the saddle right away, no wallowing, self-doubt, or pity allowed. Mildly freaked out, I got us on our way. That first landing at Wurtsmith was a little unnerving but got the bugs out of my system. Things got calmer over the next two flights to Cold Lake. Being pushed back in the saddle worked.
How did it all end? I finished that fighter pilot training course in early January 1984 and started immediately on the first CF-18 training course with pilots who would be my squadron mates in the first Canadian operational CF-18 squadron. We would go on to accomplish many firsts for the Hornet world in Canada and overseas based in Germany. That date stuck with me forever. My first son Bret was born 10 years later almost to the day which is another reason why I could never forget my accident.
Mark Lesson eventually recovered enough from his injuries to regain his flying status in Canada on the CF-5. When he returned to the US Air Force, he flew the F-15 and later the F-117. His flying days came to an end when he was caught water skiing naked on a lake in Nevada which apparently was not allowed. Many years later, when I was a CF-18 Squadron Commander flying at Nellis AFB, Nevada, we would come across each other at the Officers Club bar and catch up on life.
I reflect often over the 40 years since about the accident from my side and how it validated and changed how I have lived my life.
Good Judgement comes from experience, and a lot of that comes from bad judgment.
In spite of some of the best training, we make bad decisions that have severe consequences. And from that, if we live, we become wiser moving forward. That was certainly the case with the decision to attempt a landing into wet snow vice rolling out on the half-cleared runway. Yes, the Base authorities had sent the snow plows out an hour late, but the accident was ultimately caused by Mark’s thinking that he could touchdown on the snowy side and roll out onto the plowed area. I learned about ensuring each time I landed as much about the runway conditions that I would face: wet, crosswind, flat or rolling surface, and so much more. Did I gain judgment from that accident? I certainly learned from the accident flying T-33s throughout Europe on my first tour when I was dual qualified in the CF-18 / T-33 and having to land on very short, narrow wet runways. I most certainly applied more thought when flying F-16 Block 60s throughout India later in life as a Lockheed Martin test pilot during our campaign there. Would I have been as wise had I not been in a landing crash? Perhaps not, although it certainly was a very expensive lesson to learn wiping out a $Million-dollar fighter jet.
Crew Resource Management
I grew up the son of the ‘Great Santini’, the character from Tim Conroy’s book of the same name. Santini was a hard drinking US Marine Corps Lieutenant Colonel fighter pilot who was incredibly abusive to his wife and children while being ruckus and loved by his fellow pilots. My father was the Canadian version of the Great Santini from that story. Absolute authority, I grew up never challenging the perceived rule of law or questioning anyone with more experience or higher in the pecking order than I. I didn’t prompt the discussion while flying downwind on the approach about how Mark was planning to manage the landing with only one half cleared of snow. That Canadian-accepted storage area in between cockpits allowing my gym bag to completely block my forward view prevented me from seeing what was about to happen. Regardless, I should have spoken up, got Mark talking about his plan and then would have dissuaded him and convinced him to land in the clear area. I forever lost my absolute trust in authority or hierarchy. I learned that my experience and judgment always have a place in any decision. Gone forever was a lifetime of blanket deference to authority.
Elasticity – ‘Ice running through their veins’
My reaction when the jet touched down on the runway and twisted sideways leading to pulling the drag chute and booting left right rudder was instinct. However, the actions were also a product of the extra flying time that I had gathered to that point in my young flying career. My time flying T-33s before my CF-5 course, the extra flying ‘bagged’ during fighter pilot training accompanying the instructors to air shows at every chance possible collectively gave me much more experience. It is often said that fighter pilots have ‘Ice running through their veins’ with their cold, calculated execution during instances of extreme danger. I think that notion is all Hollywood and instead we react correctly because we have been exposed to conditions and environments that build up our ability to react under stress.
Sets and Reps
When the jet came to a stop and I egressed, completing the tasks to unstrap faster than I could say the mnemonic, I learned the value of practice. For the rest of my career, I always focused on practicing, flew extra simulators and was over-prepared. I lived the mantra of Sets and Reps. I reinforced a crucial life lesson that helped keep me alive over the next 40 years of flying fighters.
Get Back on the Horse – Crushing Demons
Jeff Beckett threw me into the front seat of his jet on my first flight after the accident. I didn’t have time to wallow in self-doubt and risk messing with my headspace. For the remainder of my days, each time I faced a massive setback in flying, I forced myself to climb back on the horse and get back in the saddle. Life and success are more often governed by our minds. Believing in our success and capability to succeed is the most powerful tool that we have.
We only get one life, don’t waste it
Finally, I was smart enough to appreciate how close to death we came that afternoon. Life is fleeting, our time on this Earth is short and we don’t get to live this existence twice. I don’t often pass on opportunities when they are offered by those things I see one time knowing I will never be back in that place. Even in the very disciplined and rigid world of fighter pilots and test flying, I knew to enjoy the great moments when they happened. I live experientially more often than I should.