Imagine you're Don Tooker in the cockpit of a supersonic F-8 Crusader jet fighter en route from El Toro Marine Corps Air Station to Hawaii, the first leg of a transpacific flight to Japan. In a disastrous refueling attempt, the main fuel cell is overfilled and bursts at 20,000 feet, causing a flameout. When you try to restart the engine, the fuel pouring out of the tailpipe ignites. Now your plane is on fire and spinning violently, leaving a trail of burning jet fuel a mile long.
So you eject through the burning fuel, and parachute toward the ocean as you watch your $2 million jet disintegrate. You've got second-degree burns on your arms and knees, but things only get worse once you plunge into the Pacific: The sky is too overcast for an aerial rescue search and you're 760 miles from land. You discover that your one-man life raft has a small hole in it, but it doesn't really matter because 15-foot swells keep overturning it. The water is 62 degrees, and hypothermia is in your immediate future. That, or a date with the gray sharks that are beginning to nudge your raft.
But after two hours, you're plucked out of the water by sailors from a U.S. Navy destroyer escort. It is the only ship within hundreds of miles, a vessel that had no radio contact with the plane and only by chance had a lookout who spotted your empty helmet bag floating in the water and then a smudge of smoke on the horizon from the downed jet.
Retired Marine Corps Lt. Col. Don Tooker, now living in Orange, Calif., was one lucky pilot on that June day in 1963. "I would say I was more than lucky," said Tooker, 73, who recounts his brush with death in his book "The Second Luckiest Pilot: Adventures in Military Aviation" (Naval Institute Press).
Tooker, who received his wings and commission as a second lieutenant in 1947 and later flew 133 combat missions over Korea with a Marine Corps fighter squadron, has tapped not only his own 50 years of flying experiences but those of his pilot friends to create what novelist Clive Cussler calls, "The story of men who rose to heroism in the air, and then to something greater. 'The Second Luckiest Pilot' takes its place alongside the great classic stories of air combat, its men and its aircraft."
Bravery and beyond
The 14 true stories range from that of Ensign Jesse Brown, America's first black naval aviator, who died after being shot down near the Chosin Reservoir in Korea to Tooker's 1947 coast-to-coast trip in a dilapidated 1937 Piper Cub.
Aviation cadet John "Iwo Jima" MacSweeny, who fell out of an N2S Stearman open-cockpit biplane during a full, slow roll. (The cuff of his right glove accidentally caught and released the safety-belt toggle.) By the time MacSweeny got his parachute open, he was only a half-second away from plowing into a snowdrift. Still, he walked away from what had been his first time in an airplane.
Capt. Ken Reusser, who in a plan to destroy the Japanese reconnaissance plane that was photographing exact locations of U.S. ships for kamikazes to sink, had to fly between 30,000 and 35,000 feet. In the intense cold of that altitude, the guns on the fighter froze, so Reusser and his wingman, 1st Lt. Bob Klingman, used the huge four-bladed props on their Corsair to rip through the recon plane's tail.
2nd Lt. Dean Macho, a Marine Corps fighter pilot who went down three days in a row during the Korean War. First his Corsair was shot down while on a combat mission and he was rescued behind enemy lines by a two-man helicopter. The next day, Macho had engine failure and successfully managed a powerless, wheels-up landing in friendly territory. On the third day, Macho was again shot down in almost the same location as the first day. Incredibly, the same helicopter rescue team picked him up.
"Flying, particularly military flying, is a dangerous profession in which Lady Luck teaches over and over that unpredictable factors can kill the best and the worst pilots with terrible impartiality," said Tooker. But as his book's title indicates, Tooker wasn't the luckiest pilot in the world with his one-in-a-million rescue in the Pacific.
Living to tell about it
Even luckier was his squadron mate, 1st Lt. Cliff Judkins, who also experienced a flameout while refueling at almost the exact same spot as Tooker. Only in Judkins' case, his ejection seat didn't work and he had to bail out. Then his parachute failed. And, with only his tiny pilot chute, which is designed to help open the main chute, he fell 15,000 feet, hitting the ocean at what was estimated to be at least 115 mph.
Judkins, according to Tooker, fell farther without an unopened parachute than anyone in aviation history and lived to tell the tale. The fillings in his teeth were knocked out upon impact and, had his spleen not been removed years earlier, it would almost certainly have ruptured and he'd have bled to death internally.
Severely injured, he was rescued in a cloud-free circle 10 to 15 miles in diameter the only clear area for hundreds of miles, Tooker writes. "He's the luckiest pilot and I'm the second," said Tooker. "Nobody believed that he could be living. It was headlines in the Long Beach (Calif.) paper: 'Pilot Falls 15,000 Feet With an Unopened Parachute and Lives.' "
Fame and fortune
Tooker wrote Judkins' story after returning to El Toro to recover from his burns. Three weeks after sending the story to True magazine, he got a check for $1,000, which, he recalls, was a lot of money at the time. He wrote a draft of his own story while on the transport aircraft going overseas to rejoin his squadron, but he couldn't think of a title or an ending for four more years.
"I knew I was lucky, but I wasn't in the same category as Judkins," he said. He was telling his story to a TWA pilot while on a commercial flight in 1967 when the pilot said, "My God, you're lucky, but I guess you're the second luckiest."
That, Tooker said, gave him the ending to his own story, which he retitled "I'm the Second Luckiest Pilot Alive" and sent to Reader's Digest. Ten days later, he received a telegram saying he had won the magazine's "First Person Award" and that a check for $3,000 would be forthcoming.
"I thought this writing is no sweat: You just send them in and they send the checks back. Two out of two," recalled Tooker. But then, he wryly added, "there was a 20-year drought." After all, "it's hard to find material as good as jumping out of an airplane with a chute that doesn't open or to be rescued 700 miles out to sea."
Tooker resumed writing in the late 1980s, selling stories to Skindiver magazine, Air Classics and other naval aviation publications. An editor at the Foundation, a magazine published by the Naval Aviation Museum in Pensacola, Fla., which originally published nine of his stories, suggested Tooker compile them into a book, using his experiences and those of his friends as the thread of continuity.