One of my very closest friends and fellow fighter pilot Rick Ashler didn’t wake up one day to die, or to become a hero. Fortunately, he didn’t die, even though he came very close, but he did become a hero.
We were taught over and over that to stay with a crippled plane below 2000’ above ground level, trying to save either the plane or folks on the ground was a recipe for adding one to the body count. Even though this is a very good teaching and very true, fortunately for a school full of children, Rick defied that logic and stayed with his bird.
Flying the A7D Corsair, a single seat fighter, his aircraft began losing power on short final to land in Tucson Arizona as a result of a clogged oil filter to the one (and only) engine. Hoping to miss the school, he noticed the practice field for the University of Arizona just past Mansfield Junior High School and aimed his dying Corsair to this empty field in the middle of the UA Campus area.
I was sitting at the end of the runway in my A10A jet, waiting for this emergency aircraft to land. They always did, and I would then be able to take my student out for our practice mission. The huge red fire trucks and ambulances had responded moments earlier to Rick’s declaration of emergency. As we waited and watched, to our horror, we heard tower say that the plane had just crashed about 2 miles from the end of the runway.
Instantly, I saw the huge fireball of the plane. I remember hearing tower’s radio transmission and the subsequent one saying there was no chute. Meaning, no attempted ejection. Rick had initiated ejection so low, that his chute blossomed just as his feet were touching the ground. One one thousandth of a second later, or one foot per minute more descent, or a different wind, or anything, and, well, he wouldn’t have survived.
His descent came down so close to the fireball, that his boots had to be replaced due to the heat. Well, thank the Lord and his Guardian Angel, as we have stayed friends now going on 30+ years. Oh, and no telling how many young people were spared that day, as Rick had managed to man handle his jet and miss the junior high school by mere feet.
*****Rick Ashler still lives in Tucson and is a captain on Southwest Airlines, having retired from the USAF and the Arizona Air National Guard after flying both the A7D and the F16 Talon.