X-2 Sightings

I want to thank Bob Kempel for digging out this article, which sounds a bit familiar to a scene in the film Toward the Unknown!

LIFE Magazine
June 18, 1956
A chapter from the story 10,000 MEN TO A PLANE

The Deadly Parachute

At least 99% of the thuds and explosions and billows of smoke on the desert are the result of planned, normal exercises in which no one is hurt. But plane crashes do happen, usually to some obscure soul whose name means nothing when it appears in the newspaper on page 26 next to the item about the triple-yoke egg. Here is the story of one crash: The mission was an odd one. Because jet fighters land at high speed, many of them are equipped with drag parachutes to slow them down. The parachutes are opened after the plane's wheels touch the ground. But in this case, the intention was to open the drag parachute at an altitude of 20,000 feet, to see what would happen. If the plane could be suddenly slowed in mid-flight, it was thought, the maneuver might have some value in aerial combat.

A captain named Richard J. Harer was assigned to make the test in an F-94C, capable of flying 600 miles an hour. The plane was equipped with a manual release, so Harer could get rid of the parachute after the test. In the event that the manual release failed, Harer could get rid of the parachute by detonating a small explosive charge which was wired to the rope that secured the parachute to the plane. If both of these devices failed, Harer could still get rid of the parachute by going into a dive and maneuvering the parachute into the blast of flame from his afterburner. In sum, a thoughtful arrangement of affairs. Harer got into his plane and took it up to 20,000 feet, closely followed by a chase aircraft flown by another captain named Milburn Apt. Harer opened the parachute, began to tumble crazily across the sky and then—as far as anyone knows—must have tried the manual release. It failed. Then, because he was a cool, skillful pilot, Harer must kept his head and tried the explosive charge, although no one is sure what he did. In any case, the charge did not explode. By this time Harer was plummeting out of control toward the dry lake bed at perhaps 500 miles an hour, with Captain Apt flying right beside him shouting advice over the radio. Harer's plane continued down, wallowing, gyrating, the deadly parachute never quite getting into the flame of the afterburner. Harer crashed. His plane burst into flames.

Captain Apt landed on the lake bed at almost the instant of the crash. the two planes, one burning, one under control, skidded along beside each other. As soon as he came to a halt, Apt leaped out of his plane and ran over to Harer's. "It was nothing but fire," Apt remembers. "The only part of the plane I could see sticking out of the flames was the tip of the tail."

Apt dashed around to the other side of Harer's plane. Strangely, this side was not burning. Apt was able to climb up onto the plane and look through the Plexiglas canopy into the cockpit. It was filled with smoke, but he could see Harer inside, feebly, faintly moving his head. Apt grabbed the canopy release, a device on the outside of the plane designed for just such and emergency. It failed.

The dry lake bed has absolutely nothing on its surface except the fine-grained sand of which it is composed. No sticks, no stones, nothing that Apt might have picked up to smash the canopy. He tried to pry it off with his bare hands, an effort that, had it not been for the circumstances, would have been ludicrous. He smashed it with his fists and succeeded only in injuring himself. Meanwhile he could see Harer inside, the fire beginning to get to him now.

As Captain Apt smashed his fists on the canopy, a single jeep raced across the lake bed toward the plane at 70 miles an hour. Reaching the plane, the driver leaped out and ran over to it, carrying the only useful piece of equipment he had: a five-pound brass fire extinguisher, the size of a rolling pin. He could as well have tried to put out the fire by spitting on it. apt and the jeep driver shouted contradictory instructions at each other above the growing roar of the fire. The jeep driver emptied his extinguisher on the forward part of the plane, then handed the empty container to Apt. Apt raised it above his head and smashed it down on the canopy. It bounced off. He pounded the canopy again and again, as hard as he could, and each time the extinguisher bounced off. "It was like hitting a big spring, " he says forlornly. "I couldn't break it."

Meanwhile, 9,950 men on the base quietly pursued their jobs, unaware of the accident. The obstetrician said, "Come back Thursday, Mrs. Smith, "Robert Hawn worked on his YAPS, and Smith, Douglas S., changed a tire. The only immediate spectators, aside from Apt and the jeep driver, were the Joshua trees growing all along the edge of the lake bed, very old and mournful.

By this time Captain Harer's flesh was on fire. The jeep driver dashed back to his vehicle and returned with a five-gallon gasoline can. "My God." Apt thought. "No, no," the jeep driver cried, "it's full of water. It's all right.

Apt hefted the can, which weighed nearly 50 pounds. He raised it high in the air and smashed it down. The canopy cracked. Apt hit it again, opening a hole in it, letting out the smoke inside. In a few seconds he had broken a large jagged opening through which Harer could be pulled out. "It was a tough job," Apt says. "Harer was a very tall man." Was a tall man. Not is, but was.

"He's not tall now," Apt says. Both his feet were burned off." Captain Harer lived. Today, he gets around very well on his artificial feet. He has been promoted to major and will soon be honorably retired from the Air force with a pension. He has no memory whatever of the accident. He recalls flying at 20,000 feet and popping open the parachute, and his next memory is of awakening in a hospital two weeks later.

Half an hour after the crash, Apt was back in the air flying another mission, with a YAPS on his nose, his tires safely inflated and his plane flying beautifully because some good, responsible sergeant had worked on it. Below he could see the sprawling, wind-swept base and, noticing a particularly big puff of smoke on the desert, could wonder, "What the hell are they doing over there?"

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