December 10, 2000 (by Wayne Specht) - Col. Michael Lepper, 35th Operations Group commander at Misawa Air Base, Japan, says training, technology, and a bit of luck helped him survive his ejection from a crippled F-16 over the Sea of Japan.
"It wasn't a ride at Disneyland, and not one I would want to get in line and do again," Col. Mike Lepper, commander of the 35th Operations Group, said of his Nov. 13 ejection over the Sea of Japan.
During Operation Keen Sword training exercises, Lepper's F-16CJ
Wild Weasel collided with another Misawa 14th Fighter Squadron F-16 piloted by Capt. Warren Sneed. Sneed was pronounced lost at sea.
"We were in a beautiful blue sky with clouds below us, ready to start our part in a defensive counter air cap (engagement)," said Lepper, 40. He was part of a four-ship formation, then paired off with Sneed as his wingman over the ocean.
Because the accident is still under investigation, Lepper could not speak specifically about the collision.
But the 19-year Air Force veteran said that following the accident, he quickly realized he was rapidly losing altitude in $23 million worth of high-tech metal.
"As best as I could tell, the airplane was significantly damaged," he said. He added that he lost engine power and control of the plane.
With the aircraft "getting fairly unstable," Lepper's thoughts turned to the ejection seat.
Lepper was strapped to an Advanced Concept Ejection Seat. Air Force safety officials said the 128-pound seat - equipped with a 21-pound rocket catapult - has a success rate of better than 90 percent.
"As a pilot there's always a concern that the ejection seat is great, as long as you can reach the handle while the airplane is under control," he said. "Control gives you reasonable assurance of a successful ejection."
If the jet is out of control, however, chances for a safe ejection diminish.
"It wasn't that I was out of control, it was I had no control; it's a subtle difference."
As he began reviewing the ejection process checklist, Lepper said things began to slow down, a phenomenon known to pilots as "time dilation."
"The body goes into that fight or flight ... it seems like I was riding in that airplane for minutes at a time, but you're thinking and moving as fast as you possibly can."
As he rode the rapidly plunging F-16 toward the clouds below him, Lepper made his decision.
Lepper pulled the ejection handle, launching a violent sequence of events, at about 10,000 or 11,000 feet.
His seat was launched along rails and propelled away from the aircraft so he wouldn't strike the stabilizer at the rear of the plane. The acceleration as the seat's solid-rocket propellant motor shot Lepper out of the cockpit was equivalent to 14 times the weight of gravity.
Another charge then was fired to keep the seat away from Lepper as air filled his parachute.
"Next thing I knew, I was under the 'chute," Lepper recalled. The riser cords connecting the parachute to his harness were slightly twisted; he quickly remedied that as he descended into the clouds.
"They were fairly thick for a few minutes, but as I came out at the bottom, I had some time to take a good look around me," he said.
"I remember the noise and the acceleration out of the aircraft," he said. "I was thrown out of the position I assumed for the ejection; my head and neck was thrown around a bit. It was a pretty traumatic experience."
No sign of other pilot
Lepper said he scanned Sea of Japan waters for boats and tried to determine where his F-16, or the one Sneed flew, had crashed into the sea.
He looked for another parachute, one belonging to Sneed. He didn't see one.
"There was a large island to my north, (Oshima Island) so I tried in vain to steer my parachute toward it," he said. "That didn't work."
Winds were strong, he said. "I thought the water would be cold. I would have given anything for some warmer gloves instead of the leather ones I was wearing," he said.
Water temperatures were between 50 and 55 degrees, Lepper said.
After getting out of the parachute, Lepper pulled his partially inflated life raft to his side.
He said it took several minutes to get into the tiny raft while bobbing in seas he described as moderate.
Fortunately, he had completed life-raft training just three months earlier at Misawa's indoor swimming pool.
"It wasn't graceful, but it all came back to me," he said of getting into the lift raft. "There were no breakers ... just swells between 5 and 9 feet."
Training was crucial
Two weeks before the accident, Misawa pilots began wearing anti-exposure suits, which are mandatory when ocean temperatures dip below 60 degrees.
"Initially the water didn't feel that cold," Lepper said. "The suit kept me dry for a while, then I started getting damp inside. My initial feel was this is survivable."
Because of limited space in the raft, Lepper threw his helmet into the sea. He put on a rubber head cap from one of his two survival kits.
Replacing his leather gloves for rubber ones presented a problem.
"Survival gloves in the kit, although marked extra large, didn't fit me; that's something we'll be taking a look at," he said.
He also took out a VHF survival radio and called for aircraft on the international military survival frequency.
"Initially, I didn't get a response," Lepper said. About 20 minutes after he ejected, Lepper saw an F-16 circling at low altitude.
"He was pointed directly at me about a mile away. I thought he had to see me."
But Capt. Tony Forkner, the F-16 pilot, told others on the rescue frequency he didn't see any survivors.
"I remedied that by popping a smoke flare, and he came back on the radio saying he saw the smoke," Lepper said. "That was very comforting."
Forkner loitered in Lepper's vicinity for another 90 minutes but had to return to Misawa because of low fuel.
"Forkner did one of the best rescue ... jobs any of us ever heard of," Lepper said.
By then, Navy aircraft launched from the USS Kitty Hawk battle group, about 100 miles away, were keeping an eye on Lepper. So were Japanese Air and Maritime Self-Defense Forces aircraft and ships, about 30 in all.
As he bobbed on the sea awaiting rescue, Lepper said, he assessed his situation, checking for broken bones. He also had to bail water out of the raft from time to time.
"I looked for an orange-and-white parachute, or anything else on the water, that might be Captain Sneed's. There was nothing," he said.
Lepper helped rescue crews pinpoint his location using a $198 off-the-shelf Garmin global positioning satellite locator carried by all Misawa pilots.
About 90 minutes after the ejection, a Japan Air Self-Defense Force UH-60J helicopter from Chitose Air Base on Hokkaido reached Lepper's life raft.
Master Sgt. Seiji Kumahara and Staff Sgt. Kazuhiro Nakao jumped from the helicopter into the water and swam to Lepper's raft.
"I couldn't keep my teeth from chattering," Lepper said. "I was in a trembling stage; a good sign since it says your body was still responding to the cold."
After the Japanese rescue team checked Lepper, he was hoisted into the helicopter and transported to the Misawa flightline.
En route, Lepper was asked to spell his name to rescue-center dispatchers on the radio.
"They're never sure who has been rescued until they hear that person's voice. They needed confirmation it was me," he said.
On the flight line, he was met by Maj. Gen. Kanji Ueda, commander of JASDF's 3rd Air Wing; Misawa's 35th Support Group commander Col. Vic Vaccaro; and medical technicians from the base hospital.
Lepper's wife, Jo, who was accompanied by Sandy Utterback, wife of 35th Fighter Wing commander Brig. Gen. Chip Utterback, met her husband for an emotional reunion.
"She was crying and saying she loved me," he said.
After an extensive check-up, x-rays, "and more blood samples then I ever had taken from me," Lepper was discharged from Misawa's base hospital that same day.
He suffered only a sore neck, which lasted only two days.
Lepper lauds Misawa's life-support technicians, "crew chiefs that help strap me in everytime I fly," and the continuous Air Force training that prepared him for the ejection.
Nine days after the incident, Lepper was cleared to return to the F-16 and he flew a routine training mission.
Lepper says he was blessed with more than just luck.
"I would not have changed a thing I did; it was a testament to the seat and to all my life-support training," he said. "I have my faith, and I believe there's more than just luck out there ... technology is part of it, too. You kind of make your own luck, but we take luck out of the equation, and put training in its place."