‘I Just Knew It Was All Over’

THIS IS A MODERN-DAY view of the crash site where parts of Hopkins’ plane were found this summer.

THIS IS A MODERN-DAY view of the crash site where parts of Hopkins’ plane were found this summer.

A TOURIST in Zion National Park captured this photo of the crash of Bob Hopkins’ F-111 in the park in 1973.

A TOURIST in Zion National Park captured this photo of the crash of Bob Hopkins’ F-111 in the park in 1973.

Veteran Recounts The Day His Plane Crashed In Utah

There’s a black smudge high up on the cliff above the visitor’s center in Zion National Park, Utah. That’s where my F-111 fighter bomber impacted after I ejected from it in July 1973.

I was an instructor pilot at Nellis AFB in Las Vegas, Nevada, where my wingman and I had taken off in a training mission with two pilots who were learning to fly the F-111. They had completed ground school and simulator training, but this was their first ride in the Mach 2.5, 40-ton AARDVARK. After takeoff, my wingman went to his designated training area and I went to mine. The weather was clear, and the terrain below was colored with red and white rock formations and cliffs.

On this first ride, I was to demonstrate the aircraft’s flight characteristics by varying airspeed, lowering the landing gear, flaps and slats, performing rolls and pulling the wings back. With the wings all the way back, the F-111 silhouette looks very much like a paper airplane.

Everything was normal up to 25 minutes into the flight when I noticed that we were approaching the northern edge of our training area. I took the controls back from the other pilot, who had previously flown the F-4 Phantom in Vietnam. He was an experienced pilot but not in the F-111.

I made a tight turn to head us back to the middle of our training area. Just as I rolled out of the turn, the windscreen in front of me broke into thousands of pieces the size of a thumbnail and raced toward me at 450 knots. Thank God I had my oxygen mask securely fastened and my visor down over my eyes, because without the protection they provided, the pieces of glass would have taken the skin off my face. I’m sure it would have been fatal.

The buffeting from the wind blast increased as the glass canopy hatches blew out. All I could hear was the roar of the wind. Pieces of glass had flown between my mask and visor and were rolling around my eyelids. I remember pulling the control stick straight back to gain altitude -- the maneuver pilots are taught to do if a bailout is probable. I opened my eyes for a moment to see if I could get a visual glimpse of the aircraft’s attitude and find out what had happened. In the brief time I could keep my eyes open, I saw shards of metal ripping off the top of the instrument panel and coming at me at neck level. This was the final straw in making my decision to eject. With my eyes closed, I reached for the yellow ejection handle, pulled and squeezed. Nothing happened - for 1/4, second that is. Then I began the ultimate ride of my life.

The F-111 has a unique ejection system -- the entire cockpit explodes away from the airplane and then a 25,000 pound thrust rocket engine ignites under the seat to lift the cockpit or escape capsule, as it’s called, away from the airplane. Once the capsule is clear, a 7-foot diameter parachute deploys and the pilot floats down, still in the seat with the instruments and radar scope, etc., but they were not connected to anything. The capsule is about the size of a VW Beetle and weighs over 2,000 pounds.

The ejection went perfectly. The rocket ignited and felt more like a hard push than a kick in the seat. The noise from the wind blast and rocket was deafening. My eyes were closed until I felt the capsule decelerating and heard the parachute make a gentle popping sound as it fully blossomed.

When I opened my eyes, the first thing I saw was the F-111 crashing into a cliff 5,000 feet below. I thought immediately about the loss of a $13-million airplane I was responsible for, and I was aware of the thorough questioning I would go through if I survived the day.

I next looked to my left and asked the other pilot if he was okay. He said, “I’m OK, but we’re in deep trouble now.”

I thought he was worried about the loss of the airplane, so I tried to calm him down by saying, “Don’t worry about the F-111. You’re in student status today, so if anybody gets in trouble for losing the airplane, it will be me.”

“I don’t give a damn about the airplane,” he said, “look below us.”

I leaned out of the capsule, and for the first time I saw the majestic rock formations of Zion National Park. It had deep canyons with rugged and colorful mesas. I relaxed a bit after seeing the gorgeous views and knowing that we had just survived a major accident and ejection. Suddenly I came to my senses; we had another emergency to endure. We were going to land among all these mesas and canyons.

Descending in an individual parachute, a person can steer the chute away from dangerous landing sites. We, however, could not. I imagined that the capsule would hit the edge of one of these massive rock formations and spill the air out of the parachute, so then we would fall the last 1,000 feet or so to the canyon floor. There was nothing we could do but wait and I began thinking this was the end.

In Vietnam, I had flown 303 combat missions in the F-100 fighter bomber and my aircraft had been hit by ground fire numerous times. During the 1968 Tet Offensive my base was partially overrun by the North Vietnamese. Another rime I had to land an F-100 without a nose landing gear and only a minute or two of fuel left. Through all of these things and a few others, I never thought I was going to die, but floating down in that capsule I just knew it was all over.

We finally hit. The impact was not severe but we immediately started to roll down a very steep, rocky slope. We were hunkered down inside our capsule and protected over our heads by a sort of roll bar. The capsule tumbled over and over and finally came to rest - upside down. The parachute was dragging behind us and had caught on something. Just then we heard a loud crack, and we started rolling down and embankment again. Finally, the capsule caught in something that held us and we climbed out.

The capsule was lying on its side with the spent rocket engine still smoking. Less than three minutes before, we had been flying a normal mission, and now we were in a small, lightly wooded canyon. The only sound was that of a nearby stream and some birds chirping about the invasion of there territory. We checked ourselves and then each other for injuries. Except for some minor cuts from the glass we were okay.

Soon my wingman in the other F-111 was circling overhead. We got out the survival emergency radio and called for assistance. About two hours later, a helicopter picked us up and took us back to Nellis AFB in Las Vegas.

My wife, Gladie, had been informed of the accident by my squadron commander in such a way that she never thought I was not okay. He called her on the phone and started with, “Hoppy will be a little late tonight because he’s got to walk home.”

Then he continued about the ejection part and sent the operations officer and his wife with a bottle of my favorite scotch to our house to be with Gladie untiol I got home.

A few days later the capsule was recovered and feather were found jammed in the spot where the windscreen had been fastened to the plane. The feathers were sent to the Smithsonian Institute where it was determined they were from a White Throated Swift - a bird whose average weight is 1 1/4 oz!

My plane was the fourth F-111 to be lost due to bird-strikes. The plane was designed to be flown at high speeds of 600 knots or more, at altitudes if 200 to 500 feet. This is also the altitude at which most birds like to fly. As a result of my accident, a new thicker windscreen was installed on every F-111. Since my accident occurred, there has never been another F-111 lost due to a birdstrike.

The News-Gazette

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