There was nothing more I could do. Without power I could not dive to a lower level where it would be
safer to eject. Nor could I stay with the plane much longer for it might stall and fall into a spin. But no
one. so far as I knew, had ever ejected at this altitude, at any speed. supersonic or sub-sonic. with or
without a pressure suit or some protective clothing. The temperature outside was 20°C below zero
and I was wearing only a summer weight flying suit, gloves, helmet and Marine Corps field shoes,
Perhaps I could survive frostbite without permanent injury, but what about decompression ? I was almost
15 kilometers up, where the air is so thin that the blood in a man's body, lacking the shield of a pressure
suit, could literally come to a boil.
And how about those dark. massive, rolling thunderclouds below ? If there was one thing I had learnt
in light training it was to avoid thunderstorms. I vividly recalled flying through one several years before;
the turbulence was so violent that it flipped the plane over on its hack and I had barely managed to regain
control. If thunderstorms were so dangerous for an airplane in flight, what would one do to a mere man ?
Still, there was no choice, I gripped the ejection curtain handles and pulled-hard. The nylon curtain which
protected the pilot's face from wind blast during ejection came down before my eyes. Then I heard and
felt the ejection-seat fire, a tremendous kick in the rear. As I shot up and out of the plane. I wall-like blast
of air hit me. The coldness of the air, as I hurtled through it at 800 kilometers per hour, was shocking. My
face neck, wrists, hands and ankles, felt as if they were on fire. Then, seconds later, they became numb.
At the same time I felt the almost unbearable pain of decompression. My whole body seemed to swell up
and felt as though it was about to burst. I had never known such savage pain.
Strangely there was no immediate sensation of falling, only of zooming through the air spinning like
a top. my limbs trying to go in every possible direction at once. Brilliant colors rotated against a purple
background: the sun swept past in streaks of blurred reddish-orange. After a while I felt a surge of hope.
In spite of everything. I was still conscious! Hang on. I thought. You, might come through yet. I was in a
free fall. which I knew must continue until my parachute opened automatically at 3200 meters. Now what
was that beating against my face? My oxygen mask. I had just left an airplane where I had relied entirely
on oxygen. I would soon need more to avoid unconsciousness, possible serious brain damage. But my
body was spread eagled and the 'g' forces of gravity were so great that I could not move my arms to get
Suddenly, as I entered a dense hank of grey and white clouds I was able to pull in my hands. I grabbed
the oxygen mask and held it to my face. Connected with an emergency oxygen bottle in my parachute
pack. it would give me a three-to-live minute supply. I was feeling a little better. By remaining conscious
I told myself. I would be able to report in detail what had happened. It would be good news for high-altitude aviators: we can survive decompression at extreme altitudes. Something was streaming down my
face and freezing, Taking my right hand away from the mask I saw it was covered with blood.
The clouds were darker now. I looked at my watch-and all my confidence in survival vanished. The
dial was barely visible, but it seemed to show four or five minutes after six o'clock. I knew I had left the airplane at exactly 6.00 p.m, at approximately 15000 meters. I was now falling about 3200 meters per
minute. Why hadn't my chute opened ? Had I fallen past the 3000 meter mark ? In this blind overcast of
cloud, I might be only a few hundred meters from crashing into the ground.
I felt a tremendous desire to open my chute. Just then, however, my confidence was somewhat
restored. I realized that I was being pelted by hailstones. What was the freezing level for rain ? Must be
3000 meters or more. Good. Keep on free falling. Suddenly my body lurched violently. My chute had
opened by itself. I made a rough calculation. I should be down in about ten minutes. I took off the oxygen
mask. It was all over now. I thought: the ordeal had ended. But it had not. I was about to enter the centre
of the thunderstorm. With incredible suddenness and fury, a massive blast of air jarred me from head
to toe. It sent me soaring up and up and up. Falling again, I saw that I was in an angry ocean of boiling
clouds, spilling over one another. I was buffeted in all directions-up, down. sideways. over and over. I was
stretched, slammed and pounded.