The World’s First Supersonic Ejection

In 1955, George Smith was 31 years old, unmarried, stood 6’1” and weighed 220 pounds.  It was a Saturday morning just like today.  He was off work and on his way to the grocery store, but he stopped by his office to drop off some flight test reports on some acceptance flights he performed earlier in the week.  The North American Aviation dispatcher, Bob Gallahue, saw George walking to his car in the parking lot.  He called out to George and asked if he would perform an acceptance flight for an F-100A in need of delivery to the Air Force.

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Smith agreed to the flight.

He pulled his flightsuit on over his jeans, grabbed his helmet and headed to the flight line.  Soon after, Smith found himself sitting in the Super Sabre at Los Angeles International, where North American Aviation, Inc. was located.

During the preflight checks, Smith noticed the stick forces fore and aft for pitch control seemed a little stiff or sluggish.  He made note of it and did not believe the problem to be serious.  Moments later, during this takeoff roll at rotation, Smith really noticed the nose heaviness of the aircraft.

He continued on to altitude busting through a layer at 8000 feet rocketing into the sky over the Pacific.  At FL 350, he and the Super Sabre approached Mach 1.  At 37,000 feet, the jet suddenly pitched over and started racing to the sea faster than the speed of sound.

Smith knew the odds were against his surviving a supersonic ejection.  He also knew he had no possible hope of surviving the crash.  With the engine idled and the speed brakes deployed, Smith tried to regain control of the stricken fighter.  Busting through the 8000 feet layer, this time going down, Smith realized he had run out of options.

He blew the canopy off the Sabre; the sudden explosion and wind noise frightened him so much that he reflexively leaned forward away from the noise.  This put him in the wrong position for an ejection at any speed, much less supersonic.

Smith remembers nothing beyond this point.  Mathematical calculations performed during the investigation estimate the speed of the aircraft at Mach 1.05, 675 knots, or 777 miles per hour.  When Smith exited the airplane, the rate of descent was 1140 feet per second.  The engineers determined the ejection subjected Smith to 8000 pounds of aerodynamic force and a deceleration of 40g.

On ejection, Smith lost his shoes and socks, his wristwatch, ring, his flight gloves, and helmet.  After automatic seat-man separation, several panels in his parachute blew out with the high-speed deployment.

Following the ejection, Smith actually had a bit of luck.  He fell into the Pacific Ocean less than 100 yards away from a fishing boat commanded by former Navy Rescue Specialist Art Berkell.  Berkell reached Smith’s location in less than 50 seconds and retrieved him from the water.  The pilot was delirious and in shock; when asked about the airplane, he asked, “What airplane?”

Later, Smith would slip into unconsciousness and stay that way for five days.  He would remain hospitalized for months.  Smith’s body suffered so much damage that at first, doctors feared he would never recover, or see again.  His internal organs were severely injured, his small intestines perforated, and his liver badly damaged.  He would however, eventually recover and return to fly supersonic jets.

Because of Smith’s ejection, aeromedical doctors gained great insight regarding the subject of high-speed ejections.


© 2011 J. Clark

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