Many of us wonder how we would react in a dangerous, life-threatening situation. Would we panic or maintain our composure?
During the Vietnam War, Major Don Harten, a Las Vegas resident, did just about everything right despite everything going wrong. It began at 30,000 feet when the B-52 he was piloting sliced into another plane at 500 miles per hour.
But it didn’t end there.
Harten’s story is told in a new book titled, “Midair.” The author is Craig Collins, his nephew.
Harten told KNPR's State of Nevada the story, which started as a run from Guam to Vietnam:
“There was a typhoon and it sucked us in from Guam. We were nine minutes early. Our original leader had lost his radar. So he traded places with number two and number two was brand new. He decided to do a 360 degree turn to lose nine minutes time, right in the middle of the refueling track.
I was out of the seat when they decided to do this and when I got back in the pilot got out and suddenly the two planes in front of us turned and I said, ‘hey radar, what are they doing? A 360?’ and he said, ‘Rog.’ I said, ‘Send the pilot up. This is serious. Don’t they realize if there’s another cell of B52’s – three B52s – coming up the track south of us, we’re going to meet them head-on on a standard right turn? And sure enough we did.
Half way through the turn, I’m strapping in and double checking everything and I looked up and there is a B52 coming at me.
It was a second and half maybe two seconds away, but at that time, time stood still, totally still. I was living in micro-seconds at that time and I saw this thing and it was coming straight at us. 1,100 miles an hour. I looked up and I only had a second or two. And this 18,000 pound drop tank is going to come right in the cockpit. I can see it. It is going to hit me right in the face in a couple of microseconds. I did some mathematical calculations and realized we were going to hit, but the drop tank kind of slide underneath and the big tail went sliding by on the right and I was doing math calculations: are we going hit there and if we do… and everything was going by in supersonic speed, including everything in mind.
Then we hit and it was just a great big huge explosion. They saw it 200 miles away and I didn’t know our right wing was blown off. I thought maybe the wing tip was blown off. I had gone through in a couple of microseconds the anger, denial and all that you proceed through before you die. Even if you have cancer, you have five years to live. You go through all of that stuff. I went through it in a second.
I looked and there is nothing I could do. Someone had ejected and I knew it. Everything was dark. I could barely see the throttles. I couldn’t see the instrument panel. So I said: it is time to eject. I got in position and I rotated but the left handle rotated but the right handle wouldn’t. So I squeezed the trigger and nothing happened.”
In his book, Collins described what happened next. Harten could jump from the plane with nothing but his parachute, but that would mean he would be jumping into a dark ocean with no supplies. Instead, Harten squeezed one more time on the trigger that would release the ejection seat, the seat ejected sending him into the air.
Harten continued the story from there:
"I ejected. The plane exploded and damaged my leg pretty badly. I still cannot jog on it. Broke my neck. When I looked down to pull the ejection handle my head was out of space. My atlas vertebra was twisted and tilted…
Shortly after I ejected, the chute opened with a mild shock I hardly felt it. There I am sitting in a parachute, looking down on an ocean that is on fire, clouds all around and the fire is below, kind of burned off the moisture around it except for one great big huge column that came up at me like a nuclear bomb.
I estimated at the time that it was rising at about 20,000 feet per minute, which is really fast, and I looked at it and it was straight below me. I reached up an pulled my chute to slip it away from this thing and I slipped away and it went right by me but the turbulence from that and me slipping away the chute caused the parachute to start swaying and it rocked and I nearly went right up above it and fell back into the bowl of the parachute.
When I was coming down, I had panic and I wanted to just let myself go into panic and told myself ‘Panic! Fight panic!’ I had to fight it all the time, just constantly. That ocean was coming up and I said to God, ‘Dear Lord, let me just live in this parachute for the rest of my life. I don’t want to land in that water’ I was wild! It was turquoise blue with great big giant waves. It just got closer and closer and the turbulence and waves churned up all the plankton and it glowed turquoise.
Suddenly, I peeked and I hit the water and it pulled me backwards and it spun me… I was swallowing water and the parachute was turning and I finally spread my legs and got on my back so I could breathe because I swallowed a lot of water with it spinning me… It took all the strength I had to two arms to release the right one [of the rings connecting the parachute to him] and the left one was still connected. The parachute took off like a bull whip. It was gone but it was still connected to me on the left shoulder, but I forgot about it because I was too busy. Pulled in a life raft that had all the nicest things you could use in an artic survival situation and nothing you could use in the South China Sea in the summer time.
Eventually, the life raft deflated. I went up and then down and then under. I had tied myself to it thank God. I was underwater and I reached up and I realized I was still connected to the parachute on the left. I took out my little survivor knife – this is all underwater – and I was being pulled down by the parachute, which weighs several tons after a few minutes once it is in the water. I took out this hook-blade knife and that wasn’t fast enough. So I flipped it over and the switch blade, sharp as a razor, I went slice, slice, slice and it went through but I looked and I had sliced my fingers pretty badly, but I didn’t care.
I kicked up and I kicked forward and I made to the surface. I probably wouldn’t have been able to hold my breath for another 10 seconds – max. I got there and I grabbed that life raft and it was about the size of a basketball and I wadded up underneath me and I sat there and I went through anger again and I cursed and swore and carried on and I got mad and that saved my life because then I grabbed this stem… and I pushed on this thing and blew this life raft up and closed the thing down so it wouldn’t leak air out any more. I sat there and all I had was my .38 gun and my helmet, my boots and my flight suit. I lost everything else."
It was so traumatic. Everybody died but me and my navigators and we became best friends after that. It was a horrible thing to have to go through and I just didn’t want to go through it again, living it over and over and over. I still feel grief you can’t believe for all of the losses but I went through five combat tours. I’ve got 84 names on the Vietnam Wall and they’re all close. These are guys I flew with in F-105 we lost a lot of them.
“I just had a determination. I wanted to live. I had a lot to live for. I wanted to be an astronaut to be honest with you. So I worked hard and did what I had to do…. I worked hard to become a pilot. I wanted to be the best fighter pilot and then become an astronaut. But I was in B52s because our whole class was in B52s or something like it.
Why did you keep flying after all of this?
I loved it! Flying is the greatest thing you could ever do is to control an airplane and do it properly. It’s just fun, and besides it’s challenging. Besides that the average IQ of these guys I was working with was about 140. You’re living in an advanced world.
(Editor's Note: This interview originally aired October 2016)
Craig K. Collins, author of "Midair: An Epic Tale of Survival and a Mission that might have ended the Vietnam War."; Major Don Harten, U.S. military pilot/retired
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