A burst of flames and intense heat spread through my cockpit. I began to pitch and roll wildly. It felt like a giant hand had reached down, grabbed me with brute force, and shook me in a frenzy. What was left of my plane was like a straw in the wind, totally out of control.
For all its space-age electronics, its supersonic speed, its defensive-powers, the F-16 is not perfect. In the blink of an eye, it can be turned from the prince of the skies into a burning scrap heap of wire and twisted metal. The missile had blindsided me, coming up through a cloud cover below. It had struck the plane's underbelly, hitting one of the fuel tanks and cutting my F-16 in two. It took me another moment to understand. The nose and cockpit had broken away--and I was now in a free fall to earth.
As I spun out of control, I worried about blacking out from the sudden and unexpected G forces. I watched my console break and twist apart before me. My mind was outracing my ability to react. Flames from the exploding gas tank had found a crack between my oxygen mask and visor. They had also reached the back of my neck. Part of me was waiting for the cockpit to explode. Somehow, the heat and the pain and the insanity of the moment focused my thoughts.Dear God,
I prayed, please don't let me die now--don't let me die from this.
I gazed down, through the flames, and saw a fat yellow handle attached to my seat. The handle pushed up between my legs, bigger than life, staring at me like the miracle I took it to be. The beautiful words stamped across the top were impossible to miss, even in the fire and smoke: PULL TO EJECT.
I had no idea how much time had passed since the missile had struck. In reality it had been only seconds. It felt like an eternity. I knew I wasn't waiting much longer. For another microsecond, I worried that my damaged canopy wouldn't open, or if it did, that the seat wouldn't eject. But I really didn't have time to worry.
My left hand dropped down to the handle, and I pulled with all my might.
Excerpted from Basher Five-Two by Scott O'Grady. Copyright © 1997 by Captain Scott O''Grady with Michael French. Excerpted by permission of Yearling, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.