Pilot Is Flying F-15S Again After Miraculous Recovery

ANCHORAGE - When Air Force Capt. Jon Counsell climbs into the cockpit of his F-15C and thunders off the runway at Elmendorf Air Force Base, he does so with a unique perspective on the perils of power, speed and altitude.

Five years ago Counsell ejected from an F-15 10,000 feet above the Gulf of Mexico, traveling at supersonic speed. He was like a rag doll thrown into a hurricane, as one surgeon described it.

Counsell's survival was nothing short of remarkable. With his body broken and battered, doctors said he probably would never walk again. The most likely path after such a devastating accident was to be patched up and given a medical discharge.

But Counsell wasn't buying that.

From the time he was a boy, growing up on a farm in Moses Lake, piloting military jets was all Counsell ever wanted to do.

"I was 12 years old when I told a friend this was what I was going to do," said Counsell, 32.

During more than three long years of recovery, Counsell was determined that he would not only walk but that he would once again pilot the single-seat F-15 fighter jet known as the Eagle.

Against all odds, he is back in the cockpit.

"The fact that I didn't remember the accident probably helped," said Counsell, who began flying F-15s in 1994 at Tyndall Air Force Base near Panama City, Fla.

Counsell had been flying the Eagle for about five months, logging 60 hours in the air, when a routine training flight May 5, 1994, went terribly awry.

Investigators think Counsell suffered a brief loss of consciousness that sometimes occurs when pilots are exposed to enormous increases in gravitational forces while maneuvering at high speed - a condition known as G-force-induced loss of consciousness.

It occurred during a simulated dogfight with another F-15. The pilot in the second plane realized Counsell didn't have control of his jet and wasn't answering his radio calls.

While he doesn't remember the accident, Counsell has pored over the military reports that detail what happened to him and he speaks about the accident matter-of-factly, as if it had happened to someone else.

His loss of consciousness was brief, probably less than a minute. But as Counsell slowly came out of his stupor he was disoriented, unable to tell sky from water and rocketing forward at 745 mph in a descent to 10,000 feet.

"We lost a pilot two years before at Tyndall in a very similar situation," Counsell said. "We talked about that every day in our briefings."

Still dazed and with that previous accident in mind, Counsell pulled the ejection handles.

The canopy of the jet opened and, within seconds, Counsell was hurtling through the air. Still strapped in his seat, the wind battered his body with a force of 1,500 pounds per square foot. His oxygen mask and helmet were torn off by the wind. His arms, legs and feet were bent at odd angles by the blast. His face was so swollen by the pounding wind that he couldn't open his eyes.

Parachutes deployed and slowed his landing to the water. A self-inflating life preserver, part of his survival equipment, kept him afloat after he splashed down.

It was two hours before a helicopter with rescue swimmers aboard, reached him and plucked him from the water.

He didn't know how serious his injuries were until he reached the military hospital at Keesler Air Force Base in Mississippi.

There, he learned his left leg was fractured in five places and three of the four ligaments in his left knee were torn. His right leg, which had folded backwards over his shoulder, had three torn ligaments. His left forearm broke when it folded against the back of his seat and struck an oxygen canister. His left shoulder was dislocated and part of the shoulder joint was broken. He also was suffering from short-term memory loss.

Counsell worked on rehabilitation at various military hospitals, and back home in Moses Lake.

"Anybody would have given him the right to give up," said Randy Bruce, the Moses Lake physical therapist who worked with Counsell. "He never gave up. He just worked really hard."

In addition to the physical work of rehabilitation, Counsell worked hard to convince the military brass that he was fit to fly again. He had to pass a battery of physical tests and win the approval of the Air Force surgeon general before he was allowed to return to Tyndall for retraining.

At the time of his accident, Counsell was in line for a transfer to Elmendorf.

Though it came four years later than he expected, his move to Alaska was "perfect closure to the whole deal," he said.

Counsell's commanding officer at Elmendorf, Lt. Col. Tod Wolters, doesn't have any trouble understanding the lengths Counsell went to to get back in the F-15.

"Flying single-seat fighters has to be one of the most challenging and rewarding experiences on the planet," Wolters said. "Once you get your first taste of it, you can't stay away from it. You live for it."

Counsell's experience made him the perfect candidate to serve as chief of safety for the squadron, Wolters said.