Ejected from a fighter plane into the cold Atlantic Ocean at night, his body broken, fighting 5-foot seas and 17-mph winds, and exhausted trying to climb into a life raft, U.S. Air Force Capt. Brian Udell's thoughts turned to his pregnant wife and death.
"If I don't get into this raft I will not see the light of the next day," Udell told a rapt audience Wednesday afternoon in Centennial Hall at the Pillars of America Freedom lecture series, hosted by the Glacier Valley Rotary Club.
Udell was on a night training mission in April 1995 over the Atlantic when he had to eject from his F-15E. Four fighters from Seymour-Johnson Air Force Base in North Carolina had paired off to simulate an engagement.
As Udell, in a plane also carrying weapons system officer Capt. Dennis White, turned the F-15E in an arc, an electronic indicator showed the plane was plunging to Earth at nearly 800 mph. Udell and White ejected when the plane was less than 6,000 feet from the ocean.
The Air Force tells pilots the minimum altitude to eject is 10,000 feet.
"The force of the wind at 800 mph is so great it's like being hit by a freight train," Udell said.
Udell's helmet, oxygen mask, earplugs and gloves were blown off by the force. His life preserver was in tatters. The blood vessels in his face were broken. A harness buckle impaled his ribs.
His left arm was dislocated, but after he parachuted onto the water he was able to reel in the rubber life raft, part of a survival package that followed him down, with his right arm and inch his way into it. He realized then that his right leg and left ankle were badly hurt.
"The top half of my legs went one way, and the bottom half went the other," he said.
Shaking uncontrollably and facing shock, Udell managed to fully inflate the raft, including a tent-like cover. It took two hours. He also found a bottle of water in a rucksack, which helped revive him. At every step it was a monumental effort to overcome the limits of his broken body.
Udell spent four hours on the water before a Coast Guard helicopter found him via his emergency radio. He learned later that White had been killed instantly during the ejection.
The Air Force later told Udell no one had survived an ejection at that speed from an American fighter aircraft, and that he probably wouldn't walk correctly again.
After four surgeries, Udell began the long process of physical therapy. Two months later he could take his first step. Udell would fly again for the Air Force, from which he retired in 1999 and joined Southwest Airlines.
Udell told the audience, including dozens of students whose admission was sponsored by local companies, that it was desire, determination, discipline and answered prayers that saved him.
"It was an unbelievable situation I was thrown in," he said. "I'm an ordinary guy. ... I just didn't want to die. I wanted to see my wife. I wanted to see my baby born."
Tom Meiners, an eighth-grader at Floyd Dryden Middle School, said the speech was "very motivational. How did he pull himself into that raft?"
"I think it was pretty amazing what he did," said Philip Derbesy, a sixth-grader at Juneau Christian School.
"Just to see his baby born," JCS seventh-grader John Love-rink added.
Udell was the first of three speakers in this year's Pillars series. His speech was sponsored by Capital Chevrolet and Elgee, Rehfeld, Mertz & Barrett.
On April 30, Jerry Traylor, a marathoner born with cerebral palsy, will speak. On May 7, Diana Nyad, a long-distance swimmer and senior sports correspondent for FOX Sports News, will speak. Tickets, $25, are available at Hearthside Books.
Eric Fry can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.