Local veteran overcomes odds after midair crash

Nathan Hendrix/Burnet Bulletin
Burnet County resident Ray Bronk has several photographs from his time as a fighter pilot in the U.S. Air Force from 1952 to 1972.

 

 

By Nathan Hendrix

Staff Writer

Burnet Bulletin

A brush with death would make most people reconsider their path in life, but a midair jet fighter collision during a training exercise could not dissuade Burnet County veteran Ray Bronk from continuing to pilot aircraft for his country.

Ray joined the United States Air Force in 1952 and aced his aptitude tests. The career advisor listed aircraft pilot as one of his potential jobs.

“He said 'Airman Bronk, you can be anything you want,'” Ray recalled. “I said 'pilot? That's what I want.' It was the very first time it ever entered my mind.”

In 1959 in Charleston, South Carolina, Ray went up on a training flight designed to emulate fighter interception of enemy bombers. The pilot he was testing with had already been on two flights that day and was attempting his third intercept.

“You should not fly that many times unless it's combat; this was training,” Ray said. “[The other pilot] must have been fatigued out of his mind. People think you're just sitting in an aircraft, but there's all kinds of things acting on you including gravity.”

The training exercise did not go as planned, and at the 20 second alert, Ray's counterpart's aircraft was not where it was supposed to be.

“We have a rule that if you are not in control at 20 seconds, you break off,” he said. “I asked where he was; he didn't respond. I told him to break it off.”

Ray began searching for the aircraft through the windscreen of his single-seat fighter jet and eventually found it. But it was too late.

“His wings were down, bending around trying to complete the intercept,” Ray said. “He hit me right behind the center of the wings and flew through the engine and tail section. I was flying an aircraft that no longer existed.”

The collision disconnected the cockpit from the rest of the plane and sent it flailing through the air at 42,000 feet. That's when Ray's emergency procedure training kicked in.

He knew he could use the triggers on his seat to eject him several feet out of the cockpit, but he didn't know where he was and which direction he was facing.

“I didn't know if I was facing up, down, left, right, but I had to get out of that aircraft; I knew that,” he said. “I was spinning on all three axes. It was very disorienting.”

Even after ejection, the danger was far from over. At that altitude, the oxygen saturation is no where near the levels needed to sustain human breathing.

Ray remembered his training and started the oxygen flow to his mask in the nick of time.

“I was close to being hypoxic, and that would lead to death by starvation of oxygen,” he recalled. “I got a rush of oxygen coming in, and it was like a gray curtain opened up and it was bright again. I was lucky I remembered to do that.”

Emergency parachutes are rigged to deploy at 20,000 feet after ejection, but Ray disabled the automatic function when he opened the belt on his seat. Now he had to deploy the parachute manually.

“Normally you're supposed to wait until 20,000 feet to open your ripcord … because you can break your back; the riser cords can break; or your canopy can rip,” he said. “When I opened my parachute, everything was there. I was in pretty good shape.”

As he slowly floated back towards the ground, Ray was already thinking about where he would land. He made a hard landing at an abandoned sawmill, and a nearby farmer came out to help him.

“I remembered hitting down and getting right up,” he said. “There were aircraft circling me. They said I was lying down there for five minutes. I must have hit my head.”

Ray landed 53 miles from his ejection site, and three hours later he was in a military hospital. He was released the next day with only two stitches in his chin.

His counterpart pilot in the other aircraft was not so lucky; he was killed on impact.

Ray credited his training for his survival.

“Air Force training of its pilots is superior,” he said. “After all this trauma, the fact that I remembered to do the emergency oxygen thing might have saved my life.”

After attending the funeral, Ray quickly got back in the cockpit. He was sent to Guam and was promoted to Captain. The tour in Guam was followed by stints in North Carolina, Germany and Thailand – where he flew reconnaissance missions in connection with the Vietnam War.

“That was wonderful. I'd been training, training, training and finally I have real combat,” Ray said about the Thailand missions. “I never got a single hole in my airplane. I was a very lucky person.”

Ray was later sent to Bergstrom Air Force Base in a radar squadron. He was flying the mandatory four hours per month to keep his flight pay, but those hours were later removed as an option.

“They said since you're not really performing an aircrew job, we're not going to let you fly,” Ray said. “It was time for me to get out. I retired. I'll tell you, the Air Force was the best thing that ever happened to me.”

During his time in service, Ray visited 44 countries and met and married his wife of 58 years, Marjorie – also an Air Force veteran. Ray retired as a Major in 1972 after 20 years of service.

Ray said Veterans Day is always marked on his calendar because he believes veterans deserve at least a day when we recognize their contributions to our country.

“If it weren't for veterans, we'd be speaking German now,” he said referring to World War II. “So many of my personal, hand-shaking, arm-around-the-neck friends have died. We owe a lot to veterans.”

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