When Ted Williams didn’t eject

Colonel Jerry Cadick’s recounting of some of his “ejection” experiences reminds me of a story about Ted Williams that John McCain told a group of us one New Hampshire day aboard the “Straight Talk Express.” McCain, a Boston Red Sox fan and (of course) an ex-fighter pilot, greatly admired Williams, who served as a fighter pilot in two wars.

During a mission in North Korea, Williams’ fighter plane was crippled by a strike that knocked out its hydraulics and electrical systems. The plane already was on fire when an explosion rocked its undercarriage as it approached the landing strip.

Williams pulled off a wheels-up “belly” landing, skidding along the tarmac with sparks flying for almost a mile before coming to a stop. The nose burst into flames, threatening the cockpit. Williams blew off the canopy, struggled out of the plane, and, after limping clear of it, hit the ground.

He received the Air Medal.

McCain once asked Williams about the incident. Why, McCain wondered, didn’t Williams eject rather than attempting such a dangerous landing?

Williams explained that, at six feet three inches tall, he believed he would have blown out both knees had he ejected himself from the cramped cockpit. And that would have meant the end of his baseball-playing career. Therefore, he decided he had to land the plane.

At age 33, and married with a child, Williams probably shouldn’t have been called up for the Korean War; nor was he happy about the call-up. Yet, although he hadn’t flown any aircraft for eight years, he turned down opportunities to avoid combat by playing on a service baseball team. Instead it was off to Korea to fly combat missions.

Williams would later say that the Marines he encountered in Korea “were the greatest guys I ever met.” One of those guys, future astronaut John Glenn, described Williams as one of the best pilots he knew.

Ted Williams: an American original.

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