In 1975, dozens of Convair F-106 Delta Darts lined the flight-line at Tyndall Air Force Base near Panama City, Florida. At the time, Tyndall was home to the 2nd Fighter Interceptor Training Squadron, charged with instructing the U.S. Air Force’s newest F-106 pilots. For one of the squadron’s instructors, an engine failure during an early morning flight led to a historical first for the Air Force.
“I came [to Tyndall] first as a student in the F-106,” said Stephen Damer. After qualifying in the F-106, Damer’s next assignment was at Griffiss Air Force Base, in Rome, New York. But after a few years, he had gained enough experience to return to Tyndall, this time as an instructor pilot.
During his second period at Tyndall, Damer and a fellow pilot were selected for a unique training mission. “We were running a high-altitude intercept on a bomarc missile that was launched out of the east coast of Texas,” Damer said. “It was flying at approximately 70,000 feet, at more than three times the speed of sound.”
Due to the high altitude of the flight, Damer said they had to wear full pressure suits. Resembling a space suit, and just as ungainly, the pressure suits worn during the mission were hermetically sealed, with a glass dome underneath the helmet and multiple layers of fabric to maintain normal pressure on the pilot’s body in case cockpit pressurization failed. “Captain Damer started his mission at 6:30 a.m. and had been in the air approximately one hour when he experienced the engine problems,” according to a 1975 issue of the Jet Scope, then the base newspaper at Tyndall. The article noted that Damer attempted to nurse his stricken fighter back to Tyndall, but as he neared Port St. Joe, he realized his altitude was dropping so rapidly that he wouldn’t make the runway.
“We made the intercept, but it cost us an airplane,” Damer added. “The engine overheated and [I] had to jump out of it.” After ejecting from the aircraft, Damer ended up in the water, but was fortunately able to inflate the emergency life raft and clamber aboard to await rescue. “Here I am sitting in the Gulf of Mexico on a life raft and a plane just went in somewhere, it was a lot of, ‘Did this really happen?’ for quite a while,” Damer noted. Thankfully, Tyndall rescue units were able to retrieve the 29-year-old instructor pilot from the sea within an hour of his crash.
Although the F-106 didn’t make it to shore, Damer’s aircraft mishap marked a milestone for Air Force history. “I was the first full pressure suit successful ejection the Air Force had ever had,” Damer said. He had the opportunity to relive some of his old memories as an F-106 pilot and share his story with Tyndall Airmen during a recent base tour August 10, 2018. The last time he stepped foot on Tyndall, Damer reckoned, was in 1975 or ’76. During the tour, he noticed how dramatically the Air Force has evolved since his time in the service. “Things are progressing, it makes me feel old, but it humbles me,” Damer said with a smile. “Tyndall will always have a dear spot in our hearts.”