The man who fell to earth and what it tells us about the true meaning of life
LOOK: I understand nothing about the origins of life – but maybe the experience of George Smith helps cast some light on it. Just 58 years ago this coming Tuesday, Smith, a US test pilot, decided to spend his Saturday morning dropping some clothes off at the laundry.
He then popped into the offices of his employer, North American Aviation, to clear some paperwork. A mechanic there told him that an F-100 aircraft, number 659, was just off the production line, and needed a test-flight: would he care to do it? At around the same time, Los Angeles businessman Art Berkell was thinking about abandoning a futile morning's fishing off Laguna Beach. The day had been cold and wet, and he and his two companions, his lawyer Mel Simon and the latter's 15-year old son Robert had caught nothing. They discussed returning, but decided to stay on a little bit longer, just in case. . .
Meanwhile, not bothering to put on his flying-gear or boots, but just donning a life-jacket over his sports-shirt and slacks, George scrambled into the supersonic F-100 and took off. At 35,000ft he levelled off and began to fly at around 800mph. Suddenly, the nose of the F-100 Super Sabre pointed right downward, and the plane began to hurtle vertically towards the sea. He attempted to pull back on the control-stick: nothing. A fellow F-100 pilot nearby saw his predicament and urged him to bail out.
He jettisoned his canopy, and the blast of air entered the cockpit like an explosion. An RAF pilot who had put his arm up into a gale of 600mph had seen it severed from his body. Smith leant forward to shield himself from this brutal tornado, thereby shoving his legs tightly into the footwell. This could mean the amputation of both legs and therefore his death when he ejected. But without thinking, he hit the ejector handle, and the blast of the slipstream whisked his legs clear as he rocketed upwards.
At this point, he experienced a deceleration of 64g. This meant his body for a moment weighed some six tons. His blood alone would have weighed 963lbs: nearly half a ton. This caused super-haemorrhaging from his capillaries into the surrounding tissue. Then the g-force fell to 29, which was still enough to have killed him instantly: yet he endured it for some 20 seconds. Not only that. He had been automatically ejected from his ejector seat, and was now tumbling uncontrollably at several hundred miles an hour, seriously damaging his internal organs.
Down below, the fishing boat was just about to call it quits, when the 10 tons of F-100, still dropping supersonically, exploded in the water 200 yards behind them. I think this is when even a Mother Superior may properly have cried, "Holy f**k, what the f**k was that?" Next moment, the impact wave nearly sank them.
What next? Young Robert looked up and saw the half-opened, half-torn parachute, with George Smith attached, hurtling downward and at a fatal speed. Yet just before George hit the water, a gust of wind opened the 'chute sufficiently to break his fall. But he was unconscious, and so could not inflate his lifejacket. Miraculously, pockets of air inside his sports shirt kept him afloat just long enough for the fishing smack to reach him.
I've kept the best bit back. During World War II, Art Berkell had captained an air-sea rescue launch, and had fished some 275 downed airmen from the ocean. He knew exactly what to to do in this situation. The three fisherman hauled George aboard their boat, and Art performed life-saving first aid while they sped for the shore. Doctors in Los Angeles hospital were baffled. No American had ever hit the air faster than the speed of sound and survived. George's heartbeat was almost unnoticeable, and to all extents and purposes, he had no blood pressure. His internal organs – his liver and lower intestine especially – had suffered levels of damage unknown to medicine in a still-living man. His mouth, ears, and eyelids were torn open and bruised from the shocking power of the wind. If he survived, George would surely be both blind and deaf.
But George Smith did not die. His body, including his eyes and ears, repaired itself during his seven months in hospital. And on August 23, 1955, he returned to his old job. On at least half a dozen occasions during the final flight of Super Sabre 659, George Smith should have died, and didn't; but surely the most amazing aspect of all was the presence, at the very point of impact with the water, of perhaps the most experienced air-sea rescue launch-captain in the entire world. The odds against such a coincidence meant that it could not occur. Yet it did. And that's the point of this column. I said many times how sceptical I am about life spontaneously generating on earth. Yet maybe it was against such impossible odds that the first ever DNA molecule was assembled; and reproductive life thus began. . .