Unfathomable crisis springs from tiny bubbles

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Posted by seldom seen slim on November 16, 2006 at 20:28:08:


He forgot how to fly: Unfathomable crisis springs from tiny bubbles

Kevin Henry should be dead, and he knows it.

For more than two decades, he has piloted the U-2, one of the most sophisticated and secret aircraft in the U.S. Air Force.

While on a mission over hostile territory in March, hundreds of miles from his base and tens of thousands of feet in the air, Henry lost all conscious memory of how to fly the plane.

Over the next six hours, at times flying within feet of the ground, Lt. Col. Kevin Henry was guided to safety by a trusted friend, by training so long and intense that flying verges on instinct, and with the help of two strangers who were willing to risk death to keep him alive.

The enemy that nearly took his life was nothing more frightening than an untold number of infinitesimal nitrogen bubbles.

Henry is stationed at Beale Air Force Base in Marysville. His wife of six years, Sylvie, is a student at Chico State University.

Since the 1950s, the U-2 has been a workhorse in high-altitude, long-distance aerial reconnaissance. The plane's maximum altitude remains a closely guarded secret, but for public consumption, it flies at least to 70,000 feet.

That altitude can be deadly because of a problem known well to deep-sea divers.

Divers going into the depths breathe air under pressure. The deeper they go and the longer they stay at that depth, the more nitrogen is dissolved into their blood and tissues. As the diver ascends, the reduction in pressure allows the nitrogen to escape, forming tiny bubbles in the body.

It works like opening a can of carbonated soda. Pressure inside the can keeps the gas dissolved in the solution. Release the pressure, and the gas bubbles out of the liquid.

The bubbles in the body cause a malady divers call the bends. Bubbles in the muscles and joints can cause everything from mild to excruciating pain. If the bubbles gather in the brain, confusion, memory loss, and even death can result.

For a U-2 pilot, the process is the same as a diver's, but reversed. The plane's cockpit is pressurized, but only equal to what a person would experience at 29,000 feet about what it would be at the top of Mount Everest.

Nitrogen normally trapped in the blood and tissues at sea level can be released as the plane climbs to upper altitudes. For the high-altitude pilot, the condition is called decompression sickness.

To avoid the danger, U-2 pilots "pre-breathe" pure oxygen for at least an hour prior to takeoff to purge all nitrogen from their systems. Once they go on the oxygen, the pilots are not to breathe "dirty air" regular room air until after the flight.

For Henry, the pre-breathe on that March morning didn't go as planned.

He planned to be on oxygen 70 minutes before the scheduled launch, but almost immediately he was having trouble.

U-2 pilots wear the same sort of suits worn by space shuttle astronauts. Oxygen is pumped into the helmet through a ring of small holes just inside the visor.

For reasons Henry still can't explain, the helmet was refusing to seal properly to his face.

"I'm kind of breathing half oxygen and half dirty air regular air which includes nitrogen so you're just putting nitrogen back into your system," recalled the pilot.

Henry doesn't know how long the problem lasted.

"It could have been five minutes, could have been 10 minutes, could have been three minutes. I don't know."

Perhaps he wasn't paying as close attention as he should have to what seemed like a minor problem.

For a couple of weeks, Henry, 48, had been the temporary squadron commander at a forward base in the Mideast, and right then he was focused on seeing his mission launched on schedule.

"You never want to be late, especially in front of the young guys. You've got to be on top of your game. So all I'm thinking is mission, mission, mission. The bottom line is I just didn't get a good pre-breathe. We were all pushing to make the takeoff time and get airborne for the mission."

He made the scheduled launch and reveled at being back in the air.

"I just remember feeling really good! I'd been doing squadron commander duties for two weeks, not flying ... It was just nice to get airborne, and the sunrise above 60,000 feet is beautiful."

The mission was supposed to run about nine hours takeoff to landing, and the first two hours were textbook perfect. Then things began to crumble.

"I remember feeling like really tired all of a sudden." The sudden fatigue was accompanied by "this huge headache."

He was experiencing the early manifestations of a "full frontal lobe attack." The nitrogen bubbles were fouling his ability to think, to reason, even to see.

Suddenly breathing itself became a problem.

He began hyperventilating and worried that his oxygen system was failing.

"Really what's happening is the nitrogen bubbles are filling my lungs, so I can't get enough air in my lungs. I'm really trying to figure out what is wrong with me. I've got this huge headache and, really, it's the headache that overrode everything else."

The possibility that he was suffering decompression sickness never crossed Henry's mind. He thought he was dehydrated. He thought maybe he was suffering a caffeine headache.

All along he was negotiating with himself, trying to find an explanation for what he was experiencing. Then he suffered his first hallucination.

His U-2 appeared to make a 30-degree roll. It hadn't happened, but Henry saw it anyway.

"When the aircraft rolled again like that, I said something is wrong."

In his nitrogen-induced fog, Henry remained focused on his oxygen system as the culprit. So he decided to pull his "green apple," the knob that would activate the back-up oxygen supply.

"I remember pulling on that thing. I just pulled and pulled. It's only supposed to take 10 or 15 pounds to pull it. Finally I've got both hands, straining. To show how far out of it I was, I remember thinking at the time, 'Ah, the thing is rusty.' I'm so gone already and don't even know it."

Henry finally succeeded in pulling the knob, but nothing happened because the system only adds oxygen if the main supply has failed, which it hadn't.

The pilot in a U-2 flies the aircraft with the help of the "glass cockpit." It is a computer system that uses touch screens and other means to input navigational and other information, all designed to get the plane from point A to point B.

"I couldn't remember how to use the glass cockpit at all. That's when I had to 'fess up. I had forgotten how to move (computer) files. I didn't know how to direct steer anymore. I'm just like a sheet of metal flying through the air."

Then, without the slightest bit of nausea as a warning, Henry vomited inside his sealed helmet.

"Now I'm trapped in this fish bowl. It's all over the visor and I can't see." Also, the small holes that bring oxygen into the helmet were clogged.

He opened the visor, and with his gloved hand he tried to wipe away the putrid goo.

With the helmet open he was breathing "dirty air," and dirty air that is pressurized only to 29,000 feet has nearly no oxygen in it. Suddenly he was faced with both decompression sickness and the likelihood that he was also not getting enough oxygen.

Under the twin assaults, his eyesight began to fade, colors in his information displays "all turned to black and white, and then it faded to gray. Not to mention that none of it made any sense anymore anyway."

While Henry was flying on the other side of the planet, the communications link with him was at his home base at Beale, where it was about 3 a.m.

When the people in "com" recognized how critical Henry's situation was, they called in Lt. Col. Dave Russell, his squadron commander, to talk the stricken pilot back to the base in the "host nation."

"It didn't take him long to figure out how messed up I was. He tried to explain how to do things and I was, 'Dave, I don't understand a word you just told me'."

Russell, who Henry calls "Super Dave," tried to walk him through various alternatives to guide the plane home. Instruments and displays that were part of Henry's everyday life were utterly beyond his understanding.

Henry desperately tried to punch the necessary data into the autopilot to get him home, but when he engaged the device, now full of meaningless information, the plane reacted by making a violent banking maneuver.

"I recovered the airplane back to level flight, just on instinct I think. The autopilot was just so dorked up because I thought I could figure out how to use my stuff if I punched enough buttons. So I get into this pushing button thing, thinking if I push a button I'll remember. It didn't work. I totally messed up the nav system. Finally the auto pilot is like, 'Screw you!' and just ceased to function.

"I think I even told (Russell), 'The auto pilot no worky'."

Henry was still hundreds of miles from his base, incapable of flying his plane or even understanding instructions on what to do. To make matters worse, he was flying near less-than-friendly countries, where a wandering U-2 could trigger an international incident as well as kill Henry.

His life still hung in the balance.

He Forgot How to Fly: Friend's words and saber-dancing fighters guide stricken U-2 pilot safely back to air base

High above the Mideast, Lt. Col. Kevin Henry was suffering a severe attack of decompression sickness, and the nitrogen bubbles that had formed in his brain left him in a child-like state with no idea how to fly the U-2 spy plane he was piloting.

His squadron commander Lt. Col. Dave "Super Dave" Russell, although half a world away at Beale Air Force Base near Marysville, was on the radio trying to guide his hopelessly befuddled friend safely to the ground.

However, Russell had other concerns as well.

Henry's mission that March morning took him to the area of Afghanistan, but when he was stricken by a "full frontal lobe" attack that had left him lost in his own cockpit, the specter of accidentally wandering into unfriendly air space became a very real danger.

"He (Russell) was trying to give me headings and keep me out of countries I shouldn't be in, " said Henry.

"I couldn't tell east from west. I just turned. I just went to like 30 degrees of bank, and of course, the wrong way. I figured I'll get there sooner or later, which of course made everybody go 'AWWWWW!' because I was turning toward a very bad place."

After circling the plane for awhile, Henry asked, "How's that?" and Russell responded, "A little bit more, Kev."

After a series of turns, Russell got Henry headed in the right direction.

Henry said, because of the decompression sickness, he was like a "drunk guy, totally drunk out of his mind."

Russell asked Henry if he wanted to put the plane down on one of the emergency strips in the area where he was flying. Even in his befuddled state, Henry knew that was a bad idea. Trying to land at an unfamiliar base in his condition would have been a death sentence.

The only option was to get Henry "home." In this case home was a base in a Mideast nation. The specific location remains an official secret. Henry refers to the site only as the "host nation."

Russell was able to guide Henry out over the Indian Ocean. After about two hours over the sea, it was time to lower the U-2's landing gear.

"I go for the gear handle and I look over, 'Somebody took the gear handle. Where did it go? Somebody took the gear handle!' Of course it was there but I couldn't see it. I had a blind spot. It's one of the symptoms."

Working on training and instinct, Henry flailed his hand in the vicinity of where he knew the gear handle had to be. His hand found the landing gear control and he lowered his wheels.

Russell told him to level out at 16,000 feet, but his mind was still playing tricks. The air speed indicator just vanished.

"I remember being a little bit panicked about that," said the pilot.

As Henry's plane approached the base, a second eruption of vomit shorted out his microphone. Henry could hear Russell and Super Dave could hear a click when Henry tried to broadcast, but no words went out.

Also at about this same time a pair of fighters from the host nation flew out to shepherd Henry in, but that wasn't going to be any kind of easy. Henry was slipping in and out of consciousness.

When the pilots arrived, flying Mirage jets, Henry's U-2 was essentially falling out of the sky.

"When they joined on me I was in a death spiral, full stall. But somehow I woke up and I heard the stall warning, and I recovered. I don't know how I did," said Henry.

Russell probably saved Henry's life at this point. Hearing the U-2's stall warning on the radio, Russell asked the Mirages to fly as close as possible to Henry's cockpit, hoping the turbulence caused by the passing jets would shake Henry awake.

"I remember that because I thought it was cool," recalled Henry.

When the U-2 came out of the stall, Russell told Henry to "follow" the Mirages. It was an order Henry took to heart.

"I just started following them through the weather. That was really like an hour before landing. I don't remember anything from then. I guess I flew around the pattern for 45 minutes and followed the Mirages, because Dave told me to follow the Mirages."

Time and again the fighters escorted the U-2 down near the deck and tried to line Henry up with the runway, but as the fighters pulled up to let the U-2 land, Henry pulled up too and followed them around.

"Dave told me to follow them, and I just followed them."

The maneuver was enormously dangerous for the fighter pilots. The wide-winged U-2 can stay airborne at speeds as low as 78 mph. So to get Henry lined up for the landing, the Mirage pilots had to slow, as far as possible, to that speed.

To do that the fighters must fly at an almost vertical position, staying aloft on the power of their jet engines. It is a procedure called a "saber dance." The slightest miscue by the pilots or a minuscule dip in engine power and the fighter will crash.

During the 45 minutes he was over the base, Henry skimmed over the field, flew between hangars, and at one point sent a man running for his life as the plane swooped down. Photographs of the last minutes of Henry's flight show the plane so low it can be seen through the open doors of a hangar.

"I kind of woke up. I'm looking out of the windscreen, there's nothing but desert floor. There's a hangar, and there's an aircraft bunker and they've got it covered with cobblestones to camouflage it. I can hear the full-stall warning. It was just screaming full stall. I was trying to figure out what am I doing here. At that time I got the ground rush. I mean the ground just leapt at me because I was in a full stall."

On instinct alone he recovered from this stall.

"People were stopping on the road watching the air show, two Mirages and a U-2 flying around.

"I think I got an adrenaline rush and that's probably what saved me. All of a sudden I was awake. I could hear the noise because the Mirages are out there with full afterburner. I look over and I could see them down by the runway trying to show me where the runway is. That's what they had been doing the whole time."

Fearful that Henry might not be able to land the U-2, which is a tricky maneuver at the best of times, Russell advised, "Kevin, unless you can get your crap together you're going to have to eject."

Henry, who had no memory of what had been happening for the last hour, couldn't begin to understand why Super Dave wanted him to punch out.

"Somehow, I brought it down and landed on center line, wings level. I don't know how I did it," said Henry.

He made it to the ground, but his survival was still in doubt. Other well-timed miracles would be necessary to get Henry home.

Miracles were becoming almost commonplace for Lt. Col. Kevin Henry.

Despite a crippling case of decompression sickness that left him lost and confused inside the cockpit of his U-2 spy plane, the veteran pilot managed to make a picture-perfect landing at a still officially secret base in the Middle East.

However, even though he was safely on the ground, his survival remained very much in doubt. The decompression sickness had filled his brain with tiny nitrogen bubbles. If the bubbles weren't dealt with immediately, he was going to be brain damaged or dead.

That's when the next miracle happened.

Col. James "Bones" Little, the Air Force's leading expert on the treatment of decompression sickness, was the flight surgeon that day. Well before anybody knew Henry was in trouble, Little walked into the base's "Physiological Support Division" and initiated a drill.

Henry was later told Little announced, "OK, exercise! Say we've got a pilot coming in with the bends. What are you going to do? Where are you going to go?"

The drill Little initiated was preparation to respond to precisely the emergency Henry was experiencing.

Hours later, when Henry was hoisted from his cockpit, covered in vomit and in the midst of a potentially lethal case of decompression sickness, Little and his team fresh from their exercise were waiting.

"I was basically helpless at that point. It took eight of them to get me out" of the plane. Despite all of that, Henry still has snapshot memories of his first minutes on the ground.

"I remember thinking, because I hate needles, 'They're going to give me an IV. I know they're going to give me an IV. This is going to hurt!' I remember them sticking it in. It wasn't that bad."

Henry also remembered that Little wanted him conscious.

"He was banging on my head."

"Colonel! Colonel wake up!" ordered the doctor.

Fearing Henry was about to go into cardiac arrest, Little ordered an assistant to "get the paddles ready." The "paddles" are the electrodes used to restart a stopped heart with an electric shock.

Henry remembered thinking, "The IV hurt enough. I don't want paddles." They never needed them, but what they did need, and immediately, was a "dive chamber."

The only way to get rid of the nitrogen bubbles plaguing Henry was to force gas to dissolve back into his blood and tissues. The only way to accomplish that is by subjecting the body to increased atmospheric pressure. The air pressure in the tightly closed chamber is increased quickly to dissolve the gas and then, very gradually, over hours, the pressure is released until it gets back to normal. In the process the nitrogen slowly leaves the system.

A helicopter from the "host nation" flew Henry to the off-base facility where the chamber was located, and a U.S. Air Force sergeant, a medical technician, stayed with Henry to monitor his condition while they were both in the dive chamber.

Throughout what Henry called the "dive chamber of horrors," the sergeant kept poking and prodding him. The pilot didn't like that.

"They kept pulling up my shirt. That just really annoyed me. They kept touching my stomach and stuff. I was just really annoyed, and I couldn't figure out why they were doing that."

Henry, who is 48, recalled thinking, "Just leave me alone. OK! I'm just old and fat. Leave me alone and go away."

When the first dive was over, Henry was offered a towel and shaving gear to begin cleaning himself up.

Henry found himself unfolding and refolding the towel, over and over again.

Finally, he told the sergeant, "You know, I don't remember how to shave."

The sergeant talked him through the shave and then asked if Henry wanted a shower.

"He kind of walks me over and turns on the shower. I jumped in with my clothes on. I remember (thinking), 'I don't think this is right,' but I wasn't worried about it."

Henry pulled off his filthy shirt and began to use it as a wash cloth. That's about the time Little came upon the scene.

Little, fearing Henry had suffered significant brain damage, ordered the pilot taken to a nearby hospital for MRIs, a CAT Scan and other tests. The trip to the hospital was briefly delayed because Henry, who for 26 years had been the master of one of the most sophisticated aircraft in the world, found he couldn't remember how to use a car's seat belt.

"At that point it was a 50/50 chance that I was going to survive," said Henry.

Meanwhile, it was about 7 a.m. Saturday in Penn Valley back in California, when Henry's wife, Sylvie, got a chilling call at home.

Kevin had been on the ground about two hours when she was told, "He's had an incident, but he's fine. We'll get him cleaned up, and he'll call you."

About six hours later, she got her second call.

"He's doing 50 percent better. His color is back."

Sylvie was becoming increasingly concerned.

"Instead of him getting better, I had the feeling he was getting worse every time they called, because the first time they called it was kind of like a minor incident.

"As time went on he was 50 percent better, or he was 80 percent better. Then his color was back. Then they had to dive him, or they had to dive him again. There was just this progression, and I still wasn't hearing from him," she said.

Tuesday night Sylvie got her first call from her husband.

"It was like somebody a bad actor was trying to sound drunk or on drugs or something. It was almost incoherent, with an old broken-up voice, and he wasn't making much sense. He was able to say that he was 'OK.' I'm sure he thought he was doing great, but it was really scary because I thought, 'Somebody cannot sound like that and be right'."

Looking back at that call, Henry said, "It was kind of funny that I could dial an international phone number and still be so out of it. I think I had had two dives by then."

After that disturbing call from Kevin Tuesday, communication stopped.

"Wednesday I thought he was dead and that was why he was not calling," said Sylvie.

By Thursday she couldn't stand not knowing anymore. She called the wife of Henry's commander.

"I kind of lost my cool with his wife. She picked up the phone and called his boss at work and said, 'He needs to call now, because she thinks that he's dead'."

A few hours later, Kevin called.

"He didn't have this weird variation in his voice. He sounded a little better, but it still wasn't Kevin," said Sylvie.

By this point she believed Kevin would live, but Sylvie was not at all sure he would come back as the man she married.

She remembered thinking, "How am I supposed to react to him when he comes back, because he's so obviously not going to be all right?"

After a third stint in the dive chamber, Henry called home again Thursday night California time.

"He was totally back. He was normal. It was unbelievable. After hearing the first time, just three days maximum before, it was unbelievable that there would be such an improvement," she recalled.

Henry had a fourth session in the dive chamber. He was staying in the hospital. He said the care and the kindness he received in the "host nation" hospital was astounding.

While he was still in the hospital, the U.S. Air Force organized a ceremony to award medals and certificates to the Mirage pilots and others who did so much to keep Henry alive.

While he still is prohibited from saying which country they fly for, Henry described the Mirage pilots, Capt. Abullah Al-Kaabi and Lt. Marwan Ahmed, as "the bravest men I ever met."

Henry was also awarded a tongue-in-cheek certificate of achievement for the "air show" he and the Mirages put on over the air base.

"I traumatized about everybody on base, because everybody saw this," he explained.

While everybody saw the meandering maneuvers, not everybody understood what they were seeing.

He said there were Americans in the "chow hall" who thought the Mirages were trying to shoot him down.

Even though Sylvie was relieved by the dramatic improvement in her husband's condition, she harbored a fear something was still going to be wrong.

She was afraid, "He's going to say something totally bizarre or he's going to do something totally bizarre, but he didn't. He's back and doing great."

Since his return to Beale, Henry has been largely assigned to ground duties.

Henry's future as a U-2 pilot is still undecided. He has been back in the cockpit a couple of times. During one of those flights, he suffered what may have been mild decompression sickness symptoms, and he is currently grounded pending further tests.

The veteran pilot still has no real explanation of how he survived that flight.

At the same time many details of what happened to him that day in March have returned.

One of the things he has remembered was when he first realized he was over the base. Then a bit of a Carrie Underwood song had come to mind.

"Jesus take the wheel. Take it from my hands. Cause I can't do this all my own. I'm letting go. So give me one more chance to save me from this road I'm on. Jesus take the wheel."

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