BEAUFORT, S.C. — Phil Neubig, 83, starts his story by saying you’ll never believe him.
Fifty-four years before supersonic skydiver Felix Baumgartner awed the world with his drop from the edge of Earth’s atmosphere, a 28-year-old first lieutenant in the Marine Corps Reserves had his own dalliance with the speed of sound.
Neubig, who now lives in the Mossy Oaks area of Beaufort, was released from drills one weekend in 1958 and allowed to fly a Grumman F9F-6 Cougar fighter jet from Glenview, Ill., to Alabama. He was on his way to be with his wife, Marianne, and son Nick, who were dealing with the death of her father and grandmother.
The flight was going fine until Neubig hit a thunderstorm. His instruments failed, then the plane stalled.
Neubig went into an inverted fall to 10,000 feet – the minimum ejection altitude at the speed he was flying.
At “10,000 feet at Mach 1, you cover a mile every five seconds,” he recounted. “So it was 10 seconds before I would hit. So at 10,000 feet, I knew it was time to get out.”
Neubig ejected from the plane, which was descending at 760 mph, nearly the speed of sound.
“I assume I was knocked out as soon as I went through the canopy and hit the slipstream,” he said. “It split my helmet right in two. They found it held together by the straps in a field.”
His ejection seat tore through his parachute, ripping out 10 of the chute’s 28 panels.
“I’m pretty sure I’m the only one who ever punched out at Mach 1 with a busted chute and survived,” Neubig said.
He continued performing the ejection procedures, which had been drilled into him through years of Marine Corps aviation training, despite slipping in and out of consciousness.
“Your mind keeps going after repeated training,” he said. “You don’t have to think. That’s the good thing about Marines.”
About 400 feet above ground, he regained consciousness but could not see. He had been blinded by an injury from the accident. He recalls the creaking of his parachute ropes above him, similar to the sound of rigging on an old sailboat flapping in the wind.
“I didn’t remember what happened, but knew I was descending and I remember thinking, ‘I better bend my knees so I don’t hit stiff-legged and jam them up through my body,’” Neubig said.
He landed in a cornfield in Waterford, Wis. Neubig says he survived only because a farmer and his son saw his descent and rushed to help.
The plane disintegrated on impact a few miles away, leaving a 30-foot-wide crater. The biggest piece they could find measured no more than 8 inches around, Neubig said. An article in the Milwaukee Sentinel recorded the details of the crash.
Doctors at a hospital immediately began repairing his battered body – he suffered internal injuries and broke an arm and both legs and knees. Neubig thought he was in heaven when he awoke to find an attractive nurse cradling his head. A priest administered last rites on his first night at the hospital, and he stayed in intensive care four days.
After eight months of “getting put back together” at Great Lakes Naval Hospital, Neubig returned to work as a pilot for United Airlines, where he had been working before the crash.
Returning to the pilot’s seat wasn’t a problem.
“I never saw it as tragic,” Neubig said of his crash. “It was part of the experience.”
He retired in 1989 after 34 years with the airline.
Neubig decided to tell his story after reading about Baumgartner’s record-breaking, 24-mile-high free fall in October. The Austrian parachutist known as “Fearless Felix” reached 843.6 mph, according to official numbers released last week. That’s equivalent to Mach 1.25, or 1.25 times the speed of sound.
“He did that the easy way,” Neubig quipped. “He just stepped out and fell. I had to punch out and bust my head.”
With a mischievous grin, Neubig wraps up his story with a question:
“Have I told you enough lies yet?”