On Jan. 23, 1967, Lt. Col. Barry Bridger and his copilot, Dave Grey, launched a mission over Vietnam in their F-4 Phantom fighter jet in treacherous weather. It was Bridger’s 75th mission and the only one he had attempted in the daylight hours.
Suddenly, his plane was split in half by a ground-to-air missile. He and Grey ejected while the plane was going 600 miles per hour and began their descent into the unknown below. When Bridger finally landed on terra firma, he found the North Vietnamese army waiting for him. They arrested him and Grey and checked them into The Hanoi Hilton — a place designed to break the spirit of all who entered.
Barry Bridger survived that hellish experience and even thrived. He will tell you without any hesitation that it was his deeply held values that made it possible to withstand the torture he and his fellow prisoners of war were subjected to.
“The Spirit to Soar” is Barry’s life story penned by his long-time friend and colleague, Jim Petersen.
On January 23, 1967, my copilot, Dave Grey, and I launched a mission in our Phantom F4 fighter jet in treacherous weather. It was my seventy-fifth mission and the only daytime mission I ever attempted.
Every 2,000 feet, we hit a deck of clouds. We were flying in the clear 4,000 feet above the last deck of clouds. That’s the last place you want to be because when a missile comes out of the clouds, as fast as those SA-2 missiles were able to fly, you have only seconds to dodge or detect the missile. At least I knew to look left 10 o’clock and left 8 o’clock for possible surface-to-air (SAM) missile activity. Suddenly I saw a glow coming up through the clouds at left 10 o’clock. I hit my mic button and said, “Bobcat flight break left, SAM 10 o’clock low.”
We had been briefed to not take evasive action but trust the pod. After I called the missile out to the rest of the flight, we started a gentle turn, maintaining “pod formation.” I did not see the second missile coming from left 8 o’clock. I became quite anxious. A gentle turn didn’t make sense, and my aircraft had no pod. So I flipped upside down and pulled straight down toward the Earth.
Then I heard an explosion.
Due to the impact of the missile and the aircraft coming apart, all the warning lights in the cockpit lit up. There are a lot of caution lights in a fighter aircraft. I was somewhat mesmerized by all the lights clicking on at once. I don’t think I’d ever seen them. I looked at my dash panel, and all those lights lit up. It said, “You need to service your hydraulic reservoir. Your oil pressure’s low on the right engine. Your left engine is overheating. Your right engine is on fire.” Then one light that I had never seen came on that said, “You’re in deep kimchi.”
Then the stick went limp, and fire was everywhere. Captain Dave Grey, my copilot, figured I was dead, so he ejected. I didn’t even know he left the aircraft. I never heard him go. Meanwhile, I was sitting there looking at all those lights, still going about 600 miles an hour, true air speed. With the wings and tail gone, the aircraft was spinning uncontrollably through the air. I reached for the ejection handle unsuccessfully due to the torque created by my rapidly spinning aircraft. Then my adrenaline kicked in, and my second effort was successful. I said to myself, “It is going to be very breezy.”
I shut my eyes, pulled the handle, and ejected from the aircraft. It was breezy as hell, and when I opened my eyes, I was blind. I said, “Oh, great. Now I can’t see.” I grabbed at my face and discovered, to my great joy, that my helmet had spun around on my head, and I was looking into the back of the helmet. I turned it around and said, “Yes! I can see!” Shrapnel had hit my helmet and loosened it enough to spin it around on my head. The shrapnel had also left a deep cut in the top of my skull, which was bleeding profusely.
I left the aircraft sitting in the ejection seat. Upon ejection, a chute attached to the seat is deployed to stabilize it and allows it to descend at a controlled rate of speed of about 80 miles per hour. A pressure sensor on the seat detects when you hit 10,000 feet pressure altitude, automatically kicks you out of the seat, and deploys your main parachute so you can safely descend to the Earth.
The clouds that day were layered about every 2,000 feet, and each layer was about 500 feet thick. I couldn’t see the ground. I was just falling through decks of clouds — thump, thump, thump. I was also looking up at the altitude sensor on the side of the seat, saying to myself, “That sucker had better work because, eventually, there’s going to be dirt in one of these decks of clouds.”
After a while, my mathematical mind cranked up and I thought, “Well, let me calculate how far I’ve fallen. I’m falling at about 125 feet per second and I guess I have been falling for about 80 seconds, which means I have fallen about 10,000 feet. I ejected at 20,000 feet. So why hasn’t my main chute deployed?”
At that moment, I lost all confidence in the pressure sensor. I decided to manually separate from the ejection seat and deploy my main chute myself. I reached down and pulled a handle that would release me and my main parachute from the ejection seat. Now it was up to me to pull my parachute handle, my ripcord to inflate my parachute, and safely descend to the Earth. In other words, I no longer had an automatic system to deploy my main parachute.
The instant I pulled that handle and the seat sped away from me, I saw a strap fly up over my head. Instinctively, I reached up and grabbed it. Now I was free falling at about 125 miles an hour, looking at that strap that was hooked to a bag about 9 feet over my head. It dawned on me that the bag had to be my chute, but I couldn’t figure out why it was nine feet over my head. So I pulled the bag down to my hands. But initially, I still could not find a handle to deploy my chute. Within moments, I did find the handle attached to my right shoulder harness, where it belonged. So I pulled it. Of course, the chute opened rights there in front of my eyes and snapped me — damn near broke my back. I learned later you don’t want to deploy the chute close to your body because when it inflates, it can break your back as it snaps open with the air. You really want it up above you, completely extended, to avoid injury.
I did it the wrong way. I deployed my own chute manually, after I had ejected from the aircraft. That’s probably one of the reasons my back has been injured ever since. But we never practiced ejecting from aircraft. I did what came naturally to me in the moment.
I don’t know if anyone else has ever done what I did. Most people rely on automatic deployment when they eject. Of course, most people fly in a non-weather environment. Mine was a very severe-weather environment, and that complicated the whole process. It would have been much easier if I had been able to see the ground. But 2,000 feet below me was another deck of clouds. Who knows what it was hiding? I didn’t know.
During that incredible event, I was busy trying to figure out how to do things. It never crossed my mind that anything was going to happen other than the fact that I needed to pay attention to what I was going to do next. I was completely engaged in my attempts to monitor my descent and survive my parachute opening.
I had no idea of the hell that was waiting on me. What happened next was a defining moment that completely altered the trajectory of my life.
This excerpt from “The Spirit to Soar,” © February 2022 Morgan James Books, was published with permission of the author.
Jim Petersen is the CEO and Founding Principal of Diversified Professional Coaching, LLC. He completed almost a 22-year career in the Navy and Naval Reserve as a submarine officer, retiring with the rank of captain. He graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy with a Bachelor of Science, and he earned Master of Science both in management and financial services from The American College of Financial Services. Petersen is the author two other books: “From Combat to Client Service” and “From Combat to Corporate Life,” which focus, respectively, on recruiting military veterans for financial services and for any industry. He and his wife, Louise, have three children and two grandchildren. They split their time between their homes in Fort Worth, Texas, and Orlando, Florida.
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