It was a beautiful winter day over France in February of 1959, with the bright sunshine of a clear blue sky glistening off the snow-covered Alps. Lyon Air Museum Docent Jim Buehner skillfully guided a sleek F-100D Super Sabre fighter over the French-Swiss border, just west of Geneva. Jim was flying the aircraft to Wheelus Air Force Base (AFB) in Libya for repairs, and flying along with him were two other F-100s scheduled for gunnery training in the vast deserts south of Tripoli.
Cruising at 35,000 feet and traveling at mach .84 (644 miles per hour), the ejection seat in Jim’s aircraft spontaneously fired, sending him right through the canopy and tumbling into the thin, cold air. One of his last memories before blacking out from lack of oxygen was seeing the three airplanes fly off into the distance, with his pilotless fighter starting to veer off-course. He regained consciousness again at about 15,000 feet as he was slowly descending by parachute towards a French farm. “I had been through Army jump school, so I didn’t have a problem with the parachute deployment or landing. I just had no idea where I was. I’m also sure there was still some lingering shock as to what had just happened.”
After safely landing he began walking and found a rural road just a few yards from his impact point. A French farmer happened to come along in his truck, who took Jim to the local church, then a hospital, where he was able to contact his command and explain the surreal events. Coincidently, it was also Jim’s birthday.
“I was in cruise and everything was normal” Jim recalls, “and with no warning or indiction whatsoever I was ejected out of my aircraft. I could have broken my neck, legs or even lost an extremity or two. Both of my feet were on the rudder pedals, beneath the control panel. However the only injury I received was a minor cut on my wrist. The Lord certainly had my guardian angel working overtime!”
Jim was taking the F-100 to Libya for repairs to the pilot air conditioning system. The control for the system was stuck in full heat position, resulting in hot air from the engines being pumped into the cockpit. At some point the heat became so great that it caused one of the two explosive charges underneath his seat to ignite, triggering the ejection mechanism. The incident was notable enough to be written about in Stars and Stripes magazine.
At first the Air Force accident investigation believed there had to be some culpability on the pilot, as no ejection seat had ever fired in cruise flight for no reason. In yet another Godly favor for Jim, the seat was eventually found, which cleared him from any blame as it conclusively showed the ejection had not been initiated by the pilot.
Jim is a California native who grew up in the Los Angeles area during the depression and World War II. He was bitten by the flying bug at three years old, when he was taken to a local air show to watch an aerobatic barnstormer perform in an open-cockpit biplane. His father bought a ride on the plane for Jim, who rode in the back seat in the lap of his grandmother. He remembers “looking down from that airplane on the expanses of southern California, with the wind rushing through my hair, I was hooked. Flying became my destiny.”
Jim tried to take flying lessons while growing up, but money was tight. He did take a semester of aeronautics in high school, however there were no flight hours as part of the curriculum, only basic ground instruction. Promised lessons from a family friend who raced aircraft dissolved when he was killed in an aircraft accident. Years later, Jim was able to take a few glider rides with his cousin at El Mirage dry lake bed prior to entering the military. Tragically, his cousin died shortly thereafter while flying a glider tow plane. Though not a pilot yet, he was already learning a stark reality of aviation. As fun and rewarding as flying can be, it can also be terribly unforgiving of complacency and mistakes.
After graduating high school Jim entered the University of Southern California (USC), where he enrolled in the Air Force Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC), eventually earning a degree in geology. In January of 1956 he reported for duty with the Air Force with no prior flight training and a burning desire to become a military aviator. After passing a rigorous physical exam he was deemed fit for pilot training. “I want to fly as much as possible, so I figured I would end up flying multi-engine” Jim recalls. “When we went through all the aptitude tests and such, they told me I was going to fighters and I was happy with that.”
Jim headed to Bartow AFB in Florida for basic pilot training in piston aircraft such as the AT-6 Texan. He then went to Webb AFB in Texas where he trained in jet aircraft such as the T-33 Shooting Star, earning his wings after a year of intensive training. This was followed by six months of instruction in gunnery and ordinance at Williams AFB in Arizona, where he qualified in the F-86. Jim then spent a month at Nellis AFB in Nevada, where he became qualified in the F-100. He was ultimately assigned to fly both the F-86H Sabre and F-100D Super Sabre, the Air Force’s premiere fighter jets of the time. The Super Sabre featured four 20mm machine guns for close air-to-air engagement that made it a formidable opponent to the Soviet MiGs appearing within the sphere of the Eastern Bloc. It could also fly supersonic in straight and level flight.
After his training and qualifications were complete Jim was given orders to Europe, assigned to the 81st Squadron of the 50th Tactical Air Fighter Wing. Here he would become a “cold warrior” in detente; the military standoff and mutually assured nuclear destruction between NATO and the Warsaw Pact. His aircraft was capable of carrying a one-megaton nuclear bomb that was not dropped from or launched under wing, but rather lobbed. Known colloquially as an “over the shoulder’ launch or technically as Low Altitude Bombing System (LABS), the aircraft would climb fast at a steep angle before releasing the ordinance. The momentum would carry the bomb up and forward, before arcing and finally dropping to the target. This maneuver was supposed to, in theory at least, give the launching aircraft time to escape the effects of the blast. Fortunately for Jim and countless others, the use of this weapon never became necessary.
While in Europe Jim was stationed at Toul-Rosières AFB in France and Hahn AFB in Germany, flying missions to keep the Soviet threat contained to eastern Europe.
After nearly five years in uniform, Jim left the Air Force and joined United Airlines in October of 1960. Flying all over the world gave Jim extraordinary opportunities and many memorable journeys. Like so many of his contemporaries of the time, he cites the approach to Runway 13 at old Hong Kong Kai Tak airport as a favorite. Arriving aircraft would fly a base leg straight towards a hill with a checkerboard marker before making an unusually steep turn to final approach. Coming in over densely populated apartment buildings, crews and passengers alike could look out and see families in their homes going about their daily lives, conditionally oblivious to the massive jumbo jets flying just outside their windows. As a buzzing international metropolis, Jim also appreciated the exotic flavor of the former British colony. He also enjoyed flying to Germany, a country he had flown over many times during his tenure in the Air Force. “There was some familiarity there with the country, the people and their culture. I could really enjoy my down time there between flights.”
Jim spent 32.5 years with the airline, flying a diverse inventory of aircraft such as the Douglas DC-8 and DC-10 as well as the Boeing 727 and 737. He retired from United as captain of the “Queen of the Skies”, the Boeing 747. During the span of his decades in the cockpit there were some challenges and close calls; fortunately nothing that ever made headlines. His finished his long and illustrious career with over 18,000 flight hours and countless millions of miles criss-crossing the globe.
From his grandmother’s lap he sat: a dream was born which through hard work, determination and skill became a lifetime of reality. From flying fighters during the Cold War to the decades he spent piloting jumbo jets and safely delivering travelers from around the world to their destinations, Jim has certainly lived an extraordinary life. Lyon Air Museum is fortunate to have him as a member of our Docent team, and profoundly thankful for his service to both our museum, and nation.
Article written by Dan Heller