Why an airman had to shoot down his own plane – while flying it
At the height of the Korean War, Air Force pilot A.J. D'Amario was on his first solo flight since arriving in country. Luckily for him, it wasn't a combat mission, he was just on a routine sortie to "have fun boring holes in the sky." Things got a lot more interesting for D'Amario immediately upon taking off. He would have to put a few rounds from his sidearm in the plane before he could bring it down.
D'Amario's P-80 Shooting Star jet fighter wasn't the latest and greatest plane, but it was still a good fighter to have. He would have to get used to it. The MiG-15 was tearing through P-80 Fighters, but there weren't yet enough F-86 Sabres to go around. Still, the P-80 held its own: the first American jet-to-jet kill was made behind the stick of a Shooting Star. None of that was on D'Amario's mind as he shot up into the wild blue yonder. He was more concerned about his left fuel tank. It felt heavy – it wasn't feeding fuel to the engine.
He wanted to land immediately, but that much fuel was a no-go for the Korean War-era U.S. Air Force. The tower at Suwan, Korea, wasn't about to have a melted runway if that much jet fuel caught fire on the flightline. They told him to dump his tanks at a bomb range and then come back.
D'Amario retired from the Air Force as a Lt. Col.
(U.S. Air Force)
The young pilot flew over to the range, and as soon as he came upon his target area, he flipped the switches for the bomb release. Unfortunately, nothing happened. D'Amario's P-80 Shooting Star was still carrying the heavy tanks of dangerous fuel and had no way of dumping the tanks, feeding the engine, or landing. He did what anyone who's felt enough frustration with malfunctioning equipment wanted to do: he shot it.
But that wasn't his first reaction. He made a few bombing runs, trying to release the left tank at every turn. He even once hit the plane's "panic button" – the button that released everything attached to the fuselage. It did dump everything, everything except his errant fuel tank, full of fiery death. The tower told him he was cleared to bail out. The only problem with that is that bailing out comes with its own potential consequences. The loss of the aircraft is a definite consequence.
"... pilots really hate to punch out of a perfectly flyable airplane," D'Amario later wrote, "And I figured I still had one option worth trying."
U.S. Air Force P-80 Shooting Stars with drop tanks.
That's when the pilot opened the canopy of his jet aircraft (which he did slow down to 220 miles per hour) and pulled out his issued sidearm, a Colt M1911, and fired at the very full, very malfunctioning fuel tank.
"... liquid fuel will not burn," D'Amario writes. "At least not like vapors, so I aimed for the part of the tank I was sure would be full of liquid."
D'Amario fired four shots at the tank. The first shot was to understand just where to shoot to hit the tank while flying at 220 miles per hour. The next three rounds punctured the tank and went through the other side. It worked: the P-80 was still flying, and liquid fuel was pouring out of the left tank. Best of all, D'Amario and his Shooting Star did not become a real-life burning streak across the sky.
He was able to drain the tank and make a "routine" landing a half-hour later, convinced he was the only USAF pilot to shoot his own plane when it malfunctioned.
"Thank goodness for my .45," he wrote.