In 1952, Korean War fighter pilot Lt. Col. A.J. D'Amario took off from an airstrip at Suwon, Korea in a F-80 Shooting Star jet fighter. It wasn’t supposed to be a big deal. He wasn’t going into combat and his plane was – he thought – in perfect working condition. He was wrong.
D'Amario’s seemingly inconsequential flight was soon turned into a mid-air fight for his life that would see him turn his sidearm on his own plane before he could land safely.
Writing on TailSpinTales, an aviation enthusiast blog, the then-retired Lt. Col. D'Amario recalled his 1952 flight at the height of the Korean War. He wasn’t going to see the enemy and his mission, as he put it, was “have fun boring holes in the sky for about an hour and a half.”
But almost immediately after takeoff, he could feel there was something wrong with his F-80 Shooting Star. The F-80 was the United States first operational jet fighter aircraft. It saw some action over Italy during World War II, but didn’t see extensive combat until years later in the Korean War.
D'Amario writes that his F-80 felt heavy in the left wing and he quickly surmised that the left fuel tank was not feeding into the engine. Since he could neither land with the fuel (as prohibited by the tower) nor use the fuel, he was told to fly over to a bomber training field and drop the tank there before landing.
So the pilot flew to the assigned bomber training field. But when the time came to drop the tank in a simulated bomb run, nothing happened. So D'Amario made another simulated bombing run. This time nothing still happened when he pressed the release button. So the pilot decided to give the bomb run one last shot.
This time, he was going to use the manual release for the drop tank. Nothing. On his fourth and final attempt to rid himself of the jammed fuel tank, he pressed what he called “the panic button.” This button was supposed to release everything attached to the wings of the airframe. It almost worked as advertised.
To D'Amario’s dismay, he did drop everything hanging off the Shooting Star’s fuselage. Except that left wing external fuel tank was still holding on strong. When he told the control tower that his tank wasn’t coming off, they advised him to give his coordinated, eject and wait for a rescue party.
“Well, pilots really hate to punch out of a perfectly flyable airplane and I figured I still had one option worth trying,” he wrote.
Dropping to the lowest possible speed he could for an F-80, he opened his canopy at 220 miles per hour and drew his .45 sidearm. Knowing the fuel would not burn in its liquid form, he aimed his issued Colt 1911 pistol at an area of the tank where he knew the fuel would be liquefied.
He fired the pistol at least four times in a desperate attempt to shoot himself down. He had a few solid hits, large enough to watch the liquid pouring out of the errant fuel tank. The airman at the stick of the Shooting Star decided to flay in a manner that would drain the excess fuel from his fuel tank.
With three solid holes and some fancy flying, the American drained the fuel as fast as they could. He flew in a series of so-called “fancy” maneuvers that would help drain the fuel out as fast as possible for another 30 minutes.
That’s exactly what happened. He was finally cleared to land.