Dilbert Dunker

The Dilbert Dunker is a training device used to teach Navy pilots how to extract themselves from an aircraft which crashed into the ocean. The Dilbert Dunker is a cockpit mounted on rails above a swimming pool.

When released it slides down the rails, flipping over when entering the water, and sinking to the bottom of the pool. The challenge for the enclosed pilot is to overcome the floatation of the flight gear which traps him or her in the cockpit. After freeing yourself from the seat belts you pull yourself downward out of the inverted cockpit so as to be able to swim—hopefully—to the surface.

The following are the words of Lieutenant Jim Donovon, my friend and fellow Navy pilot who was able to put that training to actual use in an amazing story of survival.

“I was the instructor in a E1B “Tracker” twin engine aircraft on the USS Lexington in 1966 doing night carrier quals with a new pilot in the left seat. On our third launch the catapult holdback fitting broke prematurely just as we got the launch salute. The aircraft was accelerating toward the bow with max power and wind over the deck but no catapult thrust. The aircraft staggered into the air in a stall. We pulled up the gear and dumped fuel but couldn’t get flying speed. We pancaked in front of the onrushing bow of the Lex. We bounced once and the plane flipped inverted.

The cockpit filled with water quickly and that old Delbert Dunker training paid off as I undid my harness and pulled myself downward out of the plane’s overhead hatch. We were sinking in the dark, but by watching the bubbles, I followed them to the surface. I inflated my vest but saw the Lex bow was about to hit me. I swam away as fast as I could, aided by the carrier’s bow wave but still scrapped along the hull and heard the churning screws. Then I lost consciousness.

Coming to moments later, I suddenly had an ‘out of body’ experience. I saw my recently deceased grandmother was welcoming me into a bright tunnel with other departed family members also there. Then my senses returned and I saw the stern of the carrier beside me.  Crewmembers on deck had thrown flashlights at me to mark my position. All of my senses came back in vivid fashion. I even remembered the “tits” on the end of my flare and was able to light it off.

Luckily the carrier’s captain had just come onto the bridge as we launched and saw the potential danger of running over us and ordered full rudder over. The turn was unexpected and many crew were thrown from their bunks by the evasive maneuver. Lots of wardroom china got broken.

The water was alive with floodlights from the ship and a light from the angel helicopter was in a hover over me. A rescue swimmer dropped beside me and I gave him a big hug and a thumbs up. We were lifted to the carrier’s deck. The other pilot was already aboard and we hugged in a joyful reunion. We were welcomed by the XO and the docs and taken to sick bay where we were given a shot of “Jack Daniels” to calm us down.

An accident report found that the holdback fitting was defective, and 49 others defective fittings were found in the fleet.

After my Navy tour, I decided to spend the rest of my airborne career at 35,000 feet, in short sleeves, on autopilot, trying to choose between filet mignon and prime rib.”

Jim Donovon

4 thoughts on “Dilbert Dunker

  1. That is one heckuva srory, Jim. Thanks for sharing it.

  2. Jim, a very nerve wracking experience by your friend. It appears that all of your fellow pilots and shipmates worked together in making a positive outcome. Very impressive.

Comments are closed.