A few weeks after his fighter jet smashed into the ground in a crowd-silencing crash before 350,000 horrified onlookers at the El Toro Air Show, Marine Corps pilot Col. Jerry Cadick weakly whispered to those around his hospital bed that one day he would fly again.
Everyone nodded sympathetically, but few believed that it would happen.
The crash at the air show in April, 1988, crushed Cadick’s face, broke his neck in three places and shattered five ribs. An arm and both legs were broken, and both ankles were splintered. A vertebra in his lower spine exploded.
Cadick’s family, close friends and surgeons worried about whether the veteran fighter pilot would ever walk again, let alone fly.
But three years after his F/A-18 Hornet nosed toward earth from 2,150 feet and slammed into a runway at El Toro Marine Corps Air Station, Jerry Cadick is back in the cockpit.
It hasn’t been easy, Cadick said of his recovery.
During his lengthy rehabilitation, he had to put himself back together both physically and emotionally. With the help of his wife, Vicki, he said, he “gutted out” the pain and depression and--worst of all--his forced medical retirement from the Marine Corps, where he spent 26 years and was in line for a possible promotion to brigadier general.
But not only is he now walking and riding his bicycle around his San Clemente neighborhood, he has obtained a commercial pilot’s license and is flying again.
“There is life after the Marine Corps,” the former group commander at El Toro quipped. “And it’s pretty good.”
In his first in-depth interview since his recovery, Cadick, 49, a Navy “Top Gun” fighter school graduate and highly decorated pilot who flew 150 Vietnam combat missions, talked about his career-ending crash and his new life away from the corps.
“It all happened in a six-month period or so. I broke my body, I broke a perfectly good F-18, failed to get promoted to a general officer . . . and got medically retired,” Cadick said.
“All that stuff came down on me. I really hit rock bottom, and it was pretty tough, but it is over now,” he said. “Really, nobody could help me. I had to help myself, and the only thing that cures that is time. So basically, I just gutted it out.”
Metal rings now take the place of his crushed eye sockets. His limbs are held together by metal plates, bars and dozens of screws. But other than a small limp, he appears to be completely recovered.
“I haven’t tried to get on a commercial flight yet, but I’m sure I would have trouble getting through the airport metal detector,” Cadick joked. “I am pretty bionic. They did a great job of putting me back together. They even gave me my 20-20 vision back.”
Cadick said the thousands of letters from well-wishers helped him through his ordeal.
During rehabilitation, Cadick got a master’s degree in international business at National University. After raising money from investors, he recently started a commercial venture that deals with two important things in his life: airplanes and the military.
His company, Tactical Military Air Training Systems, based in San Clemente, is testing a unique laser and smoke system designed to let military pilots engaged in mock aerial combat know instantly if a simulated missile has been launched in their direction and if it has found its target--information that fliers now have to wait for until after the dogfight is over and they land and review videotapes.
Cadick said he hopes to sell the system to the Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps and several foreign countries.
Standing on the hot Tarmac at Chino Airport beside a vintage, propeller-driven T-28 combat trainer last week, Cadick told how a bright orange, specially equipped missile nestled under the aircraft’s wing, dubbed ACEwinder, emits streams or puffs of white smoke, indicating a simulated missile launch or a laser hit.
As he talked, he moved closer to the plane. Finally, he turned to a reporter and said, “Let’s go flying.”
Watching Cadick in the cockpit, and his meticulous preparation before takeoff, left no doubt that this is where he belongs.
“This is worth all the money in the world,” Cadick said over the intercom as he completed a “canopy roll” at 9,000 feet just east of Lake Elsinore.
He scanned the sky as if it was his place, a familiar, friendly world.
In the months to come, Cadick plans to lease a jet, maybe even a Soviet MiG, to personally test his smoke and laser system at supersonic speeds and at all altitudes up to 40,000 feet.
“I am going to test it myself, because I understand what a dogfight arena is,” said Cadick, dressed in a tan jumpsuit with his pilot’s call sign, Kamikaze, inscribed on a breast pocket and his “Top Gun” patch on his sleeve. “I will feel comfortable only if I go up and see what the missile does.”
Cadick said his life began to turn around the day he met Chino air show pilot Frank C. Sanders in the fall of 1988, six months after his accident. Sanders helped Cadick figure out what happened to cause his F/A-18 to slam into the ground at a force 75 times greater than that of gravity.
But, more important, Cadick recalled, Sanders said one day, “Let’s go flying.”
“All the doctors and all the surgeons working on me would have fainted,” Cadick said. “But it was the best therapy in the world for me.”
To this day, Cadick said, he cannot remember a thing about his crash.
After months of study, however, Sanders--with the help of cockpit film from Cadick’s F/A-18 showing exact airspeeds, altitude and attitude, and films shot from the ground--began piecing together the events that ended with the smoldering wreckage of Cadick’s $30-million plane at the end of the El Toro runway.
The maneuver that Cadick was performing that day is known as a “square Immelman.” Done correctly, the plane passes low in front of the crowd, pulls into a vertical climb and then turns over on its back away from the crowd.
But things began to go wrong as Cadick pulled out of his climb. His airspeed was dangerously low. Sanders theorized that Cadick was concentrating so intently on picking up more speed that he missed his cue to turn. When he pulled back on the stick, he drove the plane into the ground rather than horizontally away from the crowd.
“It drove me crazy trying to figure out what happened,” Cadick said. “I racked my brain trying to recall what happened. Either it’s no longer there or it’s so tightly locked up that it won’t come out.”
Tragically, Sanders was killed on May 4, 1990, when his T-33 jet crashed at an air show in New Mexico.
Cadick said his company is developing the aerial combat training aid along with his friend’s company, Sanders Aircraft Inc., now operated by Sanders’ wife, Ruth, and two sons, Dennis and Brian.
For Cadick, who has come to terms with his own crash, what has happened has happened. He is not dwelling on what might have been.
“I’m putting on my backpack and heading straight up the mountain,” he said like a true Marine. “I’m not looking back and rehashing history. Thank goodness I feel that way, or I would still be back there swilling around.”