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Former Navy pilot’s crash, underwater escape inspires safety design changes

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LITTLETON, Colo. -- When you ask former U.S. Navy fighter pilot Norman Lee Sothan what kind of pilot he was, he will cut right to the chase and answer, "A damn good one."

What did he like most about being a fighter pilot?

"Everything," he said.

You get the point.

Assigned to the USS Intrepid in 1957, Sothan was completing his routine and mandatory qualification landings on the USS Essex.

"Every time you go to a different ship, the skipper of the ship says all my pilots are going to qualify," he said.

Sothan successfully completed his 10 qualifying landings on the Essex, but after the 10th is when things went wrong. The brakes on his F-4D Skyray jet fighter failed.

"I literally rolled over the side, into the water," he said.

Seventy-five feet and sinking fast, the plane was still upside down.

"And the only way I could get out was to pull the ejection handle and that blew the canopy." Sothan said.

The only reason the canopy opened was because of a crack caused by the crash. That allowed water to enter the cabin, neutralizing the pressure.

"The Lord was with me," Sothan said.

That day, March 22, 1957, was like yesterday for the now-86-year-old former aviator.

"I give thanks to the Lord," he said.

And, no doubt, to the angels on his wings.

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