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I joined my first A-7 squadron, the “Golden Warriors” of Attack Squadron VA-87, at the beginning of January 1981. They had deployed to the Indian Ocean aboard the USS Independence (CV-62 – a non-nuclear-powered – Forrestal Class carrier) the previous October. My trip from stateside had been long and interesting (see my post – “A Long Way to the Indian Ocean”). The carrier’s trip was more straightforward; departing Norfolk, VA, south around the southern tip of Africa and then north to the Indian Ocean.
There were no flight ops the day after I arrived. It was standard practice for the Air Wing to fly a few days and then take a couple of days off for maintenance of the catapults and arresting gear. I arrived during one of those non-flying days and the next opportunity to fly wouldn’t be for a couple more days. There were some administrative tasks to complete first so the delay wasn’t unexpected.
I flew my final carrier-qualification traps (landings) almost two weeks earlier on the USS Lexington (CVT-16) off Jacksonville, Florida.
Two weeks is a long time to go without a trap, especially when you’re fairly inexperienced. Plus, we were a long way from any potential divert airfield ashore. If you ran into a problem that prevented you from landing on the ship, your next option would have been an ejection nearby with a helo ride back to the carrier. No one, least of all the pilot, wanted that option. So, I was anxious to get airborne again before losing whatever skill had not yet atrophied during my long trip.
My new roommate, call sign “Bigfoot” (size 13 flight boots), had a full deployment under his belt and was one of the squadron’s Landing Safety Officers (LSO). Since my arrival, he had been generous with tips for flying around the ship and getting aboard safely and I was lucky to have him as a roommate.
When a typical “nugget” joins a squadron, his abilities and talent are a big question mark. Everyone wants to know whether he’s a good guy, a decent “stick”, whether he’ll fit in and add to the squadron’s reputation, or require extra mentoring. His potential and abilities are probably a mystery to him too since his previous experience consists of earning his Naval Aviation Wings followed by learning to fly a specific fleet aircraft in the transition squadron.
I was still a nugget even though I’d had an additional 15 months of flight experience, flying as a flight instructor in the TA-4J Skyhawk and teaching Instrument flying and landings. In fact, my experience “around the ship”, was even less than a typical nugget’s on his first deployment because I hadn’t been with the squadron during their training prior to deployment. I had missed a lot of valuable practice. The question was whether I could pick up what I needed to know quickly enough and without damaging my reputation and the squadron’s.
Finally on January 5, 1981, almost 5 days after joining the squadron, I was scheduled for my first flight. We were several hundred miles south of Iran in the Indian Ocean. It was a typical hot, muggy but clear day. In a squadron with single-pilot aircraft (like the A-7E Corsair II) the first several flights are as a wingman with one of the senior pilots so I was scheduled to fly with the Skipper on the first launch of the day, a short 1 hour and 15-minutes from launch to recovery.
I wanted to be known as a “can-do” guy, and to show that I could keep up with the more experienced junior pilots in the squadron. I allowed myself to be talked into something I should have politely declined and that made my first flight off the Indy memorable mostly for what went wrong.
Our briefed “mission” was practice bombing. We each carried six MK-76 practice bombs (25-lb. training bombs meant to have the aerodynamics of a real bomb without the weight and expense) on a wing-mounted multi-rack (multiple-ejector-rack: MER) which allowed you to carry all six bomblets on a single wing pylon.
This scale model shows a Sidewinder missile on the left fuselage station (#4), a single bomb on wing station #1, a MER with six bombs on station #2 and a Forward Looking Infared (FLIR) pod on station #3. My load only had the station #2 MER.
I was excited to fly with the Skipper and to do the practice bombing. That had been one of my favorite phases during training and I was sure that he’d be impressed. But the best-laid plans…
The Skipper launched while I was still trying to determine if my jet was flyable. It wasn’t. After doing a full startup and checklist, one of my critical avionics boxes failed and was unfixable in the remaining time available in the launch. I told the Squadron Duty Officer that my airplane was “down”. I was disappointed. I’d lost my chance to fly that morning. Not so fast. The Squadron Duty Officer (DO) disagreed.
His job was to ensure that every scheduled flight was completed. Every squadron was in competition with all the other squadrons. One of the criteria was “scheduled sorties completed”. If I didn’t get airborne, we’d lose a sortie and no one wanted a lost sortie, especially the Skipper.
The Duty Officer grabbed me as I climbed down from the cockpit and dragged me over to another aircraft. We were running out of time. Any minute now the Air Boss would end the launch. I started my most expeditious pre-flight and quickly noticed a problem. There were no practice bombs. The DO wanted me to fly an A‑7 tanker.
An A-7 tanker carries two 300-gallon external drop tanks on pylons on the right wing and the 300-gallon tanker “package” on the left wing station #1. That package consists of an external fuel tank with a powered reel and extendable hose for fueling other aircraft. (Shown to the right – Aircraft #314)
A tanker-configured A-7 holds 4,000 more pounds of fuel than a non-tanker with its single external drop tank (16,000 instead of 12,000-lbs.). At takeoff, it would weigh over 37,000 lbs! This meant a really spine-jarring bang of a launch off the cat. Plus, with all the external tanks on wing pylons, it had a lot more drag and would fly differently than any A‑7 I’d ever flown.
The Duty Officer had 18 months more carrier experience and I wanted to believe that his request was reasonable and just a routine challenge for a new guy. It wasn’t. It was a really bad idea.
The Navy had rules governing who could fly these specially configured A-7s. They were an important Air Wing asset because they refueled other aircraft in the Air Wing. Only “experienced” pilots were supposed to fly them and the definition of “experienced” was: having flown a complete deployment and be qualified to fly them ashore. Clearly, I didn’t meet that requirement and the Duty Officer should have known better.
When I objected that I’d never flown a tanker he brushed it off by saying “Don’t worry. The tanker package is just like a drop tank. Select this switch to transfer the gas into your internal tanks and make sure you’re light enough to land.” Well, that sounded simple enough. I soon discovered that he’d left out quite a bit…
I scrambled and succeeded in getting airborne before the launch ended. It was indeed a tooth-rattling catapult shot. And thanks to the high temperature and humidity of the Indian Ocean morning, the engine struggled to accelerate the heavily-laden jet. It took all the skill I possessed to gently coax the aircraft into a climb. I managed to get the gear up and watched anxiously as the Rate of Climb gauge barely registered positive and my altimeter slowly began to climb. Instead of the usual healthy climb I expected, it felt like I was only gaining altitude due to the curvature of the earth! (slight exaggeration!) Eventually, I had sufficient airspeed that my climb rate improved and I was able to climb up and rendezvous with the Skipper overhead the ship at the assigned squadron altitude.
When I joined up on his left wing his helmet turned and I swear he did a double-take. He signaled me over to the private squadron frequency and we had a “discussion” in which I mostly listened to all the reasons I wasn’t supposed to be in that airplane. Then he told me to hold overhead the ship while he went and dropped his practice bombs.
While he was gone, a couple of the F-4 Phantoms joined up with their refueling probes extended; hopeful at the prospect of receiving some extra “go-fast juice” only to be disappointed when I had to signal them that the tanker was not available. They banked away and disappeared to go do what fighter guys do (probably with a few choice words about the “unavailable” tanker).
I orbited at normal holding speed which didn’t burn a lot of fuel, even with all the extra drag. Before landing, I needed to completely drain the external tanks and get down to a total fuel weight of no more than 3,000-lbs. Heavier than that and two bad things could happen: 1) I could overstress (or break) the landing gear on touchdown; and 2) If I was heavier than maximum gross landing weight, the arresting gear might not stop me without damaging either or both my plane and the arresting motors.
It was even possible that the tail hook could get pulled off and if the plane was slowed down too much, it wouldn’t be able to get airborne again. It would just dribble off the end into the salty brine. The pilot’s only hope for survival then was to eject before the plane left the flight deck and hope his parachute didn’t get tangled up with the rapidly sinking airplane. That had happened to an A-6 Intruder on one of my deployments. The Bombardier/Navigator had escaped but the pilot’s chute became tangled in the airplane and he didn’t make it.
The Skipper returned and I rejoined on his wing. I’d been calculating how much more fuel I had to consume or dump before landing. The numbers said that I would have to dump a lot. I advised the Skipper how much I still needed to unload and he said to proceed. I began dumping the excess fuel as we descended from holding and entered the day landing pattern. I briefly stopped the fuel dumps while we flew up the starboard side of the ship at the 800-foot pattern entry altitude (nobody likes jet-fuel-rain) and then turned them back on once past. I finished dumping the last of the excess fuel during my “break”, the decelerating turn to the downwind leg. I dropped the landing gear and completed the landing checklist; double-checking the landing gear down and locked, the hook down, the seat harness locked, and fuel level again. Checklist complete.
Oops. I was a little tight abeam at the 180-position and had to wrap up my turn tighter than the normal 22.5 degrees. This meant I also had to carry some extra speed to stay above the stall speed. (The more angle-of-bank the faster the required airspeed.) I anticipated having to decelerate back to the proper wings-level “On-Speed” airspeed as I rolled onto final. What I didn’t anticipate was that the amount of power I needed to pull in a tanker with all the drag of the external fuel tanks, was a lot less than the amount I was accustomed to pulling when flying the clean A-7’s in the transition squadron.
The A-7s we learned to fly seldom had drop tanks and were very “slippery”; hard to slow down. If you were a little fast rolling into the groove you had to pull a lot of power to slow them down. Not so with the tanker (I belatedly discovered). It required just the smallest of throttle reductions followed immediately by restoring the power to the correct level. Otherwise, you sank like a rock.
I realized my mistake as soon as it began to happen but my power correction didn’t have time to do anything more than keep me from landing short. A perfect landing generally snags the 3rd wire from the stern. You work very hard to land past the #1 and #2 wire. I landed on the #1 wire. My first landing with this squadron! It was just as ugly when I watched the video replay afterward.
I knew I’d messed up the landing by how much extra landing area was still in front of me when the airplane came to a stop. I throttled back to idle, followed the flight director signals to raise my hook and taxied clear of the landing area so the rest of the planes could land. My feelings as I taxied up the bow to my parking spot were a mix of relief and frustration.
I was still upset as I walked back down to the Ready Room to wait for the LSOs to debrief our landings. I had been playing mental catch-up from before takeoff! I knew I’d earned the bad landing grade despite the extenuating circumstances. This is not how you want your first flight to go.
Fortunately, my roommate was one of the LSOs on the platform during my landing. He took me aside and gave me the bad news: I’d received a “No-grade; taxi 1-wire”, just about the worst you could do. But then he asked: “Why were you flying the tanker?” I explained and he shook his head. He then explained why I shouldn’t have been in that bird.
The Skipper didn’t have much to say in the debrief except to reiterate that I shouldn’t have been in the tanker. He was probably grateful that nothing worse than an ugly landing had been the result. It would have been nice if he’d been impressed with my ability to fly such an unfamiliar aircraft under unfavorable conditions. If he was, he kept it to himself.
It was a hard but valuable lesson that day. Sometimes you just have to say “No” to keep someone from putting you in a box. The requirements for flying a tanker wasn’t something I should have known. It had never been briefed, especially in my short time since joining the squadron. The Duty Officer had minimized the difficulty in order to convince me to take the bird. He was locked onto the target: Get the sortie(!), and hadn’t seen all the possible ways that decision could have gone badly wrong.
Over the next several flights I adjusted to the differences between the A-7s I’d flown in Jacksonville and the squadron planes and my landings improved. Eventually, my reputation recovered from that initial flight and by the end of the deployment my day landings had become almost routine. But no matter how well I flew them and how many I accumulated, night landings never became routine and most carrier pilots would agree with that statement.
I did learn to love and depend upon the HUD (Heads-Up-Display). Here’s a great video explaining the information it displayed. It was quite an advance for the 1960s and still pretty unusual when I flew in the late ’80s. Without it, night landings would have been considerably more difficult because it provided an immediate indication of your flight path. If you started to flatten out or come down too fast, the HUD showed that trend before any other gauge in the cockpit.
All airplanes have their quirks. One of the characteristics that made the A-7 tricky to land on the carrier where your airspeed, rate of descent, and glideslope have to be precisely controlled, was its engine response. The A-7E was stable in the landing configuration and nimble due to its size but the engine was slow to accelerate, especially if you started at a low rpm setting. The closer the engine was to idle, the more sluggishly it accelerated to full power. The air intake feeding its Allison TF-41-A-1 turbofan engine was 30 ft. long. The actual front of the engine was about even with the main landing gear at the back of the wing. The intake started under the nose. That’s a long way to feed air. As a general rule, the shorter the distance between the intake and the engine, the more quickly the engine can accelerate.
In the A-7, if you made the mistake of pulling the power too close to idle, it could take 2-3 seconds to get back to full power. Imagine a night landing where you started to go high on glideslope and pulled too much power. If you didn’t catch it before the engine decelerated, it didn’t matter how much you jammed full throttle, the engine might not respond quickly enough to prevent a dangerous rate of descent or worse.
Most of the other carrier jets at that time had their own quirks, but sluggish engine response wasn’t one of them. Corsair pilots were generally fond of their airplane and appreciated its ability to accurately deliver dumb (i.e.; unguided) bombs on target. By the late 80’s it was no longer survivable in a hot war with our expected adversaries and was replaced by the F/A-18 Hornet, a truly amazing dual mission (fighter and attack) jet with capabilities an A-7 pilot could only dream of. I flew one and it made me smile. A lot. But that’s a story for another time!Published in