Lived to Tell the Tale…

 

Marine A-4 Skyhawk.

When I was a student Naval Aviator in flight training in Kingsville, TX, in the late ’70s, one of my flight instructors was a Marine A-4 Skyhawk pilot. His call sign was “Lucky”. We wondered whether he was good at cards or in Vegas. Then one day he told his story and we understood. That call sign was well-earned. By all the normal laws of physics and chance, he should have been singing with the heavenly choirs. Instead, he had lived to tell about it and was trying to make sure that no one else ever repeated his mistake.

Captain Lucky earned his Naval Aviator wings and transitioned to the single-seat A‑4 Skyhawk flown by the Marines. The Skyhawk was subsonic, had less range, and carried a smaller payload than its larger Navy contemporaries but it was durable, agile, and fun to fly. The Marines used it for short-range close air support of the ground troops. The planes would be “forward located” at an airfield close to where the ground troops were operating and when needed, they could scramble and arrive quickly to make the enemy’s day less pleasant.

Captain Lucky joined his first Marine Corps squadron shortly after the end of the Vietnam War and like all freshly-minted Marine Skyhawk pilots, he still had a lot to learn. The Skyhawk’s mission was to drop bombs and break things. It had a relatively primitive bombing computer and bombsight and you needed a lot of practice to reliably and accurately deliver the unguided bombs and rockets on target. Pilots trained as frequently as the squadron budget and scheduled practice target areas’ availability permitted.

Senior pilots briefed and led these training flights of two to four aircraft. On a typical daytime training mission, the aircraft launched in formations of two aircraft but at night you launched alone and flew to a nearby rendezvous point to join up on the Lead aircraft. The Flight Lead aircraft flew a 25-degree angle of bank left-hand turn with the three o’clock position of the circle located at a designated distance and compass direction from the briefed navigation beacon (ex: radial 150 @ 25 miles.) Lead’s first responsibility was to stay at the briefed altitude and airspeed at the rendezvous point until all aircraft were joined up.

The remaining aircraft flew to the rendezvous point, looked for the lead aircraft, and joined up. The advantage of a multi-plane formation was that the Lead aircraft could do all the navigation and radio communication while the other aircraft just flew formation, maintaining their position by lining up the leading edge of the wing and the trailing edge of the rear stabilizer (Each aircraft type used slightly different alignment points.). The multiple aircraft close formation wasn’t used in a combat area where enemy fighters or ground defenses (Surface to air missiles) were present. Instead, we used a more widely-separated combat formation that allowed every pilot to visually scan for threats in all quadrants. These ground-attack aircraft typically did not have an air-to-air radar capable of detecting enemy aircraft. The pilots depended on their eyes and those of their wingmen – very much the same as in both WWI and WWII!

Marine A-4D Skyhawks in formation.

To join in formation, the wingman flew first to align with the Lead aircraft’s wing leading edge, and then moved closer until he could look straight across the trailing edge (back) of the horizontal stabilizer (horizontal tail).

This is a little harder than it sounds depending on the lead aircraft’s position in the circle when you spot it. Without getting too technical, you maneuver your aircraft to get inside the lead aircraft’s turning circle and then, using a combination of Lead-Pursuit and Lag-Pursuit, you fly to the inside of his turn to cut him off while maneuvering to stay behind his wing line. But staying on his wing line while maintaining your altitude and airspeed takes practice, especially at night and over water. (Here’s a Wiki article describing Lead and Lag pursuit curves in greater detail.)

Turn circle geometry

One night Captain Lucky (then a 1/LT) launched with three other Skyhawks to practice their night bombing. They were flying out of a Marine Corps Air Station near Beaufort, South Carolina and the rendezvous point was over the bay at 3,000 feet below a low cloud layer. As the junior pilot Captain Lucky launched last so when he arrived at the rendezvous point the other aircraft were already joined up on the Flight Lead. Captain Lucky began his rendezvous. It was pitch black under the overcast – no stars or moon to illuminate the horizon. There were some scattered lights from ships but that just made it harder because in the low visibility you couldn’t tell whether they were ships or stars and it was disorienting if you didn’t trust and fly your instruments.

He focused on flying into the proper position to start the join-up. It was hard to see the proper alignment with the wing because of the multiple aircraft already rendezvoused. He worked hard to maintain his airspeed while trying not to lose sight of the other aircraft. This was much harder than any previous flights.

Suddenly Captain Lucky woke up. It was as dark as the bottom of a coal mine. Where did that thought come from? What the heck! The Skyhawk wasn’t airborne. It was motionless, upright (thank God), and quiet except for the sound of water flooding into the cockpit, coming up through the floor. He still wore his oxygen mask and could breathe but his feet and legs were already underwater. The cold water must have been what awakened him. He thought – I flew into the water and I’m sitting on the bottom! and How do I get out of here?!

He tried to remember the Emergency Procedure for escaping an aircraft underwater. Was there one? Should he try to eject? Nobody expected you’d survive crashing into the water as he’d done. He figured the closest procedure was the one for “ditching”. He quickly released his four shoulder harness and lap buckles and thought about the order of the next steps. If he got these wrong, he’d never make it.

First, with one hand on the life vest inflation toggle, he took a deep breath and with the other hand, pulled the canopy eject handle. This released the latches and pushed the canopy open enough for him to escape. The water immediately rushed in as he inflated his life vest and he prayed he wouldn’t get stuck on anything as he exited the cockpit. He kicked clear of the cockpit and felt himself rising to the surface. He remembered to exhale as he ascended to prevent bursting his lungs. Within a few seconds, he was bobbing on the surface of the bay.

Night sea rescue.

The details of the subsequent rescue were a little fuzzy – at least in the retelling a few years later when Captain Lucky told the story to me and my fellow flight students. No one could explain how he survived flying into the water at almost 250 mph! I guarantee that his cautionary tale on how Not to do a night rendezvous left a lasting impression. We never forgot his two lessons: “Altitude is Life!” and “Always Watch your altitude!!”

Published in Military
This post was promoted to the Main Feed by a Ricochet Editor at the recommendation of Ricochet members. Like this post? Want to comment? Join Ricochet’s community of conservatives and be part of the conversation. Get your first month free.

There are 39 comments.

Become a member to join the conversation. Or sign in if you're already a member.
  1. Percival Thatcher
    Percival
    @Percival

    Wow. That is quite a experience.

    You might be interested to know that as of around 2010, the Mk 32 Zuni rocket has a laser target designation system for precision targeting. Before that, the targeting system was known as “pointing.”

    • #1
  2. Flicker Coolidge
    Flicker
    @Flicker

    How do you think he lost consciousness?  Hitting the water?  Or passing out first?

    • #2
  3. kedavis Member
    kedavis
    @kedavis

    Flicker (View Comment):

    How do you think he lost consciousness? Hitting the water? Or passing out first?

    Not sure why anything before that would lead to losing consciousness.

    • #3
  4. Percival Thatcher
    Percival
    @Percival

    kedavis (View Comment):

    Flicker (View Comment):

    How do you think he lost consciousness? Hitting the water? Or passing out first?

    Not sure why anything before that would lead to losing consciousness.

    It can happen pretty quick. One of our test pilots told the story about going along for a shakedown flight. He was looking out of the cockpit at the forest below when the pilot said “oh s**t.” The next thing he knew he was sitting in the forest wondering where the helicopter had gone.

    • #4
  5. Max Knots Member
    Max Knots
    @MaxKnots

    Flicker (View Comment):

    How do you think he lost consciousness? Hitting the water? Or passing out first?

    Hitting the water. He said he was so focused on trying to see the lead aircraft and maneuvering that he lost track of his altitude. Once inside the lead aircraft’s circle you have to turn more quickly to stay aligned. That requires a steeper turn which makes it harder to see over the cockpit rail. A rooky mistake is to descend so that the lead aircraft is higher and more visible. That’s always a problem but especially if you’re already at low altitude. That’s why you practice maintaining altitude within 10 or 20 feet until you’re close enough to fly formation off Lead. 

    • #5
  6. Max Knots Member
    Max Knots
    @MaxKnots

    Percival (View Comment):

    Wow. That is quite a experience.

    You might be interested to know that as of around 2010, the Mk 32 Zuni rocket has a laser target designation system for precision targeting. Before that, the targeting system was known as “pointing.”

    Guided munitions change everything, but especially by improving accuracy while reducing the pilot or weapons operator work load. The bombs of Vietnam were barely more sophisticated than those of the 1940’s. Better fuses and detonators perhaps but their accuracy was entirely due to how well the pilot flew the plane to the correct release point, altitude and velocity. After that it was all physics.

    • #6
  7. Jim McConnell Member
    Jim McConnell
    @JimMcConnell

    Another great story, @maxknots! Please keep them coming.

    • #7
  8. Seawriter Contributor
    Seawriter
    @Seawriter

    Reminds me of what a pilot told me were the four most useless things on an airplane:

    1. The altitude above you.
    2. The runway behind you.
    3. The fuel you’ve burned.
    4. The time you’ve spent.

    An excellent example of why number 1 is so useless.

    • #8
  9. BDB Coolidge
    BDB
    @BDB

    I don’t understand what happened.

    • #9
  10. Stad Coolidge
    Stad
    @Stad

    Max Knots: A-4 Skyhawk

    This plane and the Starfighter are two of my favorite old-style jets . . .

    • #10
  11. Max Knots Member
    Max Knots
    @MaxKnots

    BDB (View Comment):

    I don’t understand what happened.

    This was a tough one to describe for folks unaccustomed to these geometries. Thanks for asking bdb. I’m sure you’re not the only one wondering.

    He was trying to join up on an aircraft flying in a left hand turn – a circle at 3,000 feet with a diameter of 4 – 5 miles. While cutting to the inside of circle to intercept and join up on that aircraft, he’s also flying in a left turn but his turn has to be sharper so his wings are tilted more. This makes it harder to see the lead aircraft out his right side. It’s dark and he can’t see the horizon so he doesn’t notice himself descending – he’s spending too much time trying to see the other aircraft and forgets to watch his altitude. Because the four aircraft are so low already, it doesn’t take long before Lucky’s plane crashes into the water. That’s when several miracles occur: 1) the jet doesn’t break up, 2) the sudden impact doesn’t snap his neck, 3) he doesn’t hit anything else – a boat for example, 4) he doesn’t crash on land, 5) the water is shallow, 6) the jet settles onto the bottom upright. and finally, 7) he is uninjured and regains consciousness. The odds of all these individually improbable events occuring together are infinitesimally small. And that fits my definition of “miracle” or a sign of Divine intervention. Take your pick. :-)

     

    • #11
  12. Max Knots Member
    Max Knots
    @MaxKnots

    Jim McConnell (View Comment):

    Another great story, @ maxknots! Please keep them coming.

    Glad you enjoyed it Jim!

    • #12
  13. The Reticulator Member
    The Reticulator
    @TheReticulator

    Max Knots: (Here’s a Wiki article describing Lead and Lag pursuit curves in greater detail.)

    I took a brief look at the article. The Russian war movies I’ve seen recently don’t explain all of that. (Or any of it, really.) 

    • #13
  14. MiMac Thatcher
    MiMac
    @MiMac

    Great story, but as lucky as “Lucky” was I think those who have fallen from aircraft without a parachute and survived is even harder to imagine-one from >30,00 feet (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Highest_falls_survived_without_a_parachute). Medal of Honor recipient Bud Day (a great American and major figure in the Swift Boat Vets) was the first person to survive bailing out of jet fighter without the aide of a parachute. At least Lucky had an airframe to provide protection.

    • #14
  15. Max Knots Member
    Max Knots
    @MaxKnots

    MiMac (View Comment):

    Great story, but as lucky as “Lucky” was I think those who have fallen from aircraft without a parachute and survived is even harder to imagine-one from >30,00 feet (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Highest_falls_survived_without_a_parachute). Medal of Honor recipient Bud Day (a great American and major figure in the Swift Boat Vets) was the first person to survive bailing out of jet fighter without the aide of a parachute. At least Lucky had an airframe to provide protection.

    You’re right! Definitely a remarkable feat and unlikely to be repeated. If I had a choice I’d definitely choose a parachute. :-)

    • #15
  16. Judge Mental Member
    Judge Mental
    @JudgeMental

    I wonder if he avoided the snapped neck by virtue of having no idea what was coming.  Drunk people seem to avoid injury at times by being utterly relaxed.  Maybe the same thing worked here.

    • #16
  17. Susan Quinn Contributor
    Susan Quinn
    @SusanQuinn

    One of these days you’re going to give me a heart attack, Max! Loved the story!

    • #17
  18. Max Knots Member
    Max Knots
    @MaxKnots

    Judge Mental (View Comment):

    I wonder if he avoided the snapped neck by virtue of having no idea what was coming. Drunk people seem to avoid injury at times by being utterly relaxed. Maybe the same thing worked here.

    I’m no doctor but that makes sense. That, and the miracle part. :-)

    • #18
  19. Max Knots Member
    Max Knots
    @MaxKnots

    Susan Quinn (View Comment):

    One of these days you’re going to give me a heart attack, Max! Loved the story!

    Well! None of that talk young lady! My advice for prospective writers would be: “Try not to cause adverse medical reactions in your readers! You cannot afford to lose them!” Now take your medicine – the laughter kind at least!    :-)

    • #19
  20. Douglas Pratt Coolidge
    Douglas Pratt
    @DouglasPratt

    Great story. The book I’m currently recording is a biography of Ron Evans, naval aviator and CM pilot on Apollo 17. He flew in a Crusader squadron on two tours in Vietnam. There was a Marine Skyhawk squadron on the carrier with him, and the book includes some sea stories of friends he made in that group. Apparently the Skyhawk  was the low level bomber designated for the nuclear warheads on the carrier, and the pilots often discussed “creative” methods for outrunning their own mushroom clouds. 

    • #20
  21. Max Knots Member
    Max Knots
    @MaxKnots

    Douglas Pratt (View Comment):

    Great story. The book I’m currently recording is a biography of Ron Evans, naval aviator and CM pilot on Apollo 17. He flew in a Crusader squadron on two tours in Vietnam. There was a Marine Skyhawk squadron on the carrier with him, and the book includes some sea stories of friends he made in that group. Apparently the Skyhawk was the low level bomber designated for the nuclear warheads on the carrier, and the pilots often discussed “creative” methods for outrunning their own mushroom clouds.

    Yes, you’re right. The “low” part was for accuracy and because their targets were tactical (supporting troops in contact with the enemy) versus strategic like the B52s and nuclear bombers. If your task was to deliver a small nuclear bomb on target, the two standard methods involved lofting the bomb while performing a half-loop starting at low altitude and releasing the bomb when your nose is between 45 and 60 degrees above the horizon and then diving for the deck opposite to your original direction and running away at your highest possible speed. The expectation of survival was low, not the least because there might be a dozen other guys flinging their own bombs into the area and you could  caught by their blasts. Yes – the Cold War was a grim time…

    • #21
  22. kedavis Member
    kedavis
    @kedavis

    Douglas Pratt (View Comment):

    Great story. The book I’m currently recording is a biography of Ron Evans, naval aviator and CM pilot on Apollo 17. He flew in a Crusader squadron on two tours in Vietnam. There was a Marine Skyhawk squadron on the carrier with him, and the book includes some sea stories of friends he made in that group. Apparently the Skyhawk was the low level bomber designated for the nuclear warheads on the carrier, and the pilots often discussed “creative” methods for outrunning their own mushroom clouds.

    Maybe a shame they didn’t get any practical experience, dropping nukes in Vietnam.

    • #22
  23. BDB Coolidge
    BDB
    @BDB

    Max Knots (View Comment):
    he doesn’t notice himself descending

    Gracias.  You said as much, but indeed, it’s the geometry.  The bank angle can’t be much great inside a 4-5 mile circle than outside, but these numbers do mount nonlinearly, and inner is lower, and at any rate, this stuff is Not Easy, or else the jocks could do it and the aviators would all be Wall Street quants.  Or leading car salesmen.  Whatever.

    I’m just glad he wasn’t in the Air Force, or else he would have complained to the manufacturer of the aircraft and waited for the warranty service to tow him in.

    As I recall, the A-4 was designed by Ed Heinemann, by taking everything that the F-4 had two of and giving only one.  The A-4 had a payload-to-weight ratio on par with the A-6, which is up ther with the B-52, and IIRC everything else is a tier below or more.  I am prepared to be corrected, sir.

    Thank you for the story!  The A-4 is a MAN’s airplane in the way that the H-1 is a MAN’s helicopter, in that most of what went with you was between your legs or between your ears.

    • #23
  24. Max Knots Member
    Max Knots
    @MaxKnots

    BDB (View Comment):

    Max Knots (View Comment):
    he doesn’t notice himself descending

    Gracias. You said as much, but indeed, it’s the geometry. The bank angle can’t be much great inside a 4-5 mile circle than outside, but these numbers do mount nonlinearly, and inner is lower, and at any rate, this stuff is Not Easy, or else the jocks could do it and the aviators would all be Wall Street quants. Or leading car salesmen. Whatever.

    I’m just glad he wasn’t in the Air Force, or else he would have complained to the manufacturer of the aircraft and waited for the warranty service to tow him in.

    As I recall, the A-4 was designed by Ed Heinemann, by taking everything that the F-4 had two of and giving only one. The A-4 had a payload-to-weight ratio on par with the A-6, which is up ther with the B-52, and IIRC everything else is a tier below or more. I am prepared to be corrected, sir.

    Thank you for the story! The A-4 is a MAN’s airplane in the way that the H-1 is a MAN’s helicopter, in that most of what went with you was between your legs or between your ears.

    I only flew the two-seat version but it was a real joy to fly. Went right where you wanted it to go almost before you could complete the thought. It was the “Advanced Jet Trainer” in my time, eventually replaced by the T-45 Goshawk. Wiki has good info on the T45 here (https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/McDonnell_Douglas_T-45_Goshawk) . The 45 replaced both the T2 Buckeye and TA-4 Skyhawk in the early 80’s eventually getting an all glass cockpit (gauges and instruments) and a HUD so it better prepared students for the Hornet and other front line craft.

    One major limitation of the A4 was the tiny cockpit. If you were over 6’-3” or had unusually long hip-to-knee dimensions, you couldn’t become a jet pilot because you wouldn’t fit the TA4’s ejection seat. You’d either lose your knees during an ejection or break your neck (we were told). I don’t even want to think about how they figured this out! I barely fit at 75” height. All the tall guys and footballers flew helos and turbo props for this reason. :-)

    • #24
  25. Seawriter Contributor
    Seawriter
    @Seawriter

    Max Knots (View Comment):
    One major limitation of the A4 was the tiny cockpit. If you were over 6’-3” or had unusually long hip-to-knee dimensions, you couldn’t become a jet pilot because you wouldn’t fit the TA4’s ejection seat. You’d either lose your knees during an ejection or break your neck (we were told). I don’t even want to think about how they figured this out! I barely fit at 75” height. All the tall guys and footballers flew helos and turbo props for this reason. :-)

    The guy that picked it as a trainer obviously had a Napoleonic complex. Hated tall people.

    • #25
  26. kedavis Member
    kedavis
    @kedavis

    Seawriter (View Comment):

    Max Knots (View Comment):
    One major limitation of the A4 was the tiny cockpit. If you were over 6’-3” or had unusually long hip-to-knee dimensions, you couldn’t become a jet pilot because you wouldn’t fit the TA4’s ejection seat. You’d either lose your knees during an ejection or break your neck (we were told). I don’t even want to think about how they figured this out! I barely fit at 75” height. All the tall guys and footballers flew helos and turbo props for this reason. :-)

    The guy that picked it as a trainer obviously had a Napoleonic complex. Hated tall people.

    There was a scene in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine in which it’s mentioned that the Bajoran engineers in the Resistance tended to be short, and wound up designing fighter ships that were difficult for the pilots to fit into.

    • #26
  27. kedavis Member
    kedavis
    @kedavis

    The relevant portion starts at 16:40

     

    • #27
  28. Eb Snider Inactive
    Eb Snider
    @EbSnider

    There’s a sign in a West Virginia FBO that says approximately “Altitude, Airspeed, Brains. You need at least two of the three to fly”.

    Of course one can always trade altitude for airspeed and vice versa. 

    Spatial disorientation is a real thing. I remember the first time I flew into the clouds IFR. I kept my eyes outside and I as I went into full IMC I felt it. Then I immediately dropped my eyes and did the scan. “Omission” and “Fixation” are the tow key IFR errors. Lots of optical illusions at night too. It’s amazing how even familiar areas look so different in night flying. 

    • #28
  29. BDB Coolidge
    BDB
    @BDB

    Eb Snider (View Comment):

    There’s a sign in a West Virginia FBO that says approximately “Altitude, Airspeed, Brains. You need at least two of the three to fly”.

    Of course one can always trade altitude for airspeed and vice versa.

    Spatial disorientation is a real thing. I remember the first time I flew into the clouds IFR. I kept my eyes outside and I as I went into full IMC I felt it. Then I immediately dropped my eyes and did the scan. “Omission” and “Fixation” are the tow key IFR errors. Lots of optical illusions at night too. It’s amazing how even familiar areas look so different in night flying.

    I told my father that I would be a great intrument pilot, because I couldn’t see over the panel.  Good times!

    • #29
  30. Max Knots Member
    Max Knots
    @MaxKnots

    Seawriter (View Comment):

    Max Knots (View Comment):
    One major limitation of the A4 was the tiny cockpit. If you were over 6’-3” or had unusually long hip-to-knee dimensions, you couldn’t become a jet pilot because you wouldn’t fit the TA4’s ejection seat. You’d either lose your knees during an ejection or break your neck (we were told). I don’t even want to think about how they figured this out! I barely fit at 75” height. All the tall guys and footballers flew helos and turbo props for this reason. :-)

    The guy that picked it as a trainer obviously had a Napoleonic complex. Hated tall people.

    I was quite surprised when I discovered this, as were several of my fellow student aviators. Ironically, all the aircraft used in the Fleet by this time could handle taller/bigger pilots. I heard of one football player getting a waiver with the understanding that he should really avoid an ejection in the Skyhawk. (We all fervently wished that, regardless of our size!) He was willing to risk the possibility of a serious injury for the chance to fly jets and remarkably, the powers that be were willing to let him. It was a different time. I can only imagine the legal can of worms that would open today. (and with great effort I will restrain myself from further political commentary!).     :-)

    • #30