My Silken Letdown

 

There are two ways a Navy Carrier pilot can log one less carrier landing than take-off.  The first is called the “fly-off”.  When the squadron returns from a deployment, all the aircraft must be flown from the aircraft carrier back to their home base.  If you’re senior enough, you get to fly one of them.  On the scheduled day and time the squadron families gather at the hangar to await the planes’ arrival.  All the aircraft that are able to fly are launched.  Everyone joins up in formation and then the Squadron Commander leads the whole group of 10 or 12 aircraft back to the home airfield.  For East Coast A-7E Corsairs from the 1970s to the 1990s, that airfield was Cecil Field Naval Air Station (NAS) in Jacksonville, Florida.

Navy A-7E Corsairs In Formation

On arrival, they would perform a formation fly-over for the benefit of the children (and admittedly, the fun of the pilots).

After landing the pilots climb out of their planes together and walk to meet the families.  To participate in these fly-offs is to share the joy of the reuniting families, from the joyful screams of the children recognizing their missing parent to the tearful hugs and kisses between spouses.  It doesn’t make up for the time away, but it helps a little.

The other method requires you to launch on a mission and have an emergency that requires an ejection or bail-out.  That’s not nearly as much fun.

Ejecting!

It happened to me in 1979.  I had finished learning to fly the A-7E Corsair II in Jacksonville and on December 24, 1978, I received orders to join my new squadron, the Golden Warriors of Light Attack Squadron VA-87.  Normally that would mean walking down the street to their hangar.  But they had left on deployment a month or so prior aboard the USS Independence (CV-62) and were just arriving in the Indian Ocean.  So on Christmas Eve I grabbed all my gear and hopped a ride with the Air Force headed west.

We stopped briefly in Los Angeles and Hawaii for fuel before continuing to Clark AFB in the Philippines.  I spent a week there waiting for my next ride and finally, ten days after Christmas I arrived in Masirah, Oman, as close as the AF could get me.  From there, the Navy took over and after two more helicopter rides I finally arrived on board the “Indy” about 7 AM the next morning.  I found my way to the squadron ready room and when the Duty Officer of the Day arrived shortly, I introduced myself. He wasn’t as impressed as I expected and responded “Who?”

I explained about leaving on Christmas Eve.  “Oh, you must be Barf’s replacement.  Have a seat.  The Skipper will be along shortly.”  “Barf” was the senior Landing Safety Officer (LSO) in the squadron and he’d received orders to his next shore duty job and was eagerly awaiting my arrival so he could finally head home.  When he eventually came to the Ready Room, “Barf” was Very Happy to see me!

A-7E Corsair II aircraft line the flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS INDEPENDENCE (CV 62). The INDEPENDENCE is operating off the coast of Lebanon in support of the multinational peacekeeping force in Beirut.

The next six weeks were busy.  I immediately caught a cold and couldn’t fly for another week.  I finally got airborne for the first time since my final carrier landing qualification flight in Jacksonville, just over two weeks after leaving the States and I was feeling rusty.  I had a lot to learn – flying around the ship 100’s of miles from the nearest shore landing field.  My home was a 1,000-feet long and shared with 5,000 other guys (all men back then).  Everything was painted grey and made of thick and noisy steel.

Over the next six weeks, I flew with the squadron Skipper and all the senior pilots so they could see what skills still needed polishing.  The A-7E Corsair has one pilot so we generally flew on practice missions together with another squadron aircraft.  If you could ever describe someone as “comfortable” launching and landing on an aircraft carrier, then I was getting there.  The night landings were always the hardest and frankly, scariest (even after I had over 200 of them!).

One night, I launched on a practice night bombing mission with “Gator”, a Lieutenant Commander and the squadron Operations Officer.  Our mission was to drop two floating flares in the water and then try to hit them with the six 25-pound MK-76 practice bombs we carried on an external bomb rack under the wing.  These bombs had a flash-charge that went off when the bomb hit the water so you could see them at night.

We launched, rendezvoused, and proceeded to our designated “empty ocean” target point, about 50 miles from the ship.  After clearing the area of all ship traffic we accelerated downhill to 4,000-feet above the water and 350 knots airspeed (about 400 mph).  I flew a wide position off Gator’s right-wing and armed and dropped my two flares at his radio command.  They ignited on hitting the water as planned.  Gator banked sharply away and pitched up, climbing to 9000 feet for the night bombing pattern.  I counted to four and prepared to follow him when suddenly my engine flamed out.  My only engine.  The engine rpm wound down and all the cockpit lights went out.  I was flying a glider.  Did I mention it was at night?  Yeah. And it was very dark, even with the stars!

No time to enjoy the scenery.  My 34,000-pound aluminum glider needed a running jet engine.  I deployed the Ram Air Turbine (RAT) and the lights and basic instruments came back on.  I went through my Emergency Engine Restart procedures and radio’d Gator.  “Gator-1 from 2.  My engine just flamed out and I’m attempting a restart.”

“Wha!?  Roger that.  I have a visual.  Prepare for ejection.  You don’t have much altitude.”

“I still have over 300 knots and 3500 feet.  I’m going to try for another few seconds.”  This was a mistake.  According to our flying Bible, the A-7E Navy Aviation Training & Operations manual (NATOPS), if your engine flames out below 10,000 feet above the ground (or water) you should immediately pull the nose up, trade airspeed to gain altitude, and at the highest point, eject.  I realized that the odds were extremely high that I was going to get a “silken letdown” tonight but the airplane was still flying and I had enough altitude and airspeed and fuel flow to the engine so I tried to relight it.  Nothing!  As my airspeed slowed to 200 knots at about 3,000 feet altitude, with no relight happening, I made the call.  “Gator-1.  No luck.  I’m out of here.”  “Roger, good luck.  I’ve notified the ship and the helo is on the way.”

I “assumed the position” as we’d been trained:  straightened my back and with elbows tucked, reached up, grabbed the upper ejection handle in the headrest, and pulled it over my helmet, down to my chest.  The result was a satisfying bang, a very hard kick in the pants, and some brief tumbling followed by a jerk as my parachute opened.

I reached under me and pulled the handle on the side of the fiberglass seat “cushion” that housed my raft.  The clamshell box opened and the raft fell away and auto-inflated when the attached ten-foot lanyard reached full extension, leaving it dangling underneath me as I descended through the night air.  I then reached up and got my fingers ready under the quick-release parachute harness fittings so that as soon as my feet hit the water I could release the chute so the wind would blow it away and not trap me underneath.

After hitting the water and releasing my parachute, my life vest auto-inflated and I bobbed to the surface of the warm, 83-degree Indian Ocean.  I reeled in and climbed aboard my one-man raft and felt immensely relieved.  I was wet but not cold.  In fact, it was a refreshing dip after the past six stifling hot weeks in the Indian Ocean off of Southern Iran and Turkmenistan.

I pulled my survival radio out and called “Gator-1”.  “Gator, I’m in my raft.  I’m uninjured.” “Great Gator 2.  I’ll orbit as long as I can.  I’ve marked your position for the helo and your bird is still burning a couple of miles away from you like a beacon.  They shouldn’t have any trouble finding you.  See you back aboard.  Gator out.”

Sure enough, as I bobbed to the top of the two to three-foot waves, I could now see a light from a fire on the horizon.  Apparently, when the plane hit the water, it broke up and lit off the fuel.  I remembered the briefing about sea snakes.  We’d been told that they’re extremely poisonous and if bitten by one, you have about a minute to live.  Luckily, they have very small mouths and short fangs and unless they bite you on the web of your hand, you’re probably safe from them.  I kept my hands and feet inside my raft!

I finally heard the chopper about 40 minutes later.  They followed the emergency strobe light I’d velcro’d to my helmet – yes, it’s amazing the useful things those survival vests contained!

As the helo came to a hover about 30 yards away, a Navy diver dropped into the water and swam to me.  I rolled out my raft and watched it blow off into the night from the helo downwash.  I said I was OK.  He helped me get hooked into the cable dangling from the helicopter’s winch and it hauled us both up and into the open side doorway of the Sikorsky SH-3 Sea King.  I resisted hugging everyone.  My Adrenalin had mostly subsided by the time we reached the carrier and I was cold.  Or maybe it was the shock.

As I walked off the flight deck into the base of the tower I was met by the Air Boss, the Air Wing commander and my Squadron Commander.  Their natural concern was whether my problem was due to pilot error or something for all the A-7’s to worry about.  My friend the flight surgeon (flight doc) rescued me from further questions by insisting on physical and dry clothes as the first priority.

USS Independence CV-62

I gave a brief statement about what I saw to my squadron Safety Officer (one of our four O-4 Lieutenant Commander department heads).  Over subsequent days I told the story several more times and the investigation concluded that the engine, which had been recently received from the rework facility in the Philippines, must have ruptured the six-inch diameter fuel line between the high-pressure fuel pump and the engine burner section.  It was a freak failure and fortunately, no pilot error or failure was attributed to me.  They noted that I should have ejected sooner but didn’t mark it against me.  But they were right.  Once again, I realized that I needed to think less like an engineer and more like the relatively inexperienced junior pilot that I was.  Fortunately, the rest of the deployment passed without incident as I gained experience and slowly outgrew my “New Guy” status.

When I returned home after the six-month deployment, my dad told me about my grandfather’s successful parachute bailout from an early airmail plane, a biplane in the mid-1920s.  That’s when I first heard about the Caterpillar Club, “…an informal club of people who have successfully used a parachute to bail out of a disabled aircraft.”  So now, almost exactly 50 years after he earned his, I had joined the same club. An even more remarkable coincidence was our ages. We were both 25 years old. I am grateful that the pattern skips generations because my own sons are already past that age without joining the club! And that’s a good thing….

Published in Military
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  1. Doug Watt Moderator
    Doug Watt
    @DougWatt

    Wow, what a great story, and well written as well. Thank you.

    • #1
  2. Boss Mongo Member
    Boss Mongo
    @BossMongo

    Okay, people cast a lot of aspersions on my mental stability because I jump(ed) out of planes.  I’m thinking I’m not the cat that needs a psych eval.

    How was the bailout on your lumbago?  I hear it can suck.

    Great post, man.

    • #2
  3. RushBabe49 Thatcher
    RushBabe49
    @RushBabe49

    Awesome post!  Nearly a nail-biter. I hope you are archiving stories like this for posterity.

    • #3
  4. Scott Wilmot Member
    Scott Wilmot
    @ScottWilmot

    Great story – thanks for telling it here.

    • #4
  5. danys Thatcher
    danys
    @danys

    Quite the story; thank you for writing it. Now I know about the caterpillar club; would never have know without you.

    I, too, wonder about your back.

    • #5
  6. Miffed White Male Member
    Miffed White Male
    @MiffedWhiteMale

    Caterpillar Club:  I have an early edition of the book 30 Seconds Over Tokyo, about the Doolittle Raid on Tokyo in April 1942.

    In the late 1980s, I had a friend who’s Father-in-law knew Jimmy Doolittle, and was going to a reunion (not the Doolittle Raiders, a different group, which I’m guessing was a meeting of the Caterpillar Club) where he was expected to be.  I sent the book along, hoping to get it signed.

    I was disappointed to find out that Doolittle was too ill to attend.  But my friends FIL passed the book around and had a couple dozen of the guys who were there sign it.  They ranged from WWII through the Korean War and into Viet Nam.  They all signed their names and the date and location of their “membership”.

     

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

    Boss Mongo (View Comment):

    Okay, people cast a lot of aspersions on my mental stability because I jump(ed) out of planes. I’m thinking I’m not the cat that needs a psych eval.

    How was the bailout on your lumbago? I hear it can suck.

    Great post, man.

    I’m glad you enjoyed it. I was 25 so no harm no foul re: my back!  The worst part is the Monday Morning Quarterbacking yourself. But it’s necessary. And the realization that perhaps you’re not actually immortal.

    :-)

    • #7
  8. Max Knots Member
    Max Knots
    @MaxKnots

    RushBabe49 (View Comment):

    Awesome post! Nearly a nail-biter. I hope you are archiving stories like this for posterity.

    Thank you. That Is my cunning plan (Black Adder reference).  

    • #8
  9. Max Knots Member
    Max Knots
    @MaxKnots

    Doug Watt (View Comment):

    Wow, what a great story, and well written as well. Thank you.

    Those are the magic words every aspiring writer loves to read! My next posts will tell a couple of my grandfather’s stories, as told by my dad. He started flying right out of high school in the Army Air Corps in the mid 1920’s. Aviation pioneer days and instrument flying in its infancy. IFR meant “I follow rivers” (there weren’t enough roads yet!). Up and down was determined by dropping a cat and watching which way it landed. That was the theory at least until it was disproven almost immediately by crashing.  Ouch…

    • #9
  10. Max Knots Member
    Max Knots
    @MaxKnots

    Miffed White Male (View Comment):

    Caterpillar Club: I have an early edition of the book 30 Seconds Over Tokyo, about the Doolittle Raid on Tokyo in April 1942.

    In the late 1980s, I had a friend who’s Father-in-law knew Jimmy Doolittle, and was going to a reunion (not the Doolittle Raiders, a different group, which I’m guessing was a meeting of the Caterpillar Club) where he was expected to be. I sent the book along, hoping to get it signed.

    I was disappointed to find out that Doolittle was too ill to attend. But my friends FIL passed the book around and had a couple dozen of the guys who were there sign it. They ranged from WWII through the Korean War and into Viet Nam. They all signed their names and the date and location of their “membership”.

     

    That was a heckuva story: Flying B25’s off of the small WW2 carriers. Of course flying B-17’s over Europe was no picnic either. One of my childhood friend’s dad was a B17 navigator with a lot of missions. Imagine losing almost 200 planes in one day! It’s hard to conceive of what they experienced. We owe so much to so many who went before. That’s what most Americans believe at any rate. Those who hate our country are ignorant of the alternatives; the Likely alternatives in fact based on history and our fallen nature. 

    • #10
  11. Miffed White Male Member
    Miffed White Male
    @MiffedWhiteMale

    Max Knots (View Comment):

    Miffed White Male (View Comment):

    Caterpillar Club: I have an early edition of the book 30 Seconds Over Tokyo, about the Doolittle Raid on Tokyo in April 1942.

    In the late 1980s, I had a friend who’s Father-in-law knew Jimmy Doolittle, and was going to a reunion (not the Doolittle Raiders, a different group, which I’m guessing was a meeting of the Caterpillar Club) where he was expected to be. I sent the book along, hoping to get it signed.

    I was disappointed to find out that Doolittle was too ill to attend. But my friends FIL passed the book around and had a couple dozen of the guys who were there sign it. They ranged from WWII through the Korean War and into Viet Nam. They all signed their names and the date and location of their “membership”.

     

    That was a heckuva story: Flying B25’s off of the small WW2 carriers. Of course flying B-17’s over Europe was no picnic either. One of my childhood friend’s dad was a B17 navigator with a lot of missions. Imagine losing almost 200 planes in one day! It’s hard to conceive of what they experienced. We owe so much to so many who went before. That’s what most Americans believe at any rate. Those who hate our country are ignorant of the alternatives; the Likely alternatives in fact based on history and our fallen nature.

    My dad was in training as a tailgunner in B-17s when the war in Europe ended.  He was transitioning over to B-29s when the Pacific war ended.  Fortunate never to see combat, although he did spend some time in the Philippines in late 45-46, and he said they still got shot at every night.

    He had a family friend who was career Army Air Corps.  Was at Pearl Harbor (not sure if at Bellows or Hickam).  Flew 25 missions over Europe with the 100th bomb group.  He was killed in a  B-29 crash in 1948 into the Gulf of Egypt during takeoff on one leg of an around the world flight.  I “inherited” some of his memorabilia.

    One of the guys who signed the copy of 30 Seconds was also in the 100th Bomb group, so I have his picture in the “yearbook” that I have.

     

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

    Miffed White Male (View Comment):

    Max Knots (View Comment):

    Miffed White Male (View Comment):

    Caterpillar Club: I have an early edition of the book 30 Seconds Over Tokyo, about the Doolittle Raid on Tokyo in April 1942.

    In the late 1980s, I had a friend who’s Father-in-law knew Jimmy Doolittle, and was going to a reunion (not the Doolittle Raiders, a different group, which I’m guessing was a meeting of the Caterpillar Club) where he was expected to be. I sent the book along, hoping to get it signed.

    I was disappointed to find out that Doolittle was too ill to attend. But my friends FIL passed the book around and had a couple dozen of the guys who were there sign it. They ranged from WWII through the Korean War and into Viet Nam. They all signed their names and the date and location of their “membership”.

     

    That was a heckuva story: Flying B25’s off of the small WW2 carriers. Of course flying B-17’s over Europe was no picnic either. One of my childhood friend’s dad was a B17 navigator with a lot of missions. Imagine losing almost 200 planes in one day! It’s hard to conceive of what they experienced. We owe so much to so many who went before. That’s what most Americans believe at any rate. Those who hate our country are ignorant of the alternatives; the Likely alternatives in fact based on history and our fallen nature.

    My dad was in training as a tailgunner in B-17s when the war in Europe ended. He was transitioning over to B-29s when the Pacific war ended. Fortunate never to see combat, although he did spend some time in the Philippines in late 45-46, and he said they still got shot at every night.

    He had a family friend who was career Army Air Corps. Was at Pearl Harbor (not sure if at Bellows or Hickam). Flew 25 missions over Europe with the 100th bomb group. He was killed in a B-29 crash in 1948 into the Gulf of Egypt during takeoff on one leg of an around the world flight. I “inherited” some of his memorabilia.

    One of the guys who signed the copy of 30 Seconds was also in the 100th Bomb group, so I have his picture in the “yearbook” that I have.

    I was fortunate too. My grandparents were too young for WW1, too old for WW2, and my dad was late Korean War, served in Phoenix. I missed Vietnam by one year and left the Navy just before the Gulf Wars and Desert Storm conflicts (a heart attack). Awfully fortunate timing. Not that the chances to be killed were absent. Just that death would have come by training accident or my own mistakes. Thanks for sharing your comments! I like your avatar. Mine is from my grandfather’s early airmail days!

    • #12
  13. Bryan G. Stephens Thatcher
    Bryan G. Stephens
    @BryanGStephens

    Great story thank you for sharing. When you were talking about being hold out of the water I could hear the music from the rescue scene and the movie the Final Countdown in my head.

    • #13
  14. Bob Thompson Member
    Bob Thompson
    @BobThompson

    Great story and excellent presentation. My stories are dull compared. I had early thoughts, I’m not going to say aspirations, to be a Navy pilot when I spent 2 years at Georgia Tech in NROTC. Then family events changed that plan and took me out of that program. I did spend the summer of 1958 on the aircraft carrier USS Valley Forge and we were on alert during the Lebanese Crisis. Admiral Thach, a renown WWII combat pilot, was our ASW Task Force commander. The closest I came later to any excitement on a military aircraft was, after being drafted into the Army in 1961, loading 155 mm Howitzers on a C-130 (I think that’s the designation) and then boarding that aircraft prepared to go to Cuba in October 1962. Not many people would even be aware that as the Treasury’s Chief Disbursing Officer during the Reagan Administration I was part of an operation whose purpose was to sustain continuation of government in response to a nuclear attack. We would board an aircraft and be flown to a unknown location where we would conduct exercises. My wife and children wondered why I would leave home without informing them where I would be and what I was doing.

    Thanks, again.

    • #14
  15. cdor Member
    cdor
    @cdor

    Whew! That got my heart pumping. Thank you for sharing, Max, and I’m glad you made it. 

    • #15
  16. navyjag Lincoln
    navyjag
    @navyjag

    Great story. Sure brings back memories of my time on a carrier. The sea snake story the best. My first JAG investigation on board was of a lost sailor who fell off the ship at night and lost at sea. The tin can rescue diver from the destroyer behind the carrier saw the sailor in the Tonkin Gulf but lost him and gave me his opinion that sea snakes got him.  Never heard of them.  And never swam in the Pacific after that. 

    • #16
  17. Boss Mongo Member
    Boss Mongo
    @BossMongo

    navyjag (View Comment):
    The tin can rescue diver from the destroyer behind the carrier saw the sailor in the Tonkin Gulf but lost him and gave me his opinion that sea snakes got him.  Never heard of them.  And never swam in the Pacific after that. 

    If the sea snake gives you the heebie-jeebies, check out the sea wasp.

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

    Bob Thompson (View Comment):

    Great story and excellent presentation. My stories are dull compared. I had early thoughts, I’m not going to say aspirations, to be a Navy pilot when I spent 2 years at Georgia Tech in NROTC. Then family events changed that plan and took me out of that program. I did spend the summer of 1958 on the aircraft carrier USS Valley Forge and we were on alert during the Lebanese Crisis. Admiral Thach, a renown WWII combat pilot, was our ASW Task Force commander. The closest I came later to any excitement on a military aircraft was, after being drafted into the Army in 1961, loading 155 mm Howitzers on a C-130 (I think that’s the designation) and then boarding that aircraft prepared to go to Cuba in October 1962. Not many people would even be aware that as the Treasury’s Chief Disbursing Officer during the Reagan Administration I was part of an operation whose purpose was to sustain continuation of government in response to a nuclear attack. We would board an aircraft and be flown to a unknown location where we would conduct exercises. My wife and children wondered why I would leave home without informing them where I would be and what I was doing.

    Thanks, again.

    Thank you for your service Bob. The draft expired before I could be called up. Your special ops sound interesting. Very “Cold War era”. I wonder if anyone is still minding the store or if their primary focus is on fighting “white supremacy “ as we’ve been told? That’s a depressing thought. Sorry.  :-)

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

    navyjag (View Comment):

    Great story. Sure brings back memories of my time on a carrier. The sea snake story the best. My first JAG investigation on board was of a lost sailor who fell off the ship at night and lost at sea. The tin can rescue diver from the destroyer behind the carrier saw the sailor in the Tonkin Gulf but lost him and gave me his opinion that sea snakes got him. Never heard of them. And never swam in the Pacific after that.

    A sad story. If the sailor fell off the carrier, that’s an 80 foot fall from the flight deck and 30 or 40 from the hangar deck level. The turbulence from the four shipks propellers can be brutal. I suspect the JAG corps is a small group in which you run into people you know frequently. Is that right? One of my contemporaries was JAG. Full Retirement.

    • #19
  20. J Ro Member
    J Ro
    @JRo

    Boss Mongo (View Comment):

    Okay, people cast a lot of aspersions on my mental stability because I jump(ed) out of planes. I’m thinking I’m not the cat that needs a psych eval.

    How was the bailout on your lumbago? I hear it can suck.

    Great post, man.

    At least you Army guys have some seriously realistic training devices. Most Naval Aviators back in the day got their handful of dry land parachute landing practices in flight school by strapping on a deployed parachute and running behind an attached pickup truck until the chute caught wind and lifted the student high enough to detach and land in the grassy field below. Must have saved the Navy $millions to be used on their more essential pool training.

    • #20
  21. cdor Member
    cdor
    @cdor

    J Ro (View Comment):

    Boss Mongo (View Comment):

    Okay, people cast a lot of aspersions on my mental stability because I jump(ed) out of planes. I’m thinking I’m not the cat that needs a psych eval.

    How was the bailout on your lumbago? I hear it can suck.

    Great post, man.

    At least you Army guys have some seriously realistic training devices. Most Naval Aviators back in the day got their handful of dry land parachute landing practices in flight school by strapping on a deployed parachute and running behind an attached pickup truck until the chute caught wind and lifted the student high enough to detach and land in the grassy field below. Must have saved the Navy $millions to be used on their more essential pool training.

    Sounds like fun, except for the running part.

    • #21
  22. BillJackson Coolidge
    BillJackson
    @BillJackson

    That was such a great story! Thank you so much for sharing it. It’s amazing to read all the things you did from when you ejected until your feet hit the water. Just a wonderful post!

    • #22
  23. Max Knots Member
    Max Knots
    @MaxKnots

    BillJackson (View Comment):

    That was such a great story! Thank you so much for sharing it. It’s amazing to read all the things you did from when you ejected until your feet hit the water. Just a wonderful post!

    I felt a little rushed and was glad my ejection over water training had been so thorough. The abbreviated time was my own fault due to wasting time trying for a restart.  Lesson learned though I admit it was a couple years before I admitted to myself that I’d underestimated the increased risk caused by delaying.  I needed to be ready to discard the jet sooner. 

    • #23