10/29/2005

Navy Chronicles: Chapter Three

As a graphic illustration of just how dangerous it was on a carrier flight deck, I’ll relate this story. Whenever we were scheduled to fly and tow some targets, we were always positioned on the very aft end of the flight deck with our tail feathers hanging over the edge. All the other planes in this particular launch cycle would be lined up in front of us, tied down and ready to start the engines. There might be ten rows of three or four planes abreast across the flight deck waiting to launch. An auxiliary starting cart was used to get each plane started. This was no more than a giant battery on wheels with a steering wheel and a seat for the driver and a long power cord to plug into the aircraft. They always started at the back of the pack and got each plane going as they moved forward. This was to keep all the whirling propellers and sucking jet engine intakes behind the cart driver. All was proceeding according to plan one day. We were the first to fire up and the cart moved forward till he had most of the planes turning and burning. For some reason or other the plane directly in front of us had stalled his engine and he called Prifly on the radio and requested the start cart to return to him and get him going again. Well the plane in front of him was doing his pre take off engine run-up where the throttle is pushed up to 30 inches manifold pressure and about 2000 rpm in order to check out the magneto operation of the engine. The cart driver had gotten the word to go back and start the plane in front of us. He turned his cart toward us and drove right through the prop arc of the plane doing the engine checkout! Sitting in the right front seat of my airplane, I had just happened to look up and out the canopy and was watching as the cart driver made his fatal turn. When he hit that 16 foot prop turning that fast, he in effect disintegrated into a cloud of blood bone and small pieces of meat. They immediately covered the windscreen of our plane and my arm that had been hanging out the side of the canopy. Whereupon my stomach revolted at what I had just witnessed and all my previous meal was deposited on the instrument panel, my lap, and the deck of the cockpit! The pilot, who had his head down checking out his flight plan, looked at me and yells, “what the hell did you do that for”? I just pointed at the remains of the cart driver and he then proceeded to help me cover the inside of our trusty steed with puke! They shut the whole flight deck down and cancelled flight ops for the rest of the day while all the mess was cleaned up and as much of the victim as possible was recovered. I spent the next two days trying to get all the puke and smell out of my plane.
Whenever we were out on one of the carriers, they were always conducting some kind of operations with some of our Allied forces ships and planes. These ops would go on for up to ten days at a time twenty four hours a day. So you would be up on the flight deck sitting in your plane waiting to be re-spotted or getting ready to go flying. There were times out there that I never once got to sleep in a bunk for the usual two week tour on board. They would assign you a bunk with the particular squadron that you were hooked up with, but half the time I wasn’t able to go below decks long enough to find out where the hell mine was! I probably spent a couple thousand hours of my tour in Italy, sleeping on the deck of various airplanes! When we weren’t flying or moving planes around, there was specified maintenance that had to be done on my plane, so I was kept constantly on the go for the total time I was out there.
Being a prop driven plane, we usually made deck runs in order to launch us into the blue. One time though we had pulled into Barcelona Spain and dropped anchor in the bay. Then some of the powers that be decided they wanted the AD-5N tow plane on the beach. They called down to the flight deck and told me to get ready to launch my bird. Oh boy, here comes my first cat shot. “Cat shot” means a steam catapult launch. They usually do this while steaming along at about thirty knots in the open ocean. This gets a lot of wind under the wings and helps mightily in sustaining flight. Well this was to be a shot from a dead stop! The “Airboss”, CAG, (Carrier Air Group commander) was going to be the driver to deliver me to the beach. He was also an A5D Vigilante pilot and all the cat crew and associated people saw his name come up quite regularly on the flight schedule driving one of those big-assed birds. It was about three times bigger than my AD-5. See where I’m going here? It, the A5D was probably the heaviest plane on board except for the “Fords”, F4D Skyrays. Anyway they took the “ready plane” off the starboard cat and loaded us up with the “bridle” to connect us to the steam cat and made us ready to depart the premises. The pilot had the engine at takeoff power and the cat officer signaled that we were off! Man, I have never before or since, gone from standing completely still to 120 mph in about three seconds! That was a literal “kick in the ass”! Just as soon as the cat fired, the CAG started screaming at me and anybody else listening to be ready to ditch!! He had realizes as soon as we started moving that we were moving way to fast for this particular plane and that the cat had been set for the much heavier A5D! As soon as we passed over the deck edge he hollers at me to look at the wing root and see if there were any wrinkles down there. I responded that there was a whole line of them all the way to the tip! So he calls Prifly on the radio to apprise them of what had just happened and then called the beach to request an immediate straight in and low approach to the active. We got it and after he had put her down oh so gently, and taxied to the ramp and shut down, we got out and looked her over. There were wrinkles in both the horizontal and vertical stabilizers, in the fuselage sides and both wings! That was the last flight for that plane as it had to be completely dismantled and sent back to Quonset Pt. For a total overhaul! After that, and on other carriers, I was able to wrangle a few rides in the various big jets. It was still a thrill, but didn’t really compare to that first ride. There was always a big adrenaline rush every time though as you wondered if the plane was going to fly or turn into a submarine as they sometimes did!

On the second day of the very first trip out to a carrier, I was forward of the Island watching the planes being launched when I saw what I thought was a guy committing suicide! Right after a plane had been launched; he ran over the leading edge of the deck and disappeared! I was just getting ready to start screaming “man overboard” when he comes miraculously back up over the edge! He had this big piece of cable in his hand. After watching a while longer, I was able to figure out that he was retrieving the bridle used to hook the planes to the cat shuttle in the deck. There was, and is, a huge steel cable safety net that caught the bridle and the guy sent to bring it back. Boy was I glad that I hadn’t had time to start screaming about a man overboard. That Flight Deck Officer probably would have thrown me overboard after the shenanigans of the night before!
There was one man overboard instance while I was aboard the USS America. A sailor will lie down and go to sleep anywhere at anytime when they are involved in one of these twenty four hour a day, seven day a week evolutions. In this instance, a mechanic had decided to crawl up the tail pipe of an F8U Corsair while it was spotted in the middle of the deck. After he had fallen asleep, the deck was re-spotted and the plane he was in was positioned at the edge of the deck with the after part of the fuselage hanging out over the water. They used to put the main landing gear right up against the little ridge that ran all around the deck. They did this to gain as much space as possible out there on the deck for maneuvering purposes. Now it comes time to start the engines for the upcoming launch. The noise finally woke up the sleeping beauty and he proceeded to back out of his hidey hole and right into space and shortly after an eighty foot drop, into the loving arms of Davy Jones locker! Unbelievablely, the starboard wing lookout on the destroyer following the carrier during launch happened to see the guy fall into the water, and they were able to put a small boat in the water and retrieve his lucky dumb ass!
So this was pretty much my life for the next few months. I’d get back to Naples from one ship and then off I’d go to another one, or to some airport in another country close to where ever these ships were to be operating, for another sojourn. It was a great job and I loved it, but better things were a-coming!
Whenever anyone would take a plane out to a Carrier, the guys who had been out there previous to your trip would come up to you and give you their “cigarette card”. This was a piece of cardboard about the size of a nowadays credit card. It allowed you to go to the ship store and buy 2 cartons of cigarettes a week. These were rationed Items at the time on board ship and also at the Navy Exchange in Naples. They cost us $1.50 a carton. On the black market in downtown Naples that same carton would sell for about $200! You see where I’m going. You couldn’t just walk down town and look for someone to buy them though. There were the State Police and various other law types looking to confiscate them themselves for their own nefarious purposes. So you had to find a middle-man who would take them off your hands for a somewhat smaller but much safer profit. It turned out that the person we would wind up selling all of ours too, was a recently deported from America hood, by the name of Luciano who owned two of the bars that we frequented. He would give us $5 a carton, no danger involved. The thing that amazed me though, was that they would open each pack and hold all the cigarettes loose in their hand. Where upon Luckys henchmen would stand on the street corner and sell those butts one at a time for $1 apiece! Now he’s making $200 dollars a carton! So back on the ship on my first trip out there, I have acquired six of these cards and I’m only going to be there for two weeks. Every time I would go up to the window to get my two cartons and get my ticket punched, I’d have on some kind of disguise so the guy who was the dispenser of cigs wouldn’t recognize me. I’d wear different colored flight deck shirts and either wear my glasses or not, sometimes I’d wear my flight deck helmet and other times just my hat. I was paranoid that I was going to get caught and tossed in the brig. It never dawned on me that the one guy who ran the place couldn’t possibly remember 5000 faces and names! All this messing around for the grand sum of $60 bucks when I got them back to Naples and sold them. So I decided that it wasn’t worth it for the money I got, if I got busted. Although $60 was a lot of money to have in your hand back in ‘59-’60.
This was the beginning of three of the best years of my then young life. I may not have realized it then, but looking back now, I wish all of my kids could have had the same experience. I hung around with a bunch of guys that looked and acted just like the characters on the TV program, “Happy Days”, you know, Ritchie, Potsy, and The Fonz. Seeing as this part of my life was taking place in the last of the fifties, I guess it is only fitting that we were unknown role models for these guys. I think the writers were following us around and storing material for twenty years later!
There were a few mishaps in the course of my flying career over there. On one occasion just after we had made our deck run for takeoff from the carrier, the engine had a terminal seizure and quit just after we had made our turn to the left after lift off. This was a good thing because now we were not in the path of that gigantic ship as our not-so-trusty AD-5 steed settled into the water a couple hundred yards ahead of it! This was another reason to keep the canopy open on takeoff and landing. By the time the “Angel”, read that, rescue helicopter arrived, I was standing on the wing of the plane with my brand new flight boots hanging around my neck. They never even got wet! You seem to do strange things when under sudden stress.
On another occasion, we had just left the island nation of Malta and were on our way back to Naples. We had just finished climbing to 10,000 feet when the pilot decided to change from the main fuel tank to one of the drop tanks hung under the wing. On goes the fuel boost pump and then he turned the selector handle. Right then our troubles started. For some reason, it wouldn’t draw the fuel, so he immediately switched back to the main tank. Now the only trouble was, it wouldn’t suck from that one either! Major problems now. That big old fan out in the front had stopped generating any wind on its own and it definitely made the sweat start in the cockpit! He then hollers at me to prepare for bail out over the intercom. I just kind of looked at him and said that I don’t want to do that! He said that if I didn’t go when he told me to, I’d be up here in this flying brick all by myself. That kind of changed my attitude real quick. He mean while had been broadcasting a Mayday signal all the while our Skyraider was making a bee line for the water. The glide ratio for the good old AD series of Mr. Douglas’ airplanes was about ½:1! That’s ½ a mile forward for each mile down. From our initial altitude of ten thousand feet, that meant we were NOT going to reach anything resembling dry ground. All this took place pretty fast and as we passed “angels 7” the pilot said to go! The procedure was to unstrap yourself and stand in the seat with one hand on the front, and one on the back of the canopy. You then pulled/threw yourself at the trailing edge of the wing and hopefully you would miss the horizontal stabilizer as you went by! Well that all went as advertised and I made the frantic grab and pulled the ripcord from it’s socket whereupon the canopy blossomed above me. Right then I was thanking my buddy Bill Tkacz, for packing that ‘chute just right! For some reason or other I noticed that the front of my flight suit was all wet, but I didn’t remember going through any rain on the way down! Shortly thereafter I notice the water was coming up to greet me pretty fast. I just had time to deploy my raft package and get hold of my nose when I hit the water and went down about six to eight feet. I immediately yanked the two strings that inflated good old Mae West, and I popped right to the surface. Again, just as advertised in all the training I had received before getting my AirCrewmans wings! As I was climbing into my raft, I noticed the pilot in his and paddling toward me using his hands, so I did the same and very soon we were joined up. He then told me that he had received a reply from the base at Malta, and that a chopper was on the way. In about forty minutes we heard a helo in the distance and we both popped an Orange smoke flare so they could locate us a little easier. Shortly, an RAF rescue helo was over head, and they promptly winched us aboard and returned us the place whence we had so recently departed!
My next to last departure from normal flight, occurred in Athens, Greece. This time we were in an SNB-5 Buno. 10115. It was one of those “pilot proficiency” flights where all we did was go round and round the airport making touch and go’s for four hours. Well, as there was nothing for me to do during this time period, I was lying on the deck between the two rows of seats in the back. All of a sudden it got real quiet and this is not a good thing when you are aviating! I woke up from a sound snooze to discover the two pilots frantically trying to start BOTH engines at once! Some how or other they had managed to get the fuel selector handle broken off while it was being turned from one tank to another! I was pumping to beat hell on the wobble pump handle trying to get some fuel to the engine. But having not gotten a tank selected fully, the engines were only getting a minimal amount of fuel, and kept revving up and then backfiring as the pilots had both of them fire-walled! By then the ground was approaching at a terrific speed and they turned their attention to putting us down in once piece hopefully. We actually slammed down with our wheels up onto the side of a big hill going uphill. There was one hell of a cloud of dirt, dust, and grapes flying thru the air as we made our unscheduled arrival in some guy’s vineyard. I had just managed to get into the front seat of the passenger cabin before we hit. The two front seats were facing to the rear so I really didn’t have to be strapped in. All I got out of the incident was one hell of a headache when my head slammed against the forward cabin divider! No harm done there though as it was, and is pretty hard.
My last departure from an in-flight aircraft came a couple months earlier than the above one and the details will be found in another document called “Medals” suffice it to say.
And so ends page 11 of a total of 24. Hope you can stand it!! Ciao.

4 comments:

warbler said...

I love your stories, Everett. I think this posting was the best so far.

Everett said...

Hi Sweety, Thanks for the good words. Hopefully as this thing progresses, it will be more and more interesting. I loved the pic on your Missives post earlier. Looks just like a girl I used to know that lived out here! I hope we have heard the last of the cyber-chicken, e-r-r, sniper. That person apparently has no life at all if all he can come up with is invective. Hell I could do that to with out much effort, but all it does is get my gut all churned up for nothing. Hang in there kid and keep the posts coming. BTW thought I had old BIB outedm but turned out to be a false alarm, TIFN

blockislandblog said...

Who...me?

Sam said...

Thanks for the best story yet, I agree, plus the excellent picture (looks heavy as a flying rock to me). Five stars, my main man!

Did you hear that Everett mistakenly "outed" Sulu of Star Trek fame while trying to save BIB's honor? LOL, just kidding ... have fun,
Sam