• Falling Through Space

"The needs of the Navy" dictate what assignment you're given after flight school, but grades (mostly) and personal preference (some) figure in. Most of the instructors at VT-10 were A-6 Intruder BNs (Bombardier/Navigators), and they all sang it's praises. The mission, they said, was a hoot. Imagine flying at 450 knots up the Grand Canyon. Some fun, that. At night, IFR not so much.

So instead of sitting in the back of an brutish F-4 fighter or cocooned in a stiletto-sexy photo-recon RA-5C, as a licenssed pilot I asked for A-6s where I'd ride shotgun and see what was going on. But I had a enough flying experience to know that while flying low-level could be thrilling, doing it IFR and/or at night would scare you silly, even if the aircraft could do it.

And it could. The DIANE system (Digital Integrated Attack and Navigation Equipment) used radar to paint a cartoon picture of the vertical terrain ahead on a large CRT in front of the pilot. The radar navigation system, my responsibility, painted a map view of the terrain on two CRTs, one for both of us. The black and green monochrome video displays in the cockpit were state of the art at the time.

Slew the cursor to one end of that bright white blob on the screen, the end of a bridge with a known latitude and longitude, hit update and the best guess of the inertial navigation, encouraged by doppler, would be reset to within a few feet. About the same as the dirt simple $99 handheld hiker's GPS today. Ours cost the Navy millions and a full-system capable A6 needed about 240 maintenance hours per flight hour.

You could couple the autopilot to the system too, and fly low-level hands off. Select the soft mode, and it would give you as smooth ride over changing terrain. Select the hard mode and the aircraft would try to go up one side of a barn and down the other. It was physically uncomfortable in mountains, but it would give you the best chance of staying under enemy AAA and SAM radar, and that was the point. Getting shot down, we all knew, would be a lot more uncomfortable. But the aircraft was seldom flown low level except by hand.

The system had all kinds of fancy modes and weird peculiarities so we flew a lot of training hops through the mountains and along the coast of Washington and Oregon from our base at NAS Whidbey Island, north of Seattle.

High-loft bombing was the most fun and the least useful. Designed to help you more-or-less accurately deliver an atomic bomb (close counts), the technique was used to help you get away quickly.

From the initial point (IP) you flew balls-to-the-wall* to a computer generated pull-up point, then start a half-cuban eight from right on the deck. As you passed vertical the bomb would be automatically released, you'd continue to pull through over the top until on the 45 degree down line where you'd roll upright again. You'd continue the dive until you reached a couple of hundred feet above the ground, then boogie out of there as fast as you could while you pulled a special flash curtain down over your head. All IFR and/or at night of course, and with the understanding that your flight plan wouldn't necessarily include a provision for getting home, waiting tankers or other niceties...just away from your target.

Part of the SIOP atomic retaliation plans, the technique was useless in Vietnam jungles, but fun to practice--at least under VFR conditions. So the whole idea of being upside down in a bomber was anything but novel. Even using more typical laydown bombing techniques, it wasn't unusual to pop up before reaching a target, roll inverted, pull hard to get the nose down on the subject of your attention, and then roll back upright before bomb release.

So why were we upside down falling out of a loop with zero indicated airspeed at FL230? And why did the pilot just say quietly, "Shit"?

After a low level hop over eastern Washington in the dark wee hours, we called Seattle center, and climbed into the flight levels to cross the Cascade mountains. Radios quiet at this time of night, bored chit-chat on the intercomm turned to the failed altitude reporting mode on the transponder followed by my wisecrack about what our radar track would look like if we did a loop. Which was punctuated by a hard pull into the buffet, the initiation of just such a maneuver.

Nose up, passing vertical I wondered if Center would, in fact, notice and wondered what they would say. I also wondered why the airspeed was down to the bottom of the scale. As we floated over the top I pondered the adage that you can't stall if you don't have G on the aircraft.

As we reached the top of the loop, level but inverted, our airspeed was zero. We started falling through space. Not dive. Fall. The pencil and route card on my kneeboard fell past my helmet onto the canopy below me and my feet came up off the floor and my shins whacked the bottom of the instrument panel although restrained with cords designed to pull your toes back out of the way during an ejection.

The nose remained on the dark horizon and the vertical rate began to increase. I looked at the pilot illuminated in the red instrument lights. His face, covered with an oxygen mask, didn't reveal any emotion. I could see he had the stick back in his lap, so why wasn't the nose pitching down?

We continued to fall. The nose oscillated up and down a few degrees, but showed no inclination toward a recovery attitude, as we yawed maybe 30 degrees to starboard. I watched the pilot push the stick hard to the left and kick hard rudder. I looked back outside. Nothing.

As we passed 20 grand the pilot said, "If I don't have this sombitch under control by the time we reach ten we're gonna punch out." My mind flashed through the memorized ejection sequence. I saw an image of myself floating down in a parachute on a cold night over snow covered mountains. I wondered if the mountains were lower than the 9,000 foot automatic parachute deployment altitude. I even had time to wonder about the odds of being found before we froze in our summer weight Nomex flight suits.

After a few more oscillations the nose started down. "Wait...wait" he said, "...I think I've got. I've got it. I've got it." We gingerly pulled out of the dive and headed back up to our assigned altitude. "Well, that was fun," says he.

We flew in silence until Center called, "November Juliet Five Four Zero what's your indicated airspeed?"

"We're showing point seven eight, sir."

"Okay. Lost you there for a minute. Contact Seattle Approach two seven zero decimal eight. Have a good one."

The moral of this story is that a cockpit is no place for impetuous action. As I sit writing, it occurs to me that every time I made a snap decision and tried something I hadn't thought through, usually something I thought at the time would be fun, it resulted in something scary happening instead.

Blue skies and Tailwinds,


PS. Thinking things through is no guarantee the plan will necessarily work, of course. A neighbor and squadron mate punched out of an A-6 one dark night after a complete (all three systems) hydraulic failure. He ended up hanging unharmed from his parachute in a tree with no idea how far it was to the ground in the dark forest. He thought the situation through carefully, and hit on a solution. He dropped his helmet, which immediately went "clunk," so he figured he was down and popped the fittings to release from the parachute shroud lines. He fell 60 feet through the branches, breaking his ankle. The helmet was stuck on a limb.

* The phrase 'balls to the wall' is a hold-over from WWII when power levers (throttle, mixture, prop) all had round balls at the top, each color coded (black, red, blue). Push the power all the way up, and you'd have all the balls against the firewall—balls to the wall.

'All nine yards' is also a WWII phrase relating to the length of a belt of 50-cal. machine gun bullets. "Give em all nine yards," and you'd have expended all your ammo.

You'll also hear that a sports team 'waxed their ass" or 'waxed their tail,' both derived from an excited WWI fighter pilot's report that he was so close behind the Hun during a dogfight he could have waxed his tail.

Finally, I'm always tickled when I hear some cute young corporate thing proudly announce that's she's going to do a 'dog and pony show' for some bigwig. Little does she know (I assume) that the phrase refers to a XXX-rated attraction that originated in Tijuana, Mexico for nearby San Diego sailors.


  1. I think you might be confusing "dog and pony show" with "donkey show."

  2. So there was story passed around the community some years back about an A-6 pilot who learned the hard way that there was a reason NATOPS had a limit on the throttles and engines. The short version the B/N went for a swim after the pilot stalled the plane out while playing with the maximum throttle to conserve fuel and just bore holes in the sky. The plane later lands seconds later as the B/N is getting out of the helo all wet and the pilot had been able to catch the engines for an air start below minimums to leave. Fast Forward and they are talking about the A-6F and the fact the F404 doesn't air start well in a dual bleed condition. Of which someone at the board says who is dumb enough to do a dual engine kill? At which said pilot who is now a Captain (was a JG or nugget LT when the incident occurred), says "well I wouldn't do that SH*T again, but..."