There are certain occasions that stick in your mind, indelible vignettes of an experience that don't fade with time. One such occasion occurred while orbiting overhead in an EA-6B 'Prowler,' waiting to recover aboard the Connie (CVA-64) someplace in the South China Sea.
Looking down from several thousand feet, I watched as the launch proceeded, and was startled to hear someone (probably the Air Boss) call "Keep it flying, keep it flying!" As I watched, the RA-5C just off the catapult rolled over and went into the water. The splash looked, from altitude, as if someone had dropped a boulder into a pond—a frothy ring expanding silently. Other than a sudden jump in my heart rate, nothing changed. The ship continued steaming, we continued flying, nothing more was said on the frequency.
But there was a lot going on as the folks on the ship's bridge swung the stern and screws away from the crash site, the 'Angel' helo headed for the spot, and the launch was suspended even while preparations began for the recovery. Back on board we learned the crew survived, and watch PLAT video tape of the event. But in a city of 5000 not everyone is your neighbor and that was the extent of the story.
Just now, thirty five years later, I found the following on the web and learned the rest of the story.
From VIGI VIGNETTES
edited by Bob Lawson
In "The Hook"
Winter of 1980
On rare occasions (fortunately) a few Vigi pilots experienced a strange phenomena upon being catapulted from the carrier. Once in awhile there would be a Vigi that would decide it wasn't going to carry all of that weight of the fuel cells in the rearward ejecting linear bomb bay, between the engines. [Seen here on a model.]
Upon receiving the cat stroke, they would unceremoniously dump the three cells right on the flight deck! This usually resulted in a spectacular conflagration on the flight deck, but didn't present a problem that a competent pilot couldn't handle.
However, on one occasion, when only one cell came out with its 2,000 lbs of fuel, ripping the plumbing out of the next cell, it resulted in one of the hairiest cat shots ever recorded. Only through the quick reactions of pilot LCDR Howie Fowler, a well designed North American ejection seat, and whole lot of luck, are he and his RAN, LTJG Art Dipadova, here to relate the story. The tale begins on a fair spring afternoon in WestPac in 1973 as the crew manned their RVAH-12 RA-5C BuNo 156609 aboard Connie. But let CDR Fowler tell it:
FLAT ON MY BACK-OFF THE CAT!
CDR H. D. "Howie" Fowler, USNR
Following a normal brief and preflight the turnup went well with no problems. We were first directed to cat three but then changed to cat two because of problems with three's shuttle. The catapult shot seemed normal, but the nose dropped off the bow causing a settle which required more than normal stick throw to correct. I noticed a RAMPS light on the annunciator which went out after reseting it.
I selected 30/25 flaps/droops and raised the gear. I thought the ramps had closed reducing thrust to the engines and caused the settle. I made a normal clearing turn to starboard and climbed to 300 ft.
As I leveled and the aircraft was accelerating through 200 kts, Departure Control came up with "605 you dropped one of your tanks on the deck and its on fire. " At the same time Art told me he had a fire warning light I saw both engines 1 and 2 fire warning lights on.
The aircraft started to buffet and yaw slightly back and forth. I felt what I thought were explosions in the tail section. Immediately, the aircraft pitched nose down and commenced a violent roll to the right which I estimate was 300-400 degrees per second. Also at the same time, all of the annunciator lights came on with the stick going full forward and to the right, freezing in that position.
I called "Eject!, Eject! " and on the second command I initiated ejection with the left turn and pull knob. At this time the aircraft had completed at least one roll and was now about 90 degrees right wing down and about 20-30 degrees nose down.
As luck would have it, we had just converted our seats to the 0-0 configuration and they worked beautifully, although at first I thought nothing was happening. Time slows down to an eternity and your brain freezes each moment.
The canopy left the airplane and I was aware of an eerie sound caused by the wind. The seat dropped down and bottomed out as I saw smoke from the cartridge and left the cockpit. I lost my helmet and mask as I went out but could clearly see the airplane, I was looking directly at the tail as it hit the water in a 60-70 degree nose down attitude.
When I left the airplane, it had completed about 270 degrees of at least its second roll. I got a full parachute canopy at about the same time that I entered the water. After inflating my life vest I got rid of the chute, and was soon picked up by the helo with no injuries, but I took on a lot of salt water.
Howie's RAN wasn't quite as fortunate. Art's seat left the airplane about 3/4 second before Howie, when the Vigi was on its back. He had attempted to initiate the ejection himself but the violence of the rolling motion caused his arm to be thrown outboard as he reached for the left hand knob. As he grabbed for it the second time and pulled it, he felt the ejection sequence begin.
He was conscious of being inverted as he went out, felt the seat separate and at about the same time he hit the water inverted without parachute deployment. After going under- water 5-10 ft, he tried to inflate his life vest but found his right arm extremely weak and unusable. He managed to get the left toggle pulled which brought him to the surface, but just barely.
After struggling in vain to reach the right toggle with his left hand he unfastened his left parachute riser. At about this time the rescue helo arrived overhead and the swimmer entered the water to assist. It was just in time, as Art was swallowing "quite a bit of the sea. " He was pulled into the helo and they went after Howie. Both crewmembers were back aboard Connie within 15 minutes after the ejection with neither man sustaining serious injury.
The entire lapsed time from the time they saw the fire warning lights until they found themselves in the water was probably about as long as it took you to read this short paragraph.
Here's a portrait of a sister-ship I took during the same deployment. You can watch a movie of the bird that crashed, during a recovery earlier in the deployment --> here.