This intriguing tale was written to a couple of friends as an email—with no intent to be literary or grammatical—by COL Ron Williams USAF (Ret.). It was intended to describe his experiences in the mid-1960s as an exchange officer and Navy flyer despite his Air Force pedigree, and is reprinted here with his permission.
My very first night carrier trap in the A-3B, (at 55,000 GW), was at 0130. It was my 4th hop of the day which had started at 0700. I had accomplished 4 day traps the day before and Navy policy was that I had to finish 6 day traps, so I would have a total of 10 day traps before my first night trap. I was so dead tired I could hardly move.
The only thing that kept me going was that very old pilots enemy, peer pressure.
I was listening to all the "On the Ball, state 4.0" calls of my new Navy friends that I had met and trained with in the VA-123 RAG, and most of them was as new to the A-3 as I was. One of them, Commander Ned Norris had been selected to be the new XO of my squadron, VAH-8.
All 8 of them were ahead of me in the pattern and that old fighter pilot mentality that had been driven into me at Nellis AFB more than 8 years ago kept whispering in my ear, "Ron, I know you are scared shitless, but think—you are not only as good as these Navy pukes, you are better. You are not only a USAF, F-100, former USAF Fighter Weapons School Instructor Pilot, you were selected for this very prestigious exchange tour of duty and your the best!". So, almost alone, unarmed and afraid, I flew onward.
However, I was not alone, just almost.
The navy knew that flying this jet was hazardous but since the jet only had one pilot seat and one set of flight controls, they did not feel it would help to have an Instructor pilot on board. After all, all that he could do was to talk, grip the radar console and share in the fear of a carrier traps.
The way Douglas designed the A-3B was not the best in my opinion. If you lost hydraulic power the jet was constructed so that in order to lower gear , flaps or tail hook, someone had to be way back of the jet, in the area of the bomb bay. They then had to manipulate duplicate controls at the same time as I did in the cockpit to get these 3 items lowered.
That person took the form of an enlisted mechanic called the Crewman.
My crewman that night was a great sailor and a very experienced crewman who had more than 500 traps as a crewman. I suspect that he was probably more scared than I was knowing that we both had been in the air for more than 10 hours, for the 4th time that day and he was there riding along with this dumb ass Air Force fighter jock that he had just met and only had 10 traps and less than 50 hours in the Whale.
I thought at the time that this had to be the most dangerous and unsafe flying I would probably ever do. I was so beat from the first 3 hops and now this 4th night launch came more than 4 hours from the third day hop. I had absolutely no time to rest and only time enough to eat a very short breakfast and a USN box lunch while holding in flight later on the day.
I had been airborne more than 7 hours on the first 3 day hops and now I had been in the air for an additional 3 hours before I got my first "Charlie" (start your approach now) call from the Air Boss.
To top this off, the USS Oriskiny was a "27 Charlie" carrier and one of the very smallest carriers in the entire fleet. The ship (Naval Aviators referred to it as "The Boat") was cruising parallel to San Clement Island and headed towards Pt Mugu NAS.
The Captain found that he was running out of deep water as he steered the boat towards Pt Magu. So, he put the ship in a small left turn away from the beach to head more to the North and deeper water.
During the approach for this, my very first night trap, I felt like I was constantly in a 10 degree bank to the left. I tried to disregard this feeling and chalked it up to my nervousness with making my first night trap and to being an Air Force puke around all the squids.
I also knew that my new XO, "Commander, 'Nasty Ned' Norris" was listening to me and I did not want to say or ask anything that might sound dumb on the radio. As luck would have it, I trapped aboard nicely, (OK 3 wire), but in a very slight 10 degree left bank.
When I debriefed with Lt Max Otto, the CAG LSO, I asked him why I had felt like the ship was drifting left and I was chasing the "line up" all the way to touch down? He said because that was precisely what I had done!
Max told me about the turns the Captain was making to stay in deep water. He said that due to calm winds at sea that night, the ship was making all it's own wind by it's own power and speed.
To make the more than 30 knots wind speed over the deck, the engineer had all 8 boilers on "super heat" which required the boat to use an extraordinary extra amount of fuel and water.
Max said the Skipper told him to keep the approaches coming as long as he could, and as long as it looked "safe".
I thought about that statement and wondered how in the hell attempting my very first night carrier landing, flying the largest carrier jet in the fleet aiming at the smallest carrier in the fleet, after being airborne for more than 10 hours and awake for more than 20 continuous hours without rest, could ever in Gods green earth be considered SAFE!
Max went on to say that he saw I was "hacking" the turn and keeping on glide path and lined up with the center line, so he let me continue to touch down!
Later I learned that this was not to be my most dangerous, non combat, Navy hop with Carrier Air Wing Two (CAW2)!
The CAW had left Alameda NAS and were deployed on the USS Midway, on our way to what we thought was to be a normal WestPac "show the flag", cruise. It was march 1965 and I had no idea what Viet Nam was about, let alone what was going on there. I did not even know where Viet Nam was until I was launched on my first combat mission in route Pack 6, 1 month later!
Anyway, on this fateful day the USS Midway was 1/2 the way between Alameda NAS, CA and Barbers Point NAS, Hawaii. It was about 15:00 in the PM.
Our VAH-8 Skipper, Commander Charlie Cates, briefed us that the Captain of the ship decided the Air Wing should launch some sorties with a few a/c from each Squadron to see how they could operate in open water that far at sea with no "bingo" fields available.
I later believed that this was a probably a practice prelude to the combat operations we would soon be conducting the South China Sea. Combat that only the Admiral, the Captain and his staff knew about and did not want to share with us at that time.
To top that seemingly stupid decision, the current cloud ceiling was hovering around 100 to 300 ft and visibility was vacillating from 1/4 to 3/4 mile in fog!
And, it was getting DARK!
Navy regulations limited Carrier Operations in weather conditions to category 1 minimums. This required flight operations with a cloud ceiling of no less than 200 ft and a visibility of no less that 1/2 mile.
I was to find out that night and during later Combat operations that this requirement was always rather loosely complied with.
But not to worry, because the Captain had at his disposal an entire Squadron of Shit Hot, KA-3B tanker pilots. He knew that we were available to launch and offer Air to Air refueling to any jock that got low on fuel or had trouble getting aboard!
I was the Squadron Assistant Operations Officer and I made the duty schedule for a week in advance. On this particular day I had assigned my crew to be the "duty crew" for the day. An action that I lived to regret later that day.
What most USAF jocks don't know is the all USN aircraft get in the same "coffin corner" when it comes to landing on the boat as we did with the F-100 when we were going to land on the concrete.
When you were in the Hun and the weather was shitty with low ceilings and low visibilities and the runway was wet or icy or covered with snow, you had to have no more than 1,500 pounds of fuel remaining or you would be too heavy. Then if you did not get a landing drag chute you and your jet would very likely end up in the arresting barrier or off the pavement in the mud! Nest stop would be the Accident Investigation Board.
If on the other hand, you retained enough fuel to go to an alternate airport, the final approach speed for the extra weight of the fuel, was now pumped up so high that even with a with a good drag chute you were very close to a barrier engagement after you landed. In other words, you were dammed if you did and dammed if you didn't!
So, If you left Hi Cone on the instrument approach, with enough fuel for to fly to an alternate. You were in extremis because of the resultant high final approach speed and the heavy landing weight.
But, if you left Hi Cone with a fuel state low enough for a normal safe landing, you were also in extremis if the weather then went to shit or your buddy took the runway engagement barrier in front of you.
Most Air Force bases usually only have one runway except for high volume training bases like Nellis or Luke AFB.
Back to the carrier operations on this particular day in March 1965.
The max trap weight on the A-3B was 55,000 pounds. Some of our 8, Squadron A-3's, had an empty operating weight of 51,000 pounds, some were 49,500 pounds.
With an average of only 5,000 maximum pounds of fuel remaining, we had only enough gas for about 3 passes at the boat and then we were going for a swim. That is a qualified, maybe. Maybe if your manual escape parachute worked after a slide through the bomb-bay you could make a nylon let down to a very hazardous open water, parachute landing. The A-3 did not have ejection seats!
Or, we could resort to air to air refueling with another A-3, if one was available. Most of the time you were in the lone A-3 and the only refueling jet airborne. We were always on call for a possible refueling until the last jet trapped and then were last to be given a landing clearance.
For this mid Pacific ocean launch, the closest runway was more than 1,500 miles away, the Captain's plan was to have one of his shit hot A-3 crews sitting on the starboard catapult, with one engine running so we could make an immediate launch.
Since I had scheduled my crew to be the duty crew, we were on the schedule to be that shit hot crew. Never mind that I only had a total of 15 day and 6 night traps and 60 total hours in the A-3B in my log book! I was treated by my skipper and by the Carrier Air Division Commander (CAG), as just another capable USN jock, qualified and ready to go any time! This esteem by my superiors was a complement to my fighter pilot ego. But safe? I am not too sure.
So we 3 had briefed for the possible launch and possible refueling mission. My NFO (Bombardier/ Navigator) was just as green and as new as me and our Crewman who was my enlisted Navigator, had 1 previous cruise in the A-3. Like my BN, Lt Lou Simons and Chief Gene Miller weren't real fond of having to be in a Navy airplane with this dumb ass Air Force fighter jock. But they both had the guts to go without question and I really admired the both of them a lot! In fighter pilot terms, they both had very large cojones!
We walked up to the flight deck, preflighted the jet, started one engine and taxied onto the starboard cat.
While we were staged on the starboard catapult with one engine at idle. We were hooked up to a continuously pumping refueling hose so as to keep the fuel tanks full at all times. Another wild operation that the Navy considered safe!
I was more than a little nervous, but at the same time I knew that most of the jocks that I knew would be launched for this mission, had hundreds of traps and at least two cruises under their belt. Besides, the Captain and the CAG both knew how new I was and as such there would probably be no chance in hell he would launch me. I felt certain that I was just only there for window dressing to make this look like a "safe" operation and not for any real mission.
We had been on the Cat for about 1 1/2 hours with the engine running and fuel being topped off when the airborne a/c started their recovery.
I was listening on "Pri Fly" frequency and did not know how the recovery was actually proceeding.
I did see several jets recover and trap aboard and I saw a few miss a wire and "bolter".
But, not to worry, these were all my new buddies and had lots of experience!! they would all get aboard soon.
All of a sudden I heard the Air Boss announce to the world, "Start his second engine and launch the duty whale".
My immediate thought was that old Commander Kincaid, the ships Air Boss, was just pulling my chain!
Then he called to me and gave me a heading and altitude and the Call sign of the jet I was to hook up with! I realized that this was no joke.
I started the second engine, the fuel hose was disconnected.
1 Minute later, I saluted the Catapult Officer, and the catapult fired. We went from zero airspeed and in 217 feet we were at 150 knots and in the air.
I went into the clag at about 100 feet and popped out at about 5,000 feet with an in flight visibility of what looked to be less than 1 mile.
The visibility seemed like less than 1/2 a mile just as we got airborne. At sea, were there is obviously nothing to judge visibility by like there is on land, that was only my best educated guess. I turned out of traffic and settled down on the assigned heading and altitude and switched to the air to air refueling frequency.
As soon as I got there I received a call to go to approach frequency. I made radio contact with the approach controller and he said that last jet had just trapped and "your need to dump to landing weight now" and "Your signal is Charlie, now. Let me know when you get to landing weight".
Here again, I was the only jet airborne and the Captain wanted me on board now. This was because the ship was consuming a lot of water and fuel while streaming for only one jet in the pattern.
A non verbal, Shit! was my immediate thought!
Why the hell hadn't they waited 5 more minutes and I would not be in the air now? I had 35,000 pounds fuel on board and I was going to have to dump 30,000 pounds of it to get down to a trap weight of 54,000 pounds.
Of course when I got to only 5,000 pounds of fuel remaining and, no alternate and, if I could not get aboard due to low weather and visibility or shitty flying on my part, who was going to refuel me?
My mind was running rampant with thoughts of what I was going to do to get the big POS back on the deck of the USS Midway. I was also wondering what my bosses would think of this Air Force Puke if I did not make it. I imagined the Captain, CAG, my Skipper and all my other Squadron pilot friends saying, "Well we had to see if the Air Force jock could do our mission and guess what? We proved what we knew all along, he couldn't!"
More very intense peer pressure on this 30 year old fighter jock.
The answer to my question of who could I rely upon for help if I made my 3 passes and did not trap? The answer was obvious, NO ONE!
I was the only tanker in the air and if I could not get aboard, they certainly would not want to risk another jet, especially to help save that dumb, expendable Air Force Puke. From this point on, it was up to me alone to get this big hunk of shit aboard or cause all three of us to have to bail out.
At 1,500 miles from land, that prospect put a heavy fear of failure in my heart. I am sure my two crew members were probably more concerned than I was, if that was even possible! We finally got all the fuel dumped and by this time it was very, very dark.
I was vectored onto the final approach at 600 ft above the water and 10 miles aft of the ship.
At about 5 miles from the ramp of the ship, the CCA (Carrier Controlled Approach) Officer told me to begin my approach by starting my rate of descent.
I always thought that starting the final approach at less than 600 ft above the touchdown elevation of the deck was the stupidest operation I could imagine. By the time you drop the nose of the jet and make one or two line up and or glide path corrections, you hear the call from the CCA controller, "you are at 1/2 mile, go ball".
Why couldn't they start the approach at 1,500 feet AGL like the Air Force does to give the pilot time to stabilize his flight path further out from touchdown?
Now came another non verbal Shit! I did not want to verbalize this and scare the other two any more than they probably already were.
As I got the "go Ball" call, I looked up from the aircraft instruments and saw NOTHING but fog! All he had to do on the approach was to help by monitoring my airspeed and altitude and look for the ship and my BN told he couldn't see anything either.
So, I had nothing else to do but go back to the gages. I held the last heading I was issued and I held the same rate of descent I had been using, (not to worry about hitting anything except the Carriers Island mast and that only stuck up 200 ft and should be 40 to 50 feet to the right of my left wing tip).
At about 1/8 mile and 100 ft, well below legal altitude minimums and 40 ft above the deck, I began to see a very dim red "Meat Ball".
Luck was with us as the meat ball was perfectly lined up with the green datum lights and the deck center line lights were right where they should have been for a perfect, albeit very lucky, CCA approach, right between my legs!
About 5 seconds later I touched down, on speed and hooked the target number 3 wire, and trapped to a stop.
When we walked in the Squadron ready room (My legs were still weak and shaking and my heart was pumping at 1,000 beats a minute), most of the squadrons pilots were there waiting for me to go to the Mess for the evening meal.
They had all been watching my approach on the Squadrons PLAT gear, which is a TV set that recorded every carrier approach for debriefing or if needed, for the accident board!
I heard several say "Hey Air Force, how do you like the night, no Bingo, open water carrier operations?"
You would have been proud of me! In typical USAF Fighter Pilot, every man a tiger, bravado, I answered "No sweetedah GI, any chance the skipper could schedule us for a second launch?"
I would have shit if he would have said yes.
Did I like flying for the Navy? Well, 2 years later I was in the final process for an inter-service transfer to the Navy and was just one week away from approval when I was recalled to active duty with the Kansas ANG due to the Pueblo crisis!
That corresponding two year tour of duty in Korea is filled with another bunch of laughs and many white knuckle Jet Flight Operations stories!
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EDITOR le Cirque Volant
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