• "Hey, Don't I Get A Vote ?"

Showed up to brief for an EA-6B 'Prowler' hop from North Island to NAS Whidbey and the pilot, our Skipper, was major hung over after a night in Tijuana. (He took the rental car alone, and left us without wheels. Showed up at Ops the next morning in a cab. "No, YOU guys had the car. . . . Didn't you?"). Anyway we decided we had the final vote (the one stamped Martin-Baker); and he decided we were going home VFR (his gyros were still a bit wobbly) and--against our protests--he decided low-level up the coast would be fun. So we flew right through the brand new Los Angeles TCA (give you an idea how long ago it was) without talking to a soul. I still have the knee-board note I wrote to my fellow backseater that asks, cryptically, "Don't we have to talk?" He damned near lost his wings (and so did we). It's all too easy to 'check to the power' and defer decision-making to implied (or real) authority when you know better.
If the following example doesn't give you shivers, you were never there.

"Flash back to the early 70's... the war was winding down... and low and behold... some genius decided that the RF-8's were tired and worn out and they needed to be replaced by a newer aircraft... Trouble was, the only thing around was the RF-4B... and they belonged to us... the Marines.

Since most of us "Green Machine" types hadn't seen the blunt end of the boat since the training command... initial efforts were a real horror show. I was determined that when my time came... I'd rather die than look bad at the boat. Day CQ didn't bother any of us... been there, done that... Night CQ however, was a different story.

Not one pilot in our squadron had ever had a night trap.

When my turn came... it was aboard the USS Kitty Hawk. I'd gotten in my required day landings and had flown out to the ship earlier in the day to check on my troops ( I was the Maint. Officer). Also on board was newly designated CAG James Flatley. He was going through a refresher course in the F-4 at Miramar.

After attending to my troops, I made my way down to the ready room and found out that I was scheduled for the first night launch with CAG. Since we were both on the boat already ... I couldn't believe my good fortune, my first night traps were going to be "easy pinkies"... it was forecast to be a "field grade" night.

About that time, CAG came into the ready room and introduced himself... seemed like a nice enough guy... said we'd brief about 1630 for an 1800 launch. After he left the room, one of the Navy guys asked me if I knew who the CAG was? I shrugged my shoulders and he proceeded to tell me about Flatleys's C-130 caper [no-hook cargo aircraft full-stop carrier landing experiments]. Now I was impressed!

Around 1530, the ship sailed into a fog bank... By the time we briefed... the weather was "Zero-Zero". Damn the luck ! We briefed anyway and hung out in the ready room for hours, waiting for a break... No luck...

Around 2200 we decided to bag it. We secured to our respective rooms... but my back seater and I were 'wired' and found it hard to sleep ... cursing what had started out to be a good deal that had gone south with the weather. I think I finally nodded off at about 2330... only to be rudely awakened by some sailor around 0100..." Sir, CAG is waiting for you in the ready room... You're going flying! "

In a literal fog... we jumped into our bags and made our way down to the RR... There stood CAG... bright eyed and bushy tailed... fresh as a flower... as I recall, he even smelled of after shave... "Hey, let's do it", he said. "The brief is the same as earlier, except for bingo which is 4.9... So every trap will be a trick or treat... I'll go first and give you a PIREP down- wind... see you up top". With that he wheeled out of the ready room and headed up topside.

My brain was trying to absorb his abbreviated lecture as I was putting on my speed slacks and torso harness... when it dawned on me... Max trap fuel weight for the F-4 was 5.1! With a bingo of 4.9, we only had two hundred pounds to play with! Hence his cavalier "Trick or Treat" statement meant, we either got aboard or went home immediately. With such a high bingo fuel state... we were way the hell out to sea and land at [home base] Miramar was IFR. At least I thought, we'll have a thousand and three here at the boat [required for initial night CQ ] .. as my bleary eyes scanned the chalk board where I saw, " Estimated 300 overcast, ¾ mile"... " Shit, I thought! That can't be right " ?

We made our way up to the flight deck and as I came out of the island... I'm immediately slapped in the face with moisture... I can't believe we're going to fly in this crap! I look over and CAG is climbing up the cockpit ladder... in the [artificial] twilight like mist, I can barely make out him turning toward me, smiling and giving me a thumbs up! In my heart, I'm wanting to believe this is just a cruel joke they're playing on this young Marine... that at some point they'll say: secure flight operations... just kiddin'! I'd surely rather have been the butt of the joke... than to have to do this... at this time... for real! As I started engines... reality hit home... it was for real... and like it or not... we were going to do it.

CAG and I taxi up to the CAT... the boss comes up and says they'll work the pattern single frequency until turned over to CCA. CAG needed only two traps to re-qualify... while I needed to get a full bag... six.

As I cross the shuttle, CAG is in tension and is quickly fired off the bow, disappearing immediately ! As I go through the cockpit checks, I try to keep my voice as low as possible (trying not to do a Tiny Tim impersonation) and keep my heart from pounding a hole in my chest... Truthfully, Marine or not... I was scared shitless!

God never made a blacker void than off the bow of the boat at night with no stars and no moon... Only those of us who've been there... can truly appreciate what I'm saying, here... By this stage of my life, I'd been shot at... missed and hit... but never had anything make me as tense. The bad dream was about to get worse as we fired off into the void.

Just as I'm turning downwind, CAG goes over to CCA... as I turn to final... the CCA final controller comes up, fires off a staccato of instructions and ends with a terse... "CAG says it's workable".

Down the chute we came... Folks... I'm working harder than I've ever had to in the cockpit... This was not the joy of flight! It was just short of stark raving terror! CCA then says... you're now ¾ mile . . call the ball ! I glance up and nothing ! Okie, my backseater says... "200 feet"... Paddles says, "Call the ball!" Another glance and still nothing! I keyed the mike and said, "I can't see shit"! As the expletive was leaving my lips... It was suddenly there ... and I had about a nano-second before we hit the deck and caught a wire.

Unlike a day trap where one feels euphoria and exhilaration... my first night trap left me with the impression that I'd just cheated death... Big Time! Coming out of the wire and I taxied over to the purple shirts... my knees were shaking like a leaf and my boots were drum beating on the rudder pedals. Once I was chained down and taking on fuel... paddles comes up and says, "Shadow, go squadron common"... I switch frequencies... "What'd ya think"? I said... "I didn't break out until 100 to 150 feet... This is insane"! CAG replies, " I knew you'd say that... that's why I switched you over to this freq". I asked what happened to our 1,000 and three minimums... He then threw down the gauntlet... "If an old man [like me] can do it, you can too"! Why'd he have to say that? The bastard knew I'd take the bait!

It would end up being the longest night I ever spent in a fighter cockpit.

CAG got his second and blew me a kiss as I taxied up to the cat for my third. Just before my third trap [another 100 footer]... the boss tells me that the air wing is coming out from Miramar... and the pattern will get more crowded soon... After the third trap... I'm steeling myself for the last go [I thought] while taking on fuel... when all of a sudden the horror show began... plane after plane is waved off... or bolters...

I'd gotten all the way up to the cat when I had to push back and take on more fuel... one of my squadron mates initiated a wave-off FROM BELOW FLIGHT DECK LEVEL... IN FULL AFTER BURNER ! Then a Viggie hits the round down and wipes out the number one wire... at this point, I truly believe exhaustion overtook fear.

I fire off for number four and upon recovery... instead of taxiing me forward... I'm sent back to the 'grapes' once again. "What's going on?", I think...

Paddles then comes up and says... "Looks like you're the only game in town... We're going to the Admiral for a waiver if you think you can hack it... It's up to you". Amazing how they absolve themselves of any responsibility... Tired and beaten, but ego still intact... I said, "Fuck ... Let's do it"!

No sooner were the words out of my mouth than from the back cockpit, Larry, tersely says : "Hey . . don't I get a vote"?

As it turned out, approval was granted and I completed initial night qualification in one night... Six Cats, Six Traps... All the way back down to the ready room, my six foot conscience [my backseater] is nipping at my heels... and telling me how stupid we were to do it...

As we get to the ready room... there stands CAG... He comes up, shakes my hand and says... "We did it... great job... what'ya think"? White as a sheet... I responded with: "Honestly CAG, the last one was just as scary as the first one and it never got any better!" He laughed and hit me with the old cliché... "If you ain't scared, you don't belong here". He then invited us up to his room for a toddy.

Amazing how drunk you can get off one drink when you're ragged out... As we got up to go to our own room... I turned to CAG and thanked him for waiting up for us... but imbued with a little libation... I ended with... "CAG, I hope you never are the duty weather pilot again... 'CAUSE YOU'RE A LYING SUMBITCH !" He just looked at me, smiled and said : "Go on, get outta here"..

To this day, whenever I cross paths with Jim Flatley... I point him out to who I'm with and say, "You see that man over there... He's a lying sumbitch!... Workable my ass"! Every time I do this, he gives me that same twinkling smile... feigns ignorance... and says: "Get outta here".

As long as I live, I'll never forget this living Navy legend and the night he conned me into going six for six.



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