• Vne, IAS, TAS and BVDs

Never Exceed Speed (Vne), Indicated Air Speed (IAS) and True Air Speed (TAS) are closely linked, and if you don't understand how and why, they could have an effect on your BVDs.

Studying the Pilot Operating Handbook of a Grob 103 I was surprised to see a chart that showed never-exceed speed decreased with altitude. The prop powered aircraft I've flown for over 40 years all have a redline at Vne and none varied with altitude. Vne was Vne. Never exceed that speed or bad things will happen.

But now, the Grob manual told me, Vne was not a fixed speed on the airspeed indicator. Vne, it insisted, was related to true air speed (TAS) not indicated air speed (IAS). To keep from exceeding the 135 knot TAS Vne, the never exceed indicated airspeed had to go down as you climbed higher.

Now hold on, common sense said IAS should be the limiting factor not TAS. What was I missing? How could the aircraft be exceeding Vne if the needle was way down in the green arc, which the sailplane's POH and a placard demanded?

TAS is the true speed an aircraft moves through an air mass, and the lying air speed indicator doesn't show that, at altitude, because it's confused by the lower air density. To get the true story we have to pull out our prayer wheel and correct IAS for altitude and temperature--in other words correct IAS for air density--to get TAS. No new news there, every student pilot learns how and knows why.

So what's the problem, why does Vne go down as you go higher? The answer has do with something that almost sounds sweet and friendly but is actually very nasty: flutter. Ribbons and butterflies flutter in a pretty way, but airfoil flutter can ruin your whole day life.

Flutter is a so-called aeroelastic effect that results from the springiness (elasticity of the airfoil and the surrounding air), aerodynamic forces, and inertia.

A wing has mass and when it's tweaked--when a force is applied, say by turbulence or a control input--it overcomes the inertia of the mass, and the wing responds by flexing (even a metal wing). Usually, that acceleration is absorbed or damped by the wing, the structure it's attached to, and the surrounding air. But if that tweak is suddenly imposed or is energetic enough as the result of high speed, you can make the structure resonate like a tuning fork.

It doesn't have to be a plastic ship, either. Here's a NASA film of a Twin Comanche's empennage (note how the fuselage skin flexes just ahead of the horizontal stab).

And a Lockheed C-141 (note the tail is resonating too)

What happens if you go too fast, push the aircraft past the speed where it flutters? Here's one of Grumman Iron Work's A6 Intruders.

Why does Vne go down with increasing altitude? Because there's less air to act as a shock absorber. Because there's less resistance to the wing (or other structure) flexing, you have to reduce the forces on that structure. The only way to avoid flutter (without redesigning the wing) is to go slower.

Aircraft manufacturers determine Vne by using numerical methods to compute Vd, design diving speed. (FAR 23, by the way, requires that Vd be not less than 1.4 design cruise speed, so the days of aircraft that climb, cruise and glide at 80 are over.) Flight testing is used to establish Vdf, flight test dive speed, which must be lower than or equal to Vd. Then Vne is set at 90% of the Vd or Vdf, whichever is lower, to add a margin for error--theirs and yours.

What does all this mean to you as a glider (or power) pilot? The faster your True Air Speed the more likely you are to encounter flutter. Push your slick glass ship up to redline and you're flirting with danger.

Remember, your airspeed indicator lies. It won't tell you what your TAS or never exceed speed is. In fact, it may be a compulsive liar and even lie to you down low (click to enlarge) or visit https://www.ntsb.gov/_layouts/ntsb.aviation/brief.aspx?ev_id=25093&key=0

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• Taming a Taildragger

Taildraggers come in all sizes and shapes, even in our little air force. But you fly them all pretty much by the same rules. And those rules apply to nose-draggers too.

A friend wrote,  ". . . [after landing] then it’s 'stick aft, stick aft!' until you slow to a stop . . ." And that's true enough, as far as it goes. But it should read ". . . and then it’s 'stick aft, stick aft!  and aileron full into the wind' until you slow to a stop . . ." or else you may find yourself in this predicament:

If you have full stick into the wind, if you get a little gust, the downwind wing will lift, your lift vector will have a component into the wind, and you won't crow hop sideways.

Also, the increased induced drag on the downwind side, produced by the downgoing aileron, will use the long lever arm of the wing to pull the nose away from the wind, countering any weathervane tendency. But sideways motion is the beginning of a groundloop, not weather-vaning--although it's a co-conspirator. The lateral motion in the raised tail isn't impeded in the same way that the pavement stops the main gear, and that starts the tail moving sideways when the mains aren't, and that rotational couple around the CG is the start of a ground loop.

Why do taildragger pilots prefer grass? Not just because of the sweet smell of clover after a perfect landing, but because it will let the mains slip sideways some if you're not tracking straight, thus reducing the tendency to pivot around the CG if you botch the landing. Ergo, easier. But not entirely forgiving.

Full aileron into the crosswind at the start of takeoff too. Leave it there until the downwind tire lifts and then start reducing aileron as necessary. A one wheel takeoff in a crosswind (and a one wheel landing) proves you know what you're doing, and have a deft touch. There doesn't have to be much wind to cause problems, either. This guy lied to us about why he wanted some dual (future competitor), and when we called him on it in a subsequent email he wrote, "Oh well, it's only an airplane," then went without any dual, and did this to a somewhat dowdy but perfectly innocent Travel Air.

Speaking of the right touch, wheel landings are ever so much easier if you add some nose down trim on short final. When the wheels touch, don't try to find just the right pressure to stick 'er on and risk a PIO, just relax! She'll stick herself to the runway. And if you have to go around, the trim is all set.

Some will disagree, and some aircraft are not happy with the attitude, but I advocate always using three pointers in a crosswind (a Twin Beech is a good counter-case in point where it's dicey at best because the flaps blanket the rudders, and in heavy iron such as B-17s you could break something if you drop it in). I have two reasons:

1.- If you have the wing down to counter the crosswind and it appears the wingtip will touch before you're able to stop the drift, you know it's too windy to land in that direction. Far better to find that out with the airplane under control in the flare before touchdown than at the point when the tail comes down after a wheel touchdown (which you can do in any gale).

2.- There's a point in a wheel landing where you have to transition to a three point attitude, and at that point what have you done? Increased the angle of attack, made the airplane at least get light, maybe fly again with a gust, and what happens? It starts to go sideways unless you have enough aileron in and enough wing down. That's a recipe for a ground loop. Anyway, at that point your right back to a three-pointer so why not plan on that from the beginning? But what is this Brit doing with the wrong wing down?

Incidentally, if in #1 you discover there's too much crosswind (more of an issue in a bird with a low wing like a biplane than a Cub or Citabria) there's no law that sez you have to land on the centerline, parallel to the runway. Approach over the downwind edge of the runway, aiming for the upwind edge a thousand feet down. You can even land part way down instead of at the threshold and aim for a high speed angled taxiway to use as a runway extension. (There were windy days at CRQ where we'd take a midfield intersection departure and be airborne before we actually reached the runway--but that angled taxiway meant we had no crosswind on takeoff).

Most little taildraggers, even Travel Airs and Stearmans, only use a few hundred feet of runway in a good breeze. If another runway isn't available, you could, in extremis, land 90º to the runway across the approach end using the runup area--or even on a ramp. But watch out for wind gradient. If it's strong enough to demand this emergency procedure it will surely be less windy at 10' than it is at pattern altitude, and that 300 foot long and 8000 foot wide runway will suddenly look very short. (The voice of experience speaks.)

That said, if you have no other alternative, no landing alternate and the wind is stronger than your wing low touchdown will control, then you have to make a wheel landing on one wheel to ensure you don't have any sideways motion. You'll need lots of forward stick to hold the aircraft down, and then you need lots of brake to help keep it going straight when you run out of rudder and aileron. All in all, a landing you want to avoid if you can. But sometimes you can't, as described in this C-46 story.

BTW, those big muscles in your brawny arm, guys, aren't very adept at precise control, use the fine muscles in your fingers to keep from over controlling, if you're doing wheel landings. Goes for you too ladies, whether your arms are brawny or not.

And while I'm thinking about it, the way winds shift around here when the Santa Ana winds blow, don't be bashful about asking for a runway change. Most of the groundloops I've watched have occurred during a downwind landing. 

Another tip: assume you don't have any brakes when you land a taildragger in a crosswind. If you can do that, you've done everything right, but if you really screw up brakes might save your butt. Keep in mind, though, brakes often cause a ground loop away from the wind thanks to over enthusiastic and overcompensated use of them when things get scary. And, anyway, if you oveer use brakes other bad things happen.

We took the biplanes up to Corona for an airshow 10 years ago and there was a guy there who would land his Twin Beech and consistently make the first turn off, where we were turning off in the biplanes with some effort. I finally cornered him and he admitted to coming over the fence well below Vmc, and then standing on the brakes in the ensuing wheel landing. He said he could apply far more brake with the weight of the aircraft on the mains--and the tail has to get very very high before you'll get a prop strike.

That said, a friend put some new Redline brakes on his Stearman, and then promptly put it on it's back in the run-up area when he decided to see how well they work. Just proves there is too much of a good thing, I guess.

Which also reminds me of a Waco that ended up on its back at CRQ because he landed with the brakes locked. Seems there is a peculiarity where, if the parking brake lever is out just a bit, every time you push the brakes in flight, maneuvering, you set them just a bit tighter. Happened to my dad and I in a Cessna 140 in Guatemala City when I was kid too, for the same reason. Caught the prop, but that was bad enough.

Use of proper controls on the ground isn't just a good idea they teach you, BTW. The airline pilot we sold our Cub to put it on it's back taxiing downwind after landing. Second stop on the way home to TX with it. But he restored it and it turned out just beautiful. One of my favorite aircraft.

Also, don't be in a hurry to turn off the runway. Wait until you're going slow enough to control the centrifugal force the turn will create. Almost ground-looped a Twin Beech one night trying to make an early turnoff to help a Commuter landing the opposite direction, on a dead calm spring evening. Once she started to rotate I knew I was in trouble. Full inside engine, and full opposite brake--and a wonderfully forgiving airplane--saved my bacon. I know a biplane pilot that suffered a more unhappy outcome when he allowed the tower to hurry him.

Here's the Twin Beech we fly now landing, at Flabob.

The B-52 (30 seconds into video), The Cessna 190/195 and some light planes had crosswind gear so you could actually point into the wind and land sideways. I flown a 195 with the option and it works up to a point, but it sure is spooky. Here's a Stinson with the Goodyear gear.

If things aren't going well GO AROUND! Don't get so mentally committed to landing that you forget to cock yourself in go-around mode. But make the decision early. If you wait too long all you'll do by adding power is add energy to the crash. This is what happened to a guy at CRQ* who at least tried to go around, but when he was 90º to the runway dragged the poor bird into the air only to stall it into the tree. He'd have been better off to chop the power and take his licks, me thinks. Mighta caught a wingtip and/or the prop, but at least he wouldn't have had to rebuild the whole airplane.

Such pontificating as this usually ends with a statement to the effect that flying a taildragger is no more difficult than flying one with a nose wheel, just different. Bull. Yes, it is different, and it requires that you fly the aircraft, not just drive it. And that's a valuable ability even when you fly a nose dragger. It''s something worth your time and money to learn if you want to be an accomplished pilot. Right up there with some glider and aerobatic experience--don't leave home without it.

*From the NTSB (http://tinyurl.com/yj4ovx2) 
On June 25, 2006, about 1930 Pacific daylight time, a Bellanca 7KCAB, N1098E, impacted a tree during an aborted landing at McClellan-Palomar Airport, Carlsbad, California. The pilot/owner operated the airplane under the provisions of 14 CFR Part 91. The private pilot, the sole occupant, was not injured; the airplane was destroyed. The cross-country personal flight departed French Valley Airport, Murrieta/Temecula, California, about 1900, with a planned destination of Palomar. Visual meteorological conditions prevailed, and no flight plan had been filed.

The pilot submitted a written report. Prior to requesting a clearance to land, the pilot obtained the current automatic terminal information service (ATIS) information. He reported a 2-mile base and was cleared to land runway 24. The controller informed him that the winds were from 170 degrees at 8 knots.

On final approach, the pilot maintained the runway centerline using the crosswind correction technique. He performed a wheel landing to keep his speed up for the crosswind conditions. The airplane touched down on the left main wheel first, then the right main wheel touched down. After touchdown, the tail wheel started to vibrate and the pilot released backpressure on the flight controls to stop the vibration.

As the left wing started to move in an upward direction, the pilot felt the airplane "weathervane" to the left. Fearing that it would tilt or ground loop, he elected to abort the landing and applied full power. The airplane became airborne about 30 degrees left of the runway centerline heading towards buildings. He turned it to the right to proceed back towards the runway. He stated that the flight controls felt slow to respond to his input making the airplane difficult to maneuver back towards the runway. It crossed over the runway and was now facing buildings on the north side of the airport. He initiated a "gentle" left turn back to the runway. Shortly after, the airplane collided with a pine tree on the north side departure end of the runway in a straight and level attitude.

The pilot communicated his location to the tower controller, turned off all the switches, and released the emergency door latch to exit. He climbed down the tree, where emergency personnel met him.

The pilot stated that the airplane and engine had no mechanical failures or malfunctions during the flight.

• A-1 Skyraider -- MiG Killers

Douglas A-1H Skyraiders of attack squadron VA-...
Skyraider pilots were known for their practical jokes. Once, when an Admiral asked for a VIP flyover of the USS Enterprise, the Air Group was supposed to fly by the VIPs and then the F-4 Phantoms would light burner and accelerate ahead of the formation of Skyraiders. This was suppposed to demonstrate to the numerous VIPs the difference between old and modern aviation technology. At the appointed time, the F-4s entered afterburner, and the SkyRaider pilots, instead of maintaining their power setting, went to full military. Due to the spool up time on the jets, the stately old SkyRaiders kept up with the F-4s until they were well out of sight of the VIPs.

All of those involved said that the subsequent ass-chewing the SkyRaider pilots endured was well worth it.

But here's a more serious Skyraider story:

Frustration and fatigue were starting to simultaneously set in on me on 20 June 1965. We were 30 days into our third at-sea period, and the ops tempo was intense. Ten days prior we had our first loss, one of our nuggets, Carl Doughtie. The last four days we had not been especially successful. During those four days I had flown 21 hours on an Alfa strike, two road recces and a seven and one half hour RESCAP. The strike was marginally successful with 40 percent BDA, the RESCAP was not. We had to leave the downed pilot when it got dark. One road recce was nothing more than harassment. The other I scored one truck, but someone almost scored me while I was executing a life-saving pullout just short of bending the prop. I logged two nice round holes in the aft fuselage. The day began normally with the starboard catapult crashing into the water-brake outside my door acting as my alarm clock. It was supposed to be a stand-down day, but by noon we were suiting up for an emergency RESCAP. An Air Force photo-recon pilot had been shot down very deep into the northwest corner of North Vietnam. There were already RESCAP aircraft over the downed pilot, but they were running low on fuel. We were needed for backup coverage.

We manned up, started and were told to shut down. Someone else had covered the pilot, and they did not need us. We unmanned and returned to the ready room and waited. Two hours later we got the call again. We manned up, but did not get started again before we were again put on hold. By the time we got to the ready room we were told to man up again. By now we were fast becoming the leaders in the squadron sweat stain contest. The sweat stain contest was unique to Skyraider squadrons. The winner was the pilot who could merge the salty white left and right armpit stains in the center of his flight suit first. This contest was made possible by the USS MIDWAY (CVA-41) laundry and morale officer who would accept only one flight suit per week per pilot from us. At any rate we were hot, sweaty and beginning to worry that this man up was going to mean no dinner. This time, however, we started, were told that we were a go mission and began our taxi forward to the catapults. At the last minute my Plane Captain, AN Halcomb, gave me a slush filled thermos and a hopeful look (hopeful that he would not have to do a fourth preflight on old 577). I gave him thumbs up and taxied forward to the starboard catapult. It was almost 1800. I spread and locked the wings, got thumbs up from the final checker and agreed with the flight deck officer on a 21,300 pound launch weight. As I felt the Skyraider settle into the catapult holdback, I release the brakes, added full power and scanned the engine instruments. Everything looked good and with the canopy open everything sounded good -- well at least loud. I returned the cat officer's salute and waited. I saw my flight leader go off the port cat and turn right for our standard starboard side rendezvous. The humidity was so high that his flap tips left contrails and my prop was making corkscrew contrails as the carrier moved through the sultry gulf air.

The cat shot killed my radio. We rendezvoused 1,000 feet on the starboard side of MIDWAY and headed west. After reforming in a finger four formation I tried to get my radio working. As the second element leader I had a "Middleman" aircraft. My airplane had two radios with a relay control box that could be switched so that the low aircraft covering the downed pilot could transmit through my aircraft to the ship using my aircraft at a higher altitude as an antenna relay. I was able to get the number two radio working, but continued to fiddle with number one so that I could act as relay. I got it working and checked in on tactical frequency as we went feet dry. Then it failed again.

Feet dry at 12,000 feet heading northwest we were passing north of Thanh Hoa. LCDR Ed Greathouse was in the lead. On his port wing was LTJG Jim LYNNE. I was on his starboard wing with Charlie Hartmann on my starboard. We all had the standard RESCAP load: two 150 gallon drop-tanks on the stub racks, four LAU-3 pods with 19 2.75 inch rockets apiece and 800 rounds of 20mm for the four wing cannons. We were flying steadily toward the downed pilot while I navigated, searched for active low frequency ADF stations (Until September 1965 the North Vietnamese MiGs used the ADFs listed in our 1964 navigation supplements) and considered what the situation ahead might be.

Suddenly Ed Greathouse rolled inverted into a near vertical dive with Jim Lynne following. I rolled and followed him down. I was concerned that I had not heard anything and that we were only 70 miles inland, at least 80 miles from our RESCAP point. A quick radio check confirmed that my radio was dead. I had missed the buildup to the run-in with the USS STRAUSS (DE-408) alerting us to MiGs in the area. The MiG pilots were on an intercept for two Skyraiders south of us, but missed and were coming around for another intercept when they spotted us. STRAUSS was keeping Ed Greathouse updated, and when it was apparent that we were the target, Ed took us down. At 12,000 feet and 170 knots we looked like Tweetybird to Sylvester the Cat. Our only hope was to get down low and try to out turn the MiGs. Ed was doing just that. Our split-S got us some speed and reversed our course toward the ship. I figured that any time my nose was pointed at the ground my ordnance should be armed. I armed the guns and set up the rockets. About that time I saw a large unguided rocket go past downward. My first inclination was that it was a SAM, but SAMs generally go up. A second rocket hit the ground near Ed and Jim. There was no doubt we were under attack by MiGs. This was confirmed when a silver MiG-17 with red marking on wings and tail streaked by Charlie and me heading for Ed. Tracers from behind and a jet intake growing larger in my mirror were a signal to start pulling and turning. As I put g's on the Skyraider I could see the two distinct sizes of tracers falling away (The MiG-17 had two 23mm and one 37mm cannon in the nose.) He stayed with us throughout the turn firing all the way. Fortunately, he was unable to stay inside our turn and overshot. As he pulled up Charlie got a quick shot at him but caused no apparent damage. He climbed to a perch position and stayed there.

Our turning had separated us from Ed and Jim. Now that we were no longer under attack my main concern was to rejoin the flight. I caught a glimpse of the leader and his wingman and headed for them. As we had been flying at treetop level in and out of small valleys, we had to fly around a small hill to get to them. Coming around the hill we saw Ed Greathouse and Jim LYNNE low with the MiG lined up behind them. I fired a short burst and missed, but got his attention. He turned hard into us to make a head-on pass. Charlie and I fired simultaneously as he passed so close that Charlie thought that I had hit his vertical stabilizer with the tip of my tail hook and Charlie flew through his wake. Both of us fired all four guns. Charlie's rounds appeared to go down the intake and into the wing root and mine along the top of the fuselage and through the canopy. He never returned our fire, rolled inverted and hit a small hill exploding and burning in a farm field. Charlie and I circled the wreckage while I switched back to number two radio. We briefly considered trying to cut off the other MiG, but were dissuaded by the voice of Ed Greathouse asking what we thought we were doing staying in the area when STRAUSS was reporting numerous bogeys inbound to our position. We took the hint and headed out low level to the Tonkin Gulf were we rejoined with our flight leader.

By now the sun was setting guaranteeing a night arrested landing back at MIDWAY. Our radio report was misunderstood by MIDWAY CIC which believed that one of us had been shot down. It took some effort for Ed Greathouse to convince them that we were OK and the North Vietnamese were minus one. Rarely does a night carrier landing evoke as little response from a pilot as ours did. We were so pumped up that we hardly noticed it.

After debriefs all around the politics started. Charlie and I were informed that we would get no recognition or awards for our MiG kill. SECNAV had been aboard three days earlier when VF-21 F-4 pilots had bagged the first kills of the war. Their awards were being held until SECNAV could get to Washington, announce it to the President and present it to Congress with the plea for more funds for F-4 Phantoms to fight the air war.

Obviously, the success of primitive Skyraiders would undermine his plans. Unfortunately, someone had included our kill in the daily action report to MACV where it was read by COMSEVENFLT DET "C" who thought that it would be an excellent opportunity for Navy public relations. Indirectly Ngyuen Cao Ky, the new Premier of South Vietnam, and a Skyraider pilot, heard of it and recognized Ed Greathouse's name as one of the Skyraider instructors from the RAG. He then demanded our appearance for Vietnamese awards.

The next day we flew to Saigon for the Five O'clock Follies and were instant celebrities, since the news media did not yet know about the F-4 kills. They assumed that we were the first which made an even better story. We stayed at the Majestic Hotel in Saigon where we thoroughly enjoyed the lack of water hours and the availability of our favorite beverages. The next day we were guests of Premier Ky at the palace were we were awarded Air Gallantry Medals and honorary commissions in the South Vietnamese Air Force. After the awards ceremony we sat down to tea with Premier Ky and some of his young hot pilots and traded war stories. He told us that the Skyraider MiG kill had boosted morale tremendously in the VNAF Skyraider squadrons.

Upon arrival back at MIDWAY we were surprised to learn that there had been a change of heart and we would to be recognized at the same ceremony as the F-4 pilots. Since they had already been recommended for Silver Stars, Charlie and I got the same while Ed and Jim got Distinguished Flying Crosses. Due to slow processing of earlier awards Charlie and I wore the Silver Star and one foreign decoration for about a month as our only medals. Nothing like starting from the top.

A few days later the carrier went to Yokosuka where Japanese reporters were very interested. We even became the subject of an article in a boy's adventure comic book. There was a lot of hometown interest also with reporters looking up our wives and parents for comments. This caused me a problem because I had not told my mother that I was flying combat to avoid worrying her.

Needless to say, the VA-25 pilots were not about to let the slack-jawed beady-eyed jet pilots (Ed Greathouse's description) forget our success. The squawk box in the fighter ready rooms got plenty of incoming from our ready room. There was much frustration in the swept wing tail hook community as the next two kills went to the Air Force in July. Then the North Vietnamese pulled the MiGs for more pilot training. The only kill between July 1965 and April 1966 was a single Navy kill in October 1965. We maintained that we embarrassed them into pulling the MiGs.

A combat action happens fast and it is difficult to include all the influences that affect the outcome, but some sidelights are of interest. The day of the shoot down was the first that gun camera film was not loaded in our planes. Charlie fired 75 rounds and I fired 52. We both thought we had fired more. I had considered firing rockets to ensure a kill, but was afraid that the widespread pattern of the LAU-3s would also hit Ed or Jim. Three of our aircraft suffered engine failures in the near future. There were no fighters airborne at the time and they missed a great opportunity for the bogeys launched after the shoot down. Two years later I was invited to Miramar to brief the people setting up "TOP GUN." My briefer said, "Well, you were flying the F-4?" "No." "Oh, the F-8?" "No." "The A-4?" "No." "A-7?" "No." "Well, what the hell were you flying?" "The Skyraider." Then his jaw went slack and his eyes got beady. They're all the same. (See editorial comments below.)

Our squadron, VA-25, "The Fist of the Fleet," was the last operational Skyraider attack squadron in the Navy. We were flying a 20-year-old design that had been perfected about as far as the engineers could take it. Everyone thought that our time was over as front-line attack. What everyone forgot was that Ed Heinemann had mandated that the Skyraider not only had to be able to carry that 2,000 pound bomb a thousand miles to Tokyo and return to the ship, but that it also had to be able to defend itself against air attack. We never forgot. Unfortunately, even Ed Heinemann could not foresee SAMs. The Skyraider just did not have the top end speed to evade them. In April 1968 VA-25 retired the Skyraider in favor of the A-7 Corsair II. The aircraft and pilot, Ted Hill, that made the last combat carrier landing led four A-7s in a flyby, broke off to the east and disappeared out of our sight, but not our hearts. Ted flew it to Pensacola where it resides in the National Museum of Naval Aviation in our squadron colors. I flew six combat missions in that aircraft.

I flew as many hours in the A-4 Skyhawk as I did in the Skyraider and later flew the A-7. I truly enjoyed my A-4 time and it became my favorite. However, the Skyraider was something special. Even through my right leg has shrunken to the same size as my left leg, the carbon monoxide is cleared from my blood and the stack gas from my lungs, there is still that feeling that the Skyraider was where I was meant to be.

One final note. The first flight of the Skyraider was on 18 March 1945, my eighth birthday.

When news of the MiG shoot down arrived in VA-122, we fired off a message to our sister RAG squadrons at Miramar - offering "our assistance in improving their air-combat training." Another MiG shoot down by VA-176 on October 9, 1966 proved the ACM skill of SPAD pilots was not a fluke. Shortly, we heard that Miramar would be the home of the new TOP GUN School. What SPAD pilots had known all along really was important in combat. CAPT. Glinton B. Johnson USNR (Ret)
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• Targets of Opportunity

This was written by Dick Nelson, U.S. Naval Academy Class of 1964. I haven't been able to track him down for permission to use this, but it arrived via email from former Lockheed-Martin test engineer Pete Gillich, which proves nothing except that I enjoy dropping names. I sure hope I can find parts I thru XII.

Part XIII: Targets of Opportunity

The Ticonderoga cruise wore on, and the pilot losses continued. An F-8 nugget in VF-191 lost his oil pressure, and tried to get back aboard before the engine froze up. It quit on short final, and he ejected. He drowned when he became tangled up in his chute before the helo could get to him.

I became convinced that I was not going to survive this environment. Too many experienced pilots had gone down, and I was still in the learning stage. I had played enough Klondike, the pilots' favorite dice game, to know that the odds were against me. I began to spend money ashore as if I had struck oil, on the theory that I would never be required to pay off the credit card bills. Once I became convinced that I only had a few weeks to live, I actually became a much better pilot. In fact, the shakiest pilots were the ones that thought too much about their family, wrote melancholy letters home, stared at their wife's picture, and worried about surviving. It was becoming apparent that you had to have lots of attitude, and even more luck. Fortunately, I was well supplied with both.

We continued to receive reports about the North Vietnamese shooting downed pilots. We became aware that the ever-present fishing boats in the Gulf of Tonkin were armed and just waiting for an opportunity to take out an American pilot.

One of the most deceptively dangerous missions was "photo escort." The F-8 had an unarmed photo reconnaissance version with fantastic camera capability, and was utilized for bomb damage assessment and target selection. These were the birds that took the revealing photos of Soviet missiles in Cuba, setting off the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. Two or three of these defenseless aircraft were attached to each carrier and were flown by their own specially trained pilots, who were referred to as "photo weenies." On a typical mission, a fighter (armed) F-8 flew with the photo bird in case of MIG engagement, or to warn of SAMs. Too often, these guys tended to fly with their head in the "boot," aiming their cameras. The really bad part was that they always did their camera runs at low altitude over the most heavily defended territory. Japanese Kamikaze pilots would have been quite comfortable with this mission.

On a typical monsoon weather day, I was launched with one of the more experienced "photo weenies." We were directed=2
0to start at the DMZ and fly north up the entire North Vietnamese coast to Cam Pha, just below the Chinese border. We were supposed to report ship traffic and weather, because the admirals were itching to launch an Alpha Strike into any hole in the weather. God forbid---we were falling behind in the Navy-Air Force sortie race!

After launch, we found the weather to be impossible for visual bombing. Cloud tops were about 20,000', solid down to the bottoms at around 500'. Visibility over the water was restricted to about two miles in haze and fog. The photo pilot took the lead, and we dropped down to about 200' to keep sight of the coastal threats. We cruised north at a leisurely 300 kts., enjoying the picturesque sight of the fishing boats that were scattered over the coastal waters. At this low altitude, we were below the SAM envelope.

We cruised along on our "sight-seeing" tour, and finally reached the Hourglass River area, just northeast of Thanh Hoa. Numerous fishing boats were directly in our path, as we dropped down to 100' to stay below radar coverage of the numerous SAM sites in the area. I was flying a loose wing on the photo bird on his right side. Suddenly, tracers flashed just over my canopy, and I heard the staccato hammering of bullet shockwaves. This meant that the stream of bullets was coming extremely close to the cockpit.

I looked down to the right and spotted a fishing boat with two guys manning a machine gun, blazing away at me. I have often wondered how they missed at such close range.

We added full power. "Helo trap!" radioed the photo. The NVA had started mixing heavily armed boats within the fishing fleet, hoping to take out a low-flying helo or A-1 prop aircraft. Combined with all the other NVA nasty behavior, this cheap shot caused me to lose my cool. "I have the lead," I told the photo. I wanted a little "mano-a-mano" with the trigger-happy anglers. Now this was out of character--- as everyone knows, I'm not normally so impulsive.

I turned seaward in a wide right 270 deg. turn, flying on the instruments. Even though I knew I would lose sight of the boat because of the bad visibility and low ceiling, I figured it would have to be ahead of me when I rolled wings level. I was glad I took that Boat School navigation course! I checked MASTER ARM-ON, and selected GUNS. I heard that beautiful "clunk-clunk" as the four cannons each rammed a big 20mm round into their chambers. The gun sight reticle was illuminated and I leaned forward, hoping to place the "pipper" on the guilty boat before he saw me. Time to reach out and touch someone . . . ..

Out of the haze appeared a line of six small boats, apparently tied together. Their occupants saw me and a barrage of machine gun fire erupted, now coming from all six boats. The bullets were kicking up water geysers around me, and I realized I have to get them before they get me! As I got closer, I felt like the tracers were going right down my engine intake duct, but somehow they were missing. Head on, the F-8 does not give you much to shoot at.

The six-boat line had me in deep trouble. I was coming in perpendicular to their line, allowing them all to shoot at me. I had stupidly crossed "the T" on myself, even though at the Academy I had studied the Battles of Tsushima, Cape Esperance, Jutland and Surigao Strait, where this resulted in tactical disaster. I was now in a simple contest that would be determined in favor of the guy that landed the first knockout punch. Time to get creative.

I knew that if any of the gunners remained alive, there was no way they could miss my bird's exposed belly as I pulled out. At about 2,000' distance, I pulled sharply up to the 500' ceiling, and then jammed the nose down, putting the pipper on the center boats. Momentarily, this caused them to lose their bead on me. Holding
the trigger down, I alternately pushed the rudder pedals and yawed the aircraft several times left and right, making my tracers slash across the line of boats. The boats disintegrated and the high-explosive incendiary rounds vaporized the gunners. It was the luckiest shot I ever made. [Career tip: Never use up all of your luck in one phase of a battle. Save a little for the unexpected.] Watching the center boat break apart, I almost flew in the water, and overreacted by pulling up hard into the overcast. I believe they call that "target fixation." Some call it stupidity.

While hyperventilating in the clouds, I sensed something was very wrong. I looked at the attitude and vertical speed indicators and then the altimeter, and realized I was heading back down at the water with my nose in a near 90 degree angle. Totally on instruments, I slapped the stick to bring the wings level, pulled back hard and hit afterburner. As I popped out below the cloud deck, the dark water came rushing up. The bird began to shudder violently into a stall as I tried to keep her from hitting the water.

What they say is true about a near-death moment. Everything goes into slow motion, while your life's most important images flash through your mind at high speed. Just as I accepted the fact that I was dead, the groaning bird leveled off and somehow gradually flew out of the stall, with the water surface just inches from her belly. The photo pilot later said I was creating a huge rooster-tail of white water behind me. My bonding with this beast was paying off. In my imagination, the abused Crusader whispered to me---as women often did---"Don't do this to me again! Ever!"

My brain had melted down. I told the photo pilot, "Take me home---I can't think straight." In my mind, I was sure I was actually dead, and simply dreaming the rest of the flight from my watery grave. I flew along on the photo bird's wing, in a daze. When we got back to the carrier, I landed on the first pass, but could not remember the landing. I found myself sitting in "the pack" parking area on the port bow, not knowing how I got there. The maintenance crew had to help me out of the aircraft, because my knees would not work. The photo pilot was so certain I had actually hit the water, that he went back to inspect the tail cone of my bird to see if it was flattened.

The Skipper was not happy when he heard the story. "Nice! You almost traded a multi-million dollar aircraft for six lousy boats! And I don't have time to break in a new wingman!" I was thinking, it's nice to be needed.

I had nightmares about hitting the water for months. Since I slept in the top bunk, I would wake up in a sweaty panic and hit my head on the pipes overhead. I am fairly sure this caused permanent brain damage. From then on, I always saved some ordnance to use on the Hourglass fishing fleet, which I noticed were staying much closer to shore because of my "friendly visits." I suspect that the price of fresh fish in Hanoi went up considerably because of my personal vendetta.

I now realized everyone in North Vietnam was the enemy, regardless of gender, occupation or age. Everyone carried an AK-47 or other weapon. There were no innocent civilians north of the DMZ. I was now a killing machine with no conscience. The transformation was complete. The American taxpayers were finally getting what they had paid for.


One day the weather broke, and the Alpha Strikes began. I was assigned to Iron Hand, to prevent the SAMs from being launched against the strike group. I teamed up with A-4 driver Rick Millson (who later became a Blue Angel). We flew well together. The Shrike missile, carried by the A-4E, was a wonderful payback to the SAM operators. It locked on their radar and flew directly into the control van, which often contained Soviet advisors. When Millson was out of Shrikes, I still had my 12 Zuni rockets, which were accurate and deadly to personnel and light vehicles. We fused them to explode about 50' above the ground, where they would spray a vicious cone of shrapnel. Being in a Zuni's path would not be pleasant---or survivable.

On this strike, the Air Wing deployed four Iron Hand teams in a semi-circular screen up the Red River ahead of the strike force, and we started hunting. It did not take long for the NVA's reaction. Our SAM lights started flashing, with that hideous tone in our headsets. "Tally-ho, SAMs at 10 and 12 o'clock!" yelled Millson. He immediately locked his first Shrike on the southern site, and pickled the big missile off. He then swung around to the other one, firing another Shrike. His missiles flew directly down the SAM L-band guidance beams and hit the control vans, undoubtedly killing everyone inside.

About the time I was telling myself how much fun this was, two more SAMs lifted off from different sites, zooming toward us from opposite directions. Millson dodged the first one, but we both had to go into a high-g spiral to escape the second missile. I lost sight of Millson in the frantic pullout, and he failed to answer on the radio. I thought he had been shot down. This made me crazy. Now I really wanted to take somebody out.

C2 At that moment, through a hole in the scattered cloud layer, I saw the distinctive rosette pattern of a big SAM site, reloading its missiles. I rolled into a steep dive on it and ripple-fired all 12 Zunis in a direct hit on the control van. Later reconnaissance photos showed the van and missiles were all destroyed by the Zunis. Pulling off, I was nearly smothered by big black puffs of AAA fire from 100mm guns. The NVA did not appreciate the loss of a SAM site.

I finally found Millson, who had radio problems and had joined up on the A-3 tanker about 30 miles from the ship. We both tanked and landed back aboard, feeling very good about this day. Between us, we had destroyed three SAM sites and the strike group had no losses. It doesn't get much better than that.


The weather went bad again, and only a few birds got launched each day. The Buzzard came up to me in the ready room and said, "I got one of my buddies in Strike Ops to launch the spare on a coastal recce. We're going to have some fun." On each flight, there was normally a back-up aircraft, called "the spare." On this launch, Buzzard was the lead, I was the wingman, and Gator was the spare. Oh, shit. This was not a trio that the Skipper would want flying together. When Buzzard talked about "fun," there was usually a price to pay.

Buzzard had us meet him in his room. "How do you guys feel about watching Soviet and Chinese ships carry SAMS and ammo into Haiphong?" Buzzard asked.

"It sucks," replied Gator.

"Big time," I added.

"Well, do you want to do something about it? I've been working on a plan. But I need to know you are both committed."

"Buzzard, we are fed up with these 'rules of endangerment' that are getting our people killed and captured. Gator and I are ready to do what ever it takes to hurt the NVA and their Commie pals. What do you want to do?" I asked.

Buzzard went over the procedures, and what to expect. We reviewed a map with Buzzard to make sure we all understood the tricky geography involved. It would be critical to fly a perfect track to the rocket release point in order to avoid ground fire.

We each carried 38 2.75 in. rockets. Usually, the big 19-shot rocket pods were set to fire one rocket at a time. Buzzard told us to change the pod settings to RIPPLE and our cockpit switches to BOTH, which would shoot all 38 in close sequence.

The Admiral wanted more sorties, so---as Buzzard predicted--- the spare (Gator) was launched with us. We joined up in Combat Spread with Buzzard in the lead, me in tactical wing, and Gator in the Combat Spread position.

The weather was classic monsoon. Tops were the typical 20,000' with bottoms at 500'. At about 50 miles from the coast, Buzzard started navigating on his radar and identified the Haiphong lighthouse. He wagged his wings, signaling for us to join close on him, with Gator on his left wing, and me on his right. We switched to a pre-arranged frequency, and turned our IFF systems off so that Red Crown could not identify us. No need to provide evidence for our court-martial.

In a tight formation, we started descending through the clouds, heading directly for Haiphong, the heavily defended port. We all knew that the Soviets and Chinese were resupplying the NVA through Haiphong. Regardless, our Rules of Engagement placed their ships strictly off-limits, but sometimes you have to use a little initiative to hurt the enemy. Besides, everyone knows that rules are guidelines, and not absolute---except at the Naval Academy. It would be unfortunate if we hit some Soviet or Chinese ships, but we would not be aiming at them, right?

The clouds got thicker, and Gator and I closed in tight on Buzzard's wing to keep sight of him. If you screwed up and lost sight of that wingtip, you had to pull away and reverse course to avoid a mid-air collision in the clouds. I was so close, I felt as I could reach out and touch Buzzard's wingtip, which was only about five feet from my cockpit. Even then, I could barely keep sight of it.

Finally, the three of us popped out together at 400' over the water, with the Haiphong lighthouse passing to our left. We descended to about 50' to avoid their radar and SAM shots. Buzzard had correctly predicted that the gunners on either side of the harbor entrance would be unable to fire at us for fear of hitting their buddies on the other side.

The Buzzard had carefully plotted this caper. At an exact spot and heading, he pulled up with us in close formation to a 30 deg. nose-high angle, and said, "Stand by…….FIRE!" A salvo of 114 rockets lofted toward the Haiphong docks, where the Soviet and Chinese ships were tied up. Buzzard then did a graceful right reversal, with us on each wing, to get back down on the water before the NVA could fire at us. At the top of this maneuver, our SAM lights illuminated, but they lost lock when we reversed our track and zipped back through the harbor entrance at 50' altitude. Out of SAM range, Buzzard climbed us back through the clouds, again in tight formation. When on top, we switched back to Red Crown's frequency and turned our IFF back on, as if nothing had happened. Hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil . . . .

During debrief with the intelligence officers, which occurred after almost every flight, we were asked if we had gone anywhere near Haiphong. Apparently, the rocket barrage had hit several Soviet ships and started multiple fires around the port area. The Russians were furious, and complained to Washington. Buzzard replied, "No, but we did see some Air Force F-105s in that area. It must have been them." As Buzzard left the room, he whispered to me, "VSH!"


To my dismay, the Skipper was leading another strike. This time, it was even closer to Hanoi. The target was actually a wooden foot bridge. and had been selected by McNamara himself. I was fed up. The White House and SECDEF were micro-managing this conflict into a needless defeat. There were plenty of good targets, but this was not one of them. For every real target we did not hit, more American troops in South Vietnam would die.

Even more upsetting was the revelation that we would be the lead bombers, because the F-8s could each carry two 2,000 lb. bombs. Gator and I were again flying wing on the Skipper. He seemed to like having both of us around on difficult missions. How nice.

We were strapped in our birds, waiting for the target weather to improve. I was sitting on the starboard catapult, feeling a growing resentment for those who constantly launched us against worthless targets in heavily defended areas, even in bad weather. Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed two men approaching my aircraft. I looked down to see the Admiral and his chief of staff standing by the cockpit, looking up at me. "Good luck, son," said RADM Tom Walker ('39).

"Yeah, pray for good weather, Admiral," I replied curtly. His chief of staff glowered at my insolence, and they walked away, wondering why this lowly LT did not embrace their morale-building encouragement. I think they had watched The Bridges at Toko-Ri too many times.

The Admiral and his staff ran a spooky place below decks, called "The War Room." There were big maps on the bulkheads with hundreds of little colored pins. The only thing missing was Dr. Strangelove himself. Basically, the Admiral and his staff were useless and contributed nothing to our operations. They were simply justifying their own existence, like sea-going bureaucrats. This is the same admiral that went to sleep in a briefing for a visiting VIP, when I had been ordered to attend as a "representative" junior pilot. We really should require officers to retire at an earlier age.

Finally, the flight deck erupted in activity and we were told to crank it up. We blasted off the catapults in afterburner, carrying a partial fuel load because of the heavy weight. We then had to top off our fuel at the tanker, struggling to plug into the basket with our probe. We frequently had to tap afterburner to keep control at this slow speed and excessive weight. After fueling, we rendezvoused with the strike group and headed for our coast-in point, the Hourglass River.

On the way in, the flak was heavy and the SAMs were flying at us from every direction. We came up on our miserable little target, and I noticed a large town just southwest of the bridge. Tracers and heavy flak were spewing up at us from the town itself. I decided that I had been jacked around enough for one day. Besides, I liked hitting flak sites.

The Skipper and Gator dutifully rolled right to bomb the little bamboo bridge and missed it. I slid left to put my aim point squarely in the center of the big town that was obviously a supply staging area and the source of the monstrous flak barrage. If any traffic was actually going across this measly little bridge, it was undoubtedly going through this town. They certainly had plenty of flak gunners, and those guys were just begging to die. They would get their wish.

Gator and I had worked hard to perfect a high angle, high altitude bomb release technique at about 10,000' so that we could pull out well above the bulk of the ground fire, which---except for the big 100mm guns---came up to about 6,000'. This technique was surprisingly accurate because of the high dive angle, and very hard for the flak gunners to hit an aircraft in such a steep dive.

I slid left and placed my bombsight on the center of the town, using the 70-mil ring. I pickled and felt the huge bombs drop off, followed in seconds by the shock waves from the detonations as I climbed at full power. I looked back to see that the two bombs had obliterated the town and started multiple secondary explosions. Obviously, the town was storing something more sinister than rice and monkey meat. The flak abruptly stopped. The stinking town was guilty as charged. Sayonara, Mama-san.

During the debrief, we stated that we were desperately dodging flak, and did the best we could to get that pesky, importan
t little bridge. However, the town was conspicuously missing in the new reconnaissance photos, replaced by two huge bomb craters. Must have been the Air Force again. No thanks to McNamara, a real target had been hit. The attack pukes were happy, because I had eliminated most of the flak. One of them actually hit the bridge after we pulled off.


Life on the carrier during these times was strange and schizophrenic. We would go to the wardroom and have a nice breakfast, complete with uniformed stewards and white linen tablecloths and napkins. Then we would go out and sweat through two hours of combat, while several million Vietnamese tried to kill us. After we landed back aboard ship, we would go down to the wardroom for lunch. Uniformed stewards, white linens again. Then back in the aircraft to let people try to kill you all over again, day after day.

Gator had a weird sense of humor. Unlike me, Gator had an abnormal personality and should have had professional counseling. Knowing how the Black Shoes disliked the Air Wing, Gator loved to elbow his way into a seat at the senior officers' table in the wardroom, wearing his sweaty flight suit. Gator's table manners were bad enough, but he always had to say something inflammatory to upset the Black Shoes. I found this somewhat ironic, since Gator had been a Black Shoe prior to flight training.

On one occasion, Gator announced "Flight priority! Make way for fighter pilots!" as we pushed our way to the head table. We were seated in the midst of LCDRs and CDRs in spotless uniforms, who clearly disliked our smelly flight suits at their table. Gator said loudly, "Hot Dog, I can't believe I missed that target today with my bombs, and hit a stupid hospital!" All eyes turned toward us.

"Well, why did you miss it, Gator? What were you trying to hit?" I asked innocently.

"Dog, I was trying to hit a school bus, but they parked it right in front of that hospital. What a mess! Body parts everywhere. I ran out of bombs before I could nail that school bus, so I had to strafe it with 20mm." With horrified looks, the Black Shoes abandoned the table in disgust. Gator laughed uncontrollably, saying "Dog, I don't think anyone wants to have lunch with you!" I wondered if he had gone over the edge. I was pretty sure that I had. Gator munched happily on his sandwich and said, "Pass the ketchup." I wondered if anyone would notice if I quietly strangled Gator with my cloth napkin.


The East Coast F-8 drivers were not the only ones having trouble with the Tonkin Gulf environment. Some of the East Coast F-4 squadrons were also having adjustment problems. While grossly undertrained for this environment, they were overly aggressive in their desire to shoot down a MIG and prove their manhood, which culminated in a huge fiasco one sunny day.

The Air Force had been using pilotless jet drones, equipped with cameras, to conduct photo reconnaissance runs around Hanoi. The drones were launched from a multi-engine aircraft and flew a programmed flight profile into the target area, then flew back over the water for recovery by a specially equipped C-130. On electronic command, the drone would shut down and jettison its camera capsule, which would descend from high altitude in a parachute. The recovery aircraft would snag it before it hit the water, and reel it in to retrieve the camera films. On this particular day, the Air Force had neglected to tell the Navy that it was launching a drone. Normally, Red Crown would clear all aircraft out of the way.

The drone was launched and flew its profile perfectly. As it reversed course over Hanoi, the drone began to climb to its egress altitude, which was about 50,000'. When the drone crossed the coastline without showing a friendly IFF signal, Red Crown announced that a MIG was heading toward the carrier group at high altitude.

On one of the big carriers, a well-known and obnoxious LCDR was sitting in his F-4 on Alert Five. He was immediately launched, along with his wingman, to intercept the bogey. The wingman got radar contact and was given permission to fire on the bogey. However, he misjudged the bogey altitude and could not get into firing position.

The leader then hit burner and climbed into firing position, saying, "Red Crown, I have a positive ID on a MIG-21! Am I cleared to fire?"

"This is Red Crown. You are cleared to fire!"

The F-4 fired a Sidewinder, which exploded near the drone's tail. Immediately, the drone's recovery chute opened, and its camera package started descending. "Red Crown, splash one bogey! And we have a MIG pilot in his chute! We are following him down!"

Everyone dreamed of capturing one of the MIG pilots, because we knew the Russians, Chinese and possibly the North Koreans had been flying missions with the North Vietnamese. Capturing one of the foreign pilots would be a huge prize, and a great embarrassment to the other side. Who knows? Maybe it would be fun to have our very own MIG pilot at Happy Hour! We could keep him as a squadron mascot, and chain him to a seat in o
ur ready room! After the war, we could get him political asylum, and he could run a 7-11 or something. Gator fantasized about surrounding a MIG with several F-8s, then forcing him to fly back to the carrier with us (similar to a scene in the movie Blue Max). Then, Gator would shoot him down alongside the carrier, and with a little luck, we would recover the pilot. Gator would say, "Who cares about the Mutha' Trophy when you can have your very own MIG pilot? We could use him to clean our rooms, run the movie projector and make coffee in the ready room."

Immediately, several destroyers and frigates were detached to proceed at flank speed to the anticipated splash-down of the MIG pilot. The two F-4 crews watched as the drone camera package hit the water, triggering its automatic flotation devices.

"Red Crown, the MIG pilot appears to be in his raft!" said the lead F-4.

"Roger, we have a destroyer nearby---return to home plate. Good job!"

When the two F-4 crews returned to their carrier, the admiral and the ship's captain were proudly waiting. The lead crew reportedly received the Navy Cross, amid the cheers of the crew.

Meanwhile, the Air Force could not20find its drone. A terse message was issued to TF 77: "Urgent. Recce drone missing, ser. no. _________. Advise if drone is in radar contact, or last known position."

About the same time, the on-scene destroyer fished wreckage from the water. One piece contained the same Air Force serial number. The "MIG" was actually one of the Air Force's drones. Oops!

When this information reached the big-deck carrier, the admiral canceled the press release and instructed the F-4 crew to return the Navy Crosses. After that, the F-8s were given more exposure to airborne MIGs, since the F-4s had embarrassed their Flag supporters with the Air Force.


Gator had decided that he was tired of the intolerable heat in our stateroom, mostly caused by a huge exhaust duct that vented the steam catapults. He vowed to duplicate the engineering achievements of Porky and Buzzard and install the air conditioner he had smuggled aboard in Hawaii.

Because of his Black Shoe engineering knowledge, he quickly got it installed and vented. Now it was time to hook up the power. Gator found that the ship "snipes" [engineers] were doing some serious wiring on the fourth deck. One night, he appropriated about 50' of heavy-duty power cable from their work site. Gator said, "Hey we're all just trying to modernize the ship, right? The Black Shoes should thank us!"

Gator was almost as clever with tools as Porky. One night, he dragged out his huge power drill and said, "We are going to wire our air conditioner to the water-tight fuse box in the passage way." He found that the box was sealed, so he drilled it open. He was hooking up his wires to achieve a 110v. solution in a 220v. circuit when the ship's Engineering Officer rounded the corner.

"What are you men doing??? Who are you? My God, you are officers!"

Gator replied matter-of-factly, "I'm Gator, this is Hot Dog, and we're drilling into this fuse box to get some power for our air conditioner. "

The head snipe, a CDR, went crazy. "You men are sabotaging my ship! You are going to the Captain!" I thought this could be a really good thing. I actually haven't met the Captain yet, and personal relationships are important in the Navy. The more senior officers you know, the better your chances for promotion. We were called to the bridge.

The Captain was very upset. He glared at us from his big leather bridge chair and said, "You men have violated our engineering integrity. You have damaged our ship." I silently thought, Hey, you should see what I do to your ship with some of my landings, if you think this is bad. Wow, he has a nice view from up here!

Back in the squadron ready room, the Skipper had a hard time keeping a straight face. "OK, boys, keep your hands off the ship. Play with your own toys. The F-8s belong to you, and the ship belongs to the Black Shoes. We are guests here. Consider yourselves reprimanded. "

"Aye, aye, Sir," we chorused. Back to that miserable hot room. Time to think about tomorrow's Alpha Strike. More death, more destruction. Hopefully, it will be theirs and not ours.

• 3v2

via email: This came from a gent who runs a 2000 acre corn farm up around Barron WI , not far from Oshkosh. He used to fly F4Es and F-16s for the Guard and participated in the first Gulf War... Submitted for your enjoyment, and as a reminder that there are other great, magnificent flyers around besides us. Bill de Creeft

I went out to plant corn for a bit to finish a field before tomorrow morning and witnessed The Great Battle. A golden eagle - big bastard, about six foot wingspan - flew right in front of the tractor. It was being chased by three crows that were continually dive bombing it and pecking at it. The crows do this because the eagles rob their nests when they find them.

Focused effort

At any rate, the eagle banked hard right in one evasive maneuver, then landed in the field about 100 feet from the tractor. This eagle stood about 3 feet tall. The crows all landed too and took up positions around the eagle at 120 degrees apart, but kept their distance at about 20 feet from the big bird. The eagle would take a couple steps towards one of the crows and they'd hop backwards and forward to keep their distance. Then the reinforcements showed up.

I happened to spot the eagle's mate hurtling down out of the sky at what appeared to be approximately Mach 1.5. Just before impact the eagle on the ground took flight, and the three crows which were watching the grounded eagle, also took flight thinking they were going to get in some more pecking on the big bird. The first crow being targeted by the diving eagle never stood a snowball's chance in hell. There was a mid-air explosion of black feathers and that crow was done. The diving eagle then banked hard left in what had to be a 9G climbing turn, using the energy it had accumulated in the dive, and hit crow #2 less than two seconds later. Another crow dead.

The grounded eagle, which was now airborne and had an altitude advantage on the remaining crow, which was streaking eastward in full burner, made a short dive then banked hard right when the escaping crow tried to evade the hit. It didn't work - crow #3 bit the dust at about 20 feet altitude.

This aerial battle was better than any air show I've been to, including the warbirds show at Oshkosh! The two eagles ripped the crows apart and ate them on the ground, and as I got closer and closer working my way across the field, I passed within 20 feet of one of them as it ate its catch. It stopped and looked at me as I went by and you could see in the look of that bird that it knew who's Boss Of The Sky. What a beautiful bird!

I love it. Not only did they kill their enemy, they ate them.

• Morning Mission

Zero dark thirty get up. Not enough sleep, too much coffee.

Tip-toe into the bedroom and leave a heartfelt "'till I see you again" kiss. Risks acknowledged but mostly ignored.

Weather brief, yellow sheet, pre-flight on the cold ramp. Climb aboard. The smell of jet fuel, hydraulic fluid, aluminum, sweat.

Professional colleagues in the truest incredible-detail-of-knowledge sense. Friends and buddies. Respect and reliance the common bond.

The mission is the thing. Serious, lives at stake. Lives to save, often more lives at risk.

Secretly amazed they let you do this and pay you for it. But not nearly enough. The youngsters make poverty level wages—the local grocery store has a box for diapers and baby food donations.

No excuse sir, that's what we say. What's their excuse, the ones that pork the budget?

• I Fell 15,000 Feet And Lived

Chapter 7 in author Ron Knott's book Supersonic Cowboys, a collection of forty-five Crusader stories is by Marine Corps aviator Cliff ('Jud') Judkins, reprinted here for your reading pleas . . . astonishment. Because he was able to write an account of his experience you've probably concluded that Jud survived this ordeal—but he also returned to flight status and was flying F-8s again within six months. After leaving the Marine Corps he was hired as a pilot with Delta Airlines and retired as a Captain.


Needless to say that startling command got my attention.

Our in-flight refueling process was necessary, and routine, because the F-8 Crusader could not hold enough fuel to fly from California to Hawaii. Soon, after plugging-in to the tanker, my fuel gauges stirred, showing that all was well.. In my cockpit, I was relaxed and confident. My thoughts were “In a few hours I knew we’d all be having dinner at the Kaneohe O'Club on Oahu."

My fuel guages indicated that the tanks were almost full. Then - THUD ! I heard the crack of an explosion. Instantly, I could see the RPM gauge unwinding with the tailpipe temperature dropping. The engine had quit – a flame-out !

I punched the mike button : “This is Jud. I’ve got a flame-out !”

Unfortunately, my radio was already dead; I was neither sending nor receiving..

I quickly disconnected from the refueling tanker and nosed over, into a shallow dive, to pick up some flying speed to help re-start the engine. I needed those few seconds to think. I yanked the handle that extended the air-driven emergency electrical generator ( RAT ) into the slipstream, hoping to get ignition for an air start. The igniter's clicked gamely, and the RPM indicator started to climb slowly, as did the tailpipe temperature.

For one tantalizing moment I thought everything would be all right.

But the RPM indicator hung uncertainly at 30 percent . . refused to go any faster.

Jet fuel poured over the canopy and the RED FIRE WARNING light blinked ON.

At the same instant, powered by the RAT, my radio came back on. And a great babble of voices burst through my earphones. Fuel was pouring out of my aircraft . . from its tailpipe . . from under the wings . . the fuel had flowed together, then it ignited in . . . a great awesome trail of fire!

I told my flight leader , “ I’m getting out! ”

I took my hands off the flight controls and reached above my head for the canvas curtain that would start the ejection sequence. I pulled it down hard over my face and waited for the tremendous kick in the pants, rocketing me upward.

Nothing happened!

The canopy, was designed to jettison in the first part of the ejection sequence. But it did not move. It was still in place.

And so was I.

I reached down between my knees for the alternate ejection-firing handle, and gave it a vigorous pull. Nothing happened.

I was trapped in the burning aircraft.

The plane was now in a steep 60-degree dive. For the first time, I felt panic softening the edges of my determination. I knew that I had to do something or I was going to die in this sick airplane.

With great effort, I pulled my thoughts together and tried to imagine some solution, as a voice in my earphones was shouting : " Ditch it !”

That suggestion must have come from the re-fueling tanker skipper or one of the destroyer commanders, because every jet fighter pilot knows you can’t ditch a jet fighter and survive. On impact with the water, it would usually destroy itself.

I grabbed the control stick and leveled the aircraft. Then I yanked the alternate ejection handle once again.


That left me with only one imaginable way out : jettison the canopy manually, release your seat belt and harness, then jump out of the aircraft.

I was not aware of any Crusader pilot who had ever used this World War II tactic to get out of a fast flying jet fighter. I had been told that this procedure, of bailing out of a jet, was almost impossible. The Crusader's high vertical fin's almost certain to strike the pilot’s body and kill him.

My desperation was growing, and any scheme that offered a shred of success seemed better than riding the aircraft into the sea swells.

I disconnected the canopy with my hands.. And it disappeared with a great whoosh.

To move the tail slightly out of the way of my exiting body, I trimmed the aircraft to fly in a sideways skid . . nose high and with the rudder trimmed in a ' crab ' to the right. I stood up in the seat, and held both arms in front of my face.

I was harshly sucked out of the airplane.

I cringed as I tumbled outside, expecting the tail to cut me in half ! Instantly, I knew I was uninjured. I was going too fast, so I waited . . . and waited . . . until my body decelerated to terminal velocity. Then I pulled the parachute's D-ring and braced for the opening shock.

No shock.

I heard a loud pop above me, but continued falling rapidly. As I looked up, I saw the small pilot chute had deployed. But the main, 24-foot parachute had not opened ! I was stunned with disbelief and horror as I saw the parachute's neatly arranged white folds, tangled by the shroud lines. Frantically, I shook and jerked the risers in an attempt to open the main chute.

It didn’t do anything.

Hand over hand, I pulled the parachute bundle down toward me, then wrestled with the shroud lines, trying to get the chute to billow open. But the parachute remained as a closed bundle with shroud lines wrapped around it. All the while I am falling like a rock toward the Pacific ocean. I noticed a ring of turbulence in the ocean. It looked like a big stone had been thrown in the water with white froth in the center. I quickly realized, that was my Crusader crashing.

“Would I be next to crash? ”

Again, I shook the parachute risers and jerked on the shroud lines, but the rushing air was holding my chute in a tight bundle. I began to realize that I had done all I could reasonably do.

I was just along for a brutal ride that may kill or severely injure me.

I have no recollection of positioning myself properly nor even bracing for the impact. In fact, I don’t remember slamming into the water at all.

At one instant, I was falling fast toward the ocean. Suddenly, I was very cold. And in an eerie world of half-consciousness, I thought, “Am I alive ? ”

I finally decided , “Yes, I think I am . . ."

The cold water helped clear my senses. But as I flopped around injesting water, I began coughing and retching. The Mae West around my waist had inflated. I concluded that the shrill whistling sound that I had heard was the gas leaving the CO2 cylinders as it was filling the life vest. A sense of urgency gripped me, as my mind told me there were some task I was supposed to do next. Then it dawned on me what it was. I need to get rid of the parachute! It had billowed out underwater, and it was now tugging me down.

I tried reaching down for my hunting knife located in the knee pocket of my flight suit. I had to cut the shroud lines before the parachute pulled me under for good.

This is when I first discovered that I was injured severely.

The pain was excruciating. Was my back broken? I tried to arch it slightly and felt the pain again. As I tried moving my feet, I could feel my broken ankle bones grating against each other.

There was no chance of getting that hunting knife, but I had another, smaller knife one in the upper torso of my flight suit. With difficulty, I extracted it and began slashing feebly at the spaghetti-like mess of lines surrounding me.

Once free of the parachute, I began a tentative search for my survival pack. It should have been strapped to my hips. And it contained my one-man life raft, canned water, food, fishing gear, and dye markers. Not there.

The impact had ripped it off my body.

“How long would the Mae West sustain me ? ”

I wasn’t sure, but I knew I needed help fast. The salt water that I had swallowed felt like a rock in the pit of my gut. And, here I was, solo, 600 miles from shore, lolling in the deep troughs and crests of the vast Pacific. And my Crusader, upon which we had lavished such affection, was sinking the thousands of feet to the ocean's bottom.

In about ten minutes, I heard the drone of propellers. Flying very low, the pot-bellied, four-engine refueling tanker came into view. They dropped several green dye markers near me, and some smoke flares a short distance away. They circled overhead and dropped an inflated life raft about 50 yards from me.

I was so pleased and tried to swim toward the raft. When I took two strokes, I almost blacked out due to the intense pain. The tanker circled again and dropped another raft closer to me, but there was no way for me to get to it . . then in it . . in my condition.

The water seemed to be getting colder, and a chill gripped me. I looked at my watch, but the so-called unbreakable crystal was shattered and the hour and minute hands were torn away. I tried to relax and surrender to the Pacific Ocean swells.

I could almost have enjoyed being buoyed up to the crest of one swell and gently sliding into the trough of the next, but I was in such excruciating pain.

In about an hour, a Coast Guard amphibian plane flew over and circled me as though deciding whether or not to land. But the seas were too high. And I knew he couldn’t make it down, then make a successful take-off. He came in very low and dropped another raft; this one had a 200-foot floating lanyard attached.

The end of the lanyard landed barely ten feet from me. Using only my arms, I paddled gently backward. I caught hold of it and pulled the raft to me. I knew I couldn’t crawl into the raft due to my physical condition. But I was able to get a good grip on its side and hold on. And this gave me a little more security.

The Coast Guard amphibian pilot gained altitude and flew off and found some minesweepers returning from the Far East. He was not able to tune to their radio frequency, but the ingenious pilot lowered a wire and dragged it across one of the minesweeper's bows, then rocked his wings, heading back toward me. The minesweeper captain understood. He instantly veered off and headed at top speed in my direction.

I was fully conscious during the two and a half hours it took the mine sweeper to reach me. I spotted the ship while teetering on the crest of a wave. Soon, its great bow was pushing in close toward me. Sailors in orange life jackets were crowding its lifelines. A bearded man in a black rubber suit jumped into the water and swam to me.

“Are you hurt?” he asked.

“Yes,” I said. “My legs and my back.”

I was now very cold and was concerned about increasing numbness in my legs. Perhaps, the imminence of rescue had made me light-headed, for I only vaguely remember being hoisted aboard the ship. I was laid out on the ship’s deck as they cut away my flight suit.

“Don’t touch my legs ! Don’t touch my legs ! ” I screamed.

I don’t actually remember saying that, but then somebody gave me a shot of morphine. It erased part of my extreme pain.

An hour or so later, a man was bending over me and asking questions. A doctor had been 'high-lined ' over from the cruiser USS Los Angeles, now along side the sweeper.

He asked me, “You have a long scar on your abdomen. How did it get there ? ”

I told him about an auto accident I’d had four years earlier in Texas, and that my spleen had been removed.

He grunted, and asked more questions while he continued examining me. Then he said, “You and I are going to take a little trip over to the USS Los Angeles; it’s steaming along- side.”

They got me into a wire stretcher, and hauled me, dangling and dipping, across the watery interval between the ships.

In the Los Angeles’s sickbay, they gave me another shot of morphine before they started thrusting all sorts of hoses into my body. I could tell from all their activity, and their intense, hushed voices, that they were very worried about my condition.

My body temperature was down to 94 degrees; my intestines and kidneys were in shock. The doctors never left my side during the night. They took my blood pressure every 15 minutes. I was unable to sleep. Until finally, I threw-up about a quart or more of seawater and my nausea was relieved a bit.

By listening to the medical team, I was able to piece together the nature of my injuries. My left ankle was broken in five places. My right ankle was broken in three places. A tendon in my left foot was cut. My right pelvis was fractured. My number 7 vertebra was fractured. My left lung had partially collapsed. There were many cuts and bruises all over my face and body, and my intestines and kidneys had been stunned into complete inactivity.

The next morning, Dr. Valentine Rhodes told me that the Los Angeles was steaming at flank speed to a rendezvous with a helicopter 100 miles off shore from Long Beach. At 3:30 that afternoon, I was hoisted into the belly of a Marine helicopter, and we whirred off to a hospital ship, the USS Haven, docked in Long Beach. Once aboard the Haven, doctors came at me from all sides with more needles, tubes, and X-ray machines. Their reaction to my condition was so much more optimistic than I had expected.

So I finally let go a few tears of relief, exhaustion, and thanks to all hands.

Within a few months, I was all systems go again. My ankles were put back in place with the help of steel pins. The partially collapsed left lung re-inflated and my kidneys and intestines were working again without artificial prodding.

The Marine Corps discovered the cause of my flame-out, was the failure of an automatic cut-off switch in the refueling system. The aircraft’s main fuel tank was made of heavy reinforced rubber. When the cut-off switch failed, this allowed the tank at high pressure, to go beyond its capacity. The tank burst like a rubber balloon, causing a flame-out and very spectacular fire.

We will never know why the ejection seat failed because it is on the bottom of the ocean. The failure of the parachute is a mystery also. Like they say, “Some days you are the dog, but others you are the dog's fire-plug.”

Do I feel lucky ?

That word doesn’t even begin to describe my feelings. To survive a 15,000-foot free fall with an unopened chute is a fair enough feat. But my mind keeps running back to something Dr. Rhodes told me during those grim and desperate hours.

He said that if I had had one, the spleen would have almost certainly would have ruptured at impact and I would have bled to death, internally.

Of the 25 fighter pilots in our squadron, I am the only one who didn't have a spleen.