I was assigned duty fighter alert although conditions were too rough for the fleet to be flying. Flight operations had been canceled. . . but the On Duty Alert fighter had not.
I knew that there was no way they would launch me, since green water was now elevating itself 80 feet (or the deck was diving 80 feet into the North Atlantic).
That was a helpless feeling to say the least. Finally, with heavy chains, they tied my airplane to the Cat. I was sitting in there, when all of a sudden the big bull horn sounded :
" LAUNCH THE DUTY FIGHTER ! "
Hey . . . you've got to be kidding !
My engine was not running and I had no electrical power up for the command radio. But the launch crew was already removing my 10 chain tie downs and getting a ground starter in place. The crew gave me a two-finger ' turn up' and pointed to my headset. I knew this was a signal to call PriFly.
Before I could transmit they were saying : "We have an unidentified target approaching the 250 mile circle and you must check it out. You will be launched as soon as the ship can turn into the wind." Oh s---, I thought.
The waves were so high that the catapult Shooter had to time our bow's up and down movement before he could launch my aircraft.
Frequently, the ship's nose would be buried in a dive. The next moment it, would be climbing a wave and simultaneously rolling 10 to 20 degrees . . while pointing up.
After checking all engine instruments (hoping finding a major problem) I determined that all systems were go. Also there were 3,500 troops watching to see if I was a real fighter pilot. The Navy had bred into us to never turn down a mission. This alert could be the REAL ONE. And our fleet could actually be under attack!
I saluted the Shooter and adjusted back in my seat for the shot.
As the ship's bow started up the shot came, I was airborne at 180 kts in 1.8 seconds. There was no way I could keep my feet on the rudders during the catapult. After the catapult, some of us felt like roadrunner birds - and we'd key the mike saying, " BEEP BEEP."
About the time I was recovering from the shot, Combat Control gave me vectors to the incoming target. And they instructed my speed to be G-A-T-E ! WIDE OPEN THROTTLE WITH STEREO AFTERBURNER.
Even while rapidly climbing five miles high in less than 60 seconds, the F-8 Crusader was accelerating supersonic. And ninety seconds later, I was at 30M heading for the bad guys.
To aid in finding the incoming Russian bomber(s) I tweaked my radar range out to 60 miles. But stationed on the outer edges of the fleet, a destroyer (DD) was able to look out even farther with its radar.
I was turned over to the DD and I reported my position. They responded, " Roger, Silverstep. We have you in contact." I asked : " WHERE'S THE BOGIE ? "
Silverstep: " It appears that was a false target " (possibly generated by a non-gyro stabilized radar receiver due to the rough sea).
" WOW ! I had risked my life for a false target. Now, I had to land on a boat that was bouncing up and down like a cork."
Although being literally shot up into the air, flying to the target had been routine. But landing on a boat being " beaten around like a puppet jerked on a string " was not.
I was given a You Are CHARLIE ON ARRIVAL meaning that I could land immediately. I had the ship to myself.
Usually, if a bird needs more fuel the tankers are available to give it another drink. No tankers were up on that day. On the other hand, I did come back with enough gas for about six (6) landing attempts. Thank goodness I did.
When the ship is just rocking and rolling, the visual ' meatball ' on the final approach glide slope is gyro-stabilized. But, if the ship is H-E-A-V-I-N-G AND B-U-C-K- I-N-G . . the gyro limits are exceeded making the ' meat ball's ' light and beam inaccurate.
In this situation the Landing Signal Officer (LSO) will manually control the meat ball to keep you on a desired glide slope. In other words, he puts the beam where he wants you to fly. He can judge the huge waves and try to get you on board when the ship is level . . somewhat.
In most cases the pilot is not able to see the ship's movement on his approach. His thoughts are 100% focused on staying on the ' meatball. ' And all the way to a trap, he is saying to himself : MEATBALL . . LINE-UP . . AIRSPEED ? This time I could see the ship's movements . .. loud and clear !
The ship would be nose high while in a roll 20 degrees to port. That would be like flying into a wall. Now making another quick glance, and the boat was nose low an d rolling both ways. With other glances, I could actually see the ship's huge screws under the fantail.
I was in deep trouble. Perhaps making it impossible to make a successful landing.
The LSO was letting me fly in as close as possible before hitting the big red flashing lights. I was doing everything correctly, but got the wave off on my first 5 approaches. The LSO was not going to let me land on those first threatening approaches because I might destroy more parked airplanes than a Kamikaze.
I had fuel enough for ONE more attempt. Needless to say I was calling on a Higher Power to help me out. Thank goodness He was watching over me.
When I felt that tail hook engage the cable, I was the happiest man on board the USS Independence. The landing is just the opposite of the Cat shot. No matter how tight you secured your shoulder harness, your head is thrown forward and down. But after moment you recover your senses and taxi out of the landing area.
But my problems were not over. I had to taxi on a thin sheet of ice that covered the rolling deck. Each time the ship would roll . . the Crusader would skid in that direction.
A few days earlier, I had observed an aircraft skid and drop overboard. Not many pilots survive. The 80 foot fall usually knocks them out - or their injuries disable them and they sink with the bird.
This was called "Church". When someone would ask what happened to a pilot in an accident they would respond : "Church" meaning that he was killed and a memorial service was held.
Finally, the flight deck crew got enough chains and tie downs on the bird to keep it from taking a salt water swim along with its pilot. There was no "Church" on that day for one happy pilot.
The ships Captain congratulated my airmanship. The flight surgeon gave me a few ounces of brandy and I headed to my stateroom for a little R &R. The ship was still bucking and heaving so while laying in my bunk I was mentally still pulling plus and minus G's
After my Navy flying I joined the airlines. Many times I was very amused at the response of some of my co-pilots complaining about how hard and dangerous airline flying was.
I felt like I had retired when first taking the airline job (even though it did have many challenges there as well). But nothing compared to landing, day and night, on an aircraft carrier. I had adventures you can't buy in the civilian world.
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