The Sermon On The Ramp: a Crusader blows up

Sep 28, 2011 2 Comments by

A few guys have asked why I haven’t added my tale to the sea stories. Here it is, in a nutshell: I screwed up a night approach, blew up my F-8 on the ramp, flopped in the water, and was picked up by a tin can. I’m not particularly proud of wrecking a machine I loved to fly.
 
By rights I should have been fishfood; that I wasn’t, I firmly believe is because there is a God, who employs guardian angels (those assigned to nugget Crusader pilots really racked up the overtime), and who listens to those little pre-cat prayers. Read on; count the screw ups, count the dang-nears, then you decide. It sure as heck wasn’t skill on my part that cheated the fishies.
 
Off the cat, AOA dropped to zero. Pretty soon, it came back on, seemed to work o.k. Suggested to my fearless leader that we join up before marshall for an a/s-AOA check, then we went on about our business and both forgot about it.
 
When I popped the boards leaving marshall, it went to zero again, then came back on. Too late to bother anybody now, so carry on. Dirty up, donut & a/s don’t match for fuel load — a/s is a few knots slow, but AOA was boresighted just before launch & sister squadron had recently had a couple bad a/s indicators, so I bet AOA is more correct (Norwegian “logic”!). APC check — APC doesn’t engage. O.k., manual pass. Sure looks dark out there; oops, wing lites have gone out. Well, turn on the rotator and crack the probe door so the probe light comes on, maybe paddles can still see me o.k. Call the ball, manual, AOA seems to be responding o.k., I’m actually holding a donut most of the time. Paddles, however, sees only a “fast” approach lite the entire approach. The rotator and probe light don’t give very good clues, so paddles checks the SPN-12 (approach speed radar) readout. SPN-12 is down. Paddles now has no way to judge distance, glide path or attitude (which is directly related to AOA, and therefore a/s), and thinks I’m fast as a bat.
 
Going a little high in close, make a correction — apparently right at the burble. Ball is coming down, no dropping down, cob it & rotate, this ain’t good, hit burner! Paddles first clue about how close the aircraft was, was when I appeared in the floodlights, low and nose high, and sinking – still showing a “fast” approach lite. The burner lit just as the wheels hit the rounddown and broke the airplane in half. Fuel tanks erupted, the burner lit the fuel, and the guys who were on the roof told me it was the most glorious explosion they had ever seen. The whole works continued up the angle, with the aft half doing a somersault in the fireball.
 
My brain may have been a bit scrambled from the impact, but something told me that it was too quiet in there, and too bright outside, and besides you shouldn’t be going sideways across the #4 wire, you should leave now. Wait, sit up straight before you pull the curtain. Oops, cant’t get it over my helmet now, I’ll duck a little then straighten up when it clears the helmet, there, now pull hard. I didn’t feel a thing, but heard this loud bang and saw a bright flash below so figured the seat must have fired. Quick, grab and pull the toggles on the MKIII-C. I was pulling them when I heard another loud “crack” and felt a real jolt that yanked my hands off the toggles. Then, darkness.
 
The remnents had left the angle, rolled left and entered the water inverted. Apparently the seat fired at 90 degrees of bank or so, because no one saw the canopy or seat leave (and there was no PLAT tape to review because that was down too). The jolt was the seat hitting the water, the “crack” was the drogue gun firing. One of the CO2 cartridges had been activated, so one cell of the MKIII inflated.
 
Pretty soon I regained some level of consciousness, and noticed this odd view of the ship, getting smaller and appearing and disappearing behind waves. Then I saw this wing nearby, so I grabbed on to it. Dang, cut my hand in the the gap between the outer wing panel and main panel droops. What’s all that yelling about? There’s another ship. There’s a horse collar. Maybe I’ll grab that and let go of this wing. Now they’re trying to lift me up but I can’t hang on anymore. When I fell back in, I went under for a while, sucking in a lot of sea water and suddenly becoming aware that HEY MAN I’M DROWNING HERE. Shriek a bunch, grab that horsecollar again and go into lock mode.
 
They had been yelling at me to grab the horsecollar, because they could see that the wing was sinking on the chute, which the drogue gun had yanked out. It sank just as they pulled me clear. On the second attempt to hoist me aboard, Ens. Bob Hendricks went over the side to hold my head out of the water, SN Snodgrass (duty swimmer) got me into the horsecollar again, and when nobody could get the chute released, the XO, LCDR Furey, got a knife, climbed down the cargo net (which was hung over the side for just such events) and cut the shroud lines. It still took 5 men to haul me up, because the vent hose to the poopy suit had ripped out instead of disconnecting on ejection, so the poopy suit was full of water.
 
When I was laid out on a wardroom table and my flight gear was being cut off with knives and scissors, it finally dawned on me what had happened. I got pretty upset, because there were a lot of men – including my Line Division plane captains – on the flight deck where I had strewn flying and flaming debris. I insisted that they radio the carrier to see if anyone on the roof had been injured; when the word came back that no one had, I relaxed… and promptly passed out again.
 
The scariest part of the whole deal was when the helo guys picked me up from the tincan the next morning. They trussed me up like a turkey in this wire basket stretcher, hoisted me to the hovering helo, and after pulling the thing just halfway into the helo’s cabin, went roaring off to the Shang. I was sure I was going to slide out and go “bloop”.
 
So, instead of becoming Charlie the Tuna’s revenge, I became “Fireball”.
 
——————-
 
At the time, I was sure that my Naval Aviatin’ days were over. Stolly Stollenwerck was my Skipper, Pete Easterling XO. Stolly and Pete came to sick bay to hear my side of the tale. I can hear Stolly to this day: “Well, Dave, are you going to stay with us?”. I couldn’t believe it; I have a choice???. I said “Yes sir, if you’ll let me.” He said,”Oh, sure, Dave”, in that fatherly manner of his.
 
As a sidebar, after recuperating for about 30 days, my first flite after getting my “up chit” had an inauspicious beginning. First a/c went down on start, resked for next launch, down again with hydraulic leak, resked as spare for next launch, & the spare was made a “go” bird. On the cat, shooter touched the deck & nothing happened; suspended, tried again – and again -and again. It finally fired on the 5th try. By that time I had developed a morbid curiousity — is this thing going to work??? — and was mentally prepared to climb out in the water on the pointy end, but I dang sure wasn’t going to say “no” and have to go thru those butterflies for yet another launch. Once the cat fired, it was just like old times, no more than usual jitters on the trap.
 
This was my nugget cruise, and I didn’t even have 50 total traps. By the time I left VF-13, I had over 300 more traps on the Shang, but didn’t enjoy any of the night ones. Not even a little bit. Daytime, tho, was a blast. Something that surprised me was that I even enjoyed day traps more, thought they were great sport. But not nites. For what its worth, I have never had bad dreams or nightmares or anything like that. I just disliked night traps more intensely.
 
There were a lot of factors in my decision to leave the Navy after one tour, but this was the biggest one. I had too much fun with the airplane, and didn’t use my head enough. I could read the handwriting on the wall — it said “You’ve been warned enough times”. Asking for shore duty, or VP, or somesuch, just wasn’t in the cards. You either have a tailhook, or you’re dogmeat. Or a civilian with good memories.
 
I found out later — after routing the tale to our email net in fact — something that everybody in the squadron thought I knew: The a/c had been in the hangar deck, canopy open, when someone set off the fire suppression foam & filled the cockpit just a few days earlier, which could explain the multi glitches; that stuff is corrosive. That has made it a little easier for me to look people in the eye.  –Dave Johnson, 5 November 2010

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