Other than a ramp strike, probably the most embarrassing error in carrier aviation is landing on the wrong flight deck. That’s what happened to this VF-111 “Sundowners” pilot who returned to his home, USS Lake Champlain (CVA-39), with a billboard’s worth of non-regulation markings applied to his F9F-5 Panther.
During the period immediately after the Korean War cease fire of late July 1953, Task Force 77 continued operations into August lest hostilities erupted again. This Sundowner mistakenly landed aboard USS Yorktown (CVA-10) which, being another Essex-class carrier, closely resembled “The Champ.” As per tradition, the errant aviator’s hosts bedecked his jet with all manner of graffiti.
Because Lake Champlain operated Air Task Group One, each squadron retained the tail code of its parent air group, in VF-111’s case, USS Valley Forge’s (CVA-45) “V.” But note that the flight deck crew modified the V into Yorktown’s M for Air Group Two, and further adapted the modex nose number 134 to 184.
Among the verbiage applied to the Panther is “Landed by the Fighting Lady,” “Dopey,” and “Barriers” with an arrow pointing to the white bomb mission markers on the fuselage. The latter represents an insider’s taunt in tailhook aviation, as a pilot who gets “a barrier” has overshot the arresting wires and crunched his plane into the steel woven-wire barricade that protects aircraft parked forward of the landing area. The message atop the starboard wing is “Step on the ball,” recalling a flight instructor’s elementary advice to cadets as a way of centering the ball in the turn and bank indicator.
This particular Panther (BuNo 126037) had the distinction of dropping Lake Champlain’s last bombs of the Korean War. On July 27, Lt.(jg) William A. Finlay, Jr., had flown in the ship’s final combat launch, one of four F9Fs that cratered the runway of Yongpo Airfield southwest of Hungnam, North Korea. Finlay’s ordnance also was the last known delivered by the U.S. Navy in the three-year Korean “conflict.”
By Barrett Tillman