On January 22, 1968, I was a young LTJG at Miramar, attached to Navy Fighter Squadron VF-53 preparing for a deployment to Vietnam aboard the USS Bon Homme Richard. As a final part of the pre-deployment regimen, all pilots were briefed to fly [ FMLP ] Field Mirror Landing Practice about 2100 that night. This was our last chance to practice before flying our planes to NAS North Island so that the planes could be lifted aboard the carrier. We were required to get a minimum number of FMLPs. I needed five (5) more. Sometimes, we referred to them as “bounces” because we landed, added full power, then leaped back into the air; it resembled a bounce.
We were briefed by the LSO [ Landing Signal Officer ]. Our LSO was sharp, laid back kind of guy named George. After he lost his brother, a fellow pilot on the previous cruise, he didn’t see the need to waste his life being deeply worried about anything. Around 2000, we manned our aircraft, the F8E Crusader. It was dark, but that was a major reason for the mission: night FMLPs. Other squadrons would schedule their night FMLPs right after 1800, which would qualify [ in the ‘ books ‘ ] as night landings. But [ derogatorily ] we referred to them as “pinkies”.
I was not the first pilot to get airborne. So as I sat there in the Crusader’s cockpit I watched the lights of the other aircraft to get an idea of interval and where my place in the pattern should be. Like most of my fellow pilots, I was going to be as aggressive as possible with my technique entering the night bounce pattern. I would leave the landing gear down and the wing raised up [ the F8E Crusader’s entire wing pivoted to change the wing’s angle of attack for take-offs and landings ] as I acquired an after take-off speed of 170 knots. I planned to aggressively climb to about 30 degrees nose up, then roll in about 60-75 degrees [ of bank ] to level off at pattern altitude. Probably no one would see my performance in the dark, but I would have the satisfaction of knowing I had aggressively, but safely, performed the maneuver.
Because of a light fuel load, I planned my takeoff roll without afterburner. Now, I’d rotated [ off the nose wheel ] at 131 knots, I was envisioning the aggressive climbing turn allowing me to smoothly enter downwind leg. At roughly 150 feet, during the aggressive climbing turn, all of the Crusader’s lights . . BLINKED OFF! In absolute darkness, I felt for and found the RAT handle. I pulled and released the propeller driven emergency electrical generator while simultaneously attempting to recover from the aircraft’s [ pre-planned ] aggressive and unusual attitude. For the next few seconds, I was real busy trying to pick up bearings on the outside world. The cockpit stayed black. Even with the RAT down, not a single light re-appeared. Because I needed both hands to fly and I couldn’t reach my flashlight. And I was so preoccupied with getting the aircraft under control . . keep it from flying too slow . . I nearly ran up the tail pipe of the Crusader in front of me. I pulled off power, and swung wide where had a new thought,”What better substitute for no instruments than using this other aircraft. I’ll just fly his wing right down to touchdown!” Once that decision was made, my pucker factor reduced by around 80%.
I eased up on the other Crusader just as the pilot began the turn off his down- wind leg about 1 mile abeam of our landing point on the runway. Because he turned away from me, it made my job of rendezvousing [ undiscovered ] became easier. The pilot was now looking at the runway to adjust his turn to rollout in the landing’ groove’ where runway center-line matched with a 3 degree glide slope. I needed to remain undetected because the discovery of my aircraft only few away might cause the unsuspecting pilot to perform some violent maneuver.
Carefully, I eased in from below him and to his right . . opposite from where his attention was now focused. And I was also careful not to get too close since he would be able to feel his aircraft’s airflow being disturbed by another aircraft getting in too close.As he made ‘ our ‘ approach, I was desperately trying to watch his aircraft with one eye and the run-way with the other. I needed to make certain he was not flying below the 3% glide path that would make me hit the ground before he did. Finally, about 1/2 mile from the runway I saw the bright Fresnel lensed ” BALL ” Whew ! All was well. So far. I could see the runway, ball, and my unsuspecting leader. The aircraft behind us would be at least a mile back and I’d be able to land safely.
My landing was uneventful. I rolled all the way to the end of the 8,000 foot runway. I [ kept the engine running and ] waited for a ” Follow Me” truck to allow my ‘ electrically dead bird ‘ to be under Tower control. I waited for what seemed like an eternity. But no one came. There was not one single flashing red light on the entire airfield. The very next landing aircraft could roll to the end without being aware that my ‘ unlit ‘ aircraft was just sitting there waiting to be hit.
The more I thought about it, the more I thought: ” Hey, I’m a sitting duck.”
At the very least, the Squadron Commander would accuse me of poor head work for just sitting there and getting hit. So, I made the decision to cross the parallel active runway WITHOUT Tower clearance. I watched the aircraft land on the active, for a few minutes, to get a feel for the traffic rhythm. Then just behind an aircraft on landing rollout, I bolted across the active runway. Since normal procedure was to refuel before we parked the aircraft, I taxied to the fuel pits. Before entering, we needed to fold up our wings to allow taxiing into the narrow refueling lanes, and also to allow the refuelers to make certain the fuel tank relief vents were bleeding off air while taking on fuel.
I was chocked up in the refueling pit, with the Crusader’s engine still running, when an enlisted men climbed up and relayed [ the message ] that I was to get my aircraft fixed, then complete the required number of FMLPs. Heaven forbid that I should be short a few stupid FMLPs! Still in the cockpit, with engine running, wheels chocked, wings folded, an electrician’s mate crawled up [ then dove his head deep into bottom of the cockpit.] He was literally on his head and cussing as he reached for various circuit breakers and fuses. Several times he almost kneed me in the face as he struggled for position. After about 10 minutes, he was able to restore partial electrical power by resetting circuit breakers. So now I had a command radio and instrument lights on the attitude gyro, altimeter, vertical speed, and airspeed. I called our O.D. [ Officer of the Day ] and told him what had happened and that I was going to PARK this ‘ poor excuse ‘ for an airplane.
He informed me that I had not finished my five ‘ bounces.’ I argued that it was nearly midnight and I was tired. [ What I didn’t say, is that ] in my mind, I was already on my way home to my wife, Fran, and my son, Scott.] But the O.D. said he had spoken with the Ops Officer and I had to complete those ‘ bounces.’ But, I did have a choice. I could wait for another aircraft. One could be ready in about an hour. Angrily, I cursed the Navy under my breath and questioned having joined NROTC in college. But disobeying a direct order was not going to be a career help. So I gave in. I told the O.D. that I would take this same [ original ] aircraft and finish the five bounces.
I was angry . . didn’t want to wait . . I wanted to get this over with . .” If the electrical failure occurs again, I can handle it. Didn’t I get this sick puppy back on the ground [ once before ]?” Angrily, I taxied out to active runway . . in a hurry . . thinking that we only had a few days left before shipping out for the Far East and I should snuggled against my wife, Fran. I was going to be home . . and I was going to be home SOON !
The distance from the fuel pits to rolling for takeoff should take about two minutes. I cut that time in half. And as I approached the ” hold short ” area, Tower asked if was I ready for an immediate takeoff. Out of habit, the response [ came out of my mouth ] = YES .
Tower came back with a clearance for an immediate takeoff. I added some power, began closing the canopy, then glanced down in the dark to the written takeoff check list.
Damn lights! I couldn’t see a thing! Struggling with the canopy, I had to squeeze up in the seat to get some leverage on the locking handle. Then it locked in place !As I added more power I tried to remember what was on the take-off check list. Normally, I would read the little [ lighted ] takeoff checklist placard located on the lower right hand side of the instrument panel; no lights down there. I had better stop where I am and get out my flashlight. No. It was too late ! I was on the runway. And there was an aircraft on short final [ coming up behind me.]
Desperately I tried to remember the takeoff check list, as I added more power. Doing 80 knots now. Brought in power to 100%. Oh yes ! I remember (1) Canopy closed and locked. (2) Wings [ leading angle ] up. (3) Scan instruments. Speed was now 100 knots. Increasing rapidly. Oh, what the hell ! Didn’t I just do that checklist about 30 minutes ago ? What could have changed ? I had better start flying the airplane. I’ll worry about completing that check list, later on.At 130 knots, I relaxed the forward stick pressure I’d held to keep from bouncing during take off roll . . and [ of its own accord ] the airplane LEAPED INTO THE AIR . . ITS NOSE RISING RAPIDLY !
Using the trim button on the stick, I put in nose down trim along with a strong right arm and stopped it at about 15 degrees nose up. I was then able to force the nose down to 7-8 degrees above the artificial horizon.
The whole aircraft was buffeting. What’s the hell is wrong ? I might have to get out of this thing ! I know that damn Martin Baker seat could break my back, or crack a vertebra. For the second time, in less than an hour, my pucker factor was approaching the 90% range. I’m a l00 feet into the air. Things aren’t getting better. University City ahead . . . lots of homes . . I needed to move to the right! I led in a little right aileron. [ The aircraft didn’t like that ] and did a half-snap roll. So now I’m inverted and too low to eject. I corrected back with left aileron and left rudder. Now it’s coming back around too quick ! I over-shot. Badly. There were several [ weird ] oscillations before I finally settled it down to a semblance of wings level. I called out on the radio : ” Miramar Tower. This is NJ207. I have some serious control problems. I may have to get out.” I was surprised how calm I sounded. I thought it sounded pretty damned cool, considering that inverted business a few seconds earlier.
The reply from the tower was like someone stabbed me with a sharp icicle. ” Roger . . NJ207 . . your wings are [ S T I L L ] F O L D E D ! “ Hoping I had misunderstood, I answered, ” My WHAT is W-H-A-T ?” There went all my cool and calm. And there went the radio discipline . . out the window – no call sign – no addressee. It had been replaced by terror’s edge. I glanced into the Crusader’s rear view mirrors only to see the wing tip position lights sticking straight up into the air. They must have folded up during take-off roll. Surely I had unfolded my wings. I ALWAYS unfold the wings . . it’s right there on my take-off check list ! By now I doing 180 knots, and easing off power. But nothing felt right. And the plane was still buffeting. I moved my left hand from the throttle to hold the control stick.With my right hand free, I reached back to check the position of the wing fold control handle. Instead of being stowed flat, the handle was sticking straight up ! To no one, I yelled an expletive. Again, I glanced into the rear view mirrors. The wing tip position lights were actually canted inward above the remaining wing stubs ! Airloads had failed the wing fold mechanism allowing the wings to almost lay down on top of the remaining wing stubs. The Crusader had a 35 ft. wing span. I had (6) six feet [ of each wing ] lying on top of the stubs. What was keeping her in the air?,I eased right to avoid University City. By using additional rudder and less aileron and I managed to hit no more than 45 degrees of roll. My mind was racing; everything seemed to be moving in slow motion.
I clearly recalled a flying safety article describing another pilot’s similar screw-up. Although fear was really pumping my adrenaline , I was able to remember, almost verbatim, another pilot who’d taken off with wings folded. The article’s [ bottom line was ] to NOT mess with the wings . . and not attempt to fold the wings down during flight.
About that time, George came up on tower frequency, and asked ” Ron. This is George. How are you doing ? ” My answer was short and sweet, ” It’s still flying.” And we went on to discuss a necessarily higher traffic pattern speed in knots > 180 on approach > about 170 all the way down to the runway’s surface > 160 for touchdown. Of course, everything depended on whether the airplane continued to be [ more or less ] under control.
We discussed lowering the landing hook to assist because of the faster approach speeds and possible lost hydraulics [ including the brakes ] due to damaged wing fold mechanism. I really didn’t want to lower the hook. The extra expense of grinding down the hook could turn an incident into a reportable accident. If the hook wasn’t down, and I rolled off edge of the runway, George reminded me that I wasn’t going to look good in the head work department. I reluctantly agreed that I had already screwed up enough. I figured George was giving me good advice. Besides, letting him help me with the thinking relieved my stress load. I put down the hook. It now occurred to me that I had violated a personal rule, to never to remain with an aircraft that was in serious trouble. But it also dawned on me that if I [ destroyed ] this airplane, this [ stupid scenario ] would be known to the entire U.S Naval Aviation community within 24 hours. As I slowed the Crusader down a bit, I was strongly focusing on its new flying characteristics. If I had to get out, I would definitely try to rotate upright before ejection. At this low altitude, I could very easily strike the ground before seat separation and parachute opening. Pucker factor was still there.
The F8 had an especially long fuselage; that was the reason the entire wing was designed to pivot up allowing the long fuselage to be additionally parallel to the ground for landing. Because the outer wing was folded,the remaining stubs would produce much less lift. I would be forced to hold the Crusader’s nose higher than normal for this landing.
Combined with the long fuselage problem, I thought there was a chance I would hit the runway tail first. Unless I finessed other adjustments correctly. I decided to make a landing with significant additional power. Then, just before touchdown, I’d ease the stick forward, to bring the nose down to reduce the possibility for a tail strike. If I pulled this off this finesse, I’d disallow the aircraft from developing an excessive sink rate. It worked out like magic ! After touchdown, I slammed into the runway’s arresting gear. The hook caught the wire and the aircraft came quickly to a stop. The flight had taken only seven minutes.
After the hook was disengaged, I was able to taxi to the ramp area. I parked the airplane where every unoccupied pilot and enlisted man was waiting to find out if the wings had folded by accident, or if I’d screwed up. Most of faces out there seemed to be saying, ” Man, I’m sure glad it wasn’t me [ or any of my pilots] “ The O.D. told me that he’d notified the Commanding Officer, CDR. Paul Gilchrist and that he wanted me to call him. Immediately.
I felt betrayed and scared. I’d known he would find out; hell, the Skipper found out everything ! That was part of his job. But this soon, I was not at all prepared to discuss it. I dialed the Skipper’s number and he picked up on the first ring. ” Skipper, this is Ron Lambe.” He asked quickly and calmly, ” Are you all right ? And how is my airplane ? “ ” Well Sir, the piano hinge on the top of the wing fold is bent and the wing fold mechanism is broken. Otherwise, she looks O.K.” The Skipper surprised me asking me to call my wife saying I was through flying for the night and on my way home. The purpose of the call was to [ preempt ] any of the news media calling her for the story. Man, this guy was sharp; I wouldn’t have thought of that.
Then he said, ” Ron, I’m glad you are alright. You just go home and get some sleep. We’ll talk about this in the morning. Be in my office at 0800.” Although it was o’dark thirty in the morning when I arrived home, I told my wife everything. And as all good Navy wives do, she sympathetically listened. Before sleep rescued me, I stared at the ceiling until about 0400. Morning came quickly. But I was out the door on time. I certainly didn’t want to be late ! I knocked on the Skipper’s door promptly at 0800, then marched in smartly and stood at attention saying :” LT. JG Lambe reporting as ordered, sir. “ Calmly he asked,” Get any sleep ?” ” No Sir. I was kinda wound up.” He said, ” You want to tell me how this happened? ” He listened intently to every word, then asked,” Learn anything ? ”
“Yes, Sir. Never take off without doing the Takeoff Checklist.”
“Ron, you have learned a very valuable lesson that will serve you well in the future. You really got out cheap. And I’m really glad you’re O.K. See if the O.D. can spare an aircraft for you to fly.” Dumbfounded, I said, ” YES SIR ! ” as I saluted sharply and marched out of his office.
CDR Gilchrist turned out to be the best Skipper I’d had in the Navy. A few years later he was deservedly promoted to Admiral. I don’t believe his intuitive quality of leadership can be taught. Ron Lambe [ abridged ]