TO KILL A CARRIER
The Warlords Vs Shangri La
The USS Shangri-La was a beautiful sight from 17,000 feet up! The huge gray ship was clearly visible against the deep blue Atlantic. The white numbers 38 stood out boldly between the forward elevator and the bow edge of the wooden carrier deck. The carrier was entering a 180 turn towards Foxtrot Corpen-- the aircraft recovery heading. The Shang was not nearly as big as the Saratoga, but we welcomed Shang over the Intrepid and the slow Lexington. The date was 22 September 1964. The busy, durable Shang had just finished a Mediterranean Sea cruise in mid August. The Warlords of VMF(AW) 451 were assigned to the carrier for a one month cruise in the Caribbean. Most squadron pilots had over forty carrier arrested landings in F-8's. The Shang had a superb reputation and we considered our orders a great opportunity to excel.
The sixteen Warlord F-8's orbited overhead until receiving a Charlie time. The Crusaders then descended VFR in four-plane divisions, moved into the correct flight spacing and flew up the right side of the ship in tight parade. With hooks dangling like wasps stingers, each division of sleek crusaders passed the island at 500 feet and 350 knots. Making a good first impression was important to us. The breakups and pattern were nearly perfect, while the ball call to arrestment and deck procedures reflected a high level of experience. My pride suffered badly as a hook-skip bolter caused me to go around. The only guy to screw up a perfect show-off!
It was great to be back to the land of excitement; an Aircraft Carrier! The screaming, stomach thrilling rapid acceleration of the booming catapult! Followed an hour or so later by the hard-jarring, crushing, arrested landing! Still, we had one walk-aboard gold-bar FNG who had most of the capable pilots nervous. The skipper, "Tasmanian Devil" Davis, had rushed the young pilot through Phase I for his Natops qualification for the carrier. The FNG barely made the flight time requirement. He was dubbed, "The Wedge" after demonstrating that he was the "world's simplest tool." Wedge could be expected to perform in sync with "Murphy's Law."
We flew a heavy schedule right from the start. Three other pilots and I had the JCOC Air show and finger four parade strafed every morning between Cheerless Point and Swamp Lagoon. After JCOC on the morning of the 25th, I had two more flights that afternoon. One had wedge as number two on a division tactics flight. Bob Foley, Jim McRoberts and I never saw Wedge after catapult. He didn't rendezvous nor did he come up on any radio frequency. The COD reported observing a crusader chasing flying fish about 20 miles from Shang. Wedge showed up on final after our recovery. His first two passes were unsafe and he was waved off. Finally, the third pass resulted in a trap. Wedge mentioned that he had shut down with 200 lb. of fuel. He had violated all NORDO rules!
"Sader Ball, 2.8, manual!"
I told the Ops Officer to never fly Wedge with me again. Quaker Rice, our young and talented LSO, asked the Tasmanian Devil to ground Wedge. The Tango Delta chewed on Quaker while stabbing his index finger inches into Quakers chest. Tazz had his own evaluation of Wedge. Wedge had wings therefore he must be qualified for the carrier. Tazz was a tough act. He was known for random acts of tossing. He had tossed phones, chairs, majors, and civilians.
The next afternoon, Wedge was launched again as number two in a four plane division with Ops Officer "LG" Linman, Ted Berwald and Fly Cunningham. The Wedge kept his radio and the flight was fairly routine until recovery. Linman trapped. Wedge called, "Sader ball, three point one, manual." Quaker spoke, "Roger, keep it coming." A few seconds later, Quaker called, "Power. Power." Then screamed, "Power! Power! Wave-off! Wave-off!" Wedge contacted the rounddown just aft of the main gear. The left gear collapsed and the tail section burst into flames. The F-8 bounded up the angle deck looking like an ignited napalm canister. The doomed crusader's hook snagged the last wire. Wedge hit the afterburner during deceleration and the plane pulled the arresting cable out far enough to go over the port front edge of the angle and came to rest in a 90 degree bank with the bottom of the aircraft pressed against the face of the angle deck. The aircraft's nose was pointing toward the bow while the windswept burning fuselage and the afterburner roared into the ship's ventilation system. The LSO's were being barbecued and quickly scrambled to safety. Bob Lawrence [Silverhill] recalled being a VA-46 nugget Naval Aviator watching the spectacular accident and destruction from his excellent view in Pri-Fly aka Vultures Row. He remembered the afterburner plume and the blazing fire fanned by the wind across the deck hitting directly on the Fresnel Lens which was completely melted before the fire was extinguished. The smoke and debris from the burning tires, fuselage, jet fuel, hydraulic fluid, and other materials were carried throughout the ship's interior.
The crash crew personnel pulled Wedge from the cockpit. Typical Wedge, he was quickly yanked back toward the fire by his oxygen hose which was still attached to the seat pan. After what seemed an eternity, the deck crew finally shut off the engine. Above the inferno, Ted cleaned up by raising the gear and lowering the wing, and called, "We have NBC 350 at 200. We are bingo at this time." Ted and Fly knew the Shang's traps were over and diverted to Marine Beaufort.
The inside of the carrier was virtually a fecal sandwich. The soot and black tar substance from burning debris that entered the air ducts was even inside our safes. The staterooms were virtually unlivable. The F-8's were catapulted ashore the following morning. The Ship went into dry-dock for extensive repairs. Wedge had the distinction of making the last trap on the wooden deck of the Shangri-La.
Many of the ships crew came to visit us that last night of 26 September and toasted our squadron for terminating the cruise. Their shore period had been much too short anyway. "Request permission to go ashore, Sir!"
Wedge lost his crotch-keys a few weeks later by a Pilot Disposition Board.
Back to Back We Face the Past
Donald Cathcart LtCol USMC Ret.