Taboos & Superstition


My Chronological Record of Duty Assignments page in my Record Book indicates I was Squadron Aircraft Maintenance Officer from February 15, 1967 until I detached from VMF(AW)-235 on July 31st.  However, I distinctly remember working for a time as the Assistant Maintenance Officer to Major Mike Witter.  Not long after I took over as CMFIC I inquired of my subordinates as to why we had no DB 13 in the aircraft lineup.  No one had an answer.  I was bothered by the hole in the list of aircraft bureau numbers and on all the charts and tables throughout the Maintenance Department. Every squadron I had ever been assigned to had a number 13.  I decided that the next squadron aircraft to arrive at Da Nang from Periodic Aircraft Rework [PAR] in Japan would become number thirteen.

Finally around April a new Crusader was brought down by Captain Norm Marshall.  The aircraft was a typically freshly painted Crusader that looked like it was right off the assembly line at the Dallas Ling Temco Vought plant.  Gunny Vernime and I went to the Metal Shop and told Juan Lara and Jon Kirkwood, who were working on the templates and stencils for the aircraft to be DB-19, to make the PAR bird number 13. 

                         Jon Kirkwood speed-wrenching the crusader

It so happened at the time that my name was not on the canopy rail of any aircraft.  The aircraft numbers were matched with the seniority of the pilots in the squadron.  The Commanding Officer, LtCol Ed Rogal had his name painted on DB-1.  The Executive Officer Major Carl Olson had his name on DB-2 and so on through the line up.  I would have been about DB-6.  As it was I flew all the aircraft and could care less whose name was on the canopy rail.  I had not wanted to reassign names on aircraft just to accommodate me so Juan was told to put my name on the canopy rail on number 13.  The metal shop actually over did the job.  They painted the 13 in red.  Then they painted my name in red on the canopy rail as Major Mofak instead of my real last name.  A test hop was the next requirement before DB-13 could be mission ready on the daily flight schedule.  The paint was barely dry when I climbed into the cockpit.  Plane Captain Hans put the plane through the pre-taxi steps and sent me out the taxiway. 


I launched in the aircraft for the test hop required after working off the gripes reported following the ferry flight from PAR.  Number thirteen was slick and beautiful for the test flight.  DB-13 blasted upward at a maximum rate climb that was requested from the tower.  The test flight card was completed when the Oil Cooler doors opened as the final check list item at IMN 1.5 after about 30 minutes of flight.  The nose of the crusader was pointed at the 235 Death Angel metal hangar in a dive with the mach beyond 1.5 times the speed of sound.  The resultant boom was heard over the entire area but was exceptionally loud on the Marine side of the Air Base. I broke off the speed run at fifteen thousand feet and entered the landing pattern for final approach.  The troops were cheering from the tops of the revetments as DB-13 taxied into the fuel pits. 

The revelry was short lived.  Within hours of my landing, the Skipper called me into his office and said, "I do not want any aircraft in my squadron with a side number of thirteen. You did not get my permission to have such a number."

I lamely explained that all squadrons had a number 13 and it was easier to account for maintenance paperwork and track bookkeeping plus personnel assignment and clarity on the status boards with consecutive numbers which included thirteen.  The CO was not going to discuss it further.  His final words were, "There will BE NO number thirteen!"

So much for Marines not being superstitious.  13 was a no-no in the Death Angels Squadron.  Jon Kirkwood and Juan Lara soon changed DB-13 to DB-19.  The red 'Major Mofak' was also removed from the canopy rail.  If I could not have DB 13 then my name would not be on any Crusader.


Perhaps further elaboration on the subject of Test Flights is due. It was my habit as a Maintenance Test Pilot over the years to sonic boom the airfield after each successful test flight of an aircraft that had just come out of the Maintenance Department. The boom was easily confined to the air base and when in CONUS the Mach at release was not more than 1.2 IMN at 15 thousand feet.  A boom advised Maintenance Control and all the check crew personnel that their hard work had paid off in a successful test. They would know the plane was mission ready and required no major gripe repairs.

                                                          VMF(AW) 235 Death Angel metal hangar.

A new Commanding Officer took over the Death Angel squadron on June 1, 1967. He initially showed up at the hangar each day with his Sergeant Major in spruced up utilities and shiny black boots inspecting the area. One day not long after he took over I was up on a test hop and many of the Maintenance men were sitting up on the top edges of the revetments watching for my contrails and waiting for my final dive at the tin hangar. The speed run was the last item on the check list. The oil cooler doors were supposed to open automatically at 1.5 mach or close to that.  As soon as the Oil Cooler Door gage flip-flopped, I pointed the crusader's nose at the hangar at 35 thousand or so and then rode the high mach down to about 15 thousand before breaking off the run. I would launch a hell of a boom into the Marine side of the base. The sound generated was about equal to a five hundred pound bomb detonating in the hangar. That particular day, the Commanding Officer and the Sgt Major were inside the hangar when the boom hit the metal roof. They came running outside zig-zagging while frantically looking for a bunker.  Then they spied the large number of troops sitting on the revetments cheering.  They stopped and asked some of the troops what the hell was going on and why they weren't in the bunkers. The troops told him it was only Major Mofak telling them the test bird was in an up status. The skipper went into Maintenance Control and told Gunny Vernime, "Have Major Cathcart report to my office immediately after he shuts down the aircraft ".

By the time I finished writing up the yellow sheet, stowing flight gear and hitching a ride from the hangar to the skipper's hootch, he was really worked up. The Skipper chewed on my rectal orifice up one side and down the other while I rug-danced to the bad music. I figured his anger was primarily for my causing him to appear scared and then embarrassed in front of the troops. The CO was a nice guy.  He was guided in decisions by his own past experiences.  Consequently, my priorities many times did not correspond with the Skipper's. He did not care for my style of morale building. After the thunder and lightening, I was told to cease and desist on booming the compound. Which, out of habit, I may have failed to remember on a subsequent test flight. I was transferred out exactly two months after he took command of the Death Angels.

Semper Fi

Back to Back We Face the Past


Donald Cathcart LtCol USMC Ret