By Ed (Mofak) Cathcart
The Corps sent me from the A-6 Intruder to the U-11. Going from a heavy attack jet aircraft that carried thirty 500 pound bombs to a small two engine propeller airplane was demoralizing. However, I soon learned flying small planes could also provide excitement. As Head of Supporting Arms for Landing Force Training at the Naval Amphibious Base, San Diego, I went to military installations throughout the western half of the US. The U-11 and T-28 were cheap air travel. My pay back was serving as a test pilot and Natops instructor in the U-11 and T-28 for North Island Operations.
On February 23, 1973, I accepted a U-11 for a copilot training flight. A check of the passenger manifest showed a Navy enlisted clerk named Margie was aboard for indoctrination. She was a young, smart and very pretty black girl whose job was maintaining aviation records and pilot logbooks. Margie said she had never flown in an airplane. I showed her the barf bags and explained the rear seat lap belt operation. I briefed her on how to escape the aircraft in case of an emergency. She exhibited some degree of nervousness.
The weather was typical coastal California winter with ceilings about 600 feet overcast and 1 mile visibility in fog with tops about 2500 feet. We departed North Island for El Toro on a local 'Round Robin' flight plan for practice GCA (Ground Controlled Approach) precision instrument approaches to aircraft touch and go landings. 'Touch and Go' meant landing on the runway but immediately adding power and taking off into the air for another approach.
I demonstrated the first approach. The duty runway approach end Morest gear was in 'battery' which meant the jet fighter/attack aircraft could lower the tail hook and engage the arresting cable to stop their aircraft in 100 feet instead of using the entire runway. The Morest cables were held about 6 inches above the runway by about eight foot long fixed polystyrene supports. I stressed landing beyond the Morest cables. "No inadvertent arrested landing using our main gear doors or the nose wheel." I told my copilot. The cables were at the touchdown point which required adding power and flying on up the runway before touching the wheels onto the runway. After my touch and go, I said, "You have it." and tapped my yoke.
The copilot contacted Approach Control and commenced a ground controlled approach. We broke out of the overcast about one mile on final, on glide path, and on heading. The airplane was flown on glide path through minimums and on down for a touch and go landing. I waited for the copilot to start adding power to land beyond the cables. A left crosswind was drifting the airplane right. The crosswind distraction apparently caused him to neglect his rate of descent. Unexpectedly, he pulled the throttles to off and we dropped towards the cables. I was already grabbing for the yoke and throttles when the nose gear contacted the cable with a loud "whump!" I yanked the yoke to my chest as the nose pitched down and I fire-walled the throttles while shouting, "I've got it!" At max power, the U-11's nose slowly rose back above the horizon and the main wheels broke contact with the runway. The first officer yelled, "What's wrong? Why did you take the aircraft?" I said, "You broke the nose gear!"
I leveled the aircraft below the overcast and asked the tower to send the crash crew out to the cables and look for propeller marks on the runway. The roar of the go-around could have cloaked the sounds of runway contact. The engines were running smoothly. The crash crew reported no visible prop marks on the runway but the nose landing gear was found. We circled the aircraft beneath the overcast for a few minutes to check the engines and hydraulic system. Then, we filed a flight plan for North Island. No U-11 support was available at El Toro and we were in dire need of maintenance. MCAS El Toro advised NAS North Island by telephone that we were inbound for landing with a nose gear emergency. We climbed above the overcast and headed for San Diego.
We orbited at the initial approach fix while North Island prepared the landing runway by laying a 1000 foot strip of foam. I briefed the copilot to feather the engines when told to "Feather!" as we crossed the edge of foam. Then I would lower the nose into the foam. When the aircraft stopped the copilot was to open the door and jump out. Margie was to unlock her lap belt and rush out behind the copilot. I told her if she wasn't fast enough that I would be pushing her to get all of us out of the airplane in case of fire. When everyone was sure of their required actions, we called for landing.
Two passes were flown over the crash crew for a close view of our nose gear damage. Then, we made our approach down the runway and lined up for the foam strip. I landed the plane on speed, short of the foam and held the nose in the air with throttles as we rolled along on the main landing gear. When the aircraft crossed the edge of the foam, I shouted, "Feather!" The copilot yanked the feather handles to the aft position. With the prop pitch changed, the nose immediately dropped toward the runway. Full up elevators could not slow the pitching down of the aircraft nose. The nose slammed into the foamed concrete with a screeching "bang!"
Margie commenced screaming at the top of her lungs. The nose scraping against concrete added to the din. The attitude of the airplane must have seemed straight down to Margie in the back. Finally, the airplane screeched to a stop. The copilot unlocked the door and leaped out of the right seat. I unlatched my belt and turned to look at Margie. She was sobbing and frantically jerking at her seat belt. She couldn't unlock the belt! I scrambled over the seat, reached Margie's buckle and unlatched it. I grabbed Margie's left shoulder with my left hand and lifted her buttocks with my right hand as I propelled her out the door and onto the right wing. I plunged out right behind her and lifted her off the wing and ran clear of the airplane. The rapidly approaching crash crew trucks were already spraying foam on the nose and engines.
The only damage to the U-11 was the propellers, the broken nose gear, and scraped metal on the nose. The repair time and cost did not reach accident level. Luckily I received only an incident report. My name still became Crashcart. By the way, pretty Margie swore she would never fly again.
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