BLACK SHEEP TEST HOP
"Another day in which to excel!" I shouted. "I deeply regret that I have but one life to give for my Corps and Country!"
Greg Sloan, the VMA-214 squadron scheduling officer, then started a fiasco by popping his head into my office and asking, "Major Mofak! Do you want to fly a post-maintenance test hop? The Skyhawk is ready and there are no other test pilots available."
"Sure Greg. We need every possible aircraft op-ready to meet your tough flight schedule. Tell the wrench benders that I'll be at the line shack as soon as I change into my zoom bag." As the Black Sheep Operations Officer, I was glad to oblige maintenance. The troops were busting their buns to provide planes to train our replacement pilots for Vietnam. Up to four young pilots were transferred each month to combat squadrons in Vietnam. Peaceniks called replacement pilots cannon fodder. Many pilots would not return home.
The maintenance history of the Douglas A4C was laid out in the line shack for my perusal prior to accepting the bird for test. I found nothing unusual in the yellow sheets. One pilot had commented, "Engine makes night noises in the daytime." Quality Control had signed off on the plane. The Skyhawk was also signed off by Corporal Barbeau, the Plane Captain. The Aircraft Maintenance Officer, Major Darrell Shelor, had initialed all entries and thereby approved the test flight.
Normally, pilots were famous for "kick the tire and light the fire" on the aircraft they were to fly. A test hop required a closer examination of the aircraft since the fuselage had been taken apart and the engine replaced. Engine removal entailed disconnecting hydraulics, electrics, fuel, and other systems from the old engine and then reconnecting all systems to the new engine. The Skyhawk took about ten minutes for pre-flight inspection. All systems appeared to be "Go." I climbed up the eight foot ladder and checked the ejection seat for discrepancies. Finding none, I dropped into the seat which housed the raft and survival gear. The plane captain strapped me into the seat and removed the safety pins from the ejection seat firing mechanism. After climbing down he carried the ladder to the start cart. The plane captain got me started and completed the taxi checks. He pulled the chocks, then saluted and I taxied toward the runway.
El Toro tower personnel cleared the aircraft for takeoff and departure to Whiskey 291 for completion of the test flight. I shoved the throttle forward on the J-65 engine and watched the RPM and EGT rise to takeoff power. With all gauges indicating normal, I released the brakes and felt the surge of thrust as the Skyhawk accelerated down the runway. The exhilaration of becoming airborne in the sleek little jet thrilled me just like it did the very first time. "OoooooooRaaaah!"
W-291 was the military training area south of Catalina Island. Except for Navy and Marine fighter aircraft rolling, looping and tumbling after each other while dog-fighting, the warning area was a safe place to operate without worry of commercial or private aircraft interference. I finished most of the test card above 25M and descended to 15,000 feet to perform the flight controls disconnect. The radio became quiet. I called departing W-291 but received no response. Checking other frequencies, I discovered the radio had failed. I decided not to disconnect the controls and extend the stick without a radio. Another quick test hop would be required for that test item.
The El Toro weather was VFR with no clouds and 10 miles visibility. I flew up the entry channel and entered the break at 1500 feet. I rocked my wings repeatedly to alert tower personnel that the aircraft had no radio and required a green light for landing. I rolled rapidly into a 60 degree bank and pulled the Skyhawk around 180 degrees to the downwind. I moved the landing gear handle to the down position. The main gear indicators flipped from 'up' to barberpole and then to down and locked. The nose gear position indicator flipped to barberpole and stayed. The tower was shining a green light. The unsafe nose landing gear position indication, the wheels warning light and the red warning light in the gear handle meant no landing for a while. The fuel gauge indicated 2200 pounds. Kiss a fighter pilot's ass! Some days a pilot shouldn't don his zoom bag! I executed a wave off and departed the traffic pattern.
I climbed above 10,000 feet and began trouble-shooting the landing gear system. Recycling the gear up and back down did not provide a nose gear down indication. I put the gear handle down and applied positive G forces to lock the gear. No joy! I increased the airspeed up to 350 knots which was the limit for forcing the nose gear aft into the locked position. When that attempt failed, I pulled the Emergency Gear Extension Handle. Still the nose gear indications remained unsafe.
The landing gear problem created an urgent need for the radio. Turning switches on and off, resetting circuit breakers and re-plugging connections produced no joy. I dumped cockpit pressurization. The earphones crackled! Aha! The radio operated intermittently with no pressurization. I transmitted my dilemma to the control tower. Using the sporadic radio, I arranged for Black Sheep maintenance personnel to be at the approach end of the runway to inspect my nose gear as I made a low pass. I also advised the Tower that my fuel was below 1000 pounds. A KC-130 was awaiting takeoff. The crew called, "We can takeoff and give you fuel from a drogue. We can visually check your nose gear while you are taking fuel." "Click! Click!" I replied, "Let's do it!"
The KC-130 took off to the south and within a minute I joined on his left wing. I reported, "Stabilized port side. Fuel 800 pounds." The KC-130 crew extended the port drogue and cleared me to take fuel. The refueling crew chief called, "The nose strut looks vertical and normal for landing."
I plugged the Skyhawk probe into the refueling drogue. The radio receiver went dead. The green receiving fuel light on the refueling pod did not illuminate even though the hose had been pushed up to 15 feet from the pod. Just what I needed--another SNAFU! I flew the hose in and out of the pod trying for the refueling light. Suddenly, the hose rapidly unreeled completely out of the refueling pod. Whipping violently, it wrapped around the nose of the Skyhawk. I chopped power to get away from the drogue but it remained connected to the probe while the hose stayed coiled around the refueling probe, my canopy and the forward fuselage. The end of the flapping hose trailed behind my aircraft. The routine test hop had really become a can of worms!
I broke away from the tanker toward El Toro. My fuel state was only 500 pounds and now I was carrying a drogue with about 80 feet of refueling hose flailing the sky. I pointed the nose of the plane at the touch down point on the runway from my position at 1200 feet and 5 miles on final approach. I dropped the tailhook. The tower showed me a green light. They obviously recognized a regurgitating fecal sandwich in progress. I touched down on the main gear and held the nose off the runway until crossing and engaging the arresting gear. The troops ran out and inserted the gear safety pins. I shut down the engine with about 10 minutes of fuel remaining. The troops began unwrapping the hose from the fuselage and disconnecting the drogue from the refueling probe. They hooked a TUD-80 to the Skyhawk. It looked like they wanted to ready the plane for another test hop. But first they had to work off the serious gripes that I will have entered on the yellow sheet.
Maybe I would skip the next test hop on A4C Buno 147755.
Back to Back We Face the Past
Donald Cathcart LtCol USMC Ret.