DEADLY THUNDERSTORM FLIGHT

 

It was a beautiful Florida Saturday morning, in August 1962, when a flight of seven F-8 Crusaders from Fighter Squadron 62 took off from Cecil Field, near Jacksonville, heading for Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. I well remember LTJG Tom Malloy laughing and pointing to his new flight suit as we briefed for the long flight that morning. He had been issued the flight suit the day before and had not tried it on. It was about three sizes too big and he looked lost in that tent size costume. There was no way to exchange it for another one since it was Saturday and the supply office was closed. Tom had a wonderful sense of humor and accepted our kidding with a big smile. That is the way I remember him until this day.

As you will recall this time and date was just prior to the ‘Cuban Missile Crisis’. Our mission was to demonstrate a ‘show of force’ at the small Naval Base on the southeastern side of Cuba. I had joined VF-62 just a few weeks earlier and this was my first major deployment with the squadron. I was a ‘Nugget’ as they call the new pilots fresh out of flight school. Two Divisions, eight airplanes, were scheduled to deploy that morning but one of the airplanes had mechanical problems. LCDR Paul Gillcrist was scheduled to be the second Division leader but he never got airborne due to a radio problem as I recall. Therefore, we had a flight of 4 and a flight of 3 F-8’s heading for Cuba.

We went "Feet Wet" (over water) just north of Miami. About 150 miles southeast from Miami, over the Caribbean, we entered an area of very low visibility at our cruising altitude of 39,000 feet. Our forward visibility was one mile or less. We had no weather radar. In fact the radar on board the F-8B had a maximum range of 16 miles and most of them never worked. The weather briefing we received before the flight made no mention of severe weather along our route of flight. We were unaware that huge thunderstorms were hidden in the haze ahead. Nevertheless these cumulonimbus demons were in our flight path and were about to inflict major damage to our flight.

The Skipper, John Brozo (Diamond Flight) was leading the first division of 4 airplanes. His flight consisted of LTJG Tom Malloy, Diamond two, LT Dick Oliver, Diamond three, and LTJG Ben Walker, Diamond four. In my flight of three airplanes were LT Al Wattay, Division leader, LT John Nichols (Pirate) right wing and myself flying left wing position. LT Wattay positioned our flight about 5 miles aft and two miles abeam Diamond Flight. Although the visibility was low the ride was fairly smooth as I recall.

Everything was going great until I heard the Skipper say in a very loud and frantic voice, "DIAMOND ONE FLAMED OUT!" And as my heart was elevating up into my throat I heard his wingman LTJG Tom Malloy saying with even more fear in his voice, "DIAMOND TWO FLAMED OUT." Before I could suck up more oxygen I heard the Skipper say, "DIAMOND ONE EJECTING - STAY WITH ME IF YOU CAN!" Just seconds later I heard LT Dick Oliver say, "DIAMOND THREE FLAMING OUT." Almost instantaneously another call came into my headset, "DIAMOND TWO EJECTING." Nothing was heard from Diamond Four. We thought he went down as well.

WOW! This was my first major cross-country with the squadron and the airplanes were falling out of the sky. I was anxiously waiting for my engine to quit as well. We were only seconds away from their position. I was very tense to say the least. My heartbeat was louder than the jet engine. However our flight of three flew through the same area, basically at the same time, without any problems. It took many months and numerous accident investigations to determine how our flight made it through this area without any problems. I’ll explain why later.

The F-8 was a great fighter as long as the engine was running. However, an engine flameout causes instant electrical and hydraulic power loss. In addition, at the higher altitudes, the canopy fogs over almost immediately. We were at 39,000 feet and the pilots who lost engine power experienced all of the above instantaneously. This makes the great fighter not too ‘user-friendly’ to say the least. All flight instruments go ape, the airspeed decreases rapidly and the flight controls freeze since there is no hydraulic power. In a situation like this the pilot is just along for the ride, but he is frantically trying to regain control of that hunk of metal falling through space by instant recall of his emergency procedures. All the while he is being slammed around in the cockpit like a sock in a washing machine. The Navy had a term called ‘Over Learning.’ All pilots had to go over and over emergency procedures time and time again until they could respond automatically, in any situation, without thinking. This rote memory of learning saved a lot of pilots and planes.

One of the undesirable characteristics of the F-8 is that when the indicated airspeed reduces below 170 KIAS it will automatically enter into a spin with just a little aileron or spoiler input. Due to the conditions of this flight, listed above, these flamed- out Crusaders automatically entered into a spin. It was very tough to recover the F-8 from a spin in day VFR conditions. Add a big bad thunderstorm to the equation, with the engine flamed out, the flight controls frozen, the airplane spinning, and the canopy iced over makes recovery nothing short of a miracle.

The F-8 was equipped with an emergency air driven generator that also provided emergency hydraulics for primary flight controls. This Ram Air Turbine (RAT), when extended into the air stream, was designed to recover part of the electrical power and part of the hydraulic power as well. The emergency generator switch had to be turned on after dropping the RAT, or no electrical power would be supplied to the aircraft. This procedure was easy to omit. The RAT restored hydraulic power necessary for spin recovery and electrical power for a re-light of the engine in this big bad cumulonimbus cloud.

It takes a few seconds for the RAT to come up to speed after deployment. Sometimes, like in this case, those few seconds can feel like an eternity. As I recall LT Oliver said in the accident report, "The airplane was spinning before the RAT became effective." This is kind of like the parachute riggers jokingly saying, "If it don’t work bring it back and we will give you another one!"

Yet, with all this adversity Diamond Three, LT Dick Oliver, did recover from the spin, and got his engine running again. This was by no means an easy task. He first had to extend the RAT to regain flight control and then he had to recover from the spin. A spinning F-8 may go from 30 degrees nose up to 90 degrees nose down, while pulling from plus 4 to minus 3 G’s, all the while rotating rapidly like a west Texas twister. This short paragraph does not do justice for the superb airmanship that Lt Oliver demonstrated that dreadful day.

Spin recovery procedures in the F-8 were very different and extremely difficult. While experiencing the violent maneuvers noted above the pilot had to move both hands to the left console and unlock the pneumatic switch for emergency extending the leading edge landing droop. This extended droop changed the aerodynamics of the wing and served to get the stalled wing producing lift again. In addition, full aft stick, and full aileron into the rotation of the spin was required. At the same time full opposite rudder into the spin was essential. This condition was held until the rotation stopped and only then could the nose be brought up to pull out of the dive. If the airplane was in un-controlled flight at 10,000 AGL the pilot was required to eject. After recovering from a spin the leading edge landing droop could not be retracted in the air. This placed speed and ‘G’ restrictions on the airplane. In addition the maximum range was consequently reduced as well. Needless to say spins were to be avoided and when one developed it left you with a crippled airplane.

The emergency engine air start procedure was a lengthy process. A lot of altitude was lost during the re-start procedure. During this time you were falling out of the sky like a rock. The pilot had to insure that the RAT had been deployed and the emergency generator switch was ON in order to supply electrical power to the igniters, which was required to start the jet engine. If I remember correctly you tried to establish airspeed around 200 KIAS, plus or minus 30 KIAS. This speed supplied enough ram air through the engine intake to windmill the engine from 17% to 30% RPM. Once these parameters were met the throttle and ignition could be selected. If you got fuel flow of at least 750 Pounds Per Hour the engine should relight. If not repeat the procedures again, if you had enough altitude. Last choice was to make a nylon descent via the ejection system.

When my flight leader, LT Al Wattay, heard the radio transmissions from Diamond flight he advanced power by selecting the afterburner, accelerated to MACH ONE and we climbed to 50,000 feet. LT Nichols (Pirate) and I were hanging on his wing as best we could. Little did we know at the time that the extra speed and altitude is what saved our flight and possibly our lives. It was brought out in the accident report that the Skipper of Diamond flight had let his formation slow to below Mach .70, which is very slow at that altitude. They also determined that it was a good possibility that vertical wind shears could cause a flame out during such conditions due to reduced air through the intake to the engine. In addition the older models F-8’s were not equipped with engine anti-ice. This was also a factor in the accident. Due to the fact that LT Wattay accelerated our flight to a much higher airspeed the wind shear had no effect on our engines. In addition climbing to a higher altitude removed us out of the icing area. Thanks LT Wattay for great airmanship that day.

We proceeded on to Guantanamo after making "MAYDAY" calls and reporting the crash site position on guard to the search and rescue Air Force squadron in Miami. There was no way for us to locate the downed pilots since the weather was clogged in all the way to the deck. And besides that we just barely had enough fuel to fly to Guantanamo. There were no Texaco Tankers available that day.

After landing in Cuba we assumed that three aircraft had been lost. We still had no word from Diamond Four. All of sudden we heard an F-8 coming into the area at the speed of heat. We were very thrilled to see Diamond Four, Lt Ben Walker, overhead. Later he told us that he had lost his generator in the midst of all the excitement, dropped his RAT for electrical power, but never regained his radio. All that he knew was that his flight had disappeared in the clag.

Diamond One, the Skipper, was found two days after the accident by an Air Force rescue crew, flying an amphibious aircraft. They landed in very rough seas and retrieved CDR Brozo from his one-man life raft. He had suffered a broken back due to the ejection. The F-8 had an explosive cartridge in the ejection system that hit you in the butt with mega ‘Gs’ when ejecting. A spin produces a lot of negative ‘Gs’. The Skipper said that he was in a negative ‘G’ flight when he ejected. This could explain his broken back due to the extra hit in the rear by the ejection seat. He was later relieved of his command for taking his flight through a thunderstorm. Yet, he had no way of knowing that severe weather was in his flight path.

Diamond Two, Tom Malloy, was never found. About three years later his helmet washed ashore on one of the small islands in the Caribbean. He was reported missing until that time. We never really knew what happen to him after he called "Ejecting." The Skipper said that his ejection was very rough. After landing in the water he almost drowned by his parachute pulling him under. The wind on the surface was very strong. Under those conditions a parachute in the water can be deadly. If Tom was injured during ejection, as the Skipper was, his survival would have been in jeopardy.

The following is what a pilot may experience when ejecting from a fast flying airplane at high altitude. As you can imagine it is a hazardous experience to say the least. As stated above the explosive charge in the ejection seat can give you quite a kick in the butt. This big kick is necessary to insure that the pilot clears the vertical tail of the airplane during an ejection. The first sequence in an ejection is for the canopy to separate from the airplane. If it does not separate the pilot is shot through the canopy. If the pilot ejects at 40,000 feet he is quick to feel the cold rushing wind hitting his body at the speed at which he ejected; let’s say 400 KTS for example. It may be 60 degrees below zero at that altitude and with very little oxygen to breathe. This is not too good for the boys in summer flying suits. The pilot cannot survive in that environment very long because he would freeze to death and or die from hypoxia (lack of oxygen). The ejection system is designed so that a small drogue parachute, about the size of an umbrella, extends immediately after ejecting. This small chute prevents the pilot from tumbling during descent, but he is still falling like a brick. The ejection seat is equipped with an emergency oxygen bottle that will last about 10 minutes for just such high dives. This system can be used under water as well. That is if your mask has not been ripped from your face during the high-speed exit of the airplane.

The pilot, still strapped in the ejection seat, will free-fall, in this case 30,000 feet, before the main chute opens. He is traveling at the ‘speed of heat’ straight down. This sequence is supposed to open the main parachute automatically by a barometric release, which is normally set for operating at 10,000 feet above ground level. When that altitude is reached a bladder in the seat inflates pushing the pilot out of the seat and then the main parachute deploys. If the automatic system does not work then the pilot can manually push the ejection seat aside and pull the ‘D-Ring’ for the chute to open. How does the pilot know when he reaches 10,000 feet? He can only estimate his altitude by visual references. In a thunderstorm that is impossible. In a storm such as this there would be limited visibility, which would make it impossible to estimate your altitude. In addition the pilot is in heavy rain, or hail, severe turbulence, and possible heavy lightning.

Presume that the pilot gets a good parachute opening at 10,000 feet and floats gracefully down to the waiting ocean. He still has a lot of emergency procedures to accomplish to insure his survival. First, and most importantly, he must unhook from the life saving parachute, which becomes a death trap once it hits the water. When a parachute is filled with water it will sink like a rock taking the pilot down as well. If the pilot’s hands or arms are injured it may be impossible to release the parachute. This quickly turns into a very serious condition. In addition, once the parachute is released from the pilot’s harness shroud lines from the chute may entangle the pilot. These lines may snare him and take him under. For that reason all Navy pilots carried an open knife, with a hook blade, attached to their harness to cut the shroud lines if necessary.

If all of the above was accomplished without incident, the pilot still had a lot of work to do. He must inflate his life vest to keep him afloat since he is burdened with about 50 pounds of flight gear. At this time he needs to deploy and inflate his one-man life raft that is stored in a packet, which is attached to his harness. In this parcel are such items as shark chaser, dye marker, signal mirror, fishing hooks, a small salt-water distillery to convert seawater to fresh drinking water, and a host of other small things.

Boarding the one-man life raft is no easy task in a swimming pool and it becomes even more difficult in rough seas or if he is injured. Once on board the little rubber raft a big wave can dump you back in the water very quickly and totally mess up your command at sea. You must re-board the little ‘private yacht’ or the sharks may eat you for dessert. This could go on for days. These are the conditions that Diamond One and Diamond Two were faced with that dreadful day.

The news media in our city broadcasted that all planes in our flight were lost at sea. Of course that placed undue and unnecessary stress on our families and friends. Communications back then were very antiquated. It took hours for the facts, as we knew them, to get back to our home base.

Thereafter this story was told many times in pilot training. The point was made loud and clear to never fly into a thunderstorm.

I record this account in tribute to my fallen comrades. CDR John (Diamond) Brozo, deceased; LT Dick (Smooooth One) Oliver, deceased – killed with the Blue Angles; LTJG Tom Malloy, killed on this flight; LT Ben (Bugger) Walker (deceased); LT John (Pirate) Nichols, deceased. As far as I know LT Al Wattay is still living. Note: The rank indicated is the rank these officers held at the time of this accident.

In this narrative I was amazed at how many emergency procedures I could recall after 40 years. This information is 100% from my memory and not from documents or other sources. This again proves the point that the military drilled into all pilots the ‘Over Learning’ process. Most pilots could do the same. God bless.

Anchors Aweigh!

Ron Knott
(5/2005)

click the crusader to return to Ron Knott