NAVY NORTH ATLANTIC
And this is the way it was back in 1964. We were
operating off the USS Independence (CVA 62), which was at that time one of the
larger carriers in the fleet. Only the USS Enterprise was larger and she was the
first Nuke boat. The Independence was much larger than other carriers that I had
been on so I felt more secure coming aboard her under any conditions. Little did
We sailed in the North Atlantic above the Article Circle for a few weeks. This was not only to test our intelligence but also to test the knowledge of the Russians. Of course they knew we were there because a Russian Trawler followed us around like a hungry sea gull during this entire operation. It was funny to see the Russian Trawler answering 'darken ship' signals flashed out from our ship before the others ships in the task force could respond. This of course was part of the "Cold War." The real cold war!
Our primary purpose was to antagonize the Russian bomber fleet of aircraft, namely the Bear, Bison and Badger. We would intercept them and fly on their wing anytime they crossed an imaginary line 250 miles from the fleet. Of course we knew when they got airborne in Russia, but we did not want them to know that we knew, and we did not want them to know that we had the capability of intercepting them beyond 250 miles should a real threat arrive, which we could and would do.
In order to play this 'cat & rat' game we would have two fighters join them as soon as they stuck their nose across the 250 mile circle and escort them all around the fleet. We all had hand held cameras and would take pictures of any and all parts of the Russian planes, especially antennas and other objects of interest while flying tight formation on their wing. We would always fly in section (two aircraft) and one fighter would stay aft, in killer position, in case the 'Ruskies' tried to shoot down the big brownie camera. Of course we fighters could not stay on station with the long- range bombers for very long. To resolve this problem we would be relieved on station by two additional fighters from the ship and this would continue until they exited the 250 mile range. Not only was this a military plan it was also a plan to save face with the media. If you remember seeing pictures of the Russian Bombers flying over the fleet you always saw two Navy Fighters flying very close aboard. The Navy was not about to let anyone think that the Russians had slipped up on them as happened years earlier at Pearl Harbor.
In order to be ready for what might happen we would stand CAP (Combat
Air Patrol) above the fleet all during flight operations. However, after flight
ops were secured two ready armed fighters would be placed on the catapults ready
to be launched in seconds should an enemy target approach the magic 250 mile
circle. These planes would be manned by pilots ready for action. This was
usually a 4 hour sitting watch and was very uncomfortable to say the least. We
had to be strapped in, wearing full flight gear over our 'poopy suits' (rubber
flight suits that gave you about 20 minutes more survival time in the frigid
water). Without this rubber suit one would die in about 5 minutes in case you
had to eject and land in the ocean. Some of the pilots broke out in a rash due
to sweating in this garb with no airflow at all. We teased them about having
Our form fitted suits were tested too often. The test was to throw us in the water off the fantail of the ship and have a helicopter swoop down and pick us up by a dangling sling called the horse collar. We would know instantly where any leak was by the cold water rushing in and attacking parts of our warm body. The other uncomfortable part of this drill was the chopper would hover overhead at very low altitude. The prop wash from the chopper blades would throw salt water in your face equal to the power of a fire hose. It felt like you were being sand blasted. Then these chopper pilots would sometimes take revenge on the fighter pilots, since we called them rotor heads, by climbing to hundreds of feet, after we got into the horse collar. We would be dangling about 100 feet below the chopper and they would take their good time in hoisting us by winch into safety. I must say that the chopper pilots earned a lot of respect from all of us in pulling downed pilots from the water. They also made many daring rescues in Vietnam. Of course being 250 miles from the ship, with no rescue helicopters in the area, the rubber suit only prolonged the inevitable of the pilot taking on the form of a 'Fighter Pilot Popsicle'.
In this far north operating area, way north of the Article Circle, it was too cold to leave the canopy open during our ready Cat assignment. But with a closed canopy the air in the cockpit would get so musty that we had to open the canopy every few moments just for fresh air. Sleeping in the cockpit was impossible. We could have used our oxygen mask but may deplete all our oxygen during the 4-hour sitting alert. And the worst part was to be launched after about 3.5 hours strapped in the cockpit, needing to go to the bathroom, and being sent on a 2-hour mission. And they used to tell us, "Son you can't buy experience like this in the civilian world." And we would respond, "And you can't give it away either!" These were the good old days I suppose.
In response to your question I was assigned the duty fighter alert on this particular day. The conditions were considered too rough for the fleet to be flying due to the rough sea. Flight operations were cancelled, but not the duty fighter. Of course I knew that there was no way they would launch me in such conditions even though it was daytime and mostly clear. The conditions were the following: Green water was coming over the bow of the ship. That means that water, not spray, somehow elevated itself 80 feet to come over the flight deck, or the flight deck was diving 80 feet into the North Atlantic. The latter was correct. I was pulling plus 4 and minus 4 G's just setting in the cockpit on the ship. In addition there was a thin sheet of ice that covered the flight deck making taxing impossible. In fact it took about 10 sailors on each side of my aircraft just to get me on the Cat. Each time the ship would roll starboard the airplane would slide right and each time the ship rolled port we would slide left. That was a helpless feeling to say the least. They had my airplane tied down, on the Cat, with at least 10 heavy chains.
All of a sudden the big bull horn sounded from Pri-Fly (Primary Flight Control) saying, "LAUNCH THE DUTY FIGHTER!" I forgot to tell you that I was the only duty fighter that day due to the other Cats being obscured with aircraft that they could not move due to the ice on board. I thought to myself, "You have got to be kidding." I had no radio contact with Pri-Fly due to the fact that my engine was not running and I had no electrical power for a radio. I noted the launch crew taking off my 10 chain tie downs, and getting a ground starter in place. They gave me the two-finger turn up and pointed to my headset. I knew that this was a signal to call Pri-Fly. Before I could call them they were calling me saying, "We have an unidentified target approaching the 250 mile circle and you must check it out. You will be launched as soon as the ship can turn into the wind" " O s--t," I said.
The waves were so high that the Catapult Officer (The Shooter) had to time the up and down movement of the ships bow before he could launch my aircraft. Frequently the nose of the ship would be buried in a 30 dive into the North Atlantic Ocean and the next moment it would be climbing on the front of a wave with a 20-degree bow up attitude like a home sick pigeon. All the while the ship would be rolling port to starboard 10 to 20 degrees. After checking all engine instruments, hopefully finding a major problem, I determined that all systems were go. It was bred into us Navy Pilots to never turn down a mission just because it was not the best one of the day. And besides that there were 3500 troops watching this Fighter Pilot to see if he really was a Fighter Pilot.
Who knows, this could have been the "Real One attacking our fleet!" With all those factors in mind I made a final check of all systems, saluted the Shooter, and set back for the 26 G Cat shot. The signal from the pilot to the Catapult Officer that he is ready to be launched is a snappy salute in the daytime and turning your wing lights on at night. The Cat Officer then gives the signal to his crew to launch the aircraft. The pilot is usually shot of the ship within a couple of seconds after the salute. At that time the airplane is at 100% power and sometime with the afterburner blazing out a stream of hot air down the flight deck. That, plus the mega decibels from the engine is not comfortable to those on deck. They want you airborne as soon as possible. This launch was delayed much longer because of the ships attitude. I still had hopes of Pri-Fly canceling the flight. No such luck. When the bow of the ship started up I was airborne in a flash.
The Catapult is about 170 feet long. The plane is shot by steam power, according to its weight, and required minimum flying speed. In the F-8 Crusader we would get a shot (catapult) that would produce about 180 kts in 1.8 seconds. There was no way you could keep you feet on the rudders controls with such a force. The G's forces were fore to aft therefore the pilot would not black out as in a vertical G maneuver, but one would get tunnel vision on the shot for a few seconds. We felt like a Roadrunner going off the ship and would sometimes key the mike and say, "BEEP BEEP."
About the time I was recovering from the Cat shot, getting my gear up, Combat Control called and gave me vectors to the incoming target nearing the 250 circle. They said your speed is "GATE." We had three speeds that Combat Control would give us in such missions. BUSTER, SAUNTER or GATE. BUSTER meant full military power. SAUNTER means to conserve fuel. GATE means wide open with full stereo (afterburner), speed of heat, max power and the like. The F-8 would accelerate to supersonic speeds in just a few moments, even while climbing at 25,000 feet per minute. In less than 90 seconds I was at 30,000 feet, supersonic, heading for the bad guys. My vector was in the direction that the bad guys would be coming from, so I tweaked my radar out to 60 miles (our max range) to aid in finding the incoming bomber or bombers. In conditions like this the Fleet Commander would have a Destroyer (DD) stationed on the outer edges of the fleet that was equipped with radar to even look farther out for incoming targets. I was turned over to the DD, dialed in the frequency for his controller, and reported my position. "Roger Silverstep we have you in contact," was the reply from the DD. I said, "Where is the bogie?" They said, "It appears that this was a false target. This a condition that is sometimes caused by rough seas since our radar is not gyro stabilized." Wow! Here I had risk my life for a false target and the worst part was not over yet. I still had to land on that boat that was bouncing up and down like a cork. I will not be a war hero, not even a consideration, but could easily die for my effort on this mission. I again had to chalk this mission up as one you can't buy in the civilian world.
In my 10-minute flight back to the boat, at the speed of heat, I knew that my task had just begun. Being shot off the ship was dangerous of course but the pilot had very little control of that event. You were literally shot into the air. The flying to the target was routine. But I had to land on that same ship that was being beat around like a puppet by Mother Nature. This is no easy task under normal conditions and adding a pitching deck to the approach and landing made it even tenser.
I was given "Charlie on Arrival." That means that I could land as soon as I reached the ship. Since I was the only fighter airborne they were nice to me and made sure I had the ship's landing area all to myself. Normally the fighters come back with only enough fuel for about three landing attempts; four at most. This is due to the fact that extra fuel increases the landing weight and could cause the breaking of an arresting cable, or pulling the tail hook off the aircraft. That makes for a very bad day to say the least. Normally, if a plane needs more fuel, due to a crash on deck, or a bad landing day, tankers are airborne and available to give them another drink for more flying time by in-flight refueling. Since there were no tankers airborne that day I came back with enough fuel for about 6 landing attempts. Thank goodness I did.
On a normal carrier landing the pilot flies the approach looking at the 'meatball.' The meatball is a bright light transmitted on a predetermined glide slope that if followed precisely to touch down would place the aircraft in the middle of the landing cables. If the beam of light goes high this means that you are too high on the approach and if it goes low you are too low on the approach. The beam must be flown precisely in the middle. This meatball is gyro stabilized to keep the beam steady in case the ship is rocking and rolling. However, if the ship is heaving and bucking as it was this day the gyro stabilizer limits are exceeded and the light beam is not accurate. In this situation the Landing Signal Officer (LSO) will control the meatball manually to keep you on a desired glide slope. In other words he puts the beam where he wants you to fly. In addition he can judge the frequency of the waves and try to get you on board when the ship is somewhat level. In most cases the pilot is not able to see the movement of the ship on his approach. His thoughts are 100% on staying on the correct glide slope. He is saying to himself, "Meatball, Line-up, Airspeed" all the way to a trap.
However, this day, I could see the movement loud and clear. At one moment the ship would be in a 20 degree left roll and the nose high, which is impossible for a landing. That would be like flying into a wall. Next glance it would be nose low rolling both left and right. Several times I could actually see the screws (big props) under the fantail of the ship and I knew that I was in deep serious trouble. The LSO would let me fly in as close as possible then hit the big red flashing lights that meant 'WAVE OFF unsafe to continue approach.' I got the wave off signal on my first 5 approaches. And I was doing everything correctly. The LSO would not let me land due to the fact I might destroy more parked airplanes on the ship than a Kamikaze. I only had fuel enough for one additional attempt to land. If I did not land on this pass the plane would flame out due to fuel starvation and I would have to make a nylon descent (ejection with a parachute) into the icy water. Needless to say I was calling on a higher power to help me get this beast on board that big boat. Thank goodness He was watching over me and I was allowed to continue this last approach to a final landing.
I can honestly say when I felt that tailhook engage the cable I was the happiest man on board the USS Independence. There is no doubt when you catch an arresting cable when landing on an aircraft carrier. The aircraft goes from about 170 MPH to 0 MPH in about 2 seconds. The landing is just the opposite of the Cat shot when you accelerate to flying speed in less than 2 seconds. The aircraft decelerates just as fast. No matter how tight you secured the shoulder harness your head is thrown forward and down when the arresting cable is caught. After a moment you can recover and taxi out of the landing area.
I was a happy camper on board the big boat, but my problems were not over yet. I had to taxi out of the landing area. As I stated earlier there was a thin sheet of ice all over the deck. Each time the ship would roll, port or starboard, the aircraft would skid in that direction. I had observed an airplane skidding overboard after making a beautiful landing just a few days before. This was caused by a wet deck and the ship rolling hard starboard. I knew this could happen to me as well. Not many pilots survive falling overboard while strapped into the airplane. The 80 foot fall usually knocks them out, or at least their injuries disable them from escaping the cockpit and they sink with the airplane. This is commonly called "Church" for the pilot. When someone would ask what happened to a pilot in an accident they would respond "Church" meaning that he was killed and a memorial service would be held by the Chaplain. Finally the flight deck crew got enough chains and tie downs on the bird to keep it from taking a salt water swim along with the pilot. No "Church" service this day for one happy pilot.
The ship's Captain came down and congratulated my airmanship. The flight surgeon gave me a few ounces of Brandy. Alcohol was forbidden on board except after a night landing or after a hazard experience such as this mission. I headed to my stateroom for a little R & R. The problem there was that the ship was still bucking and heaving like a wild bronco. It felt I was pulling plus and minus 3 G's laying in my bunk. The Navy provided us with wide leather straps to secure our bodies to the bunk. This kept us from falling out of our bed onto the steel deck in such violent weather. Again you can't buy adventure like this in the civilian world.
After my Navy flying I joined the airlines. Many times I was very amused at the
response of some of my co-pilots complaining about how hard and dangerous
airline flying was. Little did they know. I felt like I had retired when first
taking the airline job even though it did have many challenges there as well.
But nothing compared to landing, day and night, on an aircraft carrier.
It was fun and safe re-living this adventure. I have many more just as exciting. As we used to say in the Navy, "If you do not scare yourself at least once a flight you are not doing your best." And so it was on the USS Independence (CVA 62).
Ron Knott (5/2005)
Click F8 above to return to Ron's Home Page