Night CQ Copyright by Larry Durbin 1/1/2001
[Original story before it was edited for Supersonic Cowboys]
I never wanted to be a fighter pilot. I had no interest at all. In April of my senior year in college, a note went around about the Navy flight physical to be given in Seattle. A girl I had dated the year before, Mimi Wood, had graduated and was teaching in Everett, Washington. I decided to surprise her with a visit. That whim turned out to be one of the most important decisions of my life. Mimi turned out to be engaged to, Dave Voysey, one of my former roommates. I passed the physical and a few months later I was in Pensacola starting Navy flight school. Two and a half years later I had my wings and was in training to be a Navy Fighter Pilot flying the F-8 Crusader. Graduation from Crusader school is landing on a carrier both day and night.
Almost everyone has heard about Navy pilots landing on a carrier at night. My guess is that those same people think it is difficult or even scary. I’m going to try to relay the true feelings during night carrier qualification. It starts about a month before the big night. For me it was my 24th birthday, November 9, 1964, my first night of Field Carrier Landing Practice (FCLP). I had made a total of 9 day carrier landings before getting my wings, 4 in the T2J and 5 in the F9F. Carrier Qualifying (CQ) in those days was sleeping during the day and briefing and flying at night, usually very late. There were hours of briefing of procedures and debriefing the previous landing period. Flying in Florida during a normally hot day means that the surface air is bumpy. Flying at night, when the ground is cool, makes the air more stable, and the same is true at the ship because the ocean is cool. Nautical terms vary as to how pilots talk about their carrier. If you have gone ashore, you may well say you are going back to the ship. But a pilot never talks about his landings in relation to a ship. It is always “hitting the boat.” I made 124 practice passes under the watchful, and, thank heavens, competent, eye of Lt. John “Nick” Nichols (aka Pirate), Landing Signal Officer. Later Nick would become a genuine hero in Viet Nam and still later an author of his wartime experiences in On Yankee Station. During carrier qualification, each pass was graded; each pass was debriefed. While we were coming down the glide slope, Nick was watching and correcting us over the radio. The pilot must fly the glideslope perfectly from 600 feet to a crunching landing. Unlike pilots of commercial aircraft, a Navy pilot does not have the luxury of making a soft landing. He must touch down in a small, compact area, 20 feet wide and 100 feet long, to catch a wire and be “arrested”. A carrier landing is akin to a controlled crash. The plane hits in a sink rate of about 700 feet per minute. It jars your teeth, but the sheer glee of catching a wire is worth the pain, especially at night. It feels wonderful. The other option is a bolter, where the pilot misses all four wires and is immediately airborne for another try. At night that is not a good feeling.
There were only two pilots in the November class. My classmate was Lt. Randy Rime. If there was a person besides Wilbur and Orville who was born to fly, it was Randy. He loved to think about flying, talk about flying, and give advice about flying. But most of all he lived to fly. Randy had come from a Utility squadron in Oceana, Virginia, that also flew the F-8, but he had never landed it on the ship. Since he had so many flight hours, he certainly felt more comfortable than I did. For me it was a very nervous time. I knew that the graduation exercise was going to be a very scary night landing, six of them. By this time I had only a total of about 450 pilot hours, 150 in the F-8. Not only was I not a veteran, but I wouldn’t even become a “nugget” until getting to my first fleet squadron. A nugget is a pilot on his first tour in a fleet squadron. Flying the “meatball” meant very precise flying in a conventional plane, but with the variable incidence wing of the Crusader, it was even harder. Too much power means too fast, which will probably lead to being high, or it could lead to being low and slow if an improper correction is made. Nick had seen thousands of F-8 passes. He knew what we were thinking before we thought it. Every single pass, whether on land or on the ship, is graded and personally debriefed by the LSO. Many debriefs went, “High in the middle--low in close.” Occasionally it was different, “High all the way”or“Too much nose moving.” Pass after pass, debrief after debrief, went by. Actually, I didn’t feel as though I was improving, and I didn’t like that feeling. It seemed so easy for Randy and so hard for me. His debriefs were always better than mine and shorter. As I would explain to my parents, “I don’t think I am going to be selected as student of the week.”
Naturally, some debriefs were good, but still it was difficult. Nick constantly assured me that I would do fine. I kept hoping he knew what he was talking about. November 28th was to be a critical date. That was our last scheduled field period. Nick would then give us our final grade. A passing grade was to be “field qualled.” That meant that Nick had determined we were cleared to go to the boat. That night I did not have a good landing period. After our last landing at Whitehouse, our nearby practice field, we would return to our home field, NAS Cecil Field. It would take Nick about 30 minutes to drive over from the practice area. I worried the whole time. When he came in, he didn’t even debrief us. He just said, “Congratulations, you’re field qualled.” To which I immediately answered, “Even me?” “Yes,” said Nick, “you didn’t have a good period tonight, but when I told you to do something you did it. That’s the most important part. You’ll do fine.”
Talk about mixed emotions: I was elated at passing, but I also knew my next landing would be on the USS Shangri-La, CVA-38. Before Randy and I went out to celebrate, I called my folks. I was fifty percent thrilled and fifty percent scared to death. The next day in the ready room, Randy was explaining the manly art of carrier passes in the Crusader when the squadron operations officer, Commander Ralph Rutherford came in for a cup of coffee. Randy was talking about the six dreaded night landings we were required to do and his ability to fly them without a single bolter. Being a southern gentleman from Andalusia, Alabama, Cdr. Rutherford said, “Randy, if you go six for six at night, I’ll kiss your ass on Main Street and give you a week to draw a crowd.” He was to regret that statement. Randy loved to talk about how good he was in the cockpit, but actually he was not kidding. Three days later we took off for the USS Shangri-La and what I considered my entry into manhood.
Not all of the students went to the ship. While Randy and I were in F-8 school, several of my flight school friends were in A-4 CQ. The A-4 is a small single piloted attack plane or light bomber. Fighter pilots called it the Tinker Toy. All of us were doing FCLPs at the same time. One of the A-4 guys was Jet Tipton or Jimmy Jet. His name was James E. Tipton and he was a Naval Academy graduate. Jimmy successfully field qualled, but when the time came to go to the ship he turned in his wings. He too, had thought a lot about that first night landing and decided he could not go through with it. I cannot imagine what a gut buster that must have been for him, especially with his initials spelling jet and being from the Naval Academy. I never saw or heard of “JET” again. A Navy pilot could turn in his wings at any time. He would immediately be assigned a non-flying job.
The rules about fleet pilot night carrier qualification were daunting. To be initially qualified, each pilot was required to have ten day-traps (arrested landings), and six night-traps, but no more than eight in a single day. Also, before each night period during initial qualification, a pilot needed to have two day-landings. (At no other time in my career did I see any pilot ever get more than three landings in a single day/night, and that seldom happened; one or two was normal. It never made sense that on the day of making his first night carrier landing, a pilot had to get eight landings, 2 day and 6 night. That’s a lot.) The airspeed of the F-8 as it approached the boat was only slightly faster than the other two planes I had flown. Depending on the weight the speed was about 140 knots or 160 miles an hour. The relative speed to the ship however, was about 30 knots or 35 miles an hour slower due to the fact that the ship was traveling ±30 knots away from the landing plane. The reason the speed of the ship varied is a little complicated. The ship tries to have the wind come straight down the angled deck so the pilot doesn’t have a cross wind. That’s tough because it is at an angle to the direction the ship must travel. A modern aircraft carrier has an angled landing area, for a very good reason - bolters. In WWII when the planes were propeller driven, a straight deck was all that was needed. All passes ended in landings. Only rarely was there an accident or a mishap when the landing plane was not caught by a wire and ended up in the pack of parked airplanes on the bow of the ship. But when jets came along, bolters came with them. (To get even more complicated: the prop planes take off all power just prior to landing. Due to the slow spin up of a jet engine, jet pilots must maintain high power settings in the approach and immediately go to full power on touchdown. That way, if they didn’t catch a wire, they had the required engine spool-up to get airborne.) The Navy brass realized there had to be a way that a plane could miss all four wires and take off again, a bolter. Some brilliant soul, of the English Navy, decided to angle the landing area off to the left of the ship. That way landing planes could still be parked on the bow during the recovery of planes, but when a bolter occurred, the pilot could safely take off and try again.
The angled deck solved one problem and created a new one. In order to reduce the terrific strain on landing airplanes and arresting cables in carrier aviation, the carrier steams away from the landing planes thereby reducing the landing speed with respect to the deck as the plane lands. When the deck was angled, and assuming the ship moved straight ahead, the landing planes would always be landing in a crosswind and would have to make even more corrections to make an acceptable, safe landing. To solve the crosswind problem, the ship calculates the real wind speed and direction and takes up a heading and speed to put the relative wind straight down the angled deck at thirty knots…or tries to do this. If the wind is calm, it’s not possible.
The day arrived to fly out to the Shang. Randy and I did fine. We flew out, trapped, taxied to the catapult, got shot off and did it again. Actually Randy did fine; I had two bolters in addition to my four landings. As usual I was nervous and for me “there was a lot going on”. The next day we got our required two day landings and I had 5 bolters. Perhaps I was thinking about the impending night flight. While I didn’t give a hoot about what the people on the ship thought about me, I’m sure they were getting tired of seeing me miss the wires and try again. I had several concerns, but I only cared about two people, Nick and me. When a pilot is making a carrier approach, he must worry first about the “Meatball,” the visual indicator of the current flight path. A second worry is lineup in relation to the landing area. It is very important to insure constantly that the landing area is straight ahead, not at an angle. If a landing is made, at even a slight angle, that angle is maintained in rollout while attached to the wire. If the angle is too large, bad things can and have happened, like going off the edge of the ship. Then there are the little items like airspeed and a very helpful instrument called angle of attack.
Earlier I explained about the wing being raised for takeoffs and landings. But even that explanation is incomplete when a carrier landing is added. Landing speed is very important at the ship. For a pilot to focus at the ship and then focus at the airspeed indicator (actually it is the angle of attack indicator) in the cockpit takes time, especially when it is dark. To help make it easier for the pilot, the engineers superimposed (now it’s called HUD or Heads-Up Display) an airspeed indicator on the windscreen using lights. The exact speed isn’t shown, but an indication of too slow, on speed, or too fast is displayed. Focusing became a lot easier because the pilot didn’t have to look into the cockpit area. Basically, he could look at the lineup on the ship and his speed at the same time by looking through the windscreen. It still wasn’t enough help because there were too many landing accidents caused by the pilot constantly changing the power setting to maintain the proper speed. Another tool was the APC short for Approach Power Compensator; it was an automatic throttle in the landing pattern. Naturally the first ones were primitive. If the nose of the plane was raised, power was added. If the nose was lowered, power was reduced. When a pilot became low on the glideslope and raised his nose, the APC would add power until he lowered the nose. If he was high, the reverse was true. Sound fine? For most of the approach and as long as corrections were small, it was wonderful. But if a pilot was a little high as he approached the end of the ship and lowered the nose, the APC took off power. The slow spool-up of a jet engine made this dangerous. Many times slow engine spool-up resulted in the plane hitting the end of the ship (hitting the ramp) as the correction came too late. A procedural change partly solved the problem. We were trained that in the late stages of the approach, we should block the throttles from coming back to idle power to keep engine RPM higher.
Standing on the platform near every meatball is the LSO. In my case it was Nick. Nick tells me on the radio if I’m too high or low, or if I’m about to go high or low, and sometimes even where I’m thinking about going. (A few years later when I was making an approach, my brain had told my left arm to reduce power and my biceps were about to contract ever so slightly, when Ned Hogan, the LSO, said, “Don’t take off any power.” True!) Nick tells me if I’m drifting one way or the other, if I’m too fast or too slow. In short he knows more about what I’m doing than I do. Since he is standing on the ship, he has a sense of what the deck is doing: Is it pitching up or down, is it about to change, is it wallowing left and right? All these things he must take into account as he gives instructions to the pilot. To put it in a vivid perspective, if I had thought I was low-and-slow and Nick told me to take off power and drop the nose, I would have done it without hesitating. That’s how important and knowledgeable these Landing Signal Officers are. LSOs have seen thousands of landings in all kinds of weather and many different pilots and airplanes. They are the single most critical element in carrier aviation. A few months later on my first eight month cruise, another fine LSO, Carl Jensen, may have saved my life by screaming at me to add full power and raise the nose.
One more element in the initial night carrier qualification program is the weather. The weather at the ship is obviously important in terms of wind, sea condition, and ceiling or height of the overcast. The landing pattern is flown at 600 feet so the visibility must be at least that high. Also the weather at our nearest suitable landing field must be fairly good in case the pilot must return an airfield to land for some reason instead of landing on the ship. That would happen to me in a few days, as I would get low on fuel. On the first night that I was eligible for a night landing, the weather at our “bingo” (divert) field, NAS Cecil Field, near Jacksonville, Florida, was unsuitable, and flight operations at the ship were cancelled. Here again was one of the mixed emotions times. On the one hand was the relief of another night of being alive, but then, prolonging the anxiety was not good, either. I knew it would be better to get it over with as quickly as possible, but I couldn’t help feeling glad deep down inside. When I first got into bed, I couldn’t believe how good an old Navy mattress could feel. But it didn’t feel good enough to let me sleep. I tossed and turned all night.
The next day all of us went out again for our landings. There were probably 15 A-4 drivers and two F-8s. The weather was forecast to again be below landing minimums at Cecil Field again, so we were given four traps instead of two. I only got one bolter and so did Randy. Maybe I was getting used to this fancy supersonic jet around the ship. That night Randy and I watched a movie in the ready room; ate popcorn, and talked about what a bunch of weenies flew the A-4. We were big shots now…because we knew night operations had been cancelled.
Let me now throw in a little macho stupidity that will test my credibility. Once again, however, it really is, or was, true. To be a pilot takes a certain level of self-confidence. To land an airplane on a carrier at night took a little more courage…or so we told ourselves. To land a Crusader on a relatively small carrier the size of the Shangri-La took the most courage of all…or so we told ourselves. It was important therefore to be able to distinguish an F-8 pilot from just a normal pilot when he was dressed to go flying. Chance Vought, our beloved airplane manufacturer, even thought of that. When we were dressed in our flight gear, on the inside of our pant legs just below each or our knees was a nylon strap about two inches wide that held a steel triangle with 1½-inch sides. These straps were called leg restraints. These triangles were used to hold a nylon cord that was attached to the ejection seat. When we first sat down in the plane to begin to strap in we had to loop the cord through these triangles and then back into a fitting on the ejection seat. In the event of an ejection, the seat pulled this cord tight, which would force the pilot’s legs against the seat for protection against the high-speed wind after he left the airplane. These inconsequential little triangles were a big status symbol as we walked around the ship. As they were on the inside of our legs, whenever we walked, they clinked together. Then everyone knew there was an F-8 driver in the area. Sound stupid? Idiotic? Adolescent? Maybe, but it did happen.
December 4th & 5th continued the waiting. We would fly during the day to get our two traps and then the weather at Cecil or the ceiling at the ship would cancel flight operations. Both Randy and I had only one bolter each in two days. By now the anticipation of the inevitable was wearing on me. Every morning I would wake up with a rumbling stomach and baggy eyes, wondering if this was to be the day. Humor had all but gone. We just kind of sat around the ready room like prisoners awaiting sentencing. Each night we would be watching movies and eating popcorn instead of flying our final exam. But when the clear dawn broke on the 6th, we knew it was time for our test. The forecast weather at the ship and at the field was excellent. By now the dread was outdistanced by resolution. I was more than anxious to find out what was going to happen in the darkness. Randy never confided in me that he was the least bit nervous, but I’m sure he must have been. He had his bravado face on, but I’m sure he wasn’t fooling anyone. If I knew he was scared, the old salts probably knew how much. In keeping with the tradition, I didn’t tell him how I felt either. As for me the buzz in my midsection steadily grew as the day wore on. While I don’t actually think my skin was shaking, it was at least tingling. Neither of us had a bolter on our day traps. We finished early, sat around until dinner, and then went in for our final brief from Nick. There would be a full moon, but we wouldn’t be able to see it. While the weather was very good, there was to be a thin, flat overcast at 900 feet. It would be a black hole Nick told us. That would be good, he went on; we wouldn’t be distracted and could focus on the job at hand. That was baloney and I knew it. The overcast meant we would have no horizon and our eyes couldn’t tell our inner ears which way was up. It was going to be an instrument flight from takeoff to landing. Crap and double crap!! The vibration in my stomach picked up a notch. The dryness in my mouth, especially under my tongue, grew even drier. Nick was talking, but the ten feet between us silenced his words. My ears had picked up the noise in my stomach and wouldn’t let outside sounds in. I was sitting there in the red-lit (to get our eyes adjusted for night flying) ready room ready to fly. I was loaded down with full flight gear, which included my flight suit, torso harness, Mae West, G-suit, steel triangles, flight boots, dog tags, and a Navy .38 caliber pistol hung around my neck (it was loaded with tracers, so if we went into the water, the bullets could be seen in the air). I kept thinking, “I am a real Navy fighter pilot, I am a real Navy fighter pilot, I can do this, I can do this!” A voice somewhere in my jittery stomach answered, “Are you sure?”
Suddenly stupid logic came to me, and for some inexplicable reason it helped. I hadn’t thought about this logical solution before, but just before I grabbed my helmet and headed for the flight deck, it came to me. If I could just get through this evening and make my six traps, shaking as I was, for the rest of my life -- no matter what bad events happened to me, no matter how nervous I would ever be-- I would know without a doubt that I was not a coward. How many people at the ripe old age of 24 could find out if they could get the job done even though they were scared as hell? For some reason my new logic helped calm me and allowed me to pick up my helmet and leather flying gloves and walk to the door. As the triangles clinked, I headed up to the flight deck. I made one short stop in the head (bathroom) where I vomited profusely, threw some cold water on my face, and resumed my climb up to aircraft number 150311, a great number.
What do you think about when you are thinking you might die in a little while? Family, girlfriends, college, and flying during the day all came to mind. At 24 years of age, the most important people and experiences all related to my family. Mom and Dad knew I was out there, but I’m sure they were wondering why I hadn’t called. They had no way of knowing we had such a long weather delay. My two-three-day estimate for qualification was in its sixth day. There was no way to call them. I wondered if they were worried and were trying to call me. I wished I could call them one more time before the night launch began. I looked around the darkened flight deck as I searched for #150311, stepped around an arresting wire and gave it a loving glance, and walked up beside my plane to begin the preflight. I’m sure I preflighted it just like all the other times, but I don’t remember a single thing. If I had found something wrong, I would remember…if I noticed it. I climbed up the steps, hoisted my right leg into the seat and sat down with a resigned plop. The plane captain who would help me strap into the ejection seat popped up beside my left ear and placed the shoulder straps over each of my shoulders. I adjusted the foot pedals all the way towards me. Randy had been the last one to fly this plane. He was 6’2” and several inches taller than I, so the pedals were extended. Briefly I smiled, thinking about him cranking his pedals the other way. I put the ejection seat cord through the triangles, locked all the straps into the central locking latch, tightened the thigh straps, put on my gloves and helmet, hooked up the oxygen mask to the plane, and started to set up the cockpit switches for takeoff. The plane captain hopped down, pushed in the lower steps, and got ready to lead me through the start sequence. Muscle memory, as we call it, took over. After you have set up the cockpit a hundred times, your hands seem to know where to go and in what order. Soon I was finished with my checks, I scanned the entire cockpit one last time, adjusted the volume on the radio, placed each elbow up on the canopy rail, and tried to relax and look cool. I surveyed as much of the flight deck as I could see. Randy was right beside me and had finished his checks before me. When I looked at him in the darkness he was probably smiling, but all I could see was his “thumbs up” sign. Plane captains and deck hands were scurrying all over the deck as engine starts were about to begin. “I wonder if all these other pilots are as up tight as I am,” a voice inside me said. “Hell, they are probably even more scared,” another voice answered. At least that’s the way I remember it: my brain encouraging me and my stomach arguing.
Over the radio came the Air Boss telling us to start’em up. The same transmission also goes out over the flight deck loudspeaker to alert all of the deck crew. My personal test of fire was about to begin. The plane captain and I ran through the appropriate signals as I went through the engine-start sequence. Then we did the flight control checks, raised the wing, lowered and raised the hook, placed my oxygen mask over my nose and hooked the right side of my helmet, and pulled down the canopy and locked it. The preflight was over. Then more waiting, as planes started inching their way to the two catapults on the forward part of the ship. Pretty soon Randy got the “come ahead” signal and started taxiing forward. Then my turn came. Once again my hands took over. The throttle was pushed forward, the wheels started to turn, and I pushed the button for the nose gear steering. I could see the flames from the A-4s that were being launched into the darkness ahead of me. The noise level would increase as the pilot went to full power, the wing lights would flick on to indicate the pilot was ready, and the catapult officer would lower his illuminated wand to the deck. As the wand touched, the A-4 was jerked down the catapult track, and the noise level would lower as the flame from the departing exhaust pipe got smaller and smaller. “Well, that guy made it okay,” I whispered into my oxygen mask.
In just a few minutes I was next in line for the port (left) cat (catapult). My nerves steadied somewhat as my brain tried to take in all the activity. I tried so hard to concentrate so I wouldn’t screw up any procedure. Now it was my turn to get on the cat. The aircraft director was giving me the “come ahead” and I was adding power. At night everything is slow; I was even slower. I inched my way forward as the hand signals increased in tempo, his way of telling me to speed it up. My nose tire stopped at the shuttle, I added more power to get over the top of the shuttle, and squashed on the brake pedals as the deck hand hooked the bottom of my plane to the catapult. In a wisp of time the sailor was walking away from my plane. The catapult officer gave me the spool-up signal which tells me to add full power and check all systems. I added full power as I took my feet off the brakes; good old # 150311 shook as it strained against the catapult and squatted slightly closer to the deck. I took one last cursory look at the instrument panel and turned on the exterior lights to signal the catapult officer that I ready for takeoff. It takes one or two very long seconds before the cat starts moving. I locked my right hand in my stomach to receive the stick as it came backwards on the launch, looked straight ahead, and was slammed backward into the ejection seat. The port cat threw me into the night at 160 knots in 220 feet. I was airborne.
On all the of the rest of my cat shots after the qualification night, as soon as I knew I was alive and flying, I would raise the landing gear and lower the wing to accelerate away from the ship. But tonight was different; the ship was only operating to get us qualified. We had no mission except to make six landings so I left the gear down, the wing up, and checked in on the radio with the ship. I climbed up to 600 feet and made the downwind turn, on the instruments, when directed. It was just as dark and lonely as you might expect. Without a horizon to help me fly level, I was kept pretty busy. As soon as I got organized, I dropped the tailhook. If a pilot makes a pass at the ship without the hook down, he owes the LSO a bottle of the drink of his choice. More than the cost, the harassment from the other pilots is what hurts. Nick had told us to put the hook down just as soon as we remembered so I got that part right. Things happen faster when they are new and when your knees are wiggling. In too short a time, I got the call to turn again, and then again. That meant I was behind the ship heading towards it. I still couldn’t see it, but I was pretty sure it was out there somewhere. In another moment I heard the voice say, “New guy, three miles, call the ball.” He didn’t really call me new guy, but that’s what he was thinking. The call meant I was at the point where I could see the ship and it was time to switch to the LSO frequency. Without even moving my head I switched frequencies. “Nightcapper 102, Crusader ball, 2.9,” I automatically spouted. That meant I was still able to communicate; I could still remember my call sign and what type of airplane I was flying; I could see the meatball; and my fuel state was 2,900 lbs. That also told the ship what kind of plane to rig the arresting gear for, and based on the fuel, how much I would weigh on landing. Nick answered, “Roger Ball.” Manhood was only three miles and 600 feet away. “Steady with the nose, just relax, speed is good, going slightly high,” came his next call. My right hand calmed a little on the stick; I took my left hand off the throttle for a second to hold the stick while I flexed my right hand, switched again, scooted my butt around a little to settle down, and kept checking lineup and meatball. “Still slightly high, ease it down just a little, you’re doing fine, no big corrections, hang in there.” I was at three hundred feet and the ship was getting bigger fast. Meatball-lineup-airspeed-meatball-lineup-airspeed. “On glideslope, looking good, stay right in there, check your lineup.” The end of the ship was now coming up fast, my breath starting stuttering, the blood was rushing to my head, the meatball started to climb just a little and I knew I was too close to push the stick down, the ramp (back end of the ship) zipped by me, BAM-I slammed into the deck, out of the corners of my eyes I saw red illuminated blurred images for an instant as I slammed the throttle full forward and pulled back on the stick. “Shit, Shit, Shit!” I had boltered into a very dark night.
Once the plane started to climb and I had an instant to settle down, I switched frequencies again and called the ship. I climbed up to 600 feet again and awaited clearance to turn downwind. “Ha Ha,” I thought lamely. I didn’t have to remember to put the hook down because it was already down. The bolter had steadied me slightly instead of making it worse. I had run through the drill, and next time I would be more ready. I had successfully done everything except catch a wire. I would do better next time and the next time. I would get lots of practice. Events were still moving fast, and in an instant the ship told me to call the ball again, and I switched to Nick. As you would expect, his voice was perfectly calm and professional. “Almost got number four, nice pass, you’re doing fine, relax, keep it coming.” Like I had a choice! This time I was better, still keyed up, but not quite as up tight. I saw the meatball coming up, caught it in the middle, and started down. Speed was good, lineup good. I wiggled the fingers in both hands and took a deep breath. Meatball-lineup-airspeed-meatball-lineup-airspeed. Concentrate. Don’t get hung up on either thing. Meatball-lineup. “Going a little high again-not bad, ease the nose over just a touch.” Damnit, how did that happen? I was right on a second ago and now the ball was a little high. I eased the nose over and then back up again to stop it. “Good catch, you’re doing fine, check your lineup, looking good.” Later on when we made our night passes in our fleet squadron the LSO would say little or less. But now Nick issued his instructions often. He was trying to help us as much as he could and I felt it through the radio. I needed it. Three hundred feet again, “Okay, don’t let it go high in close this time-hold it in the middle, looking good.” Once again the end of the ship passed under me and the meatball went zooming past. This time it stayed in the middle. BAM, full power, big jerk, my heart jumped into my throat, I was aboard. I made it. A quarter of a second later in my helmet came the Air Boss, “Off with the power, let us pull you back.” Even once a pilot is safely aboard, things happen fast and there are a lot of them. Wire or not, as soon as we hit the deck, we had to go to full power. Once I was sure I had caught a wire, I had to come off with the power so the retracting wire could pull me back into the landing area. While I was going backward, I had to look to the right at the taxi director as he gave me the “hook up” signal and then the “come ahead.”
Once he had me moving forward, he passed me to the next director, who passed me to the catapult director. Soon the shuttle stopped my nose gear. I added power to go up and over the shuttle, waited to get hooked up, got the signal to take my feet off the brakes and add full power. As the plane squatted down, I looked at the instrument panel and actually saw a few of the dials this time, flicked the lights, released the stick and locked my right elbow in my stomach, looked straight ahead, POW-jerked hard back into the seat, accelerated rapidly down the track, and swish! I was thrown into the black once again.
Although I was already beginning to tire, the elation over having made my first landing inspired me to get another successful landing on my next pass. Then I got a little unlucky. My next pass was a bolter and the Air Boss was concerned that if I boltered again, I would be too low on fuel to make it to NAS Cecil Field, our divert field. So instead of receiving a clearance to turn downwind at 600 feet, I heard, “Nightcapper 102, your signal bingo. Proceed to Cecil Field, refuel and return.” This was not funny, not even a little. As anyone can imagine, pilots are not allowed to argue or vote. Everyone on the ship knew I didn’t want to have to go to Cecil for fuel. By now it was almost midnight. I had been up a long time. I wanted to get it over with tonight. So I did the right thing; I headed for Cecil. I was sweaty, tired, half-excited and half-depressed as I landed on 8,000 feet of concrete and headed for the Fighter Squadron 174 flight line. No one came out to park me. I called on the radio over and over, no luck. Finally I called the tower and asked them to notify the duty officer I needed some gas and to go back to the ship. It seems the duty officer was asleep and most of the sailors had gone home. The ship had failed to send a message. About ten minutes later a sleepy petty officer came running out and signaled me into the fuel pits. I shut down the engine, waited about fifteen more minutes, got clearance to start, and headed back to the ship. By now everyone had finished except for a single A-4. Randy had gotten his six-for-six and had gone back to Cecil. I was cleared into the pattern about 1am and a few minutes later I heard Nick once again. “Glad to have you back. Let’s finish this up and go to bed. Looking good, keep it coming.” I trapped two minutes later, headed for the cat, got shot off, and immediately was cleared downwind. Things were going very fast now, as there were just two of us in the pattern. I got another bolter and another trap. I had four traps and five bolters so far. I had guessed correctly; I wasn’t going to be student of the week at the Shangri-La. Still I didn’t give a damn. I was still sweaty, more tired, and I was tired of proving how brave I was. I just wanted to finish. Now on my passes, Nick was talking even more. I could just think about going high and he would give me a correction. He talked until I touched down. He too was a tired pup and he wanted to get it over with. I trapped the fifth time, went to full power, came back to idle, looked to the right, raised the hook, and then came over the radio the sweetest, kindest, most wonderful news I have ever gotten in my entire life. The seasoned Air Boss said, “Congratulations, 102, on one of your many bolters you actually should have caught a wire, but you got a hook skip (my tailhook jumped over #4 wire). We are going to count that as number six. Your signal bingo to Cecil. Bravo Zulu (well done in Navy lingo).” Pete Easterling, later my skipper and still later a Vice Admiral, was standing next to the Air Boss as he spoke. He tells the story of what happened next. He says there was a slight pause, and then this distant voice replied, “You mean I don’t have to go again?” “No, son, head for home. You’ve had a long day,” answered the Air Boss.
As happened once before when I was going home from the ship, I was yelling into my oxygen mask. I’m sure winning the lottery or a gold medal at the Olympics gets people excited, but I am not sure it can compare to how I felt flying back to Cecil about 3am in beautiful number 150311. I rolled that damn plane over and over, I yelled and screamed. I even took my mask off so I could hear myself yell. Damn, I was happy. First I had made it through flight school and gotten the gold wings, and now I had qualified as a Night Carrier Fighter Pilot. My entire life was already a success. Everything else would be downhill. I made it! I made it! Scared as hell and I made it! Damn, it felt good. I couldn’t wait to call my folks. Their son was a fighter pilot and tonight he had proven it. He was a man. YIPPEE!! HOT DAMN!!
Larry A. Durbin
Former Navy Fighter Pilot
Postscript: Randy and I made our first cruise as roommates on the USS Shangri-La. He was Best Man at my wedding in 1966. He made his second cruise in VF-111 on the USS Oriskany-with the fire- and went to Viet Nam. He received several medals and landed a plane on the Oriskany that was later described as impossible to successfully land on a carrier it was so shot up from enemy ground fire. He got out of the Navy and flew for Pan Am and then Delta Airlines. I flew in the cockpit on his final flight. He is married to a lady pastor. He is the only guy I know sleeping with a minister. I made another eight month cruise on the Shang, got a total of 240 carrier landings, 53 at night, and then went to work for United Airlines for 33 years. I retired as a 747-400 Captain. A few years ago I had lunch with Mimi and Dave in Kansas City. I told her I tell everyone she is the cause for me becoming a pilot. She says she tells everyone I introduced her to her husband.
Randy’s final flight. He gave me his “flying hat.” It says, “ If you don’t want to have fun, you’d better get off this plane.” I wore it when I was flying.