Not my turn to die
May 1980 and August 1980:
The flight deck of an aircraft carrier is a very busy place, especially during air operations. Planes are launched only seconds apart as others taxi into position, getting in line, to go in their turn. Shortly afterwards, what's left on the deck is a flurry of activity, as the deck is made ready to receive airplanes that will land about 45 seconds apart. They have to land, disarm their weapons, get out of the way and go park with very little time or space to spare. It is in this environment that I watched two co-workers, two fellow officers, two men I had come to respect, die in my place.
We were getting ready to launch the first event of the day. My pilot and I were in our F-14A Tomcat, almost ready to start moving across the flight deck for launch. In fact, we had our hands up so that the ground crew could see four hands, thus being assured that we weren't throwing any switches while they did their last checks on the weapons. I looked at our wingman's plane, going through the final checks on the catapult. For reasons that I do not remember to this day, we had switched airplane assignments at the last minute. We had decided in maintenance control to do that, and I don't remember what we were thinking. Certainly, the switch had been made in ignorance of what was to happen. In fact, when I walked back into our squadron's ready room, the Commanding Officer looked at me like I was a ghost, because someone, unaware of the last-minute switch, had just told him that I was in the airplane whose demise you are reading.
After the signal to launch them was given, the nose of the Tomcat came down about an inch or so as the nose-strut compressed from the catapult. At the same time, their starboard, or right engine had a hiccup. The fireball was about 100 to 150 feet across in the early morning light, but it was not the real danger. The danger was that they were now going down the catapult, trying to get to 135 miles per hour, on only one working engine. The bad engine had taken a 20 second time-out at the wrong time. No, at the worst time.
Bravely, the pilot followed the procedures we had all memorized for the occasion. I could see the rudders turn left because he was going off the waist catapult, and had to avoid aircraft launching off the bow of the ship. The plane wouldn't turn because of the offset thrust: one engine in full afterburner, the other giving no thrust at all. He also had the nose about 10 degrees up, and no more, trying to ensure that the plane would slowly climb away from the water without losing speed. But with the full fuel tanks, the extra wing tanks and the weapons load we were carrying, it was in vain. Less than a quarter of a mile in front of the ship, as the plane stalled at about 110 miles per hour, they tried to eject from the Tomcat. I watched the canopy come off, and then in horror, watched the plane snap-roll upside down and the ejection seats shoot straight into the water. They died on impact, and the plane seemed to leisurely follow them in. Only parts of bodies were ever recovered, as the impact with the water as such a high speed literally disintegrated my friends bodies.
As always, the system reacted by studying the video tapes of the event. Did the pilot forget something? Were there additional malfunctions? It is hard to tell, but one thing we were able to find out was that the procedures we had memorized were not the best to follow. After about three months of research, and having test pilots fly through the same disaster in staged events back at testing grounds in the States, new procedures were published. We had to forget what we had learned (and witnessed the failure thereof) and learn new steps. No longer were we to hold the nose up 10 degrees, because there might not be enough engine power to maintain flight if the aircraft was fully loaded. Better just to stay as level as possible, just above the water, while slowly getting acceleration to a flying speed. That would be very hard to do, because going up meant stalling and going down meant crashing into the water while flying!
The day after the new procedures were published, in August, I was getting ready for a night launch while we were in the North Atlantic Ocean. Actually, we were almost in the Artic, as we were of the coast of Norway. The dry suits we were wearing offered us about 15 minutes of life if we went into the water, and we all knew how hard it would be for the helicopter crews to find us in the dark before we froze. If anything were to happen, it should happen right next to the ship, in full view of everyone, so they could respond very, very quickly. It did. But the dry suits didn't have to prove themselves. Just our nerves.
As we acknowledged being ready for takeoff, and the nose of our F-14A Tomcat dropped about an inch because the nose strut was responding to the pressure to go down the catapult, I saw something unusual out of the corner of my eye. The plane parked to my right was no longer a dull gray in the darkness, it was a dull orange! Orange? God, no! That was glow from the fireball behind us as our right engine had hiccupped.
No time to think, we were already moving down the catapult. According to the flight deck videos, we dropped about 35 or 40 feet after going off the catapult (which was only 70 feet off the water). It also showed that about 3 or 4 seconds later, which is an eternity at times like this, the lights at the top of the twin rudders were again visible to the camera, which by now had recovered from the brightness and was able to see again. We were still flying, we were climbing very slowly. I remember hearing over the radio "Victory (our squadron call sign), it looks like the starboard engine." I almost responded sarcastically with "No Shit Sherlock!" but my tongue was so far down my throat I couldn't, so I just said a very curt "Roger".
I can not tell you how many hearts stopped. My ground crew, the catapult crew, other flight crew, the tower observers, the bridge crew and countless others were all blinded by the 100 foot fireball. I know that mine did. I also know that I had a death-grip on the ejection handle within micro seconds. I had made one decision, and that was if the nose was going up 10 degrees or more, or if it was going below level, I was pulling the handle. My pilot later told me he never even thought of getting out, he was focused 100% on following procedures and didn't even look beyond his flight instruments. Before this, he was unable to understand how any pilot could fly a plane into the ground, or into the water. He now knew how someone could fly into the water and never even know that it happened. I learned how hard it is to take my hand off of an ejection seat handle when the knuckles are locked in their bent position, frozen by adrenalin. I literally had to bend each finger back slowly, because I was afraid I would pull it accidentally after the danger had passed. Oh yes, once we were at about 500 feet of altitude, the engine that had hiccupped had recovered and was doing fine. I just wanted to choke it, that's all. After the rest of the planes launched, we came back and landed. My pilot and I stayed up all night talking about what went on in the plane and inside of each other.
Remember, I had watched two people die in the plane I was scheduled to fly, and by their death we had new procedures. My pilot and I then had the privilege of being the first ones to test the new procedures in actual operating conditions. I didn't die in May, and then I didn't die in August, either. To this day I do not know why I was spared, twice, but I am convinced that I was spared, and that I was spared for a purpose. Ten Septembers later I was at a weekend retreat, thinking that I was there to decide whether or not to get out of the Navy. Instead, I found myself crying over the death of my friends for the first time. No, I didn't cry at their funeral, I was too macho for that. I had kept the anger in all that time. I got so much healing out of that weekend, that when I was asked to go through the training to become a leader of such weekends, I immediately agreed. Over ten years later, I occasionally do those weekends, and my most spiritual moments come during those retreats. God does work in mysterious ways! This experience is another reason why I call Him, "Savior".