(click to zoom photo of Vigilante about to land on Carrier)
Soon we were ready for Carrier Qualifications. My pilot and I had completed twenty training missions, learned all the features of the RA5C, and become an efficient team. Our snake-ranch group realized we had to give up the rental home we had enjoyed because each of us flew to an aircraft carrier on a different schedule. I moved into a two-bedroom apartment with another RAN who had Carrier Qualifications close to my schedule.
“Did you know the RAN who graduated from Yale, ejected from the RA5C twice in eighteen days, and was sent to Puerto Rico to recover?" he asked when I met him there.
“Yeah. What happened?”I asked curious and concerned.
“In the last accident his RA5C had a mid-air collision with an F-4 approaching a landing on a carrier near Cuba. The F-4 pilot and navigator ejected when their plane was beneath the RA5C. Their bodies still in their ejection seats smashed into the fuselage of the Vigilante causing his pilot to eject their crew at night over dark water.”
“What happened after the mid-air collision?”I asked even more worried.
(click to zoom Vigilantes passing over a Carrier)
“As their parachutes opened they saw the F-4 pilot and radio intercept officer being attacked by sharks in the water below them,” he said motioning with his hands to show jets colliding and his disgust at the sharks as I listened in awe.
“He and his pilot used super human strength to make their parachutes’ carry them away from the swarm and blood. A helicopter with a spotlight on the scene picked them up from the water shaken by unharmed almost an hour later.”
“What kind of a mission did they fly over Cuba?” I asked bewildered by the news.
“Photo-Intel. How much do you think that cost the Navy?”he asked.
“I haven’t a clue, but those jets cost millions not to mention the lives!”
“They told us each RA5C had a value of $22,000,000. That makes $44,000,000. When you lose two crew members, with all that training, the loss is staggering.”
We soon learned of another fatal accident that affected all of us. Two of our classmates involved in carrier qualifications after a touch-and-go-landing off the carrier deck, drove directly into the water without ever gaining altitude! The right engine blew up when the pilot increased the throttle, killing him and a RAN from our class. It happened so fast, neither had a chance to eject. Even if they had ejected, their parachutes would not have saved them, as the ejection seats are useless at such a low height and speed. My mind replayed what it had to be like for my friend, not knowing what had happened before it was too late because of the obscured visibility and split second nature of jet aircraft accidents. My stomach rolled every time I thought of the incident and tried to put it out of my mind, but it was firmly lodged.
(Dan about to enter the back seat of a Vigilante at Sanford Naval Air Station)
At the base ready room I checked all the RA5C safety reports and found many more fatal Vigilante accidents had occurred on carriers or military air stations all over the world. Just at Sanford, the RA5C suffered many fatalities since I arrived and there had been numerous before. “The Navy made a mistake when it accepted seventy-six of those high altitude A-5A bombers from the Air Force and converted them to RA5C’s by adding an extra fuel tank, cameras, side-looking radar, and electronic counter-measures equipment that made some call them ‘elephants’ because they were so heavy and reacted so slowly during carrier landings. Others called them the ‘flying coffin,’” an experienced pilot said.
Midshipmen from Annapolis on summer cruise visited our training squadron to learn about the RA5C for the pilot and the RAN program. “Mr. Lavery, I like the way you handle yourself here,” said our Commander Brown of the training squadron RVAH-3. “I’m impressed with your athletic activities leading our squadron flag football team to win first place and winning the squadron championship softball game with a homerun. Finding time to get involved and relate well to the enlisted men is a sign of leadership. I played football at Annapolis and always follow Navy sports. Would you address the Annapolis midshipmen tomorrow at 1000 (10 A.M.) and discuss the RAN program since you also graduated from the Academy?”
“Yes, Sir. I’ll gladly tell them all about the program.”
Although I had serious misgivings about the RA5C and the RAN program, especially after learning of the most recent horrific accidents, and my own hazardous experiences, the base commander had honored me. Many positive aspects about the sleek Navy jet were impressive. I flew with a very skilled pilot and had an opportunity to impress the squadron commander. After preparing a talk emphasizing all the plane’s best characteristics, I stood before a mirror in my rental house and practiced. In an auditorium set up in an empty hanger that normally housed aircraft, I addressed sixty Naval Academy midshipmen who had completed two years at Annapolis. They wanted to learn what the RA5C had to offer prospective naval aviators. After lauding the best features of the RAN program, the RA5C, and the naval aviation training at Sanford, I opened the lecture up to questions.
(Click to zoom Vigilantes flying over Florida)
“I’m concerned about the chance for advancement as a naval aviator in the RAN program if we do not qualify as pilots due to eyesight or other factors,” a thoughtful midshipman asked.
“That’s what I’m doing. Wearing contact lenses because my eyesight is 20/30, up to this point in my training I haven’t experienced anything that conflicted with my career plans,” I said. This midshipman had mentioned one of my own major concerns.
“Why should any senior aviator select a navigator of a jet aircraft to command a squadron made up of pilots and navigators, since a pilot is in a better position to know all the features of the RA5C and is regarded as a leader over any navigator?” one asked identifying the dilemma that most bothered me.
“I’m new to the RAN program and have heard that there are many opportunities for us to advance with the pilots, but whether a RAN could command a squadron, I’m not sure. The RAN program is new and well may offer advancements we may not envision. The RAN is the center of the intelligence gathering mission in the fleet and should be able to advance in Naval Intelligence equally with any pilot. We will have to observe how RANs advance over the years.” My answer seemed to have deflated the questioner, my audience, and me.
“How does it feel sitting in the back seat of a Mach 2 jet working on equipment while the pilot controls the aircraft and you cannot see or assist if he were injured? another asked.
(Click to zoom Vigilante on the ground at Sanford N.A.S.)
Pausing to reflect quickly, "Navigators seem vulnerable because of dependence on the pilot in an emergency where the back-seater can’t see to evaluate a hazard,” blurted out of my mouth. “If we encountered a dangerous situation, I had the option of ejecting independently of the pilot, but would never do that unless that was the best solution. If there were time to discuss the emergency, we could work out a plan. I trusted my pilot would eject us both if it required immediate action due to some serious malfunction.” A few in my audience were shaking their heads in disbelief. Accidents in jet aircraft were instantaneous cataclysms. My words were hollow. Navigators in the Vigilante were sitting ducks. These questions haunted me on my way back to my apartment and realized I had over-hyped the program. Not convinced that this program had such career potential for a navigator compared to a pilot, I should have revealed the conflict to them but couldn’t. Had I failed in my duty?