Todd and I received orders to fly to the USS America (CVA 66) for carrier qualifications. “We must complete six night and twelve day landings to qualify,” he said. He had carrier qualified as an A-4 pilot, but needed this hurdle to fly the RA5C. Despite my growing doubt as to remaining in the RA5C program, I had to complete this phase as Todd’s teammate for him move on with his career.
We met the aircraft carrier at Jacksonville, reported for duty, and found our quarters. The pilots had separate room assignments from the navigators. The America was one of four Kitty Hawk-class super carriers commissioned in 1965. She had over five hundred officers, nearly five thousand men, and carried about eighty aircraft. A small city on water, she served meals all day and night and had a sick bay similar to a small hospital. After a roast beef dinner we heard over the loud speaker: “Aviators assemble on the flight deck for Carrier Qualification briefing in the ready room.” I walked with navigator friends whom I had met at the mess hall and Todd went with the pilots.
Once I arrived on the flight deck, our ready room pilot told us where to meet for his briefing. He wore gold-framed Top Gun aviator’s sun glasses, no tie or cap, and slicked his black hair back on the sides like Elvis, had a deep southern accent, and side burns. At 5’ 7”, he strutted around like a rooster, head in the air, chest out, far superior to the rabble he led.
“Foller me, pa-lots and dee-esses,” Elvis yelled, in slow twangy southern accent and swaggered up a ladder toward the ready room.
“Sir, what do you mean DS’s?”I asked hustling up to him.
“DS stands fah dip-shit. All back-seaters ah dip-shits,” he shouted without turning. Didn’t he know many had died in the RA5C? Why would he insult the men who had sacrificed their lives? I started at him, when a large navigator grabbed me from behind.
“He’s not worth it. Listen, learn, and keep silent.”
“You’re right,” I slowed down, took a deep breath, and felt the remark lodge in my gut twisting. How many other pilots spoke derogatorily about us? The midshipmen I had recently addressed about the program may have recognized this aspect of naval aviation.
Red lights of the Ready Room preserved our night vision. We settled into rows of dark leather seats. “Elvis” warned of take-off and landing dangers. “Aahh weall not poot up with any mistakes or not follering maah orders. I weall wash out anyone who performs stupidly.”
Glaring from my chair, aware of his power over us, I listened to his “Great Santini” speech. He was an obstacle course we had to hurdle to become “carrier qualified.”
I never imagined such an egotist would act as our carrier qualification-training officer. How many other narcissists wore the uniform? The frustration of the day led me to the carrier library where I found W. Somerset Maugham's Of Human Bondage. It relieved me from some of the anxiety of my first aircraft carrier takeoff and landing. The protagonist rebelled against his parents' wishes for him to be a clergyman. He went on a journey to find meaning in his life. What a coincidence to have selected it at a time I had decided to leave naval aviation for another branch of the Navy and once studied for the ministry. Maugham’s book made me consider what I must do to find purpose in an unraveling life.
Up at 6:00 A.M., we ate breakfast, and left for an 8:00 A.M. takeoff. Todd and I entered our assigned aircraft and did our preflight check. The ground crew removed the locks from our wheels. Todd maneuvered our aircraft to the catapult. They gave him the signal to turn on the after-burner. He ignited our two J79 thrusters that roared as flames struck the deflector shield behind us. Waiting for the thrust from the catapult added to the tension of the moment. A loud THWAK rattled me, followed by a mighty force launching our aircraft like an explosive slingshot, propelling us one hundred and eighty knots (two hundred and seven miles per hour) off the carrier deck as the America sped thirty mph through the Atlantic Ocean into the direction of the on-coming wind. Todd drove our jet into the waiting arms of the air with the force of lift on the wings and the thrust of both after-burners that blasted flames in columns of pure fire ten feet behind us. The force jolted my body hard against my ejection seat. From my tiny window slots for the few moments RAN’s could leave them open before shutting them for radar reading, I saw we had cleared the flight deck and began gaining altitude. We banked around and entered a flight pattern that would bring us back to the stern of the carrier.
Todd adjusted his approach watching a mirror device called the “Meatball.” He had correctly lined up the aircraft for landing when the image resembled a ball of hamburger meat. The carrier deck had four wires spaced so a jet aircraft’s tail hook had a good chance to connect with one of them after impacting to bring us to a jerking halt.
My pilot banked the Vigilante and lined up the mirrors as we approached for our first carrier landing. We started to descend with airspeed at one hundred and twenty knots. “The landing will shock your body and rattle your brain,” experienced aviators warned. I waited, and waited, as we descended. “KKKRRUNCH” pounded my ears and my body felt a tremendous jolt from our landing gear catching a wire. The braking force threw me forward and then back against my ejection seat like a rag doll despite my powerful harness.
Pilots who discussed carrier catapults and landings often referred to it as better than sex. From the back seat of the RA5C, these events resembled two pilot-controlled collisions. A back-seater waited for the forces of steel, jet propulsion, landing gear, and traction to throw him around in his cage. We continued this adventure until we had made six landings. Afterwards we rested while others took their turns. Todd landed our aircraft admirably, but not perfectly. The impact bumped and jolted me like no landing or other event in my life, even screeching to a halt in front of a cement bridge when testing my stingray on a wild 100 mph right pass to get around traffic in D.C. that ended two feet from concrete and certain death. My seat belt jerked me from the force, but nothing like landing on a carrier. Todd missed the wires a few times, which happened to most aviators. That was not a failure, with the huge RA5C, or a mistake. When an aircraft failed to catch a wire, the pilot must quickly accelerate using after-burner to avoid dropping into the ocean. The next day we completed our sixth and final day of carrier landings ending an exciting incomparable life-event.
Night landings were an entirely different matter. Walking on the carrier deck at night was frightening. The darkness impaired my vision even though I had spent fifteen minutes in the red light of the ready room to improve night vision. Bumping into objects on the carrier deck at night the first time I wandered there, my shins were bruised but I did not fall. Even trying to climb into the cockpit challenged me as the ship rolled and lurched from the force of the Atlantic Ocean and the powerful wind we drove into to obtain maximum lift. Waiting for the impact from the force of the catapult in the dark, being powerfully thrown off the edge of the carrier, and experiencing the drop that occurs just after the aircraft leaves the deck, and then landing with violence, were each unique experiences. Feeling and hearing the “KKKRRUNCH” when our aircraft caught a wire with the landing hook in the darkness of night on the flight deck of an aircraft carrier in a rolling sea is difficult to explain. A collision analogy comes close, but at night you have to multiply it by fear, inexperience, faith in the pilot’s ability, and fate. Blind in a steel bullet shaped box, I had no control over anything.
When Todd missed a wire on an attempted night landing, the airplane hit the carrier deck with a loud THUD, a scrape, sparks, and a bounce followed by a roar and jolt from an after-burner blast he initiated thrusting us past the carrier deck into the black night. My stomach felt squeamish and made me think I would lose my lunch for the first time in a plane.
“How’d you like that one, Dan?”
“I didn’t know you could make the plane dance like that.”
“Get used to it. This plane is hard to land on a carrier.”
“OK, but I may have to send my G-suit off to the cleaners if we hit anymore hills.”
“Relax and enjoy it. Where could you have any more fun?”
“Maybe a margarita at Daytona beach.”
The rest of the evening he missed many more wires than during the day, which spooked me. When we had completed our night landings my blood pressure and breathing returned to normal. After the first night catapult, I thought of the complete lack of control another RAN must have experienced when his pilot could not prevent the ocean crash that took their lives. Unlike most Navy assignments, the RA5C back-seater’s safety depended on the pilot. Others shared a windshield with the pilot and could assess immediate danger.
The thought of vulnerability to instant death in a crash, or a slower drowning in water, were always present. I had to put that out of my mind, or treat it as though it could not happen. Eventually, I asked myself, “How could I ever have been persuaded to sit in an enclosed bullet shot from a catapult?” Coming to terms with a death-risk strikes everyone differently, but for aviators, it starts with the officer who hands us simple wills to designate beneficiaries during flight training. Researchers say that when we face our own death we have a kind of psychological immune response. Our brains automatically cope with the conscious feeling of distress, unconsciously seeking out and triggering happy feelings, a mechanism scientists theorize helps protect us from depression or despair. I tried not to think about death until at night when frightening visions would awaken me. Duke pre-ministerial readings and great literature caused me to ask more questions, loosen the hold of prior religious beliefs, and admit I no longer knew whether heaven or God existed, or there was life after death.
Questioning the wisdom of my choices led to the next hurdle all aviators faced if they chose to turn in their wings and pursue a less hazardous position in the Navy. Would I be seen as a coward? The pressure was to suffer uncomplainingly the hazards inherent in the military. Annapolis inculcated that into me. Nevertheless, I was different from my Dad and brother and had decided to seek an Academy appointment, in part to gain their approval, but also for an expectation of a life filled with adventure and excitement. I had survived intense indoctrination and wore the ring that established acceptance into a Navy fraternity of men who would lead while others followed.
At night I confronted my fears given the state of information I had acquired in the RA5C program. So removed from controlling the aircraft during dangerous maneuvers, I looked forward to ending my aviation adventure. I felt more like a monkey in a cage than a professional aviator during training when so many RA5C systems published by North American Aviation Company did not work at the training command. The information available to the back-seater was no substitute for eyes watching for danger during landings or takeoffs. That exacerbated my feeling of not having control of my fate. Of course, the pilot could activate our ejection seats, and “punch us out “in danger. But, a successful ejection occurred only when the aircraft reached sufficient altitude and speed to allow the parachute to deploy. I had to admit, continuing to sit in the back seat of the RA5C during “carrier quals” in fact, meant I felt like I was a dip shit, whether I admitted it or not. Others learned to accept it.