The last phase of training consisted of missions where we performed a variety of maneuvers to learn all the features of the RA5C. We had a range of about three thousand miles. Fourteen thousand feet proved the best altitude to save on fuel while practicing the photographing of targets was at five hundred feet. With a jet airplane capable of going twice the speed of sound, we had to ensure we did not break the sound barrier near communities where windows can shatter. People file complaints to the FAA and could cause a pilot and his navigator a visit to the base Commander. Such conduct could result in a court martial under the Uniform Code of Military Justice. After each flight, we inspected the plane for any safety problems and reported on systems that malfunctioned. On all my many training missions I made comments that all of the systems not affecting flying did not function, except the radar we used for navigation and rough identification of some targets we could verify with the closed circuit TV. None of the training jets had cameras. I also looked at the safety bulletins in the ready room while waiting for our flights. The high number of helicopter accidents killed many aviators both in training and combat. When I noticed many RA5Cs had fatal accidents from hydraulic failure, pilot error, or other malfunction, I questioned the safety of our aircraft. When these accidents occurred at low altitude, often the crew would not have time for their parachutes to function properly after ejecting. While many seemed unaware, or did not read these reports, I found them troubling as no other aircraft from my review had near the number of fatal mishaps. On a Friday morning, an unmarried congenial RA5C pilot a year older than I wanted to fly to New Orleans and asked if anyone would like to join him. He could check out an A-3 bomber that would take five passengers if any of us would act as crew. At the same time, we would earn flight training hours. I volunteered with some friends and prepared a navigational chart after discussing the flight plan with the pilot. We took off and in a short time circled New Orleans awaiting clearance to land. Our pilot started to descend and banked to the left to get on the approach path. At about five thousand feet I heard an explosion and the windshield shattered showering us with thousands of fragments. The outside air rushed in filling the cockpit with loose papers and spilling coffee adding to the confusion. We could have been sucked out of the cockpit if we had not been strapped in tight. Our pilot carefully maneuvered us directly over the runway and descended on the glide path and admitted he had never experienced such an incident. For the first time I felt vulnerable in the air. Anything could threaten the cockpit, even a bird flying in our path. We hailed a taxi and entered New Orleans, checked into a hotel, and walked around the entertainment area where jazz and pop musicians treated audiences to a swinging time. Fats Domino played at his own lounge and Al Hirt always had a crowd. I loved Fats and headed for his lounge to enjoy his rhythm and blues. As I walked in, I heard him playing Blueberry Hill. I took a seat with some of my friends only a few feet away from the star. His fans requested many of my favorite songs: I’m Walkin’, The Fat Man, and Yes It’s Me and I’m in Love Again. He had sweat beads covering face and his smile lit up the room. The music jumped off the piano keys while his deep voice drove the lyric as his body rocked and his head bobbed. The crowd danced and sang. Most of them knew the words. I could have lingered there until he closed, so sweet was his music and glad I was to be alive to hear it. His music was an escape from the reality I lived and the new fears that haunted me before sleep. On another occasion, after my pilot and I had completed half of a training mission, ground control radioed, “The Sanford Naval Airfield is shut down for incoming traffic due to a thunder storm with no visibility. You must divert. Please advise.” Navigators always consider what might go wrong in the event of the need to divert from each destination. “Dan, give me the course and distance to the nearest airfield on your divert list,” Todd said on the intercom. I gave him the name of an airfield a little south of Jacksonville. Ground control there radioed it had no visibility so I selected another just off the St. Johns River. “Visibility two hundred feet now and improving. We had a thunder storm but it has passed,”They advised. Since we had only a little fuel left, I gave Todd an approach course and mileage to the new airfield and contacted the airfield, “We’ve begun to divert, give us an approach vector, and clear us to land.” “Use incoming vector 275,”Ground Control announced. Todd banked into the assigned approach course. We descended through dark rain clouds, “I’m unable to visually see the airfield. I’ll continue until I do.” A few minutes later he said, “I have the runway in sight. Prepare for landing…..The runway is covered with rainwater from the thundershower that just passed. I’m going to land us anyhow.” The plane shuttered as he turned down the thrust and adjusted the flaps. The tires made a THUD on the runway as we glided on the rain-watered surface. Todd applied the air brakes and full flaps as we started to slow and then one of our tires blew. That prevented surface breaking power as we barreled, a surf boarding technological monster. On my radar screen I could see our jet rapidly approaching St. John’s River. “We’re going to go off the runway ahead. Prepare for some bumps,” Todd said. “Send emergency help. We are about to enter the swamp if I can't stop this plane," He notified the ground crew. If he could not halt this gigantic steel bird, we were going to take a hairy bath. Time slowed down. I felt helpless unable to see from the back seat how perilous our situation was. Even my pilot had limited control in this emergency. The vibration was intense. I feared we were about to skid off the runway! Finally, it lessened and the plane came to grinding halt. Todd opened the cockpit. I could finally see the scene hidden from my view from my tiny side windows. We had run off the runway and only a few yards away the swamp was waiting to swallow us. Just beyond that, the St. Johns River eased to the Gulf. A red flashing light from an ambulance glowed in the rain, casting a double image that reflected off the water. Its siren wailed. A fire truck raced to assist us. I crawled out of the cockpit, scrambled down the side of the aircraft, and jumped to the ground. The ambulance took us to the ready room. My head was spinning in confusion. I trembled from forces that threw my body like an NFL linebacker to a child. Was this “the best heavy carrier based jet?” Had I made a mistake selecting the RA5C? Other fears haunted me. In an unstable, difficult to maintain jet aircraft, we might easily be killed or become prisoners in combat if assigned to Vietnam. Like the Japanese and the Nazi’s I learned to hate as a kid, we were told the VC, the NVA, and the North Vietnamese were barbaric to aviator captives. To make matters worse, navigators were not given the respect of pilots. Commanders in charge considered pilots the stars of the program. They would advance quicker than navigators. As a navigator I was blind except for my radar, not in control of the aircraft, unable to see from my back seat to anticipate danger as I had to shut the tiny slots to view my instruments and felt like a pawn in a cage. I drifted into restless sleep that night, reviewing shattered windows, burst tires, a close swamp, near death, and sirens. On the way back to my apartment I stopped at a sports bar for a cold Schlitz and watched a hideous sight on TV. A crew of aviators, whose jet had been hit by a missile, had parachuted into North Vietnam. The nearby villagers had killed them and were parading their dead bodies strapped to long stakes through a city before cameras shouting “Yankee go home,” celebrating their death. The North Vietnamese screamed and shook their fists at the dead crew members, holding up signs of babies, children, and naked women covered with burns from napalm and white phosphorous bombs. An intelligence briefing confirmed the RA5C pilot’s report, “When the villagers caught the Americans they cut off their genitals and stuffed them in their mouths.” I went to visit Mom and my grandparents the next week upset over the RA5C and glad to be alive. When I arrived they informed me Grampa had fallen ill during the summer and ended his life by taking an overdose of medications at a hotel. Mom said, “Men from his family had done that for years rather than end their lives in a hospital and force the family to incur enormous hospital charges.” Apparently he did not have health insurance to treat his stomach cancer. I felt a great loss not having my brilliant grandfather around to joke with me, play cards, and discuss sports during my stay. His death made me feel deeply sorry for his pain, suffering, and need to end his life. It made my reckless life as an RA5C navigator seem an escape from reality. I decided to take Mom and Ruthie to “The Sound of Music” to lift our spirits. We sang many of the songs all the way back after dinner at the officer’s club re-energized. After we arrived back at the beach house, Ruthie hid her remorse playing her Hammond organ providing serenity that harmonized with my tranquil view of the ocean waves perpetually moving toward the shore and ending their journey only to start again.
After the discipline and rigors of the Naval Academy, training in jet aircraft gave the word freedom a new dimension: we sped in the air and on highways, trying to catch up with the world we had left behind. A month after graduation from the Academy, I received orders to Pensacola Naval Air Station. Excited about the thought of learning how to fly Navy jet aircraft and Pre-flight school, I eagerly awaited my first assignment on my drive from Fernandina Beach, Florida after a short visit with Mom and Ruthie. In the muggy heat of July I arrived at the gate in my white Corvette convertible. A marine guard in white gloves, white cap, black visor, light blue trousers with red stripe down the middle, dark blue dress jacket with a white webbed belt, gun in holster, and white leggings leading to spit-shined black shoes asked for my identification. After viewing my I.D., he snapped to attention, clicked his heals and gave me my first salute as a naval officer. Just then a navy jet zoomed overhead with a booming blast of power, turned and sparkled in the sunlight as she sped away on a training mission. A rush of adrenaline filled me with expectation that naval aviation would be thrilling. However, those too often mean personalities at the Naval Academy had worn off much of the Annapolis polish. The harassment I received from an upper classman in revenge for what my brother may have done to him still gnawed at me. He had driven me into the hospital with mono and ruined my chance to start for the Plebe football team at quarterback. The harassment I received from southern upper classmen about my support for civil rights lingered in my mind. But, nothing compared to the sadistic baseball coach I had who deliberately made it his mission to humiliate and frustrate me until I decided to quit. Naval Aviation should have eliminated any malicious personalities from this elite branch of the naval establishment. Entrusting men to multi-million dollar jet aircraft would surely mean they were leaders that would be professional in every sense of the word. They assigned me a class number, an officer’s barracks, and then, unlike at the Academy, I was free. Training began the next day. Physical fitness, obstacle course, jungle survival, aviation science, navigation, and training flights determined if we had the “right stuff” to fill the shoes of a naval aviator. Flying in a two-seater jet (Northrup T-38 Talon) after first learning in a two-seater prop (T-28 North American Trojan) two months after sitting in training classes, I was a jelly fish turned into a shark. Suddenly zooming in a sleek steel bullet-like airframe, rolling and diving at supersonic speed, the Navy had elevated us to a world we could only imagine. Before takeoff our pilot instructor showed us how to “pre-flight” the plane. We checked all functioning parts to maintain safety. Once he flew the plane with me in the back seat and showed me how to escape from an attack by another aircraft by a tricky aerobatic maneuver that churned my stomach. Diving from high altitude, he did practice bombing runs racing at low altitude at a target then pulling up, teaching me to experience G-force, which increases the weight of one’s head from ten pounds exponentially, depending on the thrust of the aircraft. We felt strong forces; enough for someone to realize a weakness. My pilot did some barrel rolls, and finished with a few landings and takeoffs. Some learned they couldn’t handle jet flight when airsickness was a clue. He was skilled, knowledgeable, an expert, and a leader. The Dilbert Dunker was quite an adventure for those who got disoriented or couldn't swim well. I had been a lifeguard, so I had an advantage. The Dunker is designed like an aircraft on two tracks with an aviator strapped into a mock cockpit with hands on the throttle and stick inside that is lifted in a cart-cockpit a few meters out of the water. The cart would then come crashing into the water, flip up-side-down, and the candidate would have to orient himself with water in his sinuses and escape from the pilot seat. You had to unhook your safety belt, swim down to clear the aircraft, and then swim to safety. A lifeguard was on duty to save those who could not perform. Failure to successfully complete the exercise flunked the student and every class had a few who failed. Many will tell you that, although the experience was a challenge, if they were to go down in an aircraft they would be grateful they had the training. Jungle survival training in Pre-flight school ranked high on “unique adventures.” We wore tall waterproofed jungle boots heavily covered with polish and Marine green fatigues made of a strong fabric. We had a backpack, first aid kit, water purifying iodine mixture, canteen, hunting knife, rifle, helmet, contour maps, a compass, and poncho. They bused us to the Okefenokee Swamp between Southwestern Georgia and Northwestern Florida. Marine guides counseled us on survival during a trek on a god-awful hot muggy day. The sweat poured off my face, thirst nearly overwhelmed me, as I followed our trainer into a dense jungle with about twenty-five classmates. He pointed out what to avoid for our safety and identified poisonous leaves and wildlife. We stumbled onto a number of coral snakes during the arduous excursion. “Avoid any contact with that critter as it ranks as the most poisonous snake in the United States.” When we reached a point of extreme thirst, he stopped at a muddy creek. The water resembled slimy brown soup. “Fill up your canteens, pour the water through a denim cloth to filter it, and remove any impurities. Add iodine tablets using one per quart of relatively clear water. Use two tablets in cloudy water. You can survive on it.” As bad as it tasted, my mouth was so dry, I longed for anything wet. Still I thought I might throw up from the smell and texture. I used the process a few more times when my thirst grew unbearable in the one hundred degree temperature and murky humidity. Soon we noticed a clearing where squirrels scampered in the trees branches and wild pigs with horns raced ahead of us. The trainer said, “You couldn’t run fast enough to catch wild pigs but you could capture squirrels.” Some of the students bagged squirrels. When they removed the hair and tried to cut the meat from the bones, hardly anything remained to eat. The trainer showed us how to make a fire and wrap the small amount of meat on a stick to cook it over flames. Successful jungle survival also required us to learn where to find edible berries and fruits. I decided to test my speed to prove the trainer wrong and lit out after a wild pig chasing him for at least a hundred yards. Through the dense humid jungle dodging trees and rocks, I raced and then dove a few times barely missing him each time and came back to the group exhausted from the chase. The trainer laughed, “Look how much energy one man expended trying to do the impossible. If you have a gun with ammunition, you have a chance to get a wild pig. But then you just might have given away your position to the enemy. You need a thoughtful plan so the group survives with as much safety and edible food as possible without allowing the enemy to discover your location. Knowledgeable natives have no problem surviving in the jungle. It provides anyone with plenty of edible food if you take the time to study the subject. Natives make slender spears, rock slings, or blow guns with poison darts to catch game. Each makeshift weapon has the virtue of being silent.” After sixteen hours buses took us back to our bachelor barracks where we fell asleep exhausted from one of the most practical training missions the Navy offered.
(Click on photo to make it zoom) When exposed to life-threatening experiences, some people turn in desperation to clairvoyants, mediums, and psychics to help them sort out the real from the supernatural. Reconnecting with a Mestizo model I had met at the beginning of aviation training for a wedding apparel show, I confided my concerns about my future in the RA5C. She knew about a place in Cassadega where a community of mediums resided for me to consider visiting. The nuptials store manager asked me to find eligible junior officers to join the models for a public display that would appear in the Orlando newspaper and I naturally chose my snake-ranch buddies. She reminded me of four famous females: the slender shape and grace of Audrey Hepburn, the face and brown eyes of a more modern actress, Minnie Driver, the spirituality and voice of Joan Baez, and the sensuality of Sophia Loren. She referred to her background laughingly as cinnamon and sugar—I thought that was a good fit. She dwarfed the other models at five foot nine. I wanted to learn all about her from the moment my eyes rested on her. She was graceful as a deer. . In our first meeting she said, “My mother came from an Apalachicola tribe near the northern border of Florida and named me KIMANA, meaning 'Butterfly' in Native Lore. My mom told me about a legend that God searched the earth as a butterfly to find the perfect location to fashion the first human being, so I took the name as a spiritual blessing and never use it publically.” A graceful butterfly the way she flitted about in her bare feet, she fascinated me. The manager of the wedding show chose her as the lead bride, since she was the only professional model, and stood out over volunteers from Rollins College and Orlando. All shimmered like snowflakes in their bridal gowns, while we ensigns wore formal whites, caps with black visors, and black shoulder pads with one gold stripe. We had a short romance. She was dating a resident doctor in a local hospital she mentioned the day I met her. When that relationship soured near the end of my training, I asked her to join me for a swim date. Her vitality, freshness, smile, wit, and sumptuous figure attracted me like a powerful magnet. Afterwards, she invited me for dinner. I had finally found a woman in Sanford with brains and beauty. She fixed a chicken dinner with fresh vegetables in a salad, mango salsa, and margaritas. We danced after dinner, embraced, and melted together. When the music ended, I kissed her and carried her to a bedroom. She laughed as she took off her blouse revealing her shapely breasts. Wrestling off my clothes in an instant, I began a sensual massage of her neck and worked my hands down her spine. After kissing her neck and lips, we embraced, and crumpled onto the king-sized bed arousing deep physical passion. “You seem tense about something. Want to talk about it?” she said after spendingthe night and becoming intimate. I confided my concerns about the poor safety record of the RA5C, my near death experiences, those of others in the jet, the second class status of the back-seater, and the maintenance nightmares due to its sophistication. “You should visit Cassadega and speak with a medium. They help people decide how to handle problems.” “What does a Medium do?” “I’ve had friends who have spoken with one and came back raving about how they were enlightened about conflicts in their past and present, and even learned how to avoid them in the future. They are a village of clairvoyants, mediums, and psychics. They contact dead ancestors, try to locate lost relatives, and discuss a customer’s future.” Just before Carrier Qualifications on an impulse, I drove to Cassadaga between Orlando and Daytona Beach. The town had a population of nearly one hundred mediums who lived in cottages. I had decided to employ a psychic fearing I would not survive the program. After parking my Corvette, I walked to the door of a small home that advertised a certified medium. An engraved wooden sign read: “If you are interested in spiritual advice from Themis, approach and knock.” Lightly rapping on the door three times, I waited for a respose. A lady in her forties, dressed in flowing colorful robes with a cascading purple scarf opened the door. She had enchanting eyes and long black hair. “Why did you come to my dwelling?”she asked in a seductive voice. “To discuss my life and future.” “Please enter my spiritual retreat. I charge $50 for an hour, will examine you, converse about your life, consult crystals, and contact the world of the spirit.” Drawn to this charming clairvoyant like a magnet, I handed her a fifty dollar bill. She waved her graceful arm, and with a sparkling blue sapphire ring-covered finger, pointed toward the interior. Pushing back a woven silk tapestry splashed with the colors of the rainbow, an exotic lavender incense greeted me. Curved, spiraled, tall, and wide candles cast dancing shadows upon the walls and ceiling amplified the ambience. Vague shapes in purple, green, red, and orange formed knobs, notches, hills, grooves, and crannies. Translucent forms circled. Images of an ogre, dwarf, giant, fawn, and witches appeared. The enchantress glided like a dancer to a gnarled table in a room with paintings of unicorns, wizards, sorcerers, and carved statues of dragons with claws and teeth threatening. Something about her made me recall my grandmother Ruthie, who consulted astrology, was a theosophist, believed in reincarnation, and explored the spiritual world. She was the most creative and loving human being I had ever known and had awakened my imagination with stories of fairies, magic, wizards, and the supernatural. The medium and the atmosphere made me suspend my scientific demand for facts and hope for enlightenment. In the darkest part of the room at a table covered in black silk cloth, Themis asked my name, date of birth, and age. Her long narrow fingernails manipulated a pentagonal quartz crystal. She gazed into the reflective gem and stroked it. Only the light of a flickering candle allowed me to see the crystal’s veil wisps and fracture lines. Clouds within the stone changed to light purple, blue, and pink. “I am looking into a mirror of the astral world through the crystal.” Spellbound by the beauty of the gem, the atmosphere, and the soothsayer, I looked into her eyes and saw the glint of the candle. “What kind of stone are we peering into?” “A Brazilian Blue Perfect Phantom Quartz. It produces visions that allow me to communicate with spirits.” A mist slowly spread outwards from the center of the crystal. “Hold out your non-dominant hand, ” she said. Reaching out my left hand, I felt her warm and gentle grasp. She turned over my hand palm up and studied it. Placing her index fingernail along a part of my palm, she moved it across the top half of my hand. “That’s your heart line.” Outlining my head line by moving her nail along a lower parallel line, she traced over my life and fate lines. Slowly the medium pulled her hand away and looked into my eyes. “What about your future do you want to know?” “Is my life in danger?” The wizard-lady slowly closed her eyes and paused, “I see you working with maps.” Her remark astounded me. How could she know I did that as a navigator for every mission? “Is that right, Dan?” “Often I use maps.” She closed her eyes, paused, opened them, and rolled the crystal in her hands, “You move around the country.” Spellbound, my expression changed to one of shock, stunned at her words. “Is that true?” “Yes,” I gasped. Pausing again with eyes closed a moment, she raised her head, opened her eyes, and her expression quickly glowed with energy, “You will face grave danger. Prepare for the possibility of violent death. You will confront obstacles life throws at you with courage, intelligence, and integrity.” She reached out and took hold of my right hand with both of her hands. Her eyes sparkled. “Return to your world. Listen to your heart. There are no coincidences. Everything happens for a purpose.”