By Keith Kaniut
There are two ways a Navy Carrier pilot can log one less carrier landing than take-off. The first is called the “fly-off”. When the squadron returns from a deployment, all the aircraft must be flown from the aircraft carrier back to their home base. If you’re senior enough, you get to fly one of them. On the scheduled day and time the squadron families gather at the hangar to await the planes’ arrival. All the aircraft that are able to fly are launched. Everyone joins up in formation and then the Squadron Commander leads the whole group of 10 or 12 aircraft back to the home airfield. For East Coast A-7E Corsairs from the 1970’s to the 1990’s, that airfield was Cecil Field Naval Air Station (NAS) in Jacksonville, Florida.
On arrival they would perform a formation fly-over for the benefit of the children (and admittedly, the fun of the pilots).
After landing the pilots climb out of their planes together and walk to meet the families. To participate in these fly-offs is to share the joy of the reuniting families, from the joyful screams of the children recognizing their missing parent to the tearful hugs and kisses between spouses. It doesn’t make up for the time away, but it helps a little.
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The other method requires you to launch on a mission and have an emergency that requires an ejection or bail-out. That’s not nearly as much fun.
It happened to me in 1979. I had finished learning to fly the A-7E Corsair II in Jacksonville and on December 24, 1978, I received orders to join my new squadron, the Golden Warriors of Light Attack Squadron VA-87. Normally that would mean walking down the street to their hangar. But they had left on deployment a month or so prior aboard the USS Independence (CV-62) and were just arriving in the Indian Ocean. So on Christmas Eve I grabbed all my gear and hopped a ride with the Air Force headed west.
We stopped briefly in Los Angeles and Hawaii for fuel before continuing to Clark AFB in the Philippines. I spent a week there waiting for my next ride and finally, ten days after Christmas I arrived in Masirah, Oman, as close as the AF could get me. From there, the Navy took over and after two more helicopter rides, I finally arrived on board the “Indy” about 7 AM the next morning. I found my way to the squadron ready room and when the Duty Officer of the Day arrived shortly, I introduced myself. He wasn’t as impressed as I expected and responded “Who?”
I explained about leaving Christmas Eve. “Oh, you must be Barf’s replacement. Have a seat. The Skipper will be along shortly.” “Barf” was the senior Landing Safety Officer (LSO) in the squadron and he’d received orders to his next shore duty job and was eagerly awaiting my arrival so he could finally head home. When he eventually came to the Ready Room, “Barf” was Very Happy to see me!
The next six weeks were busy. I immediately caught a cold and couldn’t fly for another week. I finally got airborne for the first time since my final carrier landing qualification flight in Jacksonville, just over two weeks after leaving the States and I was feeling rusty. I had a lot to learn – flying around the ship 100’s of miles from the nearest shore landing field. My home was a 1,000-feet long and shared with 5,000 other guys (all men back then). Everything was painted grey and made of thick and noisy steel.
Over the next six weeks I flew with the squadron Skipper and all the senior pilots so they could see what skills still needed polishing. The A-7E Corsair has one pilot so we generally flew on practice missions together with another squadron aircraft. If you could ever describe someone as “comfortable” launching and landing on an aircraft carrier, then I was getting there. The night landings were always the hardest and frankly, scariest (even after I had over 200 of them!).
One night, I launched on a practice night bombing mission with “Gator”, a Lieutenant Commander and the squadron Operations Officer. Our mission was to drop two floating flares in the water and then try to hit them with the six 25-pound MK-76 practice bombs we carried on an external bomb rack under the wing. These bombs had a flash-charge that went off when the bomb hit the water so you could see them at night.
We launched, rendezvoused and proceeded to our designated “empty ocean” target point, about 50 miles from the ship. After clearing the area of all ship traffic we accelerated downhill to 4,000-feet above the water and 350 knots airspeed (about 400 mph). I flew a wide position off Gator’s right wing and armed and dropped my two flares at his radio command. They ignited on hitting the water as planned. Gator banked sharply away and pitched up, climbing to 9000 feet for the night bombing pattern. I counted to four and prepared to follow him when suddenly my engine flamed out. My only engine. The engine rpm wound down and all the cockpit lights went out. I was flying a glider. Did I mention it was dark? Yeah. And it was very dark, even with the stars!
No time to enjoy the scenery. My 34,000-pound aluminum glider needed a running jet engine. I deployed the Ram Air Turbine (RAT) and the lights and basic instruments came back on. I went through my Emergency Engine Restart procedures and radio’d Gator. “Gator-1 from 2. My engine just flamed out and I’m attempting a restart.”
“Wha!? Roger that. I have a visual. Prepare for ejection. You don’t have much altitude.”
“I still have over 300 knots and 3500 feet. I’m going to try for another few seconds.” This was a mistake. According to our flying Bible, the A-7E Navy Aviation Training & Operations manual (NATOPS), if your engine flames out below 10,000 feet above the ground (or water) you should immediately pull the nose up, trade airspeed to gain altitude, and at the highest point, eject. I realized that the odds were extremely high that I was going to get a “silken letdown” tonight but the airplane was still flying and I had enough altitude and airspeed and fuel flow to the engine so I tried to relight it. Nothing! As my airspeed slowed to 200 knots at about 3,000 feet altitude, with no relight happening, I made the call. “Gator-1. No luck. I’m out of here.” “Roger, good luck. I’ve notified the ship and the helo is on the way.”
I “assumed the position” as we’d been trained: straightened my back and with elbows tucked, reached up, grabbed the upper ejection handle in the headrest, and pulled it over my helmet, down to my chest. The result was a satisfying bang, a very hard kick in the pants, and some brief tumbling followed by a jerk as my parachute opened. I reached under me and pulled the handle on the side of the fiberglass seat “cushion” that housed my raft. The clamshell box opened and the raft fell away and auto-inflated when the attached ten-foot lanyard reached full extension, leaving it dangling underneath me as I descended through the night air. I then reached up and got my fingers ready under the quick-release parachute harness fittings so that as soon as my feet hit the water I could release the chute so the wind would blow it away and not trap me underneath.
After hitting the water and releasing my parachute, my life vest auto-inflated and I bobbed to the surface of the warm, 83-degree Indian Ocean. I reeled in and climbed aboard my one-man raft and felt immensely relieved. I was wet but not cold. In fact, it was a refreshing dip after the past six stifling hot weeks in the Indian Ocean off of Southern Iran and Turkmenistan.
I pulled my survival radio out and called “Gator-1”. “Gator, I’m in my raft. I’m uninjured.” “Great Gator 2. I’ll orbit as long as I can. I’ve marked your position for the helo and your bird is still burning a couple miles away from you like a beacon. They shouldn’t have any trouble finding you. See you back aboard. Gator out.”
Sure enough, as I bobbed to the top of the two to three-foot waves, I could now see a light from a fire on the horizon. Apparently, when the plane hit the water, it broke up and lit off the fuel. I remembered the briefing about sea snakes. We’d been told that they’re extremely poisonous and if bitten by one, you have about a minute to live. Luckily, they have very small mouths and short fangs and unless they bite you on the web of your hand, you’re probably safe from them. I kept my hands and feet inside my raft!
I finally heard the chopper about 40 minutes later. They followed the emergency strobe light I’d velcro’d to my helmet – yes, it’s amazing the useful things those survival vests contained!
As the helo came to a hover about 30 yards away, a Navy diver dropped into the water and swam to me. I rolled out my raft and watched it blow off into the night from the helo downwash. I said I was OK. He helped me get hooked into the cable dangling from the helicopter’s winch and it hauled us both up and into the open side doorway of the Sikorsky SH-3 Sea King. I resisted hugging everyone. My Adrenalin had mostly subsided by the time we reached the carrier and I was cold. Or maybe it was the shock.
As I walked off the flight deck into the base of the tower I was met by the Air Boss, the Air Wing commander and my Squadron Commander. Their natural concern was whether my problem was due to pilot error or something for all the A-7’s to worry about. My friend the flight surgeon (flight doc) rescued me from further questions by insisting on a physical and dry clothes as the first priority.
I gave a brief statement about what I saw to my squadron Safety Officer (one of our four O-4 Lieutenant Commander department heads). Over subsequent days I told the story several more times and the investigation concluded that the engine, which had been recently received from the rework facility in the Philippines, must have ruptured the six-inch diameter fuel line between the high pressure fuel pump and the engine burner section. It was a freak failure and fortunately, no pilot error or failure was attributed to me. They noted that I should have ejected sooner but didn’t mark it against me. But they were right. Once again, I realized that I needed to think less like an engineer and more like the relatively inexperienced junior pilot that I was. Fortunately, the rest of the deployment passed without incident as I gained experience and slowly outgrew my “New Guy” status.
When I returned home after the six month deployment, my dad told me about my grandfather’s successful parachute bailout from an early airmail plane, a biplane in the mid-1920’s. That’s when I first heard about the Caterpillar Club, “…an informal club of people who have successfully used a parachute to bail out of a disabled aircraft.” So now, almost exactly 50 years after he earned his, I had joined the same club. An even more remarkable coincidence was our ages. We were both 25 years old. I am grateful that the pattern skips generations because my own sons are already past that age without joining the club! And that’s a good thing….
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