Skidmarks in the Sky, Vol. 1
We had a really bizarre saying in Naval Aviation. The saying implied that whatever bad happened was due to "the breaks of Naval Air". Two jets would collide and splash, and we would attribute the tragedy to this imaginary cause as simply the price we had to pay to fly. Dozens of crashes occurred each year, serving as painful reminders to be careful; each flight was another opportunity to join those statistics.
Sometime in the 80's, the saying entered the use of people on the ground, so we modified it to "skidmarks in the sky". This became our private motto for the life we led.
I dedicated a page in my Fright Log to a young Navy pilot and his personal skidmarks. The following story was recorded during and after the night of 10 August, 1985.
Seems my best Rescue stories all have A-7 Corsairs in them. These light bomber jets had the unpleasant distinction of being the last single-engine aircraft the US Navy developed. What makes this important is that it is always considered better to lose an engine, than the engine. My experiences led me to describe these aircraft as "Survivor Delivery Vehicles" -- they take pilots to far off exciting places so helicopter guys can bring them back.
This particular night, the aircraft carrier USS MIDWAY was operating with the rest of our Battle Group of six sorry old tin cans (destroyers and frigates) about 200 miles South of the Persian Gulf. The water is warm and the night air cool: perfect for helicopter operations, with a crewman like me sitting in the door dreaming.
We, the three man crew of Sea Snake Two Zero, were motoring around the outer fringe of the convoy, trying not to fly into the way of the jet crowd. We listened to our bored controller, the ships talking to each other; hell, we listened to anyone. It was late and we were fighting sleep in the sky.
"Spy, you got anything on your radar scope?", Lt Kikla calling to see if I was alert.
"Nothin' but my forehead, sir." For 72 nautical miles in every direction, there was nothing but stars and water.
The hours were droning by in the middle of the darkest night of the year, while we circled our radar picket station in the exact center of no-where.
I have my own radio controls back there, so I tune in different stations than the Terror Twins up in the cockpit. Their conversations turned to things golf: I silenced the ICS and turned on the radio. Miles away, air controllers were vectoring jets around the landing pattern of the MIDWAY.
It wasn't a busy night, but, at least there were other guys up at this late hour. That's comforting to any flyer -- in a crisis, other aircraft can come to either help or watch you go splat. Anyway, aircraft were launching and recovering at MIDWAY's usual steady pace.
We refueled back aboard our own ship, then went back up for the last two and a half hours of numbing picket duty. Still outbound, twenty minutes off the deck of the USS KIRK, I listened to the jets talking over MIDWAY and watching my RADAR fritz. Since that was my way of leading the Twins home, I started resetting circuit breakers, wondering what I had pushed.
In the background of my headset, I heard those two most chilling words in the Flyer's Dictionary.
From across the star-swept waves, a pilot keyed his microphone and mumbled, "Uh oh...", on the Tactical Frequency. I sat up in a hurry, and pulled my brain out of standby. Those were the last word's of the Space Shuttle Challenger's pilot...
Marshal (the aircraft carrier) asked for an IDENT and the pilot stated his callsign with a report that his landing gear would not lock up or down. This is considered to be a very bad thing.
The voice seemed young and all alone, so I grabbed the Callsign list to see who was calling an emergency. Marshall had him change to a different radio frequency, and I followed. The list showed his was driving an A-7 (business!), so I turned the ICS back on and interrupted the conversation that my superiors were having up front.
"Pilot, SENSO, are you listening to the drama on GUARD (frequency)?"
Both heads looked down at the radio panel, then Twin 1 dialed up 282.8 MHz. For the next hour, we listened intently, waiting to either help or watch him go splat.
To get him clear of the rest of his traffic, the aircraft carrier sent him as far away as he could. That put him in a wide orbit North of us.
This guy was not calm. The prospect of riding a parachute down at night would tighten anyone up, and he was wound like a top.
His aircraft was loaded, too. This CORSAIR jet carried huge external fuel tanks, a pair of Sidewinder missiles, and a couple of hundred explosive shells in its Gatling gun. The Airboss and Skipper of the MIDWAY gave two thumbs down to taking the crippled jet aboard with a questionable landing gear -- the pilot's list of options was getting shorter.
The Boss took over talking him through his checklist. He made mistakes and things weren't happening. Over here in Seasnake Two Zero, the three of us rapidly completed our checklists in preparation of another rescue.
Boss finally got him to jettison his 'stores' -- all the things strapped on. When he pickled (fired) his SIDEWINDER missiles, they flared to blilliant life a few miles from us. We watched each missile streak up and arc over, and it gave us a good direction to head. The talking continued, and he blazed off every round in his 6-barrelled cannon.
This gatling gun under the mouth of the little jet emptied itself loudly in the direction of Asia, 100 miles to the North. I have a very vivid memory of the chain of lights; sparkling cannon shells, winking in the night from a distance of about 10 miles.
Boss kept him talking and vectored him away, toward an island that was mostly friendly (there were British on it). The island off the coast of Oman is called Al'Masirah and it is a fairly heavy duty runway, but it was a low technology strip. What was important, was that it had crash trucks and a desert to catch pieces if things went poorly.
From the MIDWAY, and Intruder tanker jet, checked in on GUARD Frequency. It began to act as escort, until a calm Brit controller came on GUARD to take over.
His voice was very calm and professional which helped the pilot. Every aircraft aloft was listening to his long straight-in approach to an unfamiliar and unseen place on the edge of the world. In several nations and on ships with rescue capabilities, crews waited in silent attention, as the drama of the American airman played out.
The controller walked the pilot through his wheels up landing checklist and we all shook our heads. Jets don't traditionally respond very well to being pancaked onto a runway at 150 miles per hour by a rattled pilot. At night? This sounded like a short story.
Well, down he went, steadily descending in a dive that would not stop. The Intruder overhead provided steady commentary for the sake of the thousand ears listening. He called "Threshold", as the little jet crossed the end of the runway and we all quit breathing.
At 140 knots, the wallowing fall of the 30,000 pound Corsair began to buffet from a coming stall, but at that moment, it impacted the concrete runway with a heavy scrapping ker-whump!
The pilot of the Intruder reported tensely that the jet was skidding down the centerline of the runway in a complete sheet of sparks. The aircraft crumpled and bounced along, finally slewing to a stop, as the crash trucks rolled. The canopy of the smoking A-7 popped immediately open, and the pilot scrambled out, unharmed.
'Course, we knew nothing of this -- the shit Intruder pilot forgot how to talk until the Airboss bellowed, "STATUS!"
The Intruder guy yelled, "He made it!", and we all sagged back in relief. The report from the Brits came soon after, saying that they had one happy, healthy smoked pilot on their hands. Several airborne voices chimed in with "Well Dones!"
Someone, somewhere, keyed their microphone and reminded the assembly that we were all at radio silence. The distant reply was a reference to those old "Skidmarks in the Sky".
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Copyright © 2003 Gordon Permann and Coastal Computers, Inc.
Last Modified: Tuesday March 10, 2009