the assorted works of  G. H. Spaulding

 

 Tailhooker

 

From C-C-Cold War Syndrome

      When the bedside alarm sounded at 1:30 a.m., I was already awake. Intimidating thoughts of the day ahead churning incessantly through my mind had denied any possibility of sleep.

   For today, provided I could manage to live through it, I would cross the threshold that separates Navy pilots from ordinary pilots. Today, for the first time, I would land an airplane aboard an aircraft carrier—“hit the boat” in navalese. Today, I would become a tailhooker.

   Coffee made the night before was ready in the kitchen. Not only would I be on time for the scheduled zero-three-hundred briefing, I would also be alert despite lack of sleep. I filled a stein-sized mug and poured the rest into a thermos for the drive from Pensacola out to old Barin Field. Heavy steaming mug in hand, I plodded off to the bathroom to shave.

   Today’s evolution would be profoundly challenging and inherently dangerous. Mental clarity was essential. Every action must be measured and purposeful. While shaving I cut myself in three places. Not a good start.

   Satisfied that none of my wounds was critical, I then made a methodical ritual of suiting up. First my lucky light-blue, long-sleeved, turtleneck shirt and lucky red socks. Then my olive-green Nomex flight suit and black leather flight boots. Finally, I slipped my dog tags over my head and checked my flight suit pockets for pens, pencils, checklists, flashlight, survival knife, chewing gum and gold-framed student naval aviator sun glasses. I was ready, by God.

   Draining the last of the coffee from the mug, I donned my brown leather flight jacket and khaki fore-and-aft cap, collected my leather helmet bag and coffee thermos, tossed everything into the car and headed for Barin Field.

   Traffic was light that time of the morning and Barin Field was a remotely located, run down and barely functional facility held over from the days of World War Two. Still, I drove prudently. No speeding ticket on tailhooker day.

   While driving I managed two cups of coffee from the thermos as I mentally projected myself over the Gulf of Mexico. There, gliding through the darkness in wait, was USS Essex, our training ground.

   Over 30 years old, Essex had long since passed her operational prime and was now relegated to the role of training platform for flight students, like me, sweating out their initial carrier qualifications.

   Today I would join the list of intrepid naval aviators who had landed aboard her during periods of peace and war. Many, I knew, had met their makers in the process.

   At sunrise three other students and I, the members of Bearcat Flight, would be the first to launch in our venerable T-28 Trojans. We would join up over the field in right echelon formation (the right half of a V-formation) and, accompanied by our instructor pilot in his own aircraft, proceed across the southern coast of Florida's panhandle and over the Gulf to the USS Essex operating area. Other flights would follow in steady succession throughout the day.

   I arrived 20 minutes before brief time, parked my car next to the weather-beaten hangar and went directly to the Ready Room where the pre-launch briefing would take place.

   Four T-28s were undergoing minor repairs inside the hangar. A row of 32 more stood silent but ready under spotlights outside. Ground crew personnel, barely distinguishable back-lit figures casting elongated shadows across the misty tarmac, moved busily about checking each plane.

   In the Ready Room, our instructor, Lieutenant Joe Grubb, was chatting with another member of Bearcat Flight. I toggled coffee into a Styrofoam cup and joined them.

   The last two Bearcats checked in five minutes later. It turned out none of us had slept a wink that we could recall. Just too much excitement, anticipation, anxiety and outright fear. I think it’s a rule: you can't sleep the night before you become a tailhooker.

   “Okay, let's brief,” said Lieutenant Grubb, our mentor, coach, guide, sage and savior for today's evolution as he had been for our 13 carrier-landing practice flights at Barin Field. Like all of the instructors in this phase of flight training, Joe was much more than a highly experienced carrier pilot. He was also a qualified LSO, short for Landing Signals Officer.

   The LSO stood on a small, protected platform next to the flight deck touchdown area and, by radio, talked each pilot through his carrier approach and landing. Or, if the approach was bad or the deck unsafe, waved him off.

   Joe Grubb had performed this function over 5,000 times before and would be doing so for us today. From his platform, he could judge an aircraft's airspeed, attitude, rate of descent and other measures of performance more quickly and accurately than could the pilot scanning the instruments inside his own cockpit.

   Intent on remaining fully alert so as not to miss a single detail of Joe's brief, all four Bearcats filed by the large coffee pot for refills before gathering in chairs facing the briefing blackboard, pencils and kneeboards at the ready.

   Referring to his own kneeboard notes made earlier, Lieutenant Grubb systematically meted out the information we would need: the current and projected position of USS Essex as well the primary course she would steer during our landings; current and projected winds and weather; sea state; communication and navigation frequencies; call signs; normal and emergency procedures.

   We’d be conducting six landings each. First we were to make two “touch-and-gos,” something pilots love under normal circumstances. But this runway would be precipitously short and situated sixty feet above the water. And it would be moving.

   The true test would then follow: four arrested landings, or “traps” in carrier parlance. A “trap” occurs if the pilot is able to snag one of four steel cables stretched across the approach end of the flight deck with his tailhook. The resulting firm landing and sudden stop throw the pilot forward with great force, compressing him against his seat and his straining chest and lap belts.

   Every approach and landing would be graded. The best one could do—the very best—would be an “O.K., three-wire,” which means a flawless approach and engagement of the third cable. Catching any but the third wire meant the approach was less than perfect.

   After each trap, you were to raise the tailhook, maneuver the aircraft clear of the cables and, without benefit of the ship's catapult, take off again. This kind of takeoff, with no catapult assist, was called a deck launch. The procedure was to stand on the brakes, apply full power and, even though absolutely certain that the few feet of deck space ahead of you were insufficient for the aircraft to attain flying speed, release the brakes and go for it. You had to accept on faith the assurances of those who had promised you that the airplane indeed would fly and would not simply plunge off the end of the ship into the sea. The sea that was cold and black and deep and had sharks in it. That one. 

   “Finally,” Joe Grubb was saying, “when you hear the PA announcement to man your aircraft, get out there immediately, strap in and be ready to go. There’ll be another PA announcement when it's time to start engines. When instructed, start 'em up, come up on channel two and check in with me. I'll be waiting for you in the run-up area. Any questions?”

   There were one or two, which Joe patiently answered.

   “Now hustle out there and preflight your aircraft,” he concluded.

   The preflight procedure involved going to the maintenance control office, reviewing the recent maintenance history of one's assigned aircraft, drawing and inspecting a parachute and life vest, then meticulously checking the aircraft itself.

   About halfway through my aircraft preflight inspection, I discovered a hydraulic leak which maintenance personnel could not immediately repair. Shit!

   Back to maintenance control to sign out another plane.

   Now time was becoming critical. It was necessary to read the maintenance history book for the new plane and then to start the lengthy preflight inspection once again. Fortunately, there were no problems with this aircraft.

   When I had completed the preflight on my replacement aircraft, my next—and increasingly urgent—objective was a trip to the men's room to lose some of that coffee. I was headed in that direction when the PA announcement came:

   "Gentlemen, man your aircraft!"

   The men's room was on the far side of the hangar on the second deck. "Immediately," Joe Grubb had said. Shit!

   I hesitated, but reversed course, returned to my Trojan and strapped in. None too soon as it happened. The next announcement came quickly:

    “Gentlemen, start your engines!”

   The sky was just beginning to brighten on the eastern horizon when my lineman signaled that I was cleared to start. I cracked open the throttle, held down the primer and depressed the starter button. 

   The large, three-bladed steel propeller slowly began to rotate. I switched on the ignition and the 1425-horsepower, nine-cylinder recip coughed to life in a cloud of black smoke, which dissipated rapidly as engine speed and the sound of raw, unmuffled power steadily increased.

   For a mid-50s vintage, single-engine, prop-driven airplane, the T-28 had nothing to be ashamed of. With maximum recommended cruise power set the old war-horse would scoot along at a respectable 245 knots (280 MPH). Not that we’d approach that today. In fact, while in the landing pattern around the ship, we’d be flying at precisely 82 knots (94 MPH), dangerously slow, close to the aircraft's stall speed.

   But just now, how fast or how slow the Trojan could fly was not foremost in my mind. I worked through the after-start and before-taxi checklists, increasingly conscious of a bladder filled to capacity and my need to tend to it. Well, I’d just have to “gut it out,” so to speak.

   By three minutes after official sunrise, we were airborne, had formed up in right echelon formation (the right half of an arrowhead) and, as one, were heading south for the Gulf and our rendezvous with the carrier Essex.

   We crossed the beach at 5,500 feet and Joe Grubb reported on the radio, “Bearcat Flight is feet wet!”  Straight ahead, 67 miles away, the Essex and her airborne rescue helicopter now knew that we were over the water and inbound to the ship.

   Though we hadn't flown formation in several weeks, today we were doing a surprisingly good job of it. The smooth air of early morning helped.

   Joe Grubb was flying just behind Bearcat Flight in the chase position. Again he was on the radio talking to Essex. We listened while visually and physically focused on maintaining the integrity of our formation.

   Billy French had the easiest job. Flying in the lead position, all he had to do was to stay on course and fly smooth, straight and steady. Tony Gagliardi was in the number two slot, I was number three and Bud “Hoagy” Charmicheal was on my right wing, number four in the echelon.

   According to plan, Lieutenant Grubb would land first. When he was ready and our clearance had been issued, Bearcat Flight would come over the ship at 1,000 feet in the direction of landing to a point upwind called the “break.”

   From there each of us, beginning with “Frenchie” in the lead aircraft, would break sequentially out of the formation and make a 180-degree left turn while descending to an altitude of 325 feet and slowing to 82 knots.

   During this descending turn, each pilot would lower his landing gear, open his cowl flaps, set his fuel mixture to rich, increase prop RPM to maximum, drop his wing flaps to their full down position, extend his speed brake, and slide his canopy open (pre-positioning it to facilitate escape from the plane should it go into the drink.) Later, during the trap phase, he would also lower the plane’s tailhook.

   Thus all four aircraft would be flying downwind appropriately spaced and ready to make their 180-degree left turns to final. Then, landing checklist completed and “gear down” radio report transmitted to the ship, the real work would begin.

   Turning final you’d sight the “meatball,” actually a bright amber light reflected back to the pilot from a concave mirror at the edge of the flight deck.

   The objective was to keep the meatball centered in the mirror while flying down the glide path to touchdown. You did so by maintaining an exact, constant airspeed—82 knots for the T-28—controlling rate of descent by making microscopic power changes with the throttle and using stick and rudder to ensure proper alignment with the flight deck centerline. Your scan was simple: meatball, lineup, airspeed; meatball, lineup, airspeed. All the while, the LSO would be coaching you on the radio advising you if you were slightly high or low or as little as one-half knot off airspeed.

   About 30 feet above touchdown, providing all was well, the LSO would activate green “cut” lights. If those green lights appeared, you closed the throttle and settled firmly onto the flight deck. If all was not well, you would see red “wave off” lights, apply full power and take the aircraft around the pattern for another approach.

   Under the best of circumstances, anticipating all this would trigger certain familiar nervous responses, among them a compelling urge to urinate. In my case it was no longer only an urge, but an unbearable necessity, a physiological absolute. God, let's get this over with and get back to base.

   Then the bad news came over the radio. Because of a mechanical problem on board the Essex, Bearcat Flight would not be cleared directly into the break. Instead, we were to enter a holding pattern over the ship while the problem was being corrected. Joe Grubb issued new instructions. We rogered. I groaned. The pain intensified.

   We descended to 2,000 feet and, once overhead Essex, commenced a left-hand racetrack pattern, still in close echelon formation.

   From above this so-called massive aircraft carrier appeared anything but. Accustomed to 8,000-foot Navy runways and Air Force runways of 12,000 feet, I thought Essex’s flight deck—a smidgen over 900 feet in length—looked puckeringly miniscule.

   “Holy shit!” I exclaimed, but not on the radio. “We can't land on that thing!” My bladder signaled agreement.

   Like many aircraft of similar design, the T-28 was equipped with a relief tube to enable pilots to answer nature's call. Its small black plastic funnel, connected by a long rubber tube to a discharge vent on the plane's belly, was stowed in a metal spring clip on the underside of the pilot's seat. All one had to do was to pee into the funnel and the liquid would literally be sucked outside by the airflow.

   Fearing the ugly consequences of an arrested landing in my current pressurized condition, I decided I had to use it.

   This would not be easy. After all, we were flying in a tight, constantly maneuvering formation. And formation flying was a two-handed activity: left hand on the throttle, right hand on the stick. But using the relief tube was also a two-handed operation. A plan was born out of desperation and pain.

   I could devote only one hand to each task. And being strictly a right-handed pee-er, it seemed to me that the required course of action was to fly with my left hand while holding both the relief tube funnel and myself with my right. The first order of business was to learn to fly formation left-handed.

   I adjusted the power to a setting I felt I could live with for a while and gently took control of the stick with the fingers of my left hand.

   Staying in position proved easier than expected. Not too bad, I thought, after a few minutes.

   Now it was time to get myself ready for blessed relief. I unzipped my flight suit from the bottom and positioned myself for action. Now all I had to do was to reach under the seat, pull the relief tube funnel out of its clip, hold it strategically in position and let go.

   The funnel was jammed tightly in its holder. I tugged, but it wouldn't budge.

   “Shit!”

   I concentrated on not moving the stick with my left hand as I yanked mightily on the funnel with my right. Suddenly, the relief tube funnel came free. To my horror, though, its rubber tubing was no longer attached. Apparently I had pulled so hard and it had snapped free so abruptly that the business end had separated from the rubber tube. “Double shit!!”

   Reaching as far under the seat as I could, I was unable to locate the rubber tube. Effectively it was gone and the system was unusable. “Triple shit!!!”

   There I was, Bearcat Three, flying in formation over the Gulf of Mexico and USS Essex with the control stick in one hand, a worthless piece of black plastic in the other and “Little Aviator” hanging out of my flight suit. All dressed up and no place to go, so to speak. God, don't let them call us into the pattern now!

   Suddenly, the radio came to life. Oh, no!

   But Essex was not clearing us into the pattern.  Attempts to correct the ship's mechanical problem—something to do with the stanchions that suspend the arresting cables slightly above the deck surface—had not been successful. A helicopter was being dispatched to Naval Air Station Pensacola for needed parts. Bearcat Flight was to return to base and be ready to launch again after the repairs had been completed.

   “Bearcat Flight, this is Bearcat Chase. Come left to three five six, climb to four thousand, five hundred and return to base.” Joe Grubb's most welcome directive ever.

   I tossed the little black funnel over my shoulder into the rear seat, let out a loud “yahoo” and got back to flying normally. Well, almost. Only after level off was I able to get properly dressed. And I still didn't know if I could make it all the way home without embarrassing myself.

   The flight back was pure misery. It would have been even without the turbulence. But with the air now warming in the morning sun, it was no longer silky smooth as before. It seemed to have developed potholes. I groaned, grimaced and sweated profusely as each one mercilessly punished my painfully distended bladder. But, somehow, I made it.

   As flight students, we'd been taught to taxi “no faster than a man can walk.” I modified that instruction to “no slower than a man desperate to relieve himself can sprint full out.”

   But after scrambling out of my hurriedly parked Trojan, I discovered that I couldn't sprint, exactly.  Contorted in pain, I waddled, knees pinched and arms flailing, clumsily toward the hangar.

   I could have let go right there on the flight line, I suppose. But that simply wouldn't have been a fitting thing for an officer and a gentleman to do. This was peacetime, after all. I decided to flounder on Igor-like to the hangar.

   I struggled up the stairs only to discover that the men's room was closed for cleaning. The female attendant in there mopping the floor refused to vacate.

   There was a ladies room at the opposite end of the corridor—a mile away, it seemed. I made for it, waddling as fast as I could in agony.

   But ahead of me, two female sailors came out of an office and headed for it.

   "Wait!" I shouted. "Don't go in there! Emergency!"

   They stopped short, then broke into a fit of hysterical laughter as I shuffled spastically past them and crashed through the door into the ladies room.  It was occupied.

   Embarrassed, I beat a hasty, clumsy retreat back to the corridor and began searching, desperately, for any vacant space.

   I opened one door after another until, finally, I found an office with no one present. I went inside and locked the door. Now what?

   In the corner was a large potted plant—a ficus elastica, I think it was—that looked like it needed watering. I blissfully obliged. Blisssssssfully obliged. 

   Two hours later, we took off again, bound for USS Essex. Before launch, I preflighted my aircraft once more, making sure the relief tube had been reassembled and was working properly. I drank no coffee and peed three more times.

Shortly before noon that day, Bearcat Flight, in right echelon formation, approached old Barin Field from the south, entered the break and landed without incident. Four new tailhookers were safe on deck, taxiing slow and proud.

 GHS

 

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