“Lucky … and with Beer Breath”
I was in VF-14 deployed in the Mediterranean in 1961 aboard the FDR (CVA-42). Four of us, flying F3H Demons, were the only planes airborne one evening, doing radar intercept training. Just before Charlie time around 2200, the ship tells us to divert to Rome airport due to bad weather at the ship. We are in different quadrants around the ship, so each of us get different vectors to Rome, which is about 80 miles away. As I head east, I try tuning in Rome VOR but get nothing. I can see the Italian coastline on my radar and as I get closer I can see the glow of a large city through a low overcast.
Still no VOR, but it has to be Rome. I circle over the city and wonder what idiot on the ship sent us to a divert field that was perhaps IFR, and even if the VOR had been working, none of us carried with us any approach plates or even maps of the area. And back then, Rome had no radar approach capability. I decided to circle down through the overcast to see if I could break out underneath and perhaps find the airport VFR. Fortunately, the ceiling was around 800 feet and once below it, I noticed runway lights some LO miles to the southeast. I contacted Caimpino tower and verified it was the right field, and made a straight in approach. After landing, I remained with my engine running on the taxiway so as to stay in touch with the other three planes. I told them what the ceiling was and that the airport was southeast, after which two of them soon landed, but the fourth said he didn't see any glow in the overcast. I picked up his transmission on my UHF direction finder and realized he must have been way northwest somewhere, so I told him to climb on top and gave him a bearing to fly. Within ten minutes or so he was inbound below the overcast with very little fuel. He made an OK approach, considering he probably flew it with one hand on the eject handle.
We found a motel near the airport that night and the next morning we refueled and flew down to Capodichino Airport near Naples, which had a USN facility where we could contact the ship on HF radio. We sat around for a few hours waiting for a reply from the ship, then finally headed into town to find lodging. Around 2100, the ship sent a message for us to be overhead ASAP, but by the time a sailor showed up at the Naples Hotel bar with the message, it was already 2230. We hightailed it back to the field, cranked up and headed for the ship, which was then about 20 miles north of Sicily. We made it overhead around 0100 and got an immediate Charlie. The C.O. of the ship was waiting for us in the ready room to hear our story. Funny, he didn't seem to notice our beer-breath.
We never heard who made the decision to divert us, or why the ship had to steam into a rain storm just before our landing time. Had the overcast been lower over Rome, what would have been our options? Eject over land and let the planes plow into the peaceful Italian landscape somewhere … ? Head out to sea and eject … ? Head back towards the carrier and probably have to ditch short of it …?
The fact is, we Jocks just plain lucked out that night.