Letter to Pat Francis
14 August 1994
Please contact my lazy brother-in-law, who was my roommate during Saufley training. Like me, he was designated in mid-1949 and then flew from the East and West coasts in VF-63.
Cleo E. Swartz
7723 Querida La.
Dallas, TX 75240
Incidentally, it might be interesting to see how many of us married sisters of flying buddies. I married Cleo’s sister and he married the sister of Larry Brennan an N.A./Midshipman now deceased.
Thanks a lot and keep up the good work
/s/ “Jungle” Jim Patton
Flight Test Pilot & Consultant
- Born Lockhart, Texas – 26 December 1927
- Commenced civilian flight training 1944, soloed 1945
- College and USN flight training; designated as Naval Aviator 1949
- Night-attack carrier pilot 1949-51, Advanced Training flight instructor 1951-53, pilot in USNR fighter squadrons 1953-66
- University of Colorado – BS Degree, Aeronautical Engineering, 1956
- Flight Test Engineer, Chance Vought Aircraft, Inc., 1956-58. Senior engineer on F8U Navy Spin Demonstration and other projects
- Flight Test Pilot, Federal Aviation Agency, 1958-66, testing all classes of aircraft (rotorcraft, transports, and light airplanes) for civil certification. Assigned to Supersonic Transport Development Office 1964-66.
- Graduate, US Navy Test Pilot School, Class 25, 1960 (8-month course)
- Research Pilot/Engineer, NASA Langley Research Center, 1966-87. Also Chief of Aircraft Operations 1968-87. Author or Co-author of 28 technical publications. Conducted extensive testing in many classes of experimental aircraft and rotorcraft in the U.S. and abroad and in many research simulators. Retired from NASA June 1987.
- Independent Test Pilot and Consultant to present date. FAA Designated Engineering Representative as Flight Test Pilot, FAR Parts 23 and 25, authorizing testing for FAA airplane certification.
Flight Projects since NASA retirement:
(1) First flight and subsequent 3-year development testing of Cirrus VK-30 4-place Pusher (1988-91);
(2) Performance and handling qualities testing of Lear jet 35/36 with large target tow reel pods (1989)
(3) Certification testing of Grob Egrett high-altitude turboprop reconnaissance airplane (Germany - 1989-90);
(4) Deep stall tests of Velocity canard airplane (1989-90);
(5) Brake testing of Lear 35 and Embraer 120 airplanes (1992);
(6) Spin testing of 3 models, American Champion airplane (1992-94);
(7) Complete certification testing of Maule MXT-7-420 turboprop airplane (1995);
(8) Deep stall and spin testing of Cozy IV canard airplane (1993);
(9) Stall testing of modified Grumman G44 amphibian (1994);
(10) Spin testing of Maule turboprop amphibian (1995);
(11) Six-turn spin testing of Maule MXT-7-180 (Utility Category) airplane (1997);
(12) Propeller governor, noise, and engine/propeller vibration testing of Melex
M-26 Airwolf military trainer (acrobatics, erect and inverted spins (1998);
(13) First flight, subsequent handling qualities and performance testing of new active laminar-flow wing on experimental Cessna 210 (1998-99);
(14) Performance, flying qualities, and engine cooling testing of Aerostar model 601P for new propellers (2000);
(15) Acrobatic and spin testing of new model American Champion
Avionics testing as D.E. R,:
(1) B707 SATCOM STC, SIP Technical Services (Spanish Air Force), 1998,
(2) B707 TCAS STC, Commodore Aviation/DynAir, 1994.
-9,047 flight hours in lightplanes, gliders, helicopters, fighters, transports, and many experimental and research aircraft. Flight test engineer and test pilot for 44 years.
-157 aircraft types flown as pilot-in-command, including 70 experimental types flown as test pilot.
HONORS AND AWARDS
- FELLOW, Society of Experimental Test Pilots (SETP) – elected 1980
- IVEN C. KINCHELOE AWARD from SETP, 1978, for
outstanding accomplishment in flight testing (initiation and conduct of NASA General Aviation Stall/ Spin Program)
- EXCEPTIONAL SERVICE MEDAL, NASA, 1979, for service and contributions as an engineer and test pilot
- SAFE AWARD, Safety and Flight Equipment Society, 1980, for an outstanding contribution in the field of safety (NASA Stall/Spin Program)
- Several NASA Langley awards for Outstanding Leadership and Project Group contributions
Flight Experience Summary as of March 2000
FAA Airman Certificate No. 1180513, ATP Boeing 707/720/737, Learjet, G-159,
Commercial Privileges Rotorcraft, Glider.
FAA Designated Engineering Representative No. SO-579, Flight Test Pilot, FAR Parts 23 & 25 (General Aviation & Transport Category Airplanes)
Total Flight Time: 9,047 hours, as follows (Note: FP = pilot-in-command, CP co-pilot):
Number of Types flown as pilot-in-command: 157
Number of Types flown as flight test pilot: 70
SOME OF THE NICE THINGS (and none of the bad ones) ABOUT
JAMES M. PATTON, JR, erstwhile MID’N, USN
Mother's statement: "It's true, it's true! The first word he said was airplane." (Well, more like a-pane! A-pane! Or maybe even more primitive, like “google,” mothers can hear things others can't).
First ride: Waco cabin biplane in Waco, Texas, 1933 (subject's age: 7). Careful how you pronounce them words, podner.
First started flight training: July 1944, San Marcos, Texas. Piper J-3 Cub. Soloed Feb. 1945. Screwed around a lot, buzzing, dropping toilet paper rolls, singing to self, etc.
Navy V-5 Training: Released from Lockhart High School 3 months early to enter V-5 Unit at Southwestern University, Georgetown, TX, March 1946. With advent of Naval Aviation College Program, switched to Southwest Texas State, San Marcos, TX. Didn't screw around near as much.
I included an overall experience resume. To pick out some of the more interesting experiences that don't show up:
FAA testing: Usually, the aircraft we were to test had already been put through the wringer, but not always, e.g. a very small company owning a B-25 modified for grasshopper spraying obtained a USDA contract to spray a designated area. The rules said that the FAA Flight Test Section had to do single-engine testing, obtain data, and publish information to allow operation under gross weight vs temperature and pressure altitude, so that if an engine was lost, the load could be dumped and a rate of climb of 50 ft/min could be realized. Well, this was great fun; I'd never been close to a B-25, but I wanted to. One of our flight test engineers had flown them during the Great War, about 15 years previous, so he and I proceeded to a farm near Cameron, Texas. This ol' boy and a couple sons had a crop dusting bidness using several Stearman', had decided to go for a big USDA contract, hired a just-retired USAF Major, bought a B-25 at Davis-Monthan, and had the Major fly it back to their 2,500 foot pasture. There it had sat for several months at least. The Major had showed them how to start the engines, so about once a month they'd run 'em up. So that's how it was when we got there. They were really pretty good; they'd built a quick-dumping 2,500 gallon tank for the spray liquid, and installed pipes and nozzles along the wing trailing edges. We not only had to get single-engine climb data, but also conduct functional dumping tests of the big bomb-bay tank. The flying was to be done out of an abandoned AF Base at Hearn, Texas, so the first thing was to get the airplane over there. We had the AF Pilots Handbook, so using that, we got her cranked up. (It's interesting to note that the R-2600 in the B-25 was the same one we had in the Turkey). We'd looked the airplane over as well as we could and decided it was reasonably OK. I should say here that the B-25 is a nice, simple airplane, and very easy to fly There were cows in the pasture and they had to be shooed out of the way. We were at partial fuel load and decided to use ½ flaps. Worked out just great. I later flew other B-25's and also the B-18 in similar tests.
- NASA testing: During 21 years at NASA Langley, I got to fly a lot of weird and wonderful experimental machines, like prop and jet VTOL's here and abroad, helos with wings, big airplanes with experimental controls, and others, and they were all challenging in their way, but I guess my pick would be the General Aviation Stall/Spin Program, because it was pioneering research work. I'd always liked spins, and because I was largely responsible for getting it started. In testing light planes for certification in the FAA, I'd encountered non-recoverable spins requiring a spin recovery 'chute twice (Mooney and Piper PA-28). It was obvious that not much was known about how to design for good spins, or no spins. So at NASA I finally got a proposed program approved which led to the GA Program. Over its 10-year life, I did over 8,000 spin turns in 4 test airplanes and used the spin chute 22 times "in anger". We spewed out a lot of Technical Reports and had a hell of a lot of fun.
- Post-retirement testing: I felt lucky to continue doing some flight testing after retirement, but had more close calls than ever before, without engineers and technicians looking after me. Had some real surprises leading to out-of-control flight in stalls and spins but managed to muddle through.
SNJ – qualified on USS Wright – 6 landings – 3 November 1948
TBM – qualified on USS Cabot – 7 landings – 14 June 1949
12 landings on USS FDR – January 1950
AD – 137 day, 36 night landings on USS Coral Sea, Palau, Tarawa, and FDR –
August 1950 to August 1951
TOTAL - 162 straight-deck landings (and no barriers), of which I'm very proud
Here's an excerpt from my life story I'm in process of writing:
Naval Aviators who fly off carriers carry a distinction that no other pilots can ever have. It is agreed by most that there is no other flying task that equals the demands exacted by carrier operations. As I write this, it sounds like self- promotion, but in my career, I have flown many demanding aircraft in even more difficult test missions; carrier flying stands out as way above and beyond all else I have done. That's a general statement. Of course there were moments in test flying that were truly marginal, that called for the best I could do, just as there were many fair-weather days when carrier operations was just plain fun, easier in some ways than landing ashore. But the bottom line is this: to come aboard the ship, and do it right, fair weather and foul, day and night, was the most de-manding flying I have ever done, and I loved it for that. Anyone who has done it will never lose the pride that came with it. Nor will he forget the comrades he shared it with.
It’s quiet now. All the cacophony of years past … earsplitting roar of big round engines, scream of jets, fingernails-on-the-blackboard screech of mis-tuned radios … all has faded. Faded too is the nervous tension of upcoming assign-ments and missions that you weren’t sure you could handle. Now, in the peace of my den, facing the walls covered with documents and photographs of people and aircraft that have defined my life, I have to remind myself that I really did all those things. Most of them successfully. What a wonderful ride it’s been, and how fortunate I am to have made it. And what a pleasure to remember it.
Launching from the little Texas town of Lockhart into the Navy in 1946, Navy wings in 1949 led to day and night carrier flying, then back to college in 1953, capped with a B.S. in Aeronautical Engineering in 1956. Tried it on the ground as a flight test engineer until 1958, but there was a hole in my life; when an opening occurred in the CAA (now the FAA) for a test pilot, I leaped and made it. Then wonder of wonders, they sent me to Navy Test Pilot School! Made that too. Then came helicopter and jet transport schooling and lots of test work on everything from lightplanes to 707s, even historical icons such as B-18s, B-25s and Lodestars. Assignment to the SST Development Office opened the way to NASA Langley in 1966, to the best flying job in the world under a great test pilot, John P. Reeder. We flew everything one could imagine, and some beyond imagination. Of my 21 years there, the last 19 were spent as Chief of Flight Operations. Besides active test flying, my job included supervision of mainten-ance and experimental aircraft modifications, the test pilots’ staff, the quality assurance and inspection office, and the dispatch and meteorology office. A total of about 60 people meant a lot of administrative work, but I was lucky to have good help, so I could keep on being a test pilot. Then age 60 loomed, meaning no more test flying as pilot in command, so retirement came in 1987. The age 60 cutoff was an ill-begotten NASA regulation pushed through by James Beggs, a NASA Administrator who was one of the poorest ones to come along during my 21 years. The idea of someone telling me that I couldn’t fly certain aircraft and missions was unacceptable, so I opted out. My last flight in NASA was on my last day of work, May 29, 1987: A solo round trip to Buffalo NY in our T-38 to pick up some parts. My logbook shows 1.2 hours up and 1.4 back. Nice way to finish off; I loved that airplane.
I like to say I don’t feel older with the years, but something gently reminds me that some brooks have become too broad for leaping; you don’t consciously think about it, you just don’t attempt it if the water’s a bit wide. In all these years, my greatest cause for thanks is my family: A wife who loves me in spite of all my faults and our three daughters who do the same. The second greatest thing is that I’ve been able to fly, and do some flight testing all along; but really, that’s tied in with the first thing. Marcie doesn’t share my passion for aviation but she’s always respected it and has endured a lot of hardship to enable me to pursue it. Now (2000) it’s 13 years since I retired as a NASA test pilot and began taking short-term test jobs as an independent. Soon after retirement, I became a Designated Engineering Representative (D.E.R.) for the FAA as a flight test pilot, which means I can test and approve new airplanes or modifications for FAA Certification. Besides testing for FAA I’ve continued to do some experimental stall and spin testing, as I did with NASA. Lately, I’ve said several times that I’ll quit testing. I’ve said it emphatically to myself on more than one occasion after being unpleasantly surprised by experimental airplanes that tried to bite me. So after I’ve said, “That’s it! Enough!” …. then another interesting project comes along.
Approaching NASA retirement, I was worried by the big unknown out there. Could I revert to just being a normal person, or was my self-esteem dependent on what I did for a living; was being a test pilot all-important? I suspected the latter, and if so, what could I do about it? I couldn’t get any satisfactory answers from friends and acquaintances in the industry. They said all they could, like, “… well sure, Jim, if we have something going we’d like to have you do it, but who knows what’ll be happening?” Well, the great thing was that although I did cut back on test-flying activities about 75%, it was possible to keep on doing it in a lower activity level, which I wanted to do anyway. So that allowed me to still think of myself as a test pilot. And from there I’ve coasted down to where I am now, in 2000, at the age of 73. My flight testing cut-back is now about 98%, and I think I’ll be content to ease on down to mostly just flying for fun now and then. All my flight test work since retirement has been from people calling me because they’d heard about me; I didn’t have to go out and look. I know I could have pushed it, advertised a little, and gotten jobs in basic flight testing, like for new or modified airplanes, and especially for more hazardous stuff like spin testing, since I have somewhat of a name for that. In fact, I’ve turned down three jobs in that area this past year. I can hear a little voice: “What’s that old fool doing, hanging his butt out like a teenager?”.And I have been angry at myself several times in the last few years for accepting a job, and then when an airplane’s stalls or spins turned nastier than you thought they might, knowing you can’t quit, you’ve got to go on and help fix the thing, but you know your butt’s exposed. It’s still great to help make the airplane safer, but not as great as it used to be, given the same old risks involved. The sword outwears the sheath, and everything has an end. And the end should be on one’s own terms. My den walls are covered with aircraft and flight people that I loved, a love that will never change. It was never just test flying, it was an obsession with airplanes all my life. And now, to be surrounded by reminders of planes and people I knew and loved is deeply comforting. If that’s dwelling in the past, I happily plead guilty.
All this fooling around with 157 different aircraft types has put over 9,000 hours in my logbooks. While at NASA, I performed over 8,000 spin turns during our General Aviation Spin Program, which I was instrumental in initiating, and which led to my receiving the 1978 Iven Kincheloe Award from the Society of Experimental Test Pilots for outstanding accomplishment in flight testing. I was very proud of that one. I’ve found that when it comes to giving awards, manage-ment is sometimes ignorant of those who truly deserve honors. To be recognized by one’s peers has much more meaning. I was elected a Fellow of the Society in 1980, another point of pride.
CUTTING THE CHASE
When I left off in the previous edition, I had soloed and my life in the free lane at age 16 was a hodgepodge of airborne celebration without much regard to serious aviation knowledge advancement or to safety, for that matter. With little in the way of academic exposure to aerodynamics and flight (no ground school except what I picked up in aviation magazines), I played and flat-hatted along the edge of the cliff, sometimes on the verge of control loss due to dumb things like stalling in turning flight at low altitude, a common scenario in fatal accidents. While flying, in my own mind I was the Lone Eagle, Eddie Rickenbacker, Tailspin Tommy, and my other heroes rolled into one, but I was occasionally reminded of image discrepancies: One day I was circling Betty Nichols’ house in Maxwell (a girl friend of the time, living in a little bitty town). I’d gun the engine, but no one came out to admire me and my airplane. Got down to a couple hundred feet, but still no one. Finally gave up; when I asked her later why she didn’t show, she said, “Oh, I thought it was a truck on the road outside”. Sheesh! That was damaging to the old ego, but much worse than that, I was unconsciously teetering on the edge of a stall/spin fatal accident. While I was circling, buffet occasionally occurred (airplane shaking), accompanied by sloppy stick forces; from the steep bank I was in, if I put the stick over in the other corner, the airplane slowly answered the controls and recovered. I didn’t realize until later that I was on the verge of an accelerated stall, the occurrence of which at 200 feet could well have resulted in my first and last airshow, with a spectacular ending. Another day I was circling in open fields off the Park Road at low altitude, flat-hatting and showing off for some friends; looked up from waving at them to see a water tower looming in the windshield. Just had time to lift a wing and miss it, but not by far. The saving thing in all this was that the free lane was not often available; I seldom could afford to fly, so exposure was limited. But my God, I was happy! I now had something of real substance to call my very own, and that wasn’t true of very many high school Juniors. Plus I was living the dream I’d had for so long, and that wasn’t true of many Juniors, Seniors, post grads or the general population. Nobody else in Lockhart could do it. After soloing in the J3 Cub, I flew an Aeronca Champion, a tandem Taylorcraft, a side-by-side Taylorcraft, and best of all, a Meyers OTW biplane, heavier and more powerful than the others, with their little 65 HP engines; it had a 160 HP Kinner radial. Sounded like a couple of giant John Deere tractors right there in front of you. Terpocket, terpocket, very loud. Open cockpit biplanes had figured a lot in my dreams because of my reading and the 1930’s movies, so this one was a special thrill. That hasn’t changed; they still have a special attraction. Only flew the Meyers a few times; it rented for $12/hour compared to $8.00 for the others, and I had to watch my nickels.
Yeah, I was happy, but life has a way of dispensing lessons to all participants. In 1945, Lockhart opened an airstrip on the San Marcos highway, not far out of the city limits. Along came a guy named W. H. Varner, who owned a side-by-side Taylorcraft. He said he was a flight instructor, and offered a really good deal: If you paid upfront, you could buy 10 hours of solo flight time in the airplane for $65.00. I was then working in Gus Bodeman’s Cities Service filling station for $0.50 per hour, so $6.50 per hour vs. the $8.00 I was then paying at Ragsdale Flying Service in San Marcos was a strong draw. I plunked down the $65.00, most of my savings, and began flying his airplane. I’d flown off about 4½ hours when Mr. Varner and his airplane suddenly disappeared from the scene. For a long time, I said to myself that I’d run across him some day, but now it’s obvious that he’ll have to answer to a Higher Court, being 15 or 20 years older than me. A couple more remarks about that airstrip: Two Lockhart gentlemen, Melbourne Lancaster and Lincoln Fulps, had been bitten by the flying bug, and had acquired a side-by-side Taylorcraft and, I suppose, the license to fly it. One day, they’d been performing maintenance on the engine, probably in violation of CAA regs, and decided to test-hop it with the engine cowling removed. In the first place, that wasn’t very smart because the drag was thereby increased considerably, and in the second place, whoever was flying it did a steep climbing turn after takeoff. First and second added up to the third place: The airplane stalled, and in a very fortunate and unique aerodynamic maneuver, fell to earth in a vertical bank, with one wing absorbing most of the crash energy. A few broken human ribs, besides all the wing ribs on one side, that’s all. They quit flying, and what better ending could be wished for?
Girls were an attraction, too, but not all that special. A lot of it was peer-related, to show the guys I had the right stuff. I dated fairly often and discovered smooching, but the act of sex evaded me. I guess I didn’t really pursue it. Part of the reason was that we lived under a fairly universal and old-fashioned code: If a girl was thought to be a virgin, she was untouchable. Well, attempted groping was part of the game, but a fairly sharp “no” was sufficient to end that. Also, in a small town, there were very few known of the other kind. At least I didn’t know them. Oh, there were whispered stories about certain ones, but I didn’t find them very attractive. Looking back from today’s world, it’s just amazing how innocent we were. In a sexual sense, we all (all my chums, anyway) had a very rigid code of ethics, not all of it self-imposed, of course. In the small town of Lockhart, with a population of about 6,000, most of us had aunts, uncles, siblings, cousins, and other interested parties who would be quick to notice and condemn reprehen-sible, or even suspicious behavior. Parents would be almost immediately aware, and would no doubt mete out swift punishment. To be fair, let’s just say upfront that hanky-panky among adults was always there, but was not tolerated among controllable juveniles, which I guess we were. Although lending credence to the cynical axiom, “Honesty is the fear of being caught”, it lends some positive weight to thoughts behind Hillary Clinton’s book, “It Takes a Village”. Remember that there was no TV and nothing in the movies that was more than slightly sexually suggestive. As for radio, what could a sexually-curious kid make of those popular radio shows then airing? Jack Armstrong? Little Orphan Annie? Oxydol’s Own Ma Perkins? Come on. There’s a lot more sexually explicit stuff available to kids now, but I will say that our natural curiousity led us into some interesting activities. Harry Hilgers had an uncle who had been a medical man of some sort, and he owned some books on human anatomy that were fascinating to us on the rare occasions when Harry’s folks were absent and we could pull them down from the shelves and study drawings of male and female genitalia. Usually they were cross sectional black and white line drawings, which sort of robbed them of truly erotic presentation. That and Sears Robuck underwear ads was about it. Since it fits here, I’ll repeat a happening, or rather an almost-happening, that I described in the 1st Manuscript: In the late 30s, Tarzan movies featured Johnny Weissmuller and Maureen O’Sullivan. Suddenly, word flashed throughout the low-teen male brotherhood that the skimpy leather outfit she wore in the then-current flick was so skimpy that in a particular scene, she shifted her legs, and for about 0.1 second you could see it! I think I went to the movie 2 or 3 times, as did my confreres, and to this day, I can’t say I actually saw it, but it sure was exciting thinking that maybe I would.
About drinking. Booze, that is. I was lucky to have had as a peer group Pat King, Jimmy Clark, Bobby Mohle, Harry Hilgers, Kirk Jackson, and now and then another one or two, like Elmer Jackson. I don’t include David Wilson; he and Harry were close, being neighbors, but David was never available to fool around with. Always working, either at the Creamery or cleaning chicken pens. I thought he set an extremely bad example, of which more later. Pat was second at being in work status a lot of the time. Neighbors too, we both had cow-milking as a chore, so we fraternized sometimes back at the cowsheds at milking times and at other moments of opportunity. Whoever finished milking first would sometimes go over and watch the other strip out (satisfying to use a phrase like that implying special knowledge – “strip out” – yeah). Pat ran a small business on the side, delivering milk to 3 or 4 neighbors on his bike. A lot of people drank raw milk in those days, no big deal. One morning I finished first; Pat was just stripping out.
Bad morning; his cow was nervous and the flies were especially bothersome. When the cow switched her tail to fight the flies, the wet end would sometimes catch you right across the face. She did that, Pat slapped her side, she lifted up her right hind manure-covered leg and plunked it right in the almost-full milk bucket. Pat grunted and heaved and lifted the leg up and out. I’d already disposed of my milk so I went with Pat to their kitchen, where he prepared his milk for delivery. He strained it through cheesecloth into the bottles; that took care of the big pieces so he went ahead and delivered it. No one died.
We had a special 3-note whistle for rendezvous, if the other one could make it. I mentioned previously other adventures, like making a jigsaw with Mrs. King’s old reducing machine for a driver, with the aim of sawing wing ribs for a glider, and the camp at Fentress. Anyway, about drinking: These guys were really straight arrows. Since they were 1 year older than me, I blindly followed their example, which I know made my parents happy. We even formed a quartet and sang at local churches: Harry, Pat, Bobby, and me. When we’d hit our stride, old ladies cried. The Old Rugged Cross was a favorite. I think I broke it up, the quartet, that is. It was a terrible experience. We were featured during a service at the Episcopal Church; Nell Gambrell was the pianist and I sang second tenor, so I was to lead. The time came; we stood beside the piano. Nell plunked a note which I was to repeat, to set the harmony. Croak! I missed it. Nell looked at me, not kindly, and plunked it again. God! What was happening? I couldn’t sing the note! The worse it got, the worse it got! She kept on, plunking it several times. And I kept missing it, either sharp or flat. I couldn’t sing, but I was vividly, mercilessly aware of the surroundings: Nell’s red face and hard stare, Harry’s hissing whispers, the embarrassed, averted faces of the audience, whom we all knew, my breaking voice …. a strong death wish enveloped me, but would not come true. I don’t remember if we sang the damn song or not, but my memory is extremely sharp up to that point. Well, I keep trying to get to drinking, so here goes again: I don’t recall any of us drinking anything alcoholic in those days. I think we were having plenty of fun without it. But then when the 12th grade was added to high school in Texas, it was stuck in between my class and the guys I considered my crowd. So when they all left, I had two years to go. I mentioned in the first manuscript the chances we took in that period stealing stuff from the Lockhart and Luling gyms but don’t think I said anything about alcohol experi-mentation. Well, I fell in with roisterers like Jim Smith and Charles Ray Spinks to the extent that at least twice we bribed laborers to buy beer for us in North Lockhart. Jack Nichols and Stanley Shelton were willing accomplices, as were Benny Denton and Bob Ferry. Then it was on to the State Park where we could park at night near a golf green and play big guys, drinking beer. Two bottles and I was sure I was drunk; never had more than that. Then in Senior Year, same place, with some foul whiskey like Four Roses or Three Feathers, just enough to get sick on. Other than those few experiences of perceived inebriation, I never carried it onward, probably just because there were no bad examples to follow. My newfound peers were pretty good guys, really; nobody wanted to buck the system in that way. At school, though, I kept building on my deportment problem.
An aside about my sister and me: With all of my rough edges and rebelling without a cause, my sister Nancy was the other side of the coin. She was a naturally happy, sweet and placid person who loved people and as far as I know, everyone loved her. And we looked different: My dark hair and hazel eyes contrasted with her blonde hair and blue eyes, and our personalities reflected our differences, in that I was moody and quick to take offense. We got along OK, except that that I resented that her family chores were indoors and I was expected to work out in the hot sun. It helped a little that I could sometimes make her giggle uncontrollably at the dinner table and thereby invoke parental displeasure and sometimes discipline, without being called down myself.
My last 3 years of High School are probably remembered by the still-living Administrators, and may have contributed to the demise of those who aren’t. My Achievement Test scores were always near the top and I didn’t give the teachers too much trouble, made good grades in fact, but in between classes and in Study Hall I didn’t really blaze a trail I’d want my grandsons to follow. I’m not sure of my motives, it probably was initially a bid to get attention. But like the old gunfighters, once a reputation was established you couldn’t just walk away from it. I mentioned earlier that David Wilson set a terrible example. Four-year football letterman, class officer, nose to the grindstone, all that. In support of what I mean, listen to this: One day in Study Hall, Junior year I think, I made a stink bomb (you rolled film negative up tightly in notebook paper, twisted the ends, lit one end and smothered the flame so that dense smoke spewed out; smelled like a wet, dirty dog, only more so … if you’re a grandson of mine and you’re reading this, forget it – modern film negatives don’t behave that way). Jack Nichols lit the thing with a cigarette lighter. Ms. Boyve, the Librarian, was out of the room temporarily and we had the whole Study Hall to ourselves and the other students. Then I threw it up toward the front, toward the left-hand entry (there was one on each side of the stage). A satisfying dense, yellow cloud of smoke arose. Then it parted. It parted, and there, there in the middle, a tall, menacing figure appeared as if from nowhere, eyeglasses glinting, staring straight at me, still frozen in my follow-through posture. SUPERINTENDANT R.L. Williams it was … he said nothing, just crooked his finger, and I followed. I don’t know if you’ve ever been caught red-handed, which is the worst way of being caught, but let me tell you: You’re washed with a shocked, numbing feeling, your backbone in a cold vise. GOD! CAUGHT! What’ll I do what’ll I do? Confess? Cry? Beg for mercy? What’ll work what’ll work? Well, nothing does, and there you are, in the Big Office, in a chair that seems tiny compared to the big desk in front of you.
The management and usage of time, in the immediate sense, is a powerful weapon in the quivers of forensic psychologists, brainwashing technicians, school administrators, and some managers I have known. What it was, was first, Sup’t Williams standing gazing out the window, taking deep breaths, rocking back and forth on his feet, and maintaining several minutes of silence. Bad. Then the repeated praise of my parents, and how disappointed they would be in their expectations. Really bad. He knew I had the real stuff, the capability to do well. (Long pause). And then would come the prayer-like wish that I would emulate someone … well, someone like David Wilson, in striving toward every-thing a boy should be, the epitome of a boy who did not make trouble for his elders, who worked hard, saved his earnings, and who would someday be a model citizen. If this had just happened once it wouldn’t have been too bad. But I was slow to use the God-given gifts that Doctor Williams assured me I possessed, so the basic scene was, unfortunately, repeated.
Some of our operations (for such they would have been called in later adventure stories) were not only successful, but were carried out with a certain elan and flourish, at least in our eyes. In one such, repeated tests were conducted at home to determine the time required for a birthday candle to burn down to a certain point, which was carefully noted. Then, on D-Day, selected materials were set up under the teacher’s desk in a classroom next to study hall, unoccupied in the period just before second-period Assembly. A notch was made in the birthday candle to ignite the fuse of a cherry bomb at a time when classes would be in hallway transition before Assembly. Worked like a charm. A loud WHOOM stopped everyone dead in their tracks in the midst of the usual cacophony of voices and noise; a dead silence reigned for maybe three seconds … then excited jabbering commenced at twice the previous noise level. The perps took care to be way down the hallway at the Moment. I remember thinking that it sounded as if a piano had been hoisted up to ceiling level and dropped in free-fall to the floor. Really satisfying. I liked to think that if I ever committed a capital crime and if an innocent someone else was convicted of it and was about to be executed, I would step forward and face the music. Well, a very innocent straight-arrow student named Herbert Hoover was passing the room when the explosion occurred; the principal, C. C. Ball (or maybe it was Arthur Nicholas), was in the hallway and grabbed Herbert on a circumstantial arrest, but couldn’t make it stick, so I didn’t have to face my conscience. A fact that we had actually counted on was that the evidence of the birthday candle wax mounting was blown away in the explosion. Mr. Ball did call me and I think Jack Nichols and Stanley Shelton to his office; he said he knew one or all of us had something to do with this and he would get to the bottom of it and have us up for charges, but he never did. This caper, though simple, was great, but Jimmy Clark and I had some really novel operations in the preliminary planning stage; probably a good thing that he moved on up and out of the Lockhart School System before I did.
Can you possibly imagine this scene during Assembly?: Shortly after the opening prayers, pledges and protocols, a rocket, mounted on a suspended length of fishing line, suddenly ignites back in the book stacks and streaks toward the stage, where it explodes with a simply grand CANNONADE! That was in the preliminary planning stage.
As it is in swapping jokes with friends, telling about these adventures calls up yet more, but I think the point has been made. I didn’t hurt anybody, but I sure did press the envelope. And it was fun.
Things went on at school and life, as they will; I can’t think of anything in particular that would serve as a milepost. Well, one thing was that Jimmy Clark and I launched a very brief career as playwrights. We wrote some skits that were performed onstage at assemblies and acted some of the parts. Terribly corny, but we had fun. Then he graduated, and I had a part in the Junior Class play, “Brother Goose”. I really got interested and was promised a chance to write and/or produce more of the same, and be in the Senior Play, but the Navy and my ambitions intervened. If memory serves, Jimmy, David, Harry, and Bobby were interested in the US Air Corps cadet program but the Navy and Air Corps were both closed down in 1944-45. They all went to the enlisted ranks and had various adventures. Pat made the most of the situation: I recall that the Navy sent him to radar/electronics schools, one was at Treasure Island, CA. After the service, he went right into Electrical Engineering at T.U. and just kept on going into a distinguished career in that line, with Westinghouse. The others all did very well in chasing whatever it is you’re supposed to follow in life; there were some surprises. Harry got the girl we were all in love with, at one time or another, but Nell, tragically, died much too young, at 64, after a long and painful illness. Jimmy, my old anachronistic, nose-thumbing buddy, ended up a Doctor of Education, an influential player in the Texas School System. Bobby, after his Navy duty, became a dentist specializing in children, but he, too, died at the early age of 64. David, just as Red Williams had predicted, just went on and on to great heights and is one of the movers and shakers of Austin. Maybe more.
So the military aviation entrees were closed down. I had no other ambitions and had received my notice of a pre-induction physical exam for the US Army in the fall of 1945, due to turn 18 in late ’45 and graduate in ’46. Then in November or December ’45 I heard or read that Naval Aviation was to open up for a few volunteers to report for spring enrollment in the V-5 Program at certain colleges. The Navy had had a couple of college programs, V-5 and V-12, active at numerous colleges across the country. V-12 was a basic ROTC 4-year program; more about V-5 later. Billy Vick, a classmate, was also interested; we went and talked to Mr. Buckley, the then-Superintendant, and surprisingly (to us) he agreed that if we passed the Navy qualification tests, he’d let us go early (March vs June 1946) to enter the V-5 College Program, provided we kept our grades up in the meantime. I can’t imagine a school administrator making that kind of decision today. It must have been backed up by solid support from our teachers. Thinking of it now, I regret that I didn’t go to each one and thank them; maybe I did but just don’t remember it, because I was so excited. Billy and I went to the Navy office at Houston, took a 3-day battery of tests, and both of us passed! I still have a copy of the telegram I sent my folks. Now, for the first time in my life, the world opened up for me. Well, learning to fly during high school was a great step, but it wasn’t a life-changing thing like this. Other great things were to happen, but the first time is one you never forget. I’d always assumed, in my dreams, that I’d matriculate at the “West Point of the Air”, Randolph Field; it was close by, and I didn’t know much about the Navy, not that it mattered since they used airplanes, too. It was hard to believe, but now I could believe, that some of those dreams might actually be possible. And it was fun to come back three months later and pick up our diplomas, marching around the chain to “Pomp and Circumstance”.
The V-5 College Training Program at Southwestern University, Georgetown, Texas, where I’d been assigned, began its next training period on 20 March 1946. The plan was for the trainee to satisfactorily complete two years of college in a basic pre-engineering curriculum, and then to go to USN flight training. Sometime later the Navy would provide twenty more months of school leading to a Bachelors’ Degree. The dormitory at Southwestern University which was assigned to V-5 had 4 students per room, with bunk beds. Thanks to school and the Boy Scouts, this kind of close male association presented few problems. You did have to confront different cultures, like Yankees, who talked differently, but I found our values were pretty much the same. And most of our guys were from the central to southwestern states, so there weren’t many Yankees to contend with. Two things were definitely new: We were now under an autocratic military regime, with a lot of rules to meet, and it was immediately obvious that if you went along, you got along. Since almost all of us were there as volunteers, wanting to be there, we went along gladly, and my grades improved. Under the V-5 Program we were Apprentice Seamen and were issued uniforms which we wore at all times, the regular bell-bottom whites and blues with the wide collars and kerchiefs of the active-duty Navy enlisted man, with one white stripe on the sleeve of the blues. I remember very little of any social life while there, although there was once or twice a swimming picnic in the San Gabriel River just north of Georgetown which reminded me of previous times in the Wimberley area; it was clear, with a flat rock bottom. I would hitch-hike home every weekend in my uniform, which was a snap in those days; people would usually stop to pick up a serviceman. I was only there for one college quarter, about three months. Toward the end of that time, there was a big event: Admiral Chester Nimitz, one of the true heroes of WW II in the Pacific, came there to review the V-5 Unit. With my latter-day analysis of things, I believe it was simply a way for him to visit his home in Fredericksburg, although I find it difficult to think that a man of his stature would have to justify that. A 5-star Admiral reviewing a paltry little unit of about 200 peons, headed by a Lt. Commander … wonder what it was? Anyway, I’m glad I had a chance to see the man. Shortly afterward the V-5 Program was converted to the Holloway Plan. Conceived by Admiral James Holloway, this did away with the NavCads, or Naval Aviation Cadet Program, and replaced it with a plan whereby the individuals in training would be under a contract to serve two years as a Midshipman, USN, and then serve one year as Ensign, USN, at the end of which time he would either be retained as Ensign, USN or be released to inactive duty as Ensign, USNR (U.S. Naval Reserve). So along with my contem-poraries, I was ordered to NAS Pensacola for just two days to be placed in an inactive status until the active duty call-up for PreFlight and Flight Training. Under the new deal, called the Naval Aviation College Program, one could choose his own college and wear civvies. As with most plans conceived by the Upper Reaches, this one had its bone-headed results. Before the end of the 2-year contract as Midshipman, there were guys flying off the carriers at night and in Korean combat for the glorious stipend of 78 dollars per month, plus a few dollars flight pay. That’s because they finished training and got their wings in less than 2 years. I’m getting ahead of things here.
So I chose in the fall of 1946 to attend college at Southwest Texas State, San Marcos, which had formerly been SWTSTC, Southwest Texas State Teachers College, called a Normal. I never did find out why the term Normal was used. A number of Lockhart people had attended there, including my aunt Kathryn Patton and my cousin, Alice Virginia Mebane. Lyndon Johnson had matriculated there also; a number of people whom I respected never mentioned that unless pressed, so it is with some reservations that I do so. A nice town and a lovely river, but I still hadn’t been socially weaned and went home every weekend. Still too bashful to take part in campus and social activities, although I did date a couple of girls. Billy Vick and I roomed together for part of this period. There were only about 1,300 students there then, now increased by a factor of more than 10. My grades were pretty good, A’s and B’s mostly, but started drooping by the end of the 2nd year, especially in mathematics. The last semester of the 2nd year, I got a D in Differential Equations, which I blamed on the teacher. Still a D, though. Finishing the required 2 years and going to flight training was increasingly important in my mind and tended to blot out studies and homework.
Leo Coers was there in school; about 5 years ahead of me in Lockhart High School, he was one of my heroes because he’d been a Naval Aviator. Out of the service, he was back on the GI Bill to get a degree in engineering. Soon, he’d go to A.&M. to finish in aeronautical engineering. Back in Lockhart on weekends, I’d go pass the time with Leo at his home and got to know and like his Mother, Dad, and sister Eleanor. Bobby Balser, who had also been a Navy pilot, would sometimes come over and I’d bask in the reflected glow of these Icons who’d been there and done that. Small world item: Leo subsequently went to work for Cessna Aircraft Co. as a test pilot. They sent him to Navy Test Pilot School, Class 24. Meantime, I’d joined FAA. They sent me to Navy TPS, Class 25. The 8-month classes overlapped, so for 4 months there at the Naval Air Test Center in 1959-60, there were two (2) Lockhart boys in that august company. Another Lockhart boy who’d been there was Ross Bauhoff, killed in the crash of a Lockheed P2V, then a new Navy airplane. I think that was in 1950.
Jimmy Clark was there also, having come back from the service. There were beautiful swimming areas near the college at San Marcos. One day we met for swimming dates, Jimmy with Marty (they’re now way past their golden wedding anniversary), me with a new date whom I naturally wanted to impress. Well, Jimmy was a very good diver, had been on the A.&M. team before service, and was on Air Force diving teams during his stint in Europe, and was prepping me on how to really look good. The subject was the half-gainer, which I’d always been too chicken to try. Jimmy: “Listen, this is really easy and looks great. She’ll love it and adore you. You’ve got to do it off the ten-foot board, it’s the only way. All you do is, you get a good spring, throw your head back, arch your back, point your toes, spread your arms, and it’ll take care of itself. Just trust me”. Well, I was sufficiently smitten with my date, who really was a pretty girl, to go ahead. I got a really good spring and remembered to do the next four steps; at the next instant I contacted the water in a painfully horizontal attitude, flat on my back, from an altitude of about 15 feet. It knocked the air out of me. Pain is one thing, and a lot of pain it was, but combined with not being able to breathe, it took a lot to swim over to the ladder and climb ashore under her eyes, with an air of attempted nonchalance, which I’m sure didn’t sell. Jimmy said my form was great: Back arched, toes pointed, both hands contacted the water at the exact same time. Only one thing wrong …
My date’s name was Thelma Gandy. I used to have a photo, one of those glossy ones snapped by wandering photogs at public places, in this case a roadhouse near Seguin: David and Nancy, Jimmy Clark and Lola Jean Rutherford, Harry and Nell, and Thelma and me, seated around a table with drinks, smiling into the flash glare. So I dated her a few times, but don’t remember anything of it, except that she was a fun date. About two years later, when I was in Navy Advanced Flight Training in Corpus, I brought Al Doles, a buddy and fellow trainee, home for a weekend and got dates, me with Thelma and Al with Minnie, her sister. They checked out of the dorm at San Marcos and spent the night at our home in Lockhart. Mother bunked them into my room upstairs; Al and I slept on pallets downstairs. Well, Thelma and Minnie tiptoed down the stairs after all-quiet … but Mother, on the alert, heard them and shooed them back upstairs. This was repeated at least twice. Dang! Well, so much for that, which occurred in 1949.
Now let’s flash forward fifty years … to February of 1999: Hank Wilson, a high school classmate, now lives with his wife Audrey near Mother’s house, after a career in the Air Force. He informed me that at a recent Reserve Officers’ Association dinner dance in Austin, he met a woman who, after asking if he knew me, said that she still had the little gold wings I’d given her long ago. Thelma. He said she was very attractive, still.
So now it’s May 1947; I’ve completed the required college hours and the next step is being ordered to active duty as a Midshipman, USN, at Navy Preflight training. Only there’ll be an indeterminate delay due to re-start difficulties in the flight training program, which had been shut down for months in 1945-46 and was in a process similar to a freight train starting up from scratch – with new engineers and crew. A major road construction project was underway, rebuilding Highway 183 from Lockhart to Luling, and I got a job with the Taylor Construction Company, doing that. Albert Livengood and I were a team doing the preliminary surveying for the rough dirt work. We’d set stakes, called “blue-tops”, across the road bed, showing how much cutting or filling was required to meet the design road level. Life was simpler in those days; we’d drive the wooden stakes in to the required depth and then actually color the tops blue with a crayon. We used a hand level transit and rod to do it and it was a pretty interesting job. First the heavy machinery would come in, big scoops to scarf up the soil or trucks to fill in as required, and later the road graders, the elite of the dirt guys, to get the road to the design grade. They said that a really good grader operator could light a sulphur match without breaking the stem. And there were other types around the job. I’d never known people who were just 100% plain pure-a-tee mean, but here my education was enlarged: After we had set our preliminary blue-tops, a sheeps -foot roller came in to tamp down the dirt. A sheeps-foot roller is a big cylindrical drum towed behind a tractor, with a lot of spines sticking out of it like a music box; on the end of each spine is a flat piece about the size of your hand (hence the name “sheeps-foot”). The driver of one of these was named Jack Fullalove, he said. For a long time I was skeptical, thought he must be making up the name just to rag me, because he sure as hell wasn’t full of love. As I indicated, he was the first genuine asshole I’d ever met. He took real pleasure in deviating from his track just enough to splinter our bluetop stakes. It was better for him if we were looking. And he was consistent; it was one of his daily pleasures. I guess he was moved on to other jobs, because he was around for a mercifully brief period. I really liked Albert Livengood. He was a couple of years ahead of me in school; ran the 880 in track, which I’m convinced is the toughest race of all. I tried it once at a meet and threw up for some time afterward. He married Frances Black, a year behind me, and died young, about 60 I think. While you’re growing up, you remember the older ones who’re nice to you, and he was one of those.
Well, one fine day, on 3 August 1947, Dad drove out to the worksite waving a piece of paper! Orders! I’ve still got them. “Report on 13 August 1947 to the Commanding Officer, U.S. Navy Pre-Flight School, Naval Air Station, Pensacola, Florida, blah, blah, blah.” I remember very little of this time period, because I was so worked up. Only much later could I imagine how Mother and Dad felt: Launching a child into the unknown, carrying all you’ve put into it. You know nothing of the destination, except that it involves flying, of which you’ve always been apprehensive. For the first time, all the support racks, tubes, and harnesses fall away, just as now in a rocket launch. Remember your family name, remember all we taught you, remember, remember … then let go, and hope that he does.
NAVAL AIR TRAINING
Pre-Flight was a four-month experience designed to accomplish several things with a green kid: To instill some measure of discipline, to install basic grounding in Naval customs and traditions, to teach some basics in aerodynamics, navigation, engines, and ordnance, and most of all, to put the pressure on for a time to see if something would crack.
Using one of those ubiquitous TRs (transportation requests), which more accurately could be called “transportation demands” issued by the Government, Billy Vick and I traveled to Pensacola, Florida, to get started on the adventure, in August 1947. After the usual physical exams and signing all those forms, we were issued uniforms: Khakis, blues, shoes, socks, bridge hats, swords(!) and I suppose even skivvies and handkerchiefs. All material ties to the past were now gone. Assigned to 4-man rooms in the old 2-story brick barracks (still there), we began to be conditioned to a 4-month trial known as Pre-Flight. I must say that to me it was not an ordeal, but simply something I had to get through to reach flight training. The courses were like these: Aerodynamics, Engines, Aerology (weather study in Navy lingo), Morse code and blinker, Navigation (dead-reckoning and celestial), and Naval Customs and Usages (like a finishing school for would-be officers). There were others, like Ordnance (bombing and gunnery), but I don’t remember the titles. In this 4-month period and later during flight training, the people who ran the training command couldn’t seem to get their act together as to how many pilots they wanted to come out the end of the pipe in a given time period. There were fluctuations in minimum passing grade levels that had unfair results. Some guys I knew who seemed to have great promise as Navy officers were canned because of a mandated sudden change, like an increase in required minimum average grades. One such was the Midshipman Battalion Commander in our group, a really great guy, leader, student, and athlete, who couldn’t quite make it to the minimum 20 words per minute for Morse code blinker during Pre-Flight. Blinker was never used by any of us under any future circumstances; it was an outdated method of communication. But such is bureaucracy, it’s the same everywhere. Large, arbitrary systems have no room for fairness. Later, in flight training, there were good guys suddenly washed out because the bar was arbitrarily raised and their average grade levels fell below the minimum. I remember one man in particular; he was doing OK in Advanced training, flying Corsairs, when he was suddenly informed that due to some problems he’d had in Basic training, his overall UBAG flight training score (UBAG: unsatisfactory, below average, average, good) was below the minimum of the recently revised level. Out! For a highly motivated guy, I thought it would be devastating to the ego; I felt it would have destroyed me.
As you’d expect, PreFlight was heavy on athletics. Every day, we had six hours of academics and two hours of physical training (PT). PT changed every two weeks and included swimming, boxing, wrestling, tumbling, touch football, and mass calisthenics. They each had their own minimums to meet, i.e. swimming required meeting Red Cross AAA standards plus swimming a mile wearing khaki shirt and pants. That wasn’t too bad but wrestling really impressed me. At one time I was matched with a guy my size and approximate strength; after three 1-minute rounds, I couldn’t crawl off the mat on my hands and knees. It was elbows and knees. I think the match was a draw; I sure didn’t feel like I was the winner. And then three days a week we also had Battalion Sports, where the three Midshipmen Battalions were matched against each other in various sports for 1 ½ hours before evening chow. One thing: After dinner and a couple hours’ study, you slept well.
We had a lot of marching drill in PreFlight. During this four month period, the Marine officers and D.I.’s (Drill Instructors; non-com sergeants) responsible for some semblance of conversion of these college kids to military units, appointed certain of us to various levels of command within our training battalion. The Midshipman Battalion Commander wore a gold leaf on his collar. The next level down was Lieutenant, with a double collar bar. Finally, the Lieutenant (junior grade) marched at the head of his platoon of xxx Midshipmen (x means I don’t remember how many). I was appointed a Lieutenant (jg) because I had a good sense of rhythm for setting the marching pace, and I was short. Short guys were preferred to set the march because tall guys could cause obvious problems for the short ones behind them. Well, of course I didn’t hesitate to let my folks know of this singular honor without boring them with all the short-tall background. I got to wear a sword at the weekly reviews and sent appropriate photos. They were really impressed, I think, and I didn’t feel very guilty. In Pre-Flight, there wasn’t a lot of spare time. Weeknights, you had to remain in barracks, which was fine because you had more homework than you could handle. On the weekend, you could go ashore until midnight, as I recall. Except for one thing: Demerits, often from daily room inspections. Every morning, these Marines came around with white gloves, who must have been frustrated mothers-in-law in another life; if a speck of dust could be found, they’d find it, and so forth. Looking back, this was an obvious ploy to provide or engender some sense of responsibility and accountability. The four room-mates took turns being room-captains, and the room-captain was responsible for all weekly demerits. Before you could go on liberty, any existing demerits had to be marched off on the drill field, with a rifle. It shouldn’t be hard to imagine the transgressor’s treatment when the room-captain lost his weekend liberty..
Pre-Flight ended without much fanfare around Christmas 1947 (well, we did have a pretty good party at one of the local restaurants) and I was still hanging in there with satisfactory grades, becoming more and more excited at the thought of flight training. Problem was, they didn’t know what to do with us. The pipeline for flight training was clogged up. For 3½ months, we were shuffled around from one make-work situation to another. About this time, Billy Vick decided to drop out and go back home to marry Juanita Simon; the Navy wouldn’t allow marriage until after getting your wings, which would have been another 18 months or so. Just after Pre-Flight, many of my classmates and I were invited to participate in a series of tests. I volunteered. These tests were devised by scientists liberated from Germany before the Russians moved in. Ostensibly, the purpose was to determine whether some method could be devised to separate the sheep from the goats, the able and the unfit as pilot trainees, before spending the money required to put them in airplanes and spending a lot to see if they could hack it or not. It’s a dream of the behavioral scientists dating from WWI days. It was really kind of fun going through all those weird tests, and there was nothing else to do anyway except watches and work details. One of them involved using a stick and rudder to align colored lights which were constantly changing. Another was using a pencil with electrical connections to keep touching a round metal dot on a record turntable as it changed rotational speeds. Another that was really fun was sitting in a chair with a stick, rudder and throttle. Out ahead was a model biplane over a moving belt representing the runway; it was free to move in 6 dimensions, according to your control inputs (your throttle controlled the fan speed out ahead of the model airplane). The idea of all this, we were told, was to collate and compare our scores on these machines with later scores on our actual flight training, and thus to better learn how to weed out poor fliers at the outset. I never heard another word about them. Now older and a little bit wiser, I suspect that some weenies on the Navy Basic Training Staff got some strokes for keeping the kids busy and the German scientists occupied, and I can readily imagine the attitude of the scientists themselves: “Geez, Hans! Think of something! They gonna send us back!”
Along about this time, Mother and Mrs. Fred Blundell drove from Texas to Pensacola to visit me, in Mrs. Blundell’s new Buick. Dad had hunted with Fred Blundell for some years and our families were friends. Mrs Blundell was quite a lady, who on one hand could be as common as an old shoe, but also always maintained a level of reserve that commanded respect. You always knew exactly where she stood, and she was unfailingly polite to servants and friends alike. They spent a weekend there and I escorted them to the Officers’ Club; we even danced. That reminds me of a social event that was amusing. On a few occasions the Officers’ Club was the scene of Tea Dances, afternoon soirees attended by young ladies from Girls’ schools in Biloxi and Gulfport. Some of us showed up for those; I never did because a couple of daylight hours with chaperones in the background wasn’t very attractive. But on one occasion a group of the Naval Academy Midshipmen was there for a tour of the Naval Air Station. Well, they viewed us as those from the silk-stocking section of town would look at trailer trash. Not to the manor born (or is it “to the manner born”? – never was sure). One of these tea dances occurred while they were there. By Navy edict, we all wore the same uniforms; the dress blues had large fouled brass anchors on the jacket lapels. Just so no one could mistake us for them, the little farts removed the anchors from their blue uniforms when they attended the tea dance. I only heard about it; glad I wasn’t there. And that reminds me of an analogy, in the words of the immortal Dr. Seuss:“The star-bellied sneeches had bellies with stars; the plain-bellied sneeches had none upon thars …”. And thereupon appended the reason for a major outbreak of class warfare among the sneeches.
Then for about a month they put a bunch of us on the USS Wright, the training carrier based out of Pensacola. Again, there was no organized program of training for us, it was just something else for us to do. We all strongly wanted to get on to flight training, but it was a fun thing; well, not just fun, it was overwhelming at first, watching carrier operations, and may have actually been somewhat beneficial. The Wright was in a training status; all the operations were for those students finishing up their advanced training, about to get their wings. A large number of the airplanes landing aboard in that period were SB2-C’s; F4U’s and F6F’s were also involved. The great thrill of observing carrier operations, which would have been envied by almost anyone, was tempered by the knowledge that we were marking time, waiting to actually do the things we were watching. My Navy flight logbook notes that on December 13th, 1947, “entered upon flight duty this day”; it was not until April 16, 1948 that my first flight in a Navy airplane was logged.
In the spring of 1948, Caldwell County, my home in Texas, celebrated its Centennial. They really turned things inside-out for the Big Party, huge parade, lots of lesser parties, and all the trimmings. I regret that I wasn’t there, due in large part to the fact that my sister Nancy was selected as Centennial Queen. What a well-deserved accolade; she was everything that all her contemporaries wanted to be. I was very proud of her, but so immersed in my activities that I don’t think I ever told her of the depth of my feelings of pride in her success. It hasn’t mattered, really; she’s gone on to build a dual role with her husband, David, as one of the first families of Austin. Of all the women I know, I think Nancy is the epitome of what’s really meant by the term, “family values”, in a sense of the phrase that’s far beyond that bandied about by the politicians. I think she’s truly the “renaissance woman”; she can do it all, and do it very well: Cook, sew, socialize, play good tennis, all that. And remain a sweet, uncomplicated person, friendly to all.
Primary and Basic Flight Training
Until about a year before my Navy flight training began, in the spring of 1948, students were introduced first to the Stearman N2S biplane, the “Yellow Peril”, painted for high visibility, like the “Student Driver” signs on autos. By the time I got there, the N2S was gone, replaced by the SNJ (T-6 in Air Force parlance), which had previously been an advanced trainer. The Navy had abandoned the yellow paint scheme for silver. By the time I got to Navy flight training, I had amassed about 30 hours’ flight time in light airplanes, like Cubs. Very simple airplanes, just stick, rudder and a little 65 HP engine. So to me, the SNJ was a BIG airplane: 550 HP engine, constant speed propeller, hydraulic system driving retractable landing gear and flaps … a hell of a big step up from what I’d flown. Awesome. Later, from a look-back perspective, it was amusing to compare my awe-struck attitude with that of those who had never before been close to any airplane. They weren’t nearly as uptight as I was in approaching “A Stage”, initial primary flight training, since they had no experience or other basis for comparison of big and little airplanes. So it was my first big airplane, one that could do about anything, and I loved it. To me the SNJ is still a beautiful airplane, although I’ve flown a lot sleeker and faster ones since, but I still like the way she handles (flew one again 30 years later). I can’t resist this: It was like reuniting with an old girlfriend, with whom you had learned to dance, and you were good together. Just before the flights in the “J” after all those years, I wondered if my interim training and experience as a test pilot, educated to evaluate and find fault, would color my memories of her charms. But no; she was just as lovely as I remembered. We still danced well together. But like your old sweetheart, she’d do you in in a heartbeat if you slighted her or took her for granted. I think it’s relevant that a little sense of danger spices a relationship with either a female or an airplane.
“A” Stage was where it began for me, at the Navy Auxiliary Air Station (NAAS) Corry Field near Pensacola, on 16 April 1948. My instructor was LTjg Hutchinson, a tall, quiet man who didn't leave much of a mark in my memory. We did airwork, like level flight, airspeed control, climbs, descents, turns with varying bank angles, patterns over the ground, takeoffs, landings, and emergency practice like cut guns (power loss at unexpected moments). I loved it and did well; LT Hutchinson said after the 11th flight that I was safe for solo, but the blocks must be filled: You couldn’t solo until after the 18th flight. We flew mostly SNJs, –4s and –6s, with a –5 occasionally thrown in. There were some minor differencies: The –4’s had servo tabs on the ailerons, so lateral control forces in maneuvering were a little lower. It was the –4 that had the heel and toe inertial starter that was really sexy: Between the rudder pedals, a fore-and-aft rocker foot pedal was located. To start the engine, you first wound up the inertial flywheel by depressing the pedal with your heel, which resulted in a sound of increasing pitch like a siren; then you flipped the magnetos to “BOTH” and depressed the rocker pedal with your toe. That clutched in the starter to the engine, the propeller cranked around in time with the sound of pee-ew, pee-ew in decreasing pitch, and then the engine usually fired, slowly at first, with great gouts of silver smoke and coughing exhaust noises, slowly coming up to idle speed as the exhaust sound evened out. The reason I thought it was sexy was that movies which fed my dreams for years often contained those sights and sounds. Before the electrical starters, a crewman outside had to wind up the inertial starter manually by turning a crank faster and faster. The SNJ had an R-1340 Pratt & Whitney radial engine which, besides the smoke, emitted noises which are still magical. Any pilot who’s spent much time behind radial engines of any brand will still react to their song, even though it comes from miles away. Back to differences: The SNJ-6 was slightly different in appearance, having a rear canopy closure of a one-piece formed plexiglass shape, rather than metal framework holding plexiglass panes. The most important difference lay in tailwheel operating design. The SNJ-5C used for carrier qualification employed a lockable/full-swivel tailwheel. For carrier landings, it was necessary to have a full-swivel tailwheel so that an off-center arresting cable engagement would not put sideloads on the tailwheel; in that mode, the tailwheel would merely caster with the sideload. For takeoff, however, and for landing ashore, the tailwheel was locked in the center position to help the pilot maintain a straight ground track. In contrast, during the early part of my training, all the SNJ’s ashore had a very poor design: For the first 15o either side of neutral, rudder pedals controlled the tailwheel assembly; anything past that, and the tailwheel suddenly went into full-swivel mode. Then the only directional control was brakes (toe brakes on the rudder pedals). Above 30 knots or so, the rudder became more effective, but still not enough to counter the sudden change in directional control, sometimes causing loss of control in an airplane which was unstable on the ground anyway, and led to a lot of ground loops, where the airplane spun around like a top, usually damaging the outside wing as it contacted the ground.Someone in authority finally realized how much better ground control was in the SNJ-5C, and before I finished Basic Training, all Navy SNJ’s were fitted with lockable/full-swivel tailwheels. Great! But why did it take so long?
In the middle of “A” Stage, we were moved from Corry out to Whiting NAAS, near Milton, Florida. It was out in the boondocks, although I didn’t care; social life on weekends was simply not a consideration compared with flight training. At the end of each stage I had a check flight from a different instructor to verify my instructor’s gradings. I should mention that all the instructors were Naval Aviators who had been flying in tactical squadrons in the Fleet; you knew they had been there and done that and I think that had a lot to do with one’s respect for them, beyond the fact that you were a student and they were officers.
So here I was, in a life among other young men with the same ambitions and goals as me. We shared it all. Not to say it was a love-fest. Certainly there were rough edges that grated; I thought some of the guys were nerds in different ways. Egotists will always stand out and be disliked by those who are not their followers. Super-Christians who insisted on praying aloud before meals (there were only a few, but a few can be irritating to an outsized degree and they probably succeeded in alienating more than they attracted to their religion). But by and large, we were a big bunch of young men who had been filtered through a pretty fine screen which got rid of most of the weirdos and whackos, and we had been through more of an educational process than most other large, similar groups. Most of all, we shared a common goal: We wanted to fly. This, more than anything else, was to be a very large factor in the rest of my life. The solitary joy of flight will always be the pinnacle of my life achievements, that which I dreamed of always. But still, many of my nightly dreams to this date are of squadron life, of planning and conducting flights with buddies, sharing responsibilities and risks. And celebrations. It’s always the same old thing: You want to be accepted. Whatever you accomplish, it’s not worth much until acknowledged by your peers. And only your peers.
So “A” Stage went OK. All flights were off grass fields. To solo was fantastic, imagine me controlling this big old airplane, and then I went on from there into “B” Stage, landing on asphalt runways with the attendant risks of ground-loops. That’s so because if you land in a crab on a grass surface, the airplane will simply slide along sideways as the crab straightens out, but on asphalt, there’ll be a sudden lurch and screech as the airplane yaws suddenly and sometimes uncontrollably, into a ground loop. Then to “C” Stage and acrobatics, and was I ever getting to be a hot pilot. Until one lovely day, wind 5 knots straight down the runway, squeaker of a landing (oh, I am so good) ; then a slight drift to the right … OK, some left rudder … more yaw to right … cram in left rudder … not enough, not enough, too late for brakes … shit! That was a ground loop, and it clobbered the left wing, with me hanging on to the pommel. Absolutely no excuse. I sweated a ton, full of self-excoriating phrases. They don’t do any good, I knew that and I know that but I still use them. So they convened an Aviator’s Disposition Board, to see if I could continue flight training. Gave me a 5-0 thumbs-up, so I stayed in there. Whew!
One of my compatriots was Jay Richmond, whom I was to know better later. He had an adventure in “C” Stage (acrobatics) that’s worth recounting. It happened while he was solo, practicing slow rolls, where you slowly roll the airplane about its longitudinal axis. In the middle you’re inverted and have to use forward stick to prevent the nose dropping through; well, that means negative “g”, which would tend to sling you out of the cockpit, against your safety belt and shoulder harness. Our cotton khaki flight suits had fairly wide sleeves, and it could easily happen that you’d catch the overcenter latch on the safety belt in your left sleeve, and unlock the belt without realizing it. He’d apparently done that, and as he rolled toward the inverted position and poked the stick forward, his belt opened and he fell out of his position in the cockpit. The good news was that he had not opened the sliding cockpit canopy. So he fell up against the top of the canopy. Had plenty of altitude, and finally fought his way back into the seat as the airplane fluffed around, doing its own acrobatics. Never told anybody in authority, of course. There were all kinds of things to learn about the system.
Then back to NAAS Corry Field for “D” Stage, instrument training. First, we had to complete a number of hours in the Link trainer and pass flight checks in simulated flight exercises and instrument approaches, flying this thing under the hood with no outside visibility. The Link was a good training device, but a miserable airplane simulator. It had limited movement in pitch and roll and a full 360º in yaw. It was pneumatically controlled; the responses were pretty good in pitch and roll, but in yaw it taught lessons in humility. If you wanted to coordinate a banked turn, you’d feed in more and more … and then some more rudder, and then suddenly … whooosh! … the thing would slew around much more than you wanted. But like any machine, once you learned how to work it you could make it look good. The instructors (non-pilots) could make it sit up and beg. It didn’t fly like an airplane, but it did two things very well, which more than justified its existence: It taught you to develop a visual scan pattern necessary for any instrument flying, and it taught procedures for instrument approaches. What is a visual scan pattern, you ask? I’m so glad for that question. As I said, it’s what you have to master to fly on instruments; in a circular pattern of viewing, you look at each primary instrument (altitude, airspeed, heading, rate of climb, clock, attitude, etc.) for a second or so, then move on to the next. You never, ever stop on one instrument. Like juggling several balls. If one of those readings is in error, you put in a small correction and keep going, always working to keep the errors small and under correction toward where the reading ought to be. Then the next time around, you note how your correction on that particular instrument is going, and correct accordingly. If that sounds difficult, it’s because it is. Then we went on to flying under the hood in the rear seat of the SNJ: Instrument takeoffs, unusual attitudes, where the instructor would put you in a vertical climb or some such crazy situation and turn the airplane over to you for recovery, pattern flying, where you’d fly prescribed 3-D patterns at different speeds (tough!), and instrument approaches, using the local radio ranges to make instrument approaches to local fields. This Stage was a tough one, more hard work than fun, and I was glad to pass the checks (first in the Link, then the airplane) and get it behind me. Though hard work, it was satisfying and I did well.
Tactical Stages (E & F)
After getting past instruments, we were transferred to Saufley NAAS, a few miles north of Pensacola.
Except for carrier work and gunnery, the kind of flying I’ve enjoyed most is formation. To fly wing you nail yourself into position and use your throttle and controls to prevent any relative motion. Takes a lot of hard work to get to that level. And then to do it right in a lead position, where you’re heading a second section of 2 planes or a division of 4 planes, you use relative motion, sliding laterally back and forth behind the groups ahead to minimize your throttle action and thus the work of the guy or guys flying on you. It’s kind of like “snap the whip”; any movement you make either with power or attitude will be magnified for the guys behind you. My love affair with formation work didn’t start off very smoothly, though. In E Stage (Formation) I was assigned an instructor named LT T.W. Cady. I’d never encountered a piece of work like him; he liked to sing “The Tennessee Waltz” over and over on the intercom while I was trying to concentrate on what I was doing. Then at the first little glitch he’d scream and holler and curse me, like, “You stupid son of a bitch! What the hell are you doing?”. I’d never been personally cursed before by a superior or anyone else and it shattered my persona. On that first flight, arriving in the landing pattern, I really screwed up and entered for the wrong runway and he gave me a down-check. The resulting disposition board gave me a 5-0 up-check and I went on without him; they must have realized what the situation was.
For these Stages, as I said, we were moved from Corry out to Saufley NAAS. New barracks, new room-mate, with two of us in a room. Cleo Swartz was my new roomie; I’d met him before, but had never got to know him well. He was a neat guy and we really got on fine; we shared a rather weird sense of humor, although I think his was more weird than mine. That’s arguable and I won’t push it. We were in the same six-plane flight in formation and gunnery and used to think up special little signals, amending the sacred ones taught by the Navy, like, instead of patting your head and kissing off on the break (hand signals to say “I’m going” before peeling off an echelon formation to enter the landing pattern or whatever), we’d shake a limp wrist and throw the hand, as if to say, “I’m going, you silly!”. Oh well, we thought it was funny. And in close formation, it was great fun. We were on top of the world.
Now, F Stage, Gunnery, that was really great fun and true adventure! In all my time, it was the closest I ever got to G-2 and His Battle Aces. There was a .30 caliber machine gun mounted with the butt in the right-hand upper forward instrument panel, so you could reach and charge it by hand. We were only taught “high side” runs, not overheads or low-sides. The “perch”, or starting position, was about 1,000 feet abeam, 1,000 feet high, and 1,000 feet ahead of the towplane, which was towing a white sleeve target about 20 feet long and 3 feet in diameter. Each of the six gunnery airplanes had its bullets wax-coated with a particular color, so that hits in the sleeve could be credited. One by one, the gunnery airplanes would peel off an echelon formation in a nose-high turn toward the towplane, then the nose was allowed to fall through as a reversal in bank was made to pick up a firing track toward the sleeve. As one plane made the reversal, the next would peel off and start his run. After a pass under the sleeve, each plane was pulled up in a steep climb toward the perch position to join the tail-end of the formation and the pattern kept repeating. It was bad form to delay things by a slow joinup, and now and then I’d find myself over-compensating and closing too fast on the last plane in the echelon; there’s a vivid memory of sliding under that guy with my throttle hacked all the way back, looking straight up at his belly, fishtailing like mad to slow down and avoid overshooting. You only fired for a few seconds as you were leading and tracking the sleeve; didn’t do to keep firing for very long since you’d soon be firing at the towplane as the firing angle became more acute. As you fired, looking through the fixed sight, the machine gun bucked and chattered and the sharp smell of cordite filled the cockpit. That’s about as close as a guy could get to boyhood dreams of WWI heroes. My best score was 11% and I was very proud that on that day, that percentage of my bullets penetrated the sleeve. With the little kicking and vibrating .30 Caliber machine gun, it was considered a very good score. As I recall, we had one instructor in the towplane and another flying nearby, kind of a roving referee.
There is a well-known audio tape made of a 4-plane formation training flight which was a practical joke. A tape recorder in the tower was set to record the transmissions on the frequency used by the training flight Unknown to the poor chase instructor, other instructors replaced the students after the briefing and flew those four airplanes. They proceeded to do everything wrong, turning into instead of away from echelon formations, pretending they couldn’t hear the instructor’s commands, chaos in other words. So the sky was full of airplanes in the wrong positions, doing the wrong things. The tape recorded the instructor’s increasingly hysterical instructions, finally turning into gravelly rantings, before he finally gave up. I heard it long ago and had long wanted a copy … then recently, through the Flying Midshipman Association, I located a contemporary who had one, and he’s sending it to me to make another copy! Anyway, formation and gunnery were just plain fun.
Naval Aviators who fly off carriers carry a distinction that no other pilots can ever have. It is agreed by most that there is no other flying task that equals the demands exacted by carrier operations. I have flown many aircraft in difficult test missions, but carrier flying stands out as way above and beyond all else I have done. That’s a general statement. Of course there were moments in test-flying that were truly marginal, that called for the best I could do, just as there were many fair-weather days when carrier operations was just plain fun, but the bottom line is this: To come aboard the ship, and do it right, fair weather and foul, day and night, was the most demanding flying I have ever done, and I loved it for that. Anyone who has done it will never lose the pride that came with it.
The last Stage in Basic Flight Training at NAS Saufley was CQ, carrier qualification. More fun of a different sort, with a shot of adrenalin at the end. This one brought home to you an increasing sense of what you were there for, and although it was fun and exciting, conveyed a new and more apparent awareness of risk. There must have been a sadist in the training office setting up our curriculum; for starters we were shown films of numerous flight deck crashes, some obviously non-survivable. I was vibrating like a plucked guitar string already; sure didn’t need that sort of overkill. Then came some intensive drill on the LSO’s signals and how to respond to them. Four axioms were hammered in: The pattern and airplane spacing were to be flown precisely, airspeed must be held within 1 knot and altitude within 10 feet, and the LSO’s signals must be answered immediately. Approach airspeed was 60 knots, about 5 knots above stall speed, which demanded smooth flying; jerking the airplane around or being rough on the throttle could easily cause a stall, bad news at low altitude.
For this stage we flew the SNJ-5C, with a tailhook and lockable tailwheel. In October and November 1948 I flew 15 flights of about 40 minutes each for Field Carrier Landing Practice (FCLP); our flight of six, including Cleo Swartz, would fly from NAS Saufley to one of the outlying practice fields; three airplanes, with two of us students in each one. Three of us stayed on the ground at the outlying field, throwing a football around, while the other three flew 10 or 12 FCLP approaches to a carrier deck painted on the pavement, with the Landing Signal Officer (LSO) guiding each final approach with his flags (paddles), ending with either a “cut” or a “wave-off” just as he would on the real carrier. Then we’d switch pilots and repeat.
A little vignette: One day when I was one of the three skylarking (Navy for lollygagging) around on the ground, someone hollered: “Hey! A parachute!” Then as the crash crew sped over to pick the guy up after he landed near us, an SNJ came in, buzzed us, and departed. The ‘chutist was white as a sheet when they came back with him; turned out he was a student in “B” Stage; he’d been demonstrating accelerated stalls out of a steep bank (we called ‘em flipper-turn stalls) for his instructor in the rear seat. He had inadvertantly unfastened his safety belt – I described such a situation earlier – your left open sleeve could catch the overcenter locking lever for the belt and pop it open. Anyway, on recovery, he’d punched the stick forward too enthusiastically, giving the airplane negative “g” as it abruptly pitched forward. His canopy was open, a common thing in warm weather. Well, that just shot him upward, right through the antenna wire, and as they say, “There he was”, without an airplane to fly. Had enough presence of mind to pull the ripcord, so he floated down uninjured. His microphone with its dangling cord was still clutched in his left hand. His instructor buzzed us after he was down to make sure he was OK; I’m sure he was pretty excited, too. I heard later that that student elected to discontinue flying as a career.
To continue: After the LSO felt we were ready, we embarked on the carrier USS Wright and on 3 November 1948 I landed aboard six times, out in the Gulf of Mexico. Boy, that’s hard to describe, there was so much that was new and different. Ashore, FCLP was fun; we flew at low altitudes all the way around the pattern, down around 150 feet, where you could count the red and black chickens in the barnyards, and wave at what might be pretty girls. But the carrier … well, that’s a different ballgame. First of all, it was a completely different environment. The huge ship, monstrous gray leviathan, very gently pitching and rolling, bosun’s pipes shrilling occasionally, followed by a stentorian voice over the multiple speakers: “NOW HEAR THIS! NOW HEAR THIS! PREPARE FOR CLEAN SWEEPDOWN FORE AND AFT!”, or some such incomprehensible message. What magic! What mystery! We had gone aboard while the ship was ashore; the SNJ’s to be our mounts were also hoisted aboard at the dock. It seemed no time at all until we were in one of the Ready Rooms, just below the flight deck, for a final briefing. I don’t remember how many of us went out on the ship, must have been around 18. I guess we were 40 to 80 miles out in the Gulf.
Then that Big Voice: “PREPARE FOR FLIGHT OPERATIONS … PILOTS, MAN YOUR PLANES!”. So, six at a time, we did that; the rest of us watched from the catwalk ‘til our turn came to replace our buddies, when they had completed six landings. There was a steady wind down the deck of about 30 knots, cool and salty. Nervous? Yeah. Scared? Maybe some. There was a lot to try and remember. The only fear was that of failure, or goofing up. The Big Voice was still helping, telling us when to switch pilots and so forth, and then there I was, scrambling up onto the flight deck, trotting across to my plane, hoisting myself up to the cockpit (the engine was kept running) as the first pilot climbed out, strapping in with the plane captain’s help … then chocks away, taxiing to directions from the plane handlers to the launch point, burning away some of the nervous tension I’d built up. The two-finger turnup from the Launch Officer in his yellow jersey and helmet; engine at takeoff power, checklist, scan the gauges, check the mags, all OK. Left-hand salute across the chest to show him I was ready. Like all flight deck gestures, an exaggerated, almost ballet-like motion from the Launch Officer, as he bent far forward and thrust his hand out ahead: release brakes and “GO”! Trundling down the deck and soon airborne with all that headwind, I was down low over blue water for the first time. The deep blue water with sunlit white wave crests was a new and beautiful scene, and as you turned base from downwind, that awesome big gray carrier moving away from you made your pattern appear quite different from the way the simulated deck had looked, painted and stationary on the runway. The deck was now about 75 feet high. And the air was so smooth; there were no terrain shapes to cause eddies in the air or different ground properties like grain fields or asphalt to cause thermal turbulence, and that made it easier to hold airspeed and altitude. But ignoring the movement over the water, your closure with the carrier made sense, and things seemed in order. Until you could see the LSO, you lined up the stack on the carrier’s island with the horizon for the proper altitude. Into the groove with airspeed and altitude set, watch the LSO, keep those corrections small, watch the LSO, follow the signals, watch … watch … CUT! Dip the nose and flare … there! Got a wire! Thrust forward in your straps! Watch the Flight Deck Yellowshirt, let it roll back … brakes … hook up … taxi forward for the next launch. God! What a life!
We had a saying that kept recurring in Naval Aviation: “Always a boot!”. A “boot” is a beginner, as in Boot Camp, the first phase of training for enlisted trainees. But the enlisted and the officers were all alike in this. It went thusly: You’d reach a peak, the ultimate for a particular training or duty phase, and then the next step would drop you back to the beginning stage of the next phase, a boot again. But you eventually realized that the saying was true for your whole career, that all of it was a continuous learning or training process, that you always would be faced with having to prove yourself, over and over, to the ones above you, and to your peers. We’re surrounded by analogies, in our business relations, some created in the name of self-help (“I’m OK, You’re OK”), some for religion, some for health, etc. For me, the old Navy term has had a lot of meaning through life.
A final thought about Basic Training, sort of off the wall: It’s said that our olfactory sense, though much reduced from that of our ancient ancestors, still has a powerful influence on us, and I believe it. I remember from long ago the strong nostalgic feeling of comfort and security brought on by the smell of my grandparents’ homes, that combination of cooking, furniture polish, a little mildew, and all those other subtle odors that come from living long years in a house. Well, not-so-nice smells can evoke a strong nostalgia, too, sometimes on the good side. All our flying took place in the Pensacola area. Just to the north of our practice areas was a paper mill, maybe two. When I flew, I usually encountered their odor, which most people describe ap class=s noxious. Not me. That smell immediately transports me back to a wonderful time in my life, when I was realizing a dream. In the fifty-odd years since, I’ve smelled it again, in Pensacola and in Franklin, Virginia, traveling through by car … POW! …. there I am again, on Cloud Nine.
During our previous training, there had been some minor distinctions in rank; not pay, just rank. Pay was $78 per month all the way through … oh, with flight pay, $117 per month. I’ve already mentioned the temporary assignments of rank during Pre-Flight School. When we started to fly, in Basic Training, we were automatically assigned the grade of Midshipman, 2nd Class, which entitled you to sport two small diagonal stripes on your shoulder boards and to pin one small fouled anchor symbol on your khaki shirt collar. You could wear only khaki, blue, or white uniforms. But when you advanced to the then-godlike status of Advanced Training, the hallowed aviation green uniforms were allowed, along with brown shoes or boots, and you were then a Midshipman, 1st Class, with a single small gold stripe straight across on your shoulder boards or blues sleeves, and a black one on the sleeve of the greens, and the small anchor symbol on each khaki collar tip. The power of those symbols was amazing in its importance. And again let me say that there was no difference in pay. It was all psychic.
To be a First Class Midshipman in advanced flight training was the highest true rank I’ve ever had. Ever. There you were, at the top of the training pyramid, object of admiration of all the boots below you, further buoyed by your own hero worship of those above as you were laboring up the ladder. You had no knowledge of all that was ahead of you; you were at the peak of the world as you perceived it. The only big event remaining was the Grail, to receive your golden wings, before passing into Nirvana. If that sounds corny and emotional, it’s because it was. I had offered up many prayers to whatever gods there might be, to take me, if necessary, into the dark valley if I could just get those wings first. I have to say now that this was the very epitome of the word “sophomoric”, but those were then my true feelings. Looking back, I can see that my philosophy more than once could have been termed sophomoric, but how else do you get to be a senior, in the Big High School?
Approaching the end of Basic Training, we were all asked what our first 3 choices would be in Advanced Training: VF (fighter), VA (attack), VP (patrol bombing – multi-engine), or VP (flying boats). I, like most of us, chose VF. Obviously, that’s where the fun was. What I got was VA, which meant that I’d fly TBMs, a lumbering torpedo plane design from WWII. The good news was that about half the class got VP (PBM’s), a really lumbering twin-engined flying boat; when you were assigned there as a new Ensign, you were 3rd man in the cockpit and would be lucky to log much time on your first sea duty tour. Yuck! To jump ahead a bit here, with a really scummy vignette: One of my three room-mates in Advanced Training was Bob Westfield, flying fighters (Corsairs). In Basic Training, he had dated a girl fairly seriously. Her mother worked as a clerk in the Pensacola Navy office having to do with these selections. When the time came to input our selections, she said, “Well, Bobby, what do you want?”. He said “well … fighters”, so she fixed it and that’s what he got. AAAGH! So shortly after Christmas 1948, I reported for duty at NAAS Cabaniss Field, near NAS Corpus Christi. Again, they really didn’t know what to do with us; the system wasn’t ready. Also, the WWII airfield, built for temporary duty, was beginning to come apart; I remember watching a Corsair turning up, causing the tarmac behind it to roll up like a carpet. So the engineers had to come in and essentially rebuild the airfield runways. From January to March I got a few SNJ flights as a boot student and weasled a few flights in TBM’s as passenger (“weasled” is an old Navy word; means I begged, borrowed, negotiated, or otherwise wormed my way aboard). Finally, on 2 March 1949 I piloted a TBM for the first time, beginning the Advanced Training Phase of the Naval Air Training Command. During the previous two months I was assigned a make-work job as – get this – Assistant Base Communications Officer. The real Communications Officer was a kindly old gentleman, Commander Hood. He didn’t know what to do with me, either; we both tried to think of things I could do. The base had been closed down for 2 or 3 years and communications really needed technicians, not supervisors. But he was a nice guy and used to regale me with stories of flying the Boeing F4B-4, a beautiful little Navy biplane fighter of the thirties, one that I’d been in love with for some time through my airplane magazines. So that was decidedly pleasant, although I was chafing to get going. Let’s see if I can describe my first TBM flight:
It’s a huge airplane, designed as a torpedo bomber. In advanced training, we still had a half-day academic syllabus, covering the TBM airplane and its systems, as well as other courses. So soon we were scheduled to just go out and fly it. My first impression was of its colossal size. To mount the thing, I had to place my left foot on the corner of the open bomb bay door on the left side, coupled with a lunge upward to grasp a hand-hold with my left hand, then to grab another higher hand-hold with the right hand, and swing the right foot up on the wing trailing-edge walkway. The cockpit was wide and expansive, with padded arm rests on each side of the seat, and you were sitting way up in the air compared to an SNJ. The engine was a Wright R-2600 with about three times the power of the SNJs P&W R-1340, but it started with about the same technique. It was a lot louder, with all those stacks banging away up ahead of you, but that seemed to go with the size, and I liked it. No steerable tailwheel, only LOCKED and UNLOCKED, so it took more brakes and more effort to make it go where you wanted, plus you had to get used to those lo-o-ong wide wings out each side. It had almost twice the wingspan of the SNJ. Oh, and a big thing: It was always parked with the wings folded, which was another step toward our future life in the Fleet.
Back at home, a great thing happened in January of 1949, My sister Nancy married David Wilson. To my knowledge, neither had ever been serious about another person. One of those storybook events. From the time they first dated (preceded by David’s ostensible visits to me), through David’s two years in the Air Force and Nancy’s enrollment in Ward-Belmont’s Young Ladies Finishing School, there was no wavering I was aware of; they just pressed on toward an End as immutable as a Royal Coronation. Fortunately, we were at a hiatus in our training curriculum and I was able to participate. And their union kept going in the same fashion; this year (1999) they celebrated their 50th anniversary with a great family: Reed, Melinda, and Rob, with spouses, and eight grandchildren. That great family deserves a book of its own.
The big difference in Advanced Training and our previous work was that the flying was now obviously tactical, as if you really were serious about it. Bombing, gunnery, navigation, instruments and night flying. Bombing meant both “mast-head”, or low altitude bombing (fun), higher altitude glide bombing, releasing from 3,500 feet instead of on the deck. The practice bombs were little 10-lb cast-iron shapes with blank shotgun shells in the nose, which made a puff of smoke on ground contact. Gunnery meant strafing from low altitude with 50-caliber machine guns and that was great fun, too, with the earth or water torn up by impact and the tracers arcing out to that point. Navigation involved going out 150 or so miles in the Gulf, making a cross-leg, and coming back toward the beach, all the while tracking a make-believe ship, at night and by day. The problem was called “fictitious ship”; you’d taken off from a fictitious carrier (home base) to fly this triangular leg mission, about a 3-hour flight. During the flight you used the wave white-tops and wind streaks to estimate the wind direction and velocity and then to plot a ground track of your mission, and then at some time the instructor would tell you that the carrier to which you must return had changed its course and speed. So you took care of all that (or attempted to) on a plotting board that pulled out from under the instrument panel; you had no other navigational aids. If you did everything right, you’d end up at a known point on the beach so that the instructor could grade your navigation. To conduct practice instrument flying, you had a chase airplane (instructor); when up and away, you taped orange transparent plastic sheets to the inside of your windshield and canopy. Then when you donned the blue goggles, you couldn’t see outside the cockpit, even on a bright, clear day. Orange and blue comes out black. The chase airplane would make sure you didn’t run into anybody, and remind you to raise the goggles when needed, as on the last stage of an instrument approach. Maybe this is a good time to note that this was one way you placed your life in the hands of your compatriots. I’ll mention others as we go along. Always, you all depended on each other. There were countless ways in which this was true; in formation flying, for instance, we flew in close proximity, only a few feet apart, where a sudden control movement or inattention in any of the airplanes could result in collision. Night and flying in cloud upped the ante.
I found that I was quite good at bombing, especially the mast-head, or low-level type, and usually had high score in my flight. To do it, we’d fly to the target in formation. Once there, we’d break up, with the lead airplanes peeling off one after another from echelon formation (that’s a staggered line, like wild geese) and form a racetrack pattern. Each plane would call turning in for the bomb run, which was on a certain heading, then after bomb release, call off the target, so that the following planes would know who was where. The same procedure was followed for rockets and strafing. Large bullseye targets were laid out on the ground to aid in spotting the hits.
I did pretty well overall. A few years ago, the Navy decided to clean house; old codgers like me were offered the return of our Navy records, or they’d be deep-sixed (deep-six is a verb, meaning “Throw away”). Naturally, I chose to receive mine. I’d never had the chance to look at them before. They included every one of my flights in the training command, and the comments and judgments of my instructors. Well, you can imagine that there were mixed emotions in looking at those impartial records of personal performance representing one’s greatest efforts and highest goals … how many times have you wondered what the girls were talking about in the restroom, between dances? “She tells me I’m nice, but what does she really think about my sweaty hands?”. Or what your light-of-love told her best friend about you? So with some trepidation I opened up those yellowed records, once a part of sweaty, straining reality. On the whole I was pleased, in fact I was a bit bouyed by some of the comments of instructors, some forgotten but clearly remembered when their names popped up. A particular instructor sort of shepherded us through Advanced Training, our Flight (training group) of six students. We were Bob Artz, Art Barie, Al Doles, Red DeCharmes, Bob Bennett, me (all Midshipmen), and a Lt (jg) named Chuck Robb. We almost always flew together on formation flights such as bombing, gunnery, and navigation. Of course we had numerous flights with other instructors, like instrument training, etc., but our guru kept up with our progress and was an advisor and consultant, you might say. LTjg J.F. Scott was his name (we called him Scotty, but of course never to his face); we had several parties during the training phase and I remember his wife was a very attractive and vivacious lady. Strange, one’s sometime detail of memory; he used Old Spice after-shave. Soon, I did, too.
We were billeted four to a room at NAAS Cabaniss. One of my roommates, Jay Richmond, seemed at first to be a bit of a pansy; his mother owned a music store and he had helped her for some years. I’m sure he was into music, but can’t remember what instruments he played. But his book cover was certainly misleading; he was an absolute tiger on a motorcycle. Owned a British Triumph bike, and did utterly scary things on it, like standing up on the saddle at 60 mph! Good with airplanes, too. It was Jay who swayed me into seeing the movie “Hamlet”, with Lawrence Olivier. Shakespeare for me had always been a mysterious jumble of high-flown words. My only acquaintance with its spoken words were orations by English teachers who had meager speaking ability and probably no understanding of the subject; they left me with no desire to hear more. But this, these words by Olivier, was powerful stuff and it stirred me deeply. I felt that I was in a new world and that my life had changed for the better because of it.
There were some accidents. In Basic Training with the SNJ, there were accidents like ground loops, flying into trees and stuff like that, but few fatalities; none where I knew the pilot. In Advanced, there were a couple of accidents that come to mind, although there were others I’ve forgotten because I wasn’t close to them. First, there was a spectacular crash which occurred when a student in a Corsair fighter stalled and spun at about 500 feet on his base leg approach. The airplane broke up on ground impact, cartwheeled and finally came to rest; the pilot, with only minor injuries, simply unstrapped and walked straight ahead, away from the wreckage. He was in shock and had cuts and scratches, but that’s all. Should qualify as a miracle. The second event was almost an antithesis of the first: Pete Peters, a fellow student, was one of a flight of six Corsairs out over the Gulf when his engine developed a massive oil leak. The engine seized and he had to ditch his airplane. Ditching was not regarded as particularly dangerous, especially in the Corsair, with its inverted gull wings. Also, the waves were not very high that day. They all watched the ditching, which seemed to go well, but there was no movement in the cockpit during the three minutes or so of flotation. Pete went down with his airplane. We didn’t wear hardhats (protective helmets) in those days, just fabric helmets with headsets and goggles, and it was supposed that his head struck something as the airplane lurched and pounded during the ditching, stunning or maybe knocking him out. He was a contemporary and a number of us knew him and attended the funeral. It’s hard to remember just how I felt about his death, which was a first such experience for me. There were to be more later, and they all had pretty much the same emotional effect. There was, probably, a buried selfish feeling of relief that it wasn’t you. And there was a strong feeling of awareness that the ordinary things making up the world were going on as if nothing had happened; the sun shone, the wind moved the trees … there was a flood of short-term memories of the man … but an overriding factor was that we all had a very strong desire to be where we were. Somehow, the risks had subconsciously been recognized and accepted, without any visible protocol. Certainly, the Navy had from the first strongly emphasized the dangers of flight and human error. I recall a poster I saw many places: A photo of airplane wreckage with the caption, “The air, like the sea, is mercilessly unforgiving of human carelessness”. In Pete’s case, of course, carelessness played no part (unless he’d forgotten to lock his shoulder harness), but the “couldn’t happen to me” syndrome is strong in a twenty year-old. I don’t mean that I somehow avoided deep feelings; there were always tears that came unexpectedly and briefly for some time afterwards, but it was not considered good form to be public about it. His mother, present at the funeral, wrote a poem, which she later sent to those of us who signed the funeral guest book. I lost the printed version, but wrote out a copy which I still have, on a piece of yellowed paper. Herewith:
A Mother’s Prayer
Sleep gently, my son,
Where the waters are deep …
God’s love does enshroud you,
Treasures you there …
Lie peaceful, my son.
Sleep gently, my son,
Where the waters are blue …
God’s bosom enfolds you,
Cradles you there …
Lie peaceful, my son
Sleep gently, my son,
Where the waters run warm …
God’s angels wing round you,
Eternal “roger”, loved one!
Wait peaceful, my son.
Written to her beloved son, Midshipman Thomas H. Peters, who went down at sea in his Corsair on Flag Day, June 1949.
Just the fact that I managed to hang onto it all these years indicates that it was important to me. I should explain that the term “roger” means “OK” or “all is well” or “I understand”, depending on the context. In closing out a radio transmission with another air or ground station, for example, it means simply that “I understand”. On another level: One of the dearest expressions in a straight-deck carrier pilot’s life was the LSO’s notation in his record book that a “roger pass” was made in a carrier landing approach, meaning that the LSO never had to give a “fast”, “slow”, “high“ or “low”, or a bank left or right signal to the pilot during that particular landing approach. Perfection, in brief, but attainable at times. Which, I suppose, is one of the primary reasons why carrier aviation has been the best I ever experienced. It was damned challenging, and it was a thing that I could do well. I made a roger pass now and then. No other facet of aviation has that extreme filtering action, that exclusion of all but the very best. All of us knew and accepted it; how could you not? There was no avoidance of penalty for poor performance, no excuse for laxity, you either did it or you didn’t, it was there for all to see. It was always done under the eyes of many peers and judges. And if you did it well, there were great psychic rewards. Not in the paycheck, not in the world at large, but with your squadron-mates, with the brotherhood, your reputation was enhanced, and that was all-important. And the carrier landing approach itself was but one of many facets of the job on which you were judged in your fellows’ eyes, e.g., your radio discipline (no broadcasting when signals would do), the smoothness in your formation flying, the smoothness, judgment, and anticipation in the way you led sections and divisions in large formation exercises, your judgment as formation lead when circling aft of the carrier, waiting for the signal to come aboard, so that there was a minimum of time after that until your formation was in the break for landing. Achieving the minimum interval between landings was always a matter of competition between squadrons. Time was always of the essence in carrier flying; in wartime, which you always practiced for, the Task Force was at its most vulnerable when steaming into the wind on a constant heading while recovering airplanes.
Now that I’ve mentioned LSO’s paddles and signals, and roger passes, I need to define straight-deck carrier flying. Until 1951, when the USS Antietam arrived in the fleet with its canted-deck modification, all carriers had straight decks. In landing aboard one of those, the entire base leg was flown at a constant altitude of about 150 feet over the water; the pilot was responsible for adjusting airspeed and lineup with the deck until the LSO’s signals were visible, from which point the “paddle” signals were followed to complete the approach. Paddles were usually metal frames about half the size of a paddleball racquet with strips of day-glo fabric attached horizontally, the day-glo for visibility and the strips to lessen wind resistance (wind over the deck ranged from 30 to 50 knots during flight operations), although the LSOs, who were rugged individualists anyway, had final say on their paddle design. From the carrier stern forward, about half the flight deck contained several cross-deck arresting cables, or “wires” which were (hopefully) caught by the tailhook of landing airplanes. Then at about the halfway point on the deck, cables mounted on retractable pylons were raised up to about 6 feet during recovery operations to stop airplanes that had not been arrested for whatever reason (hook pulled out, hook skip, poor pilot technique leading to a bounce). The moment of truth for a carrier approach came as the airplane neared the stern, when the LSO gave either the “cut” or “waveoff” signal, with mandatory compliance. If a cut, the throttle was chopped as the nose was dipped downward and then back up to set up a descent to the deck. Here pilot technique was important; the nose dip and flare had to be done so the airplane would contact the deck in a 3-point attitude (tailwheel and two main wheels), a case of “not too little, not too much”. Given the proper airspeed, just a little above the stall, once the airplane hit the deck in a three-point attitude, it was planted there; it didn’t bounce. If a waveoff, the throttle was immediately advanced to full, but not too rapidly; otherwise, propeller torque could cause an uncontrollable roll to the left. The airplane was then climbed out to rejoin the landing pattern for another try, and the pilot’s adrenaline level rose another notch.
As carriers were modified after 1951 with the canted deck and the mirror, the landing task was eased, though the higher approach speeds of the newer airplanes nullified that to some degree. The mirror allows a descending approach, as on a land base, and the canted deck means that the landing approach heading is pointed out to sea, to the left of the ship’s bow. The LSO no longer uses paddles for “talking” to the pilots, but actually talks via radio. There’s now no “cut” signal; the plane is flown onto the deck at the descent angle used for approach. On impact (and it’s a whammo!), the throttle is jammed to full, so the stage is set for a “bolter” or go-around, if the tailhook doesn’t find a wire. If it does, the throttle is simply retarded. The “waveoff” command is still mandatory, though. It’s given by voice from the LSO on radio and flashing lights around the mirror. Lot different from the old days; us old straight-deckers think the kids today have it a lot easier. Sound familiar?
Well, back to the story. It’s really tough to keep a timeline in this exposition. You’ve got to let the readers know what you’re talking about, but that sometimes entails violating the chronology of the story; since I’m not charging you anything for this, bear with it. The last hurdle in Advanced Training was CQ, Carrier Qualification, just as in Basic; this time I was to land aboard the USS Cabot, then the training carrier at Pensacola. So after we jumped through all the hoops in Advanced Training in the TBM airplane, at NAS Corpus Christi, we went back to NAS Pensacola to qualify aboard ship. My logbook indicates that I flew 4.0 hours in 11 training flights for FCLP, and then on 14 June 1949, I flew out to the carrier, one of a flight of six, and qualified by making 7 satisfactory arrested landings (in Navy language, landings are “recoveries” and takeoffs are “launches”, in case you ever want to sound nautical). In my logbook and in the old yellowed orders it appears to be a straightforward matter, but as often happens, the dry pages of history sometimes fall short of real life. So it is here: Up to this point, we had been flying the Grumman TBM wearing a life vest, with only a parachute beneath us in the bucket seat. But now that we were to be flying off the carrier, safety regulations required that we also had to sit on a “survival pack”, which, as the name implies, contained survival equipment, including a life raft and various pieces of related gear, like fishing equipment, signalling mirrors, desalination balloons, and the like. We were flying close to the carrier, and a destroyer escort was there for pickup if you dunked, but the requirement was “in the book”, a phrase with which we were to become intimately familiar. So you sat up several inches higher, meaning you had to lower the seat that much more to reach the position from which you had been flying the airplane; that was done by pulling up a lever, then pushing the seat downward to the desired position, then releasing the lever, thereby locking the seat. Supposedly. That worked fine for taxi and takeoff, but on the way out to the carrier, probably after about 15 minutes outward bound in the Gulf, my seat kept releasing and popping me up when we hit any little burbles of turbulence, to the point where I couldn’t reach the rudder pedals. This was not the way it’d been designed, but it simply didn’t lock as it did at the previous settings. I’d push it back down and reset the supposed “lock-in” feature of the height adjustment lever, but it didn’t last. Finally, on the last attempt, it held for the initial landing aboard ship; my anxiety level was pretty high just anticipating the first landing aboard in the TBM; with the seat problem thrown in, my heart rate was several levels above “pitty-pat”, but I wasn’t about to throw in the towel and return to shore. Fortunately, we were scheduled to park and shut down for a briefing before continuing the qualification landings. First thing after parking, I pulled the survival pack out and pitched it in the crew station in the aft fuselage without telling anyone because I didn’t want to take a chance of the seat problem grounding my airplane, and I did have a life vest. After that, the next six landings went OK; I don’t remember anything about them, so I must have done pretty well. After each landing, we’d be taxiied forward past the barriers and launched back into the pattern. When we all had six landings in the continuous pattern, we formed up and flew back to Pensacola as a flight, with everybody riding high. This was it, the last hoop! From Pensacola, we were flown back to NAAS Cabaniss in an R4D transport, a “Gooney-bird”, called C-47 by the USAF and DC-3 by the old airlines.
The designation ceremony was scheduled for 23 June (getting your wings was called designation as a Naval Aviator). The day before, something happened that frustratingly escapes my memory. My logbook shows a 3-hour flight in a TBM on 22 June, with my notation, “Strike on Lockhart”. Lt. Scott, my instructor, knew that Lockhart was my home; he’d once allowed our flight to circle it during a navigation training mission. In this case, I’d apparently been allowed to take an airplane on a flight outside the training curriculum to do whatever I wanted, so I flew 150 miles north and buzzed the town. But I can’t remember the circumstances. It may be that Scotty took the whole flight up to Lockhart … whatever, I’m sure I enjoyed it; I always did. I loved to fly formation, and buzzing your hometown in a big loud Navy warplane (where you used to putter across the sky in Cubs) was a special treat.
I don’t remember much about the Big Day; a group of 15 of us lined up in whites. Captain W.F. Kline, the Skipper of the base, handed a scrolled document to us in turn, the paper proclaiming the bearer to be a Naval Aviator. My mother pinned the wings on my uniform, with Dad, Sara Lee Norman, and her parents, Bill and Wilma Norman, looking on. I was to experience similar things later, things that should have been burned into memory, that were the capstones of long and arduous struggle, or were signal honors, but things that somehow didn’t make me feel any different. I suppose it simply illustrates that having dreams come true is not the important thing, it’s the dreaming. I mentioned Sara Lee Norman; later on, she came to be called Sally. I was interested, but she never was able to return much of that. I suspect she came, as she did on a later invitation, because her mother and dad were good friends of my parents (and they liked me), and she had no more interesting suitors. Today happens to be 5 June 1999. Just last week Mother called to tell me Sally had died, of cancer and other complications, after a long illness. I last saw her at Mother’s 90th birthday party six years ago, and I was shocked to see her bent body, feebleness, and aged face. It was a shock, seeing this girl who would always be just a kid, three years younger than me, in an old lady’s suit. I still can’t think of myself as an old man. On the face of it, seeing classmates and acquaintances of 50 and more years ago makes denial difficult. But I’m thinking about this as I write; no, I’m not old. As long as I can be silly at times without undue concern of others’ opinions, and retain a sense of the ridiculous, and wonder about the mysteries of this crazy thing called life, and in my nightly dreams go back to youth and childhood, surrounded by my Dad and other loved long-gone relatives, I’ll just be me. No age attached. At this time, after completing flight training, my logbook shows 185 hours in the SNJ and 107 hours in the TBM.
TOWARD THE FLEET
Often, when the Navy issues travel orders to a new station, a delay-in-route is authorized so you can take annual leave on the way. So I had 15 days to report to my assigned Squadron, VC-33, at NAS Norfolk, Virginia. A short time before, Dad had arranged a used-car buy for me: A 1941 Chevrolet sedan. This, in 1949. It wouldn’t do for me to point fingers, I’m no bargainer, but Dad was not what one would call a sharp mule-trader. Well, he might have been OK with mules, but with cars, a question remained. It was green, in pretty good shape, except that it had a thirst for oil. If the engine cylinders had rings, they didn’t do much. It was prudent to keep a case of oil cans in the trunk, and whenever adding gas, the wise operator added a quart of oil. But it was my first car; it was mine, and I loved it. Well, one other thing. It also developed a thirst for brake fluid. So when the brake pedal ceased being effective, you simply drove in the right-hand lane, which allowed easing over and rubbing against the curb for slowing and stopping. That actually happened very seldom, but it was a good thing to remember. I drove it not only in Norfolk, but also in Philadelphia and points in between. And we never hit anything except the curb. One of those “life was simpler in the old days” stories. Or maybe about fools treading where angels fear to.
So, about that delay-in-route in Lockhart: I don’t remember much about what should have been halcyon days, the return of the conquering hero, back to the town of his roots bearing the golden fleece, with over a week to bask in the admiring glow of those he had left behind … but it was almost July, and I think most people were busy with summer vacations and things. And of course all my old buddies were off in the military. Golden fleeces and conquering heroes simply didn’t figure in with the existing situation, especially considering that I hadn’t left any grieving or pining maidens in my wake. Not that it mattered at all; I was fixated on getting to the Fleet and the next Big Adventure. And I got lots of strokes from my kinfolks.
Three others in my flight of six back in Advanced Training who received orders to the Norfolk area and lived in Kansas made it attractive for me to pick them up on the way, driving my car. Al Doles lived in Emporia, Jay Richmond in Parsons, and Red DeCharmes lived close enough to meet us in Parsons. So we met there on a Saturday. Jay (and his sister) had us fixed up for dates Saturday night; we stayed at Jay’s house, and Sunday we took the girls to church, (it was insisted upon that we wear our whites), then a picnic. We left to continue our odyssey on Monday morning. But it’s strange … it’s strange. Her name was Betty Lou Waters, red hair, blue eyes, feisty. When someone snapped our photo, she pinched me, so my face is all screwed up. Why is it that she’s so clear in my memory? I guess it’s that I just wasn’t used to girls being forward. But she was cute; no, she was pretty. I think she’d be pleased that she’s fixed in my memory. I’d just never seen a girl set her cap. And let’s face it: There’s a bit of sadness. I’ll never know what I passed up. But there’s just one run through this maze, and you either seize the moment or be carried on with the tide.
Forward, ho! With many cans of oil and gallons of gasoline. Our plan was to drive straight through and share the driving stints. I must say that as long as we kept it fed, the old Chevy ran fine; don’t recall any flats or breakdowns. In the days before Interstates, you didn’t have the need for cruise control, to clip along at 70 mph. Couldn’t go as fast, but there were balancing factors you don’t have now. Somewhere in Missouri, we saw a sign advertising an Indian burial ground, so we pulled off, and it was fascinating. A giant burial mound had been excavated and numerous remains and artifacts were left on raised areas to wander among. It was all under roof. Another interesting experience was waiting for the ferry; this was on a U.S. Highway, US 80 I think, where you had to stop and wait for a small ferry to come back across the river (Missouri, I think). I’m gonna get on the internet and find a 1949 highway map; it’ll be fun, verifying that. The worst part of the trip was in the West Virginia mountains. It was night and fog was forming. Really crummy driving conditions. But the really bad thing was that it was Jay Richmond’s turn to drive, and he was sleepy. Kept dozing off and veering off the road. I’d never realized how stubborn he was. He’d stomp his foot on the floorboards to wake up, and insist that he was OK to drive. I think we finally just overpowered him and dragged him into the back seat.
WELL, WORLD, HERE WE ARE … ALMOST
On checking in at NAS Norfolk, we found that we weren’t quite there yet, as to joining our assigned squadron, VC-33. There was a sign on the front desk in the Personnel Office, where we checked in: “Don’t feel sad, don’t feel blue, Someone has to go to old FAETU … guess who?” Since we were to be in anti-submarine warfare, we had to be exposed to the electronics part of the job.
FAETU: Fleet Air Electronics Training Unit. It was four weeks of training, including a little hands-on stuff, for radar and other electronic devices then in use, mostly for anti-submarine warfare. Since we were itching to get into airplanes, this was hardly a welcome diversion, but it was interesting, because anti-submarine warfare was to be our bag. The school consisted largely of academics and a few flights in multi-engine training planes to let us try some of the stuff we’d been studying. One thing that sticks in memory: Over and over, we were told that the material we were furnished was highly classified. One of the big classified aids in chasing subs was that, in the event of a sighting or suspected presence of a sub, you’d fly over the site and drop devices in the water in a certain pattern; these devices, called – don’t say it – sonobouys – would pick up the sub’s noise and transmit it to your radio operator in the rear of the TBM. Instead of “sonobouy”, you had to say “fencepost” to deny information to the enemy. Well, in that same time period, Popular Mechanics magazine published an article with not only the sacred name, “sonobouy”, but also 3-view drawings showing just how it all worked. Better drawings than we had for study. A good introduction to the over-classification syndrome in the government, prevalent then and more so today. If Popular Mechanics could get the information, obviously someone more skilled in the spy business would have had it long before.
During the school period, we were able to check out SNJs assigned to the Base to log flight time so we could receive flight pay, that princely sum of $39 per month I mentioned earlier (Midshipman’s base pay of $78 plus 50% flight pay, if you logged 4 hours or more per month). Another Midshipman, Dick Stroud, and I set out one day to do that, and I was put on report by the Tower. I have a copy of my response to the gig; I don’t remember it, but apparently I took off without receiving specific tower clearance. Nothing came of it. Not much credit in mashing a Midshipman, anyway. Nobody up the line would know what you were talking about … Midshipman … what the hell is that?
THE FLEET – REALLY FINALLY ACTUALLY THERE
It would be an understatement to say that we were warmly welcomed aboard. After some four years of quiescence since WWII, Composite Squadron 33 (VC-33) was re-commissioned in May of 1949, with a complement of 18 officers (pilots) and about 100 enlisted men, based in LP-3, Landplane Hangar 3, at NAS Norfolk. “We”, as used here, means those of us joining the squadron in June and July, including 8 brand-new bachelor aviators. This number of bachelors was unusually high, and the squadron pilots’ wives were enthusiastic, if not ecstatic. Nothing untoward implied, it simply meant that parties would be well-furnished and that young people would be around for different and pleasant mixes, who would be party supporters. And that they were.
Just about the time I reported to the Squadron, my two years as a Midshipman was up and I was commissioned an Ensign, USN (same as a 2nd Lieutenant).
Our Squadron Commander was Robin M. Lindsey, Commander, USN. As a pilot and LSO (Landing Signal Officer) during WWII in the Pacific, he’d been highly decorated for bringing an entire Air Group aboard acting as LSO during a battle despite severe damage to his carrier and many of the airplanes. He was a fine-looking man, tall and athletic, with a narrow mustache. Loved to play basketball, which he’d done at Stanford. And he was good to the troops, had a nice touch of friendliness toward all. He was a good pilot, and I came to realize, in time, that he was the best LSO I ever flew on; smooth, anticipatory, with almost a clairvoyant sense of what any individual pilot would do next, so that his flag signals were usually very small, smooth, and easy to follow.
He was only about 35 at that time; I guess Alice Carey, his wife, was 33 or so, and they had a little girl of 6 or 7, very cute. What we saw was a group of very friendly men and women who welcomed us young guys in with open arms. I still correspond with some of them; it was a great time in my life. They turned out to be some of the best people I’ve ever known. The only jarring note was an occasional background reminder that Naval Tradition and Usage would cast us as “officers first, pilots second”, which I couldn’t accept. I remember in that period having some of those lofty bar discussions with other junior officers, where I was advised at one time that if I didn’t have the goal of becoming an Admiral as my highest aim, I was in the wrong job. Now I think my advisors were right, and I’m glad I didn’t bang against that wall too many times.
So life was wonderful. We were encouraged to fly on weekends and take cross-countries; what was called the “Baker Allotment”, bureaucratese for the monthly squadron allowance for aviation fuel, was downsized if the previous month’s expenditure slackened, so we needed to burn all we could. Stupid bureaucracy, but great for young and hungry pilots. The Skipper decreed mandatory beer-muster every Friday after work (unless you were flying) and although there was some whining from the weaker married pewks, it was rigidly enforced. The usual game was to roll 5 cupped dice for “high horse” until somebody lost and paid for the round; the loser could drink free from then on, so it tended to keep the party going. You stuck around to recoup your losses, after you’d paid up. Great fun if you were a bachelor, with quarters just next door and no duties at home, but now it makes me shudder to imagine Marcie waiting, with a cooling dinner. I'd have been wailing, not just whining.
Just about every Saturday night and sometimes during the week, one of the married types would have a party or the Skipper would decree a party, either at the O-Club or sometimes at places like the local Elks Club. ally, all the squadron officers would be invited, and usually they all came. Usually, there were one or two who were not good mixers, or someone would be in a bad mood, but they’d just be carried along. That was the really great thing about squadron life: You belonged. It was a family. Sometimes the bachelors would get together and spring for a party at the O-Club. When the bachelors brought new dates, the squadron wives didn’t hang back in critiques, solicited or otherwise. There was life outside the squadron, and it increased with the passage of time, but it was not an escape, in my opinion, just a balancing of activities. I think everyone was ready for that, after the first year of the new squadron. For one thing, after a few drinks, the Skipper had a propensity for occasionally showing his admiration for certain of the wives by a pinch or a pat here or there, which caused more than one junior officer to tell the Skipper, sometimes in front of witnesses, that his clock would be cleaned if that pinch or pat was repeated. To my knowledge, no budding careers were thereby blighted, and no one actually carried out the threat.
In the fall of 1949 I was casting about for something to do besides going to the O-Club; in downtown Norfolk at a music store I found a little 12-bass accordion. Mindful of Bob Patton and my love of the music he made, I bought it, along with an instruction book. I fiddled (forgive me) around with it there at the BOQ, but it wasn’t until later that I really began to learn to play and enjoy it. Stick around and I’ll tell you about that. Later on.
Al Doles was my room-mate and had been a close friend for a long time; we’d gone through advanced training together. He was absolutely no good in bar-sweeps for bad girls, but other than that, he was a good companion for most of the things we wanted to do. All he ever talked about was Donna, Donna, Donna … and finally in the next spring, she came out and they were married. Just like that. Her sister came and was Maid of Honor, I was honored to be Best Man, and we all just did it, on 8 April 1950. Donna was one of those singular people who are hard to describe, partly because they can fit into any situation. She was small and pretty, and I immediately fell in love with her, as did all the guys. I guess maybe a way to say it would be that she was a woman for all seasons. There was absolutely no pretense about her, and you felt at ease as soon as you met her. Quite a woman, with dignity but no showiness. No put-on, in Texan language.
The Operations Officer was very busy at this time; as a new squadron we had a lot of blocks to fill, on the ground and in the air. We were doing a lot of night and instrument flying, bombing, rocketry, and all those other mission-oriented things that CINCLANT (Commander in Chief, Atlantic Fleet) wanted to see posted on our board. And we were still trying to fill our squadron complement of personnel. We didn’t have an Executive Officer (XO, second to the Skipper), but there were rumors that Robin Lindsey had an old friend picked out, a legendary pilot who’d flown Spitfires with the Brits. Not only that, he’d had a legendary tragic love affair with a legendarily beautiful Malay princess. Alice Carey was misty-eyed about that, as I recall. Finally, late that fall, LCDR Putt Prater came aboard. A bachelor, really a nice guy, and seemed to be a good pilot. I never did affirm any of the rumors of his past, but did fly with him several times and I really did like him, as did everyone. So he pitched in to help the Skipper get the squadron ready for sea duty; we had a date for a 2-week cruise down toward Cuba on the USS Franklin D. Roosevelt, then one of the three largest carriers, in January, 1950. On 12 January 1950, at sea on the FDR, Putt Prater made his approach for the first landing of our new squadron; the Skipper was waving as the LSO. Prater settled in the groove, failed to answer a come-on and slow signal, and crashed and exploded on the ramp (the aft end of the steel flight deck). It killed him and 3 enlisted men sunbathing on the stern (against regs). That had to be hard, hard, for Robin Lindsey, but he pushed for continued air operations that day, and we did that. I wish I knew more about their friendship. I do know that both Robin and Alice Carey were close friends of long standing with Putt Prater. I don’t remember much else about that cruise except that drinking rum punches out on the hot sunlit patio of the Guantanamo Bay O-Club in Cuba made you feel the effects pretty quickly.
I know it was good that we got back into action quickly after Prater’s crash; it didn’t leave a lasting mark on us, except probably for Robin and Alice Carey. But then life went on; I don’t remember who replaced Prater as XO. We kept on having great parties and doing a lot of fun flying. One time we had just about the whole squadron on a rocket-firing mission down at Navy Duck target, a few miles north of Kittyhawk, NC. Frank Bonansinga, I think it was, was following the Skipper in the racetrack pattern we used for those weapons delivery missions. The little Sub-Caliber Aircraft Rockets (SCAR’s) we used for practice were only 1.75 inches diameter, with a solid head, and would sometimes ricochet pretty badly when fired at a low angle. Well, Frank’s rocket glanced far upward from the beach target, tumbled downward, and cut through the Skipper’s upper right wing surface, about 6 feet from the cockpit. Nobody’s fault, really, just a reminder that this wasn’t just a beachboys thing. It was typical of the Skipper that he made light of it. To do otherwise would have castigated Frank, who was a very earnest and dedicated young pilot. For me, it was an UP mark for Robin Lindsey.
About Navy Duck Target: As development spread, Navy Duck became a little community called Duck; after we went back to Virginia in the ‘60s, we stayed at a Ramada Campsite there; later it became a residential development.
The Skipper had other ideas about squadron flight activities that were, well, different than what most of us had been exposed to. At this time, in 1949, Mainside NAS Norfolk consisted of a large macadam circular mat, with runways extending out from it in three different directions. The mat was probably 3,000 feet in diameter, with the extended runways adding another 1,000 feet or so in their particular directions. Well, the Skipper liked the idea of “group gropes”, as we called them, with the entire 18-plane squadron taking off in parade formation, flying that way for an hour or so, then returning and landing in 4-plane divisions; I think he felt it’d be good for squadron spirit and air discipline. But what I remember clearly, soon after joining the squadron as a brand-new aviator, is being tail-end charley on one of those 18-plane formation takeoffs. Mass parade formation flying is sort of like the playground game of “snap the whip” in that the further down the line you are, the larger the throttle and flight corrections that are required to maintain position in formation (“parade” formation means flying in very close proximity, like 5 or 10 feet separation at all times). So here I was, on takeoff from the mat, wiping out the cockpit with the stick and rudder pedals, and varying from full-throttle to horn-blowing during liftoff and initial climbout (horn-blowing means coming back on the throttle enough to get the horn which was activated by near-idle power with wheels up). I don’t know about its effect on squadron spirit, but it sure did jazz up my spirit during those rather desperate and mercifully-brief moments of trying to retain control, not hit my section leader, and remain airborne. Add to this the high control forces involved in moving the stick and rudder of the TBM, for one who was arguably the smallest pilot in the squadron, and you can more fully understand the clarity of my memory.
Another idiosyncrasy: The Skipper didn’t believe in mag checks. One of the sacrosanct items on the pre-takeoff checklist, in all my experience, was to conduct magneto checks to be sure the mags were connected and that plugs were not fouled, so as not to be surprised by a sudden silence during flight. Well, if you were flying on the Skipper, you’d be well-advised to do your runup and mag checks while taxiing behind him to the runway, holding brakes to stay at taxi speed, because he’d just roll onto the runway and add takeoff power when cleared. I wish now I’d asked him where he’d got that from. I guess it did carry with it a certain devil-may-care insouciance, but though I tended to be nonchalant about some things, that was a bit much even for me.
Several officers of somewhat advanced rank went through flight training in the same time period as us Midshipmen and were also assigned to VC-33, since the Navy was in serious need of both junior and mid-officer ranks to replace those bailing out when the war ended. Among those were LTs W.E. “Bill” Keeler and W. H. “Big A” Alexander; also, I believe LT Henry Johnathon Hosmer “Hoz” Cooke was in this same group. They arrived at the new squadron a little before us, like one to three weeks. Bill Alexander was a bachelor and the others were married pewks, as were a couple of others whose names don’t surface at this time. Bill was the picture of an erudite Naval officer, meaning he knew all sorts of bawdy songs and poems we hadn’t heard, and could move with the smoothest at cocktail parties. Being a Naval Academy graduate, he was steeped in the lore and tradition of the Service, yet wasn’t patronizing toward us “new hires”. Along with the Midshipmen and Ensigns, these were the hard core of the party group (the last to go home), which is why I remember them right off. I’d never tried a Martini, the drink that is, but “Big A” was a Martini fancier; the popular belief was that, even after four or five of those drinks, listing about 10 degrees to port was his only reaction. Well, I had to try them, and soon found that just a couple of them would induce almost total paralysis. I detested the taste at first, but as with learning to chew tobacco with my cousin Richard back at Grandad’s farm, found that could be overcome. So soon I came to like them (still do), although it took a few humiliating experiences to instill the realization that they had to be handled with care, like a loaded gun.
So things went on in fine fashion; I flew 30 to 50 hours per month, we had great parties, and made some cross-country flights to interesting places. Atlanta a couple of times, and a memorable trip to Cleveland, with LTjg Frank Hemler leading three of us Ensigns. Night flying, ice, and in retrospect, lucky to make it without denting the airplanes. Or ourselves. Frank Hemler was leading, we were flying in formation, and with the ice I could only see out of a small (little bitty) area of the forward windshield. If we’d have had to break formation, none of us knew where in hell we were that night. I think Al Doles and Frank Bonansinga were the other two guys.
In Basic Training, Cleo Swartz and I had roomed together and became good friends. Afterwards, he was sent to NAS Oceana (VF-63) and I went to NAS Norfolk. We stayed in touch (Oceana is only about 20 miles below Norfolk). Several times we traveled up to Philadelphia in my trusty Chevrolet to visit his family. Al Doles also went on at least one trip. His family was wonderful, like being at home with my parents. Except for one thing: His kid sister was really cute. And she liked me. At first, I couldn’t think of actually dating her; she was 17 to my 21, an unbridgeable gulf. And to think of dating a buddy’s sister! And Cleo did his duty: He instructed her to avoid me, a “party boy”, which she says greatly increased her interest. But somehow, on subsequent trips after the first meeting, I did date her and was captivated. I clearly remember her laugh and how she swayed around on those unfamiliar high heels. She instructed me about “Popeye”, a tradition which allows a kiss if one sights an oncoming car with one only one headlight. I attempted to instruct her on more advanced subjects, but that had to wait until marriage, 5 years later. Best move I ever made. She is a cherished female, and is such an amalgam of so many good things that I have yet to sort them out, 46 years later. And she’s the best friend I have ever had.
One weekend, Frank Bonansinga and I flew up to Floyd Bennett Field in New York for an overnight. On that trip, or perhaps another, through means now forgotten, I had a date with a girl in show business, in a chorus or troupe in one of the Broadway shows. I have never … ever … been so bored with a victim of such complete narcissism. Like, the Brooklyn Bridge was in her backyard, but I doubt she could have identified it. Or cared that she couldn’t.
On return from that flight, in May of 1950, I agreed to let an Army Colonel hitch a ride in the bilge of my TBM for the flight back to Norfolk. He was a nice guy, portly and jolly. On the way back, night came and the fog rolled in off the Atlantic. Norfolk reported that the weather had gone below minimums there, as darkness came. We were near Chincoteague at the time, and it was still above minimums, so we diverted.My instrument lights were malfunctioning, flickering on and off. Frank and I separated and did individual radio range instrument approaches to NAS Chincoteague, Virginia, the first real ones either of us had ever done. All before had been under the hood or in Link Trainers. That was about 80 miles north of Norfolk, and the ceiling was now indefinite with fog. My instrument lights were mostly gone now; to see the instrument panel, I pulled the flashlight from my life vest and held it between my teeth (surprising what you can do when you need to). Things went OK and we landed without any problems. The O-Club had closed by the time we landed, but the Colonel pulled rank a little and prevailed on the Club Officer to re-open it for us, for a libation we felt was truly earned. The next day, we returned to Norfolk and kudo’s from the Squadron. Up to that point, none of the squadron junior officers had been issued White Instrument Cards (which allowed you to file an instrument flight plan from any Air Force Base or Naval Air Station), since none of us had filled all the blocks for the training requirements, but that day the Skipper instructed the Operations Officer to issue Frank and me our White Cards, “rat now”, as a Texan would say, since we had filled those blocks all at once.
NAS Chincoteague: My first actual instrument approach … many years later I was to return, to log many hours of flight test time in those skies, but that’s another story that will have to wait.
Parties, flying, beaches, all those things. Life was great. Local girls came to the O-Club on Friday nights, usually the same ones. We derisively labeled them “O-Club Crows”. But one night I met June Halstead, a pretty dark-eyed brunette. She wasn’t like the others, it was her first visit there. She was a senior student at the School of Nursing at the Norfolk General Hospital. We dated for a few months, and had a lot of fun, until the time came for me to leave Norfolk. A couple of times, I flew down from Atlantic City to see her after I’d transferred up there. I liked her very much, but felt kind of threatened when she let me know that our relationship could, or rather should, lead to a permanent situation. Not just threatened, but really crowded when she finally dealt the “other guy” card: The “other guy” had proposed, and she had to make a decision. Much later, that ploy was to work to perfection, but that’s another story for another time. There’s a bit of remorse, though, that I couldn’t return her feelings, because I know she cared for me, and I now know that that’s not a thing to be lightly dismissed. Well, really, I knew it then; I wasn’t without compassion, it was just that I was so immersed in flying every day and other Squadron activities (OK, some of it was partying) that any particular strong tie was automatically resisted.
Many other things were happening, but they were much like the ones I’ve already mentioned, the flying, the parties, and all that. Great fun. Hoz Cooke took to calling me “Hollywood” because I loved to see what I could do with an airplane, like flying extra-close formation, changing, just for fun, to a strong slip or skid while flying wing (just to startle the leader when he glanced back to see this close-in airplane banking into or away from him), making especially steep approaches, stuff like that. And I did well at bombing, rocketry, and gunnery scores. Just behind our squadron hangar was the hangar for FASRON 6 (Fleet Aircraft Service Squadron 6); at that time, they had the mission of supplying upgrades and parts for all of the Fleet airplanes, so they had samples of almost all of the current ones. Just by asking and being nice and being maybe a little humble, I weasled 2 flights in the Grumman F6F-3 Hellcat. God, I’d wanted to fly that thing for a long time; it was the first real fighter I’d ever flown. But what a letdown! It was just a little TBM, which I was already flying. Well, better, but not that much better. But none of that counted on who of the 7% of our class got selected as Regular Navy. In the early days of 1950 we thought we were doing very well in working toward a Navy career, but we were walking the plank The Secretary of Defense, Louis Johnson, who was a political appointee, and had been for some years previously, was responding to political commandments and cutting way back on just about everything. We knew that in June a lot of us, the junior officers in the squadron, would be flushed to the Reserve and sent back to civilian life and the US Naval Reserve, per our contract as Midshipmen.
BIG MISSION CHANGES
In the first part of May 1950 a big change in Fleet missions took place. Besides VC-33, several other anti-submarine VC squadrons were at NAS Norfolk: VCs 22, 23, 24 and maybe some others. Under this big change, VC-33 retained its designation, took on the added mission of night attack, was re-equipped with AD Skyraider airplanes, and was relocated to NAS AtlanticCity, NJ. All the other VC squadrons were redesignated VS, retained their mission of anti-submarine, and stayed in the Norfolk area, flying the old Turkey. It really hurt to miss out on the great new Skyraider airplane, the new mission, and being in bachelor Nirvana, Atlantic City. But there wasn’t much to do but soldier on, or sailor on, in this case.
So in mid-May 1950 the 8 of us VC-33 ex-Midshipmen, not retained Regular Navy, were transferred temporarily to VRF-31, a ferry squadron at Norfolk charged with moving new and used airplanes from coast to coast or wherever needed. That was a lot of fun, and most of us made at least 2 trips from Pensacola, or wherever the old, or new, airplanes were, to the Naval Air Facility (NAF) Litchfield Park, just south of Phoenix, Arizona, where they were cocooned and placed in storage. On one such trip, Al Doles and I were in a flight of six SNJs. We flew next to each other on several of the legs of the trip, and made a game of pitty-patting, or touching, wingtips in formation. Thank God nobody inspected the airplanes on arrival; looked like someone had taken a sledgehammer to the shaped aluminum tips. Now all the Navy and Air Force airplanes to be put in storage are taken to Davis-Monthan AFB, near Tucson, Arizona.
A story worth telling: A few of our group awaiting separation managed to weasle ferry flights in some of the current fighters. One such was Fran Klinker, one of my flying mates on the later USS Coral Sea cruise. He was assigned to pick up a Grumman F8F Bearcat at Chambers Field, a close (and small – about 3,000 ft.) auxiliary of the Norfolk Naval Air Station, to do a production flight test on it before proceeding on a ferry delivery flight. It had just been overhauled at the Norfolk facility. As was later revealed, the ailerons had been hooked up backwards, so that the pilot’s stick control was reversed: Pushing the stick to the left made the airplane roll to the right and vice versa. And the Bearcat was a very quick and responsive fighter airplane. This situation had before usually resulted in fatal crashes, even in larger, slower airplanes, but Fran sorted it out in the brief time allowed to him after liftoff, re-taught himself to fly with a reversed control, and brought it around to a successful landing, saving the airplane and himself. Large-caliber medals have been awarded for considerably less, but as far as I know, he never received any recognition. I understand that Fran is dead now; I hope it was in an airplane.
Brand-new airplanes were also brought into NAF Litchfield Park for disposal. There are three sights that have struck me as very sad: One is an old airfield, no longer used, and overgrown with weeds, peopled only with ghosts of memories; second is the remains of a once-active airfield being devoured by development; third is an old airplane that is moldering away past the point of restoration and will no longer be free in its element, the sky. There’s a fourth that I saw at Litchfield Park, which engendered more outrage than sadness: A brand-new, beautiful airplane, with only ferry time on it, being guillotined for meltdown and scrap. It offends the soul.
Then we (several dozen of us ex-Midshipmen) were sent to Separation Center at Norfolk to be processed out of the active-duty Navy. Physical exams, block-filling pencil work, that kind of stuff. Giving military physicals could not have been an inspiring thing at best, but during this period we didn’t make it any easier (nothing to gain or lose), and I remember that as the poor Doctor moved down the line, fingering each scrotum and saying, “OK, turn your head and cough”, some of us would say things like, “Oh, you brute!”, or “You have wonderful hands!”. “OK, YOU GUYS, KNOCK IT OFF.”
So we’d gone through all this stuff, and there was nothing left of life in the real Navy except to go to the Finance Office and receive our mustering-out pay and depart to wherever we were going. Speaking of which, I didn’t really know where I was going, except probably back to school, without any real goals.
Like a Hollywood event, we were within short hours of cashiering when the Chinese charged across the Yalu in Korea, June of ‘50. Suddenly everybody knew we were in deep yogurt; well, there were those who’d known it for a long time but nobody had listened to them in those days of cost-cutting, and now the piper was there to be paid. So instead of donning civvies and cutting out, about 30 of us were invited to the office of CINCLANT, Commander in Chief, Atlantic Fleet, Admiral Felix B. Stump. On the few occasions when I’ve met Admirals, they were always nice guys. They were hotshots and rulebenders just like us not too long before. Problem was, you usually had to go through their Staff to get to the old boys, and the Staffers were almost always officious and difficult to deal with. Well, this was just us and the Admiral, and he put it on the line: “We need you guys. If you’ll agree to stay for a year or three, we’ll treat you right” (or words to that effect). Well, I didn’t want to leave anyway, nor did most of my contemporaries, so most of us gladly shipped over for an unspecified period (I think it was an open-ended deal, we could have got out any time we wanted to).
It’s always nice to be wanted. Our old Squadron, VC-33, now way understaffed, eagerly awaited us, along with whoever else they might get. From 10 or 12, they had to staff up to 70 or more pilots and lots more experienced enlisted men. Quickly. They were now up at NAS Atlantic City, and were able to scrape up some junior officers besides those of us who’d been there. Here began the days that were the best I’ve ever known: To be truly needed, to be able to contribute, to be appreciated for what you could do, to think of yourself as a professional … truly an unusual condition for a lowly Ensign or LTjg.
So here we were, cranking up, a nice new Squadron with a brand-new mission! Nobody really knew what it was, or more to the point, how to do it. Traditionally, all Naval air activities operate in accordance with procedures developed by long experience, amended when called for by new aircraft and weapons. So this new mission of night attack required that a new book be developed to specify how we were to do it. There was some flying and fighting done in WWII by night fighters, but very little was documented, and almost nothing was to be found in writing about night attack. A lot of the excitement of being in this place and time was that we were all learning as we went along, writing the book. NAS Atlantic City was a small base; our next-door squadron was VC-4, night fighters. The only other activity on the base was VX-4, an experimental squadron with the task of testing new airplanes in their mission environment. As for VC-4, most of their airplanes were Vought Corsairs, F4U-5Ns, and they were beginning to receive McDonnell twin-jet Banshees, F2H-2Ns, and their airplane complement included some ADs, which were to be our mainstay, which meant they were to transfer those airplanes to us. However, their Skipper, Capt. Joe Ruddy, was not happy with his loss of turf (as I now understand it), and began the first of many harassing tactics to discommode our squadron’s entry to NAS Atlantic City. There were several events I remember that verge on the childish, events created by CAPT Ruddy or his XO, CDR Roger Mehle (I remember his full name because I detested him so), things as silly as withholding not just airplanes and equipment, but also things like ready-room furniture and chairs and desks, items not needed by VC-4 but held in a warehouse nevertheless. And anything else they could think of to trip us up. Truly childish. Later, before I left, Ruddy was replaced by a CAPT Booth, who was the other side of the coin: Every inch a gentleman and officer.
For the small group of us Ensigns who had been resigned to going back to civilian life, it was back to the Squadron that had been our home! Boy, was that ever great, to be welcomed back because they needed us! We hit the ground running, or flying, in this case. The new mission of this squadron, which no one really understood, involved fielding a team of 6 pilots and airplanes to do the night attack work on every East Coast carrier departing on an overseas cruise, and the first of these cruises was to weigh anchor in mid-September 1950. That meant that the squadron, in addition to getting organized, settled in, staffed, and adapting to new airplanes, had to get the first six-pilot team ready in just about 2 months, a big order! I was proud to be selected in the first team, and we immediately started flying night and day in the new airplanes. My first flight in the AD was in 7 July 1950. In addition to our six airplanes and pilots, each carrier deployment was also assigned four night fighters (F4U-5N “Corsairs”) and pilots from VC-4, our sister squadron, and four planes with powerful radar carried in huge belly-mounted growths like inverted toadstools (AD-4W “Guppies” ) and pilots from VC-12 at NAS Quonset Point. So each carrier on long deployments had aboard it our all-weather planes plus an Air Group from one of the East Coast Naval Air Stations. An Air Group consisted of three fighter squadrons and two attack squadrons; they were not usually expected to fly at night or in bad weather, and they did not fly at night during our six-month cruise in the Med.
I have to pause here to say something about this new airplane. I’d heard about it for 2 years, when it first came to the fleet in 1948; the Douglas AD Skyraider. The word was that it was a fabulous flying machine, with performance far beyond anything then flying in propeller airplanes. That was surely true. What a wonderful experience, to strap into this big, blue, beautiful machine and just melt into it. More than anything I’d flown before (and many since), this airplane, with its great reserves of power and its friendly handling qualities, just invited you to join it and become one. The aileron control was hydraulically boosted, decreasing the force required for rolling the airplane to a point where it was compatible with elevator control forces for pitch changes, a situation described as good control harmony (one of the most important elements in handling qualities). Its bubble canopy provided very good vision in all directions; if necessary, you could see over the nose to make a straight-in carrier approach. No other single-engine prop airplanes would allow that; a turning approach was usually necessary to keep the Landing Signal Officer in sight. It was beautifully stable in a carrier approach, just as it was in dive-bombing, and that big tailhook would grab any wire you came close to. Its handling qualities included good levels of stability, which made it an excellent instrument flying platform for the all-weather missions we were charged to conduct. It truly made you feel like the King of the World, snug and part of the plane in your harness and gear, with all that power and control at your fingertips. I could go on, and later I will.
So with the new first team, I flew night and day, with my five compadres, to do the first-order things necessary to fill the blocks enabling us to launch with the cruise; the USS Coral Sea was to put to sea for a 6 month Mediterranean cruise with the Sixth Fleet on 10 September 1950; I began flying the AD on 7 July 1950. The pressure was on our new squadron and Skipper: Put up or else! Of course, we concentrated on carrier qualification, and spent many days and nights “bouncing”, or FCLP (field carrier landing practice), and then out to sea for actual “landings aboard”. At one point, I had logged 41 carrier landings, 24 of them at night, in my first 31 hours in the airplane. I used italics there because that’s a hell of a big statement, probably a record, but one impossible to prove: More carrier landings than airplane hours. Fortunately, that sort of activity got us (barely) to the point of qualifying to go on the cruise, but unfortunately, we had to learn on the job in handling the ordnance delivery systems, of which more later.
So on 10 September 1950 we put to sea on the USS Coral Sea, named for one of the great air-sea battles of WWII, headed for rendezvous with the U.S. Sixth Fleet in the Mediterreanean Sea. We were accompanied by destroyers and probably cruisers, but I’m ignorant of our group makeup. The USS Coral Sea was at that time, with two sister carriers, the world’s largest, at 45,000 tons. The USS F. D. Roosevelt, on which our Executive Officer was killed earlier that year, was one of her sister ships, as was the USS Midway, also named for a crucial WWII engagement. A ship’s size is usually expressed in tonnage; which means that at full load a ship’s hull displaces the amount of seawater that would equal the quoted tonnage. The Coral Sea’s flight deck was about 900 feet long and about 150 feet wide, much larger than anything I’d flown off of before except the USS FDR. Bear in mind, though, that we had to land on an area of about half that size, due to the barriers about halfway up the flight deck. There were usually airplanes parked on the forward flight deck; not enough room for the entire Air Group on the hangar deck. We were later told that nuclear bombs were carried aboard; we suspected it at the time because a marine guard was on 24-hour duty way down in the bilges, near the engine room. Take your own guess at how we might have delivered these things. Any of the guesses would have involved a suicide mission. Of course in those early days of the nuclear standoff (“I won’t wipe out your part of the world if you won’t wipe out mine”), such things as mere suicide missions by individual units were irrelevant.
Normal squadrons have Skippers, usually Lieutenant Commanders; our 6-plane Detachment had an O-in-C (Officer-in-Charge), LT Morris Richey, from Tennessee, and the same was true of LT Fred Thomas, in charge of the 4 VC-12 “Guppy” radar planes, and of LT Bob Sherrai, of the 4 VC-4 night fighters. Richey played the fiddle, banjo, and mandolin pretty well, which helped pass the time on some of those long nights in the Ready Room (we had our own Ready Room, shared by the four pilots of VC-4 and the four pilots of VC-12). Next down, other members of our VC-33 Detachment were LTjgs Bill Keeler and Loren Whitney. Whit had flown in the famous PBY “Black Cat” squadrons in WWII. Then there were the three of us Ensigns who had gone through training fairly recently (as had Keeler): Art Barie, Fran Klinker, and me.
The Coral Sea was a beautiful big ship, a floating city, with Ship’s Stores where you could buy needful things as in a department store, a barber shop, a physical workout room with weights and that sort of equipment, a ge-dunk (Navy for soda fountain), and nights when flight operations were not in progress, current movies were shown on the hangar deck (just below the flight deck). It took a while to learn your way around her. She wasn’t designed to accommodate tourists, but to survive in battle. In making your way either fore and aft or laterally, you had to step over the foot-high sills of many hatches with hinged doors which could be closed and sealed shut against intruding seawater. When we played war and General Quarters was sounded, getting around became much more challenging, because “Darken Ship” was in effect; at times the Fleet was on some sort of war game and we, the aviators, were not. Then the only way to spot the raised hatchway sills was to perceive the dimly-glowing phosphorescent round tabs just below the openings. At such a time, if several of us were making our way from the Ready-Room to our staterooms, for instance, it was usual for the single file entourage to proceed with one hand on the shoulder of the one ahead. When leading, a truly bad guy would bend his knee to keep his shoulder at the same height as he stepped over the high steel sill, causing his follower to bark his shin. No excuse for a person like that. We were all just kids. I’ve improved with time, some.
The Skipper of the USS Coral Sea at that time was CAPT Frederick M. Trapnell; He was a pioneering Naval Aviation test pilot, and had a lot to do with setting up the Navy Test Pilot School and with many other subsequent Naval Aviation advancements.
There we were, our VC-33 Detachment, flung into this huge six-month Sixth Fleet Deployment to the Mediterranean without any training in our mission. Nobody even knew what our mission was. From what I’ve read of other military experiences, this situation had happened before. At that time, in 1950, squadron skippers were usually Lieutenant Commanders (LCDRs, like an Army Major), but since our detachment was only 6 planes and pilots, and we weren’t squadrons, our six- and four-plane detachments were led by pilots who were Lieutenants (LTs, like an Army Captain). This difference in rank, coupled with the natural eagerness of the new guys on the block to prove themselves (and us), led to some interesting leading-edge experiences. The first of these occurred on the way over to the Mediterranean, in the North Atlantic; the replacement 6th Fleet Admiral, who was on our carrier, heard of this new night attack mission and wanted to see some examples, so three or four nights out, we were scheduled for a night ordnance delivery mission. Morris Richey, our eager-beaver LT leader assured all above that there’d be no problem. The mission was this: One of the accompanying destroyers was to drop a smokelight about ½ mile abeam the carrier; then us 6 Tigers were to spring upon it with 3.5 in. HVARs (high-velocity aircraft rockets), 20 mm guns with tracer ammo, and 500-lb bombs. Remember: None of us had ever done any of this, day or night. Of course, we feverishly briefed for this before flight. And that night was pretty hazy, with little or no horizon visible. Well, we just went out and did it, learning some pretty good lessons in the process. One: You should have more than just one smokelight, to give yourself some idea of where wings-level is. Two: Close one eye when firing rockets, so only one is blinded for night vision. Three: When dropping bombs, pull out high enough to avoid the blast (my initial ordnance switch selection was wrong; didn’t want to foul up in front of the Admiral, so I continued in the dive, changing switches … pulled out low and almost knocked myself out of the sky when it went off under me). It was just really great to get back aboard ship. I never did hear just what the Admiral thought about the exhibition, but I sure was impressed. During it, I experienced one of the first of those epiphanies which pop unbidden to the mind: “What the hell am I doing here?”
The Jesus Channel: This is worth its own paragraph. One night fairly early in the cruise, the weather was cruddy, low clouds and rain. We were scheduled to launch most of our all-weather airplanes, night attack, fighters, and Guppy radar planes. Our first big night operation, and the first one in bad weather. We were all in the ready room, about an hour before scheduled launch, into the black and the klag (for klag, read “clouds and rain”), and understandably just a bit tensed up.
One of the Captain’s staff called on the squawk-box, which was a two-way communications box through a loudspeaker, mounted on the Squadron Duty Officer’s desk there in the ready room. He gave us some information on radio channels (frequencies) and such to be used that night, then asked, “Are you sure the weather’s not too bad for this operation? Any questions?” Our ever-eager leaders assured the caller that there were no-o-o problems or questions. But then Ensign Jerry Walterskirchen’s voice piped up clearly from back in the ready room: “Yeah … what channel’s Jesus on?”. A moment’s hesitation, then this stentorian voice boomed from the speaker, “KNOCK THAT OFF! THIS IS THE CAPTAIN’S OFFICE!”. Actually, I think Jerry echoed all our feelings.
It was a great thrill, seeing foreign countries for the first time, but I’ll skip the usual traveler revelations and confine myself to one important discovery. Over 6 months, we put in at ports all around the Mediterranean Sea and it was secret military information where our next port of call was to be. None of us knew it. But one did, who stood out because she was a red-headed whore with one leg in a cast. Our liberty boats would pull in and there she was: “Hey, Joe, over here!”. So obviously all those who made a living off the Sixth Fleet shared that information. Not that it mattered; all those people were desperately poor. Most of the countries around the Sea in 1950 were still blasted and shell-shocked from WWII, and had yet to begin any kind of economic recovery. The black market dictated how one lived. A few cigarettes would buy anything, from an accordian overture to a woman’s favors. And if they could, of course, some would rip you off. Even in those times, though, I saw more of basic honesty and dignity on the part of the natives than of the underside. Naval leaders have done many things which eluded my understanding; one of those was an edict by the Admiral (I suppose it was him, but maybe it was Staff) that Enlisted Rates must wear uniforms ashore, and Officers must wear uniforms or civilian clothes. If civvies, it had to be a suit, tie, and hat! Might as well have been a uniform; made you stand out like a sore thumb. Given the poverty-stricken status of almost all the native population, it seemed to me to be saying in effect, “Nyah! Nyah! I’m better than you are!”
The flying was just wonderful, and with our all-weather mission, we flew a lot more than the day squadrons, averaging about 35 hours per month. Some of my flight training contemporaries were in the day squadrons on the ship and I took a lot of pride in doing things they couldn’t do, flying at night and flying more. And the Med is such a beautiful area to fly over. The sea seemed to change color hourly, from blue to purple to green. I remember flying one day beneath an overcast of about 1,000 feet, with thunderstorms above … the air was smooth, but there were a few dark shafts of rain and seven waterspouts over an area of a few square miles. They seemed stationary, and I clearly remember thinking of columns in a great temple as I flew around among them. They weren’t threatening, just beautiful. There are tears in my eyes as I write this, thinking of those and other achingly beautiful things I have seen in flight. Like the solitary feelings stirred by great art, poetry, or music, they always bring a feeling of sadness, sometimes tears, along with the pleasure, because you cannot share them; they’ll go and only you will ever know how it was. And as you experience them, you know they’re transitory; they will go. I’ve wished for a tape in my head on which I could record some of those sights, and then I could come back and say, “Look! Look at that! Could you ever have imagined it, down here on the ground?”If there is such a thing as Heaven, I think I’ve already had a tiny glimpse and feel of it.
Not every flight was just fun. That “what am I doing here?” feeling came more than once. Sometimes it came in a mercifully tardy way: One night I was flying alone, making mock attack runs on the carrier for night-fighter practice intercepts. Just after a catapult launch I had to concentrate on an unscheduled join-up with another airplane, before we split up for the mission. Before a carrier takeoff or landing, it was the practice to open the canopy and unlatch your parachute harness, leaving the safety belt/shoulder harness fastened of course, so that if you went in the water your escape wouldn’t be impeded by the parachute or harness hanging up on something in the cockpit. The night join-up after launch, and subsequent radio traffic, distracted me enough to break my habit pattern of fastening the parachute harness after closing the canopy. I flew on and during the runs on the carrier, my engine began running rough; I had to consider the possibility of bailing out, not a good option at 100 miles from the ship, over the sea, but I would have had no choice without an engine. Well, it kept running and was developing enough power to allow an approach and landing back at the ship. I made a good approach, caught a wire, taxiied forward following the deck handlers’ signals, parked, shut down, and reached down to undo my parachute leg straps. God! They were just hanging there between my legs. What a feeling it would have been (for a short time) to have bailed out, pulled the ripcord, and watch the ‘chute whistle away above me.
Other times that feeling came when you had to deal with it directly. Landing by day on a straight-deck carrier came to be easier than landing on a airfield, absent heavy seas and rain, but even a good night was different. There’s an old flying axiom: “You can’t fly half instruments and half contact”, but that’s just what you had to do at night, on the carrier. Having a visible horizon helped a lot, but without that, you had to fly almost 100% instruments as you came around base leg toward the ship; then, nearing the ship, more and more concentration had to be directed toward it, to pick up the LSO as soon as possible. This had to be done at 150 to 200 feet altitude and in a stabilized condition with airspeed 15% above stall. As you might imagine, rain and/or heavy seas upped the ante considerably. One night I had a rough-running engine; that tightens the screw another turn or two. More than once, after catching a wire, folding the wings, and raising the hook, I’ve taxiied forward at night to the directors’ signals with my feet jittering uncontrollably on the rudder pedals. And yet … and yet … you go back. Gladly.
My room-mate was a wonderful guy and an unforgettable character. Jerry Walterskirchen was from Missoula, Montana. He was in VC-4, a night fighter pilot. He’d played a lot of football, was an expert skiier, and looked the part; had a broken nose and a rugged physique. But that was only a small part of it; he was a gentle man for all seasons, liked poetry, serious reading, and talking about what made things run, in the subjective sense. So did I, and we had many, many great discussions about some pretty basic issues. He had dreams about being an author, journalist, and playwright; he wasn’t alone. I remember nights when he, Art Barie, and I spent hours on the forward flight deck catwalk as the ship very gently pitched and rolled, watching the moon glistening off the sea, phosphorescence lighting the bow-wave, and pledging fealty to a post-Navy life of Bohemian travel and artistic dedication. At the least, we would go to Europe, on a tramp steamer if necessary, buy bicycles, and tour the land, staying at youth hostels. Jerry was the one who actually did that, and that will come up later.
The USS Coral Sea cruise was of six months’ duration. I was a bachelor and had no direct ties to home, but it’s interesting that quite a strong case of “homesickness” developed. We had up-to-date movies shown on the hangar deck fairly frequently, which people were watching in the USA. For some reason, my homesickness centered around the songs of the movie, “Three Little Words”. When I came back, I bought the LP record with that soundtrack. “Who’s Sorry Now”, “I Wanna Be Loved by You”, and of course, “Three Little Words” were three of the featured songs. I still remember most of the words and lyrics. Coming back home, the ship launched most of us from about 200 miles at sea and we (the six VC-33 ADs and four VC-4 F4U-5Ns) flew directly to NAS Atlantic City. Taxiing in to the line where the families of the married pewks were waiting, we all donned fezzes we’d bought in North Africa. With no particular stake in it, I just felt good about it all, getting home.
THE SNAKE RANCH.
For a couple of months after going to Atlantic City, I lived in the BOQ; it wasn’t much but I was rarely there, flying nights at FCLP getting carrier-ready for the upcoming Med cruise, and the same during most days. Then after the cruise, in February 1951, I was invited to move into the Snakeranch (that’s a lewd term for bachelor abode), then occupied by LTjgs Ed Cummins, Tom Howley, and Harry Burden. Ed, sort of a natural organizer, was head of household, you might say, and kept mundane things together such as paying the rent, arranging for necessary repairs, things like that. It was a respectable two-story house with a basement in a nice neighborhood, in Brigantine, a town just north of Atlantic City. Had a big loft room, a bedroom, a small bedroom, and bath upstairs and a bedroom and bath downstairs. Soon after I moved in, LTjg Bob “Hop” Holden came out; we roomed together in the loft room. We were close friends; later he was Best Man at my marriage, but that was the farthest thing from our thoughts at the time. It was on a beautiful beach; there was a house across the little street leading down to the beach, but there were no other houses on the block on which we were located. There was no garage; we parked along the side of the Ranch, on the little beach street. Our squadron, VC-33, furnished night attack pilots for every cruise going out from the east coast, so guys came and went at times. If one of our residents went out for a month’s cruise, there was always a willing temporary replacement from the BOQ. So except for a couple of short cruises, I was a Snake Rancher from February to November 1951, through a wonderful summer season. There are so many memories of that time that it would seem to have been a couple of years. I’ll recount a few. But first, let me make it clear that I flew a lot, every day, on instrument, rocket and bombing hops, and quite a few night flights, such as 6-plane flights to deliver rockets and bombs on a little island called “No Man’s Land” off Martha’s Vineyard. With the Atlantic summer haze, on moonless nights, conditions were very similar to those encountered by J. F. Kennedy, Jr. on his recent last flight in that same area (as I write, it is September 1999). We did our ordnance delivery flights under parachute flares; I violated the code one night and slewed the airplane around to look back and check my bombing hit. Just as I flew out of the cone of light provided by the flare, I returned my attention to the instruments; now I was in a nose high unusual attitude, on pullout from the bomb run … BLIP … LIGHTS OUT! The few lights on Martha’s Vineyard blended perfectly with the sparse scattering of stars in the moonless night, with no horizon. By the time I forced myself to ignore that and use the instruments only, I pulled out very close to the black waters of the Atlantic. I have a list (thankfully fairly short) of those little dumb-ass vignettes that burn themselves into your memory, where you almost did yourself in, or allowed yourself to be boxed into a tight corner. Circumstances outside your control can easily conspire to put you in a box, without your personal help. I mentioned the 6-plane night flights up to Martha’s Vineyard and back. Any night close formation work will bring this out, and I’ve experienced it many times: Vertigo. Or the later term, “spatial disorientation”. After about 15 or so minutes of formation, you’ll have to fight it. If you’re flying right wing, you’ll know (falsely) your leader is rolling slowly to the left, so you tend to roll away, to the right. Then you’ll catch yourself and roll and yaw back to the left. It’s a continual fight, as long as you’re in formation. It can be an extremely strong sensation at any time; on an Atlantic cruise during this time period, one of our experienced night attack pilots, Scotty Frasier, lost it one night and talked on the radio all the way down to his (and his crewman’s) death in the sea; just couldn’t put aside those physical messages to the brain.
Several of us tried to get transferred to the West Coast so we could get into the scrap in Korea, but had no luck. Or maybe I should say we had good luck. After I left VC-33 to go to the Training Command, Ed Cummins was one of six to go out to Korea; he was shot down and killed by radar-controlled 5-inch guns the Chinese brought in unexpectedly.
All the officers were assigned collateral duties, such as the throw-up job of ass’t Supply Officer, which was my lot for awhile in Norfolk. But I was blessed in all ways, I guess. In the Squadron at Atlantic City, I was given the job of ass’t Ordnance Officer, and due to a nice LT with the full-time job, I ended up as skeet range officer, meaning I was at the skeet range three afternoons a week. I forget my exact scores, but I got to be pretty good at skeet and trap. The Navy encouraged all pilots to participate so as to improve hand-eye coordination and develop automatic leading and tracking of a moving target. It was like a dream come true, to shoot skeet half a day and then fly half a day, often doing dive bombing and rocket delivery on a ground target.
A word about dive bombing. The AD was a wonderful dive bomber, with those barn-door panels on the belly and sides (on most models, that is; the AD-4N had them only on the sides). They provided so much drag that you could set your engine manifold pressure at 30 inches up at altitude and during a vertical dive, not exceed 270 KIAS (we had automatic manifold pressure regulators). So after you peeled off from about 10,000 feet to a vertical dive and had the target in your sight, you’d actually be tucked under past the vertical to keep going straight down; you’d then roll left or right to allow for wind drift…you were comfortable, just hanging there in your straps … and you’d pickle off, releasing your bomb when everything was just right, just so it was above about 3,000 feet. A very accurate way of bombing. And a hell of a lot of fun.
These were the days when the new jet airplanes had a special attraction. The media put out all sorts of over-inflated hype, e.g. a 1950 Saturday Evening Post article called “Jet Pilots Are Different”. What utter tripe. When you’d meet people, and they found you were a pilot, the inevitable question was, “Wow. Are you a jet pilot?”. When I began flying them later, the major impression was just that they were simpler and easier to fly. Burned a lot of fuel and flew fast, so you had to more carefully plan your flight, but with the tricycle landing gear and lack of propeller torque, operation of the airplane was much easier than the big prop planes.
Sometimes us prop pilots felt discriminated against: Flying the AD in dive-bombing missions, we’d routinely recover from dives pulling 6 to 7 “g-s”, which meant that you’d black out, or lose vision, for several seconds during the pullout, then slowly get it back in the steep climb of recovery. But we couldn’t get “g” suits to help combat blacking out because only jet pilots could have those. Also, we weren’t allowed to have ADF “bird-dogs”, automatic direction finders, where a needle indicator pointed toward a navigation station. The jet airplanes had them, but we did not, although our mission was all-weather and the jets at that time were mostly assigned fair-weather flying.
I loved military flying, almost all missions involved formation flying, which was fun; second to carrier work, ordnance delivery (bombing, strafing, and rocketing ground targets) was great. It would still be fun blasting inanimate targets, but now I know too much about bleeding and dying
I must make this a special paragraph, so it’ll stand out from how I felt in my youth. When I was young, animal life as such was not very special to me, as is true of most youngsters, I think. The fact that my Dad was an avid hunter played a part, I’m sure. Killing birds and small animals was encouraged, to develop marksmanship. Later, bringing edible game home (rabbits or squirrels) was a definite plus as a good thing to do. Mother, at Dad’s urging, would fix it for supper that very evening. And then, deer and turkey hunting challenged me to show my Dad that I had the right stuff. By the time I was 15 and hunting alone, I not only killed the animals, but cleaned and gutted them myself before lugging them to the camp. I was very proud of that. And then one day, sometime after Dad died, I had occasion to go deer hunting in Virginia; I was up in a tree stand. It was open season on does and any deer, for that matter. Mid-morning, a doe, a spike buck and a yearling walked under my tree. I could have dropped a rock on them. I couldn’t shoot. Understand, I love venison to eat. But I just couldn’t kill. I haven’t hunted since. It’s gotten so that even squashing a bug gives some pause for thought. To extinguish even a spark of life; can it be right? I still do roaches, flies, ants, and spiders. Those sparks I don’t mind blotting out. And moccasins and rattlers, if they’re on my territory. Well, the point of this is to just to say that I would still love the flying challenge that came with ordnance delivery, but I doubt I could do it now in a real war, because I now know more about what happens on the receiving end.
Back there a ways, I started to say something about that wonderful 9 months I spent as a member of the Snake Ranch. First, understand that Atlantic City at that time still had the cachet as a wonderful vacation place for rich and middle-class alike. The rich reserved suites in the Boardwalk hotels like the Claridge; secretaries and schoolteachers saved all year to double up in the less-expensive rooms. All enjoyed the salt breezes of the Boardwalk, the attractions of the Steel Pier, with its big-name entertainers, and the beautiful wide beach. After a couple of forays, we Ranchers realized that the lures of the tourist trade were not for us, but important contacts were made with representatives of the secretarial and schoolteacher trade. After a few parties at the Snakeranch and spreading of the word, it was not unusual to get Friday evening telephone calls at the Ranch from the train or bus station, inquiring as to the famous parties to be experienced there. We’d sometimes call the BOQ for emergency backup, or pickup services. There was a pretty large resort hotel (the Harrington?) just a few blocks north of the Ranch, and sometimes one or more of us would bring candidates from there to parties. The thing about this that would be unbelievable to a person in synch with today’s society is that there was little sex involved with all this; some, but it was mostly just partying. Our lives were so full with what we were doing that it didn’t take much more to fill the cup to the brim. As I said, Hop Holden and I shared a room. We both loved flying and the life we were living. We’d often look at each other and say, “It’ll never be like this again”, knowing we were right. Everything was just as good as it could get. In this period, we went on a couple of short carrier deployments and some other inshore night attack work with the Army and with the Marines, to spice things up, e.g. dropping flares and making gunnery and rocket runs on tanks and other ground targets.
The first of March 1951 my old buddy Al Doles was on a Med cruise with the USS Wright, in those days a mid-size carrier (CVL). That night, after an exercise with several other airplanes, recoveries began on his ship. The weather was not the best, with haze, no horizon, and no moon and the fleet was “darken ship” (no lights). Only a red truck light on the superstructure were illuminated on each of the 12 to 15 ships in the fleet. Aboard Al’s plane were his regular crewman and a passenger, I guess a volunteer along for the ride. On his first pass Al got a “fast” and a waveoff. Coming around again, he happened to pick the truck light of a destroyer. “Whoops”, and around again, finally finding the Wright. He got a cut on the next pass, but knew he was high and fast. Dove for the deck and bounced high. The forward flight deck ahead of him was full of airplanes (the”pack”), many of them being refueled. It was too late to apply power and try to go around. To get stopped short of the pack he pushed the nose over to engage the barriers. The impact was too much for the landing gear which collapsed, sending him through and under the barriers, which only slowed him down. So he careened into the pack up forward, rupturing several fuel tanks and totaling five airplanes with damage to others. High octane fuel was all over the forward flight deck, but there were no fires and no injuries. Busy turning all switches off, Al said that his crewman was up on the wing immediately to see if he was OK. The passenger leaped out of the aft compartment and was sprinting down the deck when tripped up by a cable, which, according to an observer, was the only thing preventing him from launching right off the flight deck. The LSO was LTjg Jim Kendall; I’d flown off him and he wasn’t very good. Tended to give late and abrupt signals.
So I think he deserved some of the credit for the fiasco. One of those “stranger than fiction” accidents. Al never flew again; one of the outcomes of a Disposition Board investigating the accident was that he flunked a vision test, to an astounding degree. The Navy sent him to Electronics School at NAS Memphis which led to advanced degrees in college; he retired at about the same time I did as V-P of a nuclear instruments plant in Santa Fe. Remember, I was best man at his and Donna’s wedding; we still keep in touch.
Jerry Walterskirchen introduced me to a girl, Mary Lou Best. She was blonde, slender, and pretty, and a great party date, which was really what I was looking for. Vivacious and friendly, she was just fun to be with, and we had some great times after the Coral Sea cruise. More short cruises occurred, on the USS Tarawa and USS FDR, and we saw each other several times in between. Then the time approached for my transfer to the Naval Air Training Command down at NAAS Kingsville, Texas. And I realized that she had stronger feelings than I did. Nothing to do but go on. Subsequently, she dated and later married Don Wilson, who was about a year junior to me. More on that later.
One very short cruise occurred when some benighted individual ensconced in the upper levels of Navy bureaucracy decided that it would be cost-effective or something if AD Skyraider airplanes would use Jeep “Escort” carriers for night qualification, saving the bigger carriers for more important usage. Really stupid, because the AD was too big and heavy for the little Jeeps. But, as is sometimes the case, common sense had to be proved. So four of us were dispatched one day to night-qualify on the USS Palau, a Jeep Escort carrier. The entire flight deck was about 500 feet long, about half the length of the USS Coral Sea, for instance. The plan was to make several day landings and then six night landings on the ship. We managed two day landings, and that scared all of us, the watchers and the performers, enough so that that operation was canceled right there. There just wasn’t any margin; if you didn’t catch the second wire, you’d be into the barriers. And as for launching, the short 70-foot hydraulic catapult, to get us up to flying speed in its stroke, resulted in a headache for the next five minutes. The hydraulic catapult didn’t have the smooth acceleration of the steam catapult, and it was only about half as long as the later big-carrier steam cats, which we copied from the British. So when it was cranked up to its limit to get us up to fly-off speed, it was comparable to a sledgehammer in the back of the neck (my qualitative assessment). The entire effort was made more adventuresome by the presence of hurricane swells caused by a storm off the Capes, which caused quite a bit of pitching by the relatively short little carrier. As a planned effort by the Upper Reaches, definitely a “down”.
Time rolled along; Hop Holden was scheduled to transfer to Shore Duty, which meant that I would soon be due, too. There was no hard and fast rule, but you had to alternate between Sea Duty and Shore Duty; at that time, it was about 3 years Sea Duty and then 2 years Shore Duty. We flew ADs over to NAS Anacostia, just across the Potomac River from Washington to the north and from Washington National Airport to the west, and visited the Navy Bureau of Personnel to see if we could get good assignments as instructors to the Training Command, where most first-tour Shore Duty Aviators went. NAS Anacostia was located cheek-by-jowl with Bolling AFB; both are long since closed down. All we found out was that they would agree to send us to the Advanced Training Command, at NAS Corpus Christi, which seemed OK, so we both put in for transfer. At least we knew it was better than being assigned as instructors in Basic Training, all of it in the back seat of SNJs. We assumed that, with recent experience in the AD, we would be assigned to an AD Skyraider training unit, but failed to reckon with the fact that the TBM training unit needed pilots, and worse, that old Bill Keeler, ex-squadron mate, who had transferred down there a couple months previously, was in the TBM unit and had vigorously campaigned to have us both sent to that Turkey training squadron, ATU-400. So it was all set up that we would both be assigned there when we arrived. I could have cheerfully killed him. But he was one of those with no real love for flying, and would probably have agreed with the jerk officer in the NAS Corpus assignment office who, upon listening to our semi-hysterical objections, opined that, “Oh, well, it all counts on 20”. From those kinds of experiences grew the saying that having TBM time in your logbook was like a notation of V.D. in your medical record.
One of those eternal “what if” situations: Had I chosen to stick around VC-33, I could have gone out on the next cruise on the USS Antietam, the first angled-deck carrier. I would have loved that. But the way things went, even those I didn’t like at the time, it was all for the best. My life has been a wonderful series of experiences.
So there I was, back in the Mack truck of airplanes, the TBM. Ah, well, at least it flew. It flew a lot, as I will describe. Soon after joining the training squadron at NAS Corpus Christi, we were moved over to NAAS (Naval Auxiliary Air Station) Kingsville, Texas, which had two airfields, North Field and South Field, with the barracks, BOQ (Bachelor Officers Quarters, in case I haven’t mentioned it previously), and administration buildings in between. South Field had just been re-opened after a hiatus of several years, and we were joined there by F6F and F8F training squadrons. There was no air-conditioning in the BOQ, or anywhere, for that matter; when you did paperwork, as when filling out student evaluation sheets, your sweaty arm tended to leave mud streaks on the paper. The flying and associated activity was, in a word, “intense”. Not only did we have U.S. Navy students assigned, but since other countries had been given TBM airplanes by our government, we had students from Italy, France and the Netherlands. The way things worked, after our government gave these countries the airplanes, we then obligated ourselves to train their pilots in those airplanes. As an instructor, you spent about 1 hour in briefing, de-briefing, and writing evaluation reports on students for every hour spent flying. I was flying 80 to 100 hours per month during the time I was there, so you can see there wasn’t much spare time. Each instructor had a flight of 3 students for the navigation, tactical, and night work, plus the individual instrument flights, where you chased the student with those orange plastic sheets taped in the cockpit, with blue goggles to shut out the world. And when your next new flight reported aboard, you had to give each one a “safe-for-solo” flight, with you in the back seat of an SNJ (some exciting rides there). And with the foreign students, communications sometimes presented interesting problems, e.g. when chasing a Dutch student on an instrument flight one day, he wandered over a bombing target being actively and vertically attacked be a flight of ADs. Flew right through and in between dive-bombing airplanes, despite my increasingly-desperate calls to veer off. When I finally faced him on the ground, he simply said, “you vas wery garbled, sir”. What’s a come-back to that? Our main job, as we saw it, was simply to get them through the syllabus and out. Different, though, with our Navy students. You wanted them to be the best. And I made that a problem for myself; I was too much of a perfectionist. I wanted them to feel about flying as I did. A few, like me, had wanted fighters rather than the TBM, but quite a lot of these guys had actually volunteered for TBMs! I was tougher on them than maybe I should have been, insisting that they fly as if they had pride in their performance, like maintaining close parade formation around the field, being precise in their flying at all times, things like that. Just being safe wasn’t enough; I pushed them on all the little things that would reflect wanting to be the best. As with silk purses and sow’s ears, I don’t know how much good I did; I did meet a couple of those students later who said I’d helped them, but who knows? However, I was not happy with my job as flight instructor. It obviously wasn’t my niche.
We had some great times, though. There wasn’t much for bachelors around Kingsville, so more weekends than most, Hop Holden, Spook Luke and I, all bachelor instructors, would shepherd flights of students up to NAS Dallas. During their tenure, each flight of 3 students had to make a cross-country flight, which could be done on a weekend. The married types didn’t want to do that, so we’d volunteer to take that task off their hands. Lockhart was on the route of flight, and the students and other insructors would circle while I buzzed the town. Hop and I went so often the Duty Officers at NAS Dallas got to calling us the Gold-Dust Twins, which I think was a commercial advertisement of the time. There was a big hotel in downtown Dallas called the Adolphus, and we’d reserve a suite in it every time. They were very understanding; our suite was always far removed from family reservations, where our partying wouldn’t bother anyone, and we had some simply great parties! On occasion, we’d go to the lobby to recruit promising ladies. Once, I recall that a mother-daughter combination came up. Apropos of nothing, they were from Tyler; don’t know why I remember that. They were both pretty; maybe that’s the reason. As I said earlier, sex was not a usual product; it was just fun and parties.
I tried for the third time to be selected “Regular Navy” and failed again, so finally decided to get out, which had been an option for a couple of years. I was age 25 and felt that I had to get started in some lifetime occupation. So in February 1953 I was unleashed on the civilian world, with sort of a minimal impact.
At this time my logbook shows 1,028 hours in the TBM, 613 hours in the AD, 371 hours in the SNJ, and 68 hours in the SNB (twin-engine Beechcraft), with brief checkout flight hours in the F8F, F6F, and R4D (twin-engine transport).
A CIVILIAN AGAIN
I didn’t have much of an idea what I wanted to do in civilian life. For some months I just floofed around, spending my mustering-out pay. Met up with Art Barie and Jerry Walterskirchen, back up in the northeast coast, the Naval Academy at Annapolis. Big “A” Alexander was teaching there, as was Hoz Cooke. They checked us out on Grumman Goose water flying (that’s a twin-engine amphibian). The main thing I remember about it is that when you went to full power for takeoff, water completely obscured vision through the windshield; you had to fly the needle (keep the turn indicator centered) until the airplane got up on the step (the hull planing on the water). The Academy also had a flock of single-float N3N biplanes for Midshipman familiarization flights.
I still knew a few people in NAS Atlantic City but most were gone, those that I’d known well. It was pretty much like a ghost town; a rather sad experience. An early reminder that places don’t mean much; it’s the people.
Finally, I came back to Lockhart, the old home town in Texas. Hung around the beer joints for awhile, bitched about the civilians, griped about things … until finally Dad got tired of listening to me and got me a job down in south Texas in a Mobil oil refinery. As usual, he was smarter than me. After about three months of fairly hard labor, I realized that was not the way I wanted to go. I’d taken for granted the fact that oil refineries always looked nice and shiny, but I found out why that was so. For 8 hours a day I did nothing but paint pipes; little pipes, big pipes, hot pipes, cold pipes. Not what you’d term an inspiring job. A truly depressing factor was that people around there viewed this as a great job; it didn’t require any thought, and after you’d put in 8 hours, you were free to farm or work another job. And capping it off was that after 30 years or so, you’d get a “penshun” from the big oil company, for the rest of your life. Little dreams so small they’d shrivel you up. I was glad to get away from there. I’d previously thought that the airlines would be the thing to pursue, but when I got right up to it, it seemed too much like driving a bus, so I decided on school, which the G.I. Bill and the Holloway Plan would pay for. Dad made no secret of the fact that he’d like me to go into business with him in his insurance brokerage, and I wanted to please him, but I didn’t think he and I would get along on a day-to-day basis. I think it was hard for him to delegate authority, but I was going to try, anyway. First, though, I wanted to go to school. Jerry Walterskirchen and I had stayed in touch; he was going back to his alma mater, the University of Colorado at Boulder, so I just decided I’d join him out there. Must’ve pained my folks, when I could just as easily have gone to a Texas school, but I was still fiddle-footed, and felt I had to veer away from settling too close to home. Don’t really know why; looking back, I think I was probably just leery of getting tied down in a small town that didn’t have many of the things that I’d grown to appreciate.
COLLEGE AND NAVY RESERVE FLYING
So in June, 1953, I piled my few personal possessions in the back seat of my 1951 Ford Club Coupe and headed out for Boulder, Colorado. I’d sent out my previous college transcripts and had been accepted; they were pretty liberal with veterans in those days. I drove through a dust storm getting there, first one I ever saw, and though the windows were up, everything inside was well-coated with dust when I got to Boulder. Boulder wasn’t a very big town in those days, maybe 10,000 souls. Nice town and an absolutely beautiful campus, there at the foot of the Flatiron Mountains, where the Rockies rose. Jerry wasn’t there yet, not until fall, so I got lodging in an upstairs room-kitchen combination, with sink and gas burner stove, and bath of sorts. It was up the hill in the southwest part of town, an older house, but it suited me OK. I hiked down to the University and looked into signing up for summer school. Within 3 days, I was signed up in 3 different Colleges, which I guess reflected my mental state. First, I registered for Journalism, thinking of our old late-night pledges on the carrier; then, thinking of my Dad’s wishes, I switched to a B.A. Business degree course, with a minor in Insurance. And then on the 3rd day, I happened to walk past the Aeronautical Engineering building, and wandered in. There, inside, was a Navy FM-2 fighter which had been donated to the college. Beautiful. I met Kay Benson, the Secretary to the Department Head. She convinced me that I should re-think my antipathy to math and give engineering a try. A wonderful woman, she inspired me to give it a go. So I did, and signed up for Organic Chemistry and Differential Equations in the remaining six weeks of summer school; Org chem and diffi Q I needed to complete my Sophomore year course for engineering. With 2 weeks to go before school, I bought a used algebra book to prep for diffi Q and worked all the problems in the book. It would have been a lonely time but for all that work. In the evenings, sometimes I’d hike up the mountains, which began right there, and marvel at the view and the whistling marmots, which were all around. Then the classes began and lo, I ended up with an B in chemistry and an A in math. That gave me the impetus to go ahead in Aero Engineering, which verified Kay’s advice. I should say here that my grades, which remained good throughout school, reflected my re-discovery of the simple fact that application, or work on my studies, would always result in good grades and learning. The hidden trick leading to that application was motivation. Without the desire, forget it. Which is what I’d always told my students about flying. In the same time period, the summer of 1953, I went to NAS Buckley Field, east of Denver, and enrolled in Navy Reserve Fighter Squadron VF-711. They were flying Grumman F8F-2 Bearcats, probably the most fun airplane I’ve ever flown; I’d checked out in the F8F-1 in Kingsville. Not only was that a wonderful thing, keeping me alive in flying, one weekend a month and 2 weeks in the summer, but it also paid about $150 per month, on average. Combined with the G.I. Bill payments of $165 per month, it really helped with the tuition and book costs. Without the G.I. Bill, I would never have gone to college. Next to the Marshall Plan, it was the best thing this country did in the last 100 years.
THE NEXT SNAKE RANCH
Jerry Walterskirchen came back in the fall and I think he was the one who found a fabulous place to live, a rambling house about 3 miles east of Boulder. It was on a gravel road, on 11 acres, and had a stable and pond out in back. It had been built over time by a college prof; a really unique house, one that you and your wife wouldn’t think about buying. Had an apartment sort of joined on one side, three fireplaces, two kitchens, 20-foot closet-spaces for hanging clothes, stone and tiled floors, and like that. Obviously created by a free spirit. The front room had a giant fireplace fronted in fieldstone all across one wall. Had a Siamese cat that came with the property. In all, a really great place, floating in atmosphere. We took in Jack Williams, another ex-naval aviator, enrolled in US foreign service studies, and Frank Echols, who was studying to be a chiropractor. One of Jerry’s old buddies from Missoula, Montana ran a high-class hamburger and sandwich place in town; he sold us beef tenderloin strips for 50 cents a pound and hamburger for much less. And then we took turns cooking specialties like stuffed beef heart and other things (I’d never heard of beef heart, but it was cheap). Didn’t have loin every night, but we ate good. We soon developed a bit of a cachet among the sororities as a place to be seen at or one to experience, sporting senior types with pipe in teeth or accordian in hand (I usually had my little 12-bass squeeze-box handy), and also there were other ex-naval aviators at school. So our parties were well-attended, and diverse in attendee types. Downright cosmopolitan, I’d say. Phil and Meredith Clark were examples; close friends, he’d been a Navy SEAL, both had been in CIA, and he was enrolled in Civil Engineering at school. John Williams, in law school, was an ex-Naval Aviator who’d flown blimps (we allowed as how he was the only one around who could possibly do bag-overs, whilst the rest of us could only do wing-overs). Also, there was Don Mitchell, an ex-NA in law school. A young couple who was often there was Corky and Jan Bekins (Bekins Moving, but you’d never know it, and nothing was ever said about it). But it should be understood that the parties occurred only infrequently. Engineering school didn’t allow for much social time during the week, and sometimes weekends were booked for studies and lab reports.
It came to be that we needed a telephone listing, one that we could all be comfortable with, and so I called the ‘phone company about that. Our idea was to list as SNAKE RANCH , because most people who wanted to reach us would recognize that. But I was informed that that would require commercial rates, considerably more costly than straight residential. So I rang off, and called back; I informed the lady answering that my name was Snakeran. She had me spell it, and then I told her that my initials were “C. H.”. So when the phone book was published, soon after, our listing was “Snakeran, CH”. The gentleman I’d spoken to first called back some time later,.after the type was cast:: “Very shrewd, but it won’t work next year!”, he said. I’d told my idea to Don Mitchell, he registered the apartment he shared with 3 others as “Snakeran,CH, Jr.”. One of those others was Peppy Hilton, a jolly share-for–all type I really liked. His dad was a surgeon, brother to Conrad Hilton. I liked him especially because you’d never have known that from him.
After logging about 50 wonderful hours in the Bearcat, I finally checked out in jets, in November 1953; the fighter squadrons at Buckley were given McDonnell F2H-1 Banshee twin-engine jet fighters. We didn’t have any jet trainers, so after studying the Pilots Handbook and familiarizing in the cockpit, we just climbed aboard, strapped in, and blasted off. After all the hype and bar-talk about how different the jets were: They were different, all right, but mostly they were easier. As I’ve said, you just had to adjust to the fact that they were much faster and thirstier, and that meant you had to plan your flight and then fly your plan. Actually, the pilot/machine part of operating the airplane was quite a bit easier. Had I been given the chance, I would gladly have gone back to the Bearcat after the initial F2H checkout. The ‘Cat was just more fun to fly, more maneuverable and responsive. The jet traveled so much faster, for instance, that when you pulled the stick back, the “g-s” mashed you into the seat. Then the airplane slowly started responding to what you wanted it to do. The Banshee was a great airplane for jet checkout, straight wings and 2 engines. But then after a short time, they took away the F2H-1s and replaced them with F9F-7s. On the chart of monumental goofs, that had to be a 10! The Grumman F9F-7 was an aberration created by the Navy. It was supposed to be called the F9F-6, but the intended engine, the J-48, was not ready when the airframe came off the Grumman line, so the Navy decreed that a variant of the J-33, a much earlier and lower-thrust engine, would be installed. Problem was it had a lot less takeoff thrust (about 30% less) than the engine for which the airplane was designed. It was such a dog the fleet squadrons wouldn’t accept it, so the decision was then made to foist it off on the Reserve Squadrons. Second big goof: We at NAS Buckley were the first to get it; they replaced our F2H-1s with F9F-7s in 1954. We were located at the highest elevation in the U.S., of the Navy Reserve Jet Units, where an airplane with substantially less than its design thrust would be at its most vulnerable, in takeoff. And we did have some close calls, even with our 10,000 foot runway. One day in summer, towing a banner for air-to-air gunnery, I barely got off and blew dust off the runway end; after about 30 miles of flying in ground effect, I finally reached flap retraction speed of 150 Kts, but not before dragging down numerous telephone lines between Buckley Field and Colorado Springs, 50 miles south, with the banner and its 1,500 foot cable. Very marginal, but we didn’t know any better than to think that this was the way swept-wing jet fighters were supposed to fly. Ah, blessed ignorance! Then after about a year, in 1955, they brought in the F9F-6s, with the bigger engines, and flying became much more relaxed. I liked the F9F-6 Cougar; it was a good, solid airplane. It didn’t have ailerons, but used upper wing spoilers for roll control, which resulted in a kind of wallowy, sluggish lateral behavior in flight with gear and flaps down, but as with many airplane idiosyncrasies, you as a pilot could adapt to them. This was solved in a subsequent Grumman fighter, the F11F-1, which I later flew, by popping the spoilers up 7 deg. when extending the flaps; that got them up out of the boundary layer and eliminated the reversal of the earlier design, which had caused the wallowing effect.
Back to personal stuff: Over a period of 5 years, I figured Marcie was the girl I’d marry and wrote letters to her. At this point, her folks had moved to Chicago. Sore point there: She says that just after she got a letter from me, she’d fire one right back in spite of her mother’s advice, and then it’d be a year before I answered. Well, she’s probably right there; I wrote her at least 3 letters in that time period. But nothing can be proved, because she got so mad at one point that she burned all my letters. I never burned any of her letters to me. But anyway … the last of her letters to me in that series mentioned that she’d recently been back to Philadelphia to visit old friends, including an old boyfriend (Tommy Rankin), one I’d heard of before, and that she had an important decision to make. Well, pretty wide lines to read between there, huh? Remember, earlier I mentioned that a girl I knew played the “other guy” card? I eluded that one, but this one I took, hook, line, and sinker. I checked out a TBM from NAS Buckley (I’d flown them before, so it was OK) and flew to Billy Mitchell Field in Milwaukee; she met me there, and we took the train to Chicago; her folks had an apartment there, in a big hotel. Boy, she was pretty, prettier than I remembered! Things were giddy … giddy! Late the first night, before I even had a chance to think about it, I blurted out a proposal of marriage! And she accepted! God! It was frightening! What had I done? That leap must have been lurking in my sub-conscious but I sure wasn’t overtly thinking about it. If questioned, I would have said, “Get real!”. One of my first experiences with being along for the psychic ride. But everybody was laughing and smiling and things went along. And then it was time to go back. I hadn’t slept the night before, and flew back to Denver the next night. Kept going to sleep in the airplane; OK on an airliner, but I was the only one in this one! I remember biting my lip, punching myself in the face, whatever I could do to stay awake. And then I’d suddenly regain consciousness, thinking, “What’d I do, what’d I do? … Engaged?! God!”.
But that was just the beginning of it. Got back to the Ranch, and before I could lay it on the guys what I’d gone and done, they jumped up and said, “Hey, Jim, you’re gonna be so proud! You’ll never believe it! We’ve rented the apartment to 3 young nurses!”. Now, understand, this apartment didn’t have a lock on the door between, and I’d probably mentioned that to Marcie. Another thing was that Marcie and I had discussed this engagement of ours in very grown-up terms. No marriage date was set, we’d continue a normal life (meaning we’d date … only thing was, she didn’t know anybody since they’d just moved to Chicago, and I was surrounded by panting coeds, in her mind). So I had to write and tell her about the new roomies. And then I guess it shouldn’t have been a surprise to me when I got an answer to a following letter where I described bringing a date to a Ranch function. I had considered it something of an obligation to have a date to act as sort of an assistant hostess when I helped preside over parties at the Ranch. Really a social obligation. But when I picked up the envelope replying to that letter, it was leaking green smoke. They can say so much without saying a lot … frightening.
This was 1954, and our first thought out of the barrel was that we’d just wait ‘til I graduated in 1956. But then absence and second thoughts worked their way and the date slipped and slipped. Toward us, not the other way. So finally, we settled on 4 September, 1954. My logbook shows that in August 1954 I flew a F9F-7 Cougar jet fighter from NAS Denver to NAS Glenview for an overnight trip. That one was a mistake; she was in the throes of self-questioning, a mental state which attacks all who are about to give up their independence for the remainder of their lives, and for an engaged couple, it never happens to both at the same time. I’d been through mine, but she hadn’t, so for a couple of days, I had to hang around a girl I wasn’t sure I knew anymore. Scared me, but not enough to upset the applecart; a lot of things were in train, with a big church wedding looming. Talk about something frightening: Being involved at all in wedding plans, as in a formal church wedding, is an experience that would daunt Robert the Bruce. Kind of like a first-class ticket on an avalanche. First-class because everyone is pleasant and smiles at you, but nothing you say or do will change or affect anything in the slightest, as things barrel on toward their appointed end. Her Dad, Clyde, kinda felt the same way; at one point, he offered to just give us the amount of money that was shaping up to be the cost of the wedding, if we would quietly elope. If memory serves, it was around 4,000 1954 dollars, an impressive amount. I was all for it, but not Marcele, and not Mary Ellen, her mother. I have a strong feeling that this scenario has been played out many times before, with the same result. The Father of the Bride, aside from footing the bills, is probably the weakest of all the players in the Formal Wedding Game; everybody knows it, which was the reason for the films and books on the subject. Lord knows I now know it, being the father of 3 daughters, although Ellen has yet to make her play. For our wedding, my Mother and Dad, and Nancy and David, came up, and Hop Holden, my old Navy buddy, flew a Navy plane up to be there as Best Man; also Cleo (Marcie’s brother and another old Navy buddy) and his wife Julie, and three or four friends of Marcie’s, were in the wedding, but other than that, we knew very few of the attendees, mostly friends of Clyde and Mary Ellen.
An interesting aside: Cleo met Julie through her brother, another Naval Aviator and good friend of Cleo’s. They flew together from a carrier off Korea, in that War. Interesting, because I think that marriage scenario has happened a number of times, from other stories I’ve heard. Sort of keeps it in the family, I suppose, with aviators marrying sisters of comrades.
For our honeymoon, we drove back through the Black Hills of South Dakota. It must have been impressive, especially the giant facial statuary, but I was somewhat distracted by my new love, the first human being that I’d tried to share my life with. I had arranged to rent a very small duplex in Boulder; the kitchen and living areas were in one room, adjoined by a bath and bedroom. As they say, you couldn’t swing a cat in any of the rooms without hitting something. But it was home and we loved it. I built a divider with a bamboo curtain to separate the kitchen-dining area and living area, where we had a sofa and desk for study. I still had a couple of years to go before graduation in Aeronautical Engineering; Marcie got a job as secretary in a Boulder insurance company. Her pay was peanuts, they had a captive employment market with wives of vets there at school. I worked part-time at the University Experiment Station, which was run by the Aeronautical Engineering Department, for the princely sum of $0.50/hour. The G.I. Bill paid about $165 per month. As I recall, the rental for the duplex was $50 per month. Pay from Navy Reserve flying was about $2,000 per year, and that really helped. When we partied, usually with friends in similar circumstances, each couple would bring a six-pack, and we had great fun. There was a tavern down at the end of the street; sometimes we’d go there and ogle the television, a recent innovation, but at bar prices, we couldn’t afford that more than once a month or so. Everyone was ga-ga over George Gobel, the comedian, and then later we saw Elvis the Pelvis on an Ed Sullivan show. Brave New World. We were very happy there and actually had more money banked than for many years afterward. There was occasional trauma: At one point we had a parakeet that I’d tried to train to speak by subjecting it to repeated LP recordings. The bird was probably seriously neurotic from the all-day LP treatments and eager to fly to a better life. So then one day during the winter an encyclopedia salesman knocked on the door. On opening, the bird flew out into the snow and was never seen again. Afterward, we adopted a gangly, crazy Siamese kitten we named Smoky, the first of a number of Siamese cats that joined our family as it grew. And it started growing before long. We were married in September 1954; Kathleen (nmi) came along in April 1956. Marcie didn’t want middle names so none of the girls had ‘em. I did pretty well at school; Sigma Tau, an honorary engineering fraternity, invited me to join at the beginning of Senior year, then Pi Tau Sigma, a cut above the first one, later extended an invitation, so I paid another $25 … then in the middle of Senior year, the big one, Tau Beta Pi, said I could join their august group, so I leapt a third time. To my knowledge, none of that has ever meant anything in a substantive way, though I keep the Tau Beta Pi cerfificate on the wall because it makes me feel good.
CHANCE VOUGHT AIRCRAFT, INC.
The last half of senior year saw a lot of airplane company reps come to the campus with offers of jobs. I hassled around with 2 or 3 and finally accepted a job as Flight Test Engineer with Chance Vought in Dallas. I had come to realize that my parents, as well as Marcie’s, were worried about the danger of my flying airplanes and maybe leaving my new family bereft of support, so I said okay, I’ll try it on the ground. That period, from August 1956 to October 1958, saw us traveling a lot. Chance Vought was a prime military contractor, building fighter airplanes for the Navy. After a few weeks of trying to look busy (toughest job I ever had), I was assigned as flight test engineer for the F8U-1P spin project; that airplane was the photo-reconnaissance version of the F8U Crusader, the first supersonic Navy fighter. We moved to a little duplex in Palmdale, California, for several months to do the buildup program and show that the airplane met the Navy requirements (actually flown out of Mojave airport), and then had to move everything to the Naval Air Test Center, NAS Patuxent River, Maryland to demonstrate the same thing to the Navy, which was done in 1957. This demonstration was a first, a great leap forward, in that the data taken several times per second during the spins was telemetered to a ground station, not just recorded on-board as had always been done in the past. For this test phase of several months, I had to leave Marcie and Kathy; Marcie had a miscarriage in that time, while visiting her parents in Chicago. Next assignment was on the Dead-stick Landing Project, which required readying the airplane to demonstrate a power-off landing on the desert lakebed. That required several months’ development of airplane backup hydraulic flight control systems, since the engine would be shut down and couldn’t power them. We traveled by car to Palmdale, California from Dallas with 2 little girls and a cat, only to be told on arrival in December that the rainy season had begun. Go home! The irony was that everyone knew this would happen, it’s a seasonal thing in California, but the Corporate idea was that you had to show the Navy you were trying, and the Navy idea was to let ‘em … stupid on both sides! But we went back and got it done in the spring. Then I was assigned to the weapons demonstrator, the number three airplane of the new F8U-3 fighter with which Chance Vought was competing against McDonnell Aircraft Company and their F4H fighter. This was in mid 1958; I was becoming increasingly unhappy with being close to airplanes but not flying them. When I heard from a friend, Dennis Tuck, fellow pilot in a Reserve Fighter Squadron at Navy Dallas that the Civil Aeronautics Administration was taking in one or two flight test pilots, which were Civil Service positions for pilots to test civilian airplanes for civil certification requirements, I was suddenly enervated, put in my application and was overjoyed when I was accepted. My parents were not overjoyed, nor were Marcie’s parents. Back to flying for a living, of which they were somewhat leery. And I must say that I had some reservations about working for the Government, which was viewed by many in those days as kind of a ribbon-clerk job, officious and … well … bureaucratic. But Civil Service pay had recently received the benevolent attention of a friendly President and Congress, and in hiring in as a GS-12, my annual pay increased from $5,700 at Chance Vought to about $8,000! It didn’t really make me feel any better, but about 2 months’ after going to the new job, C-V lost the F8U-3 competition and laid off many employees, with up to 17 years’ experience.
There were some old friends around: Pat and Jody King lived in northeast Dallas and we’d visit with them occasionally. Our children were in the same age group, so we continued to have interests in common. Pat was doing well as a Westinghouse sales engineer; besides being book-smart, he was a hands-on guy. I remember being impressed that he made his own arc welding machine using a transformer somehow obtained from the local power company. As a couple, they presented a rather righteous façade, but I’d seen behind that before Pat built it, so wasn’t too surprised one night when Marcie and I were backseat observers to a frontseat interchange between driver and passenger, Pat and Jody, while moving at 80 mph on the Interstate.
If I’d turned away from airplanes and flying completely, as Cleo Swartz did when he got out, maybe I’d have found another life. I say that, but don’t really believe it. I’d romanticized and dreamed about flying too long in the early years to ever give it up completely. I’d continued flying jet fighters in the Reserves at NAS Dallas, so when I heard about the test pilot position with the CAA, I applied and was accepted, and went to work in the Fort Worth Regional Office in October 1958, the month Dana was born. The two years as flight test engineer at Chance Vought was one of the primary factors in qualifying for the job, so without my planning it, things fell into place. The CAA, which became the FAA (Federal Aviation Agency) a few months later, suffered growing pains from the first. In 1957, a midair collision between two loaded airliners over the Grand Canyon had spurred Congress into action, an always-dangerous situation, where posturing, blathering, and passing laws in the spotlight of public attention too often passes for reasoned problem-solving. So about the turn of the year in 1959 the Federal Aviation Agency was created, with a huge budget and thousands of new employee positions. The Agency replaced the Civil Aeronautics Administration, then under the Department of Commerce, so it would be only one layer below the Executive Branch of the government and thus receive more attention. Most of the new hires were in Air Traffic Control, because that was the area of perceived weakness allowing the airliners to collide. So thousands of air traffic controllers were hired. And then someone in that management area of the FAA received the epiphany that the whole thing would be improved if all those new controllers were to get flying lessons, so they could empathize with the pilots up there that they were controlling. In fact, there were managers in FAA at that time who felt that all employees having anything to do with airplanes should receive flying lessons. All this irrational thinking was aided and abetted by an almost unlimited Federal Budget. At this time I was in the Flight Test Section of the Engineering Branch in the Fort Worth Regional Office of the FAA. We were pretty lean, with just 4 test pilots and 3 flight test engineers to cover the Southwest Region, which extended from New Mexico to the Carolinas and everything south. None of this new-found wealth in the FAA budget trickled down to us. In fact, our life got harder; to oversee all these new employees taking flying lessons and renting airplanes, new staff offices were created. Just up the hall in the Regional Office Building, an Aircraft Rental Office suddenly appeared, with the mandate of writing rules and overseeing them regarding all airplane rentals. So now, once each year, we test pilots had to fill out their forms, take their checkrides, and otherwise satisfy their requirements before we could rent airplanes to fly to the location of our test jobs, usually a manufacturer’s facility. They used up a lot of our time, they were not needed (by us) and they accomplished nothing of value outside the Agency. It was a classic example of Parkinson’s Law, which, loosely stated, allows that work in a bureaucratic organization will expand to fill the time and resources available, with little regard to actual output, and if not checked, will continue to decrease the actual work accomplished as increasing time and effort is expended in writing memos, having meetings, and other internal job justifications.
Our job was to conduct flight testing as necessary to assure that all new and modified aircraft met the airworthiness requirements of the Federal Air Regu-lations, covering lightplanes, helicopters, and transports and all in between. Jim Ludwig, our Flight Test Section Chief at Fort Worth, was a good boss in that he kept a lot of the Parkinson-type stuff from flowing downhill and miring us in our jobs, and at the same time kept us pointed straight in keeping the Regulations first in doing what we had to do. But he was typical of flight test management throughout the Agency at that time in that he knew very little of the engineering side of the job. It seemed that most of the upper and middle management people in the flight test engineering area of the CAA/FAA had come in with little or no engineering experience in the late ‘30s or early ‘40s; they had little technical understanding of the job, and the rapid expansion of aviation technology had left them behind.
Pete Petersen, Chief of the Western Regional Flight Test Office, had this mantra: “Good test pilots are born, not made”. C’mon! Dave Baker, of the same vintage as Pete, and Head of the Transport Section in Washington HQ, had this one: “We’re not test pilots, we’re safety pilots”. Whatever that was. When I was going through Navy Test Pilot School, he came and spent a day (he’d been told to) and over beer and hamburgers that night, stated to me that it was a waste of time for me to be there. Ah, well. It was a waste of time for him to be there.
NAVY TEST PILOT SCHOOL
As I said, I’d been in the CAA only about 3 months when the Civil Aeronautics Administration was transformed into the Federal Aviation Agency. Pow! All sorts of things began to happen, some good, some bad. One was that a retired 4-star Air Force general, Elwood “Pete” Quesada, was named to head up this new, supercharged FAA. Machete in hand, he hit the ground running, and immediately began hacking up old organizations and planting new ones. One of his more questionable (stupid?) actions was pushing through the age-60 maximum limit for airline pilots. As he surveyed the workings of the Agency, his eye fell upon their method of flight testing new aircraft for certification. Test pilots? He knew about test pilots. The military had long ago established test pilot schools in the Air Force and Navy for military certification purposes. But when he asked why the Civil Service was not using those schools, nobody had an answer. BLAM! Out of the blue, the Regional Offices of the FAA got super-urgent TWXs: Of the test pilots assigned to your office, who can go to military test pilot schools? Boy, for once, I was really in the right spot at the right time. I was relatively young at 31, much younger than most of the pilots then assigned, I was flying Navy jet airplanes in the Reserves, and I was hungry to go. Was I ever! This was beyond my wildest dreams. But first, I had to appear before the General. I guess he wanted to see that this … person, not directly out of the military, not turned out by the factory that he knew, would be unlikely to embarrass him. I can understand that. He’d had a helluva career as an Army Air Corps fighter pilot and leader, setting aviation records and keeping the Army Air Corps alive during the depression years of the ‘20s and ‘30s. Thank God for people like him. Anyway, I was summoned to Washington to see the General, but first, of course, to be briefed by my FAA Civil Service management. Now, consider this: After long years of quiet civil service tenure in Washington, this rude shock of sudden change and unforeseen questions was upsetting, to say the least. Dust was in the air and feathers were flying. Managers that I wouldn’t have seen for a long time to come in the ordinary way of things were earnestly talking directly to me: “Now, Patton, your appearance is OK, but I don’t think you’re projecting enough … the General likes people to project, so work on that”. This from people who hadn’t met the General, mind. Well, as usual in these situations, the big interview was a bit of an anticlimax. About every two minutes, he’d grab a spray can, leap up, and hose the walls, explaining that the wooden walls they’d put in his new office were full of emerging bugs with wings, but saying … ”Go on boy, go on! I’m listening!” So I went on, he said he’d keep his eye on me, and that was that.
What excitement! It was really hard to believe that I’d fallen into this wonderful world! I have the letter I wrote to my Mother and Dad, trying to explain what it meant to me. Of course, Marcie was very supportive, although it wasn’t easy for her; Kathy was a little over three and Dana about 1½ when we rented out our house in Arlington and made the move to Lexington Park, outside the Naval Air Test Center in Maryland, towing a U-Haul with some of the basics. I made the mistake of taking an apartment in Navy enlisted housing because it was cheap. It was pretty scummy, with dirt and odor so bad that we scrubbed it down with Lysol, floors and all. That wasn’t enough, though; in about a month Dana was suffering with dog hookworm on her face, transferred from her hands. The little boogers would move around at night, just under the skin, and prevent her from getting any rest. Fortunately, our doctor in Lexington Park knew of a derma-tologist in Washington who’d done some pioneering work on this problem, and we went to him for several visits, which was enough for him to kill off the little parasites. The treatment was to hold a piece of dry ice on the skin over the worm’s location (Marcie used a ballpoint during the week to trace the path of the thing) long enough to freeze and kill the worm. Dana still has small facial scars from that. After about a month, we found a small bungalow in the village of California, about 3 miles north of Lexington Park, on the shores of the Patuxent River, and stayed there until we finished school. And hosted some great bluecrab parties.
I’d prevailed upon my Civil Service FAA managers (with admonitory help from CDR Livingston, the C.O. of TPS) to report to the School about 2 weeks early, to find a place to live and to check out in some of the airplanes assigned to the School. Here follows one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do: During a solo familiarization flight in the T-28B, I overboosted the engine on a wave-off; that means I applied too much power, with possible engine damage. An engine inspection was thereby required, with the airplane being “downed” (unavailable for flight) for several days. Here I was, before even beginning a realized dream, about to bomb out. My imagination saw me being summarily dismissed and sent home in disgrace. So the hard thing was to go to LCDR Joe Moorer, the Operations Officer, and confess what I’d done. Well, he huffed around some, not really seriously, and that was it. Looking back, I think it really helped my standing with him in times to come. One of the primary sins in aviation is to cause possible damage to an airplane and not report it, thereby putting the next pilot and crew in potential danger. I know now that he understood what it took for me to admit what I’d done and I think he respected me for it. I really admired Joe Moorer, who to me was the quintessential Navy pilot and officer. His brother was Admiral Tom Moorer, soon to become Chief of Naval Operations. He must have been great, but Joe remains in memory as probably the best example of a Navy officer I ever knew personally.
Test Pilot School was eight months of a very strange lifestyle. I was in Class 25, the 25th one since inception in 1948. We had 15 full-time students in 25, 2 civilian and the rest military. In addition, there were 2 part-time nonpilot engineers taking the academic courses only. In a way it was for me like going home again since I was of an age with most of the guys and hadn’t been out of the Navy all that long. LT Pete Mongalardi was one of my fellow students. I’d known him down in Kingsville before leaving the Navy; at that time, a Navy Green Card (the highest-level instrument rating) could be exchanged across the board for a CAA instrument rating and as I was about to become a civilian, that sounded good. Pete was on the Kingsville Naval Air Station instrument instruction board, and at my request he gave me my green card check ride, which I passed, in the twin-engine SNB. It was a bitch, including the Charley pattern, a rugged 3-dimensional 4-legged pattern, all at varying altitudes and airspeeds, which had to be flown on “partial panel”. That meant only airspeed, needle-ball, “whiskey compass”and altimeter. I was at the peak of proficiency then and it was no problem. Back to TPS: They were all great guys at the School; many were called but few were chosen for test pilot school, there were several screenings before you got there. It almost always worked; generally they were the cream of the crop, and they showed it. Our class of 15 was divided into three “homerooms” of 5 each. Each group was issued a set of Pilots’ Handbooks for the 15 or so jet and propeller-driven airplanes that were in the TPS Hangar, planes we’d fly during the next 8 months. One of the primary ideas to be imparted at the School was that there was nothing magic about meeting a new airplane; at a time of increasing dependence (especially in the US Air Force) on lengthy classes and "by the book” instruction in checking out in a new airplane, the School rule was that you’d be given 3 days notice before being scheduled to fly an airplane you hadn’t flown before. It might be quite different than anything you’d seen, like a big twin-engine amphibian flying boat, or a jet fighter with afterburner (new then) but it didn’t matter. It was up to you to find one of your classmates who’d flown that model airplane and get a cockpit checkout from him, or from one of the instructors, if necessary. Once he’d signed your cockpit checkout card, it was up to you to study the airplane operating handbook, memorize the pertinent limitations and warnings, and go fly it and conduct evaluations as scheduled. That, compared to lengthy checkout, written exams, and by-the-book require-ments in the usual military manner, made you feel more like an adult, and was a great boost to your self-confidence. The founders and leaders of the School knew that you’d eventually be faced with encountering and dealing with a new airplane where there were no handy learning tools available (such as simulators) and that you’d need that confidence. I don’t know of any one concept in aviation training that impressed me as much as that one.
It was hard work. I was up until after midnight every night during the week, writing flight reports and studying for quizzes in the academic classes. The flight reports had to be typed; Marcie did mine for me. Some of the students, like the four bachelors in the class, had to pay for that secretarial service. It was obvious that you were assigned somewhat more than you could physically do, which could be frustrating, but almost all of us accepted that and just did the best we could. In addition to the academics classes, a facet of Human Nature 101 was also active: The harder the work, the harder the play. After Friday Happy Hour at the Club we partied, always as a group and sometimes with the Class ahead of or behind us. There were a few all-nighters. Some, like us, had children (Kathi was 3½ when we started and Dana 1 plus) but there were baby sitters available, so it became a regular thing to unwind on Friday night. For me, this social side of life was like being back home. It was Navy living. For Marcie, it was a completely new experience. LT Pete Conrad was one of my instructors (aircraft performance); he and his wife Jane lived near us and we used to compete for one of the rather scarce baby-sitters in the neighborhood. Nowhere in civilian life would you see people bonding like this; the shared feelings and emotions of a small group striving hard toward a single goal is a unique situation. We were very close. Light to moderate flirting, married or single, is a natural subset of that condition. We were all in our thirties and most of us would be classed as extroverts. Very controlled, it was simply a way to spice up life. It was good for Marcie to get strokes of a sort she had never received before; she was a very attractive woman, but few besides me had ever told her so. Anyway, we sure had fun, dancing and partying and going to great seafood places back in the boondocks on the water. I remember one such time: Marcie finally had summoned the nerve to eat a raw oyster, after much urging. Just as she placed it in her mouth, Bill Fitzpatrick, one of the bachelors in the Class, walked up behind her and said, “Marcie, if it moves, just bite it”. She never again attempted the act.
Everybody knows time is relative. TPS lasted eight months, but it sure went by fast. I got to fly some wonderful airplanes. On the high end, there was the F4D Skyray, the F11F Tiger, and the F8U Crusader. They were the first afterburner jets I’d flown and what a kick that was, a virtual kick. When you advanced the power lever into afterburner, you felt a real boost in acceleration, pushed back in the seat, like riding a slingshot. On my first flight in the F4D, I did an afterburner climb from the deck to 50,000 feet in a little over two minutes. Flying F9F-6 Cougars back in the Reserves, we used to try to intercept SAC B-47 bombers when we saw ‘em coming away off (you could see the black smoke from their jets’ earlier engines). We’d turn to parallel their path and climb as fast as we could, but they’d usually just motor on by, still above and faster than us. Well, on this day in the F4D, there just happened to be a B-47 cruising by at about 40,000 feet, where they usually were, flying at about 0.8 Mach. It was one of those lifetime fantastic coincidences that burn into your memory. I went by him at 0.9 Mach, climbing at a great rate. I can still feel the grip of that thrill.
Most of my memories of that time were of friends. On leaving the Navy back in 1953, I was disappointed to find that civilian life was dull and gray. Everybody was pursuing his own thing. I missed the old comradeship and shared ambitions of my squadron-mates and resented the little secrets these people seemed to have. Now here I was, back home again, and I loved it. That’s what it was, like coming home.
Two classes at a time went on at the School. I think I mentioned that we flew half a day and had academics half a day, and each week we’d switch mornings and afternoons with the other class. A couple of students, usually civilian engineer Navy employees, were allowed to monitor the academic periods, and two civilian pilots were included in the full curriculum of the School. From the FAA, I was one of the civilians and Orv Johnson, from Westinghouse Baltimore, was the other one. There was no cost to government agencies like the FAA; I don’t know what the Companies were charged.
Later, after McNamara came in as SecDef, other government agencies were charged, too, and the cost increased to over a million dollars per student in the ‘70s. This transfer of funny money between government entities made sense to bean-counters, I suppose, but later the zero-tolerance application of this rule resulted in moronic interference in NASA and military units trying to help each other, as well as in many other similar situations beyond my ken. What sounded like efficiency to McNamara and his ilk often had just the opposite effect. I like the saying, “An efficiency expert is one who knows the cost of everything and the value of nothing”.
It was Standard Practice for TPS to send each graduating class to one of three tours after graduation on a two-week event, with the aim of introducing the new crop of Navy test pilots to the companies and groups that would be working with them for the next several years: East Coast, West Coast, or U.K. Our class came up East Coast, so we spent 2 weeks visiting Grumman (New York), Sikorsky (New York), McDonnell (St. Louis), Lockheed (Georgia), Vought (Dallas, and one that I particularly enjoyed, coming back as a victor) and some others that I don’t remember. About Vought and “coming back as a victor”; it was just that I was unable when there to break out of the role of flight test engineer and get over into flying. So after butting heads with my managers of the time, it was satisfying to come back.
SYNOPSIS OF 1960 – 2001
I intend to keep hacking away at this tome, but in deference to Patricia Francis I’ll synopsize what happened after TPS.
Back at the ranch in the FAA, I did the systems and stability and control testing for the Lockheed JetStar; great fun and a fine airplane after a few bugs were worked out. Kept on testing other types, including the Piper PA-28 and the Mooney 1961 model; on those I had to use a spin recovery chute, starting me off on a long trail of stall/spin work. I leaped for and got a berth on the SST Development Program, which wasn’t much fun: Mostly simulator flying, tracking the B-70, and weeks of intense study on detailed engineering reports on wind tunnel reports and the like. But I did learn a lot, and it led to working with George Cooper, a very good test pilot and fine gentleman from NASA Ames Research Center. George put me in touch with Jack Reeder, another great test pilot and fine man from Langley Research Center, so when the SST effort was dissolved and I had to look for a job, Jack had an opening and hired me on.
So in 1966 I went to Langley. Great stable of aircraft: Big and little helos, a new T-38 just off the Northrop line, and other fun airplanes. Jack Reeder had moved up the management line and in 1968 I got his old job as Chief of Flight Operations. We had from 6 to 10 active projects and there was plenty of flying to be done. Soon we got a specially-configured 737 which served very well as a research tool for inflight and terminal area investigations. Had a B-57 for some time that we used for measurement of upper air turbulence, several helos for research on displays (SH-3, 204B) and controls (variable stability CH-46), and lots of other interesting stuff. We normally had 13 to 15 aircraft in the big hangar (over 2 acres). Working with Jim Bowman, who ran the vertical spin tunnel, I got a program started to research stalls and spins on general aviation airplanes, since I’d found while in FAA that not much was available to the designers of that class in the way of guidelines to come out with good stalling and spinning characteristics. That grew into a major program with 4 test airplanes and lasted 10 years at varying levels of activity. We published over 150 technical reports to be used by designers or modifiers, available to the public. In that time, I did something over 8,000 spin turns and used a recovery ‘chute 22 times “in anger”. Also, I received the Kincheloe Award from SETP in 1978 for that work and the NASA Exceptional Service Medal in 1980 for the same. Retired on June 1987.
I kept on testing as an independent after leaving NASA, as I’ve mentioned before, but I didn’t say what was tested. Shortly after NASA, I did the first flight and the first 2 years of development testing on the Cirrus VK-30, a composite construction 4-place pusher airplane. It was basically a good plane, but the novel design resulted in some wild rides; I almost lost it (and me) 2 or 3 times. We did fix it but it was a kitplane, albeit much faster and more complex than any others around in 1988. But a company selling kits has no reins on what the builders choose to change; small changes to the design of this airplane could greatly reduce flight safety. So I think the company was wise to get out of the kit business and go for the SR-20, a FAA-certified airplane. Another interesting early project was the German Grob Egrett, a single-place high altitude turboprop airplane built for surveillance. Of composite construction, it had a 110-foot wingspan – huge! I did flight number 7 and numerous subsequent flights, traveling to Germany numerous times. Beautiful place, Bavaria. Then there was deep stall testing on 2 canard airplanes, the Velocity and Cozy IV. More out-of-control stuff, not fun, but satisfying to develop changes to make the planes more safe. Then there was FAA certification testing on several small planes, including spin tests. In fact, just four months ago I did acrobatic and spin tests on the American Champion, a new model of the Citabria (This is December, 2000 and I just turned 73). Looks like that may be it for my test career. Nothing on the horizon, and I’m not looking for work. I’ll go out and rent a 172 or something now and then, but I’m content to hang it up.