My Firsts on the Forrestal

Times and people change so it may be hard for folks today to understand that in olden days any Naval Aviator worth his salt (so to speak) wanted to 'be-in-on’ a "FIRST."  For example a FIRST-­TO-FLY -NONSTOP- (somewhere), FIRST-TO-FLY-FASTER-THAN- (ever), or FIRST-TO-LAND-ON-(some floating aerodrome) were excellent and quite acceptable goals for any aspiring young go-getter in the business of flying.  A Truly Headline producing SOLO FIRST was, of course, a first class kind of FIRST but the opportunities for these were rather limited so, for a Junior Member of the Masses, a TEAM FIRST or even a GROUP FIRST was about all that could be hoped for.  Well you get the idea.  Flying FIRSTS were Fought For!

I'm sure the FIRST FACTOR heightened my excitement about being selected as one of the first Forrestal-Commissioning-FIyover-Pilots.  This occurred when I was assigned to CVG-6 at (northside) Oceana and I flew the EVER-LOVIN ABLE DOG with VA-25.  (AD Skyraider.  It was MUCH later that it justly earned the title of SPAD).  After a couple of practice flights we flew a thundering formation flyover which spelled out the name of the Ship.  I’m sure that photographs of this FIRST are still suitably enshrined somewhere in an early-volume of the ship's scrapbook.

Little did I know at the time of the flyover that it would be but a FIRST step in my destiny with the ship and that later I would be involved in other (more hazardous) FIRSTS.  At the time CVG-6 was not 'programmed for' the Forrestal.  I was soon thereafter deployed elsewhere on-and-off lesser carriers flying Cougars (F9F-6) as well as Able Dogs and, in general, doing what comes naturally in Naval Aviation (GTMO, CVA, GTMO and CVA, GTMO, etc).

As time and events marched onward I was later pleased to join up with VF-41, then flying the BEA-U-TIFUL BIG BANJO (F2H-3 -- Flying then was an emotional as well as a physical experience).  VF-41, a squadron in ATG-l (Air Task Group 1), WAS 'programmed for'  the Forrestal, specifically the shakedown cruise.

For many of us who came from the Splinter-Deck, LSO-With ­Paddles carrier Navy, the chance to fly from the Forrestal was eagerly anticipated--We would have new opportunities for FIRSTS and we could work from an angled deck while enjoying the mirror landing system and the .the acres of deck space!  Surely the ship WAS the biggest of BIG, relegating the Midway class to a Has-Been-Big category not to mention that our usual homes, the members of the Essex class were now Former-Has-Been-Bigs!

However, we soon found that a few things had not been completed on the Forrestal.   The mirror system was ‘yet to be installed’ but a substitute was mounted on a fork lift and parked behind the island.  As I recall no one had any particular trouble with this right-handed arrangement.  It had no stabilization but seas were fair.  Since we had developed the habit to always look out the left side first on each visual scan during the approach we probably looked like spectators at a ping-pong game while coming aboard.

(This was not nearly as exciting as one of my earlier—probable--FIRSTS, flying a right-hand PADDLES approach as I had to do a few years earlier on the Midway.)  But, I digress from the FIRSTS story.

My first FIRST on the Forrestal was as a member of the FIRST-FFOUR-PLANE-RIPPLE-FIRE-CATAPULT-LAUNCH-FROM-THE-FORRESTAL.  Since the Forrestal was then the only ship witth four cats I suppose this could read: FIRST-FOUR-PLANE-RIPPLE-FIRE-CATAPULT-LAUNCH- EVER.  As fate, and the Flight Officer, would have it I was tail-end-Charlie on this evolution which gave me a unique position to observe and better participate in the deck-doings.

A little background is required here.  There is no question that Naval Aviation personnel are well-founded in Aerodynamics and fully understand how the immutable laws of physics affect the flight of carrier aircraft--EXCEPT in those few seconds after a cat shot when the immutable laws just don't have time to apply.  It is not commonly known (particularly in Air Force circles) that in these very brief moments the airplane is really kept in the air, not by aerodynamic principles but rather by a goodly number of  people including (especially) the pilot, and from the bridge on down, simply WILLING that the fool contraption stay out of the ocean so that they individually do not have to later explain what went wrong.

In olden days this function applied particularly to the cat crews who were usually the last to see the airplane depart and who had sort-of a vested interest in the outcome.  It seems that they were trained to Cross their fingers immediately after the launch, WATCH the departing airplane intently and WILL.  Now, given the timing and the catapult configuration on the older carriers, this additional contribution by the cat crews during those first few critical seconds did not interfere with their other duties and was much appreciated by the pilot who otherwise was pretty mulch on his own.

Now, as I said, I was tail-end-Charlie and strapped to a cat essentially behind #3 BANJO with our wings overlapped in the narrow confines that Higher-Design-Authority had deemed appropriate for the waist cat installation on the Forrestal.  At the appointed moment the bow cats ripplefired smoothly and their cat crews stood up to WATCH and WILL.  Next, the waist tat officer's signals were magnificently performed and with both arms down he hit the deck.  #3 BANJO was off and away as his cat crew ,jumped to their feet to WATCH and WILL!  Of course they forgot that they were standing in FRONT OF MY WING after the launch signal and did not know that we were all within milliseconds of an UNAUTHORIZEOFLIGHT DECK INCIDENT of the FIRST magnitude.

In the wind and noise there was no hope but hand signals to rectify the situation.  Since I was somewhere near their line of sight I extended both arms outside the cockpit and frantically waved at them to get down.  Others on deck did the same.  Most saw and dropped to the deck.  The last standee had his feet pulled out from under him by a cat CPO and he dropped in split-second timing with the wing passing over his head.

While launching with little or no "hands-on" control is not the accepted method of good take-off procedure, it is not necessarily fatal and I certainly couldn't claim it as a FIRST.  Besides, I had help--I knew that my cat crew, among others, was back there WATCHING and WILLING.

As it turned out this experience was certainly good training for my next FIRST.

Our day operations were rather routine but we BANJO pilots and the ship eventually had to come to grips with operational night operations.  (Some other squadrons were day-only.)  In many' ways we flyers had it lucky.  The angled deck and mirror made flight ops a great deal easier for us than in prior days and nights, particularly for those like me who were finding it increasingly difficult, with advancing middle age, to see the LSO.   Unfortunately, the flight deck people who had been garnered from other ships having grossly differing capabilities and operations, probably saw the potential problems of night  operations in a different light (so to speak).


I must admit that I did not inquire of others, in advance, what FIRST they might be working on, and thus did not know, until later, that the Cat Officer was working on a personal FIRST, namely his FIRST-NIGHT-CAT-SHOT-EVER-ON-THE-FORRESTAL.

The first night operation of the cruise was scheduled to be slow-paced, feature only a few aircraft and be Super-Safe!  At the appointed hour, minute and second pilots manned aircraft and I found my BANJO parked on the port bow cat. I was to have the honor of being the FIRST-OPERATI'ONAL-NIGHT-CATAPULT-LAUNCH-FROM­-THE-FORRESTAL!

Engines were started and I was strapped to the cat in smart order.  I extended  my  flaps/nose strut and was turned up in a most pro­fessional manner by the cat officer.  Only then was it apparent that one engine was only developing 90% at full throttle.  I took 2 sec­onds to look for a cause and to ponder the situation.

Now those that have been there know what strange things can creep into your thinking at a time like that.  Thoughts like: ‘ After all it’s only a measely 10% down on the SPARE engine.  Why forego a super good first to a wingman for that?”  I could have turned on my wing lights as the signal to launch and later pleaded that “the devil made me do it!”  But I had been suitably sensitized to the mathematical equation, “100% equals Airplane GO” by an experience at Leeward Point many months before when, in a effort to get a team mission accomplished, I had taken off on a hot day in a PEA-engined cougar with a 97% full-throttle condition and had gained a grand altitude of 18 inches when I passed the far end of the runway.

Having but a limited capacity for stark terror on takeoffs. I knew that no amount of macho thought could provide the missing thrust--the plane was DOWN, pure and simple.  So, finding no immediately correctable cause at end-of-2-second-timeout, I extend­ed my right arm out with a thumbs down.  I thought it was still light enough for the Cat Officer to see my arm but he kept up the Whirling Dervish dance with his wand.  Thinking to save time I then attempted to aid the situation with my flashlight.  By the time I had both arms outside (again!) I knew that this was not to be Naval Aviation's finest hour--his arm was pointing to the GO-CAT-GO position.

Clutching the flashlight to keep it out of the engine intake as I accelerated down the catapult track, I began my transition to a one-and-one-half engine night instrument climbout.  But I had a lot of help—to show that.WAICHING and WILLING were really working, Pri-Fly called before I had retracted the gear to remind me not to forget to turn on my wing lights.

Not that I would recommend my maneuvers to anyone else but I was, at that instant the FIRST (reluctant) pilot day and night qualified on the Forrestal to launch from both  the Bow AND Waist cats without touching the control s.

It may not be remembered by some but there was a time when certain areas on the hanger deck were kept polished for appear­ance purposes.  It started with small areas in and around the quarterdeck and as the Essex class Bay #1 became more weather­proof, by replacing the roller curtains with sheet steel, it became pretty much standard practice to keep Bay #1 polished with make-do sleds of mattresses, steel wool, etc, pulled by aircraft tractors.  It also may not be remembered that the Forrestal had entered service with a COMPLETELY bare hanger deck, and I mean NO nonskid anywhere.  Perhaps it was one of those Yet-To-Be-Installed things, but in the INTERIM, to insure that this acreage could be kept at Its mirror-smooth best, special rotating steel-brush polishing machines the size of tractors were provided.  (Scuttle­butt  had it that they cost over $1000 each, which was an unheard-of price in those days).   These machines were frequently used whenever and wherever airplanes didn't clutter up the deck.  All that shiny steel was certainly a breath-taking sight, particularly when the airplanes weren't around.

I suppose there was some thought of airplane-compatibility with this deck but it was not all that evident to those that had to use it every day.  The problems of traction on this surface were obvious, considering the 220-lb tire pressures, minimal footprints and wide variations in gross weight (from full fuel load to empty).  To compound the problem, the Forrestal, unlike predecessors, was equipped with a deck-edge #1 elevator.  Bow spray entering Bay #1 from the elevator opening turned the surface into an expensive equivalent of an ice skating rink.  Some suspected that these conditions would cause trouble someday.  However; negative-thinking was not a particularly attractive attribute and dedicated optimists are sometimes known to play Russian Roulette.  The prevailing attitude seemed to be, "it won' t happen to me."


I came off the #1 elevator with power to get over the firewall door track and partially turned toward Bay #2.  At that point the last aircraft recovered topside and the ship turned smartly to star­board out of the wind.  With locked brakes and plane pushers scattering to WATCH and WILL from afar, I sensed that this was payoff day in the hanger deck game of Russian Roulette.  There probably was only one person in creation at that point who by breaking some of the rules and routine, could have saved the day--the ODD.  But we were out of his sight and, at that moment, he didn't seem to be tuned to the WILLING wavelength.

With taut tires seeking scraps of traction, my poor BIG BANJO inexorably slipped sideways down the tilted deck to its undeserved fate with the portside fire door.  Fortunately Bay #1 was empty of other aircraft and damage to the BANJO was slight.  As might be expected the damage to the firedoor was NIL, except for a bright slach of red paint from my elevator on its otherwise white expanse.

Several months later, after the post-shakedown yard period for the ship I again visited Forrestal to look for changes.  I was very pleased to see nonskid installed everywhere on the hangar deck and everywhere new fresh paint –except a small missed area on the Bay #1 port firedoor, perhaps a foot square, where a bright red slash still boldly clashed with its surroundings.  I hope it is still there.  It’s a FIRST that deserves to be remembered, particularly if, in its class, it really represents a LAST.