WOODY SPROUSE -
THE HAIRIEST THING I'VE EVER DONE:
Arthur Padios (2002)
Heywood 'Woody' Sprouse and I were flight students together from the start of Pre-Flight at Pensacola in 1960 until the day we both got our wings in August 1961 at NAS Kingsville, TX. Woody went on to serve with distinction and completed a very successful career as a Naval Aviator achieving the rank of Navy Captain, and capturing what will probably become the all time carrier arrestment record by one aviator because of the reduced flight time now being suffered by Naval Aviators. Woody and I had not seen each other from the time we got our wings until we happened to bump into each other at Naha in Okinawa in the fall/winter of 1964. In 1964 Woody was flying the A3D Skywarrior off the USS Hancock, one of the few remaining 27 Charlie (Essex-Class) carriers still in operational existence at the time. With a 'center-line' arrestment aboard the Hancock, there was 12 feet wing-tip clearance between the aircraft and the island of the carrier. That would be hairy enough for the average aviator during the daytime; I shudder to think what night traps must have been like - or single engine landings. Also, there were no ejection seats in the A3D. Bailouts were accomplished by sliding down a chute behind the crew seats. So, the reader may infer, a crash on the deck of an aircraft carrier meant the crew had to manually egress from the aircraft - no ejections for these guys. The pilots and crews who flew these aircraft off carriers must have had balls the size of helmet bags. Anyway, after we got back together in Naha, Woody related the following story to me.
After we got our wings, at the start of his flying career in the fleet, Woody was assigned to fly the same aircraft I was flying, the A4C Skyhawk aboard a carrier. As part of the Navy training evolution, Skyhawk drivers who were Special Weapons Qualified were required to make night attacks on special weapons targets. Woody was on a carrier back then operating off the coast of Jacksonville, FL where the targets were located. After many of the squadron pilots completed this particular night training mission, Woody's turn came up one dark and moonless night. The plan called for three or four Skyhawks to take off from the carrier loaded with a single 2,000-pound water-sand-filled practice bomb each, simulating a real nuclear weapon. After they were airborne, the A4's were to join up on a single A3D Skywarrior who would then take them individually to pre-designated radar-located Initial Points (IP) over the Okefenokee Swamp at 1,500 feet altitude where each Skyhawk would individually detach from the A3D and proceed on an attack heading to the designated target.
After leaving the A3D, the A4C's were supposed to stay on the run-in heading provided by the mother-plane, time their arrival over the target, accelerate to 500 knots, and descend to 500 feet above ground level (AGL) using their radar altimeter's for the run-in at the target. Since it was being done at night, the only way for Woody to successfully strike the target was to fly directly over it and perform an 'Over-the-Shoulder' delivery. In the A4, this is done by pulling at 4G's into the first half of a loop, matching the G program provided by the Low Altitude Bombing System (LABS). At approximately 120 degrees of climb at 200 knots airspeed, the 2,000-pound water-sand-filled bomb is released from the aircraft. Released is a euphemistic term; the bomb rack ignites an exploding cartridge that literally 'kicks' the bomb away from the aircraft. As you might imagine, it takes a strong charge to kick 2,000 pounds safely away from an 18,000-pound aircraft traveling upside down at 200 knots. When it happens, because the A4 is only traveling at 200 knots - slow for a jet aircraft, the whole aircraft goes into a 'shudder' when the bomb is ejected, approaching the stall - in fact it almost stalls. This is compounded by being upside down (inverted) at the top of a loop at about 7,000 feet altitude. In Woody's case it was doubly compounded because it was dark outside, denying him any visual reference and requiring he complete the entire maneuver flying his instruments. After the bomb is released, the procedure is to complete a ½ Cuban 8 by remaining inverted until the nose comes 30 degrees below the horizon, then rolling upright while still descending to 500 feet, and accelerating away from the 'atomic blast' as fast as the aircraft will fly.
Upon completing this hair-raising stunt, Woody flew on back to the carrier where he made a successful arrestment. When he returned to his Squadron Ready Room, many of the pilots who had already flown this type flight asked Woody how it went. Woody replied, "That's the hairiest thing I've ever done it my life." To which they replied as one man,
"You mean you really did it?"
Woody sheepishly confessed that he felt rather foolish when he learned the other pilots, after leaving the A3D, were making the run-in on the target level at 1,500 feet and 'punching' the bomb off the aircraft while flying straight and level at 300 knots.