The Bent Probe!
The Bent Probe!
Something that happened while I was flying A-4s in VA-72 still intrigues and puzzles me many years later. It happened over the Gulf of Tonkin in 1966 during a dogfight with my good friend Dave Griggs. VA-72, commanded by Cdr. Harry B. Southworth, was based aboard USS Franklin D. Roosevelt at the time.
The idea in a dogfight, of course, is to fly to where you’ve got the other guy in your gunsight while the other guy is attempting to do likewise to you. It’s not only useful to be able to do this well; it’s also just about the most fun you can have in an airplane. As we all know, today’s Navy maintains a fleet adversary squadron and holds competitions with awards for the fastest kills, but things were different back in the 60s when most of our leaders viewed dogfights as dangerous and undisciplined behavior.
Not only wasn’t dogfighting part of the attack mission back then, it didn’t seem to be part of the fighter mission either. F-4s were supposed to be the Navy’s fighters in those days, but you could roll in on them and most times you couldn’t make them fight. So a sizeable minority of the A-4 community fought each other whenever we could. In those days we had the stick-and-rudder skills and the irrational exuberance dogfighting required. Furthermore, our tough, agile, spin-proof Skyhawks were perfectly suited to the task.
One late afternoon during the ‘66 WestPac cruise, Dave Griggs and I launched from the FDR as a flight of two. Dave was a 62 "boat school" graduate, a good friend and an aggressive pilot. He loved a dogfight and, like the rest of us, hated to lose. The sun had just set by the time we were through with our briefed mission and back over the ship, but there was some twilight remaining and we had a few minutes to spare before our recovery time. So we split, flew on opposite headings for about thirty seconds, and reversed to engage head-on.
We spotted each other at about the same moment and the fight was on. As I remember, neither of us had an advantage at first, but after a minute I began to close on him. (While airplanes may look the same, there are usually small performance differences between them, and on that day I had the better one.) We got into a climbing low-speed scissors during which I was able to roll into position at Dave’s six. To rub it in, I keyed my mike and transmitted a few rounds of UHF "gunfire". Dave was not a happy man. Just then the ship called to give me my approach clearance. We immediately abandoned the fight.
As I was copying my clearance, Dave decided to relieve his frustrations by flying beneath my aircraft and abruptly pulling up in front of it. Even if done carefully this is a bad idea, and Dave misjudged it. I was reading back my clearance and paying no attention to him when, approaching from behind and beneath me, his aircraft suddenly appeared nose-up directly in front of me. The metallic bang and violent jolt led me to believe we’d collided. I lost sight of him for a moment and feared the worst.
I called him: "Dave, are you OK?" After what seemed like a long pause I was relieved to hear him say, "I think so," but I could tell from the way he said it that, like me, he believed our aircraft had made contact. He joined on me. We swapped the lead back and forth, examining each other’s aircraft. His aircraft appeared undamaged, but my refueling probe was bent sharply nose-up. We separated and flew to our marshal points for individual approaches to the ship.
Back on deck, Dave and I, our plane captains and our flight-deck-based maintenance troops thoroughly examined each of our aircraft by flashlight. I had no doubt that some part of his plane, most likely his vertical stabilizer, had hit my refueling probe. But, to my surprise, there wasn’t a scratch on his plane, not even the slightest blemish on its paint. Furthermore, there wasn’t a scratch on mine. There was absolutely nothing damaged, broken, scratched or leaking on either aircraft except that my refueling probe was pointing up at a 40-degree angle.
Engineers will say: "you give me the data and I’ll give you the theory." Well, in this case I’ve yet to hear a plausible theory. How does a refueling probe that’s strong enough to stand on get bent 40 degrees without being touched? Could airloads have done that, or was the probe whiplashed into that shape by the motion of my aircraft as it encountered the wake of Dave’s during our near miss? In either case, how could my probe get pranged while the rest of my aircraft remained unscathed, and how could Dave’s A-4, having damaged mine, remain undamaged? You tell me.
I walked below to the ready room to tell the skipper what had happened. The room was dark. Harry Southworth was watching a movie with some of the pilots. I crouched beside his chair and said: "Skipper, Dave and I were, uh, you know, dogfighting and we had, well . . . sort of a midair and the refueling probe on my aircraft is bent." Such news would have sent most commanding officers straight through the overhead, but Cdr. Southworth, in the middle of his second combat cruise in two years, had obviously heard worse. Without taking his eyes off the screen, he quietly replied, "See me after the movie."
The bent probe was removed and replaced that night. Both aircraft flew the next morning. I was never again scheduled to fly with Dave. He went on to become a test pilot, an astronaut, and a Rear Admiral. We saw each other a few times in later years and we kidded each other about the bent probe. He claimed the way he bent it was evidence of his superior airmanship. He invited me to Cape Canaveral to watch his April 12, 1985 launch in shuttle Discovery, but I couldn’t make it. His life was tragically cut short when he touched a wing to the ground the morning of June 17, 1989 while slow-rolling a 1940s-vintage T-6 near Earle, Arkansas. He’s buried at Arlington. Rest in peace, Dave.