Skip to Content

Skyhawks or Hornets. It's still exciting around the boat!

Skyhawks or Hornets.
It's still exciting around the boat!


There I was .. "manned up", a hot seat for the 2030 night launch about 500 miles north of Hawaii. I was taxied off toward the carrier's island where I did a 180 degree turn to get spotted to be the first one off Catapult # 1. They lowered my launch bar and started the launch cycle. All systems were ' go' on the run-up. And after waiting the requisite 5 seconds to make sure my flight controls are good to go, I turned on my lights. As is my habit I shifted my eyes to the catwalk and watched the deck edge dude and as he started his routine of looking left, then right. I put my head back against the head rest.

The Hornet cat shot is pretty impressive. As the cat fires, I stage the afterburners and am along for the ride. Just prior to the end of the stroke... there's a huge flash... and a simultaneous B-O-O-M ! And my night world is in turmoil.

My little pink body is doing 145 knots or so and is 100 feet above the black Pacific. And there it stays -- except for the airspeed, which decreases to 140 knots. Some where in here I raised my gear. And the throttles aren't going any farther forward despite my Schwarzze-negerian efforts to make them do so.

From out of the ether I hear a voice say one word: "JETTISON!" Rogered that ! And a nano second later my two drops and single MER, about 4,500 pounds in all, are Black Pacific bound. The airplane leapt up a bit but not enough. I'm now about a mile in front of the boat at 160 feet and fluctuating from 135 to 140 knots. The next comment that comes out of the ether is another one-worder: "EJECT!" I'm still flying... so I respond . . "Not yet... I've still got it."

Finally, at 4 miles ahead of the boat, I take a peek at my engine instruments and notice my left engine . . doesn't match the right. ( Funny, how quick glimpses at instruments get burned into your brain.) The left rpm is at 48% even though I'm still doing the Ah-Nold thing. I bring it back out of afterburner to military power. About now I get another "EJECT!" call. "Nope... it's still flying."

At 5 1/2 miles I asked tower to please get the helo headed my way as I truly thought I was going to be 'shelling out'. At some point, I thought it would probably be a good idea to start dumping some gas. But as my hand reached down for the dump switch, I actually remembered that we had a NATOPS operation prohibition against dumping fuel while in afterburner. But after a second or two [contemplating the threat of the unnecessarily burden] I turned the fuel dump switches on. Immediately [I was told later] . . SIXTY FOOT ROMAN CANDLE . . BEGAN TRAILING BEHIND. At 7 miles I started a (very slight) climb to get a little breathing room. CATCC control chimes in giving me a downwind [landing pattern] heading . . and I'm like: "Ooh . . what a good idea" . . and I throw down my tail hook.

Eventually I get headed downwind to the carrier at 900 feet and ask for a Tech Rep [Manufacturer's Technical Representative]. While waiting, I shut down the left engine. But In short order, I hear Scott "Fuzz" McClure's voice. I tell him the following : "OK Fuzz, my gear's up . . my left motor's off. And I'm only able to stay level by using minimum afterburner. And every time I pull it back to military power, I start down at about a hundred feet per minute."

I just continue trucking downwind . . trying to stay level . . and keep dumping fuel. I think I must have been in afterburner for about fifteen minutes. At ten miles or so I'm down to 5000 pounds of gas and start a turn back toward the ship. I don't intend to land but I don't want to get too far away. Of course, as soon I as I stuck in that angle of bank . . I start dropping like a stone. So I end up doing a [shallow bank] 5 mile [radius] circle around the ship.

Fuzz is reading me the single engine rate of climb numbers from the "book" based on temperature, etc. And it doesn't take us long to figure out that things aren't adding up. One of the things I'd learned about the Hornet is that it is a perfectly good single engine aircraft . . flies great on one motor. So why do I now need blower [afterburner] to stay level?

By this time, I'm talking to the Deputy CAG (turning duty on the flight deck), and CAG who's on the bridge with the Captain. And we decide that the thing to do is climb to three thousand feet and "dirty up" [gear and flaps down] to see if I'm going to have the excess power needed to be able to shoot a night approach for a landing.

I get headed downwind . . go full burner on my remaining motor . . and eventually make it to 2000 feet before leveling out below a scattered layer of puffy clouds. And the "puffies" are silhouetted against a half a moon which was really, really cool. I start a turn back toward the ship and when I get pointed in the right direction I throw the gear down and pull the throttle out of after-burner.

Remember that flash/boom that started this little tale?

[Repeat it here]... Boom! I jam it back into afterburner, and after three or four huge compressor stalls [and accompanying deceleration] the right motor "comes back". I'm thinking my blood pressure was probably "up there" about now. And for the first time, I notice that my mouth has dried up.

This next part is great. You know those stories about guys who deadstick crippled airplanes away from the orphanages and puppy stores and stuff, and get all this great media attention? Well, at this point I'm looking at the picket ship in front of me, at about two miles, and I transmit to no one in particular. "You need to have the picket ship hang a left right now. I think I'm gonna be outta here in a second." I said it very calmly but with meaning. The picket immediately pitched out of the fight. Ha! I scored major points with the heavies afterwards for this. Anyway, it's funny how your mind works in these situations.

OK, so I'm dirty and I get it back level and pass a couple miles up the starboard side of the ship. I'm still in minimum blower and my fuel state is now about 2500 pounds. Hmmm. I hadn't really thought about running out of gas. I muster up the gonads to pull it out of blower again and sure enough...flash, BOOM! I'm thinking that I'm gonna end up punching out and tell Fuzz at this point. "Dude, I really don't want to try that again." Don't think everyone else got it . . but he chuckled.

Eventually I discover that even the tiniest throttle movements cause the ' flash/boom thing to happen, so I'm trying to be as smooth as I can. I'm downwind a couple miles when CAG comes up and says, "Oyster, we're going to rig the barricade."

Remember, CAG's up on the bridge watching me fly around doing blower donuts in the sky and he's also thinking I'm gonna run outta JP-5 fuel. By now I've told everyone who's listening that there a better than average chance that I'm going to be ejecting. (The helicopter bubbas . . God bless 'em . . have been following me around this entire time.)

I continue downwind and again, sounding calmer than I probably was, call the LSO. "Paddles, you up [listening] ?"
"Go ahead" replies "Max" Stout, one of our LSO's.
"Max, I probably know most of it ,but do you want to shoot me the barricade briefing?"
So, in about a minute he went from expecting me to "punch out" to have me asking for the barricade brief.

So he was hyper-ventilating! But he was awesome to hear on the radio though . . just the kind of voice you'd want to hear in this situation.

He gives me the barricade brief. And at nine miles I say, "If I turn now will "it" be up when I get there? Because I don't want to have to go around again."

"It's going up right now, Oyster. Go ahead and turn."

"Turning in, say the final bearing."

"Zero six three," replies the voice in CATCC.
"OK, I'm on a four degree glide slope and I'm at 800 feet. I will intercept glide slope at about a mile and three quarters then reduce power."

When I reduced power: Flash/boom ! [ Add power out of fear.] Going high! Pull power. Flash/boom! [Add power out of fear.] Going higher!

[Flashback to LSO school....
"Alright class, today's lecture will be on the single engine barricade approach. Remember, the one place you really,really don't want to be is high. O.K.? You can go play golf now."

I start to set up a higher than desired sink rate the LSO hits the " Eat At Joe's" wave-off night lights. Very timely too. I stroke the AB and cross the flight deck with my right hand on the stick and my left thinking about the little yellow and black ejection handle between my legs.

No worries. I cleared that sucker by at least ten feet. By the way my fuel state at the ball call was [now low] at 1.1. As I slowly climb out I punched the radio button saying again to no one in particular: "I can do this." I'm in blower still and CAG says, "Turn downwind." After I get turned around he says, "Oyster, this is gonna be your last look [at the boat in the dark below] so you can turn in again as soon as you're comfortable."

I flew the DAY pattern and I lost about 200 feet in the turn and like a total dumbs -- I look out of the cockpit as I get on centerline and that " night thing about feeling that I'm too high" grabbed me . . and [in error] I pushed down further to 400 feet.

I got kinda irked at myself then as I realized I would now be intercepting the four degree glide slope in the middle .. with a flash/boom every several seconds all the way down. Last look at my gas was 600-and-some pounds [100 gallons] at a mile and a half.

"Where am I on the glide slope,Max ?" I ask. And I and hear a calm "Roger Ball." I know I'm low because the ILS is waaay up there.

I can't remember what the response was but by now the ball's shooting up from the depths. I start flying it but before I get a chance to spot the deck I hear : "Cut, cut, CUT!"

I'm really glad I was a paddles for so long because my mind said to me "Do what he says Oyster!" and I pulled it back to idle.

My hook hit 11 paces from the ramp. The rest is pretty tame. I hit the deck . . skipped the one, the two and snagged the three wire and rolled into the barricade about a foot right of centerline.

Once stopped, my vocal cords involuntarily shouted, "VICTORY!" The deck lights came on bright and off to my right there must have been a ga-zillion cranials and eyes watching.

You could hear a huge cheer across the flight deck. After I open the canopy the first guy I see is our huge Flight Deck Chief named Richards. And he gives me the coolest personal look . . and then two thumbs up. I will remember all of that forever.

P.S. You're probably wondering what gave my motors problems. When they taxied that last Hornet over the catapult they forgot to remove a section or two of the rubber cat seal. When the catapult shuttle came back to hook me up, it removed the cat rubber seal which was then inhaled by both motors during my catapult stroke. Left engine basically quit even though the motor is in pretty good shape. But it was producing no thrust and during the wave-off one of the LSO's saw "about thirty feet" of black rubber hanging off the left side of the airplane.

The right motor .. the one that kept running .. had 340 major hits to all engine stages. The compressor section is trashed . . and best of all . . it had two pieces of the cat seal [one 2 feet and the other about 4 feet long] sticking out of the first stage and into the air intake. God Bless General Electric! By the way, maintenance data showed that I was fat on fuel -- I had 380 pounds (61 gallons) of gas when I shut down.

Again, remember this particular number as in ten years [of story telling] when it will surely be... "FUMES MAN... FUMES... I TELL YOU!"

Oyster, out.




page | about seo