Night Infamy & Folded Wings

"Wake up, Major Mofak.  Wake up....Wake up.."  Someone was gently pushing on my right shoulder.  I suddenly remembered that I was in the Hot Pad alert van resting for the three hours before my scheduled 3 AM TPQ Radar Bombing mission near the DMZ.  Sergeant Goyette must be waking me for my flight.  I sat up.  My watch indicated 1:15 AM.  Sergeant Goyette was on night Check Crew.  Why was he waking me?  

"Major, we have a pilot who is trying to down his third Crusader tonight and there is nothing wrong with any of the aircraft."  Sergeant Goyette was pleading with his eyes and his voice.  So that was why he had awakened me.

I picked up my 38 caliber revolver, pulled on my flying boots, and stood up.  "Let's go see what's going on Sarge."

We walked into the line shack and I read the write-ups left by the pilot when downing his previous two aircraft.  They were downed for emergency pitch trim and normal UHT trim.  Sometimes a ham fisted pilot would have problems with the trim check.  It was a complicated pre taxi check.  The T handle was small but the toggle switch was smaller.  However, trim gripes were uncommon to unheard of in the F8 Crusader.  'Perhaps the pilot is performing the pre-flight and taxi checks improperly,' I thought.  Sergeant Goyette spoke, "This pilot downed two aircraft and if he downs this third one we will miss the rest of the night missions.  When they down aircraft they miss their target time.  That reflects badly on maintenance when it's not our fault.  We always have to wring out the system and ground check the aircraft discrepancies they write up and get the plane signed off as airworthy again.  We are tired of finicky pilots messing up our planes and the night flight schedule."

We walked out to the flight line.  It was a coal black night with misting rain decreasing the visibility.  Far from being a perfect night for flying unless we were flying Intruders.  But, the enemy would also have problems seeing the aircraft making the bombing runs over the target area.  The problem F8's navigation lights were on and the J-57 engine was running.  The plane captain was Swift Caulkins.  He had the wands lit and was making a T with one vertical wand topped by a horizontal wand.  They were running the UHT emergency trim check.  I released the bottom step and climbed up the side of the cockpit. My flashlight illuminated the emergency T handle on the pitch trim as the pilot followed the plane captain's lighted wands signals.  I removed the pilot's left hand from the T handle and operated the toggle as directed by Swift.  The emergency trim worked perfectly.  I stowed the T handle.  The indicator went to the green line.  I pulled the left side of the helmet outward so the pilot could hear me and shouted, "The emergency trim works perfectly!  There is nothing wrong with this aircraft!  You are going to taxi this aircraft out and take off with it on your night mission.  If you do not get this plane airborne tonight, I will personally kick your ass!"

Swift continued the pre taxi checklist.  After finishing the final steps for the pilot I signaled for Swift to pull the chocks away from the wheels.  Grabbing the pilot by the helmet again, I shouted, "Now!  Get your ass airborne!  That is an order!"  I hurried down the side and stowed the bottom step.  The pilot closed the canopy as Plane Captain Swift pumped the lighted wands to move the Crusader forward and out of the parking revetment.

Back in the hangar, I checked the yellow sheets against the schedules for the pilot who was night flying.  This pilot had a pattern of being overly particular on minor items when flying at night in VMF(AW)235.  It was not uncommon for a pilot to be more cautious for night flying.  I had discovered the pilot phenomena over my 13 years of flying in various squadrons.  However, if the aircraft maintenance personnel had not brought it to my attention, the pilot would have continued to make the troops work harder for no reason except the pilot's overly meticulous criteria for discovery of aircraft discrepancies. 

When I taxied my Crusader out at 2:30 AM, the truculent pilot had not yet returned from his night flight.  I landed at 3:45 AM and after shutdown, hurried to the line shack and signed off my aircraft.  Sergeant Goyette was waiting for me.  He was flushed with anger as he said, "The lieutenant was so strung out when he landed that he used his combat knife to cut himself from the cockpit connections."

"Say that again, Sergeant!" I responded.

He restated, "The lieutenant cut himself out of the cockpit by severing the web connections to the parachute and seat pan.  He used his survival knife to cut through the straps.  So, he downed his third airplane again tonight.  We will have to scrounge a seat pack from an aircraft in check to get the airplane operational again. The plane captain who climbed up to safe the ejection seat and canopy said the lieutenant was highly agitated when trying to get out of the cockpit.  He witnessed the pilot cutting the connections."

At 8 AM, I was outside the Commanding Officer's hootch waiting to confer with him.  With me was the past history of the lieutenant and his discrepancies for downing aircraft.  I also briefed the CO on my ordering the lieutenant into the air and his cutting of the ejection seat connections after the flight.

The lieutenant was soon given a set of orders to the Grunts as a Forward Air Controller.

The story doesn't end there even though I thought it was over at the time.  It so happened that the lieutenant took a day off from the grunts and traveled into Da Nang to possibly fly with the Air Group.  The Death Angel duty officer assigned the lieutenant to a four hour stint on the Air To Ground hot pad alert.  Near the end of the four hour hot pad duty, the Command Center scrambled the hot pad.  Our day fighter pilot somehow managed to get scrambled on his alert duty.  We figured that he had contacted his Tactical Air folks with the Grunts and talked them into an emergency request for air support.  That had happened on other occasions.  When the bell rang the pilots ran for their previously prepared Crusaders, jumped in the cockpits, started the engines and commenced taxiing.  The flight leader hurriedly taxied onto the duty runway at Da Nang, ran up to MRT, and gave the erstwhile wingman, who had forgotten to spread his wings, a thumbs up indicating that he looked OK for takeoff.  "Boom!"  Afterburner lit, off went the leader. A few seconds later "Boom!" the wingman took off with his wings folded just like they had been in the revetments.  So, the world's day land speed record for the Crusader was probably set that day but nobody noticed.  Before the plane reached the overrun separating the runway from the old French minefield, the pilot pulled the streamlined Crusader from the runway.  The pilot flew around the base in day VFR weather conditions thereby letting all the Vietnamese, Viet Cong, DOD civilians, Army and Air Force personnel see how clever the pilots were in VMF(AW)-235.  The ordnance was jettisoned.  George took his picture. 


This unnatural act of flying the Crusader with folded wings was photographed by Marine GySgt George Lord of VMF(AW)235.

It all ended after about a point 5 hour of flight time when the plane was landed safely into the arresting gear with the wings still folded and standing at attention.  Hundreds of hours of structural repair was required by Juan Lara, Jon Kirkwood and others in the Death Angel Metal Shop before DB 5 was once again flyable.

There were two successful flights in the F8E with the wings folded in the same Death Angel squadron at Da Nang in 1966 and 1967.  The first such wing folded flight occurred less than a year prior to our FAC's daylight demonstration and was a night all weather spectacular.  The 1966 flight was at night in the rain.  The pilot folded his wings to taxi around a PanAm 707 for takeoff.  He forgot to spread the wings.  He took off in the black rain probably setting the night land speed record in the Crusader.  After yanking it into the air before entering the frog minefield, he entered a world of flashing Christmas tree lights with the wing tips overhead flashing green and red and the multiple orange stab-aug lights blinking with every movement of the outboard wing panels and the stick and rudders.  The pilot raised the gear after becoming airborne. Having no idea what was wrong with the Crusader, he turned downwind and declared an emergency on the Tower radio frequency.  With all the flashing yellow and red lights, warning horns, black night, rain, soiled underwear, and uncontrollable urges for terra firma, the pilot forgot to put his gear handle back down.  Being a combat flight,  he had a box fin two thousand pound bomb on each wing station.  The anguished pilot landed on the two 2000 lb bombs with a mighty "Whump!" but nothing detonated except the Commanding Officer after he discovered what had happened to one of his valuable aircraft.  The pilot was medivacked to CONUS with a fractured vertebrae and a tooth-shredded rectal orifice.  Not exactly a hero's departure out of Da Nang Air Base.

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Donald Cathcart LtCol USMC Ret.