Rum Goodies and Terror
VMF(AW)-451 was aboard the USS Saratoga on a Caribbean cruise in 1964. As the Marine squadron we were under the gun-always first off the catapults and first down the chute for arrested landing. We had a mixed bag of pilots. Young first tour lieutenants who were very competent coupled with quite capable second tour flight leaders. There may have been a few light-weights but my memory canít recall any.
Early one morning, I stumbled down the flight deck to the ramp and up to my aircraft. With one foot on the bottom step of the last Crusader, I was strapping on my leg restraints when someone shouted, "Hey, that's my plane!" I looked up and saw it was "Big Stoop". I said, "You can have it. This one is too close to the round-down!" I carried my gear over to the aircraft that was the number two Crusader from the ramp. "Big Stoop" was named after the huge gooner in the TERRY AND THE PIRATES comic strip. He was over six foot four and too big for A-4s, so after a hunched-over three years in Skyhawks he was put in Crusaders. Big Stoop had been a boxer at the Naval Academy and had been well regimented, but some of the heavy layers of training had worn thin after eight years in aviation. He had the maximum allowed five quirks and three idiosyncrasies. Big Stoop was a captain and a section leader on our scheduled four plane launch. I climbed into the cockpit, closed the canopy, strapped in, put on my mask and started breathing the 100 percent oxygen so essential for clearing the Ron Rico Purple Label from my aching brain. Such procedure was routine aboard the Saratoga which had an apparent code of alcohol consumption requiring that the ingested fluid first be mixed with the bug-juice from the huge juice dispensing machine in the Wardroom.
The single J-57 engine on each Crusader aircraft was started and the pilots completed all post-start checks. While waiting for my chains to be removed, I watched Big Stoop as he dilly-dallied in the cockpit, only closing the canopy when the wind starting rocking the plane. He barely acknowledged the sailor who struck his chains. His mask was hanging nonchalantly from one side of his helmet and I wondered if he was having one last cigarette before his launch. I listened to the Playboy aircraft calling for taxi for catapult launch. The Marine photo (kill-em with fill-em) F-8s were moving forward ahead of us. They had been parked on the left side of the aft deck. The Captain of the ship decided to "gun" the engines to "max meat" at the same time he let the Marine PFC spin the small wheel in front of the Captain full throw to the port. Needless to say, the ship hooked a hard left turn and heeled sharply to the right. I had my brakes locked tightly as the huge ship seemed to be in a 45 degree bank to the right while high G skidding to the left at 50 knots.
Turning Port, Heeling Starboard
The photo crusaders had to go to maximum power to keep moving up the steep angle deck toward the waist cats. This put tremendous thrust on the right side of the nose of the aircraft on the right side of the fantail. My plane was hopping around like a cockroach on a hot griddle. I looked over at Big Stoop. He was looking wildly at me as though he had just been shaken awake. His aircraft began turning left like the brakes were off. The left rear tire jumped over the four inch steel lip of the deck edge. The nose raised straight up and his starboard wing hooked my tail section. I saw Big Stoop grab the right side of the inside canopy rail with both hands while his eyes looked like cue-balls as he stared at me. My plane started rising beside him like a section starting a loop. Big Stoop's plane looked like a giant praying mantis raising higher and higher. Abruptly, my tail section tore loose from his right wing. Big Stoop's plane reached vertical, dropped into the catwalk, the tailpipe bounced once in the gun tub and the plane fell over the side. The plane landed inverted beside the wake. It started to sink slowly tail first. I could see Big Stoop upside down with the canopy open trying to get out. The wake waves kept slapping the canopy shut. I remember saying to myself, "There goes the fifty dollars I loaned him to gamble with at Ponce." I saw the plane sink nose high about a quarter mile aft of the ship. The Captain reached Foxtrot Corpen, spun the little wheel hard right and we careened back to a nearly level attitude. I watched the first plane launch as I felt the bump of the catapult stroke. I looked aft and saw a bright white asterisk beside the foamy white wake starkly standing out against the beautiful blue Caribbean. The angel chopper was hovering overhead the slick.
Part of my rudder and left unit horizontal tail (UHT) were gone. "Toad" Lawrence and "Quaker" Rice were directly across from me and had watched the accident. I heard my call sign, "Mofak, shall we shut down now?" I responded with, "Launch as a two-plane and complete the mission." I knew that the best policy was to get a pilot in the air as soon as possible after a harrowing incident or fatal accident. Otherwise, getting some pilots airborne after a bad experience can be like trying to flush a Korean pheasant. You would need to use a shotgun. I shut down and went to the ready room. Our skipper. "Fox" Dempster was standing up close to the overhead PLAT with several nuggets somberly watching the rescue and replays of the accident. Their faces reflected the fear and dread of the moment. I shouted, "Just like Big Stoop! Always clowning!" Fox looked at me with no humor in his eyes. I thought, "Hell! He can't take a joke!"
Big Stoop came squishing into the ready room a while later. His hands were shaking as he mooched a cigarette from me and tried to light it with his zippo. I lit it for him. "Thanks for not taking me with you on that maneuver!" I told him. Big Stoop said, "I must have been 200 feet down when I finally escaped that damn cockpit!" The remarkable thing about this accident was, we received the CNO Safety Award for that year with an unblemished record. The Navy decided that the accident never occurred as far as the squadron was concerned. Big Stoop is now deceased. Death occurred several years ago and long after he retired.
Back to Back We Face the Past
Donald Cathcart LtCol USMC Ret.