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Hanging Corsair

Posted by Jolly on September 4, 2012

US Navy A-7E Corsair II

I had this War Story forwarded to me from Eugene.  It's a great story of survival from a Corsair pilot hanging from the deck of a carrier on the 3 wire.  This story appeared in Tailhook Magazine.  All you A-7 Drivers, report the FU STORE and get your Corsair Garb Now!

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      A7.jpg  a7hat.jpg

 

a7c.jpgShortly after midnight on 10-June 1969, I was the pilot of a single-seat A-7 Corsair light-attack aircraft that departed the flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS Constellation and plunged into the Pacific Ocean some 60 miles off the coast of Southern California. 

The mishap occurred at the end of a marathon 23-hour day that culminated with the first of six scheduled night carrier landings. The event was to have marked my final night of initial carrier qualification training as a fleet replacement pilot. 

The voice of Connie's final approach controller came through the headset loud and clear, " Corsair 202 is on course . . on glideslope at three-quarters of a mile . . CALL THE BALL ! " That was my cue to get off the gauges and to visually fly the final few seconds of the final approach. 

A light drizzle was falling from the low hanging overcast just above the landinga7f.jpg pattern, but the visibility was good underneath and the sea state calm. The A-7 aircraft strapped around my waist was the Navy's newest light-attack carrier jet.  And I was proud to be one of first-tour pilots selected to fly it. 

"Two-Zero-Two, Corsair, ball, fuel state 4.0," I replied as my scan shifted outside the cockpit  to the ' meat-ball ' of amber light beaming aft from the optical landing mirror on our  four-acre flight deck. 

The seat of my pants told me the plane was too high . . but the ball was centered on the mirror to confirm I was on glide-slope. My 4,000 lbs of fuel was a comfortable reserve . . ample to make it around the landing pattern a couple more times and still have enough fuel to " BINGO " then divert to NAS Miramar if I couldn't get aboard. 

" Roger Ball - keep it coming," the Landing Signal Officer acknowledged from his platform on the port side of the flight deck. But the voice was not as relaxed as the LSO who had " waved " the class every night for the past month in flight training at NAS Lemoore, California. 

More than two years of flight training at five bases in four states were riding on this event. Tonight was the long awaited "graduation exercise" from the training environment into the fleet . . the final rite of passage into the Navy's elite fraternity of tail hook carrier pilots. In a few short months, I'd be flying combat missions  from an aircraft carrier in the Gulf of Tonkin. 

Scheduling such a significant hurdle at the trailing edge of a grueling 16-hour day should have raised caution flags somewhere.  But not with me. The instructor pilots had primed the class for months with sea stories about night carrier landings separating the ' men from the boys. ' Now it was my time to prove I could fly with the eagles. 

The adrenaline was pumping. The non-stop day that began with a 0330 wake-up call back home in naval air station had been a test of endurance. But long days are part of the normal routine aboard carriers at sea. Besides, we were training for combat. And " hacking the combat training program " was part of that training. 

This was the Navy . . not the airlines. And the squadron's mission was to pump out combat replacement pilots for NavAirPac's light-attack Corsair squadrons.  The fighter pilot graduation output was running behind schedule.  So pressure was on, from Navy top ranks down, to catch up with the Communist military efforts in Viet Nam. 

And in the light-attack fighter pilot community . .' death before dishonor ' was our unwritten code.  Begging off the flight schedule, especially with a flimsy excuse like fatigue, was a sure way to be branded as " he was just NOT ABLE to hack the program " for the rest of your career. 

The final half-mile to the ship was over in a matter of seconds. And it happened so fast that the tricky ' burble ' of turbulent air at the fantail passed practically unnoticed. But the bone jarring jolt of the 25,000 pound Corsair coming down at 650 feet-per-minute to collide with the ship's steel deck didn't go unnoticed. 

I knew it was coming, but it still got my attention.  The harness straps dug deeply into my shoulders as the plane decelerated from 135 knots to a screeching halt in three seconds flat. The first night " trap " had lived up to its billing. It was a cross between ecstasy - and a head-on collision with a freight train. 

"Piece of' cake," I thought. " Five more and your on you're way to the fleet." The landing was on speed and on glide-slope, and the tail hook had engaged the targeted No. 3 wire. But all was not well, however, as the plane's landing roll drifted fast toward the deck's port catwalk. 

On this, the fifth man-up, third launch and eighth trap of the extended day, deep fatigue had finally over-powered my adrenaline. And I had become so focused on flying the ball on descent . . that the landing centerline had slipped out of my scan for a nano-second. [ And that was a huge mistake. ] 

As the plane decelerated down the angled deck, my delayed line-up correction set up a roll out . . to-the-LEFT. The plane now skirted the port deck's edge like a tight-rope walker on a high wire before stopping on deck's port edge. I'd messed up. 

a7a.jpgI couldn't believe this was happening to me . . I could already hear the lecture on line-up from the LSO at my de-brief. The cockpit then jolted hard as the plane's left main landing gear dropped off the deck.  As luck would have it, the protective steel scupper plate guarding the deck's edge had been removed.  And it had not been replaced during the ship's recent trip to shipyard. 

In less than a heartbeat, the plane was precariously perched with its left wing way down hanging off edge of the flight deck.  With no visible night horizon, it was hard to tell the plane's exact attitude, but the cockpit was now to at least 60 degrees from the horizontal. To eject now would be suicidal . . the trajectory of the ejection seat's rocket motor would send the seat skipping across the ocean's surface like a flat stone tossed horizontally from a pond's edge. 

As My mind suddenly shifted into high speed, as the magnitude of  the moment settled in.  If the tail hook remained engaged with the arresting cable, the situation might be redeemed.   My thoughts were surprisingly calm and clear, as I instinctively pulled the throttle aft and " around-the-horn" to shut-down the engine. If the hook should release from the cable and the aircraft went over the side, the prospect of cold sea water touching its hot power plant was an ugly recipe. 

As the engine spooled down through 65 percent, the generator dropped off line to cut off all electrical power.  As the radio and interior lights clicked off, absolute darkness enveloped the cockpit.  All contact with the world I knew and understood . . vanished.   Except for the heart pounding in my chest . .  There was only an absolute silence. Hopefully, this was just [ the mother of all ] nightmares. Unfortunately, it was the real deal . . hanging by the tail hook. 

Then the stillness was shattered as the sleek fighter lunged forward . . accelerating in a free-fall as its tail hook " spit-out " the landing arresting cable. And the plane tumbled off to plunge down 60 feet the carrier's side before smacking the dark ocean . . the drop itself was it was like falling down a ' black on black ' hole. 

A ditched jet aircraft often sinks at roughly 10 feet per second. And after sinking for just 10 seconds down to 100 feet, the pilot's survival is unlikely.  I figured I had less than 10 seconds to work my way out of this.  The ejection seat seemed to be my only chance . . a lousy one.  Only a handful of pilots had ever attempted, much less survived an underwater ejection. Especially at night. 

There was also the chance, the aircraft might be pointed at an angle ejecting me directly into the passing steel hull . .  or propel me into a massive screw spinning along at thirty knots. 

So, I intentionally delayed the inevitable by allowing the ship to pass.  Then - like aejection.jpg death-row prisoner -throwing a death switch on his own life, I reached down between my knees for my alternate ejection seat handle, the one we'd been told to use at a critical time. 

Images of my wife and baby flashed through my mind. How would she react when the skipper and chaplain would show up at her door ?  And I brushed all that ' stuff ' out of my head, realizing the next moment could be my final thought. 

I grasped the ejection seat handle, closed my eyes and, expecting the worst, I pulled it up as far as it would go. But nothing seemed to have happened. 

I decided the ejection seat was not going to work. And I could see myself drowning or being crushed while sinking into high pressure depths . . when a sudden blast of brilliant light blinded me.  Following its built-in sequencing delay, the seat's rocket motor now fired. 

In an instant, I rocketed out of the airplane, and cleared the ejection seat.  But I was submerged in dark deep water. It was like I had been shot out of a high-powered cannon into a pool of jet-black ink. 

The underwater ejection had jerked my oxygen mask off and below my chin. I'd automatically stopped breathing in the immediate rush of black, cold sea water. 
And my spatial disorientation in direction . . was ABSOLUTELY . . GONE ! 

I continued holding my breath, but I couldn't handle that very long. Terrifyingly, I had no a clue as to whether the ocean's surface was . . down . . or up.  The edge of panic struck.  In less than 60 seconds, I had gone from being a cocky, self-assured carrier jock . . to a desperate young Navy LTJG . . . fighting to live. 

Just then, a cluster of lights flickered on the ocean's surface . . touching the periphery of my dulled eyesight.  THAT DIRECTION WAS UP ! 

carrier.jpgAn 80,000 ton aircraft carrier cutting the water at 30 knots takes a few miles to make a 180 degree course change. The alert night flight-deck directors had tossed their brilliant watertight flashlight wands over the side to mark my plane's location to assist the guard boat and rescue helicopter Those gorgeous life-saving bright jewels re-oriented me.  With great relief . . 

I swam up toward them.   As my helmet broke the surface I gasped for air. It felt wonderful to be alive. But that first lung full of fresh sea air was accompanied by an excruciating pain like a butcher knife had been plunged deep into my backbone. Then given a hard twist. 

Something was seriously wrong.  But I now had an even more pressing problem. My parachute's altitude-sensing device had activated and  partially opened it underwater. The canopy and its shroud lines were streaming behind me, now over-powering frantic efforts to keep my mouth and nose above water. 

I grabbed for the nylon CO2 toggles to inflate the survival vest.  But they were not where they should have been. I was fast losing my struggle. It took all the energy reserve strength I could muster just to stay afloat. The parachute was winning.  I was was getting ever closer to being dragged under, by its steady downward pull. 

My body suddenly went numb with apprehension as something below the surface brushed against my boots.  During the ejection through the plastic canopy, my left forearm had been sliced open and was bleeding profusely. The survival vest had shark repellent in a pocket, but I was much too busy trying to keep from drowning. 

When the object brushed against me again, I realized that it was my plane. It had impacted the water with minimal force and was virtually intact. With wing fuel bladders and half of the fuselage fuel cells filled with mostly air, it was floating up-side down just under the surface. 

Hanging onto the aircraft for support, I finally located the life vest's inflation toggles which had wrenched around during the underwater ejection. Grasping a lanyard in each hand, I pulled down and away . . and whoosh, the flotation lobes inflated instantly. 

The parachute had streamed out like a huge sea anchor.  If it continued in its power to pull me down, even the fully inflated vest might prove inadequate. I glanced around just in time to see the ship's destroyer bearing down on me. In the water, as 

I looked up, the destroyer looked anything but small.  And if it didn't quickly veer over, my rescue in the darkness would be ended.  It veered off.  Using techniques we practiced in water-survival, I rolled over on my back and felt up along the chute risers until I located the parachute's Koch releases.  I lifted the covers and squeezed the spring-triggers. Instantly, the fully opened parachute stopped hauling me down. 

Moments later, I was floating in a large beam of bright light shining down from the ship's SAR helicopter, hovering noisily overhead. The destroyer had veered off and yielded to the rescue helicopter. I had never fully appreciated helicopters . . except when they brought the mail.  Never again ! 

Just now, that homely, wind-blowing, water-churning contraption looked like an angel of mercy. Nothing could have been more gorgeous. Minutes later, a rescue swimmer from the helicopter was in the water next to me. " You okay, sir? " he yelled over the din of thrashing rotor blades. " I'm okay," I yelled back, " but it hurts me to breathe." 

I didn't tell him that it also hurt terrifically to yell at him.  " All we've got is a horse collar. But it'll get you out of here," he shouted as he guided my arms through the opening in the pear- shaped rescue sling that nestled under my armpits and behind my neck. 

As the hoist began lifting us slowly out of the water, my body dangled helplessly from the horse collar. My back pain became searingly unbearable when the leveraged weight of broken body and sodden flight gear was whipped around by the helicopter's whump-whump blades. The next thing I remember, I was sprawling on the helo's loading deck, spewing out my guts that were gorged with salt water and vomit. 

The alternate ejection seat handle had expedited my exit from the cockpit. But at a painful price, because reaching down between my knees to grasp the secondary handle in that inverted, submerged cockpit had placed my spine in a dangerously curved backbone position.  The G-force of the underwater ejection seat had broken my back. 

Three days after the mishap, the ship's medical officer arranged to accompany me ashore on a MedEvac flight to nearby San Diego. By coincidence, the flight was scheduled with the same helicopter crew, and aboard the same helicopter that had earlier rescued me. 

Just prior to boarding, a casualty on the flight deck had created an unexpected dilemma, because the helo was configured to carry only one patient. Needless to say, I wasn't happy to learn my name was scratched from the helicopter's manifest only moments before its launch. 

About an hour later, an out of breath young corpsman came running onto the ward. From the look on his face. I knew some-thing terrible had happened.  The corpsman blurted out : " You're either living right . .or ' somebody's looking after you,' Lieutenant. " 

That helicopter I'd been bumped from, had engine problems. It went down in the water about halfway to the beach. Another helo found the wreckage right away. 

But everyone onboard was dead ! "  I respectfully declined a second chance to MedEvac ashore, electing instead to ride the ship back into port. 

In three short days, I had cheated death twice. Whether my survival was just good luck is debatable. Or perhaps the medical corpsman was right - maybe ' someone up there ' was looking after me. 

Every day, since 10 June 1969 has been a gift of life . . for which I am thankful. 

by CDR. Russ Pearson, USN (Ret.) The Hook magazine (abridged)


Comments:

Posted by Jolly on
From Woody:


Jolly,
Cdr Russ Pearson is a good friend of mine. We were on the Admiral's staff together when I was the aide to RADM Jim Partington. He's from North Carolina and his call sign is Red Neck. He is truly an American Fighter Pilot hero. Russ went on to fully recover and deploy to South East Asia for 3 combat deployments in the Corsair. He finished with 6 Distinguished Flying Cross awards and almost 40 Air Medals for action in Vietnam. He is an FU hero and mine.
Posted by Raredirt on
I went through Preflight training with Russ, class 0567. Terrific guy. Deserved all the good the Navy had to offer. This is the first I've seen of this story although I had seen another account of it elsewhere. Mighty glad to see that he recovered. I made only 2 cruises to SE Asia with VA 146 before I was riffed to the inactive reserve. God bless you all.

Rick Murray
Redmond, OR
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