Happy Hour Story
FOULED UP FLYOVER
Our F8 (Crusader) squadron, VMF(AW) 451 was operating off a SATS [Short Airfield for Tactical Support] field in Spain on the northern coast of the Mediterranean near the little town of Almeria. A "SATS" field is a short (3000-4000 feet) metal "pierced planking" runway. It is essentially set up like an aircraft carrier deck with a catapult, Fresnel lens (mirror aka meatball) and arresting gear. That very SATS gear ended up at Chu Lai, South Vietnam a couple of years later.
We had just completed two weeks of intense training, and were standing down to allow the Maintenance Department to get all the aircraft in an "up" status, ready to fly back to the U.S. in the next few days. There was no flight schedule for the next day. That night one of our most courageous pilots slipped off base and came back to our tent with a huge bottle of local wine. It was too thick and too sweet but it was all the booze we had, so we all drank enough to get a good glow, and get some sleep.
The next morning there were a lot of sick pilots. We were giving that old Water Buffalo some serious attention.
The Air Group Commanding Officer had scheduled himself to lead a fly-over with our squadron aircraft, so we (still drunk, hangover or sober) were all herded down to the Ops area to watch the fly-over.
I had drunk more than my share of that foul wine, and was terribly hung over. I just wanted to crawl up in a corner and go back to sleep. Fortunately, I found a place to lie down in the Mobile Ready Room on top of a pile of flight gear. I was comfortable enough, and about to crank off some Z's when someone started kicking my feet and yelling at me, "Get into flight gear! The Number Four aircraft has gone down and the C.O. is pissed. He wants you to fly the slot." No one argued with the squadron C.O. drunk or sober. He was a great Marine Officer, leader and pilot. He could never have won the Mr. Congeniality prize, but was a pussycat to his lovely wife.
A little background. I had recently joined this squadron. These guys had served well together for two years. I was really the squadron low man on flight time in the Crusader. I seem to remember I had less than 10 hours in the aircraft when I took off on that Trans-Lant. For the two years before that, I had been on a staff with the Navy, and had only flown proficiency in the old SNB Beechcraft and a few hours in a T-28 Trojan.
Back to the story. During all this kicking and yelling, I was trying to tell the Ops Officer that I wasn't scheduled to fly that day. And besides that, I had no idea where my flight gear was.
Well, the Ops O picked me up by the dungaree jacket, shoved someone's hard hat and oxygen mask into my gut, shoved me out the door, and into a waiting jeep. We headed for the flight line. Somewhere in route I was told that my aircraft had been started, and all I had to do was catch up with the flight.
Imagine your worst hangover. I do not--I say again--I do not remember how I got into the cockpit. People kept shouting at me that I had better get the f__k moving or the C.O. was going to have my ass. I really think I was bodily lifted and thrown into the cockpit. The F8 cockpit rails are about 10-12 feet off the deck.
Fortunately, the aircraft was headed toward the taxiway. I used too much power coming out of the chocks and seriously damaged a couple of nearby tents. I managed to catch up with the flight just as they took the runway. The hard hat and oxygen mask did not fit well, so I received only partial radio transmissions.
Did I say that I had not yet strapped into the Martin-Baker seat? Well, I hadn't strapped in, which means that if I was required to eject, I would go one way, and the seat and parachute would go another. SEMPER FI!
The flight composition was like this: The Group Commanding Officer was in the Lead, our Squadron Commander was on the Right Wing, and a squadron pilot was on the Left Wing. When I finally caught up with the flight, the Group C.O. transmitted a "welcome aboard Number Four" and my Squadron C.O. gave me a four word briefing--"Get in the slot", which I guess I managed to do without scaring anyone. By this time, I had taken off the oxygen mask (which was not mine anyway), and had tossed my cookies a couple of times. I had a fleeting idea of the Aircraft Accident Board wondering why I was not strapped into the aircraft, and the ejection seat was way over here and my body was way over there, and why vomit was all over the place.
The turn back to the field was uneventful. The low pass was at about 500 feet, and the air was smooth. I was keeping up with the radio transmissions by now and was settling into the slot position. We were just about over the field when I heard the Flight Leader (Group Commander) say, "Burner……." I thought, Oh S--t! This is going to be a f-----g disaster.
The reason I was in this negative state of mind is this--in the F8 Crusader, there is little throttle modulation in burner. It is mostly either full burner or it is off, so as any pilot who ever flew in a formation will know--it's impossible to maintain a formation position without some power differential.
The Flight Leader transmitted, "Burner…..NOW!" Well I moved the throttle to the outboard detent to light the burner, and nothing happened. Actually I lost total thrust because the engine "eyelids" had opened, further reducing thrust.
The Flight Leader and his two wingmen rocketed off up and away from me. I recycled the burner a few times, but no burner. I am no longer a member of that flight. I watched sadly as the now "V" formation left me, and I just sort of followed along in their jet wash.
I was depressed, hungover and depressed, vomit all over me and depressed, I mean industrial strength depressed, and my bowels were talking to me.
I had really f----d up the Group Commander's fly over, and the Group Commander and my Squadron Commander and all the pilots and all the troops in the Air Group would be disappointed. Like I said, I was the FNG in the squadron, and was destined to become the worlds most hated pilot. I would probably end up as the Assistant Crash Crew Officer at Vieques, Puerto Rico.
Finally I caught up with the flight, and managed to fly a decent Tail End Charlie (Number 4) position in the echelon break at NAS Rota Spain. As I shut the airplane down, I looked (sheepishly) over at the C.O. Maybe it was my imagination, but he was glaring at me. He knew. He knew how I had f____d up the flyover, and embarrassed the squadron and himself. He was already planning on drumming me out of the Corps. I was equally worried about getting some clean clothes. Fortunately, very little of my vomit had hit the cockpit, but had dribbled down my chin onto my dungarees (remember, no Torso Harness).
When I walked into the line shack, the C.O. was already on the phone. He was talking to the base where I had just embarrassed the squadron. He spoke loudly enough so that anyone in that hemisphere heard him say, "He WHAT??"
I am hung over. I am sick with fear, and had to go to the head (#2 Big Time). That is a terrible combination of conditions that I did not experience again until I was flying combat in F8's out of Da Nang about a year later.
Then the C.O. smiled at me, ever so slightly.
Well, I wasn't assigned to the Crash Crew at Vieques and this is why......
Just as we came over the field, the sun was just coming up over the eastern horizon. When I hit burner the fuel (that would have normally been ignited) just streamed out of the end of the tailpipe. As it dissipated in the morning air, the rays of the sun illuminated the fuel vapor, and I guess it was a colorful sight. Since I had been cycling the burner, the fuel vapor came out as a series of dots and dashes.
Later, a good friend of mine (he was the Maintenance Officer, and knew exactly what had happened) asked me, "O.K. new guy smart ass, we were all trying to figure out just what it was that you were trying to transmit in Morse Code."