1956 New Bern, NC Skyraider Flyby


December 13, 1956 was a typical AD-4B (A-1) Skyraider flying day in the Marine Corps Wake Island Avenger Squadron VMA-211. Red and White were our squadron colors so we were often referred to as the Candy Stripers. The nickname was only slightly better than our sister squadron at Edenton, VMA-225.  VMA-225's tail letters of WI caused them to be called the "Wandering Idiots."  We didnít care much for our feminine sounding name but it was better than the day our AF tail letters were changed to CF. Chicken @#%&ers was the worst possible name at Friday Happy Hours.

       Bill Holmes took this picture of a "Wandering Idiot" aircraft.

Marine second lieutenants Jim DeGon and John St Denis were my wingmen on the scheduled four-hour Chopperon mission supporting the grunts at Camp Lejeune, NC. Jim was an enthusiastic and very capable pilot who had flown the Skyraider in the Navy training command. John St. Denis was an excellent pilot who was sometimes referred to as Saint Dangerous for some of his numerous flying and crashing incidents. The most famous dangerous incident was when his Skyraider engine quit and he made an emergency dead-stick landing at a super secret CIA airfield in Virginia. That caper sure generated a lot of official government paperwork.

Takeoff, climb out and rendezvous were normal and we arrived on station on schedule. Then it was anchor over the IP (initial point) and wait for a support mission. We set the power at maximum endurance to conserve fuel. That was 1400 rpm for the propeller and about 18-20 inches for engine manifold pressure. Auger for half a day was common on such missions. My body did not enjoy long periods of holding for action. The Skyraider had a relief tube for liquid waste but heavy fecal matter would not fit the small funnel shaped device. Trying to pound or blow heavier defecation through the tube was to no avail. One of our esteemed aviators removed his helmet and by perching precariously in his lowered seat, used it for an emergency receptacle. Another defecated into his utility cover.  One of our birds had a relief tube that was misrouted around a seat support which put the funnel just out of usable reach. When the discrepancy was written up at the end of each long flight with comment "Piss tube too short", the maintenance officer would always sign off the gripe with, "Ground checks OK. Check pecker."

My longest flight in the aircraft was 9.9 hours. For flights any longer, an extra oil tank had to be mounted on the fuselage above the regular oil tank.

The jet jockeys made fun of us when we visited the fighter bases. We were called grease monkeys and other less endearing names. Our usual come back was, "We would rather screw our way around the world than blow our way."

Finally, three hours and thirty minutes of orbiting the IP had elapsed and we were relieved on station by another three-plane Skyraider flight. We turned north for NAAS Edenton, NC.

 Our flight path would take us over New Bern Airport. Seven miles out, I called the flight to "Switch to New Bern Tower frequency."  When five miles south I called New Bern Tower and requested permission for a low altitude, high speed pass down the runway. Permission was granted. The Skyraider could easily attain 300 knots on a flyby. A porpoise of my plane by pumping the stick fore and aft got the wingmen moving into parade position..  The signal to join up meant the wingmen had to accelerate to close up the separation of his aircraft from the leader and get into  a close wing position. They had to advance the Skyraider propeller lever forward to about 2400 RPM from the high pitch setting of 1400 RPM to accommodate the required advancement of the throttle and the higher manifold pressure needed to increase the airspeed for join up.  Most pilots grabbed both levers, since they were side by side, and shoved them forward simultaneously for what was usually referred to as a "handful" of power.  If the throttle was shoved forward without first insuring a safe propeller RPM, the powerful R-3350 engine would be damaged.  As I started turning left to line up on the duty runway. St Denis called, "Check number two."

I looked back to my right and observed Jim DeGon still heading north, wings level, with his Skyraider emitting black smoke. Jim was already on the radio, "This is dash two with a rough runner. Heading for home base."

"Turn left and land at New Bern. We are only five miles out." I wanted Jim on the deck if he had engine problems.

Jim responded a few moments later, "It is running smooth now. I can make it home." The plane had stopped trailing smoke. I turned right and headed over to join on Jimís aircraft.

"Two, maybe you better get your plane to New Bern or to nearby Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point. You are only about 8 miles away from New Bern." I still was not satisfied with Jim continuing north over some rough terrain with a sick engine. I was closing up on Jim when his aircraft again started streaming black smoke.

"This is Dash Two, I have had a complete failure and am turning left for New Bern." It was obvious to me that New Bern was now out of the question for landing and Jim realized it as well. Jim transmitted, "Thereís a corn field at one oíclock. Iíll dead stick into it."

Jim was looking good for ditching into the cornfield when suddenly, at about two hundred feet above the ground, the plane stopped smoking and climbed sharply to about 800 feet. "Yea! Itís running again!" Jim was obviously elated. It was short-term jubilation because the plane began trailing black smoke and started down again. Now it was past the cornfield and headed for a heavily forested area.

The Skyraider went in like a WW II shoot-down. The Able Dog was trailing black smoke as it crashed. I was only thirty feet away to the left and twenty feet above his left wing as the aircraft hit the treetops, chewed through branches, limbs and trees, shed the wings and then slammed into the trunk of an oak tree. The huge engine broke off and seemed to roll back over the left shoulder of the pilot in the cockpit before coming to rest beside the aft section of the fuselage. The thought flashed through my mind, ĎJim is dead.í Then I saw him jump clear of the cockpit and run forward from the wreckage.

We switched to guard channel and transmitted the crash location. A rescue helicopter came over from MCAS Cherry Point, NC and picked up lucky pilot Jim DeGon from an open field not far from the wreckage. Jim only suffered a few bruises. Which only proves how tough the Skyraider was and not the human body.

Two thirds of Mofak flight continued on to NAAS Edenton, NC for landing.  Soon thereafter came the appointment of an Aircraft Accident Board to investigate the cause of VMA-211's tenth Able Dog aircraft accident of 1956.

Semper Fi

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Donald Cathcart LtCol USMC Ret.