VMA-214--Granite Clouds at Camp Pendleton

One day, as a brand new A-4 aircraft section-leader,  I briefed Lieutenant Paul Phillips for a two plane, live ordnance bombing mission to the Chocolate Mountains. Of course, a section takeoff was my call to glory! Once on the duty runway, I raised my right hand, rotated the fingers, looked Dash 2 over and when Paul gave me a thumbs up I dropped my right hand to the stick and began rolling at 98% engine thrust.  I noticed Paul was falling back in his Skyhawk and gave him a little power (backed off my 98% to maybe 97%). Well, things didn't go so well after that. We started to yoo-yoo right there on runway 17 Left that would take us to the El Toro boundary fence and HWY 5 Freeway.  (if anyone was watching our takeoff they would have thought we were fighting over who would be lead). Soon the fence was starting to look very tall and I had to push the throttle to the stops, leave my wingman behind, and scoot over the “wall” dragging six, five-hundred pound bombs over the hoods of a dozen cars on that freeway. Paul barely made it safely over the chain link boundary fence too. We had an interesting, heated debrief about an hour and half later after we returned from the Chocolate Mountains Bomb Range.

Fortunately, nobody of aviation importance observed the A-4s take off.  It was amazing how dangerous things could get in Naval Aviation without repercussions. That is, until an adverse report reached the Squadron and then things heated up quickly which usually resulted in a brisk rug dance in front of the Squadron Commanding Officer.

On another occasion it was Captain Krause who led me to the Santa Margarita peaks on MCB Camp Pendleton on one not so CAVU day when no aircraft were able to get down to the targets in the Camp Pendleton ordnance impact area. We had VMA-214 pilots at the target site that day observing the Forward Air Controller on the ground direct the Close Air Support aircraft onto the targets. But no aircraft were able to get below the weather. That is until Captain Krause and his “new boy” wonder pilot (who didn't have a clue); I just followed orders, and being on the wing of a marine captain was like being on orders. He could have directed us into the impossible, and I’d still be on his wing.  I'm a “can-do” marine, right?  Well, all I can say is that he found a drain-hole in the clag that covered the mountains. That's what it was--a drain-hole spiraling down like the inside of a tornado, and down we went; and I mean straight down, practically!!


We found the bottom of the pit, with me still fixed on his wing. I’d taken a few darting glances to see where my fate would impact. Well, the grey mountains started to take on a little color and maybe my face did too. We prevailed, as superior pilots do, and could actually see the VMA-214 observers jumping for joy. But, with all this success I still almost killed myself when, far back in trail formation, I got my head caught in the clouds as I went IFR while crossing over a saddleback in the mountains. I was on my way back around to the roll in point for another run at the targets. I knew from my previous go-around that a deep valley was in front of me, so I nosed over into the obscure. I broke out as planned, with room to spare (between me and Mother Earth). That is, except for one thing, I’d forgotten to put my speed brakes back “in” (they'd been out to help gain separation from Krause’s aircraft ahead). Now I was flying too slow! Damn it!  I was loaded with bombs and fuel (thanks to Krause's drain-hole we were on target within ten minutes of departure and still really heavy). Too Slow!  Damn it!  And I was descending rapidly and needed to pull up. Then…. Shudder!!; Shudder!!; Shudder!! My aircraft wanted to tremble into a stall. Instinctively, (I knew the aerodynamic laws) I push her nose over into the valley, full throttle, boards now retracted “in”, and hurtled toward the earth. With airspeed building up on my old “Charlie” A-4 aircraft, I once again eased back pressure onto the stick, felt the nibbles of the stall, held it there and slowly brought the nose to the horizon. What a plumber!  I can hear it now, "What ever happened to Jim Ruffer?"  Well, the mountains of Santa Margarita leaped up and got him one not-so-fair day. Things happen! They're called "accidents".  But I've learned by my experiences and from those experiences of others whose class-A aircraft accidents I’ve investigated, that there are no “accidents”.

                 Semper Fi

                  Jim Ruffer