SKYHAWKING A CARRIER
The greatest event of my lifetime was being selected for training as a Naval Aviator. Growing up attending several grade schools and three high schools took me through the life learning school for self defense, self reliance, self confidence, self esteem, hard work, determination, fearlessness, and daring do. I chose the high diving board to test my courage and acrobatics at an early age. By drawing the double gainers, double back flips, double somersaults (all with various twists included) on paper before going up the three meter tower helped me perfect the dives quickly. Football was a demanding sport and I played both directions on an undefeated championship team my last two years of high school. I lettered in track in the high jump and pole vault. So, you can readily see that I was acrobatic, loved heights and was destined to become a Fighter Pilot in a branch of the U.S. military.
At the age of 23 I began to realize that not all Naval aviators were as capable as others nor did they enjoy the roller coaster thrills and danger as much as I did. After being selected for Regular Marine Corps in the Spring of 1958 an opportunity came to leave MABS-14 and return to a tactical squadron. VMA-211 was receiving new Douglas A4 Skyhawk Jets and personnel were being assigned to the squadron and being frozen there for an October departure from NAAS Edenton, NC on an unaccompanied tour to the Western Pacific. Most aviators preferred a squadron overseas tour to individual orders and staff jobs at bases in Japan or Okinawa. So, it was a no-brainer for me to volunteer for the 15 month tour away from my wife and children.
On 20 June 1958 I transferred to VMA-211 and commenced ground school on the new Skyhawk Jet. I kept flying the AD-5 Skyraider and the T-33 jet until all prerequisites were met for climbing into the single seat, single engine attack jet. On 30 June, Mole Keller, the squadron Operations Officer, scheduled himself as my chase pilot for FAM 1 in the Skyhawk. Major Keller briefed for me to climb straight out after takeoff and after 5 minutes to turn and fly back towards the base at ten thousand feet so he could join in tail chase for the remainder of the flight. The little jet accelerated rapidly down the runway and when the airspeed indicated 120 knots, I pulled the stick back and the Skyhawk leaped into the air. It was a wobbly, laterally touchy, jerky little jet which took a couple of minutes to get used to. Chase had an unreadable radio so I flew around solo performing all the briefed maneuvers and slow flight. After one hour I returned to NAAS Edenton, executed an overhead break and shot a final landing. Shortly thereafter FAM chase landed. The debrief consisted of a verbal attack for not finding my chase pilot. I accumulated 29 hours in the first month of jitterbugging the Skyhawk.
August was a slow 21 hour month and then VMA-211 was ordered to carrier qualify the pilots aboard the USS Intrepid on 21 September with only three weeks to get ready. The squadron commenced flying Field Carrier Landing Practice immediately. My 22 FMLP flights in 15 days was probably average for our squadron. My log book indicates 3 flights per day on September 3, 5 and 9 with 146 total day/night arrested landings in the Air Station Morrest. Six FCLP hops were at night. We were ready on time!
VMA-211 flew aboard the Intrepid on 21 September 1958. My log book shows 7 landings on 21 September and 5 more on 23 September. Squadron pilots were told that we had to night qualify on 24 September but would only get one hop with four passes to get aboard four times which was the number of cats and traps required for qualification. Before night qualification could be done, two day traps were required by each pilot on the same day.
It was a coal black night with no moon or visible horizon. The winds were less than ten knots and the local Atlantic waters had only a light chop. It was thirty minutes before midnight when I switched on my Navigation Lights and was roughly catapulted into the black void. The booming shove into my back from the hydraulic catapult shot me from zero airspeed to 140 knots in two seconds. I screamed louder than the J-52 engine as the A-4 whistled down the rail and thumped off the bow. "OoooooRAHHHH!" The night catapults and arrestments were the most exciting and thrilling moments of my 23 years of life. The time raced by and suddenly I was taxied to the elevator instead of to a catapult. I quickly radioed Pri-Fly, "Why am I being stopped? I am fifteen hundred pounds above Bingo fuel." The terse reply was, "You are done!"
I was still full of exhilaration from my night cats and traps when I bumped into "Buck" Crowdis coming through a hangar hatch. Buck was affable, friendly and joking most of his waking hours. I said, "Buck, I just finished having the most fun I have ever had in my life! Wasn't that the most thrilling thing you have ever done?"
Marvin Buck Crowdis looked at me like I was a POS and said, "Fxxx You Mofak!"
Still in my flight gear and in route to the Ready Room, I hurried across the hangar deck where a group of maintenance men were calling for me to come over and see the Sea Bat they had captured. Being leery of practical jokes I stayed ten feet away from the cardboard box with bold red letters SEA BAT. More urgent pleas for me to check the box caused me to bend over as though peering into the box. "WHAMP!!!" A speedy boondocker kick caught me square on the butt. I was launched completely over the sea bat box. By the time I had recovered and spun around the perpetrator was thirty yards away disappearing among the parked jets.
The raucous laughter from the large group of enlisted men wiped away my anger. After all, the night had been too elating for a practical joke to erase my wide grin.
When the Squadron returned to NAAS Edenton, the Skipper told all officers that only two pilots had attained the four traps in four passes required for night carrier qualification. "However," he said, "I have decided that anyone who night trapped only once aboard the boat is now qualified for night carrier operations."
Captain Charles Charney Newmark and I were the two champs with four for four in night carrier arrested landings. The Ready Room coffee mess still charged us two bucks a month dues and we still had to wait in line for a turn at the Acey Deucy Board.
We had many fine pilots in VMA-211. Roland Root, Danny Endresen, Benny Rinehart, Vic Steele and John Solan were some of the best who are still on the green side of dirt. BTW, We never had to board a carrier during our 15 month tour in WestPac.
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Donald Cathcart LtCol USMC Ret.