Wild blue yonder

Saying a final goodbye to Oregon State and Corvallis in June 1952, I returned home to Kansas for three short weeks. This summer training program was designed as a recruiting opportunity for two of the Navy’s special forces. All second-year midshipmen were ordered to converge on the Naval Air Station (NAS) Corpus Christi, Texas, for an introduction to the wild blue yonder. After three weeks in Corpus Christi, we were to go to Little Creek, Virginia, for an introduction to the Marines. How many recruits were enticed into these special forces is anybody’s guess, but it was a fascinating, all expense paid vacation from my perspective. I had only recently made the decision to serve in the Navy’s Supply Corps, a specialization which extracted me from all deck watches, both underway and in port.

The Navy was looking for pilots for both single and multi-engine planes. The first three weeks at the Corpus NAS was fully scripted, and was designed to impress all the midshipmen with the attractive benefits of flying. It was an outstanding orientation to flying at the time, and was far more comprehensive than the Navy really intended. Most midshipmen and most civilians at the time had never flown in an airplane. I was probably an exception as I had flown commercially, and had endured one hair-raising experience in a private plane. This background conditioned me to assess the risks associated with flying, rather than the benefits which might accrue. I was a skeptic from the outset.

Initially we were selected into groups of 20 for a flight in a Martin Mariner, or PBM. It was the Navy’s utility flying boat, patrol aircraft, and the first transport which could operate from both water and land with equal facility. The Martin was powered by two Wright engines, and flew well below its top speed of 200 mph. I would guess this top speed was achieved only in a dive, and dives were not recommended for such a plane. With its fuel carrying capacity, the PBM was capable of staying aloft for days at a time. Because of the speed and distances involved in its missions, more than one pilot was often required. They spent most of their time on such missions sitting in the air, watching and waiting. This was the routine hour after hour.

As soon as it was our turn to go up, we took off from the airstrip, and went on a routine over-water flight for about two hours. Each of us was given a turn at the controls. As an experience, it was like driving a freight train on the straight and level with gentle corners that required a mile to complete 90 degrees. From 3000 feet at a reasonably slow speed, it was necessary to find a fixed object on the ground to confirm that you were actually moving, as any experience of motion was missing, unlike a freight train. This was our experience with multi-engine aircraft.

Our introduction to single engine planes included individual instruction in the Navy’s Basic Instrument Trainer, the AT-6, also known as the SNJ. My introduction was an eye-opener. Each of the midshipmen was paired-off with a pilot to begin the session. We were issued flight gear, which consisted of coveralls and a headset. After suiting up, we were assigned our individual aircraft, which we then had to locate among hundreds on the field. Our assigned plane was #36. As these planes were first built for the Navy in the 30s, this particular plane was one of the earliest of the original models. A nicely restored version is shown below.


We finally found the plane, climbed aboard, strapped in, plugged in the headphones, and checked our internal communications. Fortunately, the phones worked fine. The pilot took the front seat, and I climbed into the rear. My first discovery was that the runway was out of sight when seated and buckled in. It is apparently necessary to fly blind until something happens to change your view. During takeoffs, as soon as the tail lifts off the runway, the runway then becomes visible from both the front and the rear seats. As the plane is a tail-dragger, it also has a tendency to turn sideways at touchdown, requiring corrective pressure on the appropriate foot-pedal.

There are few experiences comparable to the noise created by a single radial engine, particularly when the engine is mounted directly in front of you. The vibration is substantial, but the noise is deafening, and is un-muffled, as muffling reduces the engines power output. The exhaust is simply vented away from the front of the plane, with little noise suppression. Because of the noise, great headsets firmly planted over both ears were required for any person-to-person communication in the plane. If it works, you are in business. If it does not work, you are deaf and mute, and must rely on sign language. A great deal of noise still filtered through the headset, turning all communication into a problem.

We taxied from the flight line onto the taxiway, and were in a long line of SNJs approaching the end of the runway. When we were one or two planes from takeoff, I became alarmed that the air in the rear cockpit seemed to be cloudy, if not smoky. I asked the pilot if he smelled or saw any smoke. As soon as he understood the question, he turned around and looked back at me through what was then a cloud of smoke. He had no idea what might be happening, but confirmed that he, too, saw the smoke. He suggested that we must have a little electrical problem with either burning wires or radio equipment. He taxied out of line immediately, radioed the tower that we were returning with some unknown kind of smoke problem in the cockpit, and were shutting the radio equipment off. Then he opened the canopy to blow out the smoke and bring in some fresh air. We taxied into a safe area of the field, and crawled out of the plane pronto. The pilot figured as soon as we shut the system down, the problem might go away. I don’t know if the problem disappeared, but we were clear of the plane well before the fire truck arrived.

To that point, I had survived running out of gas at 600 feet in a Funk, requiring an emergency landing in a plowed field. The next flight produced a fire in the cockpit, one of the more dreaded consequences of flying in airplanes. I was not particularly excited about crawling into another SNJ. The pilot, on the other hand, appeared to be totally unconcerned, as though this kind of event was just part of the routine. While waiting for another plane to be assigned, he asked if I was interested in some aerobatics. I was aware of a few maneuvers, and suggested that he should help himself to whatever he was comfortable with. I was actually quite uncomfortable with the suggestion, but my ego got in the way, and injected the response for me before I came to my senses.

We received our replacement SNJ, checked it out, taxied to the runway, and took off without incident. We climbed steadily for the next 10 minutes. The pilot asked if I had ever experienced zero Gs. I said I had not, so when we arrived at 8000 feet, he pulled the nose of the plane up another 20 degrees to create a stall. I knew that at some point we would lose our airfoil, the plane would then become a rock, and we would free-fall toward the earth. It happened precisely that way. We lost headway, the right wing fell precipitously, and we fell back toward the tail. Then as the nose of the plane started for the ground, we began whirling like a corkscrew. The entire world was spinning round and round, and we were seemingly out of control for several complete revolutions.

I asked the pilot if everything was OK. I received no response. Then I asked again, and again received no response. After what seemed like an eternity, he replied that he must have blacked out for a short time. I never knew if he was playing games, testing my reaction, or telling the truth. I suspected he was telling the truth, and was relieved to return to the ground in one piece. My tolerance for planes at that point had been reached, but our orientation to Navy flying was not yet complete.

These flights were all leading up to the grand finale, an air show of the Navy’s finest flying demonstrations. On the last full day in Corpus, the orders were issued for full dress uniforms, and assembly of all midshipmen along the waterfront. Our several divisions were marched into formation and placed at ease about 50 feet from the water. From this position we witnessed a PBM taking off from the water using jet assisted take off. It was, of course, like nothing we had experienced. Small rockets had been fixed onto either side of the fuselage of the plane just forward of the tail section. The plane taxied onto its final takeoff path, got up onto its step on its own, then fired both rockets simultaneously. At that moment, the PBM, normally an albatross, rose almost instantly into the air and started climbing at an unbelievable rate of ascent. It was an exciting demonstration of a way to use short runways or limited waterways with heavy loads. It is best not to ask about the cost of two disposable rockets.

Immediately after this demonstration, two blue jets buzzed the harbor from the west immediately above the midshipmen. They were moving at an incredible rate of speed, 500 feet above the ground, performing barrel rolls, and streaming red and blue smoke from the wingtips. This was the standard opening for the Navy’s Blue Angels, their precision formation flying team, which had performed at air shows all over the country. Advance billing stated with considerable pride that they had never experienced an accident, in spite of their close formation and tight maneuvers. Our attention was directed to the west again, so we would not miss any of the action.

Close formation consists of four planes flying in a diamond configuration. The lead plane has one plane following each wingtip, and the fourth plane flies between these two planes in the rear slot, completing the diamond. In such a formation the wingtips of the lead plane become the orientation point for the planes on the sides, while the tail of the lead plane is the orientation point for the man in the slot position. The slot man’s plane may be only a few feet from the tail assembly of the lead plane. This formation is then maintained through straight flight, slow rolls, loops, and other synchronized maneuvers.

With our attention directed to the west, we could see this formation approaching from the horizon. The planes arrived well before the sound of their jets as they started their first pass in a tight formation a thousand feet above the harbor, almost directly over the midshipmen. Just prior to passing, some miscalculation in the formation was apparent. The plane flying in the slot of the formation came up underneath the tail assembly of the lead plane, striking it with enough force to destroy the surface surrounding the air intake. After that the force of the airflow disintegrated the plane from the nose back, ripping what seemed like hundreds of pieces of metal off the plane immediately. This cloud of metal was hurtling toward the ground off shore. I worried about stray pieces landing along the tarmac in front of the midshipmen. In an automatic response, I broke from ranks and ran toward the shelter of the planes outside of the hangars behind us, the most rational thing to do.

What was left of the plane in the slot crashed into the harbor a quarter of a mile beyond us. Some claimed the pilot had ejected just prior to hitting the water, but no parachute was ever visible. It was a moot point at best, as the plane and all related components were traveling well over 500 miles an hour at the time. Impact with any object at that speed was not survivable. Two thousand midshipmen had all witnessed the Blue Angels first fatal accident, and they had done so up close and personal. It was a chilling introduction to flying the Navy’s premier jet fighter.

The lead pilot in the formation knew he had been hit, and immediately pulled his plane into a vertical climb. At a high altitude he checked the planes controls to assess the damage to its air worthiness. Reports and rumors indicated that his planes controls became mushy below 200 miles an hour. He requested permission to land at an airstrip near Kings Ranch, where there was a 10,000-foot runway available. He landed without further incident.

Following this brutal introduction to Navy Air, most of us were eager to look at the Marines for its career potential. Exactly how many recruits were obtained for flight training is not known, but the experience might not dent the armor of those died-in-the-wool prospects for pilot training. It might even enhance the challenge of the Navy’s Air Corps. The following day we packed our bags and were bussed to the nearest train station for transfer to Little Creek. Our introduction to flying in the navy was far more comprehensive than planned, and clearly revealed the wild blue yonder.

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