Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Navy Airdale – Ground Pounder Story #2 Aircraft Love

Aircraft Love – AG707

Now some of you out there are going to think I am crazy, but those of us who do this know it's true. Car mechanics might agree or anyone that works large complex machines. Sometimes you get feelings for them. Those of us who work on them, fix them when they are broke. Service them when needed. They take on a personality all their own. I can't explain it much better than that. An otherwise inanimate object taking on a kind of life of its own, you talk to them sometimes, even touch them in a certain way. (Blush)

We had 11 aircraft in my Squadron, the S-3 Viking officially, the Hoover affectingly to those of us that flew and maintained them. They came to us right from the factory all their Bureau Numbers (their serial number or BUNO) in sequence. You would think they would be the same but they weren't. Several of them were poor flyers. Always had gripes on them for hard to fix systems. One did not like the cold so whenever we were up in Norfolk or doing Ops in the Northern Atlantic you could find it down in the Hanger Bay. It was a Queen, a Hanger Queen. Then there was the one that you could not keep out of the sky. She flew so much we had to send it to the Depot a couple of years early, for rework.

I had affairs with some of the aircraft.

I know it sounds odd but that's how it was. I had good relations with most of them, they would let me fix most anything broke on them. One hated me and I couldn't even change a light bulb in the Jet without it causing more trouble. And there were two that I was in love with and I guess they loved me back. You see, these two almost fixed themselves when I came around to work on them. One of them was AG711 (this is the side number we painted on them, a kind of first name for the jet) or 159771. She was as lovely a Viking as any of them that Lockheed had made. We hit it off right away, right from the git-go. The other was AG707 or 159767. Another fine aircraft but we did not start out on such good terms as I had with 711. But she came around. Here is her story.

It was a dark and stormy night. I know what that sounds like as a start, but it is true. We had been flying for almost two straight weeks. We were on deployment in the Med (the
Mediterranean Sea
) on board the USS Independence. My crew, two other Avionics Technicians and myself had been working flight ops to flight ops for the entire time of this Line Period. That is to say that we worked from 1-hour before the first launch of the day until the last recovery. Sometimes that was 10 or 12 hours, sometimes that was 20 hours. We hit the Galley for chow when we could and slept between flights or when we knocked off. It was a long line period and we had a few more days to go before a break in flying.

At around 0100 hours (or 1:00 am) local we did a recovery cycle. Pulling in a full gaggle of aircraft, the F-4's and A-7's came in first then A-6's and EA-6's followed by one of the two S-3's still flying. Then the two plane guard helo's came in and landed. They re-spotted those two immediately to the front of the Island where they would not block the landing zone and could easily be towed out for a quick launch. If necessary; we still had two aircraft flying a Hummer or E-2 and one of our S-3's. They would recover in another hour.

I sent the other two technicians to bed with strict instructions for at least one of them to be up for the first Event in the morning, only 4 hours in the future. It was better than no sleep at all or even just 3 hours. I would catch the last jet and work off any gripes as quickly as possible. Usually they would taxi this aircraft, the last recovery of the night, directly onto one of the two Bow Catapults and it would be the first to launch the next morning so, if there were any Avionic problems I would have to work them off before I took to the Rack myself.

I had an hour to kill so I went downstairs to the Forward Galley to partake in MIDRATs. Midnight Rations, a meal in the middle of the night, hot food was available 23 hours a day on the Indy. MIDRATs were the overnight meal and served in the Forward Galley. I had eggs, scrambled eggs, powdered scrambled eggs. They were awful because they were made with powdered milk so you had that powdered thing going into them twice. But they were hot and with enough Tabasco you could eat anything.

When I got back to the Roof I checked in with our Flight Deck coordinator, letting him know I was around and would be catching this last aircraft of the night. AG707.

I went looking for a spot to hang out and wait. If I was to sit down I would surely fall asleep so I found a place to stand just off the landing zone in front of the Island. I was going to lean against the pontoon of one of the Helo's. They have these pontoon's that the wheels retract into and have an inflatable bag in them, in fact the bag was partially exposed and were like a cushion. It was a comfortable place to wait the last few minutes before 707 got home.

Soon the Air Boss (or the Assistant Air Boss most likely due to the late hour) called out on the loud hailer system (known as the 5-MC) for everyone to get ready for recovery. The first of two aircraft was 5-minutes out; the E-2 Hummer was first up. I rechecked my Float Coat and helmet, pulling down my goggles with my eyes closed. It was automatic for me I had done is so often. And then I nodded out. Standing up, leaning on the Helo I nodded out.

It did not last long as suddenly the booming sound of the E-2 trapping beside me only 70 feet away woke me up. I was fully awake now. I peered aft and up into the night sky. I could see the lights of 707 inbound maybe 3 miles back. I leaned back up and watched as they taxied the E-2 clear of the landing zone, the arresting wire was pulled back and placed back into battery, the Fly 2 Yellow Shirt waved his hand up and down signaling all clear. Everyone was ready for the last jet of the night.

I continued to lean there on the Helo thinking I would leave there when 707 was spotted on the Cat. They would need help with tie-down chains and I could bare a hand, as we say in the Navy.

Then she was there: engines screaming in the night as the pilot always two-blocks the throttles when they hit the deck just in case they miss all the wires. Not this time and 707 strained on the Arresting wire pulling out all the purchase cable of the #3 arresting gear engine. A good trap for the pilot. She settled back on her main mounts and was tugged ever so slightly aft by the wire. She had stopped a mere 100 feet from the end of the flight deck. Only 100 feet of iron separated 707 and 4 crew members from the deep six.

Now there are things you have to know here. This part is complicated. You see, normally when an aircraft has a brake malfunction the Crew signals that to the ground crew with one of two signals. They drop the Arresting Hook in day or they turn on their lights at night. This is because very few of us on the ground crew have radios so you have to signal with your hands or with devices easy to interpret.

The problem here is that when you first land on a carrier at night you have still have your lights on and you have your hook down. There is no other way to signal. One or the other, never both. Unless. Well, unless you have that magical connection to the Aircraft.

I knew something was wrong right away. I don't know why, but my internal alarm went off as soon as they backed off the throttles. I stood at attention and watched as 707 spit out the arresting cable right away. But her hook came right back down and her lights never went out. She slowly rolled away, forward toward the end of the ship. I could almost hear her crying for help.

I looked around and saw what I needed. Chocks! They were on the landing gear of the Helo I had been leaning against. I grabbed them and turned and stepped into the Landing Zone, crossing the foul line. I was maybe 75 feet away, behind her. I started a slow trot still not sure. I looked for other signs, clues; the Fly 2 Yellow Shirt was still waving his arms trying to get them to fold wings and taxi to the right, out of the LZ. 707 kept move forward, not turning, not responding to the Yellow Shirt. He gave up and gave the WTF signal with his hands. Never a good thing to see.

I trotted faster and I could hear for the first time her engines de-spooling. They were shutting down the engines to stop the thrust but she continued forward anyway, momentum will do that to you. I boosted speed to a full run and positioned the chocks in my hands for fast deployment. They were now calling away the loss of brakes over the 5-MC. Too late for anyone else to respond, usually as a last resort they can drive a tractor out and pin it into the aircraft but it was too late for that.

I caught up to her and bent down under the engine and laid out the chocks around the wheel. She spit them out. The back side of the chock caught the wheel first and it pulled the cocks up and out. I grabbed them to prevent them from being hurled away from me. I did not know how much more time I had. I knew the crew would escape with the ejection seats as soon as they felt the plane was beyond hope.

As I ratcheted the chocks to full wide open I looked out to see where we were. 30 feet, maybe less of deck, then well it was just dark beyond. I hit the wheel again with just the front side of the chock this time. We skidded along the flight deck, the chock being pushed by the wheel and me still gripping the chock. The deck was too smooth for the metal chock to grip and pin the wheel and stop the jet.

I wouldn't let her go.

I jammed the toe of my right boot into the leading edge of the chock. If I was lucky the soul of the boot would catch and gripe the flight deck and give the chock enough grip to stop the Jet, or the whole thing would drive up over and squish my foot and the plane would be lost. I was all in by this time.

She stopped.

I sat down onto the flight deck, my foot pinned into the chock. The door opened and all four crew came out in quick succession, happy to not be swimming in the Med. A Plane Captain came over with chains and threw two of them at me. I told him I could move. I was pinned with the Jet.

We were soon surrounded. I sat there while about 12 to 15 men pushed 707 back by hand freeing me and allowing us to put a tow bar on the nose. We were less than 10 feet from the end. The Crew was just a few seconds from pulling the handle and getting out.

707 spent the rest of the night in the Hanger Bay. I visited her in the morning. Patting her on the nose and under her chin. She was never a problem for me to work on after that. Boxes almost threw themselves out of the racks when I went to fix her. We had a good time on the rest of that deployment, the rest of the time I was in that Squadron

Years later I would leave the squadron and those Jets. I would continue to work in the community, the VS/S-3 development world. I would leave the Navy as well but continued to work on the aircraft as a contractor.

Whenever I was at one of the two fleet sites I would look up my old friends, 711 and 707. I'd find them and go over to see them. Their side numbers would be changed and the markings on their tail would be different, but they would always be Topcats with the bright blue racing strip and white AG.

159771 was finally retired sometime in the early 2000's. She was sent to the desert, there is a huge Air Force base in Tucson that stores aircraft. She sits there to this day waiting to be put back in service. We can hope.

I saw 159767 sometime in 2002. She was in town for a quick modification. We visited. I was happy to see her. It was nice to be in the same building all day with that old friend. She left after a week and I watched her taxi away. She was on her way to another Med Cruise.

Three months later word spread through our community that one of our Jets was down. The three souls on board were all feared dead. It took a couple of days but the preliminary message report came out on the crash. Our worst fears were realized, no survivors. Mysteriously the aircraft went down while working with a submarine in the Med. The submarine heard an explosion and surfaced into a large debris field.

It was sad as we were always a small community, we knew the people that flew the Jets. I went down to the S-3 scheduler's desk and asked for the message board. I had to know. He knew what I wanted as he handed me the clip board that held the latest messages. He told me where to find the Class A. That is what they call it when someone dies or the damage to the aircraft is severe.

I thumbed through the message from the top. There was the squadron number; names of the crew lost, three men, all young, none I recognized. Then further down was the entry for the Buno: 159767. I couldn't believe it. Lost at sea.

My lips trembled and I had to blink back tears. I handed the message board back to the scheduler.

"You knew someone on that flight?" he asked. I nodded my head in the affirmative. I knew he would not understand what I was grieving for, everybody grieves for the crew.

"Yeah." I said "I knew all four."


BT: Jimmy T sends.


Bag Blog said...

I love these stories!

JimmyT said...

Lou, thanks. I did love those Jets. A friend of mine did question if I really did cry when I heard about that plane going down, she picked up on my mood and I originally told her it was a “good friend”. When she pressed for details I finally gave up that it was an airplane. I was embarrassed to say that I really did feel badly for this big metal object. It was identical to 185 others that were built by Lockheed but there was a special place in me for it. I have talked with many others over this and Technicians and Mechanics all have the same feeling for the complex machines. Such is life. Thanks Again for reading.

BT: Jimmy T sends.

Buck said...

An excellent tale well told, Jimmy.

I kinda-sorta know where you're coming from... in the sense that I've had real and true relationships with all my bikes over the years. I've always thought that if I were kind to them, they'd be kind to me. And that's the way it's worked out, with the ONE exception of the bitch that tried to kill me. :D

JimmyT said...

Buck -- thanks. I am the same with my cars. I have owned two different Subaru's in the past and one was a dream car, answered the bell at every call. The other, well we did a lot of negotiating. The life of machines.

BT: Jimmy T sends.

Reese said...

"The life of machines."

Funny how the mind works. Yes they are machines.

I find your story awesome. So much especially that the machine carried people. One like it tested you and its crew to ten feet of disaster (you could have gone overboard or been injured-- same for the crew).

Yet... a machine.

Your affection is misplaced, but more than acceptable. It is an affection for what you've done, and the people who've benefitted by what you've done (me for one).

Affection for machines? Not me. I "miss" my first Celica and my '78 KZ-650. What is that?

The USS California? Scrap metal. (Except for the reactor compartment where I more than once bloodied my forehead on fittings--bitch is in Hanford!). But I miss the pointy end I stood at while seeing the Southern Cross for the first time.

Awe, anyway, awesome story.

Reese (AKA Bobby R) sends.

virgil xenophon said...

You're right. Unless you work on 'em or fly them you'll never understand the personality thing. It defies science and logic but is real nonetheless. I don't know how many times I've seen this aspect of working with machinery--cars, locomotives, ships airplanes, etc., mentioned in literature. And same with the way individual parts operate also. I've had the experience of a radio going out and writing it up, returning the next day with the notation: "Gnd check OK" take the bird up and the thing STILL wouldn't work. Wash, rinse, repeat a COUPLE of times. Then jerk it, take it to Avionics, put it on the test bench and it tests perfectly. Take it back, re-install and STILL no-joy once airborne. Finally you just get a new box. A "Michigan J. Frog" type deal for sure. So, yeah, Jimmy--know EXACTLY what you are talking about.
There are more mysteries to the human brain and how we relate in a subconscious or unconscious way to the physical universe and our surroundings than we will ever know. Great story.

Anonymous said...


Jimmy, for that action, were I you're Co, I would have put you in for some sort of commendation medal, or at least a favorable "mentioned in dispatches" kind of letter in your file. Or was it (which I'm sure it was to you) just "another day at the office-all in a day's work" sort of thing? Where such things are all part of what comes with the territory...

I'm always amazed, no, embarrassed by comparison, at the unwavering dedication and tireless competence demonstrated time and again by guys like you...

virgil xenophon said...

PPS Damned thing jumped the traces before I could square it away.... only was going to add: (sucking up again--but sincerely mean it :) )

JimmyT said...

Bob, I think us guys get this more often then the finer sex does. You see it in cars all the time. When you get into the more complex like a ship we gravitate to what we know and work with day to day. Same with the jets.

VX, we had them kinds of gremlins all the time. I have a good story about our CO that had trouble with his ICS. Its funny but shows you the same kind of problem. Look for it in the future.

And there was a lot of talk about a commendation. Especially by the crew, they were all senior LT's and the only AWCS we had on the ship (there were no AWCM's). But, there were issues, flight ops without plane guard's was the most problematic. They did offer liberty without duty but I was always assigned to Shore Patrol so that fell outside of the Squadron anyway. So, I only got pats on the back and great eval's. Good enough for me.

BT: Jimmy T sends.