Tuesday, November 10, 2009

The Last Starfighter

"Rig the Barricade, Rig the Barricade!" boomed the Boss over the 5-MC. We were all ready for it, waiting in place along the starboard foul line and behind the Island. We were briefed by the AG-O (Arresting Gear Officer) who stood on a tractor to tell us how he wanted this to go, it was more important to get it right than fast. We would have only one try at grabbing this aircraft and it was important that everyone understand that. We did.

The aircraft in distress was an F-4 Phantom from VF-33, the Starfighters as they were called. This one some 20 minutes earlier had been involved in a Ramp Strike. That is to say that it came in too low and struck the back of the ship, ripping off the port main landing gear and a portion of the left wing (the part that folds). We had spent the intervening minutes cleaning up all the FOD and getting two tanker configured KA-6B's into the air. We also landed several aircraft, getting as many down safely as we could.

But the F-4 was a handful and the pilot needed to get the plane on deck or alongside and ditch. Ditching was apparently ruled out or would be tried if the Barricade failed. We were conducting "Blue Water" operations, meaning that there were no Bingo fields or auxiliary land bases to fly to, it was back home to the steel deck or you go into the sea, blue water. And it was late, sometime after midnight and it was raining with very poor visibility, which I am sure helped with causing the accident in the first place and I am sure weighed on those deciding on using the Barricade first over simply ditching the aircraft.

The tractor pulled out a brand new barricade from the below deck locker. Not that almost black color the practice barricade was, all those times it was hauled out across the greasy dirty flight deck. This one was bright white. We followed the tractor on the forward side, waiting to take the top part and stretch it forward. On the aft side Blue Shirts carried the deck plates that would be latched together to form the ramp that the plane would drive up and into the barricade.

In a very deliberate way we moved, taking our time but doing the job correctly. We pulled out the upper side and carried it forward where Green Shirted AG men connected the upper cross brace to the tops of the lowered stanchions. We pulled and slapped the slack out of the barricade all the while additional Green Shirted men tied into the 5th AG Engine the cross deck pendant. When we were done we retreated and they raised the stanchions.

I stood along the foul line looking at the barricade in the reddish gloom of the flood lights from off the Island. They were turned up to full bright and bathed the Landing Zone in an pall that mixed with the falling rain. The wind was starting to kick up as the ship increased in speed. I turned to retreat to safety when I was pulled to man a fire hose. They wanted two sets of fire teams in place and the one I was 'volunteered' to man would be aft of the Island just beside the Landing Zone, slightly forward of the actual barricade. I would have a front row seat for the landing and if we were lucky the aircraft would go straight into the barricade. If things went south and the jet hammered into the ramp again, there would be debris and fire directly in front of us. We would be the first responders.

"On the Flight Deck, Starfighter is now 3-miles back, make a ready Deck, prepare to land aircraft, clear the foul line, clear the catwalks aft." We knelt down holding the hose low, waiting. It was only now when I felt the coldness from the rain, it was only now that I started to think about what we were doing. When something happens and you react in real-time you operate off training instinct. Now that we were going slow to go fast, I could think this all through.

"One mile out, Starfighter is now 1-mile out." The Boss advised. We braced, it would take an F-4 mere seconds to cover a single mile. I watched aft into the reddish gloom streaked with the rain. The Boat was hustling through the water, making up for the high approach speed of the wounded F-4. I stared into where I thought the Phantom would appear at any second. And there it was.

It burst out of the darkness behind the Boat and settled directly into the sweet part of the flight deck, immediately aft of the barricade. The plane twisted to the left as it settled down onto the left wing, there being no landing gear on that side. The Phantom screeched up and into the barricade ramp throwing out the deck plates, pitching them forward and towards us. One flew by inboard and ahead of us, I looked up as it went by, I could plainly see the number painted on the bottom, marking its place in the ramp line. #13. It flew forward hitting the Island, but I was now focused back on the Phantom, it straightened out once it got into the barricade, the nylon webbing snagging the starboard wing and pulling it back to straight. I watched as the barricade wrapped around the jet and was pulled out of the arresting gear. The barricade is designed to be pulled down the flight deck with the aircraft decelerating and holding the aircraft to the flight deck.

The Phantom and the barricade soon passed out of my view, it had passed into the forward part of the landing zone on the other side of the Island structure where from our angle we could not see what was happening. As I knelt there I could hear the screeching sound of metal on metal and we could see the sparks flying up but it lasted too long. Then there was a small explosion sound, a kind of loud popping sound.

The 5-MC boomed louder than ever "Aircraft in the water Port Side": You could hear the emotion from the Air Boss as he bellowed about a crash on deck. We all stood and left our hose and moved to where we could see beyond the Island. There lying in the Landing Zone was the Barricade. It was ripped to streamers flapping in the wind. The Phantom was gone.

Then from above going aft and outboard was a parachute. Hanging from it was a crewman, he hung there limp as the chute drifted out away from the Boat. I watched as it descended down into the ocean just forward of the LSO platform. I saw several men run to the edge and throw their flashlights into the water to mark the spot. I searched the sky looking for the second crewman but saw none. The Boat soon slowed and turned back towards where the lights in the water were, the helo's were soon circling, their flood lights illuminating the froth of the ocean.

We were all called back to the business at hand. A photographer came out and took pictures of the ruined barricade before it was stripped out of the Gear and hauled away. We then did a couple of sweeps for FOD. We had aircraft circling overhead that would have to land and we needed to clean up the flight deck.

We were all dismayed by what happened, the barricade was supposed to save the jet and the lives of the men within. In this case it had done neither.

We would land most of the aircraft, the lone S-3 remained overhead using its FLIR to hunt for the missing. It found none. We would return the ship to the scene after recovery and wallow in the water hoping to find either of the men in that aircraft. A couple of hours later we would retire and proceed on our original course, the S-3 and later the two Helo's would recover aboard. Flying was suspended for the night. And the next day.

We all got to see the playback of the crash on the ships Plat and flight deck camera recordings. The Phantom had indeed ran into the barricade and it seemed to be perfectly caught, pulling it out a good 100 feet down the flight deck. But all the web strapping gave way and snapped releasing the Phantom. It's speed was reduced to a crawl and as the aircraft reached the end of the landing zone the back seater ejected. It was him that we saw in the chute. The forward seat never left the aircraft and the camera playback showed the big F-4 slip into the darkness where the light from the flight deck ended. The front cockpit was still inhabited. There was no bright flash of the rocket motor from the ejection seat for the Pilot indicating that he either did not try to eject or the seat failed. Either way he rode the Phantom into the water.

This was the third time I had helped rig a barricade on this cruise, the other two times it was to grapple the single engine A-7's. In each of those instances we had saved the aircraft and the single pilot aboard. It was an eye opener, the sure think failing. It was heart breaking. Especially because we were only a couple of weeks from the end of the deployment and these would be two of only three men lost on the entire cruise. A record low causality rate back in the day. It was also the last F-4 Cruise for this squadron, they would exchange their F-4's for brand new F-14's. A bitter end for the Starfighters.

BT: Jimmy T sends.


Barco Sin Vela II said...

This sort of mishap seems to always be at night, without a moon.

I hated doing searches for lost crew and not finding them.

Good story.

Buck said...

Well told. The ending is so very sad.

JimmyT said...

Barco, how funny that is, I can count on one had the total number of searches conducted during the day VFR conditions but I could not count on all my appendages the number done in the dark of night, wind, rain and cold.

Buck, thanks it was a real let down for the crew. You work so hard to get them all back and then wham, quirk of fate I guess. Bad deal all around.

BT: Jimmy T sends.

Bag Blog said...

I think you should start a "tail-hook" association for people like me who come by your blog to scan your posts, but get "hooked" and stay to read every line. That was an amazing story, but very sad.

ASM826 said...

Wow, Jimmy. I can feel that one. Sometimes the best you got isn't enough. Losing the bird is bad, losing the crew hurts a long time.

And now the Phantoms sit in boneyards, or ride a pedestal out by the base gate.

Semper Fidelis