‘A second or two later there is a big, wonderful thump and pull as I catch a wire. I’m the happiest, most grateful guy on the ship. After a dangerous situation, I’m back safe and sound and I owe it all to my boss,’ Larry Durbin US Navy F-8 Crusader pilot.
Flying off an aircraft carrier during the day is kind of fun, even if it’s windy and bouncy. You can see, and that helps a lot. At night everything is different: everything slows down; everyone has to be more careful. In July 1965 my F-8 Crusader squadron VF-13 was about halfway through an eight-month deployment to the Mediterranean Sea aboard the USS Shangri-La (CVA-38), and I was scheduled for a night hop with my boss, Dick Schaffert. Dick was a pilot’s pilot. I first met him when he was one of my air-to-air gunnery instructors in the F-11 Tiger, the last phase prior to graduation and receiving my wings. He would later earn three Distinguished Flying Crosses in Vietnam. [Editor’s note: Schaffert gained legendary status when he alone faced six MiGs in a dogfight over Vietnam, as detailed HERE]
We met in the ready room an hour before launch. Before every flight off the ship or off the beach the format was the same: an hour before launch, the flight leader briefs the flight. After a while, the briefs are pretty brief, but not so with Dick. As he learned in flight school, he went over every detail of the upcoming flight. It’s repetitious and boring, but he’s the flight leader and my boss. One thing he covered, that hardly anyone else did, was lost communication (lost comm or NORDO for “no radio”). At our base in Jacksonville, Florida, losing a radio wasn’t a big deal. But off the ship, at night, in the middle of the Mediterranean, it was a big deal — but it “never happened.” Or almost never happened. Dick briefed where to meet, and what altitude. I wrote it down on my kneepad even though I knew I would never need it. He finished and we headed for the flight deck.
A few minutes later the “come ahead” guy on the deck was giving me hand signals as he led me up to and over the shuttle (the visible part of the steam catapult that connected to the underside of the plane for launch), where others hooked my jet to the cat. The “shooter” signaled for me to run up the engine and go into afterburner. I did and quickly scanned my instruments. They probably all looked okay, at least I didn’t see a red fire light. I turned my lights off and then on (meaning I was ready to go), put my right hand in front of my stomach to catch the stick as it came back, and waited for the big kick. A second or two later my plane and I were thrown down the catapult track with a big sendoff (zero to 200 mph in 160 feet). A couple of seconds later I was accelerating and glad everything worked. As soon as my brain was working again, I called the ship for instructions. Nothing. I called again. Nothing again. My radio was not working well. In fact, not at all.
Crap and double crap. At least I wouldn’t have to be following orders for a while. Dick’s brief said to proceed to a point 30 miles ahead of the ship, climb to 20,000 feet and orbit at 250 knots (287 mph), so that’s what I did.
As I climbed, I realized my world was very quiet. It seemed like an hour, but it was probably about ten minutes until I saw the lights of a plane heading towards me. It had to be Dick and it was. Now I had to get back to the ship and land at a certain time. I didn’t know what time or where to go for the approach.
Dick came up and joined on me. He flashed his lights; I flashed mine. That means he has the lead. He turned off his rotating beacon (anti-collision light) so I could see. It was his brightest light, and my beacon would do the job for our formation. I joined on him and flew very close. Why? If I was close, I knew where he was and how far away I should stay. If I was out a little then it was too much guesswork. I stayed very close. Flying close formation, day or night, was easy and natural, but it was a certain amount of work. We did that for a while.
Non-aviators may not be familiar with the tricks your inner ear can play with your senses. After a few minutes, you’re not sure if you are in a turn or straight and level. It’s true, that really happens. I basically cannot look at my instruments as I’m totally concentrating on my position in relation to Dick’s plane. My inner ear is telling me we are in a turn for several minutes. I’m wondering why Dick would do that to me. I’m getting tired of being in a turn. I sneak a quick look at my instruments; we are straight and level. I feel better.
We head for our approach point and I’m still hanging on with no other option. At the appointed time we start a descent. Now it’s going to get complicated. All this time I’m working very hard to stay close and as a result, I’m getting tired. I’ve been airborne about an hour and concentrating the entire time. We stop our descent. I know that means we’re getting close to the ship. Outside it’s still very dark and it’s still very quiet. Dick starts to slow and of course, so do I. A short time later he blinks his lights; I drop my landing gear and tailhook.
The next item before landing is the wing, (the F-8 was unique as it must have its wing raised for landing), which I do the next time Dick blinks his lights. Another pause and he flashes his lights twice. I look ahead and see the ship. I flash my lights and he moves off to the left. I’m now only interested in the ship. At night we’re required to use the auto-throttle, so I turn it on. That means I only have to move the stick and the computer moves the throttle for me. There are some “gotchas” with the auto-throttle, but it helps and it’s a rule. Dick moves out to parallel my path as I descend to the ship. If I got a wave-off or bolter (miss all four wires), I would look to my left, join on him again, and he would bring me around for another pass. But I am totally absorbed in making a perfect pass and getting a wire. I do not want to have to make another try.
Normally I could rely on the LSO, landing signal officer, to correct any of my deviations as I approach the ship. But with no radio, that’s not going to happen. I concentrate very hard on the “meatball” (an optical device that gives pilots correct glideslope information) and lineup to the centerline. The ship is going about 25 knots (29 mph) and the landing area is angled to the left eight degrees. It’s not uncommon to constantly adjust the nose of the plane to keep the deck straight ahead. I approach the ramp of the ship and the meatball is perfect. I leave it right there. A second or two later there is a big, wonderful thump and pull as I catch a wire. I see Dick fly by the ship and start a turn back to make another approach. I’m the happiest, most grateful guy on the ship. After a dangerous situation, I’m back safe and sound and I owe it all to my boss. Thanks to his thorough briefing it was a fun night.