Cold War Era

F-8 pilot tells why while RTBing with his Crusader extremely low on fuel after a mock dogfight, on his last day in the Navy, his Biggest Concern was his CO

My last 90 days on active duty

In my last 90 days on active duty, our skipper, Pete Easterling*, wanted to give the new guys some time at the boat. Since I was a short timer, I didn’t need a carrier qual so the Skipper assigned me to be Officer in Charge of a detachment of six pilots and three F-8 Crusaders to NAS Key West. Three pilots were from my squadron, VF-13, and three from our sister squadron, VF-62. We were given an initial briefing by the base CO, who explained why we were there, what our duties would be, and each of us would be given a temporary Top Secret clearance.

This was in 1967. The Cold War was very real, and our adversary the Soviet Union had friends in Cuba – America’s back yard. So, five days a week the Air Force flew a U-2 from a base up north, maybe Barksdale, to make a photo reconnaissance flight around Cuba. While the flight was within 90 miles of the coast of Cuba, two of us were on 5-minute alert in case MiGs were launched. Our planes were fully loaded with 20mm bullets and two Sidewinders. We had a choice to sit in the hot pad trailer or sit in the plane for over an hour. If the horn went off, we had to be airborne in five minutes. We practiced. It was a no brainer.

F-8 Crusader low on fuel after a mock dogfight

Lieutenant Larry Durbin stands by “his” F-8 crusader in VF-13 in 1967, aboard the USS Shangri-La (CVA-38). 

After standing alert, we were off for rest of the day and all through the weekend and could do anything as long as we stayed relatively close to the base. Several of us brought our wives. One guy checked out some scuba tanks and explained how to use them in the base pool, we checked out a small motorboat and went lobster looking, and the wives fixed barbecued lobster. It was a perfect way to end my short career in the Navy.

On my last day before leaving the Navy – my last day! – I took the duty and asked my longtime friend and flight school buddy, Charlie Glasscock, to join me. When we got the call that the U-2 was safely back in the US, Charlie and I went out for one more “hassle” (simulated dogfight). Neither of us had ever twisted and turned with a full load of ammo and two sidewinders. It was eye opening, our F-8s could hardly handle it. But it was such great fun! We lumbered and rolled for about 45 minutes, using a lot of afterburner because of the extra weight.

Suddenly, and very unexpectedly, out of the corner of my eye, I saw the “Low Fuel” light come on. I had never seen it come on before, but I knew it was trouble. It meant I had roughly 1,000 pounds of fuel left, and in a heavy Crusader, that isn’t very much. We were about 50 miles from the base and flying at about 10,000 feet. I radioed Charlie and turned to RTB [Return To Base] at Key West. I knew the manual said to stay at altitude and make an idle descent to land. I looked at the distance and the fuel flow indicator. I couldn’t do it.

My Biggest Concern was my CO

Beautiful profile artwork of the VF-13 F-8D that bore Durbin’s name in 1967. (Artwork by Mads Bangsø; you can purchase his art at

I eased off on the power and began a slow descent to try to time it like an extended approach to landing. Charlie, good old Charlie, came up close to my plane, took off his mask so I could see his face and laughed himself silly. That’s what friends do. If I ran out of gas, I would have to eject. I’ve practiced that maneuver a lot. I watched a buddy do it when he hit the ramp one afternoon, but I had never actually come close to doing it…until now.

What does a pilot think about during this tense situation? Sharks? Swimming until a helo came to get me? None of those. All I could think of was Skipper Pete Easterling. He was going to be furious if I stupidly lost one of his airplanes. He was a frugal skipper, even made us give up our solid red tails because he figured out how many man hours it took to keep them looking good. I kept thinking, “Pete is going to kill me.”

At this point, I’m keeping my eyes on the altimeter, DME (distance to the field), and fuel gauge. But the fuel gauge presents sort of a problem. The manual says, very clearly, that the fuel gauge is unreliable below 1,000 lbs. I’ve always known that, but it wasn’t important until now, my last flight in the Navy. But I was out of resources and alternatives. I had to keep going and hoping. Charlie stayed close in case I did punch out. He could send for the helo and mark the spot.

Extremely low on fuel or not?

A trio of VF-13 Crusaders, painted with the broad red stripe on the tail that was eliminated by Skipper Easterling as a labor-saving measure.

Soon enough, I saw the field. The fuel read 300 lbs, but was it high or low? I called the tower and very clearly said, “Runway 1 in sight.” It was in sight and straight ahead. The wonderful tower told me Runway 27 was the active runway. They cleared me to circle and land on Runway 27. At any other time, I would not have given it a thought and done as requested. But today was different. I did not want to circle. I did not want to land on Runway 27. I wanted a straight in to 1. I again called the tower, but a little more firmly, “Tower, I say again I have Runway 1 in sight.” He got the picture, thankfully. I was going to land on Runway 1 whether he liked it or not. “Roger, Crusader 1, cleared to land on Runway 1.”

I only had to hold my breath a few more minutes, which I did. I landed normally, turned off the runway, and continued to worry about running out of gas as my gauge read 100. I parked in the Hot Pad slot, greatly relieved and very happy. I went into the Hot Pad trailer to get ready to leave the Navy. I felt like the luckiest guy in Florida at that moment.

A few minutes later the fueler came in. “Mr. Durbin, I’ve been fueling F-8s for a long time. That’s the most gas I have ever used for a refuel.”

* I mention Skipper Easterling by name because he had a distinguished career and retired as a vice admiral (3 stars).

The author’s helmet from his days flying F-8s in VF-13. His callsign “Circus” was based on a comment by an instructor in flight school: “Every time I send you guys out, it’s like sending out a flying circus.”
Larry Durbin

Larry Durbin spent 7 years as a US Navy fighter pilot and then 33 years with United Airlines. He also ran successful real estate businesses. He is retired and lives in Florida, and will share more flying stories with The Aviation Geek Club in the months ahead.

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