Losses and Aviation Safety

The story of the US Navy A-4 pilot that landed with 4 gallons of fuel left without declaring an emergency after falling asleep during a cross-country flight and being awakened by ATC

‘This one pilot had made the Yuma run in a TA-4J on Friday, and was returning to Jacksonville on Sunday. Due to the time zone shift it’s likely that he was tired,’ David Tussey, former US Navy A-7E Corsair II pilot.

More than half of airline and commercial pilots have fallen asleep while in charge of a plane, a 2013 survey by a pilots’ union suggested.

Of the 56% who admitted sleeping, 29% told Balpa (British Airline Pilots Association) that they had woken up to find the other pilot asleep as well.

What about military pilots?

What happens if a fighter jet pilot fell asleep while flying?

‘Here’s a sea story, or as they say “this is a no-shitter”,’ David Tussey, former US Navy A-7E Corsair II pilot says on Quora.

‘I had just arrived at NAS Cecil Field in 1974 to begin training in the A-7E. There was also an A-4 squadron stationed there, VA-45.

‘One weekend, an A-4 pilot (who’s name I can’t definitively recall) was scheduled to make a “parts run” to MCAS Yuma where the A-7 RAG squadron had a detachment. Ready-to-replace parts were often loaded in an external store and ferried out to the Yuma detachment over the weekend, returning with a load of the replacement items. Fun stuff and good cross-country flying.

‘When you returned from MCAS Yuma to NAS Cecil Field in Jacksonville, FL, you almost always arrived at night due to the three zone time difference. Often quite late at night depending on when you depart the west. It’s nearly a full “across the US flight” from Arizona to Florida.

‘This one pilot had made the Yuma run in a TA-4J on Friday, and was returning to Jacksonville on Sunday. There’s no evidence he was intoxicated, in fact he was pretty straight laced, but due to the time zone shift it’s likely that he was at least tired.

‘The flight from Yuma to Jacksonville in a TA-4J requires two legs, with a refueling stop mid-way at say Tinker AFB in Oklahoma City, or a similarly military base located in the mid-west.

This print is available in multiple sizes from AircraftProfilePrints.com – CLICK HERE TO GET YOURS. A-4F Skyhawk VA-212 Rampant Riders, NP306 / 155019 / 1970

‘On the second leg of the flight that Sunday evening, with the autopilot flying the airplane due east and night falling, the pilot apparently fell asleep. ATC could not raise radio contact and started treating the aircraft as a lost radio incident as the aircraft crossed Louisiana and into norther Florida.

‘However, as the aircraft approached Jacksonville, it did NOT descent to land (weather was VFR). Instead the aircraft continued to fly straight-and-level right over Jacksonville and out over the Atlantic Ocean.

‘Well, now ATC is in a panic — has the pilot become incapacitated? What’s gone wrong here?

‘FINALLY, about 50 miles out over the Atlantic, ATC awakened the pilot, who finally woke up, and astonishingly acted like nothing had happened!! He turned the airplane around, and despite being way, way too low on fuel DID NOT declare an emergency!

‘He overflew two military airports on his way back to NAS Cecil, …and low and behold finally made it back to NAS Cecil Field, landed safely, taxied into the flight line. Shut down the aircraft. Filled out the paper work and went home…just another day at the office.

‘From when the pilot awakened until he landed at NAS Cecil Field was well over 150 miles all with the low fuel light illuminated, and well over 30 minutes.

‘Scared the living bejeezus out of everyone.

‘When the details of this emerged, as you can imagine the Squadron CO, Jax Approach, CO of NAS Cecil Field, were absolutely livid. The Squadron CO even went so far to dip the fuel tank (used a stick to measure fuel remaining) and found there was 4 gallons left. FOUR GALLONS! What really fried the CO’s ass was that this pilot never declared an emergency despite the extreme low fuel state, and overflew two perfectly good military divert bases instead of landing immediately.

‘Not sure what happened after that. There was no damage done, to Navy property, just some very poor judgement and headwork, followed by a major, major ass chewing.

‘But man, that was quite the story around Naval Aviation and particularly at NAS Cecil Field, always ending with a “he did what?”.’

Photo credit: U.S. Navy

This model is available from AirModels – CLICK HERE TO GET YOURS.
Dario Leone

Dario Leone is an aviation, defense and military writer. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviation Geek Club” one of the world’s most read military aviation blogs. His writing has appeared in The National Interest and other news media. He has reported from Europe and flown Super Puma and Cougar helicopters with the Swiss Air Force.

View Comments

  • I’m guessing you mean squadron VA-46 rather than VA-45 (which was decommissioned in 1950). My dad was an A-4 pilot in that squadron in early 1960s. At one point, he painted the tartan from the squadron’s insignia on a Taylorcraft (tandem seat taildragger). I’m sure my help was pivotal to a successful paint job as I was 6 years old!

  • I have almost 2000 hours flying the Skyhawks, most of it in the single seat versions but quite a bit in the TA-4Js & the F models. Now I flew them in the 1980s & 1990s and only ONCE did I have an autopilot that passed the ground checks and worked in flight and then for about 5 minutes before doing a hard roll scaring the crap out of me! If this story is from the late 1960s or early 1970s it might very well be true, other wise I'm calling it a BS story. Maintenance just didnt have the man hours to keep the system up. I know because I was an A-4 maintenence officer for 4 years. Just saying. Best damn plane I ever flew. A-4s forever!

  • I’m interested in know which two military airports he overflew on his way back to NAS Cecil Field since he was out over the Atlantic. Mayport and NAS Jax? They would be what, a few minutes by air to Cecil Field?

  • We had a serious “pucker factor” event in 1973 at USAF pilot training while doing a triple divert due to thunderstorms.
    As T-38 and icing DONT MIX we divert from Craig AFB to Maxwell and then to BHM.
    Landed w less than 50# on the gauges.
    Actually pierced 50K service ceiling with that amazing machine between Maxwell and BHM. To get over the storm.
    Gotta love the south. You guys at Willie probably never saw a cloud in 12 months.
    What a day!

  • Wait,,,, used a “stick” to measure the fuel left? Isn’t it refueled by single point? If true, then, the commander would have had to open all fuel cells, then “convert” the measurement .

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