Sunday, January 11, 2015

Corpsman Chronicles II: Seven Seconds

What's the difference between a fairy tale and a sea-story? A fairy tale begins, "Once upon a time..." A sea story begins, "This is no shit!"

I try to be careful to change names, but to the best of my recollection the events and locations are substantially correct. Of course I can only describe events from my perspective, so there's that. Readers who were present will doubtless have different recollections of any particular event. This is what it was like to serve in my tiny slice of the U.S. Navy between the late 1970's and early 1990's. It really was an adventure.


This is no shit!

An editorial note: I've updated this post slightly as of January 9, 2021. I've tweaked the writing a bit to make it flow more betterer, as well as to use more standarder words and phrasing and such. I've fixed (I think!) the font trainwreck provided by burgle in their transition to afunctionality across their blogging platform.. I haven't changed anything substantially.

In the previous iteration I noted that I don't have a mission statement in this place because, "Too bureaucratic. Too often written to mislead and deceive. Usually an effort to feel really good about something without doing the hard work and good work which can lead to good feelings." What passes for a mission statement here is in the italicized text at the top of the post. It holds true for the CC series. I'm not sure about the rest of the blog, which is kind of a mess! 😉)


For Nimitz and CVW-8, it had been a very long deployment.

We’d been underway for eight months, having left Norfolk back in September. Four months in to a planned six-month Mediterranean cruise we were ordered to Gonzo (Gulf of Oman Naval Zone of Operations.)

By the time May 3 rolled around we’d been continually at sea for more than 120 days.

We’d been operating hard since early January. The deployment had been long and exhausting and, to some extent, heartbreaking. But the end was in sight. Ike was due to arrive in three days time, and after a two-day turnover, we’d head for home. But Ike wasn’t here yet, and May 3 was just another day at sea.

I was working nights on the roof. One of the day check guys was sick and on bed rest, so the Senior Chief asked me to fill in until he could find a temporary replacement. We both knew this was a fiction. Only four of us (two on days, two on nights) had our roof quals signed off. I was actually being asked to pull a 36 hour shift. It wasn’t as bad as it sounds and I’d done it before. Hell, I was still growing! I could catch a few winks in the Flight Deck Battle Dressing Station (FDBDS) from time to time, and there was a fairly light flight sked in the afternoon, so it wasn't a big deal.

As with most parts of the carrier experience, working on the roof was a paradox. I loved it and I hated it. It was fun and exciting and one of the most unique aviation jobs in the world. It was a terribly dangerous place to work, and that was why corpsmen manned the FDBDS. Four-and-a-half acres sounds like a lot of real estate, but throw 45 tactical jets, turboprops and helicopters up there, start ‘em all up, move ‘em around, shoot some of ‘em off with steam catapults while catching others with tailhooks and arresting gear, and do all this while pulling maintenance, uploading and downloading ordnance, fueling the thirsty aircraft, while the carrier is charging along through the sea at 30-plus knots…

And oh yeah, day and night, fine weather or foul. It can be sporty.

Exciting, busy, intensely interesting, risky, loud, kinetic, fun. Hot, swelteringly hot. Or cold. Bone chillingly cold. Sheer misery. Windy, both from the weather and from the ship’s velocity as she charges through the sea. Jet exhaust that stings your eyes and scorches your nose, producing tears and snot in profusion. Jet blast that can pick you up and fling you across the flight deck like a ragdoll. That's always a bad thing. Not infrequently fatal.

Long, long hours of this stuff. Day after day. Week after week. Month after month. On a long deployment unbroken by port calls, excitement and danger eventually morph into boredom and complacency. Everyone walks a vanishingly thin line between safety and eternity. Not just on the flight deck or in the air, either. Complacency stalks everyone and is no respecter of rank, station or experience.

I got my head down for about four hours before flight quarters sounded. The narrow, thin-padded treatment table in BDS is actually comfortable if you’re tired enough. I woke to one of the sweetest soliloquies I know, the Air Boss giving the “start ‘em up” over the 5-MC announcing system.

“On the flight deck, time to get ready for the first go. Check helmets on and chinstraps fastened, goggles down, sleeves rolled down and flotation vests secure. Check for loose gear about the deck. Stand clear of intakes, exhausts, propeller and rotor arcs. Time to start the go jets, start ‘em up.”

As the huffers began to howl I pulled on my helmet and float coat, did a quick radio check, grabbed my unit one (aid bag), and stepped out onto the roof.

There’s a rhythm to the flight deck. If you’re on your game, completely in tune with the dance, it’s an awesome experience. It’s a bit like being omniscient. Somehow you can sense the totality of activity across the entire deck. It’s a state of acute observation and hyper-vigilance. It’s hard work, but at a core level it’s subconscious and can’t be forced. You’ve either got it or you don’t. When you don’t have it it pays to be exceedingly cautious. On May 3 I didn’t have it, so I positioned myself inboard and forward of the island, aft of El Two, in the area called the Six Pack. From there I had a reasonably good view of all four catapults and could watch for problems.

Nimitz flight deck layout. Click to enlarge.

The launch began and the sound became a living, breathing thing. As jets roared down the catapult tracks the rumble could be felt in every compartment, and as each catapult piston reached the end of it’s stroke it slammed into a water brake with a pounding thud that shook all 90,000 tons of the ship, Kinetic indeed.

Midway through the launch a VF-84 Tomcat taxied onto Cat 3.

Victory 222 in tension and zone 3 afterburner on Cat 3. In the foreground is a final checker about to give a thumbs up. The catapult bubble is in the port catwalk just above the canopy of the F-14.

From my nearby vantage point I had a perfect view and watched as the launch ritual progressed. Flight controls deflected as the pilot exercised stick and rudder pedals. Wings spread, slats and flaps came out, and the hookup man attached the holdback, then the shuttle inched forward into tension. The Shooter signaled for full power, then afterburner. The exhaust nozzles programmed wide open and twin blue flames roared to life, driving back in howling cones of fire and deflecting skyward off the raised jet blast deflector. Final checkers looked hard, then gave thumbs up. The pilot saluted the Shooter, who quickly polled the checkers and made his own final assessment of the jet’s readiness for flight. He turned and lunged forward, outstretched hand touching the deck then pointing down the cat track.

For endless moments the Tomcat roared in zone three burner, straining against the holdback fitting with 40,000 pounds of thrust. In the ICS bubble the cat officer flipped up a switch guard and mashed his thumb down of the firing key. Steam flooded into the catapult and drove the cat pistons forward, breaking the precision machined holdback fitting and dragging the roaring jet down the deck.

Victory 200 in burner launches from cat 3.

A Tomcat launches in burner from cat 3. This is a twilight or "pinky" launch.

About a second into the cat stroke, roughly halfway through the shot, the afterburner on the right engine snuffed out and the nozzle constricted toward the MRT (full “dry” or non-afterburner thrust) setting, then relaxed into trail as the failing engine began to wind down.

A Tomcat launches in dry thrust or MRT. Note constricted engine nozzles. 

At 2.5 seconds the jet left the deck and with both stabilators programmed nose up, pitched steeply into the air.

Under asymmetric thrust with port engine in afterburner and a dead motor on the right side, the nose of the jet pushed to the right while continuing to pitch up.

Along with every other man who was watching, I willed the nose to come down. Off the cat, full of gas, single engine. If the nose didn’t come down the jet would stall and crash.

An F-14 launches in burner from cat 3. The jet is slightly over-rotated.

At six seconds the stabilators fluttered, the yaw increased, and the jet began a slow roll to the right. As it passed through 90 degrees the canopy came off as the ejection sequence was initiated. Four tenths of a second later, with the bank angle at 150 degrees, the RIO’s seat fired. The jet continued to roll and the pilot’s seat fired after another four-tenths of a second. Both seats slammed into the water ahead of the ship as the dying Tomcat crossed the bow from left to right.

At 11.5 seconds the Tomcat plunged into the North Arabian Sea about 300 yards ahead of the ship and 300 yards to starboard.

Seven seconds from living the dream to finis.

What's the lesson here, the profound conclusion?

I'm not sure.

A couple of thoughts. Lieutenant Jack Watson was 27, Ensign John Graham 24. They did not grow old. The ship lost nine men on that deployment. Commander Dave Formo and Lieutenant Commander Nick Delello of VF-41. Lieutenants Junior Grade Mark Gontkovic and Tony Bilotti of VA-35. Lieutenant Bobby Dark of VAQ-134. AZ2 Kevin Tucker of VA-82 and MS3 William Saxton of S-2 division.

Formo was the Commanding Officer of VF-41. He was replaced by Commander Art Cebrowski, who later became CAG. Admiral Cebrowski died in 2005. My Skipper, CDR Ed "Hunyak" Andrews, died a few months ago. My fellow flight deck corpsman Frank VanNoske died two years ago. Sooner or later, it comes to all of us.

Which is probably reason enough to make the most of what we've got. I was pretty sure at one point that I'd never see 40. I had some very close calls. But I haven't yet lived those final seven seconds.

And that's about it. Ah, the 80's.


Be well and embrace the blessings of liberty.


  1. I can see why that would stay in your memories.

    Thanks for putting us there on the flight deck with your words.

    I put a link to this on Facebook, more people need to read your stuff!

  2. I was a bit before your time and airdale, but the recollections are very similar.

  3. Sarge -- Thanks for the link! That wayback machine can give an intense ride at times...

    Tom -- Thanks for chiming in. So many remarkable lives and experiences cycle across the roof. The continuity is astonishing.

  4. Great stuff here PA! Love your writing, made me feel like I was there. We lost 4 on Indy, none on Vinson or Nimitz though so we've got that going for us. Nice of you to remember their names.

  5. Thanks Tuna, that means a lot. We lost a lot of guys bitd. The threat, missions and op tempo were challenging to say the least. When we started getting real money for a safety push around '84 the losses went way down and stayed down. I suspect it would get real ugly real fast if we tried to operate cold war style today.

  6. Great story, thank you. Was onboard USS Okinawa same time frame Gonzo Station, ~50 days consecutive U/W, tho. Yep, I'd pay you for a guided tour of your ranch.

  7. What powerful writing.

    I think those 7 seconds are going to stay with you.

    What struck me is in the space of a second/2 the launch went from "routine" to - in this sad case, death.

    I guess they never recovered the pilot and RIO.

    I never realized (a) how dangerous Naval aviation was and (B) how little sleep everyone gets - from the Captain on down.

    My hat's off to all those guys doing this.

    36 hours on a flight deck where a little fatigue and a few yards off will kill you.

  8. Jim -- Thanks and thanks for your service. Gonzo Station, what more can you say? Stop by some time. Mention you're a reader and I'll give you a discount. (Man, I hope I'm not turning into a professional marketeer...)

    Bill -- Thanks for the kind words. You are correct, the pilot and RIO remain lost at sea.

  9. This was a great vivid description of the circumstances and the outcome. Thanks for sharing it with me.

    Came here from The OldAFSarge, by the way.

  10. Sad story, and even worse knowing there wasn't a damn thing you could do. Those do stay with you forever. So do all the what ifs...

  11. Life is forever. Death is just seconds away. Debbie Harry was music for the soul in 1980 and many years later when I saw her and Jazz Passenger in San Francisco.

    Memory is powerful. Nobody remembers truly that which was banished...but the echo lingers.

  12. For a few reasons (perhaps to be mentioned some other time) flying a tomcat from a flattop was the one childhood dream i ever had. Nearsightedness redirected me in a different direction while still in high school. For the rest of my life, i have always thought longingly of such possibilities that were not meant to be for me. It is a bit of a shock to consider the alternate possibility that such a life often ended in such a way. and here i sit, reading the many words, and typing a few of my own. After some internal debate, i decide to post the "IKE Shooter" Gangnam style u-toob (but you might have seen it already? At least aviation safety always attempts to improve on its past mistakes...

    1. Yep, I've seen the video. Too many bugs -- lol!

      The mortality thing comes to all of us sooner or later. Plenty of people die young without doing anything particularly dangerous. Dreaming and striving are important, but so are suiting up and working hard regardless of what the work is, always remembering that your occupation is only part of the work you do, and seldom the important part. How's that for non-requested philosophy?

      I knew all about the risks associated with the naviating thing and I came very close to getting smoked a few times but I never worried about it, never actually believed it could happen to me. I still don't, not really. I can't imagine a world that doesn't have me in it.

      Thanks cT.