Friday, February 28, 2020

Corpsman Chronicles XXXI Bug, Atlas, Sluggo

A couple of days ago in the comments over at Sarge's place there was a link to a very interesting video. I've watched that video many, many times. There are a couple of postscripts to event depicted in that video which are probably as unknown as the long-ago American drama itself.

Bug and Atlas, the two main "heroes" of the video, are dead. Sluggo, who wasn't present and is not part of the video, is also dead. Bug died in 1991 in an A-4 ejection gone wrong. Atlas and Sluggo died in 1994 when their A-6 crashed in San Francisco Bay while flying out of NAS Alameda.

I think we all agree that when people die before their time it's tragic. It often feels particularly tragic when servicemen are killed while doing their military job of supporting and defending the Constitution of the United States.

The tragedy is real. Bug, Atlas, and Sluggo died young. Parents lost sons, wives lost husbands, children lost fathers. Each of us human beings lost something whether we realized it or not. The tragedy of the thing is deeply painful.

It's easy to let the grief of tragedy have the last word, but I personally think that's an unfortunate thing when it happens. These three men left us too soon, but their lives were anything but tragic. They lived full, round, good lives -- compressed though they were -- and those lives shouldn't be defined by the tragic circumstance of their passing.

When I was a youngster I watched the movie Brian's Song, and for some reason the voice-over at the end of the movie has always stayed with me.

"Brian Piccolo died of cancer at the age of 26. He left a wife and three daughters. He also left a great many loving friends who miss him and think of him often. But when they think of him, it's not how he died that they remember, but rather how he lived. How he did live."

Bug, Atlas, and Sluggo touched a great many individuals and demonstrably improved human civilization. None of those those three Americans are defined solely by the tragedy of their untimely passing. They did live.

I believe it's important for Americans to face up to tragedy and mourn the loss of those who fell in defense of the Constitution. I believe it's every bit as important to not let tragedy have the last word.

It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us -- that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion -- that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain -- that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom -- and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

I believe that -- as hard as it may be -- the proper American thing to do when faced with the sacrifice of our fellows is to redirect our grief toward rededicating our own lives to the great task remaining before us. That task did not end in 1865, and it will never end so long as human beings draw breath.

It is also well to remember that the fallen did not only fall. They did live.

I'm not saying any of this well, but perhaps you get a sense of what I'm trying to say. The drama of the video actually tells it properly, or at least points us in the right direction. I think the video is a national treasure. 


A long time ago in a Navy far, far, away....

I worked on the flight decks of several carriers. I flew from carriers as well, mostly in helos, but I also had the opportunity to bag quite a few hops in the right seat of the A-6E Intruder, including day and night cats and traps.

Just for fun, this is what an A-6 night trap looks like and what the coms sound like. The video is surprisingly well done considering the constraints of commonly available camera/recording technology of the time.

So I've come aboard at night in the Intruder, and I've worked the flight deck at night. I've watched an A-7 night barricade go well and an A-3 night barricade go terribly wrong. An obvious question at this point might be, "so where are you going with this?"

To steal a phrase from C.W. McCall, "Beats the heck out of me, Roy."

My memory and experience make it possible for me to very nearly be there as the drama unfolds. It would really be cool if I could directly share what I see and feel with you all as I watch the video. But of course I can't. Perhaps this effort will suffice.


A little bit of (possibly unnecessary) stage setting...

If you watched the videos and chased the links in Sarge's recent naval aviation posts, you have a good idea how all this landing on the boat stuff works. It's quite a neat trick. The pilot has to land the jet on a particular spot at a particular speed and on a particular glideslope. When done correctly the aircraft's tail hook catches one of four cables stretched across the deck in the LA or Landing Area.
An A-6E TRAM Intruder from the Green Knights of VMA(AW)-121 an instant before touching down on USS Ranger (CV-61) during the 1987 Ship/Airwing WESTPAC/IO Deployment. Note the speed brakes deployed and tail hook poised to catch a wire. Same squadron, same ship, and same deployment as the video below.

In general the third cable or "wire" is targeted. The wires are numbered aft to forward; "one wire," "two wire," "three wire," "four wire." During clear daylight weather much of the approach and landing can be flown visually with instruments and landing aids used mostly as backup to verify that the "look" and "feel" of the evolution is correct.

At night it's different. We'll leave aside the complex dance required to place the aircraft at three-quarters of a mile, on centerline, at the proper altitude and airspeed, and on the proper glideslope. You can get most of that by chasing the links in Sarge's post.

At three-quarters of a mile, if the pilot can see the ship's landing lights, he transitions from using his aircraft instruments alone to using two ship-based landing aids -- the meatball and centerline/drop off lights -- plus the AOA (Angle of Attack) indexer mounted on the glare shield just behind the wind screen. The meatball visually shows where the jet is with regard to proper glideslope. When the ball is centered between the datum lights the jet is on glideslope. A ball above the datum lights means the jet is above the glideslope, and a low ball means the opposite. The centerline lights show the centerline of the LA. Combined with the drop off lights, which extend the centerline lights vertically down the back of the ship, they provide a three-dimensional representation of the otherwise completely invisible landing area, as well as a visual cue as to where the jet is in regards to the center of the landing area. While peering through the windscreen to see the meatball and centerline/drop off lights, the pilot also gets an angle of attack cue from the AOA indexer.

Interestingly, during this final phase of landing aboard, airspeed is controlled by the stick and referenced by the AOA indexer while glideslope is controlled with the throttles. The whole process is worth reading up on and there are much better places to get that info, so I won't try do do it poorly here.

During each arrested landing there is always a Landing Signal Officer (LSO) team on a platform near the landing area. LSO's are rated naval aviators trained to provide assistance to pilots as they land aboard. They also grade landings in the never ending process of mastering the skill. During the day when landing operations are "routine," LSO's only infrequently make calls. At night or in bad weather they provide vital information during each landing. In some cases such as the barricade landing we're looking at today they "talk the pilot down."

When done properly,  following "Meatball, lineup, angle of attack" and any corrections transmitted by the LSO will allow the pilot to plant the jet in the proper place to catch the targeted wire with the landing hook and successfully trap aboard.

As for the four wires, which are technically called cross-deck pendents, each is connected to a pair of purchase cables which are in turn connected to the arresting gear engines. These clever devices are individually set to provide resistance depending on the landing weight of the aircraft. When engaged by the tail hook of a landing aircraft the purchase cables pay out against their set resistance and generally bring each aircraft to a halt with similar force and roll out distance.

The challenges of landing aboard at night were considerably different 33 years ago than they are today. While the A-6E TRAM Intruder was incredibly sophisticated for the day, neither it nor the carrier had even a whiff of the technological "landing aboard" assistance that today's carrier aviators employ. The Intruder didn't even have a HUD.

Bringing an Intruder aboard on a clear night with a full moon and a steady deck is challenge enough. But what if you've got a broken landing gear, there's no suitable place to make an emergency landing ashore, and the ship is heaving through swells big enough that all the other jets have to divert?

So now we arrive at the meat of the story. According to a witness comment appended to the video, Ranger was operating in high seas approximately 500 nautical miles from Midway Island, the closest divert location. On Atlas and Tank's first pass the deck excursions were so bad that their initial landing attempt resulted in a touchdown hard enough to break the starboard mainmount. They boltered and were able to keep flying. The rest of the airborne aircraft were diverted to Midway but the decision was made to take Atlas and Tank aboard in the barricade.

The barricade is a long, narrow net which is stretched across the landing area forward of the four-wire and raised vertically by a pair of stanchions. Just like the four cross-deck pendents, the barricade is hooked up to an arresting gear engine via purchase cables. The idea of the barricade is to securely catch the aircraft in an enveloping mesh of heavy straps and bring it safely to a halt on deck.

You might wonder, as I did, if all the other aircraft were heading ashore, why not send the crippled Intruder ashore as well? I believe (but don't know) the most likely reason was a lack of robust C&R (crash and rescue) facilities at Midway. In 1987 I believe the navy presence on the island had gone and the airfield was generally off limits to most traffic and therefore not equipped or manned to deal with emergencies. Midway probably had a runway, fuel, and little else. What about ejection? That was certainly an option, just like trying to land at Midway was an option. On a pitch black night in high seas and 500 miles from the nearest land, the chances of successful rescue from the maw of the ocean beast was a very flimsy reed.

In this situation Atlas and Tank were fortunate to have LCDR John "Bug" Roach on the LSO platform and "waving" the barricade attempt.

At the end of the day a barricade approach is flown the same way as any other arrestment. Things look a little different. There is far less room for error. It's considerably more risky than a regular arrested landing. Everyone knows it, most especially the crew of the aircraft taking the net. It's one of the places where the LSO actually has the ability to speak success or disaster into being.

Now that the stage is set, however incompletely, I invite you to watch the video many times, to watch and listen and think and marvel. The main characters in this drama are not supermen. They are men just like you and I. They have an immediate supporting cast of roughly 5,300 fellow men. They are directly backed by something like 210 million Americans.

There's no doubt that I've shared this tale poorly and incompletely. It seems to me that the most important takeaway message of this story is that while Atlas and Sluggo and Bug are gone, and while their passing has diminished each of us, their lives are not defined by the tragedy of their demise. All of our lives end, as the Bard put it, gravely. We are what we do, rather than the fact that we die. What we do serves a larger purpose than the mere fact of our existence.

Bug said it best at The Hook in 1990.

Bug's Prayer:

Lord, we are the nation! We celebrate our birthday on July 4th, 1776, with the Declaration of Independence as our birth certificate. The bloodlines of the world run in our veins because we offer freedom and liberty to all whom are oppressed. We are many things and many people. We are the nation.

We sprawl from the Atlantic to the Pacific, to Alaska and Hawaii. Three million square miles throbbing with industry and with life. We are the forest, field, mountain and desert. We are the wheat fields of Kansas, the granite hills of Vermont, and the snow capped peaks of the Sierra Nevada. We are the Brooklyn Bridge, grain elevators in Nebraska and the Golden Gate. We are the nation.

We are 213 million living souls, and yet we are the ghosts of millions who have lived and died for us. We are Nathan Hale and Paul Revere. We are Washington, Jefferson and Patrick Henry. We are Lee, Grant, Abe Lincoln and George Bush. We are the famous and the unknown. We are presidents. We are paupers. We are the nation.

We stood at Lexington and fired the shot heard around the world. We remember the Alamo, the Maine, Pearl Harbor, Inchon and the Persian Gulf. When freedom calls, we answer. We left our heroic dead at Belleau Wood, on the rock of Corregidor, on the bleak slopes of Korea, in the steaming jungles of Vietnam and under the rubble of Beirut. We are the nation.

We are schools and colleges, churches and synagogues. We are a ballot dropped in a box, the harmonious voice of a choir in a cathedral, the crack of a bat and the roar of a crowd in a stadium. We are craftsmen, teachers, businessmen, and judges. We are laborers and nurses. We are parents and we are children. We are soldiers, sailors and airmen. We are peaceful villages, small towns and cities that never sleep. Yes, we are the nation, and these are the things that we are.

We were conceived in freedom, and dear God, if you are willing, in freedom we will spend the rest of our days. May we always be thankful for the blessings you have bestowed upon us. May we be humble to the less fortunate and assist those in need. May we never forget the continuing cost of freedom. May we always remember that if we are to remain the land of the free, we must continue always to be the home of the brave. May our wishbone never be found where our backbone should be. May we possess always, the integrity, the courage and the strength to keep ourselves unshackled, to remain always a citadel of freedom and a beacon of hope to the world.

We are the nation. And this is our wish...this is our hope and this is our prayer.

Be well and embrace the blessings of liberty.


  1. WOW! Now I'm going to watch the videos.


  2. An even bigger WOW after watching.

    Several things came to mind while watching the videos: 1) Is the mantra in Naval Aviation, as in Field Artillery, " zero is a number, ' O ' is a letter "? 2) What are the duties of the right seater in the A-6? and 3) Was the a/c a write off or repairable?

    Thank you for making these fine Americans known to me. I am proud to be a countryman to such fine people.

    Thanks for the post.
    Paul L. Quandt

    1. 1) Yes. Except for the exceptions.

      2) Without writing a book, the right seater was a Bombardier/Navigator and did that stuff. The B/N was a co-equal member of the crew and backed the pilot up during most of the challenging flight regimes despite having no flight controls.

      3) They didn't call it the Grumman Iron Works for nothing!

      Thanks for stopping by and commenting!

  3. Paul, the aircraft was craned off but it was rebuilt and flew again. Carrier aviation is the most dangerous job in the world. Period. Hats off to them.

  4. Must be something in the air this week. This comment will make more sense when you read tomorrow's post at my place.

    Nice job of explaining things to us lubbers. I've had some of this from the kids, they've been there, done that. Aviation can be dangerous, intolerant of mistakes is another way I've heard it put. Now try doing it from the deck of a ship.

    Great post Shaun.

    1. Thanks Sarge, I'll look forward to your post!

      Ape-lizards are pretty amazing.

      Thanks for stopping by and commenting!

  5. I came across a sentence in a book I am reading that I thought apropos to your post.

    " The past is not dead so long as there was someone who remembered it. "


    1. I've heard and read that many times. It's an interesting philosophical question, isn't it?