Memories of a Plane Captain - and The History of an A-4C Skyhawk
I grew up around airplanes and never tired of watching them and building plastic models of them in my youth. My father spent a career in a combination of the US Army and the Air Force and we were never far from an air base in my growing up years.
My first three years of high school were in Frankfurt, Germany where we lived in the Rhein-Main base housing area. The bike path between our apartment and the base was about a mile long and it passed under the final glide slope of the main runway. Many hours were spent just sitting there admiring the new Boeing 707s (this base was shared with the civilian airport), as well as viewing the variety of military planes that landed. Our family had gone to Germany on a C-121, a Super Constellation, and as impressive as it was, the new jet airliners were even more incredible.
For adventure, Ronnie Armento and I would sneak out to the base flight line in the evenings and climb on board some of the military transports. It was inspiring to sit in the cockpits of a C-47 and imagine taking it into Berlin on an airlift. Base security apparently was lacking at the time.
Not having had much counsel in high school as to the next phase of my life, I was open to the possibilities. Joining the Naval Reserve while still in high school appealed to me for a number of reasons. At that time it was possible to sign up for a 2-year active duty stint and I figured it was a good time to travel and see more of the world; the Navy seemed a good possibility to do that, as well as to mature a little before settling down. I was living in Great Falls, Montana for my senior year when I enlisted with my parents’ consent.
The Reserve provided me with a training cruise to Hawaii out of Seattle on a destroyer; it was enough to convince me that future service on larger ships would be preferable.
The following is largely an assembly of recollections – unfortunately I did not keep a diary but the images and occurrences from that time almost 50 years ago now seem still vivid in my memory.
After two weeks of processing at the Treasure Island Navy facility I was on the bus headed for Lemoore, California. But what was this VA-94 thing, and Lemoore NAS? I had asked for an aircraft carrier; but then everyone knew you never got what was requested. Ask for a submarine and you would get an aircraft carrier. Ask for shore duty and you would get a destroyer.
What a great surprise to learn upon arrival that Lemoore NAS was a modern air base and that VA-94 was a Naval air squadron – a light attack unit flying the A-4C Skyhawk; and occasionally they went on board an aircraft carrier. I thought maybe dreams really do come true.
Upon checking in with the Lead Chief at VA-94 I was told I would be going to Special Services for 3 months. I believe the Chief liked me (maybe because Dad was also a career enlisted man) and thought he was doing me a favor. Compared to the other possible temporary assignments Special Services was prime duty. This group was responsible for the auto hobby shop, the golf driving range, the pool room, and the base movie theatre.
But this assignment just delayed the time that I would be able to work around the planes. The Lead Chief was transferred and another Chief came in who didn’t know me from Adam. So my next assignments included coop cleaning and mess cooking.
Finally I was really a part of the squadron and was assigned to work on the aircraft line. After a brief introduction to the A-4, I became a “Plane Captain” – a fancy moniker for one performing general line maintenance activities.
I believe that VA-94 may have been one of the few squadrons that actually put the plane captain’s name on the side of the airplane, beneath that of the pilot’s. Both names were painted on the side of the fuselage below the squadron emblem – a long orange shrike. I believe it was a good move and it engendered a feeling of ownership and pride. I eventually came to not enjoy the many hours spent keeping the plane clean and corrosion free, but since it was my plane these were necessary chores.
In VA-94 pilots were assigned airplanes in order of their seniority; thus the squadron’s commander Paul Peck was assigned plane number 401. Bureau Number 147735 with squadron number 404 was my airplane. It was assigned to the squadron’s maintenance officer. Initially this was LCDR Tom Dunlop and later LCDR Paul Raysin. Tom was later killed on April 6, 1972 while on a bombing run over North Viet Nam. He was with VA-22 flying an A-7 Corsair from the USS Coral Sea at the time, and was the carrier's air wing commander.
The real job satisfaction associated with being a plane captain came with all those activities associated with getting one’s plane launched for flight – the preflight inspection, interacting with the pilot and assisting him into the plane, the engine start, testing the hydraulic pressures, pulling the safety pins and stowing them in the aft hell-hole, finally checking the lubricating oil level and adding MIL-L7808 as needed, running through the trim tab settings with the pilot, pulling the chocks (or removing the chains as appropriate), and rendering a departing salute to the pilot lucky enough to be flying my plane that day.
Most of the officers in VA-94 were real gentlemen and of a high caliber education wise and good examples morally. With rare exceptions I was always treated with courtesy and respect.
I am still amazed at the number of different places I was privileged to visit, and the variety of jobs experienced in my two year enlistment period - travel to Fallon, Nevada and Yuma, Arizona for the squadron’s gunnery and bombing practice, brief ship deployments on the USS Ticonderoga (an old wooden deck carrier) out of San Diego and the USS Ranger out of Alameda, as well as a 9-month WestPac cruise on the Ranger.
It was at the Yuma Marine air station that I learned one difference between the two services. A sailor was expected to protect a squadron of airplanes with a billy-club while the marine was equipped with a 45 automatic pistol. I’m not sure which one was complemented or impugned by this variation. There were other differences noted in my standing watch that probably could answer that question, but they are too incriminatory to mention here.
It was while at Yuma that I almost caused the loss of my airplane. We had been working twelve on and twelve off and I believe I may have been in need of sleep. For whatever reason I failed to properly secure the cap on the lubricating oil tank after topping it off. This top-off was always done after start-up and was the last item attended to before launch. When conducting bombing practice the ordnance guys would meet the airplane near the runway and do a final arming of the bombs. Fortunately they were on the ball and noticed oil dripping from the plane and were able to tighten the cap before flight. LTJG E.D. White was my plane’s pilot that day and upon returning the only comment he made to me was that I had almost made him walk home that day. I was grateful that that was the last I heard of it.
It was on the short Ranger deployment that I was privileged to watch a U-2 spy plane operate from the deck of a carrier. We were informed over the ship’s PA that we were conducting anti-submarine warfare experiments. Supposedly the U-2 could track a submarine by the difference in temperature created by the sub’s travel up to a couple days after its passage. Of course we were told to keep this a secret. It was later that I learned that we were actually keeping track of the French atomic test in the Pacific at the time. In any case this trip afforded me the opportunity to become initiated as a shellback, but that’s another story in itself.
Another temporary assignment I experienced was standing “wheels watch”. I was loaned to the base fire department for a couple weeks. For two hour shifts I would sit out at the end of the runway and make sure the landing planes had their wheels down. I was provided with a flare gun, an Aldis lamp, and shown the push button to wave the plane off if it was not properly configured. Thankfully all the pilots were on the ball and the planes functioned as designed.
The most surprising assignment I was given was that of nuclear weapons loader – surprising because of the money it must have cost the Navy to obtain the required secret clearance for me and train me when I was only committed to about one year of remaining service. After the psychological interviews to assure my sanity, two weeks were spent learning the five different nuclear weapons in use at the time. I always appreciated the experience for it gave me great assurance and comfort regarding the safety with which such weapons were handled.
One last work assignment I had during my enlistment was that of being the “LOX man”. My last few weeks of service were spent performing this chore. This was easy duty as my only responsibility was to make sure the squadron’s airplanes always had full oxygen bottles. I had a yellow tow- tractor and the lox cart at my disposal. Whenever things appeared to be going downhill workwise for the line group, all I had to do was say the cart needed filling and head over to the O2 filling station pulling my cart with my tow tractor.
The USS Ranger departed from Alameda on August 5, 1964 with an initial stop scheduled in Pearl Harbor. We were anticipating liberty in Honolulu but fate decreed otherwise. The Gulf of Tonkin incidents occurred just prior to the Ranger’s departure, and by the time we reached Hawaii the itinerary was changed to just taking on supplies and heading for the South China Sea.
While in the Pacific the ship’s home port was Subic Bay in the Philippines. Just outside of the base was the town of Olongapo. A short bus ride away was the capital Manila where a group of us traveled on a tour.
What was supposed to be a 6 month cruise lasted 9 months. Much of this time was spent on Yankee Station off the coast of Viet Nam.
Work schedules became very hectic as flight operations depended upon opportunities to interdict the enemy as well as cooperation of the weather. It was not unusual to go two or three days without being able to get to bed. On those occasions we would attempt to nap in the cockpit or stretched out on a wing. The cockpit was pretty uncomfortable for more than one reason. The A-4’s seat is upright and is not very commodious; and the safety lever that deactivates the ejection seat protruded annoyingly into the back of one’s neck.
At some point in the cruise the ship’s desalination equipment began to malfunction. Fresh water was in short supply and hours of its availability were limited. It was discouraging to secure from long operations and find that one could not take a shower. Master at Arms patrolled to make sure no one was using too much water.
Whenever a plane was moved on the ship using the tow tractor it was the plane captain’s responsibility to be in the cockpit and operate the brakes as needed. I recall once being half asleep as my plane was being moved. I looked up and noticed that the plane was rolling freely toward the side. It had come loose from the tractor and the roll of the ship determined where it was headed. Such incidents verified the need for someone to man the brakes when moving. When on land we were expected to refuel and position the planes after flight operations ceased for the day. Here, where roll of the ship was not a concern, we occasionally bent the rule under cover of darkness to expedite closing up shop.
On one of the earliest attack missions over Viet Nam the squadron commander was flying my airplane. I expected that when he returned he would be somewhat upbeat. Instead he was steaming mad –“blankety blank gun wouldn’t fire, blankety blank bomb wouldn’t drop” – he had ended up jettisoning the bomb racks into the sea.
In short order the ordinance guys were going over the plane with a fine-toothed comb. They discovered that a pencil had become jammed in some isolated micro-switch in the cockpit which had prevented all the armament systems from operating. All hands were thereafter alerted by a prominent posting in the squadron ready room to keep tabs on such articles in the cockpit.
I had heard it said that my airplane was the slowest one in the squadron. This seemed to be somewhat confirmed when it was the only plane in the squadron that sustained damage from enemy fire during that cruise. A bullet from below penetrated the aft section of the aircraft and traveled up through the empennage.
While the Ranger accumulated some impressive facts during that cruise, such as 66 days at sea before pulling into Hong Kong for 10 days and then out for another 50 days, (These are my own recollections and may not jibe with official figures), it also experienced major steam system problems that almost resulted in its being towed into port for repairs. There were many stories as to what caused the problems and I never heard the last analysis. A significant fire seemed to be the final blow, forcing departure from Station Yankee. When the fire occurred a (Russian?) ship that usually stayed a ways off the stern attempted to come in close but was prevented by our escorts.
While attempts were continuing to remain on station the ship’s CODs were being used to ferry needed repair parts to the ship and mail delivery was very irregular. It was not unusual to view the unloading of the CODs in hopes that the mail might get through. It was on one of these occasions that I observed two fair sized cardboard barrels being carried off a COD and opened by some stewards. Well insulated and packed in the middle of each barrel was a gallon of ice cream. At the time the Ranger was the flagship for the admiral and reportedly twice a week he needed the ice cream. No mail! I began to be a bit embittered toward the RHIP system.
It was finally necessary to limp into Yokosuka Japan for boiler repairs where we became jestingly known as Pier 61. Japan was an interesting country to visit. We were there at the time of the 1964 summer Olympics and I was able to travel to Tokyo on the train to attend one of the soccer events.
While we were in Yokosuka, Japan there was a change of command ceremony, or some such occasion, and a number of us were put together as a drill team to perform. I believe we were really sharp, incorporating some fancy moves with rifles; it came off without a hitch.
Following the ceremony a few of us were named to remove the platform borrowed from the base and installed on the flight deck. Somehow Riley and I had gotten on the short list of the aviation boson’s mate (Boats) in charge of our line group, and Riley delighted in tormenting him. Upon disassembly of the platform Riley thought it would be great sport to tie a slip knot in the line used to lower the platform from the flight deck to the elevator below at the gangplank level. A slight jerk on the line sent the entire platform tumbling into the water beside the ship and Boats went running for cover sputtering something. I don’t know if the platform was ever recovered.
On another occasion while at sea, Boats decided that Riley and I needed extra work and put us on a plane washing detail. Riley fomented the idea in Boats’ head that we were not to be trusted and needed constant watching. So the plan was that, since I must be observed at all times, I should move to the far side of the airplane while Riley worked standing on the plane’s horizontal stabilizer with a bucket of cleaning solution at his feet. Sure enough, Boats came around the tail to verify that I was still working and Riley happened to kick the bucket at the ideal moment. Boats went running for dry clothes while threatening to put us on three days “bread and butter”. I can only surmise that whoever Boats reported us to did not take it seriously as we heard nothing further.
Routine responsibilities aboard ship were always being interrupted with “work parties” in which one was designated to perform any of a number of tasks. This might involve being part of a human chain taking on supplies at sea from a supply ship to get the goods from the hanger deck to the storage areas below. One learned to anticipate when these were coming up and to find oneself otherwise occupied. One of the more interesting work parties I experienced was transporting supplies on a Chinese junk from a supply ship to the carrier in Hong Kong harbor.
It was a relief to finally head home at the end of the cruise. The airplanes were flown off and back to Lemoore NAS. I was surprised as we neared San Francisco to see some of the heavier supporting gear, such as aircraft ladders, being tossed over the side. I always felt bad about it but understood a little better when we reached the dock at Alameda and we had to unload everything for the move back to the base. Reportedly the ladders cost the Navy about $300 each.
It was good to be back on solid land again. Flight deck operations were exciting but dangerous. It is my understanding that the Navy began paying a hazardous duty premium for such work shortly after our cruise. I saw more than one incident to warrant it during the time I was in that environment.
Some comfort was provided by the safety vests that our parachute workers put together for us. One of the items in the vest was shark repellent. I came to believe in the need for this when we observed how quickly the sharks gathered after one of the ship’s helicopters crashed into the sea near the ship. The Marines were able to have some target practice that day as divers attempted to recover the down bird.
My two years were soon up and I had determined to return to school and pursue a degree in electrical engineering. With the help of the GI bill I was able to fulfill this plan. Also I was able to subsequently obtain a private pilot’s license and get a small sense of the gratification experience by the pilots I had been privileged to work with.
Webmaster's note: Mike documented the entire history of "his bird".