The crash occurred because of confusion on the flight deck and slipped communications all along
the line. Most will remember that 1960's was the time of the missile build-up in Cuba. WASP
and our Air Group played on the first team in the game against the Russian ships. That night in
May we set up an exercise to show our intelligence people that we could operate in the dark and
in bad weather. We were to practice CCAs; carrier controlled approaches by radar. Our plane,
#00**, was first' up and we were told to make an approach and wave off 14 mile astern. Don was in
the left seat to gain CCA practice. We launched at dusk.
**Fate at work. #00 is the Air Group Commander's plane. He should have been flying but he was called to observe these exercises. I was Scheduling Officer and couldn't get anyone else to take the flight on such short notice, so I took it. That put us first in the pattens to land.
Later, on deck, the helicopter launch takes place but one helo goes down and returns. The replacement stand-by helo fires up. Don and I begin our CCA approach. In another part of Air Operations, the pressure builds to get the stand-by helo airborne. Questions fly about the status of the deck. 'Green deck for helos' shot back in response several times, eventually gets shortened to simply 'green deck.'
The controller handling our approach overhears 'green deck' and relays to us the news every young pilot wants to hear; "You have a green deck, cleared for touch and go." I slap Don on the shoulder. "You take the touch and go, I'll take the final." It's now after 2000 and dark. Don grins and settles in to chalk up a night landing. Life is good.
Most shipmates know the deck is not lighted at night except for the small row of dustpan lights down the centerline. The pilots' attention is on the parabolic landing mirror that displays the plane's position on the glide slope, a sort of visual Landing Signal Officer. Don is holding glide path and the S2F approaches the fantail. No LSOs are on duty, but a young sailor at the LSO station sees what's about to happen. He takes the initiative and hits the wave-off button. Don and I are startled and both throw full power to the big engines.
But we're already on the deck and already plowing and grinding a path through all the recovered helicopters. We start to flip forward, but just about amidships we hit the tractor towing the TF- COD plane. The grinding stops. It's dark and it's very quiet. I smell fuel and then taste it. lean hear the wind and Don making small motions. "You OK?" I ask. "Yeah," he says, "but I think we're on fire. My legs are burning." I tell him I don't think so, because I can begin to make out outlines and I don't see any flickering. We talk some more and it occurs to me that while we are having this conversation no one has come near the plane. I reach to take off my helmet, fail, and tell Don that I know my left arm is broken. I reach around with my right arm, loosen the clasp, pull off the helmet and lob it out onto the deck. I hear it 'whock whock whock' on the wooden deck and then a voice. "Jesus! There's somebody alive in there!" A very big sailor produces a very big knife and begins to cut me out.
I can only repeat what I was told about the events that happened next. The crew quickly recognized the threat from the nearly full load of ruptured aviation fuel that was by now streaming in the deck gutters and down the side of the ship. All that training paid off as hoses unraveled, hatches locked shut and the crew went to work to restore the ship for its mission. I'm sure many shipmates have stories about what they did in the next two hours. With one spark, the Wasp would have gone up, engulfed in flames.
I was taken below and attended to. My skipper came down to see me. He told me that a call had gone out for blood donors and that the line of volunteers snaked all around the hangar deck. A decision was made that I had to be flown ashore for treatment. The wreckage and fuel was going to make any launch tough, and this would have to be a night deck launch off the short leg of the angle. My squadron mate Jesse Markham volunteered to fly. The TF COD was down so work was needed to tear out a back seat in an S2F to make room for the stretcher. I was told that a large contingent of the crew lined up in a barrage of fire hoses and played water across the deck so that risk of fire would be minimized.
We launched. Our Flight Surgeon, Dr. Sullivan had the great job of kneeling over me during the flight and making sure the transfusions kept flowing. May thunderstorms formed and the bumpy ride made his job even harder. We landed at Norfolk and a waiting ambulance drove me to the Portsmouth Hospital. The hospital was brand new and the driver had a problem finding the entrance. I teased him about it to put him at ease. I was rolled down a naked hallway, passed under a big white light and went unconscious for three weeks.
I may have spellings wrong, but the Wasp's CO was Captain Konstantine Karabaris, Commander Joe Cady led the Air Group, and Commander Josh Sherman commanded squadron VS 31.
I have lots of funny stories about my hospital stay, and insufficient words to describe how special was my treatment at Portsmouth and then Philadelphia, but that's another tale.
When I recall the whole incident, I really don't remember any pain or regret or sadness. What I always feel is humble and that a whole ship and air group of the U.S. Navy went to so much trouble and took such risks just for me. It would have been a lot safer for everyone to decide against launching a plane from a fuel-soaked angled deck, but that's not how the Wasp chose to play it.
I'll be forever thankful.
Created on ... January 05, 2009