I flew RF-8's on the 1969 and 1970 Bonnie Dick cruises, and was in the same
ready room as your father on both cruises. I was also on the flight in
which he was lost. I remember it very well.
The ship had just completed a line period off Viet Nam and was headed for Cubi Point in the Philippines. It was common practice to fly most of the aircraft off the ship as soon as the ship left the combat area headed for Cubi, which we did. This got those of us who got to be on the flyoff to shore a couple days early, and also got the planes off the ship so we could do some flying while in port.
According to my log book, the flight was June 14, 1970. The weather that morning was terrible. The seas weren't bad, but there was a huge weather system all over the South China Sea, and we had reports that the cloud tops were at least 35,000 feet.
Your father was the flight lead of what we called a "section", two planes. When we were launched, all the planes went to a common radio frequency enroute to Cubi, and we could listen and talk to each other. Everyone was flying on instruments, and you couldn't see anything once you entered the clouds at about 1500 feet. F-8's had a pretty good high altitude capability, and your dad was trying to top the clouds, as it's a lot nicer if you can get out of the weather and not fly instruments. (I just realized, you may be a pilot yourself, and here I am talking about some really basic stuff. I apologize if you already know all this). Anyway, I was launched after him and was having my own problems trying to keep sight of my own flight leader as we climbed through the goo, but I was listening to your dad on the radio, as he was one of the first off the boat and had climbed higher than anyone at that point, and still hadn't topped the weather. At about 35,000 feet, he still wanted to try topping the weather, and called to his wingman, who I believe was Bob Berry, to go to afterburner, which would give significantly better climb performance at that altitude, particularly for a jet which was relatively heavy with most of its fuel still on board.
And that is when whatever happened happened.
The wingman's burner didn't light, but your dad's did. Your dad, as leader, was "head down" in the cockpit flying off the instruments, and the wingman's eyes were of course glued to your dad's plane, and nothing else. They were probably flying with about 5 feet of clearance from wingtip to wingtip to keep sight of each other. When flying in the goo, both planes must keep their power matched, or else one will outrun the other, and they will loose sight, as you can only see a few feet.
As I recall, the wingman immediately said "Skipper, my burner didn't light, gates out (meaning come out of burner), gates out! Come out of burner, come out of burner, I'm losing you! I've lost sight, I'm coming 30 degrees right" (to keep from colliding).
Your dad never responded to any of those calls, or to any other radio calls. The wingman kept trying, and then the other planes airborne tried reaching him, but there was never a reply. This went on all the way to Cubi, which was another hour away.
When we all got to Cubi, one of the other squadron commanding officers notified the base operations officer, and search and rescue operatons began. The involvement was tremendous. The Air Force basically took over the operation, and launched all kinds of planes out of Clark Air Force Base. We utilized all the Bonnie Dick jets at Cubi, and the America, which was also at sea, was ordered to delay going to Viet Nam and utilize all its jets as well. The maximum effort continued for about 3-4 days, and then continued at a reduced level for quite a while afterword. One of our pilots said he was at Clark and one of the Air Force guys said "Just who is this missing pilot? This is the biggest operation we've ever conducted!" But as you know, nothing was ever found.
All of us spend a lot of time trying to figure out what happened, and to this day, I don't have a clue. I have thought about the incident a lot over the years, and it's just a puzzle.
Had he heard his wingman, he obviously would have come out of burner, but of course he didn't. Perhaps he had a radio receiver failure, which was not uncommon in the old F-8. However, even if that happened, after your father became separated he would have made an attempt to call the wingman, and no calls were ever heard by any of us. So maybe at the moment he went to burner he had a total radio failure, which happened from time to time. However, he could still have navigated to Cubi without a radio. So maybe he had a total electrical failure, which would kill most of his primary flight instruments, all his radios and all his navigation equipment. That would be a real emergency. However, I feel your dad was very experienced and a good enough pilot that he could have made it to the Phillipines. It wouldn't have been pretty, but I think he could have done it by basically heading east on the magnetic compass, letting down blind through the clouds while he knew he was still over water, then proceeding till he ran into the Phillipines, and then, if he couldn't find an airfield, ejecting while he was at least over land. Your dad wasn't the sort who would panic, and I think he could have pulled it off. But of course we never found anything, nor did anyone ever hear his emergency beacon or hear him on his survival radio. His wingman said when he lost sight your dad still had his oxygen mask on, so it wasn't hypoxia either.
Over time many of us decided that perhaps the best explanation was that it was a radio failure and then something that physically incapcitated your father, like a stroke or heart attack. Unlikely I know, but nothing else made much sense either.
It was a very grim time. Earlier in the cruise the squadron lost its most junior pilot, a fellow named Lloyd Howie. I still remember your dad speaking at his memorial service. And then, just a few weeks later, we lost the senior pilot in the squadron, your dad. It was a terrible time.
Your father was a fine pilot and a fine person. He was doing a great job of leading the squadron, and of course loved being the skipper. I ended up getting out of the Navy, but I stayed in the Reserves and had a 20 year career, and flew the F-8, the F-4, and the F-14, and finally I became a commanding officer of a fighter squadron myself. Of all the planes I flew, the F-8 was my favorite, and being a skipper was the greatest job in the Navy. Your dad died way too soon, but I can tell you he was doing somethink he absolutely loved.
Feel free to contact me if you want.
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Created on ... March 22, 2008