At 8 pm (20:00 hours) on November 10, 1977 Lcdr. Jeff Cook and I (I was a Lieutenant then) started our night briefing in the VF-142 ‘Ghostriders’ ready room for a routine night training flight. Our carrier was the USS America, CV-66, operating in the eastern half of the Mediterranean. Little did we know it would be anything but routine.
The briefing with Lt. ‘Bull’ Lindsay and Lt. ‘Gilly’ Gilbert as our wingmen took just a little over an hour; we discussed the conduct of the mission, the types of night intercepts, and of course the ‘emergency-of-the day’; we then donned our flight gear and made our way to our assigned aircraft on the flight deck; Jeff and I manned Dakota 210 (our squadron call sign); engine starts began 30 minutes prior to our scheduled 22:00 launch with a recovery time of midnight.
As we made our way to the catapult under the direction of the ‘yellow shirt’ directors, we commented how really dark it was…we were below a heavy overcast so there was no moon or starlight visible…we would launch into that ‘black hole’ off the bow. Jeff and I had flown many night missions before; the launch operation was pretty much standard.
We rendezvoused with our wingmen above the overcast, proceeded to our assigned area of operation, and commenced our night intercept training against each other…again pretty much standard…high to low re-attacks and high speed intercepts. Following our training completion, we each proceeded to ‘marshal’ (the standard night holding pattern) and Jeff and I commenced our approach to the carrier at our scheduled ‘push time’. We were assigned to be second to land as an A-7 Corsair was assigned as the first aircraft ‘down the pike’. The A-7 got a ‘fouled deck’ wave-off…that made us now the next one in order.
Final landing checks were complete: gear down, flaps down, hook down, harness locked, switches safe…now just fly the ‘ball’… on-speed…meatball / line-up / angle of attack.
My normal positioning during landing was to peer over the pilot’s left shoulder, observe the landing sequence…monitor the ‘meatball’, lineup, angle-of attack, and airspeed…with my right hand holding the ‘alternate ejection handle
We passed over the ship’s round-down, centered ball, and caught the #3 arresting gear wire. We started the normal deceleration when suddenly the aircraft jerked…and a fraction of a second later we experienced another jerk …and then we stopped decelerating! We had experienced an arresting gear failure, and we were moving down the angled deck with no more runway left, and not enough airspeed to fly!
I pulled the ‘alternate’ ejection handle. Jeff also pulled his ejection handle, but later commented that the sequence seemed to be quite quick…so most likely I started the dual ejection sequence a fraction of a second before he did. Time compression does exist during such events, and even though the ‘ejection process’ is only around a half second it seemed as though the seat was not working. We were surrounded in a ‘ring of fire’ (that was the firing of the explosive bolts that blow the canopy away) and then I felt the seat go up. When the rocket motor ignited, the brightness forced me to close my eyes, and I felt as if I was tumbling through the air. I ejected while Dakota 210 was still on the flight deck; Jeff got out just as the plane was leaving the angled deck. We both had good chutes, the Tomcat went ‘nose over’ into the sea, and Martin-Baker worked as advertised!
When my chute opened, I could look directly at the tower, so I gave the Air Boss a ‘thumbs up’…he didn’t see me as it was too dark. I loosened my oxygen mask, removed my gloves, and then hit the water…and it was cold!
With my seat-pan and life raft not deployed, and me in full flight gear, well I went under about 6 feet under and had to kick my way to the surface to catch my breath. The sea state was somewhat rough, so I bounced around a bit (we were trained not to deploy our life vest until we were in the water lest we rupture a bladder)…but as I activated my life vest I also got my legs tangled in the parachute shroud lines while treading water. If that wasn’t enough, some of the flight deck directors were throwing their floating yellow flashlight wands into the water to mark my spot. Trouble was, some wands came pretty close to hitting me!
The carrier passed right on by; it just kept on moving…and away it went. Jeff and I could shout at each other, but could not see each other. The plane guard helicopter passed right over me, located Jeff, and I watched as the swimmer was lowered, and the two of them were lifted into the craft. Then the helo left the area! Jeff told the crew: “Hey, my RIO is out there, we were shouting to each other!” The pilot responded: “We need to get back to the ship for the rest of the aircraft recovery; the ship is directing another helo about 50 miles away to go get him”. (Note: Even though the helo passed directly over me, the crew did not see me.)
With the helo and the ship no longer in sight, it got pretty lonely out there; the night was so dark I could only find my survival gear by feel, but I got my flares ready… and the cold water was starting to get to me too. After what seemed to be a lengthy time, I heard the sound of a helo approaching…and was I ready with my pencil flares…I fired one, then another, then another. The helo proceeded directly toward me.
The rescue swimmer was lowered by cable, and the actions he performed were exactly as expected…our training again paid off. When we landed, I went directly to medical for observation. I had no physical problems, and was released to sleep that night in my stateroom.
A few days later, Jeff and I were once again flying…and 210 rested at the bottom of the Mediterranean.
Epilog: Thirty-nine years later I was speaking to a group of USS America re-union guests visiting the Military Aviation Museum in Virginia Beach where I volunteer as a docent. I asked: “Did anyone here make the 1977 deployment, and do you remember an F-14 with two flyers ejecting at night when a wire broke?” A couple of people responded: “Yes, I remember that, I was on the flight deck”.
“Well”, I said, “ I was one of those flyers”.
And from the back of the group came a voice: “And I was the rescue swimmer who got you out!”
YES! AWAN Tom Hayes was there, and he was the one who hooked me up, and we rode the cable up to the rescue helo. Folks…we had a grand reunion.