Air Force Capt. Ron Williams
From the book titled "River Rats- Red River Valley Fighter Pilots of Vietnam- Vol 1
Author, Berry, Mark Clodfelter, Berry Craig Turner Publishing, 1989, 152 pgs ISBN- 0938021389
Exchange duty jock, Air Force Capt. Ron Williams : ' Around midnight I was catapulted off the carrier USS MIDWAY . . . in an A-3 'Whale' configured with 12,500 pounds of GP. Our bombing target was an early warning RADAR site located on an island north east of Haiphong Harbor. The mission was uneventful and the aircraft was excellent, except that its air-to-air refueling system had been written up for being : ' unable to accept fuel transfer WHILE IN-FLIGHT.'
The A3 ' Whale' had such an enormous weight that even when low on fuel, we calculated that a max landing arresting wire ' trap ' of 50M pounds, it allowed us only 5,000 pounds of fuel, as we pointed the Whale at the boat's stern during the landing approach.
Returning from the recent bombing mission, I listened in on the Midway's approach control frequency. And I was slightly stunned to hear the boat's current flight pattern had low ceilings of 200 to 500 feet with a mile or less visibility in o'dark thirty scud.
But worse, the cross hatch swell system was high, and the Midway's deck was pitching. This pitching action was now resulting in many ' BOLTERS ' when the aircraft failed to catch any of four wires or when they were not correctly aligned with the vertically moving deck. USAF exchange pilot Captain Ron Williams' blood started running cold.
Ron said later : ' Here I was, an Air Force pilot with a grand total of 40 arrested carrier landings, listening to heavily experienced Navy jocks flying the little A-4 or maneuverable F-4, with the justifiable confidence of having maybe 400 traps, now having . . bolter after bolter. '
Over the radio, I heard more shouts of ' BOLTER ' as they missed their timing with the deck's pitches. And I thought to myself : ' What will I be able to do with this ungainly bomber, if the more experienced carrier jocks can't catch a wire ” ? I could also hear other pilots ahead of me being directed by the Air Boss to go to the Airborne Tanker radio frequency to commence refueling.
When I checked in, the very first thing I told the Air Boss was : ' My aircraft CANNOT TAKE ON FUEL - WHILE IN FLIGHT.' He gave me a curt ' Roger ' then told me to descend from a fuel-conserving 25,000 feet to a very high fuel burn at 1,000 feet . . then told to orbit 30 miles aft of the boat.
In this orbit, I was in solid night weather. To make matters worse, I was circling not that far from the prickly defended Chinese island of Hainan, where they had already shot down an A-1 and an F-104. I didn't relish considering being ' shoot down ' number three. Also, there was no provision for crew ejection seats in the A-3 and it had acquired second nickname . . ALL THREE DEAD.
It was 2:00 in the AM, the ceiling was down to 200 to 300 feet all over Hainan, and their fighters seldom flew at night. So except for the weather and low fuel, our situation wasn't bad, except we couldn't re-fuel air-to-air, the carrier's pitching badly, causing heavily experienced carrier jocks to miss traps on their first, second . . and even third attempts.
Now, after circling around at 1,000 feet for nearly two hours, I was down to 8,000 pounds of fuel. I attempted to call the Air Boss to advise him, but he was very busy controlling ' Bolters, ' in addition to interfacing with the tankers.
Again, I reminded the Air Boss : ' I CAN NOT REFUEL IN FLIGHT. ' In response I got another : ' Roger . . . Continue holding . . . Will advise. '
When I reached the minimum fuel for a safe divert to land on shore at Da Nang, I called ' BINGO ' along with repeating : ' I have NO CAPABILITY for IN-FLIGHT REFUELING !'
' Roger, move your orbit to 20 miles aft. '
Tucked into an orbit at 20 miles, our fuel had burned down to 4,000 pounds. As its was quickly reduced by one-half, I told the Air Boss : 'Commander, I am now down to 2,000 pounds ! If I can't have a Charlie approach time RIGHT N-O-W ! then please launch the rescue helio . . and give me a bail-out heading ! '
He responded immediately : ' Roger, I understand your low fuel state. You're cleared to AIR-REFUELING OPERATIONS [ to join up with our tankers.] '
My extreme uneasiness altered to anger [ and fear for myself and for my crew. ] Breaking the nicety of ridged communication rules, I intentionally spoke the Commander's name and I said :
' Commander Kincade, listen to me very carefully.
I've told you several times now, but I'll tell you one last time so please listen up ! This airplane has a broken Air Refueling system. I CANNOT REFUEL IN-FLIGHT ! I REPEAT, I CAN NOT REFUEL IN-FLIGHT ! Either you give me a “ Charlie ” time to start an approach NOW ! OR give me a bailout heading. And launch the rescue helicopter. My fuel state is LESS THAN 2,000 POUNDS !
In an apologetic voice he said : ' I'm sorry, Ron. Your signal is ' CHARLIE ' You are cleared to CCA Radar Approach frequency.'
Still 20 miles out, I rolled inbound as our fuel level bouncing between 1,000 and 1,500 pounds as we burned an enormous quantity of fuel each minute. I switched to the CCA, got identified and was told to descend immediately to 600 feet for our final approach.
The MIDWAY's final approach radar was better than GCA. They could issue corrections as small as five feet from glide path. That was the good news. The bad news was, you needed to spot the Carrier visually at one-half mile because the RADAR controller would stop giving corrections and say : 'GO BALL !”
At this command, the pilot takes his eyes off the instruments to looks ahead for the glide path lights . . But in this case, lights that were zooming up and down while fixed to the heaving deck's stern.
During an easy landing, keeping the ball on the horizontal green lights, should engage the tail hook on the number three wire. The pilot must also line up on the deck's Center Line lights. On the other hand, if you're not clear of clouds = it's a ' bolter. '
Trimming in and adjusting power for the glide path, my final glance at the fuel gauge, saw the indicator bouncing below 1,000. No go-around. ' Snag ' a wire . . or go over the side and use our parachute ' rip cords.'
I broke out at 400 feet with one-half mile. I instantly saw why high-time Navy jocks were having such a tough go. The MIDWAY was really pitching up and down. Worse than anything I had ever seen.
When I tried to line up the horizontal green with the ' Meatball,' I saw the BALL move FULL SCALE . . from HIGH to LOW . . then BACK. It took me a moment to realize that the SHIP was moving, not my airplane. I tried to average out the oscillations and wasn't doing too bad . . until the deck made a huge move . . D-O-W-N !
In my meager experience, when the MIDWAY's stern would bottom out in the trough of a huge swell . . it would wallow around a bit before starting back up . . one of its known occasional idiosyncrasies.
I was way too high. I needed to get down on the glide path. And fast.
But, I couldn't allow my airspeed to accelerate during the quick descent. Five or ten knots excess speed, could snap the wire and kill enough airspeed to drop us over the deck's edge and into the sea.
I violated a big “ no-no ” in Jet Carrier aviation, by pulling both throttles back to idle ! Maybe the MIDWAY would wallow around and stay down in the swell's bottom just enough for me to catch a wire.
When it seemed as though it was going to work, my pride turned to horror, as I realized both J-57 engine RPMs were way too slow for a fast ' spool-up.' And with no power to assist, I was descending at a hellacious rate . . right on the edge of stall with the MIDWAY's deck coming UP at an unbelievable rate !
Trying to stay in tandem with the deck, I eased back on the controls. It only increased the angle of attack and it accelerated our sink rate. The LSO, Lt. Cmdr. Corey, was shouting over the radio : 'POWER ! POWER ! ' while activating the red wave off lights and blasting the crash announcing Klaxon . . to no avail . . since both throttles were nestled in their idle detent.
The aircraft hit very [ very ] hard as we struck the flight deck close to its stern and well short of # 4 wire [ the first wire on the deck. ] As we pounded down with the force of 9 + G’s with the impact knocking each of us unconscious.
The Whale's designed-in toughness assisted in saving our lives, plus having pulled the throttles to idle, decayed our final airspeed so fast . . the aircraft did not have enough energy remaining to bounce.
And its tail hook reached down and it ' snagged ' a wire narrowly beyond the ' spud locker.'
I regained conscious with my chin buried in my chest, arms hanging limbo and noticed we were stopped close to the center line. And I heard the Air Boss yelling at me to fold my wings and taxi clear. While doing this, I glanced at my fuel gauge flickering on ZERO and looked around to see my Bombardier and Crew-man still stunned or unconscious.
Under normal circumstances I would have been severely reprimanded by the LSO. But when Stu Corey made his way to the Ready Room, all he did was give me a bear hug.
[ abridged ]