May 1, 2016

The AJ-2 Carrier BomberThe AJ 2 was the Navy’s answer to the Strategic Air Command, and was essentially a multi-engine, carrier based plane designed around a bomb bay large enough to carry the early fat “nukes.” Because of its multi-engines (two reciprocating radial engines and a single jet aft) and long range navigation requirements, the Navy decided to integrate a percentage of multi-engine gents, like me, who could contribute their experience in those two fields. After all, the theory went, the multi -folks wore wings of gold too and were therefore experienced in the ways of carrier aviation

The fact that this experience had been gleaned some years earlier, from six arrested carrier landings in an SNJ training aircraft at Pensacola did not diminish the enthusiasm for this idea. Anyway, as their part of the two way bargain the “hookers”, guys with lots of carrier experience, would pass on the lore of the carrier deck and all would be well. And now, to paraphrase Paul Harvey, let’s hear “The Rest of the Story.”

Following a tour flying four engine PB4Y 2 Privateers with Heavy Patrol Squadron Twenty Six (VP 26) and a tour at the Naval Air Training Command at Pensacola, Florida, I reported to an AJ squadron (VC 6) in San Diego in 1953. For the first half of the three year tour I served as a bombardier/navigator. This was standard practice then, but I finally qualified as a plane commander. Checking out the new pilots was done at the squadron. The usual familiarization flights were followed by bushels of Field Carrier Landing Practice (FCLP) and then on to final qualifications on the carrier. No big deal. Everything on the carrier was done at minimum weight to facilitate turnaround. All qualification landings were done during the day and, very often, to save time the planes were deck launched rather than launched by the catapult. However, we did do a few catapult shots just to learn the procedure, and the procedure was not difficult.

You were positioned on the catapult, the aircraft was hooked up to the big under-deck machine, the check off list was completed, and then, when your turn came the catapult officer would hold three fingers up, wave his hand in a circle and you would advance the throttle on the jet. Jets take longer to wind up than recips. When the jet was humming smoothly at full throttle, the cat officer would hold up two fingers, wave his hand in a circle and you would advance the throttles on the two recips. Now, with everything going at full throttle and with the instruments indicating that the engines were functioning correctly, you would salute with your right hand, again grab the throttles and a fixed bar in front them, and you would be catted off. The fixed bar was there so that your hand would not accidentally slip backward and reduce power because of the rapid acceleration. This could happen, the cat shot was a real kick in the tail.

Just prior to deployment, there was the operational readiness inspection (ORI) which required a simulated mission from the ship with a night launch, a full load of fuel and a “shape” in the bomb bay substituting for a real nuclear weapon. Total weight something just above 53,000 lbs. This was a new requirement something we had not had to do when I was flying as bombardier/navigator.

When our big day came there were two crews ready to qualify, and the other plane also had another ex multi-engine pilot as plane commander. The launch was set for 0300. To add to the fun the weather was stinko with about a 300 ft. ceiling, gnarly seas and light rain. The AJ 2 was a big bird and at launch time, when two of them sat on the catapults, the wings overlapped. I was on the port cat in the number two launch position and so I had a good chance to observe my opposite number in the other plane. The catapult officer gave him the three finger turn-up telling him to full throttle the jet, and then with that burning, the two finger turn up told him to full throttle the recips. So far,so good. I watched his bombardier point the red flashlight at his face, watched him salute and nothing! Once again, red flashlight at his face, salute nothing! Meanwhile sparks were shooting out aft, his plane was shaking, and he was ready. I wondered, why they didn’t cat him? Again, the flashlight, the salute, and no dice. Finally I heard him call on the radio, “I have saluted this guy three times and he won’t launch me What’s the matter?” The answer came down, “He wants you to turn on your running lights!” Well that made sense. We were just outside San Clemente Island and would have to transit the Los Angeles control area to the Salton Sea to drop our bomb. Of course we would have to have running lights. His lights came on and off he went.

I gave instructions to my bombardier, Karl Sams, to be certain to flip on the navigation lights as the last item on his check list. Now, with the first plane gone, attention was shifting to us. On board my plane all three engines were purring away in idle and the final check lists were nearing completion. The cat officer raised his arm displaying three fingers and began waving them in a circle. I pushed the jet throttle forward watching the instruments and listened while the jet wound up to max power. My hand dropped back to the recip throttles, and that was when Karl flipped on the navigation light switch. WHAMO! We were on our way. The lights were the signal that we were ready to launch!!! We still should not have gone until the catapult officer gave the signal, but I guess whoever pushes the cat button wasn’t watching the catapult officer and just reacted instinctively to the lights. No matter, there we were, heading for the blackness off the bow with the recips in idle and only the jet and the cat pushing that 53,000 pound aircraft to launch speed.

I slammed the recip throttles forward with my right hand while hanging on to the control wheel with my left and we were on our own. Forget about grabbing the fixed bar I was leaning into the throttles and watching the instruments to keep the wings level and maintain flying speed.

My pals who were watching from the bridge said that we dropped out of sight and all hands thought we were lost. But then out of the void came the trail of sparks from the engines and we went straight up into the overcast. I can now only conclude that we were launched at a peak upswing of the bow,but I’ll bet my landing gear only cleared the water by inches or perhaps even touched it.

I was still at full throttle on all three engines when I finally broke out on top at 6,000 feet. I really didn’t care, but boy, was I cussing that “happy hooker” squadron mate and Landing Signal Officer, who sneeringly told me, when I asked, that there was nothing different about night cat shots except “that you’ll be on instruments, don’t you know how to do that?”. That was helpful! Snotty bastard! I gave him a one finger salute. I had about four times the instrument flying experience that he had.

So much for the transfer of knowledge between the multi-engine pilots and the guys who flew the smaller aircraft. Now you know “The rest of the story”.

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