It had been a routine flight, right up to the moment that the captain dialed 24,000 into the altitude preselect controller and we began our descent. As I rolled the vertical-speed wheel into a nose-down command, the Citation VII responded slowly, but eventually began a healthy 2,500-fpm descent as we left FL 350 for 240.
Those bright little white, incandescent puff clouds that mark a typical early morning in southern Florida speckled the sky just enough to characterize the place. The sky was clear enough though, so we’d soon be able to cancel our IFR flight plan as we got Jack Graves Field in sight, there in the deep, hospitable south of Gulf Shores, Ala.
This was the place that I had roamed as a teenage sailor some 40 years ago. In the years since, I had accumulated 15,000 hr of flying time and was returning now in the cockpit of a $12 million jet.
As we continued our descent, what little sky cover there was allowed me a clear view of every naval aviator’s birthing place, the Pensacola Training Command, six miles below.
Up to now, this was just another leg in my reincarnation from Part 121 “ROP” (retired old pilot) to doddering fractional ace. But soon I’d realize the completion of a circle that I had drawn in the sand of a Gulf Shores beach as a 17-year-old Navy “boot” 40 years ago.
As we passed through FL 310, I was physically comfortable in the left seat of our Citation. Emotionally I was 40 years away.
I looked out the window at NAS Pensacola and realized that I was descending into the painful past of a scared teenager. He was a kid who, on paper, qualified for NavCad (Navy Cadet) pilot training. But his thoughts went directly to how tough it would be to earn those coveted gold wings and how little of the “right stuff” he thought he had.
Some of those same feelings of fear and sadness washed over me as I relived the experience of being that scared sailor. One could say that the kid failed to seize the moment. Or one could say that everything has its time.
Healing a Pilot’s Soul
We continued the descent. As the captain did the descent and approach checklists, my view of the past grew to match the land rising up to meet us.
“Pensacola Approach Control, Fracjet 610.”
“Roger 610, go ahead.”
“Yes sir, we’ve got Jack Graves in sight. We’d like to cancel our IFR flight plan.”
“Roger, 610, canceling your IFR flight plan, squawk 1200. Good day.”
I let my thoughts run some more as I slowed the descent from 2,500 fpm back to a more leisurely 1,500 fpm so I could get a handle on what I was feeling.
Man, it was joy! After all these years of feeling “not good enough,” I was finally one of ’em! By my insecurities, I had effectively ostracized myself from the aviators who I wanted so much to be a part of for the last 37 years. But now, in this otherwise innocuous descent into a small airstrip in Alabama, I got it–I was actually one of this elite band of aviators that I had hero worshiped for so long.
In the persistent pursuit of continuing to do what I loved, long after many others had parked the brakes for the last time, the magic of flight had offered me a glimpse into that teenager’s soul.
It took the 37 years, that 35,000-ft perspective and a one-hour flight from Birmingham to Jack Graves Field to gain a new perspective on the effect that a special naval aviator had on that kid’s life.
Unless one is closely associated with naval aviation, the “brown shoe” Navy is not considered by many to be sacred ground. But I was soon to understand, by looking in the rear-view mirror of my life, how the Navy had sent me an “angel” in a flight suit to help in my conversion from wannabe pilot to the real thing.
Mentor in a Poopy Suit
I left Alabama’s Barin Field, an outlying airfield that was part of the Navy’s Pensacola Training Command, in 1958 for VS39 in Quonset Point, R.I. Barin was my last duty station before being sent to VS39, an anti-submarine squadron about to deploy from its home base in Rhode Island to the USS Randolph, an aircraft carrier out of Norfolk, Va.
After arriving at Quonset, I spent a few months finding my niche in the squadron and preparing for my first deployment to the north Atlantic. One of the officers I hung with was a young LtJg (lieutenant junior grade) named McGill. He was a couple of years older than I and a NavCad graduate. He had also graduated from Princeton, and he busted any image I might have had about aloof Ivy League school kids.
McGill used to tell the enlisted men that he liked going on liberty with us better than the officers because he had more fun. But I suspect he said that to make us feel better. That’s the kind of guy he was.
When VS39 deployed to the Randolph, it was to qualify our pilots for carrier landings (carquals). We flew S-2Fs, affectionately known as “stuufs,” a Grumman-built, radial-engine anti-submarine aircraft with relatively sophisticated onboard electronic submarine detection and tracking gear.
Our squadron flew the first propeller-driven aircraft that the Randolph’s ship’s company personnel had seen, since the carrier had just been converted from an attack (CVA) carrier with jet aircraft to an anti-sub (CVS) carrier with prop airplanes.
The ship’s company personnel were the ones assigned to fuel and oil our aircraft. They were unfamiliar with servicing prop airplanes since the former attack squadron assigned to the Randolph flew early-generation jets.
During the night before McGill’s final early-morning launch, someone had spilled a five-gallon bucket of engine oil on the deck. Either no one saw it or they neglected to clean it up.
Once the launch got under way in the black North Atlantic predawn, McGill’s aircraft was signaled to taxi forward to take its position on the starboard catapult. I was standing just aft and off to one side of his aircraft as he ran the power up. As McGill turned his aircraft to line up with the catapult, his “stuuf’s” prop wash, in combination with the carrier completing its turn into the wind, forced me into a 30-deg lean against an instant gale force.
His “stuuf” taxied over the oil slick, and as the deck rolled left, McGill’s aircraft began a sickening, synchronistic, slow-motion skid toward the port side of the deck. I stood there, frozen in anguished disbelief, while an impotent cry of “Mac...!!” was ripped out of my mouth and disappeared aft over the boat’s fantail.
The “stuuf,” with McGill and a full crew–copilot and two enlisted electronic countermeasures experts, crammed into their seats amidst thousands of pounds of electronic gear–cartwheeled lazily over the side of the carrier deck. She took with her 30 ft of catwalk (the walkway surrounding most of the ship, immediately below the flight deck), landing topside down.
Her white underbelly, barely visible as her propellers sliced the water, showed momentarily like the belly of an inverted whale. The frantic churning of her props seemed to act in her fatal favor as she forced her way through the water’s surface, seeking a frothy grave in the frigid, angry waters of the North Atlantic.
We lost all four men. The last time I saw McGill was in a body bag about six hours later as the “angel,” the recovery helicopter, deposited the crewmembers’ bodies on the flight deck. One of the chopper crew threw McGill’s “poopy suit,” the rubber exposure suit that the Navy required all crewmembers operating flights over cold water to wear, onto the carrier deck shortly after they landed. It was ripped to shreds. McGill’s name was written in large black letters on one of the larger pieces of the suit.
Memories That Heal
In some strange, unquantifiable way McGill helped initiate the healing process of the teenage future aviator’s soul. He left an indelible impression on me of what real manhood and leadership was about–vulnerable, fun-loving, open, strong yet respectful and honoring of younger men, his love for life, his passion for flight. I’ve never forgotten him. Maybe that’s why naval aviators still loom large in my sights to this day.
If one were to hold up to the light the advances in technology over the last 40 years and compare them to the brilliance of McGill’s soul, tech comes in a dim second. I guess it took a 35,000-ft perspective on the past to help the teenage kid complete the circle that he drew in the sand of a Pensacola beach 15,000 hr ago.