SCROLL DOWN TO READ ANY OF THESE SHORT STORIES:
"SNAKES" -- U-Tapao's infamous Pete the Python gets his weekly meal
"SNAKE EYES" -- A Snake Stoglin adventure in Thailand
"USS WADDLETHROMP" -- A Pattaya Beach Gary Davidson legend
"I USED TO BE AN AIR FORCE GENERAL" by GH Spaulding, CAPT, USN
"KGB" -- Nothing Beats a Coca Cola
"STORM" -- A tragic VT-3/T-28 story
"WINGS" -- An unforgettable winging ceremony
"BEFORE RED OCTOBER" -- Strap in!
"EVADING MAO" -- An epic true story
Monday morning, eight o’clock. Feeding time for the snake.
Biggest snake I ever saw. An 18-foot Burmese Python named "Pete".
Pete resided in a 20-foot cage in a shaded area next to the U-2 hangar at U-tapao Air Base, Thailand. When the U-2 launched every day at three in the afternoon, hardly anyone showed up to watch that.
But once a week—every Monday morning—a sizeable crowd would gather at the side of that hangar to observe the feeding of Pete the python. And for the show that preceded it.
Iron Mike would be there. In fact, he was part of the show.
Breakfast was always a live chicken. Apparently, the python liked chicken. It must have tasted like something the reptile had eaten in the wild, perhaps like something the creature’s mother had encouraged it to try with those familiar words, “Come on, you’ll like it. It tastes like chicken!”
At eight o’clock someone would bring out the chicken. Iron Mike would jump for joy, hooting and hollering. He’d even do back flips like a monkey. Actually, he was a monkey. He resided in a much smaller cage next to Pete the Python’s.
Iron Mike lived for Monday mornings. He knew what was coming. The chicken. It would always go into his cage first thing.
Now monkeys must be the horniest animals on the planet. Iron Mike proved that every Monday morning at eight o’clock with the assembled onlookers cheering him on.
When he was through, his fouled fowl would be transferred to the adjacent cage as the weekly entree for the patiently waiting python.
The cheering would stop, the crowd turning reflective as the hapless chicken met its demise. Meanwhile, Iron Mike relaxed in his cage, the hint of a satisfied smile on his face. Had someone offered him one, he probably would have smoked a cigarette.
In the cage next door, the python had a lump in its throat—the chicken.
The show was over. Invariably as the crowd began to disperse, someone could be heard to say,
“Now that’s what I call goin' out with a bang!”
“Snake” was a big black fellow. He was the flight engineer on another crew and he was a good one. It was two in the morning when I ran into him in Pattaya Beach, where my crew and his were enjoying liberty. I was ready to head back to U-tapao Air Base to get a little shuteye before assuming watch officer duties at seven. Snake was ready to go back as well. The base was 45 kilometers away. Snake and I decided to share a taxi.
In Pattaya Beach, taxis were called Baht Busses. They were little Japanese pickups equipped with camper shells and a wooden bench seat along each side of their truck beds. They roamed incessantly up and down Pattaya’s main street, which ran along the beachfront. If you needed a ride, you just jumped on a passing Baht Bus, found a seat on one of the benches, paid the driver one Baht (about five cents) and rode as far as you wanted to go.
We flagged down an empty Baht Bus, asked the driver to take us to U-tapao and agreed on a fare for the out-of-town trip. The driver explained that he would be making a quick stop to pick up a friend, who would ride along with him in the front of the pickup. “For safety reasons,” he said. Snake and I climbed in the back, each of us occupying one of the bench seats immediately behind the cab.
The two-lane highway running between Pattaya and U-tapao meandered through the lush, green countryside of Thailand. It passed through an occasional village, but mostly there was nothing along the way but palm trees, jungle and elephant grass. And it was dark, particularly at two in the morning.
About halfway to the base, in an area where the highway was totally deserted, our Baht Bus suddenly turned off the pavement and braked to a halt in a small clearing in the head-high elephant grass. Our driver and his friend opened their doors and scrambled out. My body tensed, my pulse rate went to a million. Snake and I frowned at each other, but otherwise did not move. Both of us knew what the two Thai men had in mind—to separate us from our valuables. Such robberies were commonplace in Thailand. What we didn’t know was just how far these particular fellows were prepared to go. We eyed them warily as they scurried around to the back of the Baht Bus. They shouted at us, ordering us to get out. One of them brandished a knife, the other a broken bottle. Snake calmly held up his left hand, motioning for me to remain in place, though I had no intention of moving. The driver shouted even more furiously. We stayed put. The two men started to climb inside. Snake’s right hand went to his waist. Our would-be attackers froze when they came face to face with his .45 caliber semi-automatic handgun.
He glowered at them, the whites of his snake eyes, conspicuous in the dark, flashing menacingly. He jerked the barrel of his .45 from side to side to wave them off.
“Get back in da truck,” he commanded them in a deep, authoritative voice. They did - quickly. In a matter of seconds, we were back on the highway, once again en route to U-tapao Air Base. Snake slipped his .45 back inside the waistband of his trousers. “Dumb shits,” he said.“Yep,” I responded, thankful I’d run across him that morning and had not attempted to venture back to the base alone.
A few miles further down the road, my adrenaline level and heartbeat finally returned to normal. Snake told me he never went on liberty overseas without his weapon. No telling how many regulations he was violating.
Who knows what would have happened if Snake hadn’t had been illegally carrying his .45 that night. Chances are we’d have been cut up and left in the middle of nowhere as breakfast for a big passing python.
But one thing was certain: Snake’s secret was safe with me.
LONNIE "SNAKE" STOGLIN
Oct 16, 1940 - Feb 22, 2011
“Even snakes are afraid of snakes.” — Steven Wright
The Air Force major was regaling my P-3 crew with tales of daring do in his F-4 Phantom fighter jet. I ordered a cold Singha beer and joined them on the verandah overlooking the Gulf of Thailand (formerly the Gulf of Siam).
My flight engineer, Gary Davidson, introduced me simply as “another member of our crew.” I shook the major’s hand and pulled up a chair.
It had been a peculiar introduction. Gary deliberately had omitted the fact that I was the crew’s patrol plane commander—the leader of this ragtag bunch—and that I was an officer. He flashed a conspiratorial wink in my direction and I knew that once again he was up to some kind of mischief. There's an old saying in the Navy that enlisted men are sly and cunning and bear watching at all times. Davidson was out to prove it.
The major went on with his stories. He boasted at length about having saved his aircraft on several occasions, twice landing badly damaged F-4s aboard Navy carriers. Clearly, he was prone to exaggeration. Then he related how thrilling it was simply to peer down at the earth from an aircraft cruising miles high in the air, figuring to impress a bunch of earthbound yokels like us.
“It must be great,” Gary said, feigning envy. “Us sailors, we wouldn’t know anything about that,” he added. “Aboard ship, all we got’s ocean—far as you can see.”
I got the gist of Davidson’s charade. Obviously, he’d led the major to believe that we were enlisted crewmen ashore on liberty from some Navy rustbucket. I wasn’t sure why. In truth, we were in the middle of a ten-day detachment to U-tapao Air Base, Thailand, flying daily surveillance missions and conducting coordinated operations with British Navy units in the Indian Ocean. We were on liberty, all right, but not from any ship. For our squadron’s flight crews, these excursions to Thailand were welcome respites from the grind of a six-month deployment in the Philippines. For Crew One, they were cherished opportunities to party.
Seldom did we remain on the base overnight. Instead, we opted for rented bungalows in Pattaya Beach, a coastal resort forty-five kilometers from U-tapao and three hours south of the capital city of Bangkok. A popular destination for Australian tourists, Pattaya Beach was Thailand’s own little Riviera. Pattaya featured a number of beachfront clubs like this one, the Sandbox. In all of them, bands played American rock, nubile Thai women got naked on stage and customers guzzling Singhas sat around tables on open-air terraces overhanging the gently lapping surf.
“Major,” Davidson said, “just how fast can that F-4 go, anyway?”
“Well, I’m afraid that’s classified,” he said condescendingly. “But I can tell you...it’s more than 600 knots.”
“Wow!” the wide-eyed Davidson responded. “I understand what you mean about information like that being classified.” He looked around as if ensuring no spies could overhear him, leaned closer to the major and spoke in a low voice. “Like the top speed of our ship. Don’t let this get out, but it’s way over six knots.”
“Hmmm,” the major said, assuming he ought to be impressed by this revelation. “What’s the name of your ship?”
I decided to play along with Davidson. “The USS Waddlethromp,” I put in. “Fightingest refrigerator ship in the entire Pacific Fleet.”
“Yes, sir,” I said. “You know, the Waddlethromp was right alongside the Pueblo when she was captured by the North Koreans. Man, did we get outta there fast.”
The major nodded. “Good move.”
Davidson kept the deception going. “But that was nothing, major. What’s really exciting is trying to keep the lettuce cold out here in the South Pacific. Believe me, in this heat it’s a ball buster.”
“Imagine so,” the major said, trying to picture that.
“Another beer, major?” Gary asked.
“Comin’ right up.” Gary motioned a waitress over and ordered another round. “Always happy to buy a drink for a good man.”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” the rest of the guys murmured.
Then Davidson got serious. “You know, it’s too bad our officers won’t come drinking with us lowly enlisted men like this. Just doesn’t happen in the Navy—at least not on the Waddlethromp.”
The major welcomed the compliment. He raised his beer bottle and clinked it against Gary’s, smugly eating up the adulation.
Actually, my navigator, “Foggy Bob,” had been introduced earlier to the major as an ensign, the only officer present. But Foggy had remained somewhat aloof and was sitting apart from the rest of us quietly looking on.
“Major,” Gary said, struggling to keep a straight face, “we have a custom in the Navy. Maybe you know about it. It’s called ‘wetting down.’ When we have an officer we really connect with, we wet him down.”
The major glanced anxiously over his shoulder toward the four-foot-high guardrail that enclosed the terrace. There was no question in his mind what Gary was suggesting—that he was going to be tossed over it into the drink. “I know all about that custom,” he said, holding both his hands up as if to say stop. “Thanks just the same, but I really wouldn’t want you to do that.”
“Major,” Gary said, “you’d better put your watch and wallet on the table.”
“No, no, no, no. You don’t want to be doing this!”
“Major, put your watch and wallet on the table.”
“I’m serious, fellas. You’re going to get into real bad trouble, I’m warning you.”
Undeterred, Gary jabbed the table top with his index finger and spoke even more sternly. “Major, put your watch and your wallet on the table. Right here.”
The major turned beseechingly to Foggy Bob. “Listen, you’re an officer. These men work for you. Tell ‘em to knock it off or they’ll wind up in the brig.”
Now Foggy Bob was a meek, fragile little guy, clearly out of place in the Navy. He was a redhead who wore a tidy mustache and goatee along with a necklace of love beads left over from the time when he’d lived in a commune before joining the military. His voice was squeaky and high-pitched as if he were only now entering adolescence. But this may have been Foggy’s finest moment. He played the role of himself perfectly. With a deadpan expression on his thin face, he shrugged his shoulders and turned his palms up in a gesture of helplessness. “You know,” he squeaked, “whenever they get like this, there’s not a darned thing I can do with them.” Then he rolled his eyes, flipped his hands over limp-wristedly and said, “Go ahead, guys.”
Way to go, Foggy!
The major gave up. He stood, took off his watch and removed his wallet from the rear pocket of his trousers, but left his shoes on. “Okay, okay,” he said. “But I don’t want you to touch me. I’ll do it myself.” With that, he turned, climbed over the guardrail and jumped fully clothed into the shallow surf of Pattaya Bay. We were dumbfounded. It had all been a bluff. Since we had no way of knowing whether there were rocks or other hard objects immediately under the surface of the water, we never had intended to actually throw him off the terrace. But, unpredictably, he had jumped in without our assistance.
My entire crew, even Foggy, rushed to the handrail and peered down. At first, we couldn’t see the major in the darkness. He was completely submerged and we feared he’d knocked himself unconscious. Finally, though, he gained his footing and struggled to a standing position in the waist-high surf, spitting and fingering salt water from his eyes. When he sloshed dripping wet back onto the terrace, Gary returned his valuables to him and bought him another beer. “Major, that was the most amazing thing I ever saw.”
“I don’t think any of our officers would ever do that.” Then Gary turned to me. “Would you, sir?”
The major picked up on that. “Wait a minute. Why did you call that man sir?”
“Oh,” Gary said. “Because he’s a lieutenant—a captain in your language. He’s also a P-3 aircraft commander and we’re his flight crew.”
“But...but...what about that ship...the Waddlethromp?”
“Fightingest refrigerator ship in the Pacific Fleet.”
When a flight crew includes a navigator, as often as not when one of the pilots calls him in the intercom to ask some relevant question, such as "Where are we?" the navigator is busy taking a fix or some such and the typical ICS exchange goes like this:
(Pilot) "Nav, Flight."
(Navigator) "Wait one."
Well, leave it to "Foggy" to give this most traditional of exchanges a new twist. During an operational track over the South China Sea one day, in the cockpit we hear the following ICS call from our squeaky-voiced navigator:
"This is Flight, go ahead, Nav."
"Just a minute."
Several years ago, we got word that after leaving the Navy, "Foggy" decided to move to Africa, where he hoped he could more readily commune with Nature, as he had done often with the wild monkeys in the jungle that surrounded our BOQ in Cubi Pt, PI.
Reportedly, he met a young lady of kindred spirit in a health food store one day and soon they were married. But not long thereafter, "Foggy" was bitten by some exotic African bug and died.
So "Foggy" always longed to commune with Nature, and, sadly in the end, Nature got him!
When speaking to military crowds, I like to begin my remarks with a question: “Ever been to a Navy base as an Army or Air Force captain?” The typical response is a smattering of giggles, nods and knowing smiles as some members of the audience anticipate where my question is leading.
“And,” I continue, “when you called for lodging or transportation and identified yourself as ‘Captain so-and-so,’ could you just hear the sailor on the other end of the line snap to attention?” Now even those who’d never enjoyed the experience themselves, but had heard their friends tell of it, are smiling. Others look guilty. A few seem worried, as though some sort of overdue military justice might be served upon those foolish enough to fess up.
Until I tell them, “If you ever find yourself in that situation……I say….go for it! If an Army or Air Force captain—or even a Marine captain—can be treated as a Navy captain for a day, I say, enjoy the promotion!”
Of course about now while the audience is accepting this unusual bit of nowhere-in-the-book advice with tentative relish, their unit commander, suddenly petrified by the vision of his being shipped off to Leavenworth for suborning such a blatant violation of the UCMJ, has jumped up, begun waving his arms with vigor and shaking his head NO!!!
To forestall his rushing to the podium with a hook, I pretend not to notice and forge on.
“And the reason I say go for it is because, way back when, the Air Force did something even nicer than that for me. Here’s how it happened.”
Back in 1964 when I signed up for Navy pilot training, the Navy offered a path to commissioning called AVROC—the Aviation Reserve Officer Candidate program—and that’s the one I chose. The AVROC program allowed you to complete Aviation Officer Candidate School in Pensacola, Florida, over the course of two summers while you attended the college of your choice during the regular school year. Once you completed both summers of AOCS and graduated from college, you’d be commissioned an ensign and begin flight training in Pensacola.
By the spring of 1968 I’d finished AOCS and was back at Southern Colorado State College in Pueblo wrapping up the last few credit hours I needed for graduation when a letter from the Navy showed up. It said something like, “Boy, it’s time for you to get your butt over to Olathe, Kansas, get commissioned, then head on down to Pensacola and start learnin’ how to fly.” Why Olathe? That’s where I’d been processed into the Navy in the first place, and in order for that recruiting district to receive its just reward, its commander was supposed to swear me in.
I arrived at NAS Olathe near Kansas City on a Friday afternoon. My commissioning ceremony was set for 0800 the next morning in the Captain’s office. And it was not a group thing—no one else was scheduled to be commissioned that day. Problem was I didn’t even own a uniform, as we’d been required to turn in our AOCS duds at the end of the program.
So I headed straight to the Navy Exchange to buy the only uniform a brand new starving college grad with a wife and two kids could afford, your basic “ice cream suit.” That’s a set of Summer Whites—white short-sleeve shirt, white trousers, white shoes and socks, white belt and a white officer’s combination cap. Oh, and one set of black ensign shoulder boards, each bedecked with the single gold stripe of an ensign and a gold star to indicate eligibility for command at sea, the insignia of a line officer.
Thanks to the Navy Exchange seamstress who agreed to tailor my “trou” for me while I waited, within an hour I was in a BOQ room with my spiffy new uniform hanging in the closet ready for the big event. That done, I proceeded to the Officers Club for dinner—which would follow a “Commission Eve” celebratory adult beverage or two at Happy Hour.
A few too many, as it turned out, for when eight O’clock Saturday morning rolled around, I was still soundly abed, contentedly and obliviously sawing logs. A persistent, angry pounding on my BOQ door sometime later gradually dragged me into a state of semi-consciousness. It was the recruiting district’s Command Master Chief whom the Captain had sent to find me and haul me back to his office. The master chief was not about to return empty handed.
My swearing in was a bit unusual, preceded as it was by a butt-chewing and an unforgettable lecture about timeliness, responsibility and one other thing I can’t recall. Not exactly the way I’d imagined launching my career as a naval aviator.
Three days later I was in Colorado Springs, my immediate family’s home since the (unrelated I assure you) advent of Prohibition in 1919. I donned my three-day-old Summer White uniform, replete with my three-day-old ensign shoulder boards, and, with my first set of permanent change of station orders in hand, drove over to Ent Air Force Base (former home of NORAD, today the U.S. Olympic Training Center) to arrange the movement of my household goods from Pueblo to Pensacola. The transportation office where that would happen was situated in a large wooden building originally built as a warehouse, by all appearances.
Immediately inside the entrance and at the top of a carpeted stairway there was a customer service counter with four stools standing empty in front of it for customers like me. I straddled one, laid my three-day-old white officers combination cap on the counter and handed my orders to the civilian lady sitting at her desk on the other side. She began efficiently typing up the necessary forms, asking me the occasional question along the way. Clearly, she was a pro at her job.
After a while I noticed that eight or ten Air Force enlisted folks were huddled at the back of the room, collectively flipping back and forth through some great big manual. Every minute or so, they would pause and swivel their faces in my direction. Then they’d all shrug their shoulders, turn back to their book and resume flipping through it willy-nilly. Finally, a young female airman emerged from the huddle and sidled toward me, her face twisted in utter confusion, one eye closed and the other squinting at my left shoulder board.
“Scyewz me, Sar,” she said, “what rank are yew?”
“Why, I’m an ensign,” I said proudly.
“Oh,” she said. “Uh...is that like a…..gen’ral?”
After a moment’s hesitation, I smiled and said, “Same thing.”
“Okay then,” the airman said, clearly relieved. “Thank yew, Sar.” She turned and rejoined her office mates, a satisfied I-told-you-so expression on her face.
The savvy civilian lady typing my paperwork tried to hold back, but finally lost it and laughed herself nearly out of her chair.
So there you have it. I’d been commissioned for only three days and the Air Force had made me a one-star general—an instant promotion of six ranks from O-1 to O-7.
And I think to myself, “Say, this Navy gig is gonna be a piece o’ cake. At this rate, in another couple of weeks I’ll be ready to retire!”
Sergei Kryuchkov was KGB. More than that, his father, Vladimir Kryuchkov, headed that organization, the most formidable espionage agency on Earth—much larger and more powerful than the German Gestapo had ever been.
I met Sergei in Geneva, Switzerland, in the late 1980s when he was a senior member of the Soviet delegation to the Strategic Arms Reduction Talks.
The Soviet Union still existed then. Mikhail Gorbachev was in charge. The Cold War continued unabated. Nevertheless, the United States and the Soviet Union were about to complete the START I Treaty, the first pact between the two superpowers that would actually reduce rather than merely limit their strategic nuclear weapons.
One evening at a diplomatic reception hosted by the Soviets in their Geneva mission, I found myself in a protracted conversation with Sergei Kryuchkov, known KGB agent and son of that agency’s head spook. We were sipping red wine—rotgut Soviet red wine—from paper cups.
It was a typical diplomatic reception—200 people, half of them Americans, the rest Soviets, grazing from a buffet table brimming with finger food, exchanging diplomatic half-truths diplomatically.
The Soviets always put out good food at their receptions, better than the stuff we served at the American mission when it was our turn to host. However, because of Mikhail Gorbachev’s desire to reduce alcoholism among government officials, the Soviet mission was prohibited from serving hard liquor at its diplomatic functions. Beer and wine only—Soviet wine at that.
Our side was not similarly constrained. Whenever the Soviet delegation arrived at one of our receptions, its members shot right past the food table, hot-footing it to our fully stocked bar like hallucinating desert survivors pursuing an illusionary oasis.
When we Americans showed up at a Soviet reception, we went first for the food; visiting the bar was but a diplomatic obligation.
So Kryuchkov and I were talking. I was about to say something I’m sure would have been quite profound when he took a sip of his rotgut Soviet red wine and made a contorted face.
“Excuse me for a moment,” he said, forestalling my profundity, then walked purposefully to the bar. He returned a moment later sporting a fresh drink, something other than wine. He was beaming.
"You know," he said through a broad grin, "when you're really thirsty, nothing beats a Coca Cola!”
Pepsi beats Coke!”—The Pepsi-Cola Company
From C-C-Cold War Syndrome by GH Spaulding
The crash site was less than 50 yards from the old highway. McCauley and I scrambled out of the car and stood in a drizzle on the shoulder of the road, gazing helplessly at the flaming wreckage. Even in the cool rain falling in the wake of the storm, we could feel the fire’s heat on our skin and through the material of our green Nomex flight suits.
A search-and-rescue helicopter hovered over the site like a humming bird, its rotor blades whipping the column of black smoke that billowed from the inferno then swirled into the rain and darkened the overcast even more. Yellow crash trucks arrived and began pumping streams of fire suppressant chemicals on the flames.
Both of us understood without saying so that it could have been us in there. We knew that, for us, the vagaries of chance and a scant six feet of airspace had been the difference between life and instantaneous oblivion.
The story of what had happened spread quickly through the crowd of onlookers. The T-28 had smashed into a one-story concrete block building, which except for a low stair-stepped section of the nearest wall had been reduced to rubble.
About to enter the building, a man had just inserted his key into the front door lock when he heard the familiar roar of a T-28 Trojan. But he’d never heard one of them quite so close. He whipped his head around to see it hurtling straight at him—upside down—condensation streaking back from the tips of its screaming steel propeller blades. The terrified man bolted out of the way only a second or two before the plane impacted the building and exploded.
The fire was put down quickly. Members of the crash crew in heavy asbestos suits waded into the smoking debris and dragged out the charred body of the pilot. It was remarkably intact—except that the young man had been decapitated.
There wasn’t much else to see. The rain began to thicken as another thunderstorm approached from the south. McCauley and I climbed into my car and headed back to the base with the windshield wipers on high.
Reflecting on the gruesome scene we’d just witnessed and on our own mortality, neither of us spoke during the short drive back.
I delivered McCauley to his car. “See you tomorrow, sir,” he said, rendering a quick salute before turning in the rain to unlock his driver’s side door.
“See ya, Mac,” I responded, then drove away.
Only an hour earlier, before the storm arrived, the weather had been clear. All morning a steady northeast wind had chased wispy little powder-puff clouds across the Florida panhandle’s pale blue sky. They were widely scattered and of no meteorological significance.
But when they reached the Gulf of Mexico, only a few miles to our south, they seemed to collide with an invisible barrier, turn back on themselves and twist into one another like white icing in a blender. The mixing had gone on for hours until a huge curtain of thick white hung menacingly just off the coastline. And the powder puffs kept coming.
That’s how it was when I lifted off runway 4 and headed north—away from the towering white curtain—in 2W-111, the T-28 that I flew every day. My name was stenciled on the side of her fuselage directly below the canopy and my call sign, derived from her tail number, was “Two Whiskey Triple Sticks.”
Ensign McCauley, my student, was in the rear seat. For him it was a basic instrument syllabus hop on which he would perform a series of prescribed flight maneuvers entirely on the gages.
When we were level and steady at 1,000 feet, I instructed him to go “under the bag.” He reached up, pulled forward on a white, accordion-like canvas hood that when extended resembled the top of a Conestoga wagon. He snapped it into place on the glare shield. Thus cocooned, he could see nothing outside the aircraft and had to rely totally on the instruments to fly the plane.
“Ready, sir,” McCauley said over the intercom.
“Roger. You have the aircraft,” I responded.
“I have the aircraft.”
He commenced a climb and headed for 13,000 feet, where he would spend the next 45 minutes flying exacting instrument patterns.
His transition to the climb was good. He was smooth and easy on the controls and the 1425-horsepower T-28 responded nicely to his touch. He was relaxed and confident and I could tell that he had the makings of a good pilot.
During our preflight briefing, McCauley had informed me that he and his brother-in-law were going through flight training together. They’d been friends before their acceptance into the program, married sisters and looked forward to long parallel careers in the Navy. It was a nice way to go through the program, I thought, having someone in the family with whom to study, with whom to compete on a friendly basis and with whom to commiserate over minor setbacks.
McCauley was performing his climb perfectly, constantly turning the aircraft 30 degrees either side of our base course to enable me to scan for other aircraft. Airspeed, rate of climb, rate of turn, transitions, all on the money.
Then, suddenly, there came a radio transmission over Guard, the emergency frequency routinely monitored by all military aircraft:
“This is Whiting tower on Guard. Whiting Field is now closed for a runway change. The new duty runway will be two-two.”
When we had launched from Whiting Field only moments before, the wind had been from the northeast and the runway had been 4—040 degrees magnetic. The sudden change to a runway oriented in exactly the opposite direction meant that the wind had shifted dramatically. I thought of the huge white curtain of compressed moisture and pent-up energy hanging off the Florida coast a little south of the field.
“I’ve got the aircraft,” I informed McCauley. “Pop the bag, we’re going home.”
“Sir?” No doubt he thought he’d screwed up somehow and that I was terminating his flight early for poor performance. I explained to him my concern about the runway change and its implications for the weather at home field. I feared it might deteriorate so that we’d have to land at some remote field and wait for it to blow over. With what had been building over the Gulf, that could prove to be at least an overnight diversion.
Ten minutes later we checked in for the break at Whiting Field. The first in a long line of towering thunderstorms had already reached the upwind end of the active runway.
“Two Whiskey Triple Sticks, you’re cleared number five for the break,” the tower controller said.
There were four aircraft ahead of us in the pattern. Visibility was poor, making it difficult to see the other planes. I instructed McCauley to help me count the aircraft on the downwind leg of the racetrack landing pattern. We would take interval on the fourth one.
We spotted the aircraft we were to follow and, just skirting the edge of the massive thunderstorm, started our left turn to the downwind leg.
Suddenly, another T-28, flying in the opposite direction, shot out of the storm. It flashed over us, not more than six feet above the top of our Plexiglass canopy. At a passing speed of 240 knots, there was no time for any reaction but a reflexive duck of the head and even that came an instant after the near mid-air collision.
I landed 2W-111 in a heavy downpour, taxied her to the line and shut her down. Both McCauley and I were soaked by the time we made the short dash from there to the hangar.
Then we got the news. A T-28 had gone down in the storm. Beyond the field boundary, a column of black smoke rising above a thick stand of lofty Southern Pines marked the spot.
Through the deluge, it was impossible to judge the distance to the accident site. However, it was in the same direction as the residential neighborhood where my house was located, where I knew my wife Ev and sons Scott and Brian were.
“I’m going out to the crash site,” I told McCauley, fearing the worst and heading for my car.
“Can I come along?” he asked.
“Up to you,” I said.
When we arrived at the scene of the crash, I was relieved to discover that it was not as close to my home as I had feared. My family was safe. The young man whose headless body we watched being pulled out of the wreckage moments later had not been so fortunate.
It was the next morning before I learned the details of the accident. It had been a flight of two aircraft, each piloted by a student naval aviator, on a formation syllabus training flight. Their instructor had flown close behind them in his own plane in what was called the chase position.
When planes flying in formation enter a cloud and lose sight of each other, standard procedures call for them to split up—basically to turn away from each other so as to take up divergent courses. That’s what the two students had done over Whiting Field.
One of them had punched out of the cloud and passed directly over my canopy. The other wound up flying through the heart of the storm. In the severe turbulence, he became disoriented. His aircraft did a slow roll to the inverted position. His instructor stayed with him and over the radio attempted to talk him back to straight-and-level flight.
His attempt was unsuccessful. The last transmission from the student’s aircraft was: “Somebody help me!” Seconds later, it slammed into the concrete block building.
By regulation, an accident board was convened to investigate every facet of the tragedy and to promulgate whatever lessons could be learned from it. Meanwhile, the rest of us went on flying—four hops a day to satisfy the pilot production rate for Vietnam.
All except for McCauley. I never saw him again after dropping him at his car that day in the rain. I found out that he had quit the flight program.
He’d been unable to continue after learning that the headless body we’d watched being pulled from the smoking rubble along the old highway was that of his brother-in-law.
“Flying is not dangerous. Crashing is dangerous.”
—Rules of Flying
From C-C-Cold War Syndrome by GH Spaulding
As commanding officer of VT-28, the same squadron in which I had completed Navy flight training some 15 years before, I had the pleasure of officiating at a number of winging ceremonies for my graduating students.
At one such ceremony, a distinguished, elderly gentleman wearing the uniform of a Navy captain was present to help do the honors for his grandson. With his white mustache and goatee, he looked like a twin of the original Colonel Sanders of Kentucky Fried Chicken fame.
When I handed him a pair of shiny gold aviator wings to pin on his grandson’s uniform, he surprised the young man, me and the entire audience by quietly slipping them into his own pocket. Then he reached into another pocket, producing a much older pair of Navy wings, bent and heavily tarnished by the years. Navy pilots would call them “salty.”
“Son,” he said to his grandson in a voice that quivered from both age and emotion, “I was gonna be buried with these, but I want you to have ‘em.”
It was a tearful, touching scene as with trembling fingers he pinned the weathered wings on the chest of the proud young graduate.
Over punch and cookies following the ceremony, the old captain told me that he had joined the Navy in 1917 and had earned his pilot’s wings in 1922. During World War Two, he had served as Admiral Nimitz’s command pilot for official visits to subordinate units throughout the Pacific. He was curious about certain aspects of modern-day Navy flight training.
“Tell me,” he said, “how many flight hours do your students have when they go up on their first solo and how many when they get their wings?”
“About 15 hours before their first solo,” I explained. “Around 180 hours when they get their wings. Years ago, it was 300 hours for wings, but the advent of simulators has enabled us to reduce that number significantly.”
He smiled. “You know,” he said, “when I flew my first solo, I had only three hours of flight time. And I had a grand total of thirty hours when I got my wings.”
I shook my head in awe.
He went on to relate what his own commanding officer had told him when pinning on his wings in 1922: “Son, if you survive long enough to accumulate a hundred hours of flight time, you’re gonna be a great pilot.”
Then the senior officer looked him in the eye and added, “But I don’t think you’re gonna make it!”
“Pilots will not wear spurs while flying.”
—Regulations for Operation of Aircraft
Commencing January 1920
“Mark on top,” said Lieutenant Paul D’angelo from the left seat of the P-3C that circled busily at 12,000 feet over the frigid North Atlantic. Further aft, Lieutenant Rhonda “Little Mac” McIntyre, the crew’s tactical coordinator, pushed a button on her computer console to update the relative position of a sonobuoy bobbing on the surface of the frothy sea more than two miles below.
The sonobuoy was a radio transmitter. For the next two hours, it would continue relaying acoustic data received by its underwater microphone, called a hydrophone, dangling hundreds of feet beneath it in the cold, ebony sea. Computers aboard the P-3 Orion would process the data and display it on screens for tactical crewmembers to decipher. There were at the moment nine sonobuoys in the water, each of them collecting and, via its own unique frequency, sending information for on-board processing. Their signals conveyed a variety of sounds—the hum of distant commercial shipping, the bellow of an occasional whale, the chattering of a swarm of snapping shrimp and the persistent pitch of a Soviet nuclear-powered Delta-class submarine.
The Delta was on patrol, moving stealthily southward. Over 450 feet in length, it carried 16 SS-N-8 submarine-launched ballistic missiles, each with a range of 4,200 miles and each outfitted with a cluster of nuclear warheads aimed independently at targets in the United States. More than 100 American targets now lay within the Delta’s striking range.
Operating from Keflavik, Iceland, the P-3 had been tracking the Delta covertly for more than three hours. It would continue doing so for nearly three more before a relieving aircraft was scheduled to arrive from Kef.
D’angelo, known affectionately as “Dangerous Dan” to the rest of his eleven-man, one-woman crew, guided the plane smoothly in the direction of the next buoy in the pattern. Blind to it in the darkness, he followed the point of a needle on his instrument panel that was slaved to the buoy’s radio frequency. “Mark on top,” he reported to “Little Mac” when the needle flipped over a moment later.
Suddenly, the tranquility of the cockpit was broken by the nerve-jarring blare of a warning claxon. At the same time, a red light on the instrument panel above the gages for the number three engine illuminated, bathing the darkened flight station in a brilliant scarlet glow.
Petty Officer First-Class Roger Kyle, the flight engineer occupying the middle seat, reacted first. His “Oh shit!” spoke for the two pilots who flanked him.
In the copilot’s seat, LTJG Matt Philips twisted his head to the right to visually check the number three engine, located just inboard of number four on the starboard wing. The warning indicators hadn’t lied. The engine was burning!
“We got fire!” shouted Philips. The entire nacelle was engulfed in flames, which streamed back over the wing.
“E-handle, number three!” D’angelo commanded, extending his arm and pointing emphatically at the emergency shut-down handle he wanted Kyle to pull. There were four of them—one for each of the Orion’s 4600 horsepower turbo-prop engines—and it was not unusual for an excited flight engineer to yank out the wrong one. Kyle got it right.
With the E-handle pulled out to the limit of its travel, everything flammable that flowed to the burning engine—jet fuel, oil, hydraulic fluid, air and electrical current—was physically cut off. The blaze should have gone out.
“Still got fire!” Philips reported anxiously.
“Okay, hit the button,” D’angelo directing Kyle to discharge the fire extinguisher system installed in the number three engine compartment. The flames burned even hotter.
Completion of the remaining items on the Emergency Shutdown Checklist proved as futile.
D’angelo tried everything in the book, then everything else he could think of, all without effect. Finally, with the integrity of the right wing in imminent jeopardy, he was left with no choice. He would have to ditch the plane in the sea.
A controlled crash landing in the water is never easy. But the chances of successfully ditching a disabled aircraft in the wind-whipped, freezing North Atlantic, particularly with the waves and swells invisible in the dark, were infinitesimally small.
Under the circumstances, “Dangerous Dan” D’angelo’s was nothing short of spectacular, the result of a fateful combination of skill and good luck. The aircraft broke apart, of course. And while three crewmembers, “Little Mac” among them, suffered critical injuries, everyone on board survived the 115-mile-per-hour impact with the water. Two of the plane’s three life rafts were successfully deployed and inflated and those who were able helped the injured into them.
By sunrise, all three of the injured had died from loss of blood, mostly the result of internal hemorrhaging. Four of the remaining nine had succumbed to exposure to the wet and a wind-chill factor that ranged well below zero. The rest were barely alive.
(Author’s note: Far from the end of this story, this is just the beginning. However, the rest of it would constitute an entire book. I am forced by the limitations of space to condense it to a few summary paragraphs. Please bear with me.)
The nearest vessel of any kind to the crash site is the Soviet submarine, which diverts from its assigned patrol track to investigate.
Aware that those still alive in the rafts cannot possibly survive the elements, the sub’s commanding officer decides in a moment of compassion to take them aboard. He surfaces his ship and begins the arduous task, howling winds and heavy seas making the work extremely dangerous for the Soviets.
While another man expires before he can be rescued, LT D’angelo, LTJG Philips, Petty Officer Kyle and Seaman Cuthberson, the crew ordnanceman, are pulled into the sub. They are taken to the enlisted mess deck, where they are provided mattresses and blankets and kept under constant armed guard.
The Soviet political officer assigned for the duration of the Delta’s patrol admonishes the skipper for taking the American Navy men aboard his ship, thereby exposing sensitive national secrets to them. The political officer demands that he report his actions to Moscow and return to port, where he will face certain imprisonment for treason.
An argument between the two men degenerates into a fight in which the political officer is killed. Realizing that his fate is sealed, the sub commander decides what he must do. He will defect with his ship to the United States, where he is certain he will be welcomed as a hero for his courageous act of humanitarianism.
Based on evidence found at the P-3 crash site by a friendly sub, American intelligence learns there are surviving crewmembers aboard the Soviet submarine. A lone intelligence analyst reaches the same conclusion that the sub commander did—that he has no choice but to defect. Ultimately, he convinces his superiors that his analysis is correct.
However, the U.S. Government, fearing that the Soviet Union might resort to nuclear war if one of its super secret strategic submarines is allowed to enter an American port, decides to assist Moscow in intercepting and reclaiming its ship. In return, the four surviving P-3 crewmembers are to be released.
The wary Soviets, burned in the past by attempted defections by their navy crews, hedge on the agreement. Unbeknownst to either American intelligence or the sub commander, a remotely-controlled explosive scuttling device was installed in the bowels of the ship prior to its leaving on patrol. When it surfaces 100 miles east of the U.S. coast in order to transit the shallow waters above the Continental Shelf, a Russian TU-95 Bear aircraft passes overhead. Its pilot depresses a switch in his cockpit that sets off the explosive scuttling device. The powerful blast demolishes the sub and kills everyone on board.
The Navy then issues a press release announcing the loss of one of its P-3C Orions along with its entire crew in a tragic crash at sea during a routine flight from Keflavik, Iceland.
(Second author’s note: “Now, hold on just a minute,” you’re probably thinking about now. “I never heard about this. No way in hell this can be a true story.”)
Well, I assure that it is...in a sense. It’s absolutely true that the whole thing took place, just as I have described it—in my mind. It came to me early one morning in Keflavik, Iceland. At the time, about 2:00 a.m., I was walking in the dark to the Navy P-3 hangar before an operational launch against a transiting Soviet ballistic missile submarine. I thought it would make a good plot for a novel that I might write some day.
After returning from the flight, I outlined my hurriedly conceived plot. Then, over the next several days, I related my fictional tale to anyone who would listen. There were many who did. Although they winced at the dark ending of the story, everyone said it would make a good movie.
And in the event you think parts of it sound vaguely familiar, let me give you the punch line. All of this occurred two years before the publication of Tom Clancy’s book The Hunt for Red October. True. I still have that outline.
Mark on top!