Tuesday, May 13, 2014

                       Carrier Operations, Yankee Station, 1969-70
Modern American Super Carriers are mighty globe-spanning weapons costing billions. They are manned by many thousands of highly trained men and women who berth in air-conditioned comfort. Modern jets with digital flight control systems operate from the enormous flight decks with accident rates not too different from today's commercial aviation.
This is not about that. This is about the family of carriers one third that size that were hastily built to whip the Japanese in the Pacific during WW II, and then converted in the early ’50s with small angled flight decks and steam catapults, making it, in theory, possible to operate the jets then coming into service. Those airplanes were completely analog, were difficult and dangerous to fly, and relied completely on piloting skill to ward off disaster. And, especially on Yankee Station in Vietnam in the ’60s and early ’70s, disaster could happen in the blink of an eye.
These photos were taken by me aboard the USS Hancock, CVA 19, with my trusty Pentax and, mostly, Kodachrome slide film. All rights reserved.
From high above the flight deck, the almighty Air Boss commanded his vassals thus: ” NOW HEAR THIS. Check chocks, tie downs, loose gear about the decks. Check sound attenuating helmets on, chinstraps buckled, goggles down. Stand clear jet intakes and exhausts, stand clear propellers. Stand by to start engines.”
F-8 Crusader launch sequence. The catapult technology at the time worked like this: the aircraft taxied into position on the cat, and then was actually chained to the flight deck by a single point aft, with a frangible ‘holdback fitting’ (engineered for each aircraft type) between the airplane and the chain. Meanwhile other members of the catapult crew dragged the heavy launch bridle into position and hooked it to the forward aircraft structure. A yellow shirt (typically a Petty Officer First, E-6) commanded the proceedings with hand gestures. All obeyed unquestioningly, including and especially the pilot. A few select squadron maintenance personnel hovered around the airplane until the last second, checking for signs of trouble, and redshirted ordinance men accomplished final arming chores. Then, on signal from the Catapult Officer, the pilot, with his feet off the brakes, advanced the power all the way, and lit the afterburner if so equipped. Now just the holdback fitting restrained the airplane. With a sweeping motion toward the bow, the Cat Officer signaled to launch, and the steam cat shot forward fracturing the holdback fitting. Less than two seconds later the aircraft cleared the bow and then (hopefully) gathered speed and began climbing away, while the next aircraft moved into position. The two catapults alternated so that an aircraft would launch at least once per minute. At least that is my recollection.
The AB (yellow shirt) instructs the pilot to show him his hands, to insure that no switches in the cockpit are moved while the red-shirted ordinance man arms the Sidewinders. Two low-ranking members of the cat crew laboriously drag the launch bridle back so that it can be attached to the aircraft.  Meanwhile...

Worst job ever. Catapult crewman skinnys under the screaming J-57 to attach the holdback fitting. But he does get an extra $35 a month in flight deck pay.

The catapult is tensioned, squatting the landing gear...

The afterburner is lit, total thrust now about 18,000 pounds. Then the cat fires, and off she goes,

Full disclosure.... actually two different aircraft in the last two photos, as my camera was manual wind (and manual everything else too).


The term "27 Charlie", for our purposes, refers to the Essex class aircraft carriers of WW II vintage that were later modified with angled flight decks, steam catapults, and certain other refinements, and were classified as CVAs- which is to say Attack Carriers capable of the same kind of lethal work as any other CVA. The list of these carriers was pretty short: Ticonderoga, Intrepid, Lexington, Hancock, Bon Homme Richard ('Bonnie Dick'), Shangri-La, and the Oriskany. Other Essex class carriers were updated but they became anti-sub carriers or helicopter landing platforms, not CVAs.

The "27" referred to the displacement, 27,000 tons, just over one quarter of the displacement of a modern super carrier. The flight deck was so short that if an A-3 took the number four arresting wire the tip of the refueling probe ended up over the edge of the angle deck. For the crew, they were cramped in the extreme and not well ventilated. Crammed with ordnance, it was an everyday experience to eat your breakfast next to an air-to-ground missile being assembled.

As used in Vietnam on Yankee station they typically launched about two dozen A-4 Skyhawks, eight F-8 Crusaders, one or two RF-8 photo recon Crusaders, one Grumman E-1 AWACS 'Willie Fudd', a Douglas KA-3B Skywarrior tanker, and a helo for plucking unlucky souls out of the drink if necessary. 


The Secret War. This photo dates itself to December 7, 1969. But that was during a "Bombing Pause", 
one of the brief periods when we magnanimously stopped bombing North Vietnam for political/diplomatic reasons. So what were we doing, in concert with the other carriers on Yankee Station, launching air strikes around the clock?

"From 1964 to 1973, the U.S. dropped more than two million tons of ordnance on Laos during 580,000 bombing missions—equal to a planeload of bombs every 8 minutes, 24-hours a day, for 9 years – making Laos the most heavily bombed country per capita in history. The bombings were part of the U.S. Secret War in Laos to support the Royal Lao Government against the Pathet Lao and to interdict traffic along the Ho Chi Minh Trail. The bombings destroyed many villages and displaced hundreds of thousands of Lao civilians during the nine-year period."

Actually, I think they mean 'sorties' rather than 'missions' which is a wonkish quibble on my part, but trying to be accurate here. More disturbing information at   



Incident. The A-4, heavily loaded with iron 500 lb. bombs, launched from the starboard catapult, but the engine flamed out halfway down the cat track. The pilot was superb. As the airplane cleared the bow he jettisoned all his external stores, banked slightly right, and ejected. The ejection seat worked flawlessly, the parachute streaming out at the top of his brief arc and then inflating against a backdrop of white cumulus and blue sky and sea. The plane guard helicopter was on him instantly. The A-4 splashed clumsily into the Gulf of Tonkin, and then settled out of sight, joining the hundreds of other American warplanes which rest on the bottom there to this day.


Incident, night ops. An RF-8 photo recon launched on a typical solo sortie, but did not return. That is all there is to this story.


A Douglas KA-3 launches from the Hancock. Notice that the the top escape hatch is open which was standard procedure, since the A-3 was the only jet in the fleet without ejection seats. Theoretically if the airplane had trouble on the cat shot and ended up in the water the three man crew would scramble out of the escape hatch. In practice it didn't help because the boat would usually run over the airplane. The original designation for the A-3 was "A-3D"; naturally this was interpreted by sardonic squadron members to stand for 'All 3 Dead'.

Originally designed as a heavy bomber, the airframe was very adaptable and served for many decades as an electronic warfare platform, as a photo recon airplane, and especially as an aerial tanker. In this role it was unexcelled, and was capable of hauling nearly 40,000 pounds of fuel effectively, even from the small 27C flight decks. Modern KA-18 tankers cannot haul as much. The A-3 was the heaviest and largest jet to ever operate from an aircraft carrier.


The deck is respotted as a SH-3 Sea Knight lifts off. There were two of these helos on board, and the idea was to have one in the air around the ship during flight ops to come to the rescue when things went bad. They were referred to as 'angels', because that is what they were.

But; who would rescue the rescue guys if they had problems?.........

Incident. During the pause between the first and second launch the plane guard helo swung over to one of the other ships to pick up some personnel. Then he made a lazy pass by the port side of the flight deck and just about level with it. The big sliding door was open, and the crew chief was perched there with his legs dangling out, regarding us as we toiled like ants getting the second launch into position. Then suddenly the tail rotor stopped, the helicopter yawed wildly, the crew chief was flung out into thin air, and the whole mess fell into the Gulf of Tonkin. The helo broke into two pieces, and the occupants (including the crew chief) one by one bobbed to the surface, supported by their Mae Wests. The pop-out floats worked properly, keeping the forward section afloat. Unfortunately, it was floating upside down. The other helo was in the hangar deck, grounded with maintenance issues. What to do next?

The bosun's mates (never the most popular ratings aboard ship) had been waiting all cruise to use their whale boats, so they tweetled their little whistles and clambered aboard the first boat, which was promptly lowered, and it set out smartly to the rescue. Unfortunately they had failed to ship the rudder properly, and it fell off, leaving them at sea and rudderless, as it were. Meanwhile, the old man, or someone, ordered one of the thirty-man inflatable life rafts that lined the flight deck cut loose. It hit the surface of the water and sank like a stone. Eventually the second whaleboat made a more successful effort, the ever-faithful destroyer moved in to provide very professional assistance, and Tilley, the flight deck crane,  was used to hoist the front section of the helicopter aboard. It was tucked away in a corner of the hangar deck for the rest of the line period; a reminder of a rough day at the office. Fortunately, no injuries, except to some egos.

Douglas A-3 Launch Sequence. This was a solo launch for some reason, while we were steaming from somewhere to somewhere else, not part of an operational launch from Yankee Station, so it was pretty leisurely and gave me plenty of time to snap photos.

Airman Findley gets ready to start #2. He was great on the flight deck but a mess on the beach, so he went from E2 to E3 and then back again repeatedly, and could sometimes be seen marching around the boat accompanied by Marines with his hat on inside out.

Airman Findley instructs the pilot to hold the brakes while the tiedown chains are removed, one of the first steps in getting underway after the engines are started and hydraulic pressure is up. Note the open escape door; the safety pins from the landing gear will shortly be passed up to the plane captain (the third seat guy).

Control has been passed to the yellow shirt AB of the cat crew who will guide the airplane onto the catapult. His word is law now.

The catapult crew, under the direction of the lead catapult Petty Officer, hooks the catapult bridle to the cat hooks. Two of the squadron (VAH-10) senior maintenance personnel have been carefully checking the airplane over looking for signs of trouble. Now they squat under each engine and hold their hands over the bleed air bypass valves. If the valves don't close the engines aren't producing full power, and they won't leave. In this case it is Petty Officers Mollerstuen and Hawkins. This was a job that I was proud to do.

Seconds from launch the crew scrambles out of the way- but look at how the lead catapult PO holds his ground, making absolutely sure that everything is ok. If there is a problem here three of his shipmates will be in serious trouble. I tip my hat to him.

The Catapult Officer sends her on her way. A whole lot of energy being expended, the airplane is going somewhere.

Safely airborne. Nothing to it.

Fly III  So it came to pass that one of our A-3s lost an engine (rare occurrence for a J-57) and, since an
 A-3 would not begin to fit in the hangar deck we had to change it, ASAP, on the flight deck, with the airplane spotted aft. This gave me a chance to slip my camera under my vest and get some landing shots up pretty close...
                            F-8s were a handful to get aboard a small carrier. Sometimes like this...

                                  Sometimes like this....

                                Sometimes a wave off........

                                  Sometimes right on the money, like this RF-8...

                                Or this F-8.


      A-3s were just a really big airplane for a 27C.  A tight squeeze here, but we had excellent pilots.

   By comparison A-4s were pretty dainty, and seemed to come aboard with less drama (but still not an   occupation for the faint hearted).

Incident, rogue Sidewinder.  Daytime launch, nice weather. A typically heavily laden A-4 had just launched on the starboard cat when a Sidewinder being armed on the port cat suddenly accidentally fired, and then seemed to acquire and start to pursue the A-4. Quick work on the radio. The A-4 dumped all his external stores, got speed up, and broke hard right. The Sidewinder couldn't make the turn, and then ran out of fuel and fell into the ocean. It was a good race.


JBD. The starboard jet blast deflector rises up behind an A-4 as another queues up close behind. These devices made flight deck operations possible, but they had limitations. They did no good at all with the twin engined A-3, and they did have maintenance issues (in fact this one looks like it might need some work soon). For a time on this cruise on the Hancock the port JBD did not work at all, making things interesting, particularly with F-8s, which were notorious anyway since the exhaust was so low to the deck, and with the afterburner lit- well you can imagine. F-8s were dangerous at the other end too, since the intake was equally low, and was voracious.


Incident, night ops.  A nasty night, the A-4 hit the deck hard, breaking the port main gear strut. No hook engagement. The pilot ejected as the airplane went off the angle deck. All hands rushed to the edge of the flight deck and started pitching wands into the sea to mark where things went bad. But... incredibly his feet never touched the water. As we looked down from the catwalk we could see that his parachute had inflated and then immediately hung up on the landing system mirror which stuck out from the side of the ship. A highly improbable stroke of fortune, but also a ticklish rescue problem, and one not in the books. The solution was worked out by wiser heads far above my pay grade. It involved again using Tilley, the invaluable flight deck crane, some ingenious rigging, and patience. The pilot was brought back on board with a hell of a sea story, to be sure.

Daytime ops were fast and furious, with literally tons and tons of ordnance in the mix. Night operations were the same but conducted in something like a lower level of Dante's Inferno. Night launches were made with the ship blacked out almost totally, which somehow made the incredible noise level even more stressful. Thinking about it, we worked in an environment in which one of our senses (hearing) was completely nullified; and then at night, particularly during the launch phase, we operated in a surreal sort of stygian darkness.

During recoveries at night the after flight deck was brightly lit, with the transition from the second launch and the recovery of the first launch happening in what seemed like seconds. Just immediately after the last aircraft cleared the catapult the deck lights blazed on, and very shortly after that the first returning A-4 from the first launch slammed onto the flight deck. As each aircraft cleared the arrestment area it was brought forward, fueled and armed, and then the whole process started over again. Flight Operations lasted for twelve hours a day for each carrier on Yankee Station, noon til midnight or the reverse, so nighttime ops were an everyday thing.


VF 24  F-8 Crusader joins up on a VAH-10 KA-3 tanker off the coast of Vietnam. He is loaded for bear and hoping for trouble, but on this cruise there were no MiG encounters. Many authorities think that
F-8s and their pilots were the most effective dogfighters of the Vietnam war.


Incident, A-4 battle damage.  Daytime, nice weather. The word came down that a crippled A-4 was headed back to the ship. The plane guard helo was already in position when a flight of three A-4s crossed the bow a few miles out at maybe 2500 feet, one leading and the other two escorting on either side. The pilot of the lead airplane ejected shortly after crossing the ship's path. Again, the seat worked perfectly and the pilot was swinging under the canopy in maybe four seconds. The helicopter was recovering the pilot before the A-4 had time to settle to the sea floor I suspect. Textbook.


Brief R & R. Carrier line periods were thirty days, then it was quickly into port to refit. It so happened that right next to where the Hancock berthed at Cubi Point was the base sailing club. And it also happened that I had a official US Navy card saying that I was qualified to operate a small sailboat, which certainly was a stretch of the imagination. At the mouth of the harbor was a small island surrounded by coral reefs, and upon this island stood a dilapidated and picturesque hotel right out of Somerset Maugham. In the courtyard of that hotel you see the author, age 22, Petty Officer 2nd (L) and on the right ADJ 2 Michael Stanford, an A-3 plane captain who flew a lot and was my partner on the flight deck on many memorable occasions. He lives in LA now, and has helped me try to keep this account real. A third shipmate was with us and took this photo, but I have lost track of  him....Where are you, Whacker?

Inflight refueling was what we were there for. Jets of the day were very thirsty, and in addition to our KA-3s each A-4 squadron put up their own airplanes equipped with buddy tanker external stores,  popularly referred to as Tinker Tankers. Waste not, want not, so our first task after launch was to rendezvous with returning tankers and top off with their surplus. Here it is a buddy tanker A-4.

(Tucked in like this you could smell the JP from his exhaust)


Tinker Tanker Trouble. If you look closely at this photo you can see the refueling hose trailing behind the A-4- it would not reel back in. What to do? It was decided to go ahead and bring the airplane back on board when the rest of the recovery was over, after thorough consultation I'm sure. The fire guys decided that it would be better to wait on this side of our A-3 to see how things worked out.

In this photo you can see the hose whipping back up as it strikes the edge of the flight deck, and fuel spewing from the drogue makes it look like a cobra rearing its head. It looks like a picture perfect trap to me. The fire guys were right on the case, but nothing further happened. Just another day at sea.

Incident, night ops, F-8 ramp strike, up close.  Carrying the necessary implements, my associate PO Cottier and I were back by the arrestment area to see to the important matter of the bolt that attached the hook point to the arresting hook on our KA-3. This "Jesus bolt" needed to be torqued after every arrestment, and changed every tenth trap. And it had to be done, very quickly but very accurately, just as soon as the wire dropped and before the airplane taxied forward; the reason being that the only places on the flight deck to spot an A-3 on a 27C required the tail of the airplane to be sticking out over the water.

It was not a nice night, the deck was pitching some, and the F-8 that was in the pattern before our A-3 got low on the approach. Things happened very fast after that. The lurid wave-off lights came on, the nose of the airplane at a very high angle of attack appeared over the ramp, the Martin Baker ejection seat fired with a very loud POP and the airplane hit the ramp and stuff went everywhere. That must of been the sequence but it all seemed to happen simultaneously. Cottier and I took off toward the island, dodging around as best we could the 500 lb. bombs on their dollies yarded up for rearming A-4s. The bulk of what remained of the F-8 slid by to our left and then off the angle deck, moving at 100+ knots I guess. Cottier and I later agreed that the $35 monthly flight deck pay bonus was insufficient.

Ramps strikes were the bete noire of the F-8 Crusader, I am told by those with more knowledge than me. The were very capable airplanes but very demanding, and could bite the finest pilot it seems. I have the utmost respect for anyone who flew them.

Before and After.  Here is 612, not long after we left Hawaii, steaming for the Gulf of Tonkin. Michael Stanford,  plane captain, has been catching a few rays. She looks good, paint is spiffy, nice and tidy, ready for duty....

Much later.... Notice particularly the wrinkles in the skin above the nose landing gear strut (you may have to zoom in). It appears that the airframe has had about enough of the loads imposed by carrier launches and landings, on this, her umpteeth deployment. Check out 610 in the A-3 launch sequence too. "Oh, it's a hard knock life" as Annie used to sing. Even the most skillful modeler would have a tough time getting all the wear and tear and warped skin and dented panels right at the tail end of a Yankee Station cruise.


Yankee Station box score.  Using On Yankee Station (Nichols and Tillman, 1987) as a reference, the US Navy lost 854 aircraft in the great blast of waste and destruction that was the Vietnam War. Not all of these losses were carrier borne aircraft, but the great majority were. Carriers made 71 cruises to Yankee Station between August of 1964 and January of 1973, making the average number of aircraft losses something like eleven per cruise. About 60% were combat losses, the other 40% "around  the boat".

By contrast, and in no way meaning to diminish the sacrifice, the total aircraft losses by the U.S.Navy during the First Gulf War was less than ten, all causes.

USS Hancock, CVA 19, as viewed from a KA-3 in the landing circuit. If you look closely you can see an A-4 on short final. It is a pretty nice day in the Gulf of Tonkin, my kind of weather.

The keel of the Hancock was laid down in January of 1943. She was in combat in the Pacific by October of 1944;  that is how they did things in those days. She made seven Yankee Station cruises, tied with Oriskany and Ranger for most. She was cut up for scrap a few years after these photos were taken.

Back on the pier, San Francisco, April 1970. Just a bunch of kids. This had been my second Vietnam gig (the first had been with VQ-1, wherein I spent a fair amount of time at Da Nang which gave me another distinct set of impressions). A few weeks later my term of enlistment was up, and I was honorably discharged.

Steaming into the sunset.  I hope that someone preserved the ship's bell.

                                                             ~ FINIS~

MEMORIAM:   The RF-8 pilot who did not return was Lt. V. P. Buckley of VFP-63. Also lost was Lt. J. A. Griner of VA-212, who was killed attempting to land a damaged A-4 at Da Nang.. They put themselves in harm's way in the service of their country.

     Thanks to Dean Kwarta, VA-94 A-4 pilot, for providing me with the details about the loss of his friend John Griner.

Update: Dan Colleran was kind enough to send me a note with this image. The ship's bell from CVA-19 is in a place of honor in front of COMNAVAIRLANT at 129 Franklin St. in Norfolk VA. Dan served on the Hancock from 9/70 until 5/72. And his dad was a SB2C and F6F pilot on the Hancock in '44 and '45. Dan is involved with the Hancock association now and it seems that the ship is in his DNA, as he puts it. And he has been taking particular care of the bell. You can visit the Hancock Association at:


                             All photographs by me, and I reserve all rights.

Some related links that I recommend:

   http://f8crusader.org    F 8 Crusader central, home of the guys that flew them.

    http://a4skyhawk.org               Ditto for the ubiquitous global workhorse.

  http://www.a3skywarrior.com/     Excellent site for all things whale. Check out the cockpit video of the
 ferry of the last flying A-3 to Whidbey, and its arrival there, which marked the end of a long and honorable career.

    http://tommythomason.com/        Naval aviation historian with detailed info on 27Cs and many other naval aviation subjects. This address links to two of his blogs.

http://www.usshancockassociation.org/homepage.htm      Home page of the USS Hancock Association

Contact Info:    I would be very glad to get your comments, corrections, and suggestions:


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