BEARCAT WITH A DEATH WISH
If you have a “Green card,” (instrument rating) and the right FlogAirWing qualification card with required aircraft type entries verifying currency in a particular aircraft, all you need is the records for the aircraft, and the physical aircraft available. Then a pilot has the authority to fill out the flight plan, (DD-175), sign it and self- dispatch. That actually means, theoretically he could fly anywhere. That’s the way it was back then.
“Hello you little bugger,” I said to this aircraft that had been towed to the flight line to await my arrival. The ferry packet I carried showed she was going to Litchfield Park, AZ for a short nap in the desert before her turn to get a face lift in O&R (Overhaul and Repair.) This navy facility is either a bone yard for has beens or a way station for aircraft with a future. And, the Grumman F8F “Bearcat” certainly had a future. Too late for service during the close of WW2, this particular model was top of the line in propeller driven fighter aircraft. And the word I got was that when she came out of O&R she would have French markings and do her thing in French Indo China (Vietnam) to fight the communists.
I met the mechanic assigned (plane captain) to this aircraft and we pre-flighted it together. He commented that it had a couple of “open items” but nothing serious and we would go over them before I took her for a test flight. She appeared a little worn and tired but still had the feisty look of a winner. I flew “Bearcats” and loved them. What Navy pilot wouldn’t? Nothing else could match her performance. I’d even played games with Air Force pilots flying F-86 Sabre Jets and P-51’s below 25,000 feet in simulated combat and they couldn’t touch me. Nothing was better.
“Lieutenant,” the mechanic said as he helped me strap in, “she don’t have a drop tank and the biggest problem I found is that the tank selector is pretty sloppy.” I tried it in the off, on and drop selections and found out he was right. It was sloppy and didn’t have positive detents when making selections. It wouldn’t ratchet in any of the three selections and my first impression was that it was simply worn out. However, perhaps I relied too much on the mechanic’s opinion. “I think if you just jiggle it you’ll be OK,” he said jumping off the wing and waiting for my start signal. “After all, she’s going to O&R and should get you there.” YEAH!
I got her started, got taxi clearance and proceeded to the runway awaiting takeoff clearance. Everything else checked out and when I got cleared to go, I went. I guess the most impressive fact about a “Bearcat” is how fast it accelerates and jumps into the air. At 90K I just shoved in a lot of right rudder to correct for “P” effect that wanted t pull the nose to the left, and a lot of right aileron to compensate for the torque of the powerful Pratt and Whitney R-2800 trying to roll you on your back. Then, up, up and away climbing like a rocket ship. Suddenly…..it got awfully quiet..very quickly. My altitude was almost a thousand feet when I lost the two thousand plus horse power pulling me skyward, but in the next few seconds of trying to correct the problem I gained a couple of hundred more feet in altitude. It gave me a few seconds of wiggle room.
“Oh shit,” I thought. My first instinct was to jiggle the fuel selector. Still silence except for the noise of the wind rushing by the cockpit. Then I checked the mag switch. It was on both. The fuel boost pump was on but…silence. OK. I’ve got a glider so don’t lose your airspeed. Ease the nose over and find someplace to land. I quickly evaluated my options. Below and ahead was the rail yards and the docks. To the left a lot of buildings. To the right the whole damn base. Behind was the runway I just departed from but could I get back to it?
One of the things we are always taught is, “don’t try to get back to the runway you just used, go straight ahead and keep your wings level as you crash. But above all, don’t stretch your power off glide and stall your aircraft. Bullshit! I had no place to go and I wasn’t going to try and bail out. Not enough time. Do something fast.
“Norfolk, Bearcat 341 engine failure right after takeoff, coming back,” I quickly said into my mic.
“Navy 341,” the control tower replied immediately, “you can have any runway. Can you make it to the field?”
“I’ll try,” I said. “I’m going against traffic and it will be downwind if I’m lucky.” They spotted me west of the airport going eastbound. How could they miss an aircraft diving toward the airport going the wrong way.
The tower made an announcement that there was an emergency in progress and all traffic should remain outside the traffic pattern until further advised.
I remember someone saying over the radio, “Good luck, Bearcat,” as I spun the stubby winged aircraft around to the left, on a dime, dropped the nose and headed back for the airport I just departed from. I just did everything you are not supposed to do, but I did it anyway. Keeping my glide speed at 100K I told myself, “you can make it.” I experienced just how fast an F8F with a big Aero prop not doing its job can drop toward the ground. I didn’t think I could make it all the way to a runway but I knew I could at least get inside the fence so I aimed for the grass short of the runway. I got the gear down and selected full flaps. I didn’t even care if they extended before I hit the ground because I had to stretch the last part of my dead stick glide and the plane bounced at least thirty feet in the air after my chin hit my collar bone so hard I thought I would be crippled for life. But, when I crossed the approach end of the runway I was right over it keeping the wings level, fanning the rudder and braking to a stop when I felt I was on the runway and not the grass. I stopped. Wow! That was a short flight. I unbuckled my chute and climbed out before the Duty van arrived and despite the hard landing everything was in place and nothing was broke that I could see walking around the bitch inspecting it for damage because of my hard landing.
The aircraft was towed back to the flight line. I rode on the tow tractor listening to the crew tell me how lucky I was. I just grunted agreement because it was more than just luck. God probably let me get away with a few things we are trained not to do.
When I got back to Operations I made my report, filled out the paperwork and got a ride to the O club. That’s where you sip a little sauce and calm your nerves before getting back to reality. Over a couple of scotch and sodas I answered a lot of questions from fellow pilots. The word about my recent experience was already making its way around the base. And, naturally, the more the story was told, the better it got. That’s the way it is. I got a call from the flight surgeon at sick bay to report for a check- up but convinced him it wasn’t necessary because there was no aircraft damage and I wasn’t hurt in any way. Besides, what would a blood test reveal other than scotch. So I simply thanked him for his concern.
The next day, back at my squadron, I gave a full report to my executive officer. The following day he advised me that the Bearcat had been repaired and my order to deliver it to Litchfield Park was still valid. So, let’s try it again.
This trip west was not solo. I had a partner who was taking another Bearcat to the west coast so we decided to fly formation. The first leg of our flight was to NAS Atlanta, GA. But I didn’t make it. Flying off his wing in a loose formation slot my engine started to run rough than began backfiring. Something you don’t miss with the short exhaust stacks just a few feet under your nose. I couldn’t hold my position and started to fall behind
“Hey, Cactus,” I said into the mic. We were both on the same tactical frequency. “I got a problem. My engine is crapping out on me.”
He slowed down and I could see him make a wide circle to the left heading back toward me. I had dropped below him and when he finally spotted me he said, “Are you goin’ to stick with her or bail out?” “I’m goin’ to ride her down,” I said. “There’s a lot of open space down there, I’ll find something.”
He stuck with me while I tried every trick I knew to get the engine running again. But, I didn’t so I had to pick a spot to set her down. Seymour Johnson AFB was located at Goldsboro, NC but too far for me to make with a sick engine. I spotted an airport, probably a satellite training field once used by the air force, but the closer I got to it I saw a lot of cows and fences across the grass covered hard surface runways. But, it had runways no matter what shape they were in. So I made my decision, I was going to use it.
I made a three sixty overhead no power dead stick pattern. That’s a procedure where you can pick a spot to land on by coming directly over it and circling down. That’s the same thing glider pilots do routinely. And, it works. Now it was going to work for me.
Rolling out of my turn on short final I put the gear down, then the flaps. I love animals, and cows are animals. I only hoped they would keep out of my way because I didn’t want to send any of them to cow heaven. I didn’t. As I felt the wheels touch I knew I had it made except for the fences I tore down as I stopped. I hoped I didn’t hit any pot holes that would rip the landing gear off the Bearcat. I didn’t. My partner, still circling overhead, saw that I had landed safely and said so over the radio. He advised me that he was going to call Seymour Johnson and tell them to send a helicopter to fetch me. He did and about an hour later a helicopter arrived at this abandoned airport with a medic and mechanics.
When I climbed out of the cockpit I inspected the aircraft and all I saw was barbed wire wrapped around the landing gear. No problem. A little paint would fix that. But, what the hell caused the engine to quite for the second time? It would take the mechanics coming from the AFB to give me the answer when they made their inspection.
“You OK?” the medic asked jumping out of the helicopter. “Yeah,” I said. “It’s this damn airplane that’s sick.” The mechanics did their thing. The lead mechanic said, “Sir, your fuel selector appears to be broken for starters. We’ll do some more checking but it will take some time.” We decided to all fly back to Seymour Johnson on the helicopter after another helicopter arrived with security to guard the aircraft.
Two days later I returned to the scene. The mechanics had repaired the aircraft and checked it out. I fired it up after a fuel truck that had been sent topped off my tank and I departed making sure to miss any fences and cows. That’s cooperation!
Next day I finally arrived at Litchfield Park. As I climbed out of the Bearcat I said, “You bitch, you sure tried but you didn’t get me.” I always talk to an airplane. I still do today after all these years and I’ll never let them forget who the boss is.
If you are one of the few who may not know who Captain Ike Eisenhauer is:
Captain A.L. “IKE” Eisenhauer, is a World famous author, speaker, instructor, adventurer, and currently a regular featured columnist for Airliners and Airports Magazine and master Aviator. Captain “Ike” as he is known to aviators worldwide, flew the only privately owned multi-million customized Boeing 707 for renegade genius financier Robert Vesco. Names like Nixon, Juan Tripp, Howard Hughes, Arthur Godfrey, King Juan Carlos of Spain were no strangers to “Ike” and the “Silver Phyllis” (the moniker Ike hung on the 707).
In the days of the presidency of Richard Nixon, shady characters like Bebe Rebozo, a Tampa Banker, Robert Vesco owned politicians and controlled countries. That whole world started to unravel in March 1973 for Vesco when many of his inner circle testified in front of a grand jury in New York city and Vesco fled in his Boeing to parts unknown.
Supported by Costa Rican leaders and even Fidel Castro of Cuba, Vesco was insulated from the jurisdiction of American courts. But In 1995 Castro threw Vesco in Jail and the “fugitive financier” vanished. However, the Silver Phyllis had been hidden and Captain Ike Eisenhauer was contracted by the United States government to find the Boeing and return it to the United Sates by “hook or crook.” Like an undercover agent, a spy, and a swashbuckling buccaneer “Ike” found the airplane and like Mr. Phelps of Mission Impossible, formulated a plan and executed it, to finally recover the multi-million Boeing 707 and brought his beloved “Phyllis” home. He did and the rest is history and it is all in his book “The Flying Carpetbagger” (Captain Ike is currently working on another book)…