In The Drink

by kfrego

In 1964 MCAS Kaneohe had four squadrons assigned to Marine Air Group Thirteen. HMM-161 (The Pineapple Squadron) flew UH-34D reciprocating engine helicopters. VMA-214 (The Black Sheep Squadron) flew A-4c attack jets. VMF(AW)- 212 (The Lancers) and VMF(AW)- 232 (The Red Devils) both flew F-8D and F-8E fighter jets. All of the squadrons were trained and proficient for aircraft carrier operations. We maintained a mock carrier deck at Kaneohe for night carrier landing training. The mock up was painted out adjacent to our main runway and when the lights were on at night it was identical to a carrier deck. The landing mirror location used by carrier pilots was also identical. We frequently had visiting squadrons from nearby carriers and Naval Air Stations doing touch and goes at night.

One of the Top Guns on base flew the F-8E fighter jets. His last name was Gardiner. He had a couple experiences which really tested his skills. He was a Top Gun. He was good. He wasn’t lucky. My crew was on midfield position with our crash truck when the tower called an emergency. A F-8E 60 miles from base was having flameout problems. Every time the pilot transferred from one of his near empty fuel tanks to another tank, the engine lost fuel. The plane would be precariously low on fuel before arriving back at base. It would be disastrous if the engine flamed out on approach to the runway. The pilot was ordered to fly in over the bay at 12,000 feet, head the plane out towards the pacific ocean, and eject over the base. We saw the slight puff of smoke from the explosive charge that blew off the canopy. The ejection seat and pilot came right behind the canopy. We all held our breath as the chute deployed for the pilot. The plane made a huge overhead loop right above us and descended screaming into Kaneohe Bay several hundred feet off the end of our runway. The shallow water and silty mud went hundreds of  feet in the air when the plane hit. Our Sea Air Rescue chopper picked the pilot out of the ocean downwind from base.

The F-8 jets had a variable wing. during take-off and landing the leading edge of the wing was elevated for additional lift. The wing was lowered in flight for speed. The tower always asked F-8 pilots to confirm wing up for take off. Gardiner was taking off and confirmed wing up. He hit afterburner and hurtled down the runway. His plane never came off the runway and had way too much speed to abort take-off. He killed the afterburner just as the plane went into gravel at the end of the runway. He blew his canopy as the plane launched off the fifteen foot high shore and into the Pacific Ocean. The plane skipped a few times before nosing into a wave. The wing was down. The pilot got washed off the top of the plane by waves several times before the chopper picked him up. He looked like a drowned rat and probably felt even worse. His second lost plane in a couple months.

A pilot with lessor skills could have been killed in both instances…………..but a new guy would have made sure that wing was up before confirming it with the tower.