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VF-151/Midway ← The War
Midway Museum Tour
F-4B Ready Room Exhibit
VFA-151 RR Exhibit
Mess Night Protocol
Bubba, Bed Hog, & Preppie, video
Project White Horse
Throw a nickel on the grass....*
After encountering aircraft accidents in each of my five previous change-of-duty stations, it was not only a great pleasure to finally become a true fighter pilot - in a real, front line fighter squadron - but also to not have some unfortunate aircraft accident accompany my arrival. With VF-151, that tragic chain of events for me had fortunately been broken...forever.
Finally, I Have Arrived!
Arrival to a fighter squadron was an entirely different experience than anything of my prior 2.5 years of flight training. Nothing compared. Although I was obviously the new squadron 'FNG' and "Nugget", and thus given all the unwanted junior jobs, it was also very apparent from day one, that I had just become a most welcome member of one of the most exclusive, elite, and tight knit units of aviators imaginable. It was an immediate thrill... without yet even flying in the squadron colors.
Smoke in the Cockpit
My initial flight with "Fitron 151" was a radar intercept training flight launched from NAS Miramar, and flown over the desert and Salton Sea. My squadron CO and his senior RO* were in the other, lead aircraft. Toward the end of our training flight, and as we joined up into close formation for the return to base, I noticed a lot of smoke in the CO's cockpit - I really thought he was on fire! My old-hand back-seater Dave laughed and said, "not to worry." "That's just the CO's back-seater RO Denny, smoking his usual cigar. He lights up at the end of every mission."
[Smoking without securing our 100% oxygen flow was potential suicide. Smoking with it secured was still risky, and obviously against regulations. Nevertheless, some months later I found myself joining our squadron's airborne smoking club . . . especially after combat missions.]
"Immediately I knew, after nearly three years of structured and tightly controlled training, this was going to be a whole different world . . . a fighter pilot's world. It is a world that few can truly understand, and far fewer ever are allowed to even see or experience . . . and indeed for me, it all was all coming true, and about to be.
VF-151: The "V" is the designation for "fixed wing" aircraft. The "F" is the designation for "Fighter" aircraft. The numbers were just arbitrary numbers, I believe.
VF-151 Nickname: "Vigilantes". (Not to be confused with the other aircraft nickname, "Vigilante" for the RA-5C aircraft.) Ours was a squadron nickname; but our aircraft nickname was the "Phantom", or maybe a Fox-four or "Ol' Smokey". And no, we never called our F-4Bs a "Rhino". That was some Air Force invention for their F-4s, not our Navy's.
VF-151 Radio Callsign: "Switchbox".... one we didn't like too much - but it was better than our ship's USS Midway's callsign, "Schoolboy". In our tactical radio transmissions, we shortened ours to "Switches" (if we weren't using our flight lead's personal call sign, which was the most normal, i.e."Cat").
VF-151 Message Traffic and Official Duty Orders Name: Fitron One Five One.
VF-151 Squadron patch and plaque: Nickname for our knife-in-the-teeth, nuclear cracked scull guy was, "Old Ugly or Mr. Ugly."
VF-151 Squadron Colors: Originally it was red. But in 1971 it was changed to yellow. (And there is a long story how that happened.)
VF-151 aircraft side-numbers also changed then along with the colors from 1xx series, to 2xx series.
Not long after my arrival to VF-151, and just prior to my first deployment to Southeast Asia, I was involved with "Carrier Qualifying" aboard the USS Midway. This involved the completion of a prescribed number of both day and night carrier landings ("traps"). On this late winter night, the USS Midway was operating approximately 100 miles off the coast from San Francisco.
During these training flight operations, there must always be an alternate airfield designated, just in case there are any problems landing aboard the aircraft carrier. On this occasion, NAS Moffett at the southern end of San Francisco Bay was our alternate airfield (what we called, a "Bingo" field).
As the ship continues steaming, flight crews are routinely updated with the constantly changing bearing and distance to the Bingo field. Each crew then calculates their absolute minimum fuel required to reach the emergency Bingo field if ever needed, for their particular aircraft.
On this dark night - for reasons still unknown to me – a serious mistake was made. The actual distance to the Bingo field was far greater than what was being broadcast to those six of us who were flying in the ship's night landing pattern.Then suddenly, the USS Midway steamed into a thick fog bank, precluding any more landings. We were told to "Bingo!"
We (my RO, "TA" and I) immediately initiated a climbing turn toward our bingo field. . . a landing field we would soon learn was now much further away than we had been led to believe. We would now need much more fuel than we had planned for us to ever make it to NAS Moffett. And there was nothing any closer, other than the very cold and pitching, black Pacific winter water.
Flying a "bingo" profile is an emergency situation with small margin for error. Checking our charts during climb-out, and given the large distance error, we soon realized making it to NAS Moffett without running out of gas was very questionable. It would be close. Certainly, neither of us relished a midnight ejection into the icy cold waters of the northern Pacific, and a Search & Rescue (SAR) operation. But we began to seriously prepare for that real possibility.
To gain the greatest distance with the least amount of fuel, the charted bingo profile must be flown precisely. This involves climbing to the specific altitude mandated for the given range, then later beginning a long slow glide at idle power at a predetermined distance from the bingo field. Naturally, the bulk of the precious remaining fuel is burned in the initial climb. Very little fuel is needed for the long, slow glide to touchdown.
Still in our fuel-burning climb, but having nearly reached our prescribed altitude, we switched radio frequencies to a different Midway air traffic controller. At check-in, he asked for our fuel state. We responded with, "one-point-six" (1,600 lbs.)
There was a long pause. Then, the controller finally responded with the chilling words that ring as clear to me today, as they did 35 years ago:"Sir, you're never going to make it!"
Luckily we did make it, but barely. It was extremely close.
A precisely flown, long idle descent straight to landing (and with a propitious bit of a tailwind) saved us. Our fuel gauges registered virtually empty as we taxied in after landing. . . with my knees slightly shaking on the rudder pedals. In fact, another Midway F-4 just ahead of us actually did flame out for lack of fuel while taxiing inbound.
Then once we were refueled – just like immediately climbing back onto a bucking horse after being thrown - we launched once again into the late dark night, for our return to the ship.
The Midway had by then escaped the fog bank, and was now steaming in the clear, yet thick black Pacific night. Thankfully, she now had updated and accurate bingo field information. Totally drained, physically and emotionally, we finally landed aboard her at 2 AM, went to our bunkroom, called it a night, and collapsed!
But in my dreams that night - as well as today, so many years later - I can still vividly hear that young air-controller hauntingly say . . . "Sir, you're never going to make it!"
* "Throw a nickel on the grass" is a common fighter pilot expression meaning roughly, good fortune. It was taken from an old Korean War Air Force song.
["RO" - Short for "RIO", (pronounced "Rhree-Oh"), for Radar Intercept Officer.]
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