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Naval Aviator Wings
"No bird soars too high, if he soars with his own wings."
As was now becoming too terribly routine, an F-9 Cougar crashed as I was checking into VT-24, NAS Beeville, TX. (Fortunately in this instance, the student pilot safely ejected, and was just fine.)
Unlike Pensacola Beach, here in Beeville I lived with another fellow SNA (Student Naval Aviator) in a bleak and small, house trailer. It was located up a dirt alley in the small town. We had an air conditioner in the trailer, but we turned it off during the day while we were out flying. When we returned late in the day, the closed up trailer was hot as hell from soaking under the hot south Texas sun all day. It was apparently also toxic from all the Formaldehyde fumes from its wooden wall panels. So we usually aired the trailer while we went to dinner somewhere before returning . . . but we still had a great time for our five months there.
This was to be a historic year. It was the year of " Woodstock" (three of us actually talked about getting some leave and going to the Woodstock Festival in upstate New York, but alas it was, only talk). Much more importantly, it was the year that man first set foot upon the moon. My trailer mate Mike and I had left Beeville for the greater weekend 'excitement' of San Antonio. Staying with an uncle, we delayed our sortie into town that historic night to watch, in black and white amazement, Apollo 11 and Neil Armstrong's first step upon the moon on July 20, 1969.
It was also the same year that my father, not long after the removal of a cancerous lung, visited me in Beeville. His surprising excitement and thorough enjoyment - just like a kid - sitting in the cockpit of an AF-9J while I explained all the instruments and controls to him, is one of the fondest memories I have of my father. He was so excited in fact, that he decided to finally take flying lessons at age 66. Sadly, he never did. He died 12 months later.
While the cruel war waged in Southeast Asia, Navy pilot production soared. Indeed, pilot production had so peaked in 1969, that there were now very few "fleet seats" available for the unprecedented number of graduating student pilots, now attaining their wings for those seats. Many would not even receive a flying billet. Competition was fierce.
While my ground school grades were adequate, but not stellar, I did at the time have the highest flight grade average of all flight students in both NAS Kingsville and NAS Beeville combined. I therefore would likely have my first choice of orders to the best duty stations, and to the most coveted aircraft in the Navy.
Unfortunately (but in the end, quite fortunately ) that was not to be.
The night before my all-important check-ride - one that would ultimately determine my future orders and naval flying career - my up-an-alley, aluminum-trailer roommate threw an impromptu party that kept me awake most of the night. Although sleepless, rather than cancel my check-ride, I mistakenly thought I could still "hack it".
Predictably, I failed the next morning's check-ride - and with cause.
Hard Work + Luck = Success!
I later thankfully passed my re-check, check-flight. But now my overall grades for orders to the fleet had slipped from number one to below number 5 in a class of 32 (Little did I know that this was perfect . . . as I later would learn).
By now I knew I desperately wanted to be a fighter pilot - an F-4 fighter pilot! But there were only 4 fighter pilot seats available for our class of 32. With my failed check-ride, I was now number 5 - just missing my F-4 dream..... But fate intervened.
My check ride failure ironically became a blessing.
For our class, the Navy decided to send the top two pilots of our 32 to RA-5C Vigilantes, regardless of their expressed preferences. Had I not failed as the former number one, I would have been involuntarily assigned the A-5 Vigilante aircraft, regardless of my strong documented preference for the F-4. Now the next four F-4 coveted slots available went to the #'s 3 - 6 pilots of the 32 of us, instead of #'s 1-4.
By my being #5, I luckily ended up with orders to the aircraft I by now knew I really wanted to fly - the F-4 Phantom! And even better, the F-4 in San Diego, California! By a stroke of providence, I failed, and therefore won. [It is usually better to be lucky than good, any day, I think.]
With my F-4 orders in hand, I finished my Navy flight training by carrier qualifying in the F-9 aboard the USS Hornet (The normal training carrier, Lexington was in the yards) not long after her Apollo 11 recovery mission. It was quite an experience flying the vintage F-9 aboard a vintage, WWII carrier with her wooden decks and hard hydraulic catapults, rather than the smoother steam catapults of all other carriers.
Finally after eighteen months of many challenges, hard work, and many memorable experiences, I was designated a Naval Aviator, number V-28908 on October 17, 1969. I had finally and proudly earned my Navy, "Wings of Gold."
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