"The Wright brothers' design....allowed them to survive long enough to learn how to fly."
With my original military obligation being complete, I now considered my future career options. Returning to school - either law or an MBA - were serious considerations, as well as a possible airline career. However, given the economy at the time and my enjoyable experiences to date, continuing on with my naval career as a fighter pilot seemed to be the best choice.
With the war now over, there was an excess of pilots. Many left the Navy voluntarily, and a number, involuntarily. A majority of pilots rotating to shore duty were given orders as flight instructors in Texas. However, looking for something unique, I bypassed that option. Instead, I accepted across-the-country orders to the Naval Air Development Center in Pennsylvania, which needed an F-4 experienced pilot. It would be another life altering choice.
As the Nixon/Watergate Senate hearings were taking place, I launched on the 5-day journey eastward toward NADC, with a brief stop en route in Iowa, to visit my mother.
NADC was initially - and for some time - a culture shock for me. It was a very great departure from the sunshine, beaches, and the excitement of Southern California and my friends. It was also a long way from that special, great camaraderie of being within a tight knit fighter squadron, especially one under combat conditions.
Unlike me, most all of the officers at NADC were married and older. They also came from other aviation communities that were foreign to me, rather than from fighters. And unlike aboard an aircraft carrier, here the majority of NADC personnel were civilians. I had little in common.
Fortunately, the flying made up for some of the negatives. Whether it was spin tests in the YT-2B, checkouts of the QF-4B, or a wild variety of interesting test projects flown with my NA-4C - except for the lack of ACM - the flying was exciting and rewarding.
In those days before tightly regulated airspace, I could (and did) fly my A-4C VFR, a few thousand feet above Manhattan, at night, just to enjoy the brilliant lights of the city. I also flew high speed, low-level flights in the middle of the night across New Jersey to Moorestown, testing the radar that is now the essence of our Aegis cruisers. I tested developmental sonar buoys in the Gulf of Mexico, dropped from very high speeds and low levels. I was a "3P" for a P-3C R&D detachment to Bermuda. But with very high sea states, our tests could not be completed, resulting in mostly a great contractor paid-for, 2-week Bermuda vacation.
While checked out in my three main aircraft, I was also fortunate to fly a number of other diverse aircraft, from the CH-53 helicopter, to the ASW (Anti-Submarine Warfare) P-3C, with an S-2 and C-131 in between.
(Most real fighter pilots would never admit to that kind of flying. It was supposedly "bad" for the logbook. I can admit though, that I appreciated that flying, and enjoyed getting a small but first hand taste of other naval aviation communities.)
I also frequently participated in a wide variety of many interesting projects requiring high G-forces in the NADC Centrifuge; the one that initially was used to train the original Mercury Astronauts. (Contemporary PBS Documentary)
Within their diverse fleet, NADC had only two A-4's to use for their many projects' test-bed aircraft. Only a very few of us (3, maybe 4 pilots of perhaps 25-30) were qualified to fly the A-4. Usually, a single pilot was dedicated to fly a specific R&D test project, and in a specific A-4.
In the middle of my particular test project (sorry, I have since forgotten its name or purpose . . . indeed we flew many different projects on several different aircraft) I needed a few days off for a minor operation at the Philadelphia Naval Hospital. In my stead, a fellow A-4 pilot and friend took my place flying this particular A-4 on my project.
His single-engine A-4 had a total engine seizure while on short-final approach to the runway. Fortunately, he had successfully ejected from the stricken aircraft, and was safely coming down in his parachute. But tragically, the wind blew his life-saving parachute back into the crashed A-4's fiery wreckage on July 23, 1975. He did not survive. . . . flying my project; the flight I should and would have flown. [May he rest in peace . . . and perhaps in my place . . .]
"On July 23, 1974, Lt Kenneth "Kenny" Wetzel took off in A-4C BuNo 147680 on runway 9, and started to experience a rough running engine. He made a turn back towards NADC, and held the aircraft as long as he could. The aircraft started to nose over near the intersection of Hatboro and Bristol Rds, Southampton Township, PA, approximately 1/2 mile short of Runway 27. He ejected, but his parachute deployed over the fireball and he fell to his death. The aircraft hit the ground, crossed Bristol Road and through the base fence." (A-4 Skyhawk Assoc.)
It was here at NADC that I met my wife of the past 40+ years, and the wonderful mother of our two (now adult) children. She lived just over the fence of the airfield in Southampton. I was the only bachelor on base and she was a set-up blind date for this single lieutenant at a "wetting down" (promotion in rank) party. I liked blondes, she liked fighter pilots. The result was and is today, approaching 40 years of family history. [Our 1975 marriage, our family's 1980s dinner, and our 2012 first grandson.]
But once again, decisions and choices loomed. Although the economy and job market of the time were discouraging, and the airlines were not hiring, I decided I would leave the Navy, even though newly married with newly added responsibilities. The only thing that could have changed my mind would be orders to a fighter squadron.
Then a miracle happened. Not only did I get orders back to a real fighter squadron, it was to a newly established F-14 squadron. Moreover, it was to a squadron based in San Diego and NAS Miramar, and it was to VF-1 - the initial squadron that introduced the new F-14 to the fleet. For a fighter pilot, these were the best orders in the world, and orders nearly impossible to receive - especially to the opposite coast in a time of government moving-cost constraints.
Heading west once again, I could not have been happier.
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