Excerpt from Volume 2, Chapter 28
You are Never Alone, by Eric Jensen, USN
Date of Hire by Western Airlines 6/6/1977
I knew I didn’t need to set my alarm for my mission brief at 0200. I did so anyway. At precisely midnight, flight operations commenced with the launch of fighter aircraft that would take up station protecting the ship from attack by North Vietnam. Our carrier, the USS Coral Sea, was on the midnight to noon operating schedule with another carrier operating noon to midnight. This provided round the clock availability of Navy aircraft for the war effort in Vietnam, from an area in the Gulf of Tonkin designated “Yankee Station.”
My room, which is located a few feet below the flight deck and forward, just under the end of the number one catapult, EXPLODES with the roar of two J-79 jet engines of an F-4 Phantom fighter in full afterburner. Simultaneously the catapult piston slams to a stop in a few feet and announces its sudden stop with an ear splitting BOOM! It is very hot in my room and the addition of the now ongoing shattering noise makes sleep impossible. The launch will continue for some time until the last aircraft of this first event is launched. The lack of air conditioning produces a room temperature of over 90F and perspiration pools in the indentations of my chest as I lay on my bunk, wearing only my shorts. I decide to dress in my flight suit.I’ll try to get something to eat and cool down a little before my brief.
I arrive in our squadron Ready Room Four just in time to settle into a chair and start recording all the necessary essentials needed to fly the mission: launch time, recovery time, weapons type and load, assigned aircraft and emergency recovery time if my only radio fails.
I am a junior officer, a lieutenant junior grade, so I am always a wingman. My leader, a second tour pilot, arrives and does the same,as a closed circuit ship’s TV comes alive with a launch brief from the intelligence center. We are briefed about our position, the weather, and hostile enemy fire.
Each squadron on this launch is assigned different missions, so tonight my leader and I are flying together as a section—two aircraft. Our squadron flies the single seat, single engine A-7A Corsair II attack aircraft. It is the Navy’s newest work-horse flying the attack mission. Before deployment we trained together for a year, practicing virtually every mission we might be required to fly, utilizing all kinds of ordnance. The discussion of specific procedures on how we will operate as a team is not necessary because our squadron has developed SOP(standard operating procedures) that remain the same for all of our basic squadron operations. We refine things by talking specifically about our rendezvous point, the weapons we would be carrying, and the tactics we would use this night in the target area.
I am very tired. We have been operating all night on this schedule for nineteen straight days. Our squadron, VA-82 (Attack Squadron Eighty Two)—the Marauders—actually functions as part of the air wing consisting of five squadrons and four detachments of support aircraft on board, yet we are independent of the ship and other squadrons. As such we are self-supporting, with our own maintenance personnel, close to three hundred specialists. Every flight officer, in addition to flying combat, has duties assigned that collectively make the squadron function. As officers, flying combat is what we do when we are not working numerous jobs or supervising the three hundred work center enlisted personnel who maintain, fuel, and load our aircraft. Each one of us is intimately involved in this collective effort. I personally have five squadron jobs and stand an accumulation of four different squadron and ship watches.
Alcohol is prohibited on Navy ships so we have no bar to retreat to or anywhere else for that matter to find solace or to decompress. The ship is all business. I am aware that I am very stressed, upset, and weary from the unrelenting war fighting schedule. Just a few days ago I received a message to report to the chaplain’s office. On arrival he gave me a Red Cross telegram informing me that my best friend, who I went to high school, college, and entered Navy flight training with, was just killed in a plane crash at DaNang, Vietnam. This loss hurts deeply. Lieutenant Robin Andrew Pierce, I will miss you. I will find time to write a letter to his mother Helen, who lives just down the street from my parents.
We have had nineteen operational losses from our ship, and one pilot from our sister squadron, VA-86, the Sidewinders, was just shot down. The pilot, Lieutenant Commander Mike Hoff, was the squadron operations officer. Aircraft and aircraft crew losses have become almost routine now, and I am not prepared for this reality. I personally try to insulate myself mentally from the constant emotional pain of these losses. I desperately cling to the belief that it won’t happen to me. My personal defense against the fear demons that plague me is to go intellectual and become hyper-vigilant about every aspect of flying. I talk myself into believing that if I don’t miss the one thing that tries to kill me, I can remain safe. I cling to these thoughts because when I climb the ladder into the cockpit I am alone. I have no one else to depend on. I may become my own worst enemy if I miss something, like a flicker of an engine gauge, if I mistake the accuracy of enemy fire, or worse, screw up a night carrier landing and hit the ramp. My two years of flight training has been very good and I have confidence.However, the mounting losses make me realize that I am in fact fallible and only with God’s help can I do this.
Stress is constant. I try to shut down all feelings, especially fear. I stay busy, and in my head try to avoid and deny these emotions. As I brief I am caught—suspended between the responsibilities to fly and continue to do my job representing America and its foreign policy, and to be emotionally strong, supporting my squadron and to show no weakness. On the other hand, inside, I AM SCARED. My fear inside builds with the loss of every additional pilot and the worsening monsoon weather, let alone the more and more accurate anti-aircraft fire we face on every mission. They say there are no atheists in foxholes during war. I learn the profound truth that it is true in airplane cockpits as well!
I am having real difficulty dealing with my fear and in desperation I decide to pray to help me deal with it. As it happened, I decided to add a step to my aircraft preflight walk-around which is the last thing I do before manning my aircraft. As I preflight I stop at the nose of my airplane,under the nose radome, checking it for security, and pause to make my peace with God. I dedicate the flight to the Lord and ask for His protection and for Him to keep me safe. As time goes on and bad things happen, this adds to my thoughts that I am not coming back unless He flies with me.
Our brief is complete and I will soon become a warrior, as I go to war alone in my airplane. We suit up with flight and survival gear, stop by maintenance control to read the aircraft fault history and sign for the airplane I will be flying. I step out of the security of the bowels of the ship and onto the catwalk leading to the flight deck. I pause while my eyes adapt to the darkness.
It is VERY, VERY dark and quiet as we steam slowly down-wind into the night.The darkness is all encompassing. The ship’s hull is black and only a few waves cause salty foam to form on the ink-black sea. There is no horizon because it is overcast with the monsoon. Everything black blends into everything else that is black—the sea, the sky, the night. It is all just one black hole.
I find my aircraft on the port or the left side of the flight deck and it is loaded with ten Mark-82 five hundred pound bombs with contact fuses, and eleven hundred rounds of twenty millimeter ammunition for the two machine guns in the nose.
Preflight is always hard because of the darkened flight deck and the fact that the tail of the airplane hangs suspended over the side of the ship. I climb over the tie-down chains that hold the airplane on the ship. I do the best I can, using my flashlight with a red lens to help my eyes stay acclimated to the darkness.I complete my preflight having renewed my confidence by a few moments with God at the nose of my aircraft. I climb the steps to the cockpit with difficulty due to the restrictions of my “G” suit and survival gear. Sweeping a leg in, I settle into the seat and strap in. I connect the radio and oxygen hose and then the “G” suit that will keep me from blacking out when pulling out from a dive-bombing run.
The air boss announces,“Start the jets,” as the ship heals and turns into the wind. I pull the canopy down, lock it in place, and arm the ejection seat. I tighten my helmet strap and snap on my oxygen mask. Things get serious now as the ensuing dance leads to one thing—the catapult and the mission. No time to reflect!Following graduation from college, it took two years of pilot training to get me to this place, and I am only twenty seven years old. Every phase of flight training put in place the skills necessary for me to function in this environment. I didn’t realize it at the time, but as I was to fly single-seat, single-engine airplanes from a ship at sea, my very life depended upon mastering every phase of training. The margin for error flying from a ship at night is so small that the slightest mistake could cost me my life.
The start cart arrives and electrical power is plugged into the airplane. In an instant this dormant machine leaps to life as if awakened. Flight instruments jump and gyros spin up. All the supporting gauges take their appropriate places, ready to report the heartbeat of the various systems necessary for flight. I focus my attention to ensure five in particular are working: my radio, my navigation receiver, and the three surface-to-air missile and anti-aircraft fire warning systems. All components of the airplane systems are critical and must be checked after start as well.
Engine start and checks of flight controls are complete. I report by using my squadron call sign, “Streetcar 312 up and ready,” to the air boss on the radio. I am now committed. I wait my turn on the congested flight deck to taxi to the catapult. The yellow shirted taxi-director arrives and signals the ground crew to break down the chains holding the plane to the flight deck. He then motions me from parking with his glowing yellow wands. The short trip up the flight deck demands undivided attention to every nuance of the director’s wands. I know that feet and sometimes inches separate me from other aircraft on the flight deck, and his directions have absolute authority. I am directed toward the starboard number one catapult, just feet behind the aircraft ahead. I am kept safe only by the director’s skill.
Each aircraft is canted just enough to avoid the 50mph exhaust of the aircraft taxiing a few feet ahead. My heart is beating harder now because the airplane ahead taxis onto the catapult. A jet blast deflector, a massive steel door eight feet high and twelve feet wide, is raised out of the flight deck just feet from my nose. This door will protect me from the full power run up of the preceding jet.
My attention is now directed to new instructions to lower my folded wings and lock them in place for flight. Lowering the flaps completes the take-off checklist. My airplane shakes and sways with the violent 100mph exhaust deflected over me but hitting my tail, as the plane on the catapult strains at full power before launch. The noise and chaos heightens my concentration. In a second he is gone into the black night. The deflector door drops and I am directed onto the catapult track. I am sucking at my oxygen mask as both excitement and anxiety grow. Inches now make up the final left and right taxi directions to properly position me before engaging the catapult. I have one last fleeting thought. I wonder if I am going to die tonight. There is only one way to find out….
My airplane, which weighs 19,500 pounds empty, now weighs 35,000 pounds, laden with fuel and ordnance. A weight board is flashed to me by a runner, confirming my weight. The weight of every airplane is different and an error in weight means the corresponding catapult steam pressure, set by a 19 year old green shirt of the catapult crew,translates to flight or disaster. I TRUST.
The yellow shirted taxi director stops me just before engaging the catapult and a red shirted squadron ordnance man signals me to raise both hands into view. Satisfied that I won’t activate any weapons switches, he orders his crew to remove all the ordnance safety pins from the bomb racks and bombs. My feet feel two thuds as both machine guns in the nose are charged. I am now a weapon!
Unseen by me, the squadron final checker scrambles around under my airplane ensuring the machine is not leaking critical fluids and is ready for flight. I taxi a few more feet and am now engaged with the catapult. I quickly ensure the take-off checklist is complete and see the catapult officer twirling his wand above his head in a circular motion – a signal for me to come to full power. MY TURN! This moment is the culmination of all my training and the skill of those who have loaded and maintained my machine. I have become the tip of the spear – the extension of power of the United States.
I move the throttle forward to the stop and wrap my fingers over to pull up a “T” handle from the console. This handle is only on Navy aircraft and allows me to hold the throttle at full power when the sudden acceleration of the catapult ensues. The airplane shakes and bucks as full power takes hold. A quick check of engine and hydraulic gauges assures me that the airplane is ready to fly. My left hand leaves the throttle for a moment to switch on the exterior lights indicating I am ready. The cat officer takes one last look down the catapult track to ensure it is clear before touching his wand to the deck, commanding the firing of the catapult.
WAIT !!!!!! A yellow master caution light flashes on.It flashes bright, glowing and illuminating the cockpit,signaling an aircraft problem. IT IS TOO LATE, I AM COMMITTED! A quick glance at the ladder lights monitoring the systems of the airplane reveals “ENGINE HOT.” The exhaust gas temperature has exceeded limits and the engine could fail. I am captive, suspended for seconds, filled with frightening thoughts. The only way to respond is to reduce power at this critical moment. I grudgingly nudge the throttle back just a little when the catapult fires. I am slammed back into my ejection seat, accelerating from straining chaos to 150mph in two seconds flat. Thrust back into the seat, unable to move, I am along for the ride. The stick travels back into my right hand and I grab it,ready to make a shallow right turn when the catapult releases and I am airborne.
The airplane squats as it decides to fly, suspended 90 feet above the water just ahead of the moving ship. The dreaded black-void envelopes me. The caution light has gone out and my eyes lock onto the flight instruments, looking for proof of flight. I make the shallow right turn so if I go into the water I will avoid 65,000 tons of ship running over me. Eyes glued to my instruments, I dare not take my eyes off them as outside there are no references. There is no up, no down, no sky, no sea, no horizon—just black. Everything I need to know is represented by the low red glow of the flight instruments. The altimeter sags then begins to indicate a climb. I am away. Accelerating, gear up, 205 knots, flaps up.
Just a few nights before, an experienced second tour pilot from our sister squadron made a mistake by either raising the flaps too early or misreading his instruments.He crashed into the sea, into the black abyss, and was lost in seconds. I am reminded not to make the same mistake. So long Lieutenant J.J. Parker. LORD BE WITH ME NOW!
Speed accelerating, it is as if the airplane is gaining strength. It reaches 300 knots and I climb to the rendezvous. The ship has launched my leader ahead of me and he is now waiting for me at an appointed place in the dark night. Using the ship’s homing beacon I note my position on the tail of an instrument needle and correct my heading. Climbing to our designated altitude and leveling off, I am soon at a place in the night where my leader is in a port or left turn waiting for me.
I arrive at the designated place and strain to see his faint red flashing anti-collision light two to four miles away. I make a hard turn to start the rendezvous. I can’t see his airplane – just a faint intermittent flash in the distant black night. Things happen fast now as the distance is closing rapidly. My mind shifts into high gear, evaluating the few cues at lightning speed. I am essentially cutting across the circle he is flying, on a collision course of my own making. Too far ahead I will close too fast, too far behind I won’t catch up. Judgment—adjust, judgment— adjust:speed, altitude, closure rate.All must be critically monitored.
His light begins to glow brighter and this is my only point of reference. I slow the closure and a faint outline of an airplane beneath the flashing light emerges as I slide in and stop ten feet off his left wing. I stabilize, pause, and cross under his belly to his right wing, in position. He reports flight joined to the ship–call sign Mustang Strike—and we switch to our squadron tactical frequency for the twenty minute trip to the beach.
We climb and accelerate because time is very limited. We have a finite time to get back to the ship for recovery.“Moonbeam, this is Streetcar 303 checking in with two A-7s, ten mark eighty two bombs and twenty millimeter cannon standing by.”“Moonbeam” is the Air Force Airborne Combat Command Center directing strikes at night. “Roger Streetcar, rendezvous with Blind Bat 101 orbiting,”and we are given another reference point off navigation stations in the night.
As we headwest we skirt the DMZ and turn north. We pass Tchepone, Laos, and they begin shooting at us. 37mm and 57mm fire arches up as colored yellow-white balls of light, twinkling and following our path, trying to hit us. We are on our way to bomb the Ho Chi Minh trail in Laos, and our mission is to prevent munitions and supplies from being moved south at night.
Fifteen minutes later we switch to Blind Bat frequency and try to find this lone airplane in the black night. We arrive in the approximate location and Blind Bat goes “Christmas Tree,” turning on all of his navigation lights for a few seconds so we can make visual contact. We are in “Indian Territory” so we all go lights-out and separate our flight.
Blind Bat is somewhere below 10,000 feet. My lead is at 14,000feet and I am at 16,000 feet. Blind Bat is an Air Force C-130 Hercules, a four engine turboprop airplane with sensors to find targets in the black jungle below. He has located our target, trucks moving supplies.The plan develops.He will orbit in a circle and identify the target’s location with white flares he will drop on the jungle floor below. He will call corrections on our initial bomb drops.
Once again I am overwhelmed with information: target elevation, roll-in heading, location of the bad guys, best bail-out heading if hit, and anti-aircraft fire in the vicinity. I have learned to use my flight instruments to stay oriented—course selector for roll-in heading, heading bug for bail-out heading.
TIME FOR ACTION—switchology now: CP-741 bombing computer on, bomb delivery mode selected, target elevation, atmospheric D or deviation value correction entered, select bomb stations, fusing, and select gunsight for computer bombing. Interval meter for bomb drops of multiple or single release set for single. Fly the plane, keep the target in sight, and watch for the anti-aircraft fire.One to three flares on the ground are our only reference. Our radios are used judiciously now as we get down to business.
We coordinate the positions of three airplanes by using the radio, and mentally keep track of each other. Lead rolls into his dive-bombing run and I watch for and call out anti-aircraft fire. It lights up the night and this now becomes sort of a dual. We drop the bombs – they shoot at us. This is up close and personal now.
Blind Bat calls correction information from lead’s first hit and I am ready for my run, but only at a set time and place. It all comes together smoothly.Our first hits are corrected and we are now ready to drop multiple bombs to destroy the target.
After two runs, I am pulling off target and happen to look up through the top of my canopy and am FROZEN with fear and THE SIGHT OF DISASTER. I am traveling at close to 500mph and I see the outline of the C-130 aircraft above, directly in my path. He is out of position and in 1-2 seconds we will have a MID-AIR COLLISION. No time for anything. DISASTER IMMINENT, I grab the control stick with both hands and pull as hard as I can, not worrying about over stressing the airplane. My only chance of survival is to avoid flying head-on into him but to pull hard enough so the belly of my aircraft would impact him giving me a chance to eject after the collision.
SECONDS PASS – NO IMPACT! I find myself going straight up with bombs hanging on the wings and airspeed rapidly decreasing below flying speed. I am now a rock thrown up into the night sky and out of control, hanging,ready to fall back to earth. All of my flying experience goes into this situation. I hastily put control inputs in to prevent a disastrous spin and manage to recover control.
No time to process what just happened. I AM SHAKEN!The radio frequency is quiet and then I hear Blind Bat call and say that he was out of position and that his aft observer was “cleaning out his shorts,”as he saw me streak between their wingtip and tail elevator with just feet or inches to spare! My heart pounding, I force myself to get back into the fight and drop my remaining bombs while dodging the anti-aircraft fire. We drop our last bombs and report “Winchester,” meaning that our weapons are expended. I take a few deep breaths of the cool oxygen and we turn for the flight home. Blind Bat reports the bomb damage assessment of our work tonight.
We are pushing our recovery time back at the ship. Climbing and accelerating again on the way back, we close up and fly formation on each other and check each other’s airplane for battle damage. We are OK and at 100 miles out from the ship our navigation receiver begins to lock on. We separate and are once again on our own in the black night.
I check-in with the ship: “Mustang marshal, Streetcar 312 inbound, fuel state 4.2.” The ship responds with a parking place (like a holding pattern) for me at a radial and distance, miles behind the ship. Twenty two airplanes from our launch are inbound, returning from their missions. We all have our appointed place on the same radial at different altitudes and distances. Several time checks are announced by the ship to get everyone coordinated to the second. Unseen by arriving aircraft, the ship is launching the next strike. As soon as the last airplane is launched, it will begin recovering us. Fighters first as they use fuel the fastest.
The dance is ready to begin. At night, one airplane is landed every sixty seconds. To get this to happen is another intellectual challenge. I use a pencil on my compass with the needle pointing to the ship and use the distance to the ship to calculate a course to my holding spot. How much time left to my start time? How long to get there? My jet takes four miles to turn-around, two minutes every 180 degrees of turn. All of these computations are done in my head to arrive on the radial, headed inbound at a precise distance, on assigned altitude, at 250 knots speed, time plus or minus 10 seconds. If I am early, I will be too close to the plane ahead and I will have to go around, low on fuel. If late,I cause this to happen to the pilot behind me. Twenty two airplanes are turning and timing so when the word is given to the first airplane to commence, everyone else follows with precisely 60 seconds between airplanes.
It all comes together and as the second hand sweeps past the twelve it is my time. I descend at 6,000 feet per minute into another black hole and the monsoon announces its presence with a blast of rain that beats on the windscreen like a drum. Never mind, just fly the instruments because I want a good start to my approach to the ship. Fuel is now a factor and the weather is too. There probably will not be a tanker airborne in this weather, and DaNang is a long way away. The Navy always teaches, “Make your first approach your best approach.” I relearn this lesson every time I fly.
I stop my descent and level off at 1200 feet. Time for gear, flaps and tail hook. I complete the landing checklist now because every effort will be required to be as precise as possible from now on. The final controller establishes radar contact and my life is now in his hands.He will talk me down the course and glide slope to two hundred feet and one-half mile behind the ship, which is not yet visible on this dark rainy night. Airspeed within three knots, on glide slope, on course. I take a peek away from my instruments—nothing but black and the rain. I turn on the engine air.It will clear the left side of the wind screen, blowing away the rain and improving my visibility.
“One half mile, call the ball” is the last transmission I hear and now it is up to me to see something. Out of the blur of night and rain the glow of a few lights that define the ship and a visual landing aid called the “meatball” (which will keep me on the proper glide slope) appear out of the blur of night and rain.
Only centerline lights in the landing area and drop lights over the stern are illuminated to guide me. I make my mandatory call, “Streetcar 312 ball, state 3.6.” The landing signal officer, a fellow squadron pilot, responds with “Roger ball,” and visually monitors my approach for these last few seconds for any sign of danger and calls corrections to bring me home safely.
Adrenalin is pumping now and my heart is beating hard. I must quiet this energy because being precise is the safe way home. Concentrating on the few visual cues and the rapidly approaching ship, I must be within three knots of speed, on centerline, on glide slope and stabilized with no trends, because I will be landing between parked airplanes on both sides of the landing area within twenty to thirty feet of my wingtips.
Like a bolt of lightning it is over. I slam down on the steel deck and feel the welcomed flash tug and rapid deceleration as the tail hook grabs a wire and I am held back in my seat by my locked harness. Nose gear steering engaged, tug back to disengage the arresting wire, stomp on the brake and swing the airplane to the right, power up and fold the wings to scoot out of the landing area because the next plane is just seconds behind me, ready to land where I am.
I clear the landing area and am directed by the familiar yellow wands of the yellow shirted taxi-director to the right bow of the ship to park. I am careful now as I am at the very end of the flight deck and the bow of the ship. Brakes and gentle power control. I see the end of the flight deck disappear under my nose. I TRUST. Finally I am given a turn of forty five degrees left to park. My folded wings catch the wind and I am afraid I will be blown over by the thirty knots of howling wind over the flight deck. I gratefully see the director signal the ground crew to tie down the airplane with chains and for me to shut down my engine.
The airplane falls silent again as the generator falls off the line and the engine decelerates. I pause and gather my strength. I am physically and emotionally exhausted. Tomorrow night is another night and I will do this again. Tonight was May 19, 1970. It has been eight months since we began flight operations from Yankee Station. This was mission number 104 and the ship’s fifth line period.In the end, after one hundred and thirteen combat missions and one hundred and forty two personal day and night carrier landings, our deployment is finished and the USS Coral Sea and her air wing head for home. We leave behind twenty fellow shipmates.Our squadron leaves behind Lieutenant Junior Grade Dave Anderson. None have been recovered from the black hole of the sea or from a jungle far, far away.
THANK YOU LORD for never leaving me alone on a mission.
Captain Eric Axel Jensen
US Navy Retired