Posted on: March 30th, 2014 by

Are Naval aviators the gold medal standard?

In 1972 I was on the USS Midway, CVA-41 (now a museum in San Diego).  We launched 35 planes, a mixture of F4’s, A6’s and A7’s, on a cloudy afternoon into North Vietnam.  I went back to repairing avionics equipment immediately below the angle flight deck.  After a few hours the Captain spoke over the 1MC ships intercom.  “We will be leaving Yankee Station and exiting the Gulf of Tonkin.  There is a typhoon (hurricane) making its way up the coast and threatening to box us in.  Rough seas ahead and only recovery personnel (people who help the pilots land) are allowed on the flight deck.”

The sun was setting when we reached the worst part of the typhoon and the planes were running low on fuel and couldn’t make it to Da Nang.  We were their only choice.

When the ship hit the next wave we were almost knocked off our feet.  Watching through the ship-wide closed circuit monitors we could barely see the spray sweep over the top of the island.  The sun was setting.  Even though the Midway was the most stable carrier in the fleet at that time, we were being tossed by 60 ft waves and 100 mile per hour winds like a cork in a storm.

It was pitch black when the planes came within range.  The typhoon was still raging around us eliminating any hope of landing visibility.  The closed circuit monitors were working fine showing the aft view but the screens showed only the darkness outside.  We were glued to the screens, waiting.

A flickering white dot (landing light) became visible.  It was the first plane.  If the captain was trying to keep the ship on straight and level, we couldn’t tell.  We were being tossed mercilessly and we started praying.

The landing light became brighter as the plane got closer.

In the cockpit the pilot was fighting the unpredictable winds, staring at the red backlit instruments that told him where he was and where the ship was.  The ship itself was not visible due to the storm and darkness.  And his instruments told him the ship was constantly pitching and rolling.  He used this information to time his landing to coincide with what he thought would be the pitching deck position when he arrived at 140 miles per hour.

The plane hit the deck and caught a wire.  The tail hook, firmly pressed against the steel by 3000 pounds of force, dragged the wire just 5 feet over my head as it slowed to a stop.

The plane taxied to the bow.  The deck was clear and made ready for the next.

Each plane repeated this deadly drama.  A few missed the wire and had to go around for a second attempt.  But in the end, all 35 planes landed safely.  Our prayers were answered.  The pilots never saw the ship once.

Willie Maddox, (AT1)