Jarhead Adventures

By Cliff Judkins [1]

Chu Lai AB 1966At the time [in 1966], there was only the expeditionary field of 4,000 feet of shifting metal.  All takeoffs were with Jet-Assisted Take Off (JATO) bottles (lots of things went wrong with these —especially at night) and all landings were arrested.  One day we taxied in to VMA-223 from a mission and noticed an Air Force C-123 parked at the main ramp.  It had made an emergency landing at Chu Lai.

That night at the club, the only passenger from the C-123 was there.  He was an F-100 pilot in his flight suit on crutches and with two broken legs.  Of course, we wanted to know how he broke his legs.  He told us that he was an F-100F (two-seater) Misty Fast FAC (Airborne Forward Air Controller).  The aircrew took turns flying front and back seat.  He said that it was his day to go up North in the back seat.  They found the target for the F-105s and marked it with 5″ white phosphorus (WP) rockets.  Then, after the 105s were done, they were supposed to fly low and fast and take an after-action picture of the target.  He was the guy with the hand-held camera.

Of course, the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) knew the routine and began shooting the shit out of them.  The front seat guy did a lot of jinking and somehow, the lens came off the camera and disappeared.  The aircraft safely got “feet wet” and in-flight refueled for their return trip home down south to Tui Hoa. Our guy said that he kept looking for the lens but the front seater said to forget it.  They would find it after landing.  Upon landing and taxi back, the front seater called “Canopy Clear” and raised the canopy.  The lens had landed near one of the actuators for the ejection seat.  The back-seater said that he heard this tremendous explosion and realized what had happened when he got seat separation about 250 feet up at the top of the arc and, looking down saw a miniature F-100 below him missing a canopy.  He said that it was like a “Wily Coyote” cartoon.

There was a point where you stop going up, a pause, and then a rapid going down thing.  The F-100 didn’t have a zero/zero seat either (needed 100 knots and 100 feet).  So, he said that he had always heard that in a long fall, one dies of a heart attack before one hits the ground.  So he said he kept shouting: “Come on heart attack.”

The drogue chute had deployed and that kept his feet straight down.  It was real steep near the taxiway, they had been doing a lot of excavating, and it had rained.  He hit feet first.  The un-deployed chute saved his back and kept it straight.  He skidded down the embankment into a large pool of water. He had two simple fractures. Needless to say, he couldn’t buy another drink that night.

This next story is from a pilot who was in VMFA 314 at Chu Lai in ’69.  Vietnam era F4 guys will appreciate this story.  Here’s another ‘bad day’ from Chu Lai:

F-4B Phantom II VMFA 323I was one of a half-dozen replacements who checked-in with MAG-13 on August 2.  We were not all assigned to VMFA-314 though.  There were two other combat squadrons in the Air Group: VMFA-115 (the Able Eagles), and VMFA-323 (the Death Rattlers).  All three squadrons flew the McDonnell Douglas F4B Phantom II and shared common living areas.  Although we may have been in different squadrons, eventually we all got to know each other very well.

The first thing we six rookies did was attend an Air Group briefing in an underground bunker protected by a thick layer of sandbags.  This bunker served as our group intelligence center.  (When I was there in `66, we used a house trailer. I guess things got hotter when the gooks realized that I left and started flying for Delta).  Suddenly, an urgent radio call interrupted our briefing. We listened as one of VMFA-115s aircraft radioed-in to report a problem.  The aircraft had been hit by enemy ground fire and could not lower its landing gear.  The pilot was going to attempt a belly landing on the runway.  At that news, we all raced outside near the runway to grab a good spot from which to watch the crash landing.

Crash crews raced to cover the runway with a layer of fire retardant foam while the damaged F4 circled overhead, burning down its load of fuel.  Two arresting cables were strung across the middle of the runway.  The cables were anchored on each end by a chain made with heavy, 40-pound links.  The plan was for the F4 to lower his tail hook, to belly-land in the foam, to catch one of the arresting wires, and to come to a screeching halt.

It did not quite happen that way.

After burning off most of his fuel, the pilot gingerly lowered the airplane onto the foamed runway.  A spark set off the fumes in the jet’s empty wing tanks and they erupted into flames.  All one could see racing down the runway were two wingtips protruding from an orange and black ball of fire heading toward the arresting cables.  The F4 hit the first arresting cable. We watched the cable snap and hurl its 40-pound chain links skyward.  Then the plane hit the second arresting cable.  It also parted and flung its chain links.  The aircraft was now just a ball of fire heading toward the end of the runway.

Then we heard, Boom!  Boom!

The pilot had lit his afterburners.  He was attempting to takeoff without wheels!  As the aircraft roared toward the end of the runway, it slowly struggled skyward.  It got airborne and began to climb nearly vertically.  Then, both the pilot and his back-seater, the radar intercept officer (RIO), ejected.

We stared in wonder as the aircraft crashed into the nearby ocean.  The two crewmen slowly floated down in their parachutes.  The wind carried them over the ocean and they too soon splashed down.  A rescue helicopter was on the scene immediately.  Both of the F-4 crewmen, treading water, raised their right hand.  This was a signal to the chopper that they were unharmed.  The helicopter slowly lowered itself and plucked the pilot out of the water and into the safety of the helicopter.  The helicopter then turned its attention to the RIO.  As the helicopter slowly lowered itself over the RIO, the helicopter pilot suddenly lost control of his chopper, and he crashed into the water on top of the RIO.  As soon as the chopper hit the water, its pilot regained control, got airborne again, and yanked the RIO from the water.  Although the RIO was rescued safely, his leg was broken when the helicopter crashed on top of him.

That night at the Officers Club, the RIO sat with his leg elevated and encased in a full-leg cast.  As he imbibed a few, he related his story: “First, we got the shit shot out of us.  But, hey, that’s okay —we weren’t hurt.  Then, we survived a belly landing.  But, that was okay too, we weren’t hurt.  Then the pilot decided he’d take off without wheels, but that worked out well too.  Then we survived an aircraft ejection [2] and water landing, but that was also okay, we weren’t hurt.  Then the damn rescue helicopter crashed on me and broke my leg!”

Endnotes:

[1] In 1963, (then) First Lieutenant Cliff Judkins experienced an in-flight fire while refueling during a trans-Pacific flight.  After he ejected from his aircraft, his parachute failed to open.  He fell 15,000 feet into the Pacific … and survived. You can read about it here.

[2] The F-4 B was fitted with the Martin-Baker ejection seat.  Powerful rockets launched the pilot and RIO seats out of the aircraft, propelling them clear of a disabled aircraft.  Most everyone who ejected experienced significant back trauma, including broken back.

Published by

Mustang

US Marine (Retired), historian, writer.

10 thoughts on “Jarhead Adventures”

  1. At MCRD, every recruit with 120 or higher GCT was marched down to the theater to watch a film about the wonderfulness of being a Naval Aviator. Then a Captain (of course, with leather jacket, fore/aft cap worn inside at an angle and a really big watch, gave us a pep talk on the MARCAD program (not sure, might have still been NAVCAD) in which on finishing boot camp and ITR (and passing the written exams and physical) we’d be shipped to Pensacola, FL for flight school. I probably wouldn’t have passed all the exams, but if I had, my life might have been shorter. I turned them down as I wanted to go to Sea School and get that fancy Blues. This shows that sometimes being pretty immature keeps you out of some bad fecal sandwiches.

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    1. Most people go through their entire lives without once considering how dangerous military flying is. A rifleman faces the ultimate danger whenever he is landed on foreign shore to confront an armed enemy. A military pilot faces that same danger every day he gets into the cockpit of a high-performance aircraft. We salute them for their service.

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  2. Mustang, Please recall that all errors in grammar, spelling and proper English usage are there as code so that you know I am not under extreme duress. To understand more perfectly, see: White Rabbit….the story of Wing Commander Yeo-Thomas Royal Air Force Voluntary Reserve who served as a spy in France during WW II.

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  3. Pilots are different! –vast understatement–
    As told to me by my uncle many moons ago…
    –This story hasn’t any reflection on Mustangs stories above except for the fighter pilots–
    At an airshow, ex military pilots tend to congregate and tell each other TANS stories .
    Two pilots, one with slight German accent, exchange pleasantries, buy each other drinks and get lubricated.
    They compare their fighter craft, the American was flying long range flight escort in his P51 for B17s. The German interceptor flights against B17s in his ME109. The German relates how he was shot down and parachuted to safety with slight injures.
    The story begins to ring a bell with the American who asks where and when he was shot down. It seems that the American was the one that shot him down.
    The story ends with drinks handshakes and shared smiles and addresses all round.
    True???
    Seems that TANS stories aren’t uncommon in any branch of the Service. ;^)

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    1. Years ago I spoke with a gentleman who was wearing a World War II bomber jacket … he told me about one of his bombing missions over Germany. One aircraft ahead of his formation strayed underneath another at the time the aircraft released its bombs. He said it was the most horrific thing he ever saw during World War II. God bless them all. Like you, I appreciate hearing these stories. They make me grateful for the sacrifices of these stalwart men. You may recall that after World War II, “Pappy Boyington” got into a long-lasting pissing contest with the Japanese pilot who claimed to have shot Boyington down in the Pacific. They were “enemies” to the end of their days.

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