Friday, December 14, 2012

Weekend flight; May – 1965

“Navy 4-9-7-5-0, cleared for take off,” came the voice over the radio. The pilot responded, “Roger, 7-5-0.” With that throttles were thrust forward and as the props picked up r.p.m.s the C- 45 began to lurch against the brakes. Within seconds we were rolling down the runway of NAS Mayport. Surprisingly quickly, the bird loaded with fuel and four passengers and a crew of two lifted off. We had “wheels in the well” at 0700; right on schedule. It was Saturday, May 29…a long weekend.  We circled and headed north.

LCDR Tim Grier, fuels officer in FDR, made it known in the wardroom several weeks earlier that he was taking a training flight north to central Pennsylvania over the Memorial Day weekend and was looking for passengers. More importantly, he needed an observer to fly in the right seat. Turns out the observer did not have to be flight qualified, but did have to be an officer with an 1100 designator…eligible for command. It did not matter that one of the passengers on the manifest was a supply commander headed for Athens, Georgia. He did not fit the bill, nor did the other three, all chief petty officers; one also headed to Athens and the other two to Philadelphia. Each was beginning a week’s leave and would not be coming back with the plane on the return trip. Tim needed an officer eligible for “command at sea”  to fly up and back with him. Time was getting close and he was feeling desperate or the trip would have to be cancelled. Then, he asked me if I was interested in flying along…me, a relatively new J.G. sporting an 1105 (albeit reserve) designator. I fit the bill.

I reported aboard the Rosie 18 months earlier, a new Ensign (then) fresh out of OCS and ten weeks at Damage Control School in Philly. Tim and I had reported aboard about the same time and we crossed paths several times in those first few days aboard, but being such a boot I kept to myself and other JOs while I learned my way around the ship. I was also cautious in the wardroom with all those gold and silver maple leaves flashing around. I was especially cautious of officers sporting gold wings. I kept out of their way….at first. But it didn’t take long for conversations at mealtime and in day-to-day work situations to become familiar with others of higher rank, even those working in other departments. After all, we would soon have six weeks at Gitmo and a nine-month Med Cruise in common.

Tim knew I was from Pennsylvania, that I was recently married and that my new wife was finishing up her senior year at college in central PA. He had the feeling I might have some interest in taking a quick trip north with him. He was right. That is how I found myself flying in the right seat of a sweet, if not clunky, Navy Beech King Air that May morning.

The sound of the engines drowned out any chance to talk legibly unless you wore a headset and talked into the boom mike. There wasn’t much technically for me to do except keep my eyes peeled for sea gulls and other flying objects in and around our flight path. I could do that.

After we were comfortably aloft, Tim got my attention and pointed down to an open box of cigars on the deck of the aircraft between our seats. “Swisher-sweets,” he said. “Help yourself. I don’t smoke ‘em, I chew ‘em when I fly.” Wanting to look every bit the swashbuckler co-pilot, I dug in. Tim was wearing his khaki uniform with leather flight jacket adorned with patches. I, on the other hand, was wearing my khaki foul weather jacket with “Engineering Dept. CVA-42” stenciled in black letters on the back. I felt as though I was cast in a “Terry and the Pirates” movie. Life was good and we flew on for about an hour.

Out of the blue, both engines began to sputter and the plane nosed over. I quickly glanced at Tim and he had that “Aw shit” look on his face. He made a few adjustments and threw a big toggle switch on the dashboard in front of me. Over the headset he hollered, “There is a thing between our seats that looks like a bicycle pump. Grab it and pump like hell.” I did what I was told and in no time the plane’s engines began to sound normal and it renewed its droning.

By this time Tim was laughing. And within seconds the supply commander we were ferrying in back stuck his head through the curtains separating the passenger compartment from the cockpit. “What the hell happened,” he mouthed (you couldn’t hear him.) Tim smiled and gave him a thumbs-up sign.
Over the headset Tim told me that the plane had two small nose tanks, one on either side, which are typically burned off first to help keep the plane trimmed. Well, he had forgotten to switch the tanks after about 45 minutes of flight and the fuel pump lost suction. The little pump that I worked so hard at for those 10 or 15 seconds was the auxiliary fuel pump, which got things going again after Tim realized the problem and switched tanks. I could now join in the laughter.

We proceeded to land in Athens at the Navy Supply headquarters and disembarked two passengers. We took off quickly and headed NE towards Philly. “I bet the Commander won’t ever want to fly with me again,” he laughed after we were again airborne. We chewed on a couple more sugar coated cigars and by noon we were approaching our next stop, NAS Willow Grove. Tim explained that we had to stop here for fuel and to re-file our flight plan for Altoona. “Really,” he said, “We will land right in Tyrone. I have to file for a larger airport since the strip at Tyrone, technically, isn’t long enough for this airplane.” What? I wondered to myself. Now, I had every confidence in Tim. My life was in his hands wasn’t it? He had explained to me back when we were sealing the deal to make this trip that he had learned to fly in Tyrone when he was a teenager. He knew the air currents and the mountains around there like the back of his hand. But this was the first time that he had told me that this Beech King Air might be a bit big for the runway there. Oh well what the heck, I thought.

Tyrone is just about half way across Pennsylvania. It is nestled in the Appalachian chain of mountains not far from State College where Penn State is located and where I spent my four years in college. It was a paper mill town and had a major (then) highway running through it. I had been through there many times. Tim grew up there as a member of the Grier family that owned and operated a private girls’ school. I had actually sung at Grier School with the Penn State Glee Club four years before. Game for an adventure, my wife agreed to meet me there for the weekend. She was coming east from Indiana, PA about 60 miles away. We flew on.

When we got to the outskirts of Tyrone, Tim came on the intercom and said, “We will buzz the school so they know we are coming. When they hear the plane, they will drive over to the airstrip to pick us up.” He went on, “The last time I buzzed this place I was in an F-3 Demon. I went vertical, stroked the afterburner and got in trouble with the FAA,” laughing with every word.

Now, at this part of the story, I am not sure what is true and what he embellished. But I do know that as we saw the school off in the distance Tim began a big descending circle. We flew lower and lower.  Just then a loud buzzer sounded…loud enough for me to hear it plainly above the noise of the engines. He pulled up. “That was the ground clearance warning that goes off if you don’t have the gear down,” he said with a twinkle in his eye. We headed for the runway on the edge of town.

“I think our weight is going to be OK to get in here and get stopped,” he said, again over the intercom. “If this gear is too mushy we may bounce when we touch down. If that happens, we will head to Altoona. I’ll give it one shot.” We lined up with the runway and headed down. “There’s my dad’s car,” he shouted. From the other direction I could also see a familiar car approaching the airport. It was my wife in my turquoise ’63 Fairlane. All we had to do was land, which we did…no problem. As we taxied to the end of the strip Tim added one quick rejoinder, “I hope we have enough wind tomorrow to take off.” By this time I did not care. There was my wife of four months whom I had not seen for at least 10 weeks sitting in the parking lot. I had my mind on other things.

The visit went too quickly, of course, and it was time for Navy 4-9-7-5-0 to return to Mayport. Tim taxied the twin Beech to the end of the runway, ran up the engines and popped the brakes. We started down the runway while I still had his words in the back of my mind: might we be too heavy to get off? As it turned out we popped into the air about ¾ of the way down the runway, over the trees and headed east toward Harrisburg and Bolling Air Force Base where we would refuel.

From the banks of the Susquehanna River we headed to the Atlantic Coast and straight south. Tim let me take the yoke for a period of time while he stretched his legs. By 1600 we were landing at NAS Mayport and taxied to the gate. Tim had called ahead for a car from the ship to meet us, which seemed to be only a few hundred yards away.

When we came aboard the forward brow and reported our return to the ship, the OOD, a wardroom friend, informed us that while we were gone there was a disturbance in the Caribbean area and we were rounding up the crew for an emergency get underway at high tide the next morning. “Mr. Lutz, they are lighting off the boilers. The Chief Engineer called the Quarter Deck to have us tell you on your return, that he wants you in Main Engines control at once. You have the next watch.”
We were back and reality again set in. Oh well, it was fun while it lasted.

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