Aircraft related incidents during my short time as a Navy pilot

What follows shows how very dangerous this game was. Keep in mind this all happened within 4 1/2 years. It does not however, address the mostly great experiences we had in Puerto Rico and the unusual nature of our life during this period.

From late 1970 to 1971

A flight student in my apartment building died in a T-28 approach turn stall during night touch and go practice. This drove home the guidance to not get low and slow and then cram on full power.

While I was undergoing escape and evasion, survival and POW training, a fellow classmate died in the POW courtyard steel box. My instincts to not be the highest nail served me well during this training.

I escape and successfully evade the POW guards and Doberman's but give myself up knowing they would make me go through the process again, but with increased harassment. That combined with my better luck finding food and starting fires I was dubbed the mountain man.

Sitting on a taxiway during a thunderstorm, lightning strikes the nose of my T-28. Momentarily deaf and nearly blind I jump out of the smoking aircraft which catches fire and burns to cinders.

During an aerobatic formation flying (T-28) session in clear air between thunder cells we experienced severe turbulence. My G-meter was pegged. My wingman reported flight control difficulty. I looked over and I could see daylight through the fuselage just behind the canopy. The tail was bent down. He went into a gentle descent to minimize using the flight controls and landed at the nearest possible airfield while we rotated overhead. Our plane was taken out of inventory for inspection. My wingman’s plane was a write-off.

Active Duty from 1972 through 1974

I graduate #1 in my class and transition to fleet duty. The following is not necessarily in exact order. Being number one but choosing a non-career enhancing assignment created a lot of friction and developments down the road.

I received orders to report to a composite squadron at the Atlantic Fleet Weapons Range based at Roosevelt Roads, Puerto Rico. Holly and I arrived with much anticipation and bought a sailboat in the first week we were there. That turned out to be a highly satisfying decision.

Now take a bunch of aggressive young men and give them high performance aircraft, somewhat dangerous missions, a low level of supervision, plenty of really cheap alcohol and watch what happens. On our first day while driving from the San Juan airport to report to the squadron I watched an F-8 crusader fly between the smoke stacks in Fajardo by turning his wings vertical in order to fit between. After these serious infractions of FAA regulations I'm thinking this guys career is toast. It turns out it was my commanding officer. Things were going to be different. Unlike much of the fleet we had extraordinary freedom at times. This included dropping rolls of toilet paper or sacks of flour on freight trains or herds of cows, looking for good dive spots and anchorages in the islands, cruising by the tall sailing ship on clothing optional trips, and flying where we wanted on so-called training flights.

The first time I'm sent out to find one of our drones in the Atlantic full of white caps I came back and asked why on earth the drones don't have a cheap radio beacon on them. My suggestion was dismissed rather rudely. Later in the year during a screwed-up war games exercise five of our supersonic drones end up running out of fuel way out and are not recovered. One washes up in Santo Domingo causing a diplomatic kerfuffle. Beacons were installed in the drones shortly thereafter.

While rotating on station during air-to-air missile exercises one of those damn Prinair pilots that were supposed to fly VFR between San Juan and St. Thomas and stay out of the operating area during operations came out of a cloud head-to-head with me. I could see his eyes bulge and after seconds of shock I was angry. I broke off my mission which was in a holding pattern at the time anyway and chased him down to get his tail number and file a report.

My flying partner from advanced flight school flew a P-3 mission out of the Bay area and the plane and crew were never heard from again. Being hundereds of miles out flying very low looking of Russian subs is a tough place to be if things go wrong.

Flying one of our electronics P-2's fully loaded with fuel for a long duration flight we hit a frigate bird (7 foot wing span) directly on a cylinder causing it to overheat. We shut down the affected engine and then fired up the jets to help burn off fuel to get down to landing weight. Burnt frigate bird smells pretty bad. I don't recall anymore but I presume the engine was removed for repair and testing, all 18 cylinders of it.

Towing a target sleeve 7000 feet behind on a cable for ship antiaircraft shooting practice I felt the plane lurch slightly meaning the sleeve was shot cleanly off. And then another but smaller lurch, and another. Their fire control radar was walking up and shooting off chunks of cable. All that remained was 2000 feet of the original 7000.

Towing targets for a German warship I observe airbursts in front of me that buffet the aircraft. WTF. They are not cleared to commence firing until I’m directly overhead. I activate the explosive cable cutter while screaming cease fire repeatedly and dive for the deck while vacating the area. The cable drops across the ship. They try to tell me over the radio that this is normal operating procedure. Oh no it's not and I’m livid. I write it up for the CO.

While performing range duties during air-to-air exercises a reserve’s F-4 pilot stated he had one of our 30 foot day glow orange target drones in sight. He was cleared to launch a missile (providing his heading is within approved bearings) and promptly zipped an engine off the the wing of a silver A-3 bomber. What an idiot. I was not that far from the A-3 either, which made me nervous.

One of our drone carrying P-2’s was airborne during ship to air missile exercises. They got a drone fired up but could not get it off the wing. The thing is, when the drone runs out of fuel it pops an 80 foot chute. They cannot get back to land before the drone runs out of fuel. The chute came out and they went into a flat spin. The drone finally came off at an altitude of 1000 feet above the Atlantic. Whew! What a terrifying experience.

One of our A-4 pilots was doing pop-ups with a ship (practice dive bombing exercise) and plowed into the ocean going many hundreds of miles and hour. No human remains were found.

Flying copilot on a P-2 flight to the States somewhere adjacent to Santo Domingo one of the engines suddenly started running rough. Before the flight engineer could get it shut down there was a pop and a piston and cylinder burst through the cowling and over the fuselage into the sea. We turned around and flew home on one engine.

Flying copilot on a P-2 flight to New England somewhere in the Bermuda Triangle we lost all electrical. All we had was a magnetic compass. So we turned left until we saw the Caicos Islands and visually followed the islands back to Puerto Rico.

I was airborne on range patrol while a Venezuelan ship was practicing firing at a land target on Vieques. It’s shots were pathetically way off target and falling short into the sea. The exasperated range officer directed the ship to get closer, but shots still landed short. The thing is, whoever was on the bridge should have been able to see that the barrel was depressed below horizontal. How could they be that inept? After getting the ship moved as close as possible without running aground, shots were still hitting way off. Finally the range officer directed them to get out on the deck and visually sight down the barrel before firing. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. Of course no one in any navy would operate like this and getting directed like this was a huge insult.

One of our P-2’s flew to New England and upon landing the nose wheel strut broke off digging a very long furrow in the runway. I’m rousted out of bed at 2 am to fly parts up to them.

During a sweep of the firing range I found one of the rich boy big power boats parked on the beach in the shore battery target zone. I make several very low passes while broadcasting on VHF to let him know to move on. I received the one finger salute so I made a radio call for assistance. A helo was sent out which proceeded to hover directly overhead and blow sand all over the place. The racket must have been overpowering. Still there was no movement. At that point the range officer had seen enough. He drove a remotely controlled tank down the hill to the beach and lowered the gun barrel onto the boats deck, which then left in a hurry.

One of our A-4’s lost its one and only engine and the pilot successfully ejected from the aircraft and was picked up by helo.

While sitting at the scheduling desk (one of my duties) a pilot came in and requested a training flight before sunrise on a specific date. Having a pilot volunteer to get up before sunrise is highly suspicious behavior. Later while reading the paper I discovered that the British Virgin Islands had scheduled a public hanging at sunrise on that date. I denied the training flight request.

Flying in bad weather one of our drone carrying P-2’s was hit by lightning and the tail cone covering the rear antenna was blown off. This is a large but unused component so thorough testing of flight behavior proceeded to see if it could be used as is.

Flying out at sunrise to clear the range on an abnormally calm day I spied a boat in the operating area. It’s a dismasted Hobie Cat with two guys aboard wearing only swimming trunks. They have been out there all night. Their next landfall would be Venezuela about 500 miles away. I flew real low right on by while they jump up and down and wave their arms. I was on a radar controlled route and in constant radio contact with the firing range so I gave them a mark and requested a boat be sent out to pick them up. Lucky bastards. There is no boat traffic where they were. With no food, water, or shade they would not have lasted very long in the hot tropical sun.

While watching the range near Isabella (Vieques) we watched the Tucumcari hydrafoil gunboat run over a very large patch reef that was well marked and the visibility was excellent. It sheared the foils right off and went hard aground. There’s a skipper that will immediately lose his command and probably his career.

Flying with a new junior pilot at 10,000 feet directly over our airfield our UHF radio went up in smoke. The student comes unglued and I have to get his attention rather firmly. It's just a radio for Pete's sake. We descended to enter the traffic pattern and performed the "radio out" procedures without further drama. I was worried about this pilot if things actually got hairy. Weak pilots tend to cause statistics.

The next three have their own detailed description. They are quite unbelievable.

My neighbor flew an S-2 to the States where the winter weather was horrible. He lost most electrical, de-icing would’t work, he was losing altitude, had no radios, and could not see out of the windshield. He made it!!!!!

Crashed a P-2 into the ocean. The whole thing was a complete clusterf*** (pervasive military term). (link)

Flying the range in our previously damaged S-2 we lost an engine and could only remain flying using ground effect. I came very close to my second water landing in the ocean. (link)


How to save a million dollars
How crazy is it to be a Navy pilot?
My first and only water landing
Squeezing in a successful landing

Thanks for visiting.

— Ted Henry