by Bill Vernon
I’d thought the assignment to the USMC Air Wing at Cherry Point would be a vacation, but anxiety set in the day after my arrival when the brass issued this order: the crew I’d joined was to stand by for emergencies at Bogue Field while planes did touch-and-goes. Touch-and-go? What was that and what were we to do? What and where was Bogue Field? Air Wing operations were a mystery to me. So was North Carolina. I’d dived into something over my head.
At dawn the next day, my questions, if not my doubts, began to be resolved. Navy drivers took us in cattle cars to Bogue Field, which looked as though it had been abandoned years ago. Past a bullet-riddled sign at the gate, they dropped us at the arresting gear on the field’s one runway. Then a rush of preparation occurred. I heard that the planes were already in the air and the brass were already inside the headquarters tent, waiting until we gave them the go-ahead that our gear was operational. Nothing more was clear to me. After my three years in the infantry, all this Air Wing stuff seemed like hieroglyphics: unreadable. The other guys were school-trained and relaxed. As a ground-pounder, I’d become comfortable with marches, ambushes, weapons, and hand grenades. Fighter planes had been far off, up in the sky.
The other crew members set about doing their tasks while I worried about how dangerous these emergencies might be. Everyone seemed so absorbed in their duties, they couldn’t take the time to explain the dangers or much else to me. A PFC quickly showed me how to check a cable’s link to the arresting gear. The cables connected to a huge piston in each of our two machines so the plane’s weight and speed could drag a cable and depress each plunger, which was inside a tube that contained ethylene glycol. When jerked farther inside the tube, the piston displaced liquid, thus absorbing the plane’s momentum and stopping it. Our two machines were anchored in the earth across the runway from each other.
The PFC told me to check the other three connections as well as remove the half-tires under the cables and drop them by the gear. Then he left for other jobs.
I asked his back, “Why?”
He yelled back over a shoulder without stopping, “The cables have to lie flat, but be ready for raising to catch a plane if need be. Okay?”
He didn’t wait for my answer, which would’ve been, “No, not okay.” But I did almost understand, which I guessed was better than nothing.
On-the-job experience slowly began to teach me. Touch-and-goes at Bogue Field were practice aircraft landings for Marine and Navy A-4Ds, F-8Us, and F-4Hs. They’d fly down onto the runway at our old World War II airfield, roll slowly between our pair of arresting gears, then flare up, accelerating, gaining altitude, banking, circling back to do it again. We land-based “Launch and Recovery” technicians (my new designation) waited for emergency madness: some failure that could cause a crash. Besides the common sense and good training of the pilots, what protected us most during the touch-and-goes were the Mickey Mouse Ears we wore. The roar of after-burners and the full-throttle climbs could burst ear drums and cause something like panic.
Touching and going was obviously asking for trouble. If after touching down a plane became airborne with a blown tire, a landing gear collapse or other malfunction, that threw my unit into action: the crew chief talked with the pilot, told the guys on our machines how to set the gauges, informed the firemen, and ordered me and another guy to elevate the two cables. My job was of course the grunge work, putting two half-tires under a cable so the plane’s hook could slide under and snag it. Sometimes it missed the first cable but caught the second.
If the plane touching down couldn’t get airborne after passing our gear, it slowed as much as possible (our runway was slightly longer than a carrier deck), then hit our final, last-chance arresting gear short of the beach and Bogue Sound. This emergency gear resembled an oversized badminton net, heavy nylon mesh raised high enough to snare a plane’s nose and wings and allow its momentum to drag heavy weights to stop it. This situation alarmed me because the plane could burst through the mesh and capsize or worse. If that happened, I’d have a lot of work helping to fix the mess before the next plane landed.
I became intimately familiar with our arresting gear months later, when I felt as relaxed as I’d ever get among the aircraft and this launch and recovery technology. Promoted to Corporal E-4, and given slightly more pay (which was nice), I also received the responsibility to install a new Swedish emergency arresting gear at Bogue Field.
This job was nerve-wracking. First of all, the directions for installation were from a manual that was hard to understand: gobbledygook, Swedish translated into fractured English. Consequently, I led the installation without confidence and endured an officer’s inspection of it just as he endured my strained explanation of what we were doing. It and I passed inspection, but thereafter an emergency arrest on the gear became my responsibility. That circumstance only happened once and the gear worked perfectly. Day after day, though, anticipating whether it would work the next time was unsettling.
To make matters worse, the day after the emergency arresting gear’s installation, crew chief Sergeant Travis informed me that as a corporal I was from now on supposed to signal directions to pilots by hand as they taxied. I was apparently relieved of my job elevating the cables, but this new assignment hit me like a kick to the stomach. It looked good on paper only if you didn’t notice my background.
The flight of planes we were to catch zoomed past overhead: A-4Ds. Their engines were whining and the lead plane was already turning to descend. I immediately interrupted Travis, who was in radio contact with the pilot and traffic control. I told him I couldn’t do it. I’d never done it. I’d never been trained in hand signals.
“Damn! You’ve seen it a hundred times.” Sergeant Travis pointed at me, while snarling to Sergeant Bailey, “Beetle, get over here and take care of this.”
I repeated my complaints to Sergeant Bailey, and he asked to see what I knew. I demonstrated my badly copied version of the hand signals I’d seen at airports for stop, turn right, left, come forward, go on, none of which I’d ever practiced.
Bailey said, “Look, you’ve got the basics. That’s enough. There’s only the one taxiway the planes can go on. You turn ’em onto it, and they’ll know to follow it around and line up for take-off. That’s all you have to do. Here comes the first one now. There’s no more time for bullshit. When its hook goes up, signal the plane to turn onto the taxiway. The next plane will come in right behind it. Hey, and don’t get too close in front or in back of the engines.”
That last comment emphasized how my ignorance endangered me. I looked at Sergeant Bailey, hoping for some comforting advice or assurance.
He turned away and went back to setting gauges on his machine while Travis barked out the weight and speed of the first A-4D into Bailey’s ears.
As the plane approached, I ran onto the taxiway to a position where I thought I remembered seeing other crew-members directing planes from the runway. The plane landed, caught the first cable with a whoosh, stopped just beyond our machines, rolled back a couple of feet, dropped the cable, and raised its hook. Then the pilot turned his head and looked out the cockpit at me.
I gave my left turn signal, then my come-on/forward signal. Despite my Mickey Mouse Ears, the sound of his engine revving was loud. The plane jerked forward but headed right for me. With visions of being sucked into its air intake, I signaled him to brake and turn away. He turned instead more fully toward me. I ran backwards, flapping my hands, directing him away, but tripped and fell onto my backside. The plane did veer and pass, but the pilot stared from his cockpit and shook his head at me.
Within a few minutes, the whole flight of four planes had landed and taken the taxiway’s curving path around to wait for radio clearance to go back onto the runway one at a time for launching. By that time, though, I was second-guessing everything. Were twenty-yard intervals between them enough? How far apart should they be? Shouldn’t I try to get more distance between them? I ran past the last two planes hoping their pilots might clue me in and keep more clearance from the ones ahead. I thought about stopping them, raised my hands to signal stop, and a PFC ran up, grabbed my arm, lifted the muffler off my right ear, and told me he’d take over here. I had to report immediately to Sergeant Travis.
With great relief, I ran back to the nearest arresting gear engine, escaping at least momentarily my duty as a signalman. Sergeant Travis reacted angrily. “Where the hell did you learn to direct traffic. Two pilots reported you were wandering around out there like you wanted to get killed.”
That embarrassed and angered me at the same time. I’d played cards and shared beers with Travis. We were like friends. He knew my background. He expected too much from me. I sputtered and protested and tried to explain, but he turned away.
Then I noticed the other guys, even the ones from the other engine across the runway. They were all standing there, watching and laughing. I relaxed, amazed they’d managed to pull off such an insane prank. Even the officer-pilots, especially the lead one, had to have been in on the joke.