by Dee Newman
During the mid and late 1960s I was in the United States Navy – from October 1964 to September 1968. After boot camp in San Diego, California, I was sent to Millington, Tennessee, just north of Memphis, for nine-months to study, train and become an aviation electronics technician.
On August 2, 1964, two months before I joined the Navy, the USS Maddox, while gathering intelligence along the North Vietnam coast in the Gulf of Tonkin, was allegedly fired upon by several North Vietnamese torpedo boats.
Two days later a second attack on the Maddox and the USS Turner was reported to President Johnson. Though the circumstances of the attacks were ambiguous, they prompted Congress to approve the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution on August 7, 1964, giving the President power to conduct military operations in Southeast Asia without declaring war. Shortly thereafter, U.S. retaliatory air strikes were initiated.
When I arrived in Millington in late January 1965 conditions in Vietnam had deteriorate substantially. South Vietnamese Generals had instigate yet another coup. On February 7 the Viet Cong attack the U.S. Air Force base at Pleiku, killing 8 Americans. After several subsequent attacks on U.S. instillations, the brass decided the South Vietnamese military was unable to provide adequate security. A month later 3,500 U.S. Marines were sent to South Vietnam, marking the beginning of the U.S. ground war. Until then, the 20,000 U.S. troops stationed there were called advisors and/or support personnel.
The strikes by the Viet Cong also initiated operation “Rolling Thunder”. The three-month bombing campaign ultimately lasted three years. It was intended to destroy North Vietnam's air defenses and industrial infrastructure, forcing them to cease their support for the National Front for the Liberation of South Vietnam (NLF).
By November 1968, "Rolling Thunder" had bombarded North Vietnam with over a million tons of ordnance. Despite the onslaught, its ambitious goal was never accomplished.
Sometime during February 1965 an official notice was posted on the bulletin board of my barrack, asking for volunteers to serve in Vietnam. I immediately set-up an interview. Fortunately, the Lieutenant who conducted the interview was a great deal wiser than I. He advised me to reconsider my enthusiasm to go to war. “Complete your schooling first,” he counseled. “It will be advantageous to both you and the Navy.”
Nine months later, by the time I had finished my training to become an aviation electronics technician, I was married. My priorities had change. Unfortunately, an assignment to Southeast Asia and the continually escalating war seemed inevitable.
When I received my orders to report to the Naval Air Station (NAS) in Sanford, Florida, and Reconnaissance Attack Squadron THREE (RVAH-3), I had no idea at the time how fortunate I was to receive the assignment.
Eight of the ten RVAH Vigilante squadrons stationed at NAS Sanford saw extensive action during carrier air wing operations in the South China Sea throughout the Vietnam War. RVAH-3, however, was strictly a stateside-based training squadron. Its mission was to prepare pilots to fly the Mach-2+ RA-5C Vigilante reconnaissance aircraft.
Once a pilot and navigator had qualified to fly the RA-5C Vigilante at the Naval Air Station, they were required to qualify to takeoff from and land the supersonic jet on an aircraft carrier. Not an easy task given the Vigilante’s size and speed.
Carrier Quals as they were called required a full crew of support personnel, including Aviation Electronic Technicians (AETs). In June of 1967 I flew as part of a Quals crew 2300 miles from NAS Sanford, Florida to the Alameda Naval Complex across the bay from San Francisco, California. There, we boarded the USS Ranger, the first angled-deck supercarrier (the Top Gun of the Pacific Fleet) and proceeded to sail beneath the Golden Gate Bridge. My two weeks onboard the Ranger was my first and only service aboard an aircraft carrier.
If you have never been onboard a carrier, the description of them being a floating city at sea is accurate. The Ranger’s displacement when fully loaded was over 80,000 tons. The flight deck was over 3 football fields long and nearly a football field wide.
Accommodating over 5000 personnel the Ranger had everything its residents needed to live. There were multiple galleys and mess halls, continually serving meals 24 hours a day. The ship also had a sizable laundry facility, dentist and doctor's offices, and various stores.
Conditions, however, aboard the Ranger were much more cramped than in a normal city. In order to get from one place to another, I had to scale steep ladderwells that were nearly vertical and squeeze past other personnel in narrow passageways.
Our sleeping quarters were extremely tight. We slept in single bunks, crammed together in stacks of twos and threes. Each of us got a small storage bin and an upright locker for clothes and personal belongings. Our compartment of 30 plus support personnel shared a bathroom with cold saltwater showers. The facilities for officers (I was told) were a bit more accommodating, but limited, as well. Everyone onboard had to get used to tight quarters.
Most of the onboard crew had little opportunity to see the ocean or the sky. The flight deck, hangar and fantail all offered magnificent views of the outside world, but those areas were so demanding and dangerous that only a handful of people were allowed access during normal operating conditions. Personnel who worked below deck might go for weeks without ever seeing daylight.
Being on any carrier’s flight deck during takeoffs and landings is extremely hazardous. Landing crews are especially vulnerable. The large cable that traps landing aircraft has been known to snap and fly across the deck taking off the legs of any one in its path. Catapult crews may be less vulnerable but their responsibilities, as well, place them at great risk.
On one occasion Johnny Johnson and I, while we were replacing the radio gear located beneath the fiberglass bathtub in the nose-wheel-well, were nearly blown off the flight deck.
The aircraft was chained down to the deck directly behind the port bow catapult. There was already nearly 40 knots of wind blowing across the deck from bow to stern. We had to lean into the wind in order to remain upright. Another Vigilante was being readied for take off on the catapult.
For some reason the blast-deflector shield between the catapult and us had not been activated. Therefore, as we approached the radio-downed aircraft we could readily see the yellow-shirted catapult director simultaneously giving hand signals to both the pilot and the catapult crew – above shoulder signals to the pilot and below the waist signals to the crew.
After lowering the hinged bathtub I climbed up and into the nose-wheel-well and began unscrewing the gray two-foot long rectangular radio box. While I was doing this I could hear through my ear protection the J79 engines of the RA-5C on the catapult began to spool-up to full military power.
Suddenly, as I began to lower the radio box down to Johnny the afterburners of the Vigilante on the catapult were activated and 36,000 pounds of boiling thrust blew Johnny’s legs out from under him. Fortunately, his left hand was already gripping the deck chain to steady himself. Otherwise, he would have surely been blown overboard. As it were he remained prone and suspended in the air for a good 10 to 15 seconds. We later found the radio gear a number of yards aft of the aircraft.
Several weeks after returning to NAS Sanford I found myself experiencing yet another life-threatening event. Although I did not know it at the time, the event was directly related to an incident that had occurred onboard the Ranger.
Late one evening our shop received a call from the maintenance crew that the radio of an aircraft doing touch and goes was not functioning properly. I was sent out alone to replace the gear. After checking with the pilot and inspecting the controls in the cockpit, I climbed down and hit the switch that opened the door to the nose-wheel-well. After waiting several moments for the maintenance crew to place a lock-block on the door’s hydraulics, I motion with my hands for the block. They indicated that they had left it in their shop and encourage me to replace the gear anyway.
Reluctantly, I released and pull down the fiberglass bathtub and climbed up into the nose-wheel-well. There was a small foothold on the door that we stood on in order to gain access to the radio gear. Suddenly, the hydraulics activated, slamming the door shut, crushing the bathtub and shoving me into the small cavity that the nosewheel normally would occupy when the aircraft was aloft.
Moments later the door open and I fell to the tarmac. I was extremely fortunate. I could have easily ended up being crushed like the fiberglass bathtub. Needless to say the flight was aborted. The plane had been damaged and the radio was still not functioning.
Several weeks later, once again, I found myself alone in a similar circumstance. This time I refused to replace the radio gear until the door’s hydraulics had been secured. Suddenly, a member of the maintenance crew was in my face demanding that I replace the gear. This time, with his face only inches from mine, I recognized him. We had been crewmates onboard the Ranger. I had caught him cheating one evening at cards and confronted him in front of his cohorts.
Outranking me he pointed to the stripes on his left shoulder and once again demanded that I replace the radio gear. I refused. Grabbing me by the neck and arm he shoved me toward his maintenance vehicle. Minutes later, we were standing in front of the duty officer. After hearing from both of us, the chief on duty told me to return to my shop. The next day I heard that my adversary had been written up and was going to lose a stripe over the incident.
Originally, the North American A3J-1 Vigilante (later re-designated the A-5A) was designed as the first all-weather, carrier-launched, nuclear-capable attack bomber. The updated A3J-2 became the A-5B. However, by 1963 the U.S. Navy's strategic role shifted from manned bombers to submarine launched ballistic missiles. As a result procurement of the A-5A and A-5B ended and the attack bomber was converted into an extremely high speed tactical reconnaissance aircraft, equipped with two General Electric J79 turbojet engines with afterburners.
The new RA-5C had a slightly greater wing area. It needed it for lift. The reconnaissance Vigilante weighed almost five tons more than the A-5A. It was the largest and fastest airplane to ever operate from an aircraft carrier. Though it had almost the same thrust as the A-5A, replacing the bomb bay with a long external under the fuselage reconnaissance fairing called the “canoe”, reduced its acceleration and climb-rate.
Nevertheless, in 1969, on a practice run preparing for the London/New York Mail Race, a new 156 series Vigilante without the reconnaissance canoe installed exceeded Mach 2.5. The pilot later said he felt he could have gone faster. I once witness the return of a RA-5C with half of its tail gone. The pilot would only admit that he had exceeded Mach 2.
Located in the “canoe” were a series of multi-sensor, state of the art reconnaissance. There were vertical, oblique and split-image cameras, as well as, 3-inch and 18-inch horizon-to-horizon panoramic scanning cameras with a Digital Data System (DDS), which encoded all the statistical data (altitude, latitude, date, etc.) on the five-inch-wide negative film, identifying exactly where the photos were taken.
In addition, an Inertial Navigation System (INS) in conjunction with an Automatic Flight Control System (AFCS) enabled the RA-5C to fly precise missions ranging from treetop to high altitude. The information obtained was later interpreted by the shipboard Integrated Operational Intelligence Center (IOIC) and used for mission planning.
The aircraft was also equipped with a television camera capable of functioning in very low light, mounted under the nose in a bubble-eye just behind the radome, Side Looking Airborne Radar (SLAR), an infrared line scanner, and Passive Electronic Counter Measures (PECM) – a sensor for gathering electromagnetic intelligence located in the linear weapons bay.
The Vigilante had twin cockpits. The 2-man crew flew in tandem, the pilot in front and the Reconnaissance Attack Navigator (RAN), in the rear. Compared to other aircraft, the cockpit was large and comfortable. The hot air rain removal system blown over the curved one-piece windscreen provided the pilot with excellent visibility even during severe weather conditions.
The supersonic aircraft could operate at altitudes from sea level to above 50,000 feet. In fact, on December 13, 1960, Navy Commander Leroy Heath with his Bombardier/Navigator Lieutenant Larry Monroe established a new world altitude record of 91,450.8 feet (17.320 miles) in an A3J Vigilante. It surpassed the previous record by over four miles and was held for over 13 years.
Due to its primary mission (pre- and post-strike photography) the RA-5C Vigilante had the highest loss rate of any Naval aircraft during the Vietnam War. Eighteen Vigilantes were lost in combat. A number of Sanford-based pilots and navigators became prisoners of war in Vietnam.
The combat attrition rate of the RA-5C was also intensified by other incidents and accidents. On June 14, 1967, during touch-and-go landings (Field Carrier Landing Practice), a RA-5C assigned to my Squadron RVAH-3, crashed at NAS Sanford. At the time it was reported that the aircraft sustained in-flight Foreign Object Damage (FOD), ingesting a loose clamp into the starboard engine. Though both crewmen ejected, the pilot was killed.
When the crash occurred I was walking to my car. Hearing an unusual sound I turn to see the starboard engine blow as the aircraft began to climb out of its touch-and-go landing. I saw the navigator eject just before the plane rolled to its left. By the time the pilot ejected the aircraft’s cockpit was pointing toward the tarmac.
On October 3, 1967, another multi-million dollar RA-5C assigned to my squadron crashed due to FOD. The pilot ejected safely. Fortunately, there was no navigator aboard.
In 1968 Congress directed the closure of NAS Sanford, transferring the entire wing and squadrons to the former Turner Air Force Base in Albany, Georgia. NAS Sanford became NAS Albany. In early September, two weeks before I was discharged, another aircraft sustain Foreign Object Damage and crashed. Fortunately, there were no fatalities.
For sometime the scuttlebutt had been that someone was actually sabotaging the aircraft, taping tools and other objects to the intake of the J79 turbojet engines. So, it was no surprise when the Base Commander the day after the last crash assembled every shift, the entire command in one large hanger.
Climbing to the top of a tall maintenance scaffold, he began to address us. The delivery of his words was deliberate – slow, careful and precise. Noticeably strapped to his right side was a Colt .45. For several minutes he carefully explained what he and Naval Intelligence believed had been occurring for well over a year both in Sanford and Albany – Sabotage!
As he ended his address, with his right hand he pulled the Forty-five from its holster. Holding it at shoulder height for all to see, he said these words, which will remain etched within my mind forever: “Someone below me is a murderer. When we find out who you are and we’ll find out, believe me, I’m personally going to put a bullet through your brain!”
Turning to a friend I said, “ I don’t know who is crazier, the saboteur or our Base Commander? I’m sure glad I’m being discharged in two weeks.”