"Who the Hell Was Flying That Plane?"

During my second year of active duty (3rd year in the Navy) I was stationed at “Breezy Point” NAS Norfolk, Va. I was an Aviation Storekeeper and had several quiet periods when I could exercise my passion for flying. Our detachment supply officer was LTjg Brice Moore who often took me along for a mission. Great experience being shot off an aircraft carrier, but that’s another story.

In August of 1962, our squadron (VAW-12) moved from NAS Quonset Point, RI to Norfolk, VA. Unfortunately, our ship, the USS Essex did not relocate, so in order to deploy, we first had to fly from Virginia back to Rhode Island. Our aircraft was the Grumman WF-2 / E1B with a flying saucer (radome) on top. The “Willy Fudd” as we called it, was 25,000 pounds with over 3,000 horse-power and would be the largest and most powerful plane I ever flew. (Yes, I did fly it). WF-2s carried a crew of four with a fifth jump seat if an extra crewman was needed. Pilot and co-pilot were up front and radar / sonar operators in back. Since this was a ferry operation, only a pilot and co-pilot were required for the formation of four aircraft. Mister Moore (proper when addressing a Naval officer) was co-pilot that day and knowing my passion for flying, invited me along in one of the empty crew seats. With full military flying gear, helmet and headphones – even government-issue flying boots, I climbed in the back and buckled in. No G-force cautions were necessary since we were not being catapulted off an aircraft carrier. Once airborne, I listened to the busy chatter on the radio as the four planes maneuvered into a right echelon formation. Once we were in position and leveled out at cruising altitude, our pilot unbuckled and came back, pointing his thumb up front as he prepared to take a nap during the flight. Wow. Not my first time sitting in the pilot seat, but first time while flying.

Mr. Moore, the co-pilot was flying the plane from the right seat. I plugged in my headset and he instructed me to buckle in. My first glance to the left proved a very sobering sight. There were three twelve-ton airplanes flying 250 MPH not more than 30 feet apart. Mr. Moore asked me if I wanted to fly the plane for a while. Things got really sober just then. He instructed me to bank a little to starboard (right) and he opened the throttles. We were now doing nearly 275 MPH. Exciting and scary and my mouth felt very dry. We continued on course for about 20 minutes and then he instructed me to do a heavy bank for a tight turn to port. I was surprised how easy this big plane handled and had no trouble doing a tight belly tickler bank for the purpose of circling around the formation and returning to our number four slot. Well as plans go, sometimes things don’t work out as you hoped. We had indeed moved ahead of the formation about a mile but we both forgot about a common error by new pilots learning to fly. After driving a car for years, pilots often have a heavy right foot from holding the gas pedal down while driving. This resulted in a slight tendency for the aircraft to drift to the right and after several minutes, we had drifted about a half mile to the right of the remaining formation. Then stark terror as I looked up through the roof windows and saw the three Grumman WF-2’s coming directly at us. There was plenty of time for us to get out of their way but the worst was yet to come.

As we (I) started the turn to get back behind the formation, I could see that all three airplanes were tipped up in crazy angles, trying to keep from colliding with each other. I realized instantly that they had been caught in our wake and the turbulence threatened a catastrophe. We tucked back into our number four slot and Mr. Moore took over for the rest of the flight. I was quite surprised and happy when he let me stay in the pilot’s seat during the landing. He was in control of course, but I was allowed to hold the control wheel to follow through on the landing which was routine. With everything shut down, Mr. Moore and I climbed out of the plane but the pilot (forgot his name) stayed in the back. As we headed towards the tower to check in, I could see three crewmen walking briskly towards us. I soon recognized our detachment commander who was obviously hopping mad. From 20 feet away he shouted, “WHO THE HELL WAS FLYING THAT PLANE?” Mr. Moore turned to me and quietly said “Just keep walking and don’t look back”. We had many more flying adventures together, including several carrier launch and recovery operations. I never heard anything from the detachment commander, and Mr. Moore never mentioned it again.