"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
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
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.