There is a reason wings fold on Navy aircraft. The flight deck is a crowded place. Space is at an absolute premium.
An airport might have several 10,000′ runways and multitudinous ramps and parking areas.
Not so on an aircraft carrier. There is maybe 1,000′ feet for 4 catapults and nearly 100 airplanes. The same spot may be where a jet takes off, lands, or is tied down for the night. It’s real estate that comes at a premium price, an airplane needs to fit in tightly.
There is also a need for precise control of airplanes moving around the flight deck. The men who guide the planes around the deck must be precise to the nth degree. Inches separate wingtips and tails, props and exhausts.
For this reason, the Navy and the Air Force have a different mindset about who is responsible for a moving aircraft. The AF pilot who follows a taxi director and hits another airplane will be the responsible party when tickets are handed out and insurance claims are made.
The Navy’s attitude is that the person giving the directions for taxiing on a flight deck is the responsible party. The pilot follows the directions precisely. Period. Hit another airplane following the director and it’s the taxi director’s fault. Nighttime deck ops validate the need to follow directions precisely, there is a level of trust that can’t be explained to someone who hasn’t been there. Think about following directions from two flashlight wands with a background of total blackness. Think about taxiing upwards of 30 tons of airplane on a flight deck with one main mount rubbing along the slightly raised deck edge. Think about taxiing toward the bow in the middle of the night and all that can be seen is those two little cones of brightness in front of you. You have no idea where the bow ends and the eternity of the ocean begins. You know pilots think about that.
Dang. I’m starting to sweat just thinking about what it was like. Whew.
On occasion things happen, and therein lies the tale of 503 and 507.
503 and 507 were A-6′s, A-6′s of the A-6E variety, the Navy’s latest and greatest iteration of the venerable Ugly jet. One night these jets were scheduled for the last launch of the evening, a late night cat shot followed by a late night recovery after the latest exercise at sea for this at sea period was concluded.
It’s also germane to this tale to know that these two Uglies were the last two flyable airplanes the squadron owned for that night. There were several still airborne and many that had flown already and were in the hands of maintenance to bring back to life for the next day’s sorties. Should either 503 or 507 go down for whatever reason, the crews had no backup aircraft.
Both aircraft were parked side by side in front of the island on the Connie, inches apart, with the wings folded, on the starboard side facing inboard, with the tails hanging over the water. Preflight and man up went without incident, although everything was done with flashlights.
It was dark. Really dark. Overcast. No moon. It’s always like that.
Both jets started at the same time, the sound of the engines whining up hidden in the noise of flight ops. 503 is ready to go first, the chain gang takes the restraints off the gear and the A-6 is no longer tethered to the flight deck. The yellow wands give the taxi forward signal and the jet moves forward. The crew of 507 watches the crossed wands of their director to await their signal to taxi as well
As 503, to the left of 507, moves forward and ahead of 507 the B/N in 507, who is a cagey and very alert guy, gets the sensation that all is not right, something is happening that shouldn’t be happening. He looks up, over the pilot’s helmet, and sees that the port wing on 507 is unfolding. He hasn’t touched the wing fold handle. What the ??
He quickly grabs the wing fold handle that is in the console between the ejection seats and hauls back on it with all his strength. The wing hesitates for a second and then returns to the folded position.
There is a convention of flashlights off the port side of 507 and even more flashlights around the right tip of 503′s horizontal stabilizer. What happened was bizarre–as 503 moved forward 503′s right horizontal stab caught in the exposed wing fold mechanism on 507. And actuated the mechanism. Like a giant nutcracker 507′s port wing had eaten a portion of the offending horizontal stabilizer. And suffered no damage in doing so. 503 was not so lucky, the stab was crushed on one edge.
Maintenance confers and the radio net to the air boss crackles: “Boss, 503 is down.”
The Boss, who hasn’t seen all that happened in the dark but has been apprised of what occurred over a separate frequency, radios back: “503, hold your position, we’ll push you back after we launch 507.”
503 sets the parking brake and the yellow shirt taxi director in front of 507 gives the chains free and release the brake signal. 507 powers up and moves forward toward the catapult. When the Intruder is as close to the upright jet blast deflector as it can be, the taxi director gives the stop signal and then a sweeping 2 hand signal simulating wings unfolding, the signal to configure the jet, unfold the wings. The B/N in 507 moves the wing fold handle forward and the wings start to unfold.
In the dark nobody picked up on the fact that 507 wasn’t quite clear of 503 yet.
507′s port wing comes down smartly on the radome of the already wounded 503. Somehow the wing misses the inflight refueling probe but nails the radome.
And in doing so the trailing edge devices on the wing of 507 are toast.
The flashlights confer again, this time around the nose of 503, but not too close, with everyone being cautious of the intakes that are looking for the unwary.
The obvious decision is made and again the air boss is notified: “Boss, 507 is down.”
All is quiet for a moment as the Boss looks at the scene from his perch above the flight deck and comprehends the sequence of events.
And then he comes up on the radio: “I can’t believe it. The last two up airplanes on the deck and you beat each other to death.”