The Gutless Cutlass

By lex, on August 9th, 2009

When I was going through my initial FRS CQ in the FA-18 – the first time we, as fledgling naval aviators would land aboard ship at night – the landing signal officers were careful to explain to us that we might, or might not see combat but that we would of a certainty see the back end of the ship. It was a LCDR Lyons, if I recall correctly, who spoke with an easy economy of words sprinkled with stout, Anglo Saxon derivatives. “Goon this up,” he said encouragingly, “and you could no-sh!t die.”

He had our attention.

Off to one side of the LSO classroom was a picture that also caught my attention. It was a snapshot of an F7U Cutlass pilot having a very bad day.

TheGutlessCutlass

Although I was at that time a mere novice, it appeared to me certain that 1) the plane would be a write-off, 2) the pilot would most likely buy it as would, 3) the sailors there in the port catwalk but that, 4) the LSO, having chosen an unconventional escape route across the flight deck, might just get away with it.

The classroom picture served a dual role, I think. It reminded the aviators both novice and veteran of the stakes in the game. But that was, until today, all that I knew about it.

From Wikipedia we learn that the F7U was considered only marginally suitable for carrier operations, and that its pilots liked to joke that the Westinghouse engines put out less heat than the company’s toasters. We also learn that the pilot was on LCDR Jay Alkire, who perished not in the immediate crash but moments afterward, when the plane went over the port side and slipped into the sea. Also killed were two aviation bosun’s mates and a photographer’s mate – although not, as it appears in this rather morbid video at around the 2:19 mark, the man just to the right in the picture above.

This Flickr photo sequence makes it look like the LSO got away, although not with much time to spare. This page dedicated to the USS Hancock verifies that he escaped (his name was Ted Reilly), that Alkire was the squadron XO and that VF-124 lost 5 of 16 pilots on that 1955-56 deployment. Which I imagine made for rather a somber ready room environment.

Interesting thing, the web. Twenty years ago I could not have pulled so much information out of a dimly remembered photograph on a lazy Sunday morning – it would have been days and weeks of tough slogging through dispersed archives and interviews. Had the technology come along 20 years later many of the voices that contributed to the memory stream might have been silenced.

Our children will never know a time when knowledge was not so instantly available.

 

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