Guest Blogging – Thunder Tanking

By lex

Fri – March 25, 2005


One of the fun things about the business brotherhood of naval aviation is the way that sea stories lead in turn to other stories. Long time Neptunus Lex sufferer and occasional correspondent Jonboy has a story below about tanking in bad weather, which my Night in the Barrel story reminded him of.

I think it’s a great read, and hope you enjoy it too:

Your recent tale “In the barrel” reminded me of another one. I know you’re shocked! Shocked that such a thing could occur!

Most sea stories start out the same way because it’s part of the Naval Fairy Tale Format. It was another one of those nights in the Med with thunderstorms all around and no moon or stars. I was assigned night tanker for the final launch of that night.

Launching in an A-7 configured as a tanker involves carrying three drop tanks as well as the buddy store (refueling pod) and a FLIR pod which results in max weight for takeoff. This translates into a fairly extreme amount of acceleration required from the catapult to get the aircraft airborne. I always thought of it as a chiropractic cat shot because every vertebra in my spine and neck cracked during the shot. Unbelievably, even that acceleration didn’t guarantee an excess of 10 knots above take off airspeed after launch.

Most guys I knew hated the night cat shot more than the landing. Zero to 180 knots in two seconds into a black hole and you were essentially along for the ride, kind of like Space Mountain. So imagine the fun with the added disorientation of a max acceleration cat shot. With all that weight and the extra junk hanging off the wings, the A-7 kind of wallows off the pointy end into the pitch black of night. The Corsair II doesn’t quite have the thrust to weight ratio of the Hornet, what with only one engine and no afterburner.

Once airborne and I get my eyes back in their sockets and heart rate under control, I join up on the off going KA-6 tanker and he passes me the lead so he can drop back and check out the buddy store. Everything works as advertised, so we change places and he tops me off before heading down to land.

As with most routine training flights, tanker hops are filled with boredom interspersed with moments of pure terror. I carved my circles in the night sky overhead the ship, dodging the thunderstorm cells now and then. The ship had turned downwind to try and get a little more sea room and find a clear area between storms for the final recovery.

My biggest worry while flying big circles at max conserve fuel flow was falling asleep. Other than a visit by a couple of masochists for practice night plugs, all I had to look forward to was a night trap between thunderstorms.

Eventually the final recovery for that night commenced and I monitored the LSO’s on the back radio to hear if anyone was having problems.

It sounded like one A-6 pilot was having his turn in the barrel that night. Approach control vectored me aft of the ship to follow him in on his third landing attempt. An aircraft on approach, with gear and flaps down, flies at about half the speed of an A-7 tanker. Since I would follow him toward the ship from above and behind his position, my goal was to be twice as far from the ship as his aircraft during the approach.

I turned in at twelve miles when he was six miles aft of the ship on final. I dropped to 4,000 feet and followed him in. I was at eight miles when he was at four, but I was going in and out of the clouds. We do not tank in clouds day or night. At least we didn’t back then. Approach cleared me down to 3000 feet. At six miles I was in and out of the clouds again so they cleared me, as needed down to 1200 feet. I ended up down at 1200 feet to stay below the clouds as we both approached the fantail. The buddy store was spun up and ready to go and I had my finger on the switch to extend the hose as he touched down.

As a tanker pilot, my job was to be as easy to find and tank as possible if he failed to trap aboard. If he missed this time he would add power, climb, and raise the gear and flaps. By the time he looked up I would be at his one o’clock with the hose out, ready to go.

As he touched down I was directly overhead and saw him hit the deck and I then went back into the clouds. I couldn’t see if he trapped, but I didn’t hear a bolter call. Approach confirmed he was aboard and cleared me downwind at 1200 feet.

I was still in the clouds as I turned downwind and noticed a strange glow from the nose of my plane. It reminded me of sitting in a car in fog with just the parking lights on. I leaned forward and saw two glowing balls of St. Elmo’s fire, perched on the tips of the two pitot tubes, one on either side of the nose. On previous flights I sometimes saw little glowing filaments around the stray fibers of fiberglass around the canopy, but this display was the size of tennis balls and much brighter.

I stared up at the canopy looking intently for more displays around the canopy bow. That’s when a bolt of lightning hit the plane, right behind the cockpit.

I was blind.

The plane was left wing down at 1200 feet turning downwind just a few moments before, but now I was flash blinded. I frantically pushed on the flood light toggle switch to try and turn on the bright white cockpit lights, nothing happened. My mind was racing as I blinked and stared at the space where my attitude indicator should be. Did I still have a generator? Did I have any cockpit lighting? What if my gyros had tumbled? Did I bump the stick? Am I slowly rolling and descending towards the ocean? From that altitude I’d be an oil slick on the ocean in a few moments.

I scanned where I thought the main ADI and the standby gyro were, hoping to see something soon. I cranked up the lighting rheostat and for the first time in my career started to seriously consider ejecting. Slowly my vision returned and I was staring at the main gyro, which indicated I was still left wing down at around 1200 feet turning downwind.

Oh how I love a well trimmed aircraft. The entire event probably lasted only ten or fifteen seconds, but it seemed like several lifetimes.

I checked my systems and everything appeared intact. I informed the ship that I had been hit by lightning but the aircraft seemed fine. I found out later, that when hit I was close enough to the ship that the guys aboard heard the thunderclap.

The rest of the recovery went as advertised and I dumped down to landing weight and turned in ahead of the Hawkeye and landed, uneventfully.

Later, the gunner tracked me down in the ready room and pulled me out of the movie. Normally, the gunner was a fun guy with a casual attitude. That night he was white as a sheet.

It turns out the bolt of lightning hit a little over a foot behind my head on the turtleback. It burned a quarter sized hole through the skin of the aircraft, so they pulled the panel. Beneath that was the 20mm ammo drum with 1,000 rounds of HEI (high explosive incendiary) and a dime sized hole burned through the drum. The 20mm gatling gun fires those rounds electrically and the sensitivity of HEI to electrical discharge requires special handling conditions during loading.

The gunner couldn’t understand why all 1000 rounds didn’t explode when hit and just blow the nose of the aircraft off. He suggested I thank the Big Guy upstairs. I informed him that I did, regularly.

By the way, the flood light toggle switch in the A-7 flips on in the opposite direction of all the other switches. Mine was bent down to the panel when I had finished with it, firmly in the off position. It worked fine flipped the other way. Doh!   

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Filed under Best of Neptunus Lex, Naval Aviation

2 responses to “Guest Blogging – Thunder Tanking

  1. Pingback: Index – The Rest of Neptunus Lex | The Lexicans

  2. Pingback: Neptunus Lex: Stories on Naval Aviation and Safety | The Lexicans

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