(SJS: From the Able Dog website -- the story may have taken place in 1950, but I have a sneaking suspiscion that there are more than one of us who can readily identify with some parts herein...oh, and the hearing test we all *so* love to do with each annual physical, especially in our, um, "seasoned" years? Well, check out the section on radio nav below.)
You Do What You Gotta Do
Jim Patton & Frank Bonansinga
It was a lovely Sunday morning, 14 May 1950, when we departed NAS Norfolk in a section takeoff with a pair of Turkeys (TBM Avengers), bound for New York and Boston. Former Midshipman aviators, this was our last day to fly while attached to VC-33. Due to be released to inactive duty on 25 June, it was a swan song of sorts, if you can make the mental hurdle from a Turkey to a swan. The squadron had just got a new mission of night attack and was slated for brand-new AD's with an upcoming move to NAS Atlantic City, which left 8 of us boot Ensigns (ex-Midshipmen) in limbo for the 6 weeks remaining until separation. Anyway, there the two of us were on one last cross-country.
We dropped our passengers at NAS Floyd Bennett and lumbered on to NAS Squantum, where we had lunch with Frank's mother at the O-Club. Then, back to Floyd Bennett in late afternoon, to pick up our passengers. Mine was an Army Colonel from the War College in Norfolk. Weather forecast was CAVU all night along our route to Norfolk. We left around dark, and things were fine until somewhere in Delaware. POW! Suddenly there was fog obscuring the ground and quite a bit of klag up higher. Calling to check weather, we found that the bad stuff had quickly formed all up and down that part of the coast. Patuxent, Atlantic City, Philly and Norfolk were all socked in. The only place that wasn’t zero-zero was NAS Chincoteague, about 70 miles north of Norfolk on the coast, and it wasn't much better, 400 to 500 with fog. When contacted, they said they were closed and the GCA crew had gone home and the lights were out. We advised it was them or nothing and our fuel was getting sort of low, and got the old familiar response, "Stand by". We told them we were inbound on Amber 9 Airway maintaining VFR (ha ha!) and were cleared to hold on the north leg of NKZ, the Chinco radio range, 227 kc on the coffee grinder. After awhile, Chinco cleared us for individual radio range approaches. The letdown and procedure turn was on the east leg, out to sea, which meant no obstacles were poking up, but it sure was black out there. We were in cloud most of the way down; visibility at the surface was nil, maybe 1/4 mile, but we both made it OK. Jim's forward instrument panel lights flickered on and off, which called for occasional use of the Mae West flashlight. Why be just a little excited when you can have a real thump-thump? Felt good taxiing in to the ramp, even with feet jittering on the pedals.
There are different states of being, like sort of wanting a drink and REALLY NEEDING one. We qualified for both, and the passengers did, too, maybe more so. The sidewalks were rolled up and the doors locked at the base, but Col. Nelson, our Army passenger, did a masterful job of gently pulling rank, so that we dined on beer, chips, and pickled eggs at the O-Club. Nothing ever tasted better.
We'd filed an RON report with the squadron; next morning when the fog burned off we flew on in to NAS Norfolk. Our skipper, CDR Robin Lindsey, was quite a guy; a much-decorated LSO from days on the USS Enterprise in WWII, he was a good aviator and the smoothest signal officer we'd ever flown on. He was amused at our story and really surprised us by ordering that we each were immediately to be given a WHITE CARD check flight, even though we were officially off flight status in the squadron by that day, 15 May. Lt(jg) Frank Wickenheiser gave the flight checks, which we passed. There were a couple of bull Ensigns in the squadron who may have had White Cards, but Patton and Bonansinga were the only ex-Midshipmen to achieve that distinction.
A couple of notes: (1) In those days (for single-engine), there were 3 types of instrument cards: Completion of flight training got you a RED card, with minimums only a little lower than VFR; the WHITE card was earned after a couple years' seasoning in your squadron and had lower minimums, something like 600 and 1; finally, the GREEN card was a mark of prestige owned by only a few very experienced birdmen and authorized you to be your own clearing authority. Guts to open, and to explain to Air Force Operations Officers that you didn't need his signature. (2) Compared to 50 years ago, contemporary aviators have to know a lot more procedural details and deal with more information alternatives and controls, but my God, navigation is one helluva lot easier now. We were in an all-weather squadron and the only help you had stateside was a coffee grinder for tuning the single aural low frequency range (which often disappeared in precip static) and dead reckoning. On VFR nights it was great to have those airway beacons stretching out in front of you but in bad weather they weren't that much help. Once in a great while you'd be lucky enough (in the TBM or AD) to have an operational radar and a proficient operator in the bilge, so that you could receive radar beacons at Naval Air Stations. At sea, if not on an operational exercise, there was the aural 12-sector VHF navaid, codenamed "mother". Oft-repeated question: "Is mother putting out tonight?” In its wisdom, the Navy restricted the use of the ADF Birddog to jets and multis. We had some electronics wizards in the radio shop; they cobbled up an ADF and installed it in one of our AD's. Word from above the squadron level: "Rip it out. Now! Not an approved installation". One of the pilot proficiency requirements, long before the Green Card check, was to sound confident when reporting to ATC at an intersection. Bear in mind that this was usually an intersection of two low-frequency range legs, and you had one coffee grinder. The rules: You had to be accurate within 3 minutes on all your ETA's and reporting points. The bottom line amazing thing is that it worked! Only because there were just a few airplanes in the sky, but it worked. There was no enroute radar then and that did make it easier to sound confident at reporting points, but your overall enroute time had to add up.
GCA, on the other hand, was a great success. There were some hotshots in VC-4 led by LCDR K.D. Smith, who made a thing of going out on zero-zero nights and coming back on GCA, kissing on with just enough forward vision to stay on the runway. As with Landing Signal Officers, the skill of the operator was all-important…as well as the pilot.