Carrier operations are a tricky thing- managing a militarized airport on a mobile platform that is often smaller than a cruise ship is no joke, and it is a hazardous business simply to keep the aircraft from falling off the side.
For Naval Aviators, the challenge of landing on a pitching runway less than 500 feet long in all sorts of weather is what sets them apart from other combat pilots around the world. Factor in accidents, mishaps, and battle damage, and you have a good idea of how no landing or takeoff is “routine.”
Still, things happen on carriers, with two notable incidents involving one of the finest aircraft to ever land on a ship- the venerable A-6 Intruder.
Manufactured by American aircraft company Grumman Aerospace and taking flight in 1960, the A-6 was about as well-built as an aircraft could come. Able to perform an attack role in all weather conditions, the Intruder was a superb night attack aircraft and made a name for itself from Vietnam to the Persian Gulf.
The aircraft, it seems, was so well-designed that it could also be attributed to saving lives when things went wrong.
Such was the case in February of 1991, when an Intruder aboard the USS Theodore Roosevelt was preparing for operations to support Operation Desert Storm. While the jet was spooled up and awaiting further action, a deck crew member Petty Officer JD Bridges was suddenly sucked into the engine.
Fortunately, the Intruder’s intake has a “bullet”-shaped cone in front of the J-52 engine fans, which caused him to wedge into the intake after his arm became stuck.
His vest and helmet were sucked into the engine, causing the pilot to power down as quickly as possible.
One officer on board said it took nearly three minutes for Bridges to get out, and he was not seen on the flight deck for the remainder of the operation.
In another instance that took place aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln a few months later, an KA-6D operating over the Indian Ocean was coming in for a landing, with Lieutenant Mark Baden behind the controls and his Bombardier/Navigator (BN), Lieutenant Keith Gallagher in the right-hand seat.
The landing was a special one for Gallagher- not only was it his birthday, but would be his 100th “trap” (landing) on the ship.
Attempting to clear a stuck “float valve” in one of the external fuel tanks (as the KA-6D was a tanker aircraft), the crew attempted to correct the issue by applying positive and negative-g, when Baden suddenly heard a loud “bang.”
“I heard a sharp bang and felt the cockpit instantly depressurize,” he would later recount. “The roar of the wind followed. I ducked instinctively and looked up at the canopy expecting it to be partly open. Something was wrong. Instead of seeing a two or three inch gap, the canopy bow was flush with the front of the windscreen. My eyes tracked down to the canopy switch. It was up. My scan continued right. Instead of meeting my BN’s questioning glance, I saw a pair of legs at my eye level. The right side of the canopy was shattered. I followed the legs up and saw the rest of my BN’s body out in the windblast. I watched as his head snapped down and then back up, and his helmet and oxygen mask disappeared. They didn’t fly off; they just disappeared.”
Baden was panicked but forced himself to slow down and declare an emergency. Knowing that his decisions would likely determine whether or not the birthday bombardier lived or died, he quickly established communications with the carrier and came in for a landing.
Fortunately, the duo would land on the deck of the Lincoln, and Gallagher would survive the incident, suffering from partial paralysis of his arm and a severe beating all of his body from being exposed to the elements for so long at such speeds.
But Gallagher was a stubborn man and returned to duty exactly six months later after grueling physical therapy.
The cause of the ejection was later determined to be a fault within the Mk 5 crew escape system, which was developed by Martin-Baker.
Despite the incident, the Intruder would serve honorably until 1997, when it was replaced with the F/A-18 Hornet. The “Killer Bee” continues to serve today in various forms, and is itself soon facing a sunset as planes such as the F-35 and unmanned aircraft take over.
Despite the changes in technology, one thing remains for certain- it takes a brave and proficient group of men and women to work on a carrier, and the people of the United States are lucky to have the most experienced carrier crews on earth.
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