Thursday, January 1, 2009

A True Sea Story In The Bermuda Triangle

I was flying #3 seat (by engine with feathered propeller in photo) coming back from war games in Puerto Rico in February 1973. Our detachment had just returned from Danang, Vietnam, in December 1972. We thought it ludicrous to send us to an exercise, 'war games', from a real one.

Our flight of 7 STOOFS had just refueled at Grand Turk island in the Bahamas and were on our way to Quonset Point, R.I., our home base. I flew with the skipper, CDR Ed D. on the way down and on this flight back. He knew I didn't like to fly, and since I was the only qualified Parachute Rigger, I was 'volunteered.' I was also one of those 'volunteered' for VS-22 Det Danang.

We had been airborne for about 40 minutes heading deeper into the Bermuda Triangle (a very gray day) at 7500 feet in echelon formation, the skipper commanding the lead plane (AT112) I was in. The skipper broke over the intercom, telling me, "Pankey, keep an eye on your engine." No sooner than he spoke, the engine blew a jug and quit. "Watch for fire, Pankey," he commanded. No fire, but he actuated the bromine extinguisher anyway. Since we were loaded down with Puerto Rican Rum, we lost altitude like a rock, dropping from formation. He quickly feathered the prop and pushed the remaining engine to full throttle to maintain level flight. Even so, we dropped to 2000 feet before leveling off with an exaggerated nose-up attitude and were cruising at about 100 knots; normal cruise was about 200 knots.

NATOPS procedures dictated that with a flight emergency such as ours, we were to return to the nearest airfield and land. The skipper ignored that, not wanting to go back to Grand Turk, which had no maintenance facilities, so he violated NATOPS and headed to Homestead AFB, Fla. That really ticked off crewman Larry, who had ten years as an aircrewman under his belt.

The skipper directed AT114 to tag along with us and ordered the other five aircraft to maintain their course to Myrtle Beach NAS, South Carolina.

Flying on, the island of Bimini loomed below us and the skipper said, "Pankey, if we have to lighten load, you're out of here." (I think he was serious--because he knew I hated to fly--I was the one who packed the chutes and had jumped before, that required for my job). I told him to just drop me off over the beach, where, from 2000feet, I could see the bikini-clad beauties waiting for me. Heh heh. A fantasy of landing amongst them with a couple of bottles of rum kept me occupied until the skipper said, "we're going to make it," and we continued on to Homestead.

Coming into the pattern on one engine, the tower told us to go around and make way for a 'big boy' coming in. The skipper informed him that we were on a single-engine approach in an emergency status and demanded a straight-in emergency priority. For some reason, Homestead AFB was not notified of our emergency. The other aircraft was diverted and we were given priority for an emergency landing.

That's when the emergency vehicle lights on the ground came on and began making for the runway. Since they were activated for us, it sure did grab my attention as I thought of all the things that could happen...the foremost in my mind: the two-blocked remaining engine would seize and we would crash before reaching the runway.

We touched down uneventfully and taxied to a remote area where we met AT114 and quickly transferred cargo from one plane to the other. A couple of Air Force guys pitched in, for a reward, of course, so the transfer took a minimal amount of time, and remained undetected. That was the skipper's biggest fear, he confided later, that we would be forced to 'take the wire' and be smothered with foam, and then an investigation would ensue, which would undo his career. Thank God everyone looked the other way.

The contraband rum loaded aboard AT114, and the AT114 crew reassigned to stay with AT112 and bring it back after repairs, we took off minus ten-year aircrew veteran Larry, who threw in his wings and flew commercial from Miami back to New York's LaGuardia Field in a 707, which crash-landed!! I'll bet old Larry never flew again! But me? I flew co-pilot's seat, actually flying the STOOF (Grumman S-2F air antisubmarine squadron 22) all the way back up the coast, but the skipper took over during critical times including landing.

That was my last airplane ride. At our homecoming party a week later, liberally supplied with duty-free Puerto Rican Rum, other squadron members recalled how anxious I was boarding the old DC-6 for the West Coast on the first leg of our journey to help VRC-50 (Drifty Fifty)with VS-22 Det Danang, and bet that I was scared sh_tless when the engine blew on this trip.

I told them the truth: the pucker factor was a ten, and my eye level went up four inches although there is no vertical adjustment of the seat.

Larry never showed at the party.

Jim Pankey, USN (Ret.)


Tumblewords: said...

Great read! I looked around and will come back to finish reading. Still laughing about Christmas 2008 - it just happens, doesn't it?

Anonymous said...

Sounds like you had quite a time!