1970 A6 Loss-Tom Collins & Bob Schultz
The riviting story of the Feb. 1970 loss of an A6 aircraft and Pilot while attempting to land on the FDR is recounted by two shipmates.
Tom Collins, YN3 VA-176 Recalls:
I was aboard the ship with VA-176 and worked in the office space in the Ready Room. I was assigned to Operations Officer, LCDR Gerry Hesse. I reported directly to LT John Millward, Schedules Officer, and was in that capacity while at NAS OCEANA and when onboard the FDR for Shakedown and when we departed Mayport for the Med. Shortly after we departed Mayport, LT Millward was assigned other responsibilities and I began to report to Ltjg Tom Williams as he was assigned the scheduling responsibility.
Ltjg Williams was killed in Feb 1970 in the A-6 that crashed along the port side of the ship. In the right seat was BN Ltjg “Wild Bill” Hickok. My recollection is the number on the aircraft was 513. May or may not be correct.
Upon going down the Cat, Williams received a fire warning light and, as per NATOPS, shut down the engine. I cannot remember exact details, but for some reason think it was the port engine. Also remember from the film footage of the launch, appeared something fodded (Foreign Object Damaged) the engine. May not be correct. Mr. Williams immediately, as I recall, declared an emergency and requested to return to the ship for ‘a straight in approach’ (memory fails me with the exact details).
During the approach, as I recall, the Intruder was ‘low’ on glideslope and ‘power’ was called for often during the approach. I do remember the LSO yelling “Wave Off – Wave Off and then EJECT EJECT EJECT. The Intruder was loaded with practice bombs and enough fuel for the bomb run, the return run back to the ship and enough fuel to set up and serve as Tanker. I cannot remember if the Intruder was the KA-6D (do not remember if the true Tanker had been in the squadron inventory at that time or not) or just an Intruder loaded out with fuel for Tanker duty with a Buddy Store. I do remember the Skipper, CDR J.B. Davis, going topside and did hear him later state that he told Ltjg Williams to “jettison” everything hanging. As I recall this occurred after the aircraft was on the downwind leg, but before turning onto final. My understanding was the skipper intended for Ltjg Williams to jettison the practice bombs, drop tanks, and the buddy store (anything hanging). I seem to remember there was some discussion later with Ltjg Hickok about the lack of items jettisoned, but remember only that. Also remember some discussion with Ltjg Hickok as to if when “Power” was called for, if any was put on. I do remember Ltjg Hickok said, “Yes, each time Power was called for, more was applied.” I remember watching the film re-run over the closed circuit in the Ready Room many times and do remember seeing, once the Intruder was close enough, blackish smoke rolling out of the exhaust just after Power was called for. I also remember statements being made that the power was at more than 75% as the A-6 was very near the ship. Do not remember if that was a statement made by Ltjg Hickok or if just a number arrived at from some sort of deduction on the part of others, but do remember that number laid out as the throttle setting when the Intruder was very near the ship.
I remember seeing on the film the Intruder dip very low and, as I recall, out of sight, then appeared going up the Port side of the ship with the tail of the aircraft settling in so that water “roster tailed” for a short moment just before the whole of the aircraft settled onto the surface of the sea. Just before the aircraft actually settled onto the surface, Ltjg Hickok ejected and went high enough that his chute deployment was good before hitting the water. Do not remember if Ltjg Hickok “dropped” out of his chute before hitting the water or was able to escape the chute rigging after hitting the water. Nevertheless I do remember seeing on the film Ltjg Hickok gave the customary wave indicating he was OK.
I remember watching the re-run of the film and seeing Mr. Williams ejecting just a moment after Mr Hickok. Mr. Williams’ ejection height was maybe half as high as Mr. Hickok. Mr. Williams did get some chute deployment. I do not remember if it was very good or not. I do know I remember seeing the deployed chute falling in around him, but not onto him, on the film.
I do recall Mr. Williams did not give the customary wave indicating he was OK. I remember seeing the aircrewman being with him in the water, then I remember Mr. Williams was gone. Do not know if there was only one rescue crewmember in the water or if there were two. If only one that had to be Bob Schultz.
Later LCDR Hesse and the Skipper talked to me about Mr. Williams Flight Log and I remember they each talked to me on separate occasions just to see how I was taking the events, even though the did not say as much, but I could tell they wanted to just make sure I was making it OK. Even though I had only worked with Mr. Williams for a short time, I did speak with him throughout the day each day regarding scheduling and other duties he would lay out for me. I always thought they just needed to make sure I was not gonna flake out on them. It did affect me then and does now as I go through the recall of the events.
I remember later either the Skipper or Mr. Hesse told me Mr. Williams had to make his approaches with his seat in a “high” up position to see over the console. That due to that high up position, his head was above the primary ejection handle and they felt like he had to use the secondary which was on the seat front between his legs.
All of that added up to Mr. Williams being in a posture that did not allow him to place his head hard against the headrest which was normally directly behind the pilot’s head nor did he have the advantage of the ‘face-curtain’ to help hold his head firm against the headrest as the seat headrest broke through the canopy. Collectively, his ‘not speaking when the rescue crewmember reached him……never raising his head to make eye contact…..not waving the OK…..all led to the belief that his neck or back or both were broken as he went through the canopy during ejection.
I was told at that time that the Helo Pilot, in a hover over the scene, watched as the Intruder was filling with water, begin to take a slight nose down attitude and had, since settling onto the surface of the sea, was in a “slow spin” in a counterclock direction. Looking at the re-run later the rotation never was more than a quarter turn, if that much, from the position the Intruder was in when it settled into the sea. The Helo Pilot recounted that the chute was caught by the wing of the aircraft as the A-6 made the slight turn and then turned up on its nose and was gone. Disappeared very quickly once the nose begin to turn down. Helo Pilot stated that Mr. Williams was pulled down with the Intruder due to not being completely cut loose from his chute.
I was told the rescue crewman stated he was cutting the shroud lines and had come up for air once or twice and suddenly he was alone in the water. The consensus in the Squadron on that day was one of relief that there was no rescue person caught in the tangle of shroud lines of LT Williams chute.
The Skipper or Mr. Hesse did tell me that they were going to ask that a recommendation be made to replace the Primary Ejection Handle with the same type then in use in the F-4. That was a two part and was ‘soft’ so that a Pilot’s helmet would slide between the two handles allowing the back of the helmet to rest against the headrest. The handle in the A-6 was ‘hard’ and a one piece affair. The handle had no ‘give’, thus forcing the head of the pilot to be ‘pushed’ forward. Whoever related that to me, was fairly certain the position of Mr. Williams contributed to his being incapacitated during the ejection.
As I recall, that was the only Intruder lost during the 1970 Cruise. There was an Intruder lost either on the fly back to NAS OCEANA from the Shakedown or from when we returned from the Med. I cannot remember which. That Intruder was being flown by Ltjg Gary Ganson and in the right seat was Ltjg Bo Bovitz. Seems the Intruder suffered from intermittent loss of power and eventually led to both Pilot and BN ejecting. As I recall the Intruder was lost in the “tongue of the Ocean”, a very deep area off the coast of Florida. This also was a long time ago as I recall it today. I remember Ltjg Bovitz telling me he blacked out momentarily after going through the canopy, then he remembers ‘tumbling’ till his chute opened. Also remember him telling me when it was over and he was either in the raft or in the water, he still had his glasses on. I think the helo that picked them out of the drink went down somewhere short of its intended destination and their rescue was necessary as well.
Bob Schultz, ADJ3 HC-2 Recalls:
I was in HC-2, Det 42, out of Lakehurst, NJ. We flew the Kaman Seaprite, nicknamed the “Hooky-Touk”, and our mission was to fly Plane Guard, in a figure 8 pattern, on the starboard side of the ship during launch-recovery of aircraft and obviously assist if anyone got in trouble.
On that day I was the “rescue hoist operator” and the other crewman, Jerry Graham was the “swimmer”. He was dressed in a wetsuit and I was wearing my underwear and flight suit. When the call came in from the tower that the A-6 was having trouble we both went to the windows, one in the back of the aircraft and the front windshield. We watched the A-6 on the approach and heard the communication that there was a problem and one engine was/had been shutdown.
At this point, and my memory is a bit sketchy, but I seem to remember a quick rain squall passed through the area and the A-6 went through it, and (this is speculation on my part), they may have gotten off the gauges and did a visual search for the ship. My rationale for saying this is because immediately the rear of the aircraft began to sink and the nose went up. At this point, I knew they were below the “power curve” and things were not going to end well!
The tower starting yelling at them to wave off to port and “clean up” the gear as they were headed right toward the round down at a low altitude. (don’t recall anything about jettisoning things, but, you know everything was moving very fast so I might have missed hearing that).
The helo, by this time, was directly behind them, keeping a safe distance for fear of an explosion and taking us out.
I recall they did not retract the landing gear and the rear of the aircraft kept sinking farther down and then the aircraft “belly flopped” into the water. Moments, prior to them hitting, the pilots bailed out, one first and within a second or two the other. The aircraft floated, for, what seemed a lifetime, and as we approached I remember thinking they could have popped the canopies, walked out on the wings and jumped.
Mr. Hickok, the first to bailout, came down at a safe distance from the plane; however, Mr. Williams came down, and I think impacted the plane because when we got to the scene he appeared motionless within a few feet of the aircraft. Jerry, being the swimmer, went in the water to help Mr. Williams and quickly got tangled in the shroud lines and went under water several times before signaling to me that he was in trouble. By this time the aircraft had taken a gentle turn to the right and began to sink and take Mr. Williams with it.
I went in the water to help free Jerry from the shroud lines and, (this is very un-orthodox) the co-pilot came into the cabin to operate the hoist. Mr. Hickok was floating in the water, toward the tail of the aircraft, and I consciously made a decision to let him be for a moment and concentrated on working with the co-pilot to get Jerry back in the helo. The co-pilot sent down the three pronged seat and once Jerry was secured and on the way up, turned my attention to Mr. Hickok.
I remember swimming toward him and asking him if he was OK, he said yes and I told him we had to concentrate on getting him into the helo. Don’t recall if he was free of the parachute or I helped him; by this time the helo had positioned itself over us and the co-pilot was sending down the three-prong seat.
Once Mr. Hickok was secured on the seat, (and I will never forget this) as I went to get on across from him, the world dropped away; seems we were on top of a swell when he got on the seat and then the seat was gone, twenty feet above me.
Well, the co-pilot brought him up and inside the cabin (and this is the stuff Tom did not see on the plat) all the while the helo started drifting away from my location and, trust me, then I got nervous; remember, I’m in underwear and a nomex flight suit in “damn cold” water; they finally located me and we flew back to the ship.
That’s about how it happened, sure wish we could have rescued Mr. Williams.