By Ernie Mares
“Life is not measured by the number of breaths we take, but by the moments that take our breath away...”
NAVAL AIR STATION NORTH ISLAND
Early in the morning of January 9, 1956 I drove my brand new blue and white Buick Special onto the deck of the Coronado Ferry. I was wearing dress blues with a single ensign’s stripe and a pair of shiny gold wings proudly displayed on my left breast. On the seat next to me was a manila envelope containing official records and orders assigning me to report to Commander Air Pacific for further assignment to a fighter squadron.
The trip across San Diego Bay lasted no more than ten minutes, but I got out of the car and walked over to the railing and filled my lungs with the cool ocean air. Seven Essex class aircraft carriers were tied up at North Island and at the Naval Station; there must have been at least two hundred ships of every description, mostly cruisers and destroyers. A P5M Mariner flying boat dropped its mooring buoy and was taxiing across the bay toward the takeoff sea-lane.
Moments after the ferry expertly docked into the Coronado slip, the cars began moving from the ferry into the southbound lanes of Orange Avenue. At the intersection of Orange and Fourth Street, the sign pointed to a right turn towards the Naval Air Station. A few blocks later, the street emptied into the main gate at North Island. The sentry gave me a crisp salute and directions to COMAIRPAC Headquarters close to where the carriers were tied up.
I reported to the officer assignment section and presented my orders. The personnel officer informed that I was slated for TAD to Quonset Point, Rhode Island for six weeks of legal school and then to NAS Miramar to join Fighter Squadron 124. My heart stopped when I learned that VF- 124 was flying the F7U-3 Cutlass. This was the last airplane in the world that I wanted to fly because a year earlier I watched one explode during an air show in Memphis. This must have been written all over my face because he asked if I had any other preference. I told him that I was really looking forward to a Cougar squadron, which, in my mind, was the hottest bird in the fleet.
It was a busy Monday morning and I was told to come back after lunch. Time to walk along the Quay and get a closer look at real aircraft carriers. I still remember their names… Boxer, Hornet, Shangri La, Philippine Sea, Lexington, Ticonderoga and Bunker Hill.
At 1300, it was back to personnel. Plans changed and now I was to report to Guided Missile Group ONE, located just down the street in Hangar One next to the control tower. GMGRU-1 (gumgrew) was staffed with mostly second tour pilots, but due to lack of fleet jet pilots, they were taking a few nuggets fresh out of the training command. I was swapping orders with one of the ensigns that the skipper refused to accept because of poor flight training grades. I would be flying Grumman F9F Cougars after all.
I drove over to the hangar and arrived about five minutes later. I reported to the group duty officer who ushered me in to meet the skipper, Commander
Bob Millard. Apparently there were some broken promises regarding experienced pilots and he was not thrilled to have another rookie occupy a pilot billet.
I found out that GMGRU existed to provide airborne guidance of nuclear-armed SSM-N-8 Regulus guided missiles. The group was formed three months earlier and was gearing up to deploy three plane detachments aboard each aircraft carrier. These detachments operated specially equipped fighter aircraft capable of performing radio control of missiles launched from carriers, cruisers or submarines. More important however, the Regulus control pilots had their finger on the trigger of a Mark Five nuclear warhead. This explained why Millard was not a happy camper because he expected that only seasoned pilots would be assigned.
At first glance, Regulus bears striking appearance to the Vergeltungswaffe 1 better known as German V- 1 buzz bombs of WWII. This no doubt is because the navy experimented with captured versions of this early boost launched cruise missile and eventually made test launches from a submarine.
Regulus was produced by Chance Vought Aircraft starting in the early 1950s. The 10,300 lb missile
was 33 feet in length and had a wingspan of 21 feet. It was powered by an Allison J-33 turbojet and cruised at high subsonic speeds with a range of 500 nautical miles.
Tactical versions of Regulus could be booster launched from aircraft carriers, cruisers or submarines; however radar guidance was limited to a maximum range of just over 200 nautical miles. This was overcome using the guided missile group’s jet fighter aircraft to accompany and guide the missiles via radio control.
For training purposes, some recoverable missiles were equipped with retractable landing gear and
could be controlled to a runway landing and quickly refurbished and reused.
The group had a half dozen TV-2Ds. The two-seat Lockheed Shooting Stars which served as airborne control platforms for runway landings of the Regulus training versions. A senior, highly trained pilot occupied the front seat and operated the radio control equipment while another pilot flew formation from the rear cockpit.
Six F9F-2KD Panther aircraft served as missile surrogates for training. With a safety pilot onboard, these automatic pilot-equipped aircraft were capable of responding to radio control signals and were used to train both airborne and shipboard personnel in the basics of remote control. The Panthers did not have near the performance capability of the sleek Regulus missiles, but proved to be cost effective and reliable training vehicles.
In early 1956, GMGRU-1 also had approximately twenty-five F9F-6D Cougars that were used as high-speed chase and control aircraft. Radio control transmitter equipment was carried in the nose compartment and special cockpit controls allowed the pilot to control the missile while simultaneously flying the Cougar in formation.
In April 1956, we received twelve brand new FJ-3Ds from the North American factory in Columbus, Ohio. The FJs replaced the Cougar as the fleet’s hottest fighter.
And last, but not least, a twin Beech SNB-5.
I barely had time to check into BOQ 610 just inside the main gate and drop my bags. Most of the group was deployed TAD to Marine Corps Air Station Mojave located in the desert between Edwards AFB and China Lake. The following morning I got to fly co-pilot in the group’s Beechcraft for the hour and a half flight to Mojave.
There wasn’t exactly a reception committee waiting for me at Mojave. I checked in with the duty officer and was taken to the transient officers BOQ. No room at the inn, so I was driven into town and dropped off at White’s Motel. They had one room available so at least I had a place to stay.
Stuck without transportation, I wished that I could have driven to Mojave. Across the street from White’s was the world’s worst fast food hamburger stand. A cheeseburger and fries cost all of about 65 cents and you had to be really hungry to eat it. As the sun went down, so did the temperature and I was glad that I wore my brand new leather aviator’s flight jacket.
I woke up early the next morning and the guy in the motel office told me that a truck would be coming over soon to take us out to the base. Sure enough, four or five other guys showed up and we all jumped into the back of a navy pickup. My fellow riders were all officers from GMGRU-1 and at least I got to meet someone from the group.
Al Thayer, Arnie Wagner, John Cormell and I were nuggets and there really wasn’t a good reason for us to be at Mojave with nothing to do. Even more so, Jerry Ewell was the group legal officer should have been back at North Island doing the things a lawyer should be doing. Anyway, our little displaced clique formed an instant bond and kept ourselves amused the best we could. I learned all about liar’s dice and became a Turtle at Reno’s Bar and Grill.
We did things like borrow an Aldus lamp and hunt jackrabbits at night while riding in Jerry’s black
and white 1950 Ford hardtop that resembled a police car. Jackrabbits simply froze when the light was shined on them and made perfect targets. The ordnance crew provided .22s and unlimited amounts of ammo.
We also shot our .38s, that is, until Arnie started playing Russian roulette. After spinning the cylinder, Arnie made sure that the bullet was not lined up with the barrel, pointed the gun at his head and pulled the trigger. He actually did this several times before we realized what he was doing– he turned pale when John Cormell showed him that the double action pistol rotates one additional round as the trigger is pulled. It’s a wonder Arnie didn’t blow his head off!
One weekend we even drove up to Mammoth Mountain and went skiing. We made quite a fashionable sight on the bunny slope wearing wash khakis, leather flight jackets and of course, oversized aviator sunglasses. None of us knew how to ski, so when our cotton clothes got too wet, we retired to the lodge and drank brandy.
The higher ups thought that we could learn by watching so that’s what we did. The name of the game was to keep a low profile and try to stay out of trouble. I failed miserably on both counts. For the next month, I observed flight operations. Almost every day we would launch a Regulus for Charlie (high speed chase) and recovery training at Mojave. More often than not, the missiles would crash, either during launch or during recovery. I learned about things such as booster alignment, frequency interference, hung boosters and slippers and lost carriers. My world suddenly became a litany of control system settings such as “I have zero pitch, zero bank, 100% throttle and two selected.
The group had its share of prima donnas headed by LCDR Billy May, one of the original Blue Angels. Billy had been with the Regulus Program for several years and now was group operations officer and superstar of the fleet introduction. Perhaps the most important thing Billy wanted me to learn was that flying the Regulus required a certain amount of skill and finesse–-and it didn’t hurt to have a qualifying tour with the Blues. “There was absolutely no room for error and the navy made a tremendous mistake by assigning nuggets just out of the training command to participate in this demanding mission.”
GMGRU-1 was comprised of around fifty officers including Army, Air Force and civilian tech reps from Chance Vought in toto. A couple of the pilots had combat experience in Korea but most of the second tour pilots recently transitioned to jets. It was easy to see how they positioned themselves to avoid assignment to a deployable detachment. The more qualified and talented individuals were associated with the Regulus test program and qualified as Regulus control pilots prior to the time GMGRU was formed. Of all the heavies, John Callahan stood out as the most competent of the bunch despite his multi-engine background. John was instantly likeable and had real team spirit. This was obvious from the way he reached out to the new boys and made us feel welcome. My initial impression was later verified when John C. was assigned to ConUS Det.
As the new kid on the block, I had to sit and watch. Occasionally, I got to fly a fam hop in the F9F- 2KD drones which was a real thrill. The old tired ex-photo recon Panthers carried large 20-inch diameter TV pods under the wings. There was no convenient place in the cockpit to install the various Regulus-related monitor gauges and lights, so they simply built a huge box over the
instrument panel that blocked the wind screen. This effectively reduced forward visibility to nothing and the pilot had to rely on peripheral vision for landings and takeoffs.
Perhaps the scariest part of flying the -2KD was the takeoff. The J-42 engine developed something like 4,800 lbs of thrust and parasite drag created by the TV pods made for some interesting performance problems. The Mojave field elevation was close to 4,000 ft above sea level and on a hot day, density altitude created a marginal takeoff capability. Once the aircraft got airborne and the gear came up, flap retraction caused a sinking sensation that required raising the nose to prevent altitude loss. Raising the nose increased induced drag that in turn, prevented acceleration. Bottom line–-you weren’t sure if the plane would or would not fly.
In advanced training, we flew the fighter version of the F9F-2. There was a day/night difference in performance and while the fighter version was fully aerobatic, the drones were limited to 3 “g” and overhead (e.g., loop) maneuvers were frowned upon. Basically, once the drone was airborne it could only fly straight and level until it was time to land.
However, my mother did not raise a dummy. It became obvious that none of the other pilots wanted to fly drones (appropriately termed Dog) and once qualified as a Dog pilot, flight time potential was almost unlimited.
After several fam hops in the –2KD, I was hanging around the ready room when the assistant schedules officer asked me if I wanted a hop in the Cougar. Hell Yes! “Well, 41 is available but be back by 1300”… because it needed to be turned around for a R/C (radio control flight). I guess it never occurred to him that I hadn’t flown the Cougar before and I thought that the procedure in a single seater was to check yourself out.
Preflighting the Cougar was a little weird because I couldn’t find the ailerons. The plane captain explained that the swept wing bird used flapperons and that it had a flying tail. This was all news to
me, but what the hell; it had wings so I could probably fly it.
Starting the J-48 engine was slightly different than the J-42 because ignition did not occur until the throttle was moved beyond the cutoff detent. I wasn’t aware of this and after two messy wet starts, the knowledgeable plane captain started the engine for me.
Somehow, I managed to fake my way through the post start checks and taxied out to the runway. As I added full throttle, the additional engine thrust pressed my head back and I began a short takeoff roll. I waited for 120 knots and as I pulled back on the stick, the bird leapt into the air. I
furiously fought to raise the gear and flaps. I had 200 knots by the time I reached the end of the runway and the plane climbed at a very steep angle.
Out of sight from Mojave, I explored the performance envelope of the swept wing jet. The roll rate was incredible and I rotated 720 degrees before I could level the wings again. For the next 20- minutes or so, I was busy doing the things that I was born to do.
On tactical frequency, I suddenly received a radio call: “Barrelhouse 41 this base, how do you read?” “Five by five,” I replied.
“41, how much total flight time do you have in the Cougar?” Looking at the clock I said “About 20 minutes.”
“41, say your posit.”
Looking at my sectional chart, I saw the sprawling city just off my left wing. “I’m a coupla miles North of Bakersfield.”
“OK 41, orbit Bakersfield at angels 15. We’re sending up a chase aircraft that will join up with you shortly.”
About 30 minutes later, a TV-2 piloted by Jim Hayes, an ex-enlisted pilot and crackerjack Regulus pilot rendezvoused on my right wing and we proceeded back to Mojave. The chase followed me around the pattern a couple of times while I shot touch and go landings. When the low fuel warning light came on at 1,000 lbs, I made a full stop landing.
After taxiing back to the flight line and shutting down, I was surprised to see that I had a fairly large size audience. When I finished filling out the yellow sheet and returned to the ready room, I was greeted by none other than Billy May, madder than a hornet.
For the next three hours I received a lecture on the dangerous characteristics of swept wing jets and was severely admonished for not telling schedules that I had never flown the Cougar before. The words, stupid, incredibly stupid, kill yourself, head up your ass and unbelievably stupid were repeated over and over again.
Afterwards, I wasn’t sure if I would keep my wings, or if I would be sent back to North Island in disgrace to face a court martial. But in the back of my mind, I knew what it was like to fly a high performance jet and the other pilots were no longer ten feet tall.
At the end of February, we left Mojave and returned to North Island. My Buick was parked in the street near the BOQ and I could barely recognize it. I was unaware that aircraft carriers blow their
stacks at night and the car was completely covered with an inch thick coat of soot. The Coronado car wash earned their three dollars that day.
About a week later, following an evening at the Mexican Village, the Coronado Police stopped me for disturbing the peace, or maybe just an attitude check, I can’t remember. I showed my Illinois driver’s license and they told me that I needed to register my car in California and get a California driver’s license because I was not 21-years old.
The next morning, I asked Billy May for time off to obtain a new driver’s license. No problem and I went over to the DMV office on Orange Avenue. I filled out the paperwork and paid my five dollars, but they wouldn’t issue my license because I needed written permission from my parents since I was under age. This was a Catch-22 situation, but since I already applied, I had a couple of weeks to obtain a written consent form.
Later that afternoon, I ran into Billy May on the hangar deck and he casually asked if I got my license taken care of. I had to tell him no, because I needed to have the written consent form signed by my mother.
This revelation was received in shock and set off an endless series of parental permission obstacles. At the time, our first deployment team was preparing for sea and there happened to be a dependents day cruise. I was asked if I would like to spend a day observing operations aboard a carrier and was given a permission slip to send home to my mother.
Life at North Island was a never-ending learning and growing up period. I spent a week in survival training at Warner Springs and another attending nuclear weapons school. Here I learned how the Mark 5 warhead was put together and exactly what made the Regulus a formidable weapon that justified our existence. The weekends were a real blast–-most Friday and Saturday nights were spent hanging out in the Mex Village.
Weekend bouts with Rum and Tequila also had its downside. Ensign Dale Buxton was a blackshoe gunnery officer assigned to GMGRU for training as a Regulus launch officer. He was several years older than the junior pilots and although he lived in the BOQ, he did not associate with us. Read this as he had a superior attitude and looked down his nose at us. Buxton’s hobby, love life, religion and way of life centered about weapons. He had a collection of rifles, shotguns and pistols and spent his off duty hours cleaning them.
One early morning after an evening in Tijuana, I developed an urgent need to attack Gunner Buxton with one of the cherry bombs I brought back across the Mexican border. Gunner’s BOQ door was not locked and I lit the fuze and rolled the firecracker into his room.
The explosion succeeded in making a rude awakening without causing a secondary explosion from his closet full of ammo. Typical of the juvenile behavior displayed in the BOQ and earned a lot of laughs.
The following Monday morning I was called to Exec’s office and informed that I was to appear at an informal Captain’s Mast. I was ushered into Commander Millard’s office and not really surprised
to see Dale Buxton sitting on the sofa. Both the skipper and exec tried to keep a straight face as the skipper read the charges to the effect: assault with an explosive device, to wit, a cherry bomb that was tossed under Ensign Buxton’s bunk during the early hours of Saturday morning…
My punishment was to shake hands and promise not to harass Ensign Buxton again.
Then there was the time that a couple of guys were night flying when the fog rolled in and closed North Island. They were diverted to Brown Field and one of the planes, a Cougar, blew a tire on landing. The next morning, I was sent along with a maintenance crew to fly the airplane back to North Island after they changed the tire.
As I was taxiing out for takeoff, the tower asked if I could expedite so I tried to make a rolling takeoff. Unfortunately, I had no idea that the F9F-6 brakes were so sensitive and blew out a tire in the process of rounding the corner. Fortunately, our maintenance crew hadn’t left yet and they changed the tire out on the taxiway. Now they were going to stick around to make sure I didn’t blow another one.
Cleared for takeoff, I got airborne and the tower asked if I would like to make a low pass since Brown did not have any swept wing jets and they were in the mood for a little excitement.
I came across the runway at about 450 knots at fifty feet, pulled the nose up and did a lazy slow victory roll. With that, I proceeded out over the water and continued to amuse myself doing aerobatics. By that time, I had about four or five hops in the Cougar and felt like I was the hottest pilot on the planet.
About an hour later, I landed at North Island and taxied back to our hangar. After filling out the yellow sheet, I was walking across the hangar bay when I ran into my favorite ops officer, Billy May. We stopped to talk about how comfortable I was feeling about flying the high performance jet when one of the maintenance crew came running up and asked, “Sir, how fast were you going when you did that slow roll over Brown Field?”
Needless to say my next few flights were in the drones and again, I wasn’t sure if I was going to be court-martialed for my latest indiscretion.
And about this time we received our first FJs. Several of the group’s LCDRs went up to Moffett Field for a flight checkout. The rest of us went to Miramar to for a couple of days to get a systems checkout from VF-121. We learned about all the things that could go wrong–-oil starvation>bearing failure>engine seizure was the major complaint of the J-65 Wright Sapphire axial flow jet engine.
Bernie Welch, an ex-photo recon pilot, was one of the first guys to fly the FJ. The FJ had fully hydraulic controls…the control stick simply positioned a valve that directed fluid into the appropriate control actuator. There was no trim tab indicator–only a tiny circular flip-flop gauge that flashed “IN” when the control stick was set for takeoff. He and his chase pilot taxied out to runway 29 and began the takeoff roll. No one told Bernie that the bird could lift off at 75 knots using the IN setting. This speed was well below stall and the jet would stop flying when it climbed out of ground
effect. Bernie never achieved flying speed and crashed during the initial part of his first takeoff.
No one saw him crawl out of the burning plane, parachute and all and a passing pickup truck gave him a ride to sickbay. Meanwhile, the crash crew arrived on scene and was mystified that there was no pilot in the wreckage. For the next 45-minutes or so, everyone was scratching their heads trying to figure out why a pilotless airplane crashed. All the time Bernie was sipping medicinal brandy with the flight surgeon in sickbay.
John Callahan and I were scheduled to fly the Beechcraft up to NAS Alameda taking a missile
launch team to observe a Regulus slow run through aboard USS Bon Richard. This was a complete readiness exercise that was conducted pier side at Alameda. It started with assembly of a Mark 5 warhead in the weapons spaces located in the bowels of the ship. The nuclear weapon was transported to the flight deck on a special elevator and was married to a tactical missile mounted on a STAR cart. STAR carts were expendable dollies constructed of steel tubing and designed to hold the Regulus as it was launched using the ship’s catapult.
Attaching the nuclear device was accomplished behind a canvas curtain to hide the process from prying eyes. Each
item of the assembly checklist was completed and verified and finally, the weapons compartment was closed and the canvas curtains were withdrawn.
A small tractor was attached and the STAR cart was towed into position on the port bow cat. The launch bridle was attached to the catapult shuttle and deck edge electrical power was connected to the missile. At the appropriate moment, the Reg’s engine was started and the launch team completed their prelaunch checkout. The missile’s throttle was advanced to full power, which caused the missile to start rolling down the catapult track–-they forgot to hook up the holdback cable because the catapult crew did not have appropriate security clearance and was not fully involved in the slow run through.
Archie Underwood, our senior launch officer was desperately trying to hold the STAR cart and shouting frantically for someone to cut the throttle. Other launch team members stood dumbfounded as they helplessly watched the nuclear-armed Regulus gain speed as it continued to roll down the cat track.
The radio control operator finally looked up from his console and saw what was happening. He retarded the throttle but it was too late! The missile reached the end of the cat track and continued off the bow and impacted the water just ahead of the ship.
Fortunately, there was no ensuing fire or nuclear explosion. Many of the bystanders thought it was all part of the exercise and never realized how lucky we all were.
One of the group pilots, Lieutenant Al Rice was shot down flying a Corsair in Korea and his plane crashed in Wonson Harbor. He was seriously burned in his face and back but alive. For two years, Al had grotesque facial scars and spent a couple of weeks at Balboa Hospital undergoing sandpaper surgery to remove them. He was returned to duty and for at least a week Al looked like a mummy with his face all bandaged in gauze. Then one day, the bandages came off and Al Rice again looked like a handsome normal human being.
A few days afterward, a fleet Regulus operation was conducted in the Sea Test Range at Point Mugu. Al Rice was the landing control (Able) pilot and Ensign Arnie Wagner was the back seat (Baker) pilot. For some reason, the Regulus was flying erratically and came down the glide path executing wild dutch rolls. As the missile crossed the runway threshold, the TV-2’s left wing touched the ground and the aircraft began cartwheeling and disintegrated along the shoulder of the runway. Both Al and Arnie were killed in the crash.
Within a week, we received word that the group was being relocated to NAS Barbers Point in Hawaii. In July, the USS Philippine Sea was scheduled to transport all of the group’s aircraft and assets including personal vehicles and military personnel. GMGRU-1 was to leave a small detachment behind to provide Regulus training support for the fleet. Continental United States Detachment or ConUS Det would be formed at the Naval Air Missile Test Center, Point Mugu.