When I tell tales of my days in Attack Squadron EIGHTY FIVE, flying the AD-6 ( a.k.a A-1H, Spad, Skyraider), I feel like the father telling his child about the five mile walk to school, in the snow, up hill both ways. Having reached the age when aches and pains are a daily topic. I cannot imagine strapping in to any aircraft for an eleven hour low level. Heck, a four hours drive to see grandchildren is a major effort today. I will attempt to recall a typical low level I flew in October, 1959. It was nothing special, so all you old Spad pilots can get out your pens and play "can you top this." My launch took place off the east coast.
Let's take a look at what we were doing. First, we were sitting on the parachute, possibly with a thin cushion or a blow up doughnut if too many long flights had taken its toll. In the Spad, you were right behind the huge 3350 engine, which meant that there was plenty of heat. Launching from the Forrestal, in Mk.4 rubber exposure suits, when the sea water was below 60 degrees, we would coast in around the Carolinas, fly a low level at 50-100 feet, do a special weapons "idiot loop" in central Florida, then low level back to Carolina and back to the ship. If you were lucky and the jets were not building up traps, they might recover you. Looks OK so far, so where is the beef?
Hours before the launch the pilots planned the flight. This meant drawing the route on the half dozen maps, then gluing them all together so the lines flow from map to map, doing time distance and fuel flow. Once target delivery for the loft maneuver was planned, it was time to put on the exposure suit. In this period, the suits looked something like John Glenn's space suit. It was a single piece rubber suit, which included the boots. The wrist and neck had tight rubber cuffs to keep the water out (and reduce breathing as well) Once dressed, we waddled to the flight deck, which was pitch black dark in those days. This phase required that you carry the maps, knee boards, large maneuvering board, a large box lunch, coffee, and a helmet.
Once on the flight deck, armed with a red lens covered flashlight, the trick was to find your plane in the dark without falling over the side, being sucked into a turning jet, or strolling into a rotating prop. I have seen six guys walking back to back down a flight deck, six inches at a time, just trying to find a plane in the dark. Moon glow flight deck lighting would not come out for another six years because we did not want the Bad Guys to know we were a carrier. When I say dark, just close your eyes real tight and you have the picture. Once you found the plane or the plane captain found you, you had to pre-flight with that same flashlight. Heaven help the pilot who gets caught by the Air Boss trying to take a peek at his plane with the red lens cover off the flashlight.
Now remember, this single engine propeller aircraft had a 300 gallon fuel tank under each wing and a 2000 pound shape on the centerline rack. The things that I am about to describe would not have been so bad if we could have used the catapult, but the flight deck crew did not like the Spad on the Cats because of the 13 Foot 6 inch propeller was so close to their heads. So, you strapped in, started up, taxied forward, adding power while subconsciously pushing on the brakes as the Launch Officer tries to spot you, giving you no more deck than necessary for a deck run. Once the Launching Officer turns you up and signals you to go, there was a single light bulb on the bow, that you drive for. Suddenly you felt a thud as the main mounts drop off the bow. At this point the focus no longer included that single light. You had look into the cockpit and find a gyro, and an altimeter(Damn, 50 feet). You ignored the airspeed indicator because it will say 60 knots and make things seem worse. (Someone once explained that the airflow through the pitot tube at high angles of attack made the airspeed read slow). Then you raised your wheels adjusted the cowl flaps and muttered about the jet pukes having it easy. Once you reached your planned altitude (50-100 feet), you took up the heading for the first check point. You now recognized that you are awfully slow and it occurred to you that you forgot to raise the flaps.
On hitting the coast-in point on the South Carolina Beach, I turned to my first check point, my grandmother's house in Ruby, SC. I wonder if they will know who passed overhead before sunup. Next leg on to my uncle's house in Richburg, SC. I bet his cows and chickens did not like the racket as I buzzed his barn. Next find the house of that cute friend of your cousins. That sure got her attention.
Fun was over, I headed for Pinecastle to make my target time. At this time I "crapped" my external fuel tank 45 minutes early. And as the squadron nugget I begin to sweat because I saw myself having to land at Myrtle Beach Air Force Base for fuel and I dreaded the questions I would have to answer. I pulled back the RPM until I can hardly stay in the air and limped across Florida on to the target. Did I say sweat?. I am now in Florida wearing an exposure suit. That was sweat!!!.
I reach the target on time with the help of a tail wind, make the loft maneuver (idiot loop) and start for my coast out point. On this day the C.O. , had instructed us all to rendezvous to return to Forrestal together. After the rendezvous he called for a fuel check. I was prepared to confess in shame, but I had to wait my turn as number eight. Would you believe, the first seven all called in with less fuel than I did. I have always wondered if they had kin in South Carolina, too.
Once back at the ship the pain was the worst I have ever encountered. I still had a carrier landing to make. The plane was light and I had problems getting down. When the cut came from the LSO, I was looking eyeball to eyeball with the Air Boss. I put both hands on the stick and pushed. I thought about crashing and recall that seemed not such a bad idea with all the pain. At the last second I pulled back from the dive and created the grand daddy of an in flight engagements. I came down like a like a brick, taxied forward and needed the help of three plane captains to roll me on to the wing so that I could slide down to the flight deck. I went down to the ready room where I feared the LSO would surely have my ass . He worked his way through the seven other exhausted pilots. To me he said, "O.K.-#3." "How could it have been O.K.," I said, "it was the worst pass I have ever made." He smiled, and said, "You should have seen the other seven."
I do not recall the Navy sending pilots on real long low levels after 1960 and this practice of pain ended. I think too many pilots were lost on the long low levels or it was realized that the mission was no longer realistic. I just know that once I transitioned to A-4 Squawks, I thought that low fuel states were the best deal I had ever seen. That day on the Forrestal, before I shut down, I had a little over 500 pounds of fuel. If my gage was correct and I did not run out of oil, the Spad could have gone another 2 hours. Not me!!! 10.7 in the log book was enough.