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Stark Terror!


Emil Di Motta

    The sun was unusually bright this morning. It's like that in the Bahamas. The crew and civilian engineers were gathering around the plane as John and I approached. We had just completed a successful mission working with a nuclear submarine and were preparing for the trip back to our home base, Naval Air Station Johnsville, located north of Philadelphia, PA. Johnsville is the home of the Naval Air Development Command. It is here that the black boxes and gadgets of the Navy's future arsenal are dreamt up and tested for feasibility.

    John and I are project test pilots attached to Johnsville and fly an assortment of Navy aircraft to test the concepts before they are offered for bid to Defense Department contractors. We had been sent to Nassau in a P2V7 aircraft to test a concept and equipment for locating a nuclear submarine deep in the water -a normal mission for us. John and I checked the weather reports at the flight station in the tower and the weather was forecasted to be clear and sunny until we reached the U.S. coast at Wilmington, NC. Then it was overcast, with cloud layers up to 15,000 feet.

    Our initial destination is Philadelphia International Airport, because we would have to clear Customs when returning from the Bahamas. FAA regulations require that you file an alternate airport when filing an instrument flight plan, so John selected NAS Willow Grove as first alternate and then back to Nassau. We have more than sufficient fuel to fly round trip and then some. The weather at Philadelphia was ceiling 400 feet, visibility one mile, which was above their minimums and it was forecasted to be about the same at arrival and arrival plus two hours. It is standard to check estimated time of arrival, ETA, plus two hours, in case of changes occurring during the flight. Our final destination was NAS Johnsville.

    We choose NAS Willow Grove as first alternate, because it had GCA capabilities and Johnsville did not. GCA stands for Ground Controlled Approach. Civilians call it PAR (Precision Approach Radar). This is a system where an air traffic controller, watching a radar screen, talks you down to a safe landing. It is extremely important when visibility is down near minimums and they are your eyes. You do not question them. Instead, you put absolute trust in them because to you, they walk with God!

    Once we had the weather, John filed our flight plan with Flight Service and we went out to meet the rest of the crew to pre-flight the plane. Normally, a P2V aircraft carries a pilot, co-pilot, navigator, radio operator and a mechanic, and several avionics and ordnance personnel. Because this was a research flight, our crew was comprised of pilot, co-pilot, mechanic, radio operator and four civilian engineers responsible for the test equipment. Part of the co-pilot's responsibilities during the pre-flight are to ensure that all personnel have the appropriate safety gear on and understand their responsibilities in case of fire in flight or if we have to ditch the aircraft. Having completed this inspection, I joined John on the walk-around inspection. We discussed the weather and alternate facilities, and made a final check to make sure everyone was seated properly, wearing life vests and parachute harnesses. Then we mounted the aircraft and proceeded to our seats in the cockpit. This is accomplished by standing in the nose gear wheel well and climbing up through a hatch in the floor of the plane and then up into the cockpit proper.

    The seats are not that comfortable and once in them, you must attach a set of lap and shoulder harness safety belts. This is supposed to protect you in case of a crash. Trust me. If you hit something at 120 MPH, you're dead meat with or without them! But you do it anyway! John handed me the Engine Start Check List and we recited the litany of questions and answers to begin the process of starting all four engines. Once that is accomplished, there is a series of visual checks made by an outside observer, who signals us with hand signals. He was checking the movement of the flight surfaces and lights. A thumbs up from the observer and a salute from the pilot indicates to the observer that the message is understood and the observer gave the signal to pull the wood chocks away from the main gear wheels and we began to roll.

    Ground control gave us clearance to taxi and we began moving into the maze of lanes that led to the approach end of the runway. Once there, we began the engine run-up procedures. This enables the pilots to check the performance of the engines and look for any signs of potential trouble. All of the instruments checked OK. The odds are small that something might be wrong, but that's why we get Hazardous Duty flight pay. The engines run-up went as expected, so we called the tower for clearance to take off.

    "Navy N425, you are cleared to take off. Climb to 1,000 feet, contact Departure control on 324.7 and have a good day, sir," came the reply from the tower.

    "Roger, Nassau - climbing to 1,000 feet and contacting Departure on 324.7. See ya, I responded.

    I contacted Departure and they cleared us to 10,000 feet and to follow flight plan as filed. John shoved the throttles on the two recips to full throttle and I did the same on the J-34's. The plane began to tremble from the vibration and then we began to roll. Faster and faster, the ground flashed by. We approached take-off speed 125 knots and John pulled back on the yoke. The aircraft wheels broke free from the ground and we began to lift into the air. The roar of the big engines and the screaming whine of the jets filled our ears as we climbed into the clouds. We both throttled back to climb settings and then John gave the order to shut down the jets.

    I answered, "Aye aye, sir" and went through the shutdown procedure. The aircraft settled down to a steady climb at 800 feet per minute at 150 knots. We were on our way. We quickly broke through the thin cloud layer and soon reached 10,000 feet. I called departure.

    "Navy N425, 10,000 feet." A voice responded, "Roger, Navy N425. Switch to Jacksonville Center on 347.3 and have a good day."

    " Roger, Departure. Jax on 347.3."

    " Jax, this is Navy N425 10,000, over."

    "Navy N425, roger. Barometer is 29.97 inches and steady. Maintain altitude and you are cleared via flight plan. Call over Wilmington," replied the controller.

    "Navy N425, WILCO."

    With that, we settled back to the prospects of a four-hour flight back to Philly. The aircraft was on full autopilot, so it was coffee time. I lit up a cigar and John lit one of his Marlboros. We had been flying together in the P2's for about five months. John was a lieutenant commander and I was a lieutenant in the Navy. Because of our role as project test pilots, we got to become qualified in a variety of aircraft. Sometimes, you were qualified by bureau number.

    There could be two P2V7 aircraft side by side that looked to the casual observer to be twins. But to the project pilots, you had to know much, much more. There could be different power supplies on each engine. The controls may have been re-arranged to accommodate a new piece of equipment, so the pilots were always checking not only the "yellow sheets' - the maintenance records - but they also checked with the project office to see if any other modifications were done to the aircraft or its systems. The two birds could be 'fraternal' twins and not 'identical' twins. Your life may depend on that knowledge. About an hour and fifteen minutes into the flight, we could see the cloudbanks ahead of us. We knew from the weather briefing that we were rapidly approaching the Coastline. Our radio navigation aids confirmed that, so I called the center.

    "Jax Center, Navy N425, 10,000, over Wilmington."

    "Roger, Navy N425. This is Jacksonville Center. Proceed as planned and call

    Washington Control on 324.5"

    " Roger, Washington on 324.5," and I switched the channels and checked in with Washington. They gave me a weather update and a new barometer setting. It was dropping. I wrote it down and adjusted the altimeter.

    We soon came in contact with the cloudbanks and were quickly swallowed up into them. The rotating lights on the aircraft gave off an eerie glow as they rotated and it reflected all around us. John checked the fuel gauges and we were doing fine. We had plenty of fuel and if worse came to worse, we would high tail it back to a little more R & R in Nassau!

    As you fly and look in awe at the world below you, your mind wanders. I was thinking of when I had reported to flight training back in September of '62. As you walk up to the main building at NAS Pensacola, a sign over the door proclaims, "Through these doors walk the world's greatest aviators!" And as you go out the back door, there is a small sign in the grass - " Flying is hours and hours of sheer boredom, spiced by a few moments of stark terror!" Funny thing to be remembering! The time was slipping by and soon we were within a half hour of Philadelphia. Washington Control had passed us off to Philadelphia Approach Control and I called for instructions.

    "Philadelphia Approach, this is Navy N425, 90 miles at 10,000 feet."

    "Navy N425, descend to 3,000 feet. Contact Philadelphia GCA on 378.3," Washington responded.

    " Roger, descending to 3,000 feet and contacting Philadelphia GCA on 378.3"

    Then I switched the radio to that frequency and contacted GCA. While this was happening, John called to the crew on the intercom and instructed them to prepare for landing. The mechanic unstapped himself and headed aft. He slid over the wing and checked each person before coming back and strapping himself back into his chair.

    "All secure, sir."

    "Thanks, Davis." replied John.

    Normal procedure is for GCA to pick you up on radar and start the process of bringing you down, and then lining you up on the runway. Once lined up, they will talk you all the way down to minimums. In this case, minimums at Philadelphia were 100 feet in altitude and visibility one-quarter of a mile. When you are in a cockpit that stands 15 feet up in the air from the ground, you are moving at 135 knots with the gear down and your flaps are at one-half, one-quarter of a mile and 100 feet happens in a split second! They had us at 3,000 feet, turned us to a heading of 320 degrees and instructed us to descend to 1,000 feet.

    "Roger Philly, left to 320 and 1,000 feet," was my reply. John executed the maneuvers and the plane responded. We were in the soup with no visibility.

    "That's what you have instruments for, mister!" I could hear my instrument instructor pounding into my head. "Come left to 220, maintain altitude. Barometric pressure is 29.94 inches," said the controller.

    "Roger, Philly. Left to 220, maintain altitude." We had the landing check-off list out and were running down the list of prompts and responses.

    "Checklist complete," I stated.

    "Roger," John replied.

    "Navy N425, turn left to 150, maintain altitude."

    "Roger. Left to 150, maintaining," John replied as the aircraft rolled smoothly through the turn and we rolled out on the new heading. We were approaching Delaware Bay and soon would be turning to 330 to line up with the runway.

    "Navy N425 switch to GCA on 335.7."

    "Roger, switching to 335.7."

    "Navy N425, come left to 330."

    "Roger, left to 330," John answered.

    I could feel my hands beginning to get damp in the leather flight gloves. It's like this when you can'tseeanythingandyouhavetoplaceabsolutefaithinthevoicecomingthroughyourheadset.

    "Navy N425, you are approaching glide path. Begin your descent and maintain 330."

    "Roger, on glide path, descending, maintaining 330."

    "Roger 425," said the controller. "On glide path, you are at 800 and descending. Come right
to 331. That's it. Hold it. You are on glide path. OK. Come left to 330. You are on glide path.
Looking nicely. You are three-quarters of a mile from the end of the runway. Continue descending.
Maintain 330. You are on glide path. Approaching 500 feet. You are at 500 feet. Maintain heading.
The wind is at 335 at 5 knots. You are on glide path. You are approaching minimums. You are at 250 feet and... WAVE OFF!! WAVE OFF!! YOU ARE IN A DESCENDING LEFT TURN!

    "Power," John screamed and we both hit the throttles full bore! The aircraft staggered and then leapt forward. Our decent stopped and we began to climb straight ahead! My heart was galloping. What the hell went wrong!

    "Navy N425, climb to 1,000 feet and turn left to 270."

    "Roger, Philly. Climb to 1,000 feet and left to 270," John replied. My pulse was beating in my throat! Damn! That was close.

    "John, do you know what is to the left of the runway?"

    "No," he replied.

    "Scott Paper," I yelled! The Scott Paper Company had their headquarters five-storied, glass building on the left perimeter of the approach to the runway. Normally, you would pass it with plenty of room, but a descending left turn meant we were going to drill it big time!

    "Navy N425, climb to 5,000 feet and hold at Scarborough Intersection."

    "Roger, Philly. Climbing to 5,000 and holding at Scarborough Intersection," reported John.

    They were giving us time to calm down! Whew! I needed a drink! Gees, let's go to Nassau and forget it, I thought. Ok. Check the crew. So I called on the intercom and made sure everyone was still wearing dry shorts. Philadelphia Approach had us orbit for about 25 minutes and then called us back to try it again.

    "Ok," John replied. "Let's give it another shot."

    So I called Approach and they handed us off to the GCA controllers again. It's Friday afternoon
and a lot of traffic is going into Philly. They had to work us back into the pattern. No problem for
them. I glanced at the gas gauges. No problem. Within minutes, they had us down to 1,000 and lined up three miles out, heading 330. Here we go again.

    "Navy 425, we moved the building a little further out for you this time."

    "Thanks Philly. Let's give it a try," John chortled.

    "Ok, begin your descent.Maintain330.

    "Roger," John replied.

    "Maintain your heading. You are on glide path. Come right to 332 and continue descending. You are 2 miles and 850 feet. On glide path. The local weather is overcast, ceiling 100 feet; visibility is one-quarter of a mile. We are at minimums. Wind is at 340 at 6 knots and barometer is 29.93."

    "Roger, Philly."

    "Maintain heading. You are one and a half miles, 750 feet. On glide path. Add a little power. You are 50 feet below glide path. Ok. You are on glide path. Come left to 330. Maintain heading. You are approaching minimums. You are one-half mile and 350 feet. You are on glide path.


    Once again, two hands shot forward as the four throttles were jammed to the firewall! What the hell is going on!

    "Navy 425, climb straight ahead to 1,000 feet and contact Philadelphia Approach on 334.9."

    "Roger, 1,000 feet and Philly on 334.9," John responded. Ok, so now they have our attention!

    "John, Nassau sounds pretty good about now!"

    "Yeah I know, but we can probably get into Willow Grove. Get us clearance and we will give it
a try."

    So I called Approach Control and got clearance to 5,000 feet and a radar vector to NAS Willow Grove. It's getting a little warm now! In ten minutes we were circling over Willow Grove. They picked us up on radar and dropped us to 1,000 feet. Within minutes, they lined us up on the runway and the approach started again.

    "You are on glide path. Maintain 310. You are on glide path. Two miles and descending. On glide path. Come right to 311. On glide path. Local weather is overcast, ceiling one hundred feet and visibility one-third of a mile. On glide path."

    The voice was smooth and soothing just like the one at Philly, but this guy was one of us. You just had this feeling.

    "On glide path. Maintain 311. The wind is 325 at 5 knots. Barometer is 29.92 inches and falling. On glide path. You are approaching minimums." One good thing was there were no buildings and no skyscrapers near the runway. That was a relief.

    "On glide path. You are a half mile and 300 feet. WAVE OFF!! WAVE OFF!! YOU ARE IN A


    Holy crap! What is happening! Once again, we climb up to 1,000 feet. They call and put us into a holding pattern at 5,000 feet and we begin to regroup.

    "John, are you looking at the fuel? We are getting down pretty fast. Running those jets is eating it up!"

    We talked for a while trying to figure out what was happening. The plane appeared to be flying normally. The instruments would indicate if we were descending or in a turn. We definitely were descending, but the 'turn and bank' indicator was at 12 o'clock the whole time! No turn indicated! The indicator is very sensitive and would definitely show if we were in a turn, even if we lost electrical power! Something in the plane has to be giving a false echo to the radar signal, but what?

    "Ok. Let's go to Pax River. They have a 10,000-foot plus runway and a 42- mile straight in approach!" said John.

    "I can live with that," I replied.

        We quickly re-filed our flight plan with Air Traffic Control for Pax River Naval Air Station.
We checked the fuel gauges. It did not look good. We may not even make it to Pax River! As we flew south, we were passing over the new Interstate 95 that was under construction. I saw a hole in the clouds and could see the highway below us. There were no cars on it yet.

    "Look, John - a big highway. We could land this mother and wait for a gas truck, gas up and then take off again." John looked and responded, "If we can't get into Pax, we will come back and try the highway."

    Oh my God, I thought. He has got to be kidding! You can't come back and find a hole in the clouds! Now my mind was racing. I was thinking, "Now I know what pilots must be thinking when they know that they are about to finish their final flight!" I unhooked my safety belts and started aft. I slid over the wing and gathered the crew around me. I had them all check their parachute harnesses and hook on a chest pack parachute. We checked the hatch that would be pulled up into the aircraft and I explained to the crew how to kneel and roll out through the opening.

    "Count to 10 and pull the ring," I said. Then I checked the four civilians. Their faces were a ghostly white. Eyes wide and lips drawn tight. This is where we separate the men from the boys. Damn!

    "Ok, Davis. You make them kneel one at a time at the hatch. Before they roll out, attach this lanyard to their D ring. Secure it to that bulkhead brace. You got that?"

    "Aye aye, sir!" he bellowed. I could not take the chance that they would jump and fear would keep them from deploying the parachute. I crawled back over the wing and strapped myself back into my seat.

    "Ok, John. They are ready."

    John got on the intercom. "Men, if we do not make this landing, we are going to have to bail out. I will climb to 1,000 feet and turn out toward the Chesapeake Bay. Once we are level, I will ring the bell and you start jumping. Mr. Di Motta and I will be the last ones out!"

    God! that was re-assuring!! Washington Center handed us off to Pax River Approach at 80 miles out. They in turn handed us off to GCA and we began the long ride down the 42-mile chute! It was straight in to the longest runway on the east coast! We had to make it this time! There was hardly any gas left. The plane would probably stay in the air about 20 more minutes, before it plunged to the ground! The Pax River air controller keyed the mike and then began his chant.

    "You're looking good; 3,000 feet and maintain your heading. Pax weather is overcast, barometric pressure is 29.92, ceiling is 100 feet and visibility is one-third of a mile."

    "Roger, Pax. Maintain 3,000 and maintain heading," John echoed. They had us and were going to walk us right down the path to an ice-cold beer! I could just taste it! The 42 miles didn't take long and suddenly - "Descend to 1,000 feet. Maintain heading."

    "Roger, descending to 1,000 feet. Maintain heading," reported John.

    Gees! I had it memorized! The calm voice, the reassuring quips. They never get excited until
you are about to CRASH! Don't even think about it. You are from the Bronx and you are indestructible!
You can't die; you are not old enough!

    "You are on glide path, two miles. Begin your descent," continued the smooth voice.

    "Roger, begin descent, John responded.

    I glance at the fuel gauges. Not good, momma! They are beginning to bounce!

    "You are on glide path. Come left to 219."

    " Roger, Pax. Left to 219."

    Slowly the lumbering aircraft moved along its intended path. The reassuring voice smoothing the way. John had his right hand on the two big throttles as he wrestled the yoke with his left hand. I had my left hand on the two jet throttles. Both jets were back in flight idle sucking up fuel like a ship with a 100-foot gaping hole in it swallowing the ocean.

    "You are on glide path. You have a 10,000- runway before you. Take as much as you want," he offered. You have got to be kidding me! Take as much as we want? I want the whole damn thing! The prayers were beginning in the back of my mind. Could this really be happening?

    "On glide path. You are at 800 feet and 2 miles. On glide path. On glide path. Looking good, Navy 425. Tower reports that there is a rainsquall at the end of the runway. Be prepared for some turbulence and possible wind shears."

    "Roger, Pax." Wind shears! That's just great! What the hell else could go wrong?

    "You are approaching minimums. Maintain head. WAVE OFF!! WAVE OFF!!


    Forward shot our two arms and the throttles hit the dash. We stopped descending.

    "A hole! To my right, I can see the runway," I yelled. "I have the aircraft!" I commanded and dove the plane toward the ground.

    The runway was right there! We broke out just under 100 feet and there it was! But we were crossing it! John and I manhandled the yoke, turning the big plane to parallel the runway heading! He took control and eased it toward the ground. We bounced on one wheel and then back into the air! And then hit again! It took both of us to get it to go straight down the runway! Finally under control, John began applying the brakes. We were racing down the runway at 120 knots in the rain. Normal landing speed is 90 knots and we were in trouble!

    The big plane slowed as we rolled down the long runway. We finally approached a turnoff onto the taxi way and we turned to the right off the runway. The tension was broken by the sudden silence on my right, as the starboard engine died and began to windmill! We continued to roll and the other engine coughed and it too, died! It took both of us on the brakes to now stop the dead weight of the aircraft. Without power the hydraulic brakes responded terribly! Steering was almost non-existent as the aircraft concluded its slow dance.

    Red Crash trucks were racing towards us! I looked at John. There were tears in his eyes. I couldn't hold back! They were streaming down my face. We made it! My hands had a death grip on the yoke and my legs were trembling pushing down on the rudder pedals. John jerked his thumb back to the rear signaling for us to get out of the plane. I rang the fire bell and everyone scrambled for the open hatch in the after station. By the time the Crash crew arrived, ten grown men knelt in the pouring rain, kissing the ground and offering silent prayers of thanksgiving! We never would have made it on the wave off! We had sucked up all the fuel and it was gone!

    When we disembarked from the Crash truck at operations, we were joined by one of the radar operators. I wanted to kiss him! He had kept us calm and we did as we were trained to do, and we all survived! Three days later, when the sun was shining and there were no clouds in the sky all the way back to Philadelphia, we re-boarded the plane and flew it home to Johnsville. An investigation was convened and it was later determined that a 'peanut alternator' had been put on the port engine to replace the standard generator for a special project. It had never been removed after the mission ended. It was not in the briefings or the yellow sheets!

    Looking back, we understood that not only would we not have survived the climb out, there was also a school located a half mile to the right of our intended path and we would have turned over it to head out to sea. I didn't want to think about it. And then the sign came back and flashed in my mind: "Spiced with a few moments of stark terror!"

Ain't that the truth!

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