3. Champs (and a Bear) In the Middle

Mike “Manny” Bader was one the VA-56 LSOs, but on this night he was flying a combat mission on the wing of our squadron commanding officer, CDR Lew Chatham. ‘Bear’ Pickavance, a Raven from VA-93 was also flying with the Champs after his flight leader’s aircraft had a problem after launch.  Also on this event flying an F-4 Phantom was the AirWing Five Commander (CAG), CDR C.E. Meyers. CAG had landed, shut down, and was walking down the bow between parked aircraft.  Many and Skipper Lew had just been parked and were beginning shutdown procedures.  All three were boresighted by the A-6 as it skidded out of control toward the “pack” of parked aircraft on Midway’s bow.

From Manny:

That was a tough night.  The worst of the cruise.  Here is how I remember it.

Lew & I were on a 2 plane CAS mission somewhere down south.  It was night ops from the get go.  As I remember it, CAG came in on the same target that we were on.  Lew landed first back aboard and was parked on the starboard side just in front of the island at an angle.  I was parked next to him pointing pretty much straight ahead.  I had my canopy open, had already unstrapped and was about to shut down the engine when I felt my whole aircraft lurch violently forward, twisting to the left.  The A-6, who we know broke off his starboard wheel was pivoted to the right as soon as the stub caught the wire.  When it came forward at MRP it hit my right wing which I recall had at least one or more bombs.  I seem to remember a shrike but that would not have been in the load for a CAS mission down south.  I looked over and saw flames around my right wing.  

The next thing I remember was standing 20 in front of my a/c holding back the plane captain telling him not to get too close in case the bombs blew.  Like 20 ft. would have made a difference.  I had jumped all the way down from the cockpit without using the steps.  The fire truck was trying to fight the fire but my A-7 engine was still running.  My plane captain ran up and shut it down after he saw that fighting the fire with that exhaust working against the fire crew was working hampering their efforts.  He got a medal for that.  I then started moving aft to get out of the fire area to get below.  I passed CAG who was lying on the flight deck having been hit by the A-6 tire. His F-4 had been hit by the A-6 also and I think it was pushed over the side.  His face was contorted into an expression of excruciating pain and his screams of agony I will never forget.  There were  bits and pieces of flesh on the flight deck.  

When I started down towards the ready room I ran into the A-6 pilot who had a dazed look on his face and a few seconds later I saw Skipper Lew drenched in JP.  I remember him telling that when his plane was about to be hit he looked over and saw the A-6 wing coming towards his cockpit.  He ducked and the JP, probably from a wing ruptured fuel line had drenched him.  He got out of the a/c and saw that his plane wing walker was hanging onto the right wing mer or ter and was dangling over the edge of the flight deck.  Lew pulled him in.  

Later that night we had to go down and ID the body of our lost Champ,  PO Blankenship. ( I have a rubbing of his name from the Vietnam memorial.)  Schoolboy was scheduled to have a day off the next day but the skipper decided to operate.  Back on the horse as it were.  I am sure my memories are fuzzy or might conflict somewhat with other accounts but that night is still etched into my mind.   Flight ops on a carrier – operating on the edge.  Accident rapidly progress into full blown catastrophe in a flash.  High reliability from constant “do it again” emergency drills make it almost second nature.

 From Skipper Lew:

First a big thank you for your efforts on this event.  As an ancient naval aviator I was reminded of some of the details of that night by the input of others.  I will go through the events as I saw them occur and then give some additional info from later conversations.  Sooo – here goes.
If there was ever a story that should begin “It was a dark and stormy night” it should be the story of 24 Oct 1972 onboard Midway.  Although the recovery started with the carrier making its own wind creating the down-the-deck crosswind, my recollection is that it was gradually being drawn into a thunderstorm as the Captain tried to minimize the crosswind landing component.  In any event, the deck was moving(remember the Midway roll {13 degree vs. 11 degree angle}) with a strong crosswind landing component.  CAG was first to land in a F-4 and was the aft-most aircraft reverse slashed on the port side.  He had exited his aircraft and was near the nose of his aircraft when the crash occurred.  Bear had joined my section (Manny was on my wing) when his lead went down on deck after he launched.  I sent him down first, I followed, then Manny. 

Bear was forward slashed on the starboard side, chained, and his crew was already refueling his bird.  I was shut down next to him.  Manny landed and was parked facing forward slightly left of center-line.  The first thing I did after shutdown was to take off my helmet, bag it with my kneeboard and hand it to my plane captain.  As I did so, I heard the landing crash and ejection and looked up to see the A6 barreling down on us at full throttle. 

In the next couple of seconds  I experienced the strangest sensation – the only time in my life it has happened – time went in s – l - o –  w  m - o - t - i - o - n.  I ducked and tried to hide in the map case on the right side of cockpit.  Couldn’t get there before the A-6 hit.  That’s when everything went full speed.  His right wing slammed into my A-7 hitting my canopy  and ejection seat.  When the roar and screeching of metal ceased I found myself underneath the broken wing of Bear’s aircraft.  My shattered canopy was resting on his trailing edge and my cockpit was filling with fuel and rain.  The fireball from the A-6 flared toward my cockpit but pulsated away with wind gusts and then back toward me.  I was close to becoming a torch. 

I went headfirst out the small opening between my canopy rail and Bear’s wing.  I held on to the canopy and swung my feet down.  I remember I was surprised at how close to the deck I was.  I started toward the catwalk when I heard a cry for help.  I looked and saw one of our ordies hanging on a TER out over the catwalk.  Think he thought he was out over water.  I grabbed his belt but had to talk him into letting go so I could pull him onto the deck.  I crawled under the tail and joined the crew in helping on deck.  A yellow shirt asked me to double check an A-7 (Manny’s) to ensure it was properly  shut down.  It was. One young sailor was attempting unsuccessfully to unfasten the straps on a litter to take a friend down to sickbay.  I managed to get it unfastened for him.  He disappeared into the darkness towards his friend.  I must have looked a mess covered in fuel and blood from some canopy glass imbedded in my scalp.  About this time a corpsman stopped me and said he would take me down to sickbay but I told him I was OK and others needed his help.

I then proceeded to the Ready Room.  There was still a lot of uncertainty about casualties and aircraft damage so I dropped all my gear on the RR deck and headed for a quick shower to get the fuel off me and the plastic out of my head.  Checked back with the XO in the RR and proceeded to the triage area to check on our crew.   One of our plane captains  looked up, saw me, and said, “Hey, Skipper.  You can tell I was heading in the right direction!”  He pointed to his bare buttocks where emblazoned there were the tread marks of an A-6 tire!! Can’t remember but casualties totaled 3 or 4 killed including the BN and about 30 injured, 4 or 5 seriously.  The F-4 was lost over the side and 4 or 5 aircraft sustained major damage.
Some details surfaced during the night and the next day. 
I talked to the air boss about the young sailor in the MB-5 who saved my life and many others.  He had turned on the foam as he approached the fire but the wind and rain had immediately covered the front of the truck and he couldn’t see.  The Boss called him on the radio and told him he was too far away and had to get closer.  Since he couldn’t see,  he drove forward until the fireball surrounded the cab and then turned the foam on again putting out the fire.  Flight deck fuel shut off valves were checked.  The one fueling Bear’s aircraft did not shut off when the line ruptured continuing to pour fuel onto the deck until it was manually turned off.  With fuel pouring out of broken hoses and airplanes, the flight deck was a running river of fuel.  Had it ignited ——. 

All litter straps were loosened – the young man I helped was not the only one having trouble.

When the A-6 left wing hit CAG’ s F4 nose, it broke it’s chains.  One of the chains almost took off his leg.  The wind spun the F-4 until it went over the side near the angle.

The gap between Manny’s aircraft and mine was the only open deck space forward for the A-6 fuselage to move through.
Although the A-6 had two hung 500# bombs when it landed, they were not on the airplane when it stopped.  It is assumed they detached, slid up the deck and over the side without detonating.

It was a unanimous decision by the Captain and the COs to fly the next day.  It is my recollection that every squadron CO, including me, flew on the 25th.  I know I did – I checked my logbook.

From Bear

I remember that night like it was last night. VA-56/93 were “spareing” each other and I ended up launching with Skipper Lew. Don’t recall if I was a spare or add on. When we returned I some how landed prior to the Skipper and parked midway up the starboard side cat 1. The Skipper taxied/parked next to me. Recall Captain (later ADM) Bob Foley had been on us for walking down the deck after getting out of a jet, so I went down a ladder under my port UHT and remember seeing my PC, Seaman Cherry putting final chains on. As I recall, the Skipper was still in his jet. About the time I walked into Maintenance Control, all hell broke loose. In VA-93 our Gunner CW0-4 Tim Halprin was injured, my Plane Captain was crushed under my jet and of course CAG Meyers, and numerous others were injured some of whom ended up in Ready Room One (VA-93) enroute to medical. As I recall and I may be wrong, but I think Skipper Lew went thru a hole in his canopy that was pretty damn small. Then Captain Foley and all the other CO’s showed amazing leadership! The morning ALPHA launched on time! Tim Halprin recovered and served many more years. Hope this helps…Skipper Lew needs to confirm but this is my memory of that night! Best to all!  Fly Navy/Bear


Pictures below show the emotion of sharing a legal beer in Midway’s watering hole “under the Ramp,” bringing a tear to Manny’s eye, and Skipper Lew and I with some good single malt the night before at the VA-56 Champ reunion in San Diego in October 2005.


4. Survival on her own terms: Midway’s Magic

Go Back:

2. Landing Signal Officer Perspective

1. The Pilot’s Story: Bruce Kallsen VA-115

IV. Bad Night for Schoolboy – And Other Stories of the Carrier

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