Air Boss Wanabee
I'd like to tell you all of my unforgettable and unbelievable personal experience as the Midshipman Air Officer designee aboard the USS Bennington on a cruise over 46 years ago. To my Classmates who went into Navy Air this'll likely knock your socks off.
Here is my story:
Shortly after we got underway for Halifax I found the Bennington's Air Officer, Cdr. Hoel, who I was to shadow for the next three weeks, up in "PriFly". I was also introduced to Cdr. Gover, the Assistant Air Boss. Bennington's PriFly was suitably named "The Gover Hoel"! Both of them, along with the aviation petty officers who manned the "Green Windowed Control Tower", were very enthusiastic about my learning every detail of the PriFly S.O.P., specifically the Air Officer's duties and responsibilities. I shadowed Cdr.'s Gover and Hoel all over the ship, including observing their Air Department administrative routines when one of them was not on watch.
In PriFly they eventually let me do the pre-launch check list, including some of the PA system announcements for upcoming the launch. I remember how they kept reinforcing the vital importance of my staying precisely on time for every single pre launch step. Nothing must slip during preparations for a launch for a delay would jeopardize the planes circling in the pattern to land due to their low fuel state. Wow! Well, needless to say within a week I was pretty well checked out and taking over most of the routine duties of the Air Boss in PriFly. The CDR's each just sat back with their cups of coffee and urged me on. As you can imagine I was having an unforgettable experience, particularly when I would call up to the bridge and request that the ship be brought into the wind for upcoming air launch... and it was done with an "aye aye, sir"! The biggest thrill was during launch when the first pilot would give us the thumbs up signal, and with an "okay" nod to me from either Cdr. Hoel or Gover, I'd return the thumbs up and say over the PA mike "Launch Aircraft".
Well, it was on our return trip from Halifax I was approached by Cdrs. Gover and Hoel in the wardroom and told of the impending Air Operation which was scheduled to last for a continuous 36 hours. Did I want to be involved as the Midshipman Air Officer and assist each of them during their particular watch? Was I up to it, in view of my having to be up for the whole 36 hours, since there was only one of me... and two of them. My answer: Yes sir!
The operation began right on schedule and was going to involve day and night launches and landings for the next 36 hours. I was permitted to get right in there and do it all, for this was exactly what I learned to do so routinely over the past two weeks, but of course still under the watchful eyes of the Air Officer and the rest of the experienced PriFly crew with whom I had developed such a close working relationship. Again, the emphasis was to stay on schedule! Any delay whatsoever during these back-to-back aircraft launch and recovery operations would have been very serious. Well, even though I was getting extremely tired the continual adrenaline rushes I'd get for each launch was exhilarating enough to keep me going and alert. Also, they kept passing me sandwiches and coffee. Incidentally, I don't remember ever taking a head break.
It was dawn of the final day that we had a scheduled 0600 launch followed immediately by recovery of the nighttime CAP aircraft. I started the pre launch check off at about 0430. At about 0500 Assistant Air Boss Cdr. Gover, seeing that everything was proceeding on schedule and under control said that he would personally give a wakeup call to the Air Boss, CDR Hoel, so he could get relieved BEFORE the 0600 launch. He left PriFly after assuring me that Cdr. Hoel would be up there shortly.
I continued the Pre launch routine that I knew so well (but with my confidence a tad shaken without an air boss in PriFly). Every time I issued a critical order the smiling okay gesture from one of the Air Officers wasn't there, but the Sr. Chief Petty Officer's was. The clock was showing 0530 and no CDR Hoel! The Chief assured me that he'd send a messenger and would get on the phone to find him. With only 30 minutes to go for 0600 launch things really got hectic. But we stayed precisely on schedule, as I knew we had to. I had no time to keep looking around for CDR Hoel to get the familiar OK, so just continued on as I had done so many times before. Even calling up to the bridge to bring the ship into the wind was no problem. Grabbing the mike and giving the order "Pilots, man your planes" was also no big deal. Where is CDR. Hoel??? The clock now 0545! Then I grabbed the mike and announced the routine "Now prepare to start engines... check wheel chocks, tie downs, and all loose gear about the deck." CDR. Hoel?? I looked at the Chief and First Class P.O. silently pleading with them to find the Air Boss. They urged me to continue what I was doing for everything was going okay, and HE would surely get here by LAUNCH! I also knew that I couldn't stop the launch now with the planes maneuvering into place for takeoff and the pilots faces, now so familiar to me, looking up at PriFly in preparation. My, God...What am I doing? Where is CDR Hoel? The Chief leaned over to me and said "You've gotta do it, only a minute to go...0559. Without anymore hesitation I grabbed the mike, checked the aircraft, acknowledged the pilot's thumbs up signal, and at the stroke of 0600 ordered "LAUNCH AIRCRAFT". The catapult blasted the first aircraft off the deck. The next one jockeyed into position. Thumbs up. Blast off. Suddenly I felt a strong grip on my shoulder, the close presence of CDR Hoel, and a whisper "Keep it up, Mr. Butterfield, you're doing just fine." Blast off! Another one left the deck. It was all over in just a few minutes. CDR Hoel then took over and immediately prepared the ship for the recovery of the CAP aircraft which we could already see entering the landing pattern off in the distance. It was a beautiful morning of a new day of the final phase of the 36 hour Air Operation... and I was TIRED, in a strangely elated sort of way. Whew!
Epilog: Having eaten breakfast and fallen into the sack around 0900 I slept until noon. Later Cdr. Hoel found me asked that I come by his stateroom. When I entered he closed the door, asked me to sit down, and then told me what had happened. Apparently, following being awakened by CDR Gover, a series of minor problems and unfortunate circumstances culminated in his not realizing what time it really was. Apparently his watch had stopped and he was in the wardroom drinking a cup of coffee when he heard the noise of the catapult operation. In a flash he sized things up and ran up to PriFly, only to find things proceeding smoothly and on time. He decided not to interfere. He finished the explanation, congratulated me on the launch, and then he asked me never to tell this story to anyone until after he had retired which would be in about ten years. I kept my promise.
This is my incredible story after waiting 46 years.
P.S. I always wanted to fly, but flunked the eye physical twice due to lack of depth perception. Also, during my first N3N landing I was still 100 feet above the water when I thought it was time begin the stall for setting her down! I went into submarines, following 3 years in a DD.
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