For every Student Naval Aviator (SNA), there is a seminal moment that you’ll savor and remember for the rest of your life. For me, it was March 19th, 1969. On that day, I made my first arrested landing on the U.S.S. Lexington.
When the wheels of my T-28C slammed onto the deck of the U.S.S. Lexington and I caught a three wire, it made all the studying worthwhile. Even if after that flight the Navy bounced me out of the training command, I could, for the rest of my life say, that as a pilot, I landed aboard a carrier!
Now, 53 years later, I can remember everything about that flight as if was yesterday. So, here’s the story of how I wound up in a T-28C that sunny day in the Gulf of Mexico.
After primary in VT-1, I was sent to VT-2 because the jet pipeline was plugged. There were simply no jet slots available. The navy was transitioning advanced training from in the F-9/TF-9 to the TA-4 and the jet pipeline was backed up. As a result, all of us “studs” a.k.a. Student Naval Aviators (SNAs) coming out of VT-1 were sent to VT-2 or VT-3 at Whiting Field northeast of Pensacola for the Basic phase of the syllabus.
Way back then, every SNA whether they were going to fly jets, maritime patrol airplanes, transports or helos had to CQ, i.e. make at least six arrested landings on a carrier with satisfactory grades. For the SNAs coming out of VT-2 or VT-3, the next stop was VT-5 at Barin Field. There we would learn how to land on a carrier.
When I checked in at VT-5, my Navy logbook had all of 131.6 hours of flight time, of which 26.0 were in the T-34B and 105.6 in the T-28. FCLP – Field Carrier Landing Practice – hops were flown at Barin Field west of Pensacola. The airport had two runways – 9/27 and 15/33.
After three flights with an instructor, the first and longest of which was 1.4 hours, we started flying FCLPs solo. The sequence was the same, preflight, launch, depart the airport in a formation of four. We’d return at 500 feet; break in sequence; establish about a 30 second interval behind the airplane in front of us as we descended to 325 feet. Abeam the Landing Signal Officer (LSO), we turn left, pick-up the Fresnel lens a.k.a. the “meatball” and fly the approach listening to the LSO. Right after touchdown, we’d push the throttle forward against the stop, and go around. After six touch-and-go landings, we’d taxi in and listen to the debrief by the LSO. The longest of these hops was 1.3 hours, but most were .4 – .6 hours.
Barin Field was named after LT Louis Theodore Barin, a Navy test pilot and one of the Naval Aviators who flew NC-1 on its historic transatlantic flight. During World War II, the airfield earned the nickname of “bloody Barin” due to all the high number of accidents. Now, Naval Outlying Landing Field Barin, it is still used by the Naval Air Training Command for touch and goes.
Life At “Bloody” Barin
Because there was no housing at Barin, most of the “studs” lived at the BOQs at NAS Pensacola or Saufley Field (which is now a solar panel farm) or in a house or an apartment in Pensacola. Barin was about 25 miles and a 35 – 40-minute drive from the BOQ at NAS Pensacola a.k.a. Mainside.
Muster was at 0730 which meant leaving the BOQ parking lot no later than 0630 which translated into an 0530 wake-up. There were no McDonalds or other fast-food restaurants along the way. The choice was either eat at the BOQ which started serving at 0600 or don’t eat until there was a break in the day so you could drive to a diner in Fairhope, AL which was a few miles west of Barin.
When we arrived, we’d go to the ready room which was really a classroom and find out what the instructors had planned for us each day. One of the big variables was availability of Lexington. Designated CVT-16 – the T for training in 1969, the ship was originally commissioned in 1943. At 26 years old, the carrier was older than the students! Lexington sailed back and forth between Corpus Christi to allow the students in the Advanced phase to CQ and Pensacola for those of us who just finished the Basic phase at Whiting or if you were in the jet pipeline, NAS Meridian in Meridian, MS.
On March 19th, the board showed yours truly was going take off on a quick, FCLP hop. If my grades were still satisfactory, off to the boat, a.k.a. U.S.S. Lexington, I would go. To say I was excited was an understatement. Was I scared? Yes. My real fear was not wanting to fail rather than dying because at 23, I was bulletproof!
By the time I arrived in June of 1968 to begin flight training, the Navy’s airplanes in the Basic phase were the T-2A which was a single engine jet and the T-28B and C. Designed by North American, the Air Force bought the T-28A which had an R-1300 radial engine that pumped out 1,000 horsepower and a two bladed prop. The Navy’s B and C models had an R-1820 that produced 1,400 horsepower. It was pulled through the air by three bladed propeller. For more on what it was like to fly the T-28 go to https://marcliebman.com/flying-my-most-favorite-airplane-of-all-time-the-t-28/ .
There were five big differences between the B and C models. The C had a strengthened landing gear, a tailhook, provisions for ordnance stations on the wings, a prop that was six inches smaller in diameter than the B and was a couple of hundred pounds heavier. The Cs were bought to introduce future Naval Aviators to gunnery and dropping bombs as well as learning how to land on a carrier. Some of the C’s I flew still had the gunsight mounts and ordnance panels in the cockpit between your legs. Net net, the C model didn’t climb or go as fast as the B.
The Navy started using “the break” approach prior to World War II. In it, the airplane (s) come down the starboard side of the carrier with their hooks down. If there is more than one plane, you are in right echelon with 10 feet of stepdown and 10 feet in trail between airplanes.
To enter the pattern once we spotted the ship from 5,000 feet, we began a wide descending turn so we would be level at 500 feet about a half a mile from the stern of Lexington. Our flight lead – another student – kept the power up so we were right at 220 knots. The formation looks (and is) tight, especially considering how much flight time we had!
Back in the old days, i.e. 1969 – 70ish, as the lead airplane passed the bow of the carrier, the flight leader puts his hand to his mouth and makes the kiss-off gesture with his right hand and rolls smartly into a 45-degree bank.
The next pilot counts to 10, makes the same gesture and then rolls into a 45-degree bank. In this flight, I was #3. As I rolled the airplane, the throttle came back to 15 inches of manifold pressure and extended the speed brake. Slowing past at 140 knots, its gear down, prop to full increase (minimum blade pitch), mixture rich, flaps down to full. Once the gear is down and locked, one slides open the canopy. All this is down while descending to 325 feet above the water.
Once level, make sure the airplane is trimmed to fly “hands off” by letting go of the controls for a second or two to see if the airplane drifts one direction or the other. Then one checks off the items on the landing check list. Back then and still do today, I say the items out loud and touch each item to make sure it is in the right position.
Done correctly, the aviator rolls out parallel to the carrier and going in the opposite direction of the carrier at precisely 82 knots. From the cockpit, you know your distance from the ship is accurate because the deck of the ship is just past the wingtip. The actual distance is about 1,000 – 1,200 yards.
The T-28 did not have a radar altimeter and the barometric altimeter had a little piece of white tape at 325 feet so getting the correct barometric pressure reading was key. It was radioed to us when we checked in with the carrier.
Another piece of white tape was on the airspeed indicator at 82 knots. This is the airspeed in the T-28 at which in the landing configuration it has the best lift over drag ratio. In other words, the wings were generating the maximum amount of lift.
Abeam the LSO platform, I was pumped and pressed the radio transmit button on the throttle. In my coolest, “I’m a s—t hot Student Naval Aviator” voice, I said, “Paddles, Tiger 713, all down.” Translation – LSO, my T-28 with the side number 713 has its gear, flaps, speed brake and tailhook down and my canopy open.
An enlisted man on the LSO platform would look at my T-28 to verify my radio call. If the T-28 wasn’t in the proper configuration and it was an immediate “down,” i.e. you failed. These SNAs orbited overhead in the marshal pattern while they waited the other three members the rest of flight completed their carrier qualifications.
“Roger, ball, continue,” Crackled in my headset. Keep in mind that I am sitting in open cockpit with the nine cylinders of the R-1820 bellowing out through its unmuffled exhaust stacks, two feet in front of me. In the cockpit, you can feel the turbulence as well as smell the burnt 115/145 octane aviation fuel as well as the sea.
Trust me, there is nothing like this intoxicating smell or sensation in aviation!
First Pass at the Deck
Once your left wingtip passes the stern of the carrier, you roll into a 15 – 200 bank. When carrier transmits the altimeter setting, the controller also gives the wind speed and the speed of the wind over the deck. This is so you can adjust the arc of the planes turn so you line up with the angled deck. On this day, it was 10 knots of wind and wind over the deck was 25 which meant Lexington was moving through the water at 15 knots.
Now, here’s the fun part that they tell students about in ground school, but you don’t see or understand until you see it through the front of the canopy. The ship is moving away from you AND the landing area is at 100 angle to the direction of travel of the ship. Theoretically, the captain of the ship has adjusted his course so the wind is down the angle. The reality is that as one rolls out behind the ship, one flies in a slip to keep the airplane aligned with the center of the landing area and to compensate for the forward motion of the ship.
The CQ plan was one pass to what is known as a “close in wave” off by the LSO. What happens is the SNA flies an approach as if he was planning to land. Inside of a quarter mile, the red lights on the “meat ball” flash and you hear “wave off, wave off” from the LSO in your headset.
Assuming you are paying attention, you slam the throttle forward, raise the nose slightly and add in a boot full of right rudder. Failure to add in enough right rudder and the T-28 will torque roll to the left. If not stopped, the plane will roll on its back, i.e. your upside down at 300 feet and slow. The most common result is a crash into the water nose low, inverted.
One of the first lessons I learned in the T-28 was that any time my left hand – the one on the throttle – added power, it was tied to my right foot. Add throttle, add rudder. On my second flight with an instructor, he had me dirty up the T-28 and slow to 82 knots while maintaining 10,000 feet. Then he asked me to keep my feet on the floor and slam the throttle forward.
By the time I had added enough rudder and aileron to stop the roll, the T-28 was almost inverted and the nose was falling through the horizon. Calmly, my instructor said, “recover.” So, while rolling the airplane upright, it was gear up and flaps up, throttle back, raise the nose. It was a lesson I never forgot.
Back to the Lexington. Frankly, I’d forgotten about the in-close wave off and was concentrating on the scan drilled into our heads – meatball (keep the ball in the center), line-up (keep the nose of the T-28 aligned with the centerline of the ship’s landing area) and airspeed (stay at 82 knots). Your hands and feet are translating what you see into minute corrections to keep the ball centered.
The lights flashed and I slammed the throttle forward while adding a bunch of right rudder and raising the nose slightly. I remember seeing the numbers 16 on the Lexington’s stack level with my cockpit as I flew down the angled deck.
Next pass was supposed to be a touch and go. So, I trundled down past the bow of the carrier, climbed to 325 feet, and turned back into the pattern. Once level, I went through the landing check list and remembered to raise the hook before calling, “Paddles, Tiger 713, all down, hook up.”
“Roger ball, continue.”
Whew, I remembered. First full pass. Again, roll into the groove, get lined up and ease off a skosh – that’s a technical term for just a wee bit – of power and fly the ball. A calm voice calls out, “power.” It’s the LSO telling me to add in some throttle so I nudge it forward checking my airspeed and the ball.
I keep flying making minute adjustments, focused on the ball then WHAM!!! The T-28 slams into the deck. Training during the FCLPs takes over and I shove the throttle back up to the stop. The T-28 rolls for about 50 feet and leaps back into the air.
Again, I come around and do the landing checklist and push the tailhook lever to the down position. Abeam, its “Tiger 713, all down.”
Same drill, roll out into the groove at 325 feet, make an adjustment for line up, squeeze off a bit of power and keep the “ball” centered. I know my feet and hands were moving, but to this day, I can’t say what they were doing.
“Little power and come right for line-up.” The LSO was coaching and I assume I responded properly because nothing else was said. Again, WHAM! This time the impact was such that my head snapped forward and my body pushed against the shoulder harness.
For a second, I was stunned. The T-28 had stopped. ON A CARRIER DECK. No time to gloat, there was a guy in a yellow shirt and floatation vest off to my right side giving me the hook up signal. Once it was up, he signaled for me to taxi forward. A little power and right brake and the T-28 started taxiing. He directed me to an area away from the landing area and pointed to the next taxi director who positioned me behind another T-28 waiting to take off.
The Lexington’s island blocked my view to the right, but to the left, the deck dropped away in less than 100 feet and the bow was only about 300 feet or so in front of me. What I did notice was that the bow of the ship was going up and down. Later, I found it was pitching six to eight feet. Beyond that, it was blue water. I sat there with the engine idling and looked at the puffy clouds ahead of me.
While I was lolly gagging and looking around, out of the corner of my eye, I saw another yellow shirt motioning me to come forward. As soon as my T-28 began to roll, he stuck out his left arm straight out so I pushed full right rudder, applied the left brake and he turned me over to another yellow shirt who guided me to a position in what is known as the “throat.” This is where the angle deck joins the main part of the flight deck.
Another T-28 was in front of mine. I watched what was happening in front of me intently. Yeah, it was the same as we were told, but that was in a briefing. This is for REAL!!!
A man in a green shirt, officially known as the catapult officer, a.k.a. the “shooter” had his hand in the air, waving two fingers. I could see the T-28 begin to slide down the deck as my fellow student ran up to full power.
Thankfully, the shooter held the T-28 for a few seconds until the deck was coming back up. Then I remembered to do the take-off check list. Dummy, I should have done it while I was parked.
With the items finished and the T-28 in front of me making its clearing turn to starboard, the shooter raised his hand over his head and began to twirl his hand with two fingers raised. I pushed the balls of my feet against the top of the rudder pedals as hard as I could to apply the brakes and kept the T-28 from rolling. At the same time, I shoved the throttle against the stop.
I could feel the T-28 began to slide and it was only later that I learned that even with the non-skid on the deck, you can slip and slide on a flight deck. It seemed like an eternity, but was probably only a few seconds, and the shooter touched the flight deck.
My heels banged down on the cockpit floor to release the brakes and I fed in a boot full of right rudder. The white arrow painted on the flight deck which went from where I was to the bow just to the right of the forward end of starboard catapult told me what direction to go.
I don’t know how far the T-28 rolled, but my guess it was less than 100 feet. The 8,000-pound airplane seemed to leap into the air. By the time I was half-way down to the bow, I was a good 20 – 25 feet above the deck and accelerating. We were told to ease the nose down and gain airspeed and then, at the end of the deck, make a gentle clearing turn to starboard as you raised the gear and flaps. Why? In case of an engine failure and must ditch, the ship won’t run over you!!!
During ground school at VT-5, we were all told do not look at the airspeed indicator when you take off at the boat. From instrument training, we all knew there was a lag in the barometric instruments – airspeed, altitude, and vertical speed. For the most part, it wasn’t noticeable. The instructors said don’t look because your training is to follow their indications. It was the only time in the training command I’d ever been told not to trust one’s instruments (assuming there are no failure indications).
Now I knew why. I glanced down at the airspeed indicator and the needle was wobbling back and forth in no-man’s land between the max speed on the instrument and zero. The altimeter was showing that I was below sea level!
I went back to flying and turned downwind for my next approach. Ultimately, that day, I made nine passes at the deck. One touch and go, six traps and two wave offs. The second wave off came after my third pass and the T-28 ahead of me was slow to get out of the landing area. About an eighth of a mile behind the ship, the lights flashed and the LSO radioed “wave-off.”
Grades and the Aftermath
For those who don’t know, every evolution in the training command is graded. At the end of a phase – primary, basic, advanced – the students finishing with you are ranked based on their cumulative grades. While each of our dual hops were graded, the most important ones were by the LSO.
Each pass was graded and 3.0 was a perfect pass which none of us flew. What you wanted was something close to that number. Passing was 2.0.
In Naval Aviation, getting back aboard a boat is the most critical skill. You could be the best pilot in the world, but if one can’t land on a carrier, you are, well, useless.
The “studs” had to stick around until the LSOs flew back from ship and debrief us. That day, if I remember correctly, 32 of us flew out from Barin to CQ and 27 qualified.
We waited until the three LSOs came in and we were split up into groups by the LSO who graded our landings. A dozen of us sat in the classroom waiting for the LSO to call out your side number. You’d respond with your name and rank and an enlisted man would fill out the grading form that had the LSO’s analysis, comments, and grade. Once compiled, the student’s landing grades were averaged and his (there were no “hers” in 1969) performance could be ranked.
“Who flew 713?”
I raised my hand. “Sir, Ensign Liebman.”
“Good work around the boat and the wave off. First pass, 2.8; second pass, 2.9; third pass, pass, in close wave off but the grade was 2.85; fourth pass, 2.95; fifth pass 2.85; sixth pass 2.9; seventh trap, 2.85. Your touch and go was a 2.85. I can’t give out a 3.0 to a student, but your second and fourth passes were as good as they get. Your average is 2.87. My only comment is that you eased off too much power as you rolled out in the groove. You were correcting before I made my power calls and then kept the ball centered and on the centerline all the way down. I hope to see you in the fleet!”
I remember having a celebratory beer or two in the bar that night. Even if my Navy career ended that day, no one could take away the fact that I was carrier qualified. Tomorrow, the standings would be posted and I could start packing to drive to either Kingsville or Beeville for advanced jet training. Or so I hoped.
The Bad News
Now that we’d completed our initial carrier qualification, we were told to come back at 0900, find out our where we were going and check out of VT-5. Much to my surprise, I had an “atta boy” note in my training jacket saying I had the top landing grades of the period.
Imagine my surprise when I looked on the bulletin board and saw the assignments. There I was number one and my next squadron was VT-6 for advanced instrument training before going on to learn how to fly helicopters. I was not alone! The next 23 names below me were all going to helicopter community. Of the three guys at the bottom with the worst grades, one was going multi-engine and two were going to fly jets.
I gently rapped on the doorframe to the admin officer’s office. He looked up and asked, “What do I want?” As in, how dare a student come into his office without being summoned.
“Sir, there must be some mistake. I had the best grades here at VT-5 and was always one of the top students at VT-2 and wanted jets. The list shows I am going to fly …” It was hard for me to get the word out of my mouth “ … helicopters and studs below me are getting jets.”
The admin officer was a lieutenant commander and I was a lowly ensign, two ranks below and an even worse, I was a flight student. He gave me a steely look.
Undeterred, I kept talking. “Sir, we were always told that do well, be at the top of your class and if there is an opening that you want, you’ll get it. There are two jet slots and I’d like one.” Want was a better word, but I was trying to be polite.
The lieutenant commander leaned forward, clasped his hands, and rested his forearms on the edge of his desk. He was about to dispense some Navy wisdom. “Ensign, have you ever heard of the needs of the Navy?”
He didn’t wait for me to answer. “The Navy needs helicopter pilots and I was directed to send the top twenty-four of the next class to helos, so that’s where you are going.”
“Sir, I understand, but I was at the top of my class. The guys at the bottom should go to VT-6.”
The admin officer leaned back and smiled. “I was specifically directed by the father of one of those students who has two stars on his collar to send his son and his friend to Kingsville. So unless your father has three stars on his collar and is willing to countermand a rear admiral’s request, you’re going to fly helos. Or you can DOR.”
DOR stood for Drop on Request. That was not in the cards. I was way too close to finishing and becoming a Naval Aviator. Ergo, I learned to fly helicopters.
It took me years to get over my anger. It was not until the 1980s that the Navy allowed Naval Aviators to switch communities, i.e. one could go from helo to attack or fighter or patrol or vice versa. For me, it was 15 years too lake and flying jets of a carrier was not to be.