One lucky admiral
I served aboard the USS Constellation (CVA-64) between 1968 and 1970 as the ship’s V-2 officer and as the ship’s C-1A NATOPS officer. When I could be spared from my flight deck duties, and the Air Boss would permit, I would try to get some flight time in our C-1A. The C-1A was an old reliable twin-engine, piston-powered, propeller-driven, carrier-on-board delivery (COD) airplane built by Grumman Iron Works.
I especially remember making a flight from Connie in the Tonkin Gulf to Ubon, Thailand. We had only one passenger for the trip, CTF-77 CARDIV FIVE. Our embarked Vice Admiral had to go to Ubon for a meeting, and he was traveling alone, sans staff.
We got a cat shot off of Connie and headed south in the Tonkin Gulf toward Da Nang. We cruised at 500 feet and a few miles off the coast. This flight profile kept us out of jet traffic, out of range of shore gunners and high enough to handle any in-flight emergencies but still low enough for a speedy ditch if necessary. It was actually a very comfortable cruise altitude and the airplane performed very well down there.
The flight to Da Nang was a little over an hour. As we approached the base, we climbed to 10,500 feet for a VFR flight west to Ubon via an old colored airway across southern Laos. The mountains between Da Nang and Ubon were as high as 7,500 feet with known enemy AAA units scattered along the way. As we climbed through 10,000 feet I turned on the No Smoking sign in the cabin; it was SOP.
The C-1A was an unpressurized airplane with no supplemental oxygen for passengers or crew, but a couple of minutes later my loadmaster told me that the Admiral was still smoking his cigar. I told him to get the Admiral’s attention and to point politely to the No Smoking sign at the aft end of the cabin. A couple of minutes later he informed me that he had done exactly what I had asked; the Admiral had said, “It’s okay,” and continued to smoke his cigar.
Well, we thought about the situation for a couple of minutes and came up with a plan to help the Admiral stop smoking, just for this flight. We remembered from our aviation physiology lessons that two cigarettes or one cigar lowers the body’s blood oxygen levels equivalent to an increase of about 5,000 feet in altitude. We informed our loadmaster to watch the Admiral and not to let him burn himself or the airplane with that cigar. I started a slow climb to 12,500 feet and leveled off. With low altitude engines (single-stage, single-speed blowers) we were running with full throttles and controlling manifold pressure with rpm. Anyway, we figured the Admiral’s blood oxygen level was approaching 18,000 feet, and he should have been showing signs of hypoxia. My loadmaster informed us that the Admiral was “still sucking on his cigar” with no apparent effects from the higher altitude.
The route to Ubon from Da Nang took about an hour, and he had been above 10,000 feet now for quite some time. As sea level creatures, we up front felt the effects of the higher altitude and wondered why the Admiral did not.
I was determined to get him to pass out so I started another slow climb. We were approaching 14,500 feet when my copilot noticed three small AAA bursts below and to our right. We heard and felt nothing. I asked the loadmaster if he had seen them and he confirmed the copilot’s observation. We had been shot at. I did nothing because there was nothing to do. We were going as fast and as high as we could go, and maneuvers at our slow speed would do nothing to spoil the aim of a good gunner. We continued to look around and saw nothing but jungle below. No additional bursts were noticed and we continued on for an uneventful landing at Ubon.
Saved by the cigar
To this day, I am convinced that if we had been at our proper 10,500 feet for a VFR westbound flight, we would have joined the MIAs. That gunner was shooting where we should have been and not where we actually were. He knew our correct altitude was 10,500 feet and that we were always there. The remainder of the flight was routine and uneventful, and no, the Admiral never passed out. What a set of lungs! He deplaned at Ubon and thanked us for a smooth flight. We never told him of the AAA incident, although I think he found out later.
On return to the ship that day I inquired both of CIC and AirOps if either had filed a flight plan for us, neither had. In-country flights were always flown as “Operational VFR.” It would be bad for crew longevity if the enemy knew that a certain COD flight was carrying a VIP.
In fact, we routinely made high diving approaches from 1,000 feet AGL (flaps full, throttles closed) after the runway passed under the nose to avoid long and low altitude exposures to small arms fire while on final approach. The tower would advise if any small arms fire had been reported that day on other aircraft.
A post-flight inspection always included a hard look for holes. As an incentive to find any, an Air Medal could be awarded to each crewmember for any flight that had taken a hit from enemy fire. I am glad to say that we never found any.
On a couple of occasions, when our C-1A went down for mechanical problems at Da Nang and the crew had to RON, it did receive several small shrapnel holes from 122mm antipersonnel rockets during a night rocket attack on the base. A revetment cannot protect an aircraft from overhead detonations. The Quonset hut that we operated out of was full of shrapnel holes. It leaked sunbeams on a good day and rain on a bad day. No attempt was ever made to repair those holes.
If one questions why events work out the way they do, it inevitably leads to asking the “what if?” I don’t have a good answer why we were not where we should have been that day. Trying to make an Admiral pass out in flight was way out of character for me, and yet I tried. God only knows why it was not the crew’s time, or the Admiral’s, and I accept that.