MCARA Sea Stories

Switched Off for a Weekend

Yes this is another “Whale Tale” and I expect you to agree without the usual this is “no ship” introduction that this is not a once-upon- a-time fairy tale!

It dates back 50 years to November 1965 a few weeks after yours truly and the rest of the first VMCJ-1 combat cadre had departed VMCJ-3 at MCAS El Toro California for our 13 month crack at helping support what we thought was a winnable Vietnam War. As usual after a cadre had departed, VMCJ-3 was left to regroup with bunch of newbees that needed to be trained up by a few old hands. The good news was the squadron was leading the transition to the new RF-4B Photo Phantom that was destined to replace our RF-8A Crusaders in a year. Bad news was VMCJ-3 was still looked to be the main trainer of replacement aircrews for the EF-10B Sky Knights, AKA Whales, as VMCJ-2 began the long awaited transition to the EA-6A Electric Intruders on the East coast.

And so it was that the squadron operations officer set out on a weekend cross country to somewhere in the east in a trusty Whale leading two other EF-10Bs to pick up some flight hours and training syllabus checkmarks for new pilots and ECMOs. Major Bob, as we will call him, was an older veteran pilot who was getting reacquainted with the EF-10B himself. His ECMO was a newly minted WO who had little flight time at that point but was anxious to get into the meat of EW training.

The Whale didn’t turn fighter pilot heads or look hot on the transit line but was otherwise a great cross country aircraft. It could cruise at 360 knots for a thousand miles or more which required a fueling stop at about the time you had to either take a leak (in those younger days) or stretch your legs while woofing down a greaseburger and fries. The Whale had a spacious cockpit that was not confined by ejections seats and the pilots could listen to country music on the old ARN-6 and take a smoke break if so inclined after turning off the oxygen for a while. Hey it was obviously authorized or why would it have built-in ashtrays?? Did I mention it burned aviation gas instead of JP-5 which was readily available at all decent airfields including civilian ones. Another beauty of the EF-10B was that it had a hell hole in the fuselage to stuff some booze in along with your cross country bag. All in all even the pilots who flew fast and furious in the Phantoms liked the amenities of the old and slow Whale.

Their cross country flight was proceeding as planned with the aircraft at cruising altitude of about 25,000 feet along an FAA airway somewhere over New Mexico. Over in the right seat, Major Bob’s ECMO had his head in the boot covering his his ECM displays absorbed in sorting through the radar signals that were picked up to hone his skills. And then the fun began…. according to the good major he reached back behind him to flip switches on the left hand console to vent his now empty external 300 galleon drop tanks. But alas the hand of Murphy intervened and the unnerving sound of engines shutting down was heard because somehow both fuel master switches were switched off!!! Understandably confusion reined for a minute or two , just long enough to drain the aircraft battery before the ECMO remembered to shut down his power eating ECM gear. But the ramifications of that would come later. First, a call went out to the wingmen advising what happened and to alert FAA controllers.

Once understanding what had happened, Major Bob thought no big deal I will just relight the fires and we’ll press on. And then … and then… and again his efforts to get his motors running went to no avail. Oh yeah, remember the battery which is kind of necessary to ignite the engines was dead!! At this point maps were being broke out in the wingmen cockpits and center was invited to help them find out where in the hell they were. Sometimes the good Lord sees fit to bailout … no pun intended.. fools and wayward Marines and lo and behold they were directly over Tucumcari municipal airport which had a six thousand foot runway that the Whale could land on. That is if the pilot and ECMO decided not to bail out instead. Oh by the way, that option was going away by the minute as the Whale was rapidly losing altitude and getting out safely below 10,000 feet was tricky at best. But here comes the good news, Major Bob had flown straight wing jets before and was confident he could make a dead stick landing. And so the dice were cast and Tucumcari tower advised them to come on in.

Thankfully, Major Bob’s experience and skills came through along with the forgiving old Whale and they made a safe landing. One of the wingmen landed behind them while the third flew on to their destination and advised the squadron duty officer of what had happened.

Now the unexpected arrival of two weird looking Marine aircraft caused a small crowd to gather to hear the story. Word quickly spread all round town and frankly this was one of the biggest events in its history dating back to some wild west shootouts. Major Bob called back home and was told to hang loose and a starting unit would be trucked over from the closest military airfield on Monday. So with that in the finest traditions of the Corps the four Marines made the most of their predicament and accepted the hospitality offered by the locals, which I am told included many a pitcher of margaritas. Needless to say all, especially Major Bob, knew their reception back at El Toro was not going to be so nice, and true to form the good major was bid farewell after pleading his case to a vengeful CO. But he can take solace in knowing his story will be added to the long list of Whale Tales! Semper Fidelis.

By Colonel H. Wayne “Flash” Whitten USMC (ret)