story, lifted from my memoir Flying Low, appeared in the March 2009
edition of the magazine
Flying the Fury
The Navy FJ-4 Fury slipped through the
sound barrier, still a big deal in 1958, with ease my grandmother would have
described as, “like grease through a goose.” Essentially a souped-up F-86,
the FJ-4 was sexy and built for speed, exactly the kind of aircraft to get a
“nugget” pilot like me in trouble. I soon obliged. The plane saw active
squadron duty for only four years, 1956 through 1959, but aviation writers of
the day considered her to be the best jet day-fighter in the world without an
afterburner. I couldn’t agree more. She was one sweet airplane ... and had an
1947, North American Aviation sold the Navy a jet follow-on to the company’s
famous P-51 Mustang. This straight-wing aircraft was designated the FJ-1. The
Air Force bought a swept-wing version designated the F-86 that was to gain
fame in the skies over Korea. The Navy soon recognized its mistake, bought
the Air Force version, and named it the FJ-2. That bird had problems around
the carrier, however, so fixes were installed to make a newer version, the
FJ-3. That one didn’t pan out well either.
the Navy did a major rework on the FJ-3. It enlarged the plane’s fuselage,
put in a larger engine (the J-65-W-16A with 7,700 pounds of thrust), and gave
it a “wet” wing by milling the wing out of a single piece of aluminum. (Thus,
the wing doubled as a fuel tank.) This new bird was the FJ-4 Fury. It entered
service in 1956.
1958, 222 of these fighters were modified; they got beefed up “hard points’
on the wings that permitted the aircraft to carry bombs and air-to-ground
missiles. These planes were dubbed the FJ-4B. A “dorsal fin” along the
aircraft’s spine marked the 4 and 4B models.
FJ-4 Fury was not my first fleet aircraft; I had to work up to it. In
November 1957, fresh from the U.S. Navy’s advanced jet flight syllabus in
Texas, I joined Attack Squadron Fifty Six at Naval Air Station Miramar, just
northeast of San Diego. When I checked in, the squadron was equipped with
Grumman F9F-8 Cougars, the same swept-wing jet I had flown back at Chase
Field in Texas.
was an “attack squadron,” so our primary job was to destroy ground targets;
mock dogfights were merely practice for our secondary mission. Conversely,
the “fighter squadrons” had primary responsibility for air-to-air, with a
backup air-to-ground mission. The distinction was blurry: we were flying
fighter planes in an attack role. (The Navy finally resolved the issue with
the F/A-18 fighter/attack aircraft.)
we were not on a weapons deployment to the desert, we pretty much had free
rein to do whatever we wished in the air. And what we wanted to do was aerial
combat. There were a lot of multi-plane battles fought to dubious conclusions
in the wide-open skies over southern California, but an Air National Guard
guy in an F-86 slipped in and whipped our tails regularly.
July 1958, VA-56 was issued new aircraft: the FJ-4B Fury. We all promptly
fell in love with the bird. Unlike the Grumman Cougar, this fighter was
supersonic. On my first flight in the Fury, I went Mach 1 accidentally and
had trouble believing the airspeed indicator. Now that we had a better bird,
we went looking for that Air National Guard guy in his F-86. He stayed away,
hunting Cougars no doubt.
I’ve said all these nice things about the Fury, I should add that she was a
mobile hydraulic leak. When you go out to pre-flight most planes, if you see
a pool of hydraulic fluid under it, you are not going to fly. With the FJ-4B,
if you could jump across the puddle, you flew it.
September, I made a deliberate try at a low-level Mach-1 “boom” and almost
got in serious trouble. I was leading a section of two FJ-4Bs with Ed, a
fellow nugget, flying my wing. It was another beautiful California day. As we
cruised around east of Los Angeles, I spotted a small mountain lake. We were
on squadron tactical frequency when I called my wingman. “Ed, hang on. I’m
going to make a supersonic pass low over that little lake to the north. We’ll
boom the fish.”
I pushed the throttle up and went into a
shallow dive towards the mountaintop that cradled the lake.
Ed came up. “Keep her subsonic, Brian. One of
my drop tanks is loose and vibrating.” That call probably saved my career.
"Wilco.” I throttled back and settled in
for a low altitude run at 0.97 Mach, barely under the speed of sound.
Treetops flashed beneath my wings, and I noticed that Ed had stepped up; he
was above me. (This was standard practice when the leader was close to the
surface.) We zipped across a dirt road.
It was beautiful. The lake was hidden behind
the trees now but would come into sight in a few seconds. There were houses
in the trees. Houses? I glanced in my starboard rear-view mirror and saw a
yellow school bus pull off the road into a ditch. I looked ahead and glimpsed
a real street ... with buildings.
Holy cow, this is “Big Bear.” I had a clear
vision of some admiral ripping the wings off my chest. But they had to catch
us first. We flashed past main street and then over the near shore of the
lake. I went down, right on the water. The lower we were, the harder it would
be for someone on the ground (or the water) to get the side number painted on
“Ed, when we clear that lip up ahead, I’m going
The lake is in a crater. Up ahead there was a
low lip of crater edge followed by a sheer drop off of several thousand feet.
We skimmed over the edge. I rolled inverted and pulled for the desert below.
Ed stuck like he was welded onto me. We bottomed out, and I led us south,
just under Mach 1, a few hundred feet above the ground. I wanted to be high
enough to talk to Miramar but low enough that radar couldn’t pull us out of
the ground clutter.
“Ed, I’m switching to Miramar Approach
I changed frequency and lied like hell; I
wanted to establish an alibi. “Miramar Approach, this is Champion
Four-Zero-Three, flight of two approaching the TACAN fix at twenty thousand.
Request a TACAN penetration and straight-in to a section landing.” The fix I
referenced was forty miles east of Miramar. We were a hundred miles north of
that position and about nineteen thousand feet lower.
“Roger Champ Four-Zero-Three. You are cleared.
Squawk Mode Three, Code Twenty-three-hundred. We do not have you on radar.”
The “squawk” was a setting for my IFF (Identification, Friend or Foe) radar
“Wilco, Approach. Squawking.” I wasn’t
squawking. We were now about fifty miles from the TACAN approach fix, racing
south along the east edge of the mountains.
“Champion Four-Zero-Three, check your squawk.
We still do not have you on radar.”
“Wilco, Approach. Maybe your radar is out.”
“We’ll check it, Champ Four-Zero-Three. What is
“We’re at the TACAN fix, twenty thousand,
commencing our descent.” We were now thirty miles from there, wending our way
up through the mountains, still at low altitude. Given our low altitude, I
was amazed that Approach Control could hear me, and I could hear them. The
radio was silent for a couple of minutes.
“Champion Four-Zero-Three. Our radar appears to
be functioning normally, but we still do not paint you. Say your position.”
“We’re five miles out, descending through one
thousand feet. Request clearance to land.” We really were about five miles
out now, but we were still on the deck and still at high speed. I gave the
signal to Ed, popped the speed brakes, and ballooned up to a thousand feet.
“Roger, Four-Zero-Three. We have you now. You
are cleared to land. Sorry about our radar. Don’t understand the problem.”
“No sweat, Approach. Thanks.” I signaled Ed
again, dropped the landing gear, lowered the flaps, and landed. Ed stayed
right on my wing through touchdown and roll out. I pushed my oxygen mask out
of the way and gave Ed a big grin and thumbs up. We had pulled it off. When
we cleared the runway, I signaled Ed and switched to Ground Control
The radio growled. “Champion Four-Zero-Three,
this is Ground Control. The base operations officer wants you to report to
him as soon as you shut down. Understood?”
Damn. “Wilco, Ground.” I looked over at Ed. He
made a face.
minutes later I snapped to attention in the doorway of the NAS Miramar
operations officer and did the knuckle rap on the doorframe. The ops boss
looked up from his papers and glowered at me. “You Ensign Bryans?”
“Get in here.”
“Yes, sir.” I stepped up to his desk.
“Mister, you have flown your last flight. I’m
going to make an example of you. We’re about to yank your wings so fast you
won’t know you ever had them.”
"Sir ... why?”
“Why? For killing chickens that’s why. Over a
thousand of them.”
“Chickens, sir? Where?”
“Over by Yuma, that’s where! As you damn well
know! You and your wingman did a supersonic pass so low over some farmer’s
chicken coop that over a thousand chickens dropped dead.”
“Yuma? Sir, we weren’t anywhere near Yuma.”
(This was true.)
“Oh yeah? Well, Mister, where were you?”
“Umm ...” My alibi might be worse than the
crime of which I was accused. So I lied again. “We were doing high work over
the Salton Sea, sir.”
“Can you prove that, mister?”
“I guess not, sir. But you have my word of
honor that we did not kill any chickens near Yuma.”
“We’ll see about that. I have a call in to your
commanding officer, and I’m about to start an investigation. You’re grounded
until I get to the bottom of this.”
I got to the squadron ready room, the skipper was hanging up the phone on the
duty officer’s desk. Ed was next to him, looking poorly. The skipper shook
his head and went into his office. Ed and I sat and waited.
An hour later the phone rang. The duty officer
answered it, listened, and then handed the receiver to me.
I swallowed and said, “Ensign Bryans.”
“This is the operations officer. I have good
news for you. You’re in the clear.”
I glanced at Ed and gave him thumbs up. “Yes,
sir. Thank you, sir.”
“Yeah, well, sorry I ripped into you like that.
It turns out that a witness in Yuma got the tail number of one of the chicken
killers. They were two National Guard types in F-86s.”
practiced carrier landings at Miramar for a big chunk of October. We flew a
left-hand racetrack pattern at five hundred feet that led to the left runway;
normal traffic stayed above us and used the right runway. Then, on October
28, I flew aboard Kearsarge (CVA 33) off San Diego. The FJ-4 came aboard at
130 plus knots, a whole lot faster than the old SNJ trainer I had qualified
in, but the plane was a sweetheart around the ship, and our day traps were no
big deal. Not so my first catapult shot.
Kearsarge was equipped with two of the old H-8
hydraulic catapults. To prepare for launch, you taxied onto the start of a
225-foot slot in the carrier’s deck that was the catapult track. A “bridle” made
up of inch-thick steel wires was hooked to one point on each side of the
plane’s fuselage (near the main mounts) and into the curved mouth on the
front of the “shuttle” plate that rode the slot in the carrier’s deck. The
shuttle was attached to a piston situated in a long tube under the cat track.
The “holdback” fitting, a piece of ceramic that
looked very much like a weight lifter’s dumbbell, was slipped into a slot
under the plane’s tail and attached to the deck with another steel cable. The
shuttle was then “tensioned”: hydraulics moved it forward until the bridle
was taut. At this point, the plane squatted from the forward pressure of the
shuttle fighting against the strength of the holdback fitting. A huge, steel
blast deflector located a few feet behind the plane was then raised up at a
When the crew was ready to shoot you off the
bow, the yellow-shirted catapult officer stepped over in front of your wing
to prove to you that you would not be fired off until you were ready. He then
raised one arm over his head and twirled two fingers. You shoved the throttle
forward to a hundred percent power and grabbed a small metal rod that stuck
out of the cockpit wall slightly ahead of the throttle. You held the throttle
head and that metal rod together in your left hand to make sure that your
hand, and the throttle, didn’t fly backwards when the cat fired.
After a quick check of the engine instruments,
you gave the cat officer a salute with your right hand. Then you tucked your
right elbow into your gut and set your hand behind the stick; you didn’t want
it to come back in your lap on the cat shot.
The cat officer stepped away from in front of
your wing and, fingers still twirling over his head, did a quick check of
your path to make sure it was clear. Then he did a ballet-like, sweeping
motion that took him down on one knee, face and arm towards the bow. His
outstretched fingers touched the deck ... and the cat fired.
It was in that instant that the hydraulic
catapult distinguished itself from the more modern steam catapult. The “slug”
that caught the shuttle and pushed you down the catapult track started from a
point about twenty feet behind your plane. It had accelerated to full bore by
the time it picked up the shuttle and you on its way to the end of the track
and a final speed of about 165 mph. When this force hit you, the holdback
fitting snapped in two; it didn’t even slow the shuttle down.
The first time this happened, I blacked out. I
woke up about sixty feet above the water ... flying. I was so thrilled by
this unexpected and wild event that I keyed the UHF radio button and yelled,
And I blacked out the next time. It didn’t
affect everyone like that, but I blacked out momentarily almost every time
that I was fired from a hydraulic cat. This was even more of a thrill at
night, but that was still in the future.
practice for our air-to-ground role, we periodically carried a “shape,” a
blue fake bomb the approximate size and weight of one of the nuclear weapons
we were expected to drop if the “balloon went up.” This turned out to be a
problem with the FJ-4B; the aircraft was so low slung that we had to carry
the dummy bomb on a wing station. And it was heavy. This caused the aircraft
to swerve towards that wing as we accelerated down the runway. To compensate,
we started at the edge of the runway, cocked off at an angle. The bird slowly
swung towards the heavy wing, and the runway heading, as we gained speed. If
we did this right, the rudder would become effective about the time that we
were pointed in the right direction. We could then hold runway heading until
the FJ-4 became airborne. (We never tried this on a catapult.) The obvious
solution was to carry two nukes, but the Navy never bought that idea.
January 1959 the squadron was issued another new airplane: twelve brand new
Douglas A4D-1s arrived. As great as the FJs were, their stubby legs were not
really compatible with our nuclear weapons mission, so the Navy replaced our
beloved FJ-4Bs with twelve spindly-legged, delta-winged A4D-1s. These birds
were tall enough to carry a nuke under the centerline.
Some of us got to fly both the FJ-4Bs and the
A4Ds that month, and we spent the time testing them against each other over
southern California. We concluded the FJ-4B was a superior fighter above
fifteen thousand feet, but that delta wing on the A4D made it the better bird
at low altitude. And low was where we intended to operate. Adios FJ-4B.
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