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Introduction

This story, lifted from my memoir Flying Low, appeared in the March 2009 edition of the magazine
Aviation History.

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 interesting pedigree.

In 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.

Then 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.

In 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.

The 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.

VA-56 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.)

When 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.

In 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.

Since 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.

In 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.”
     “Roger that.”
     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 our planes.
     “Ed, when we clear that lip up ahead, I’m going down.”
     “Roger.”
     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 Control.”
     “Roger.”
     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 responder.
     “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 your position?”
     “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 frequency.
     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.

Twenty 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?”
     “Yes, sir.”
     “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.”

When 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.”

We 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 steep angle.
     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, “Yah-hoo!”
     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.

To 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.

In 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.

To Visit Other Pages

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·        Arizona Grit (A Novel)

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·        Peso (Historical Fiction)

·        Those '67 Blues (A Novel)

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·        Flying Lucky (True Stories)

·        Flight to Redemption (A Novel)

·        Brannigan Rides Again (A Novel)

·        Saga of the Desert (An Old Poem)

·        NAVCAD Class 10-56 (An Anthology)

·        Flying on Fabric (True Flying Stories)

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