Back in the old days, most mistakes that did not cost lives or expensive machines were treated as "training opportunities." Today they are career ending disasters!
Here is the story in the pilot's own words. Judge for yourself:
At 130 knots, I relaxed the forward stick pressure I'd held to keep from bouncing during take-off roll. Then, of its own accord the Crusader LEAPT INTO THE AIR WITH ITS NOSE MOVING UP . . F-A-S-T !
Using the trim button on the stick, I put in nose down trim along with a strong right arm and stopped it at about 15 degrees nose up. Then with both hands and the full strength of my shoulders,
back. arms and hands, I muscled the Crusader's nose down to 7-8 degrees above the artificial horizon . . in the dark night.
The whole aircraft was buffeting. What's the hell is wrong ? I might have to ' get out ' of this thing ! I know this damn Martin Baker seat could break my back, or crack a vertebra. For the second
time, in less than an hour, my pucker factor was approaching the 90% range. I'm a l00 feet into the air. Things aren't getting better. University City ahead . . . lots of homes . . I need to move to the
right ! I led in a little right aileron.
The F-8 Crusader didn't like that . . and instantly half-snap rolled onto its back . . with its landing gear sticking straight up in the air.
So now I'm inverted and too low to eject. With a careful input of left aileron and left rudder I corrected back.
It's coming back . . much too quick !
I badly over-shot a recovery half-roll. There were several weird oscillations before I finally settled it down to a semblance of wings level. I called out on the radio : " Miramar Tower. This is
NJ207. I have some serious control problems. I may have to get out." I was surprised how calm I sounded. I thought it sounded pretty damned cool, considering that inverted business a few
seconds before the call. The reply from the tower was like someone stabbed me in the chest with a sharp ' ice pick.'
" Roger . .
your wings are S T I L L F O L D E D !
" My WHAT are W-H-A-T ? "
There went all my cool and calm. And there went the radio discipline . . out the window - no call sign - no addressee. It had been replaced by terror's edge. I glanced into the Crusader's rear view
mirrors only to see the wing tip position lights sticking straight up into the air. They must have folded up during take-off roll. Surely I had unfolded my wings. I ALWAYS unfold the wings . . it's RIGHT
THERE on my take-off CHECK LIST !
By now I doing 180 knots, and easing off power. But nothing felt right. And the plane was still buffeting badly. I reached back to check the position of the wing fold control handle. Instead of being
stowed flat, the handle was sticking straight up ! To no one, I yelled an expletive. Again, I glanced into the rear view mirrors. The wing tip position lights were actually canted inward above the remaining
wing stubs ! Airloads had failed the wingfold mechanism to allow the outer wing halves to almost lay down on top of the fixed wing stubs. The Crusader had a 35 ft. wing span. I had (6) six feet [ of
each wing ] lying upside down on each stub. What was keeping her in the air ?
I eased right to avoid University City. By using additional rudder and less aileron and I managed to hit no more than 45 degrees of roll. My mind was racing; and everything seemed to be moving in
I clearly recalled a flying safety article describing another pilot's similar screw-up. Although fear was really pumping my adrenaline , I was able to remember, almost verbatim, another pilot who'd
taken off with his wings folded. The safety article's bottom line was to NOT ATTEMPT TO ' MESS ' WITH THE WINGS . . by trying to fold them down during flight.
About that time, George came up on tower frequency, and asked : " Ron. This is you buddy, George. How are you doing ? " My answer was short and sweet, " It's still flying." And we went on to
discuss a necessarily higher traffic pattern speed . . 180 knots on approach . . then about 170 all the way down to the runway's surface . . use 160 for touchdown. Of course, everything depended
on intuitively flying the airplane within its seriously hampered control.
We discussed lowering the landing hook to assist because of the faster approach speeds and possible lost hydraulics [ including the brakes ] due to damaged wing fold mechanism. I really didn't
want to lower the hook. The extra expense of grinding down the hook could turn an incident into a reportable accident. If the hook wasn't down, and I rolled off edge of the runway, George reminded
me that I wasn't going to look good in the head work department in front of a review board. I reluctantly agreed that I had already screwed up enough. I figured George was giving me good advice.
Besides, letting him help me with the thought process relieved my stress load. But it was imperative to relax my authority and to continue using my own overloaded brain. I put down the hook.
It now occurred to me that I had violated a personal rule, to never stay in an aircraft that was in serious trouble. But it also dawned on me that if I wiped-out this Crusader, this stupid scenario
would be known to the entire U.S Naval Aviation community . . within 24 hours.
I slowed the Crusader down a bit, while I was strongly focusing on its new flying characteristics. If I had to get out, I would definitely try to rotate upright before ejection. At this low altitude,
I could very easily strike the ground before seat separation and successful parachute opening.
Pucker factor was still high.
The F-8 had an especially long fuselage; that was the reason the entire Crusader wing was designed to pivot up allowing the long fuselage to be additionally parallel to the ground for landing.
Because the outer wing was folded,the remaining wing stubs would produce much less lift. I would be forced to hold the Crusader's nose higher than normal for this landing. Combined with the long
fuselage problem, I thought there was a chance I would hit the runway tail first . . unless I correctly finessed the limited [ and flaky ] controls.
I decided to make a landing with significant additional power. Then, just before touchdown, I planned to ease the stick forward, bring the nose down, and reduce the possibility of a tail strike.
If I pulled off this ' quasi-test ' pilot type landing, that effort should also keep the F-8 from developing an excessive sink rate during the final moments.
It worked out like magic ! After touchdown, I slammed into the runway's arresting gear. The hook caught the wire and the aircraft came quickly to a stop. The flight had taken only seven minutes.
After the hook was disengaged, I was able to taxi to the ramp area. I parked the airplane . . where every unoccupied pilot and enlisted man was waiting to find out if the wings hadby folded accident
. . or if I'd screwed up. Most of their faces looking at me seemed to be thinking : " Man . . I'm sure glad it wasn't me . . or any of my pilots ] "
The O.D. told me that he'd notified the Commanding Officer, CDR. Paul Gilchrist and that he wanted me to call him. Immediately. I felt scared and somehow betrayed. I'd known he would find
out; hell, the Skipper found out everything ! That was part of his job. But this soon, I was not at all prepared to discuss it.
I dialed the Skipper's number and he picked up on the first ring. " Skipper, this is Ron Lambe." He asked quickly and calmly, " Are you all right ? And how is my airplane ? "
" Well Sir, the piano hinge on the top of the wing fold is bent and the wing fold mechanism is broken. Otherwise, she looks O.K."
The Skipper surprised me asking me to call my wife saying I was through flying for the night and on my way home. The purpose of the call was to [ preempt ] any of the news media calling her for
the story. Man, this guy was sharp; I wouldn't have thought of that. Then he said, " Ron, I'm glad you are alright. You just go home and get some sleep. We'll talk about this in the morning. Be in
my office at 0800." Although it was o'dark thirty in the morning when I arrived home, I told my wife everything. And as all good Navy wives do, she sympathetically listened. Before sleep rescued me
I stared at the bedroom ceiling until about 0400.
Morning came quickly. But I was out the door on time. I certainly didn't want to be late ! I knocked on the Skipper's door promptly at 0800, then marched in smartly and stood at attention saying :
" LT. JG Lambe reporting as ordered, sir. " " Get any sleep ? " he asked calmly.
" No Sir. I was kinda wound up." He questioned : " You want to tell me how this happened ? " He listened intently to every word, then asked,' Learn anything ?' " Yes, Sir. Never take-off with-
out going through the Take-Off Checklist !"
" Ron, you have learned a very valuable lesson that will serve you well in the future. You really got out cheap. And I'm really glad you're O.K. See if the O.D. can spare an aircraft for you to
fly." Dumbfounded . . I said, " YES SIR ! " as I saluted sharply and marched out of his office.
CDR Gilchrist turned out to be the best Skipper I'd had in the Navy. A few years later he was deservedly promoted to Admiral. I don't believe his intuitive quality of leadership can be taught.
[ abridged ]