16 March, 2008

Living History

I went over to the Midway Museum early on Friday for the Vets for Freedom event and found one of the best parts of a visit to the old girl--a docent who served on Midway when she was active. Larry Renner was a naval aviator, 1951-1974, with a 1967-68 tour in Vietnam, just as the Vietnamese (with Chinese and Russian support) were getting good at shooting down Americans.

He must be nearly eighty, but displays the enthusiastic energy of a 50-year-old. I encountered him after one of his formal presentations about landing on a carrier, standing there on the flight deck with one or two people who wanted to hear more. From my questions and responses to his stories, he quickly realized I knew more than the average visitor and soon focused on me almost exclusively, eyes lit and hands flying as his stories got more detailed and hairy (described losing guys on his Vietnam tour--hearing them on their radios after ejecting over enemy land and not being able to get to them as they were killed, and those who ended up as POWs for years).

Among other things, he told of an F-8 cold cat shot from the deck perspective, and his own experience of losing a canopy due to cockpit over-pressure on a maintenance flight while 300 miles off the Philippine Islands. In a gradual climb at about 18,000 feet, he had suddenly lost consciousness; woke up at 20,000 feet without a canopy and still climbing.

The biggest problem was that the tremendous wind now screaming through the cockpit had moved the face curtain almost to the point of activation. He tried to raise his hand along side his neck and head and reach out to adjust it, but the wind nearly ripped his arm off. All he could do was pray that he wasn't going to suddenly eject hundreds of miles from the nearest land.

The wind also prevented him from hearing any of the replies to his Mayday calls. But then again, nobody welcomes an airplane that could be pilot-less the moment it hits the deck of his ship (Renner was concerned that the jarring of a carrier landing would be the final straw that would active the ejection system).

So, he flew all 300 miles back to the Islands without a canopy and as slowly as possible, hunkered down into the cockpit as low as he could get. But he said the worst part was that every single minute he was in the air, he was sure he was going to be ejected and lost at sea. Amazingly, he was able to land the plane softly enough that the ejection seat never activated.

He also described moving from the single-engine Crusader to the F-4 Phantom: "Two engines? That's for me!"

And he told great stories of flying with the predecessor to the TOPGUN school--he'd just about master an airframe, taking all comers... only to be bumped into a new one that was getting stomped in combat maneuvers. "Here Larry, let's see what you can do with this." I got the impression he enjoyed the challenge while resenting the damage such changes did to his "kill" record.

He said, "We got a MiG from somewhere, who knows..." and a squadron mate theorized a technique for getting a MiG off a Crusader's (IIRC) tail, which had seemed to be impossible in MiG vs. Crusader encounters--he figured you could pull the stick hard down and left with full right rudders on the Crusader to make the thing tumble without stalling. Larry had observed the first time it was tried in mock dogfights, and described the result to me with hands waving and eyes shining: the MiG blew right past the Crusader and into the Crusader's sights. Game over. He was excited to have been able to press that bit of info out to the frontline squadrons who were struggling with the MiGs.

So I sat there for nearly an hour on the flight deck of a carrier with a front-row seat to a personal presentation of endless flying stories from someone who'd done several hundred takeoffs and landings on that very ship. I finally had to tear myself away and go do what I was supposed to be doing, while he continued to talk to others who had gathered behind me.

I almost wish I hadn't left to go do what I had to do. He was an endless font of frightening and joyous flying stories. If I'd stayed, I suspect we'd still be sitting there today... him talking and me listening.

Just. Awesome.