A Reader Comments: When The Time Comes To Jump. . .
Norbert, 11 February 2008
During my flight training a girl friend asked me if the Navy gave us parachute-jumping instructions. I said “no.” She said, “why not?” That got me thinking. We had learned how to strap on parachutes and learned where the rip-cord handle was located. And we were told to count ten after jumping from the plane before pulling the ripcord. That was it. No practice jumps were included.
Later, I asked the instructor why this training seemed so sketchy. Sternly he said, “There is no need to practice anything that you need to do perfectly the first time.” That was sort of a dead end. So I didn’t give the matter much more thought, because I was still training on seaplanes over water around Pensacola, where you could land safely anytime if an engine failed.
In due course, I got my Navy wings, my commission and orders to report to Naval Air Station New York. Things changed. Now I was to be flying over land all the time. But, since I'd never had an engine failure and didn’t know anyone who had, the thought of leaving an aircraft via parachute was dormant.
That changed on a bright and sunny fall day. The year was 1943. The weather was pretty clear across the country. My assignment was to fly a brand new Chance Vought Corsair (F4U) from NAS New York to Navy North Island, the huge air station at San Diego. Objective: Get the this fighter to the war in the Pacific ASAP, and get back to New York pronto so you can do it again and again and again.
A piece of cake, I thought, beginning a check-out of this monster a 15,000 pound Navy fighter with a 2,200 horsepower engine and graceful inverted gull wings. This checkout consisted of  reading the how-to-fly-it book the manufacturer had written,  finding out how the instrument panel was laid out and where the various controls for the landing gear, flaps, and whatever emergency controls might be there. Then there was the radio how to make it work under various conditions. And, oh yes, the warnings from other pilots about the nasty tricks these Corsairs delivered to pilots on each and every landing.
I shot a few scary practice landings, which introduced me to the nasty flight characteristics of the machine, one of which was the abrupt stalling of the left wing. This was disconcerting because the right wing would keep flying while the left did not, causing the plane to rotate suddenly. Thus the consequences could be dire if the machine was flying close to the ground.
With the plane fully fueled, I filed my flight plan to the first stop, Knoxville, TN. Not until I was in the cockpit with my parachute strapped on was I told that in addition to the main gas tank, this particular plane had fully filled wing tanks. I looked around for the gas gages. There were none. So it was to be guess work.
The takeoff went well. I climbed to 8,000 feet quickly, leveled out, trimmed up and took a heading that would take me over Philadelphia, Baltimore, Washington and to the Marine base at Quantico where I would turn right for Knoxville via Roanoke. At that point, using the gas-tank-selector valve I switched from the main tank to the left wing tank because I wanted to burn off as much weight as I could on the left side. Loafing along at about 300 mph (of the 425 mph possible), it didn’t take long to get to Quantico. I changed course and switched the gas tank from the left wing tank to the right wing tank and made a note of the time. The countryside in that area is what we aviators call hostile steep rolling hills densely covered with trees hardly suitable for a forced landing. But up here all seemed well.
Until eleven minutes later, that is, when, without warning, the engine quit cold. By reflex I shoved the nose down to maintain air speed and switched the gas supply to the main tank. Nothing happened. Then I turned on the electric fuel pump, normally used only for takeoffs and landings. Nothing happened. Finally, in desperation, I pumped the throttle and the mixture control. Nothing happened. Then, suddenly, the engine burst into action and back to normal power. As it did, I became aware that my hand was on the lever that opened the cockpit enclosure, a sure sign that instinct was telling me to bail out.
Collecting myself, I noted that in the short time the engine was idle, I had lost more than 2,000 feet. Had I been flying at 2,000 feet instead of 8,000, the result, obviously, would have been very different. I decided to get the machine on the ground ASAP. I landed at Lynchburg, VA, where experienced navy mechanics found nothing wrong. To me, that was not good news, because it meant that whatever was wrong was still wrong.
I spent the night in Lynchburg to calm down. The next day I headed west. The day after that I delivered the plane in San Diego with notes in the log book warning whoever would fly this beast about potential mishaps.
As for me, I hadn't learned anything new. The experience only emphasized what I already knew: