by LT. CDR. GERALD G. O’ROURKE
LATE one night in May, 1953, two U.S. Navy AD Skyraiders were droning through a murky A haze some hundred miles off the Atlantic coast, on what is called in press releases “a routine night training flight” from the U.S.S. Franklin D. Roosevelt, one of the Navy’s crack attack carriers. The pilot in the first plane suddenly heard a worried call from his wingman. “Bill, are you turning right?” The voice was that of Lt.(jg) Ian (Scotty) Frazier, the pilot of the second Skyraidcr, a scant 50 to 100 feet away. The question sounded a mental alarm well known to all experienced night fliers. Scotty was having vertigo trouble, the demon disease of the mind that has killed hundreds of excellent, pilots. Bill checked his artificial horizon to be certain, then answered in soft, urging tones, “Straight and level, Scotty. Are my lights too bright? Over.”
“No, they’re OK, I guess,” came the hesitant answer. “I’m having a little trouble here. Seems like we’re turning right. I think my gyros have tumbled.”
Even as the panic-edged words came through, Bill saw Scotty’s plane fall back and down, then rush up, fall back, and disappear behind and below. In a twinkling, Scotty dropped out of sight, as Bill broadcast a rapid “Scotty, Scotty, level off, level off. Do you read me? Do you read me?”
As Bill released his mike button, the frantic rush of Scotty’s breath was heard for an instant, then — silence. Suddenly the water’s surface, 2000 feet below, was exposed in a blinding flash several miles to Bill’s port side. Old man vertigo had taken another good flier to a watery grave, along with two young crewmen.
What is this killer? Why should a pilot with years of training and study suddenly become helpless and inept and unable to keep his aircraft on its way? Why should it strike one pilot, yet leave many others untouched, even in identical situations? The old-timers scoff. Those ancient pioneers of flight, who never heard of an instrument, who flew always by the “seat of the pants,” may chalk it up to newfangled training. But the fact is that the old-timers who really experienced vertigo just aren’t here any more. They have long since become another fatality statistic.
What, then, is this mystery?
For the answer, let’s go for a literary ride in a Navy Banshee night fighter, the F2H-4. Let’s say you are aboard the U.S.S. Lake Champlain in the Mediterranean Sea, off Malta, and that the night is black and rainy. Turbulent seas rock the “Champ ” like a toy boat. Way up forward, lashed to the catapult with heavy cables, is our plane, gassed, checked, and ready for a “routine night training mission.” You climb aboard, anchoring yourself to the plane with seat belt and safety harness, leaving only arms, legs, and head free for movement. A plastic helmet covers your head, and an oxygen mask is snug across the bridge of your nose and around the point of your chin. Only your eyes are uncovered.
In a semicircle around you is a maze of buttons, dials, panels, switches, and knobs, all of which you should know as familiarly as the headlight switch on your five-year-old sedan. Directly in front are the newfangled gadgets that make flying in this weather possible. There’s an altimeter, an air speed indicator, a turn and bank needle, a gyro horizon directly ahead of you. Why the choice location? Because that’s the little dandy that tells you where the horizon is; or, more exactly, it tells you which way is up. It is, of course, your most important single aid and your life insurance against old man vertigo.
The myriad other dials all have their jobs to do, their stories to tell. There are engine gauges for the speed of the two whining jet engines nestled in your wings; thermometers for measuring the temperature of the roaring fires in your tail pipes; a radio altimeter, to tell you the height above water; three compasses, to tell you where you’re headed; and countless other dials. On your left console is a very complicated panel, the controls for the large round scope on the right side of your instrument panel. This is your airborne radar, the ultimate in American electronic wizardry. The radar will look ahead for you, seeing ships, planes, weather, land, and sea miles ahead in the blackness.
By now you’ve gone through all your preflight checks, started both engines, and given the ready signal to the dark shadow on the deck. Suddenly a green light appears, waving wildly. You push your throttles forward, brace your legs and arms, check your gauges once again, then reach back and flick on your running lights. All around you a blue, green, and white haze springs up, reflections of your outside lights and the rain. Now you brace your head and fasten your gaze on the gyro horizon, and Bang! — dials, gauges, and lights go crazy while you are held immobile by the G force of a catapult shot. Without thinking, you reach forward, flip up the gear handle, close the canopy, start milking the flaps up, a bit at a time, to keep you from settling back to the water some 80 feet below. Your eyes are subconsciously scanning the dials now — air speed 170, building fast; altitude 100 feet on the radio altimeter; 0 on the pressure altimeter; wings are level, nose quite high, needle centered, ball slightly left—a hangover from prop days when a strong right foot on the rudder was necessary at slow speeds and high powers to keep the engine torque from rolling you into a left bank. Right thumb pushes forward on the trim button, evening the control pressures as you accelerate to jet speeds. Eyes back to the gyro horizon, a little left stick to center those artificial wings. Lots of speed now, 250 knots, altitude 500 feet, and everything is becoming normal as you turn to an assigned heading and start your climb. The radar shows a sweep and even a few targets, other ships in the force.
Suddenly a thought strikes you: you haven’t let your eyes stray for even an instant’s glance at the windshield or the canopy; you haven’t looked outside at all! Now you try it, just for kicks. Nothing — absolutely nothing but dark gray clouds all around you and the glow of your outside lights through the haze. You resume your instrument scanning now. Even in that momentary glance outside, your Banshee has strayed into a 20-degree bank to port. Impossible, you think, but you ease in the necessary aileron and watch the little artificial airplane again resume its level position. As you do, though, you don’t feel right. You feel, “in the seat of your pants,” that you are in a small bank to starboard. You check the gauge again — level, as before. There’s a moment of panic. Is the gauge bad? A lightning glance at the needle ball says “No!” since both are centered. You still feel more and more that you are falling to the right. What is it? Vertigo! Your first taste of real, honest-to-goodness night-fighter vertigo.
You laugh to yourself at being taken in so easily, blink your eyes, shake your head, and the feeling of falling is gone as suddenly as it came.
On you climb, up past 10-, 15-, 20,000 feet. The plane bounces and rocks. A rapid tattoo of washboard bumps tells you that you are passing through some heavy cumulus clouds. You glance at your wings and notice that your wing lights are no longer visible through the haze. A bit later you notice out of the corner of your eye a high white glow — the moon, a mere sliver made foggy by the cloud layers above you.
Thirty thousand feet now. The moon becomes clearer, and directly overhead a few stars begin to show. But ahead is still nothing. True, a much lighter nothingness than back at the carrier, but still nothing. At 32,000 feet you break out into a blue-black sky glorious with bright, bright starlight. The moon is clear and sharp, and a distinct horizon is visible all around. You breathe a sigh of relief and let your eyes feast on the wonder and the beauty of the night.
AN HOUR or so later, your hop is almost completed. The important part — the “mission” part — is finished. All that now remains is for you to descend through 32,000 feet of clouds and plant your 16,000 pounds of airplane in an area the size of a football field, at a speed of nearly 150 miles per hour. You head for the carrier’s position, relying on your radar and other instruments. You cross the carrier’s zenith, turn to a heading of East, throw a switch which thrusts out your speed brakes — flat, perforated slats which extend from your wings, slowing you down. You pull back your throttles, ease over your nose, and down you go, plunging back into the turbulent clouds — 25-, now 24-, now 22,000; start your turn. The blackness has closed in once more. The plane buffets and shakes as the speed brakes do their work — 20-, 18-, 16,000; now stop your turn and head inbound toward the ship. Your radar picks out a small blob ahead some 20 miles, slightly off to port.
Suddenly, as you pass through 10,000 feet, the radio crackles with a message for you, “ Your signal is DOG.” Immediately, as you answer your order with a “Wilco,” you level off, and cut one engine completely, for the message tells you in one word not to come down, but to circle the ship close by and await further instructions. It means difficulties below, perhaps a mere problem of lights or further turns to bring the “Champ” into a capricious wind. It might mean that rare occurrence, a crash on deck — an ever-present fear. At any rate, the ship is directly below you somewhere, just on the other side of two solid miles of weather. Now you set up a pattern, cross the ship’s position on any heading, turn right, reverse directions, level off, cruise for a minute, turn again, recross the ship, and so on, waiting until someone says “Charlie,” which means “Land — and right now,”
Things are really under control as you go through the pattern, cruising slowly and economically on one engine. Your eyes ceaselessly scan one instrument and another. Suddenly—trouble strikes. The lights go out. You instinctively reach for a familiar switch, throw it, and the entire cockpit is drenched in the sickly red glow of the emergency floodlights. Much harder to sec the instruments now, but at least they are visible. You force your attention back to the gauges.
The gyro horizon shows a 45-degree bank. It couldn’t be—the plane feels straight and level. You check the needle ball. Right! It shows a steep left turn. You force the stick to the right, much against your inner impulse to leave it centered. 5 ou feel yourself and the plane falling to the right. You center the stick. The gyro horizon still shows a 30degree bank to port. Could that thing be haywire? Did the short which blew your lights also ruin your gyro horizon? It’s so hard to see properly in this ghastly light. Impossible that the two circuits could both be affected, you tell yourself, but the subconscious fear grows that you are “chasing a bad gauge.”
You again throw the stick over to the right, and it seems to take superhuman strength. “That’s wrong, it should roll easily,” you remind yourself. You glance at the compass — twirling rapidly. “Good Lord, what now?” Vertigo, that’s what it is. A glance at the altimeter affirms your worst fear
— 9000 feet, descending rapidly. You realize once more what a fool you’ve been as you fight to level the plane from its left “graveyard spiral.” You haven’t been believing your gauges and you’ve almost allowed old man vertigo to chalk you off. You’ve let the “seat of your pants” almost fly you right into Davy Jones’s Air Wing. Close your eyes, shake your head, get on those gauges and stay on them. Rock the plane left and right, get the proper feel. There you are now, straight and level, and there’s a radio message for you.
“Charlie,” crackles the UHF radio. Light off the engine, descend, turn toward the ship. At 500 feet you break out under the dark scud, into a rainy but fairly clear area. Ahead about a mile is the ship, with lights blazing. You turn to match the ship’s heading, drop your landing gear, flaps, and tail hook. As you pass the ship at 300 feet, you go back to the gauges, for now you must fly the instruments to sheer perfection. Lower gently, down to 200 feet, start the turn to port, the infamous upwind turn which calls for the most precise piece of instrument flying that any aviator can perform. You can’t be fast, can’t be slow, can’t be high, can’t be low. Your plane is sluggish and dirty at this slow speed, yet you must guide it within fine tolerances, all on the gauges alone.
Ahead is blackness. To look aft to the lights of the ship is pure suicide, since there is no horizon behind them to offer a reference point. You complete the turn, steady out on the downwind leg, drop lower to about 125 feet, glance at the lights of the ship, judge your turning point, and slow down even more. Your tolerances now are even closer, your speed and altitude less, but you have some measure of reference from the ship’s lights ahead to port. A fleeting glance at the gyro horizon is enough. Here the altimeter and air speed are the vital instruments, but ironically you must rely heavily on the “seat of the pants” feeling to make a good approach. You must keep your eyes away from the instruments, peer forward, pick out your correct line-up for a landing and search for the “paddles.” Instead of flags, as you would sec in daylight, signaling from the Landing Signal Officer, you now see lights in the form of a man’s skeleton, with the outline of the paddles rimmed with small Christmastree bulbs. The LSO’s job is to help you fly the plane to that single spot astern, at the exact speed and exact altitude where he can give you a cut — at which point you must pull off the throttles and gently ease the plane into a milky-white red-rimmed pool of light which marks the landing area.
This is it — too much forward stick and you’ll hit like a ton of bricks, driving the landing gear through the wings and demolishing a half million dollars’ worth of taxpayers’ aircraft and radar. If the hook misses a wire in that instant of contact, you may be flung back into the air, to crash into wire and nylon barriers and barricades, or perhaps to settle in a stall over a side into the black cold waters. Not enough forward stick may be worse, for you will then “float” up the deck, tail hook dangling futilely inches above the waiting wires. The term “float” is a glorious misnomer, for you are actually traveling across the deck at about 100 miles per hour of relative speed. The end result is the same — barriers, barricades, and a mangled airplane.
You neither “dive for the deck” nor “hold off,” however, and the landing is “uneventful.” That means a shuddering, slamming, tooth-rattling wire engagement and deceleration as the plane comes to a halt. It’s all over now, save for the taxiing and climbing out — all over until tomorrow night.
THE plane captain clambers up the side of your parked plane, helping to release you from the webbing and belts, “How did it go, sir?” he asks, just to be friendly. You nonchalantly answer, “Routine — nice weather up on top.” But an hour or two later, while unwinding over cigarettes and codec in the wardroom, you tell all to the gray, balding, bright-eyed man at your side. “Had quite a tussle in vertigo alley tonight.”
The gray head bobs slowly in a comrade’s true sympathy, while the eyes crinkle ever so slightly. You give him all the details, since he is your skipper, a veteran of several hundred landings like the one you just made.
“Nothing to be ashamed of,” he says; “happens to the best of them.’ Then he tells of Lt. Col. Bob Conrad, USMC, one of the Marine Corps’s finest aviators, who, with some 4000 hours of transport flying behind him, wangled his way into the Marines’ night jet program and ultimately came to command VMF(N) 513, one of the most famous of all night-flying squadrons, during the closing months of the Korean War.
Bob Conrad had logged so many instrument hours in transports that he no longer bothered to keep track of them. But in the night jet program he had to learn instrument flying all over again — the hard way. At that time, VMF(N) 513 was doing yeoman service flying night-fighter escort for the Air Force B-29 strikes deep into North Korea. On one of his first missions, Bob was jumped from behind by a Commie night MIG.
When Bob’s radar operator, a youthful Marine technical sergeant named Cohaskie, reported the tail contact, Bob threw the plane into a violent right bank and pulled for all he was worth. From there on he wasn’t quite sure exactly what happened, but as nearly as he could reconstruct it later, he performed, in rapid succession, a 720-degree turn to the right (twice around), a split S (the bottom half of a loop), a half loop, followed by an inverted spin, normal spin, progressive high-speed stalls, and high-Mach buffet (the shaking and shuddering of an aircraft which is going faster than it was designed to go). All that he can positively state is that he started at some 31,000 feet of altitude, just above, a solid overcast, and finished at 5000 feet with eyeballs and teeth rattling and slightly unsettled nerves. The cause: vertigo, at a most critical moment, in a tight turn with a MIG hot on his tail. It would be interesting to know just what happened to the MIG. He may possibly have been an uncounted “kill,” thanks to vertigo. Cohaskie’s memory is rather dim. “I blacked out early and stayed late” was his only comment.
A foolproof solution to vertigo, according to Captain Tom Danaher, another ex-513 member, is to get the plane somewhere near level and do several slow rolls, both left and right, on the instruments. This cure would make the oldest transport pilot blanch, but is effective since it shakes and rattles your brain so much that you have to believe the gauges.
The skipper goes on remembering — this time about Jim Brown, a Navy lieutenant and another alumnus of 513. Jim always claimed that vertigo is at its worst in daylight. “At night,” says Jim, “I don’t bother with outside light. I just turn up the instrument tights full bright and forget the outside, but in the daytime, in a good, misty, turbulent cloud layer, you just can’t close your mind to the varying intensities of outside light.”
Vertigo, of course, is a simple matter for any doctor to explain. The inner ear, with its sensitive hairs and fluid, is the culprit. The mechanism is only as sensitive as is required to keep a human being thinking properly when walking or running on solid ground. With the advent of the airplane, other factors — gravity, acceleration, and high speed — put the poor old inner ear in a turmoil, with resultant false impressions being sent to the brain. For the non-aviator, the same experience can be had for the price of a good drink. Ever hear ol an inebriate falling out of bed? That’s vertigo.
Every pilot knows all about the medical aspects and causes of vertigo, because they’ve been told time and time again, in aero-medical lectures, the reasons and the attendant physical aspects. It’s easy to believe that your inner ear can play tricks on you when a flight surgeon says so in a classroom, but alone on a dark night, amid rain, ice, and turbulence, with 10 tons of airplane strapped to your back moving at 400 knots, it’s a bit more difficult to believe the gyro horizon when it tries to tell you the same thing.