To Doug and Those Like Him

Doug is the guy farthest to the right. I'm just behind Doug's right shoulder.

Every Memorial Day my thoughts go to my good buddy Doug who died in an F-14A crash at sea during my last US Navy cruise. The year was 1983; and we were both stationed aboard the USS Vinson, a nuclear powered Nimitz class aircraft carrier making her first deployment. We were on a “glamorous” around the world cruise, showing the flag, and playing war games with another US carrier battle group when Doug and Zack, his backseater, crashed into the Mediterranean Sea in the dark of night.

I didn’t even know it had happened. I had landed around midnight and gone to bed for another hop with an early morning"get-up". Doug had taken off on a sortie after mine in weather that had been questionable at launch. Fog was the culprit. When the ship realized that the fog was going to close in, it recalled all its aircraft. Doug's was some distance away.

Doug was a pilot’s pilot. Flying was his life. He had little philosophies he lived by and one of those was never to dump gas if he could burn it. Since the ship ordered him to “buster” anyway (i.e., get home as soon as possible), he went into burner and did a high speed run home. He hit his “Charlie” point (the point where you begin a descent to a low altitude approach to the ship) with a lot of knots and more gas left than he had wanted. He started dumping gas to get rid of it.

Standard instrument approach procedures had us descend to 1200 feet where you leveled off, motored in, and dirtied up (dropped landing gear and flaps for the final approach) until you intercepted the final approach path. Doug still had lots of speed when he hit “platform” and realized he needed to get rid of more gas to meet landing weight requirements. To buy time, he asked the approach controller for a 360 turn to the left. That was approved. As he completed it, he asked for a 360 degree turn to the right and got it. In the middle of attempting that circle, his plane disappeared off the ship’s radar scopes.

I staggered down to the ready room for my early morning briefing not knowing anything was wrong. I was a bit late, and Jaws, my buddy and pilot of another airplane in our hop, was already intently listening to the briefing being conducted via TV by an Intel guy (Intelligence Officer). He was saying something about a search and rescue. I thought it was part of the exercise at first but sensed something was wrong because Jaws was plastered to the TV! Then, the briefer said something about “sighted debris in the water”, and I knew this was for real. I tapped Jaws on the shoulder. He didn’t respond, so I popped him lightly with a fist and asked: “What’s going on?”

“You don’t know?!” he said. “Doug and Zack flew into the water.”

I felt like someone had just pounded me flat with a ton of bricks. But I was a fighter guy and I had a mission to do and had to move on. I manned up, focusing on doing my job and doing my part to get my airplane safely off the deck.

Sometimes, you don’t know how much someone means to you until they’re gone. In the days, weeks, and years that followed, I came to realize how close Doug and I had been. We had first met when I had been stationed at NAS Kingsville. I didn’t remember that I had shown him his first preflight of a T-2C, but he did. We first flew together on May 28, 1980 while in VF-124, the F-14A RAG (Replacement Air Group) squadron at NAS Miramar, both of us students on one of our last hops. He was in the front seat, and I was in his back. We had done well and it had been a fun flight. Upon completing the RAG, we were both assigned to VF-51, the Screaming Eagles.

The squadron’s way of mentoring us new chickies was to fly senior pilots with nugget R.O.’s and nugget pilots with senior R.O’s. Because of that, I didn’t get to fly with Doug again until after our first cruise on the USS Kittyy hawk and we were between cruises and land based. I had flown FCLP’s (Field carrier Landing Practice) with him and knew his habits for getting aboard.

On land, we talked about being married and the problems we were both having. We rode out together to watch George Lukas film parts of "Return of the Jedi" in the Arizona desert not far from the Yuma, Arizona airfield where we were shooting guns air to air. We talked about flying and his Luscombe, the little single engine airplane he loved to fly. Doug had mentioned he wanted to die in an airplane. Neither of us knew how prophetic that would become..and how soon.

The next year, in 1983, we hit our second cruise, the one that would be Doug's and my last. We were both on our way to becoming senior Lieutenants. Because of that, we were both starting to fly with the younger guys. Zack was brand new to the squadron and on his first cruise. The night they died they had launched into conditions not only complicated by fog but it was one of those pitch black, moonless nights you can only experience at sea. The ship, as you approach it, appears to be floating in the middle of a infinitely deep black inkwell. As you motor in on the “platform”, you have to wake your mind up to make sure it knows there is water below you, and it’s only 1200 feet away.

The accident reconstruction showed that Doug was flying around his circles at about 400 knots. To hold the circle he had, he was pulling between 3 and 4 g’s. Doug style. The prevailing theory was that, in doing the g-pulling reversals, he had gotten vertigo and flown into the water before he had known it. I felt there had to be a bit more to it than that. Doug was a really good pilot. Yes, every good pilot had slips. But where was his R.O. during all that? Could it have been that they were both distracted?

My prevailing theory adds in a funny quirk of the F-14, something that never could or did make its way into the accident investigation as far as I know. (Little wreckage was recovered.) The F-14’s of my era had a nasty habit of sticking fuel dump valves open. If the cockpit switch didn’t shut it off (and I was in an airplane where it didn’t), then the pilot had to reach slightly forward to a circuit breaker panel behind his left knee and pull the valve’s circuit breaker, which he located by feel. While performing such an action, not only would it be possible to unknowingly introduce a little forward stick; but the backseater’s gaze would be locked on his fuel gage to see if the flow had shut off. The only clue they would have that something was amiss was when Doug’s radar altimeter’s alarm went off; and he always set it at 75 feet, the altitude when a pilot transitioned to a totally visual approach on the ball when coming aboard. At the speed they were moving, they would have heard the radar altimeter go off fractions of a second before they plowed into the water.

Doug’s death had a profound impact on my life. Death became personal; and, though I loved the flying; despite my unknown Native American heritage, I couldn’t square myself with the fact I would die at war. I was at war with myself and the rest of the world, even though I had no conscious inkling of it then. I had tried to reconcile with being a paid killer but couldn’t. Dying in a Tomcat simply wasn’t how I wanted to go out. My path, especially my spiritual one, lay in another direction. As I looked inside myself, I knew it was time to move on. Eventually, the pain of his death and my subsequent divorce would push me into a path of emotional and spiritual growth I still work at today. I am nearer wholeness than I ever was then. And much of it was and is because of my friend and the path he took, however hard for everyone it was.

I learned from my time in the Navy that there is no longer a “peacetime” cruise. I learned that there is a huge risk even in “being ready” and folks in the service put their lives on the line every day, even when they’re not being shot at and more so when they are. And, most important of all, I learned that sometimes you come to love people without knowing it, that true friends sometimes sneak up on you, and I need to really see them before they are gone and I can’t tell them how much I love them.

So, here’s to you, Doug; you and all the guys and gals like you.

Dedicated to my friend, Doug Blum, who died in the late spring of 1983 in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea. Too bad you didn’t get to see “TopGun”, Doug; you would have loved it!