Profiles in Aviation: John S McCain III Went Into the Family Business

The Late Senator’s Father and Grandfather Were Both US Navy Four-Star Admirals.

John S McCain III Government portrait in public domain. Image via US Government

John Sidney McCain III was born on 29 August 1926 at Coco Solo Naval Air Station (NAS) in the Panama Canal Zone. His parents, John S. “Jack” McCain Jr. and Roberta Wright McCain had two other children- John’s older sister Sandy and his younger brother Joe. Being the child and grandchild of naval officers, John attended more than 20 different schools before he graduated in 1954 from Episcopal High School in Alexandria, Virginia.

“Slew” McCain (left) and “Jack” McCain (right). Image via US Navy

McCain followed his father and grandfather, John S. “Slew” McCain Sr., to the United States Naval Academy at Annapolis. After McCain III graduated in 1958, he was commissioned as an Ensign in the Navy and made his way to the Cradle of Naval Aviation, NAS Pensacola, later that year. McCain began training as a student Naval Aviator and pinned on his Wings of Gold in 1960. McCain’s first assignment was to Attack Squadron SIX FIVE (VA-65) World Famous Fighting Tigers flying Douglas AD Skyraiders.

VA-65 Skyraider. Image via US Navy

McCain bent a few birds during his first few years flying Naval aircraft. Even before he graduated flight training he was forced to ditch an AD-6 Skyraider in Corpus Christi Bay after the engine died while he was in the landing pattern. During his first deployment with VA-65 and Carrier Air Wing SIX (CVW-6) aboard the Essex-class carrier USS Intrepid (CVA-11) in the Mediterranean during 1961, McCain knocked down power lines in Southern Spain, leaving both powerless Spaniards and a damaged AD.

USS Enterprise (CVAN-65). Image via US Navy

CVW-6 was cross-decked to the spanking new nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS Enterprise (CVAN-65) and was aboard the Big E for her first deployment to the Med and later to the Caribbean Sea during the Cuban Missile Crisis. When CVW-6 and VA-65 returned to the States at the end of 1962, McCain was transferred to Training Squadron SEVEN (VT-7) Eagles as an instructor pilot flying the North American T-2A Buckeye at Naval Auxiliary Air Station (NAAS) Meridian in Mississippi.

T2J-1 (T-2A) Buckeye. Image via US Navy

It was while he was stationed at Meridian during November of 1965 that McCain was forced to eject from another aircraft when the jet’s engine flamed out and would not re-light. McCain then transferred to VA-44 Hornets for type transition training for the Douglas A-4E Skyhawk. After learning to fly Scooters, McCain was assigned to VA-46 Clansmen flying Douglas A-4E Skyhawks. The Clansmen, part of CVW-17, deployed aboard the aircraft carrier USS Forrestal (CVA-59) for her first deployment to Southeast Asia in 1967.

US Navy photograph

After only a few days on the line, Forrestal suffered a flight deck fire that killed 132 of her crew. Lieutenant Commander McCain narrowly escaped with his life when a 5 inch Zuni rocket misfired and struck the centerline drop tank on McCain’s Scooter waiting to launch on what would have been his sixth combat mission. McCain, burned by jet fuel and wounded by shrapnel from bombs exploding on the flight deck, was able to recover from his wounds.

USS Oriskany (CVA-34). Image Via US Navy

McCain transferred to the Essex-class aircraft carrier USS Oriskany (CVA-34) to fly with VA-163 Saints and the rest of CVW-16 embarked to continue his combat tour. Just short of three months after the fire on the Forrestal (and ironically a year to the day after Oriskany herself suffered a major fire), John S. McCain III was flying his 23rd mission and his first against the heavily-defended Hanoi thermal power plant. McCain’s A-4E Skyhawk was hit by an SA-2 Guideline surface-to-air missile and he was forced to eject. McCain suffered a broken leg and both arms were also broken during his ejection. He was quickly taken prisoner by the North Vietnamese after being fished out of the lake used by the power plant.

VA-163 A-4E. Image via US Navy

McCain was taken to the infamous Hỏa Lò prison in Hanoi, AKA the “Hanoi Hilton”, where he was beaten and refused treatment for his injuries. McCain spent time in several North Vietnamese prisons, enduring repeated beatings and torture, including several years in solitary confinement. McCain was released on 14 March 1973 after five and a half years in captivity. While undergoing treatment for his injuries suffered years before, McCain attended the National War College at Fort McNair in Washington, D.C. McCain was rehabilitated by late 1974 and his flight status was reinstated.

VA-174 TA-7Cs. Image via US Navy

Commander McCain was then assigned to command VA-174 Hellrazors, a Vought A-7 Corsair II replacement training squadron. VA-174 received their first Meritorious Unit Commendation under his leadership. After serving as a liaison to the US Senate for a few years, John S. McCain retired from Naval service as a Captain in 1981. His numerous military decorations and awards include the Silver Star, two Legions of Merits, Distinguished Flying Cross, three Bronze Star Medals, two Purple Hearts, two Navy and Marine Corps Commendation Medals, and Prisoner of War Medal. His political career lasted from 1981 until his death on August 25th 2018.

McCain (lower right) with other instructors at VT-7. Image via US Navy

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Bill Walton

Written by Bill Walton

Bill Walton is a life-long aviation enthusiast and expert in aircraft recognition. As a teenager Bill helped his engineer father build an award-winning T-18 homebuilt airplane in their Wisconsin basement. Bill is a freelance writer, an avid sailor, engineer, announcer, husband, father, uncle, mentor, coach, and Navy veteran. Bill lives north of Houston TX with his wife and son under the approach path to KDWH runway 17R, which means they get to look up at a lot of airplanes. A very good thing.

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