The story of one pilot’s incredible mission during the Corsair II’s last war.
Carrier aviation is rife with stories about perilously anomalous events. Cold cat shots. Cross deck pendants parting. Busted tailhooks. Sliding around on slick flight decks coming far too close to the edge (or other aircraft) for comfort. You’ve probably heard a few. Many start with, “Back when I was on Ranger with the Freelancers during that ’79 WestPac” or “Remember that A-6 crew that punched out down toward the water as the jet stalled and rolled past 90 degrees?” Well here’s a story that begins with one of those perilously anomalous events. It also ends with one.
The SLUF at War. Again. For the Last Time.
During January of 1991 aboard the carrier USS John F. Kennedy (CVA-67), two attack squadrons assigned to Carrier Air Wing THREE (CVW-3) were flying the last combat missions for the Ling-Temco-Vought (LTV) A-7E Corsair II. Their SLUFs were long in the tooth but getting the job done and done well. Attack Squadron FOUR SIX (VA-46) Clansmen and VA-72 Blue Hawks had been operating A-7s since 1968 and 1970 respectively. But they were absolutely crushing it during Operation Desert Storm. In fact they would end up flying 725 sorties totaling more than 3,000 combat flight hours at a 99.7% mission completion rate. Every Naval Aviator flying from carrier decks has at least one of those days they’ll never forget. One of the VA-72 SLUF drivers was Navy Lieutenant Thomas N. Dostie. One of those 725 sorties was going to be one of his very own those days.
“Steamer” Dostie was scheduled to fly mission 12.41- a strike against a target in western Iraq flying VA-72 side number 403 (BuNo 158830) as Decoy 403 on 24 January 1991. AC 403 wasn’t the high-time jet in the squadron but it had nearly 8,000 hours on the clock after serving with four squadrons since 1976. Unlike you and me, one thing age doesn’t (usually) affect is a jet’s takeoff weight. Unfortunately for this go the takeoff weight for Steamer’s SLUF was somehow miscalculated. As a result, Cat 1 (starboard side bow catapult) was set for too weak a stroke for AC 403’s weight when Steamer’s cat shot commenced. Instead of getting pulled all the way down the catapult, the jet received a shove instead and at first actually outran the shuttle. But when the shuttle caught up near the bow of the ship it impacted AC 403’s nose gear and broke off the port nose wheel. Thankfully the jet initially received enough assistance to get airborne instead of dribbling off the deck and into the water right in front of the 81,000 ton carrier.
There Steamer was…flying but with damaged nose gear and very few options. The absence of the port nose wheel was confirmed as Dostie made several gear-down (of course he didn’t raise the gear) low-speed passes close aboard the boat. Having Decoy 403 divert to an airfield was discussed but rejected as an option. While Steamer circled the boat it was decided to take him aboard using the barricade. The jet was still armed with a Mark 84 2,000-pound general purpose bomb on station 6 (starboard side closest to the fuselage) and an AIM-9M-4 Sidewinder heat seeker on station 5 (starboard side cheek rail). Not to mention the full load of 20 millimeter cannon rounds in the drum behind Steamer’s ejection seat. All that was left to do was take a deep breath and come aboard.
Now when listing the bottom three things Naval Aviators like to do, an arrestment in the barricade has to be right down there near the bottom (with night approaches and rolling pitching decks- or worse both at the same time). In any case, Steamer was going to have to play the hand he’d been dealt. At least it was a day trap! His approach was a “rails pass” if ever there was one. His touchdown was flawless. He snagged the 1 wire and even managed to fight his instincts and NOT firewall the throttle when he contacted the deck, as he had been trained to do since Day One as a Naval Aviator. As he came to a stop in the safe embrace of the barricade the nose gear collapsed as the remaining nose wheel detached and rocketed forward down the angle and over the side.
Steamer was now back aboard. He was extricated from AC 403 and checked out fine but the jet was considerably worse for wear. The live ordnance was safed and carefully downloaded. But a quandary remained. The venerable SLUF was on its final deployment- indeed the last two squadrons flying them were VA-46 and VA-72. AC 403 sustained heavy damage, making it economically unsound to send her back to some NADEP someplace Stateside for rework. So VA-72 CO CDR John R. Sanders had the jet stripped of everything salvageable or usable (to the tune of more than $3 million worth of parts). It was decided that the jet would be given a burial at sea- with full military honors. 158830 was by this time liberally covered with graffiti; Sanders had her repainted with special “End of an Era” squadron markings for the occasion.