If You Lose Your Focus on the Flight Deck for Even a Second You Can Wind Up as a Training Moment
The video starts with Carrier Air Wing 8 flight operations on the flight deck of the USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN-71). According to the flight deck camera time it is 03:40:57 in the morning of February 20th 1991. The carrier was one of several carriers launching air strikes in support of US and Coalition forces engaged on the ground during Operation Desert Storm in the Gulf War at the time. In just 15 seconds a completely avoidable accident nearly takes the life of a trainee and downs an operational aircraft for weeks.
A VA-65 Fighting Tigers Grumman A-6E Intruder is undergoing final safety checks in preparation for the cat shot. In the video a catapult crewman is processing the hookup process. He ensures that the Intruder’s launch bar is seated in the catapult shuttle. He then signals the catapult operator to take tension on the launch bar against the holdback bar. This step in the catapult launch process occurs several seconds before the pilot of the aircraft is signaled to throttle his engines up for launch. The point is that the A-6E’s engines are not operating at (or even near) military (full) power at the time.
It is the next step in the launch process for a quality control inspector to examine the catapult shuttle, launch bar, and holdback bar after the catapult crewman signals for tension on the catapult to ensure that all the parts involved in the launch process are mechanically and structurally ready for the cat shot. If the quality control inspector finds something unsafe or requiring adjustment the entire hookup process is done over again. Conversely, if the inspector does not find anything the launch process proceeds to the next step, which in this case would be increasing engine power and doing the control surfaces check.
But inexplicably, just after the catapult crewman completes the hookup process and exits the area, 21 year old Petty Officer and flight deck trainee John David Bridges goes to check the position of the catapult shuttle and holdback bar. Bridges does not crouch down as necessary when operating on the flight deck around the intakes on the aircraft preparing for catapult launch- especially Intruder aircraft. Bridges is standing more or less straight up as he enters the critical zone in front of the port side engine intake on the Intruder. What follows is still used as a training tool for all flight deck crew members.
Bridges is sucked into the port intake of the Intruder at 03:41:11. His flight deck “cranial” helmet, goggles, float coat, and other personal equipment are sucked off his body and ingested into the jet engine, resulting in the massive flame coming from the exhaust. The catapult officer (Shooter) immediately moves to the port side of the aircraft and signals the pilot to shut down his engines. The pilot, having heard the engine receive heavy foreign object damage (FOD) himself, has likely already begun that process.
What, you may ask, happened to Bridges? Consider for a moment the design of the Intruder. The aircraft has a relatively high wing, low-slung engines mounted forward on the airframe, and intakes that are mounted only a short height above the flight deck. Seemingly a recipe for disaster, correct? Or at the very least the end of Bridges, right? Not so fast!
What saved Petty Officer Bridges that morning in the Gulf was the internal design of the Intruder intakes and the Pratt & Whitney J-52 engines that power the aircraft.
When mounted in the Intruder, the J-52 has a large cone that protrudes in front of the engine and the first stage compressor fan blades. Those blades, and the hundreds of others behind, would almost certainly have killed Bridges had he made contact with them. But when his “cranial” helmet, goggles, float coat, flashlight, and most likely every other piece of gear he had on him were sucked into the engine before him, the engine was practically destroyed. It was still spinning in large part due to centrifugal force by the time Bridges reached the engine itself. What really saved him was that he was fortuitously wedged between that engine nose cone and the side of the engine intake.
Bridges survived the accident. After roughly three minutes he was able to extricate himself from the intake once the engine spun down and came to a stop. Understandably reassigned after the ordeal, he received minor injuries and one humongous headache. Other personnel who were onboard the Roosevelt at the time have said that because Bridges’ arm went into the intake first it was his arm that caused him to get wedged as he was. Whatever the reason, Bridges may be the recipient of the world’s luckiest wedgie!