The Crew Punched Out Just in Time But the Jet Flew On Without Them
The 8th of March 2002 dawned over the ships of Carrier Group 7 in the northern Arabian Gulf like so many had before. The Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS John C. Stennis (CVN-74) was on her third deployment and her second with Carrier Air Wing NINE (CVW-9) embarked in support of Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) at the time. Fighter Squadron TWO ONE ONE (VF-211) Fighting Checkmates were the only fighter squadron operating Grumman F-14A Tomcat fighters from the deck of the “Johnny Reb.” The maintenance troops were doing a great job with those old birds though- on 8 March 2002 VF-211 had 8 of its 10 jets available for sorties.
Low at the Start, Right for Lineup
When it came time to recover the airborne jets, at 1821 local time F-14A Tomcat BuNo 158618 wearing modex 104, approached the JCS for recovery. The crew of the jet, pilot Lieutenant Robert “Mornin'” Woods and RIO Commander Douglas “Ogre” McGowan (a CVW-9 staffer) using callsign Nickel 104, started low but corrected and flew a fair pass over the ramp, engaging a cross-deck pendant with their tailhook. Normally the pilot of the jet throttles up to ensure that if a hook skip or cross-deck pendant failure occurs the jet will retain enough energy to motor off the angle and back into the sky. But that’s not how things went for Nickel 104.
The jet snagged a wire and the engines throttled up alright, but the tailhook separated from the aircraft not far from the end of the normal runout- which is to say not far from the forward edge of the angle deck. The crew of the jet (reportedly the RIO Ogre), believing they did not have enough energy to remain airborne after flying off the angle, initiated the ejection sequence before running off the angle. However, as Ogre and Mornin’ rocketed out of the now-doomed Turkey, the jet only then appeared to go to full zone 5 afterburner. Shed of the weight of the canopy, crew, and their seats, the Tomcat turned skyward and continued to fly right out of the camera frame after the crew departed the aircraft- more or less straight up! We’re told the jet flew up through the stack and then did a hammerhead, coming back down and hitting the water a few hundred yards from the JCS.
Dude Where’s My Jet?
Thankfully both Mornin’ and Ogre ejected successfully from the Turkey without incident (no Goose scenario) and were fished out of the Gulf by an HS-8 Eightballers HH-60H Rescue Hawk helo. Neither crew member sustained serious injury, although they were both probably about an inch shorter after their rides up the rails. Below are two video angles of the mishap, the first showing the PLAT camera view and the second the deck camera view- both uploaded to YouTube by ilikechinesefood. More about Nickel 104 after the videos.
PLAT Camera Shot of the Approach
Deck view as F-14 flies off the angle
The Jet Was More Than 30 Years Old
Built in 1972, Nickel 104 was a Grumman F-14A-60-GR Tomcat assigned the Bureau number 158618. As the 19th Tomcat off the line 618 was one of the oldest remaining operational Tomcats in service. The jet went into service first as a manufacturer’s test airframe before going to VX-4 Evaluators in 1976 where the jet wore side number 30. After serving with VX-4, 618 was stored at the AMARG boneyard in 1982.
When the Naval Air Station (NAS) Dallas-based Naval Reserve fighter squadrons transitioned from F-4N Phantom IIs to F-14A Tomcats, 618 was refurbished along with BuNos 158613 through 158617, 158620, 158624, 158626, and 158637 and modified to block 130 standards for service with VF-201 Hunters and VF-202 Superheats. After wearing side number 112 while serving with VF-201, 618 was transferred to VF-41 in February of 1999 after VF-201 transitioned to F/A-18A Hornets (becoming VFA-201) in January of 1999. The jet then went to VF-211 in April of 2001, initially wearing side number 104. Sometime before 8 March 2002 618 also probably wore modex 105. F-14A 158618 was the last F-14A model (and next to last overall) operational accident resulting in the total loss of a Tomcat.
It Takes a Carrier Air Wing
During their 11 November 2001-28 May 2002 OEF OSW deployment aboard the Stennis, CVW-9 consisted of VF-211 Fighting Checkmates flying the Grumman F-14A Tomcat, VMFA-314 Black Knights, VFA-146 Blue Diamonds, and VFA-147 Argonauts flying the McDonnell Douglas (Boeing) F/A-18C Hornet, VAQ-138 Yellow Jackets flying the Grumman EA-6B Prowler, VAW-112 Golden Hawks flying the Grumman E-2C Hawkeye, VS-33 Screwbirds flying the Lockheed S-3B Viking, HS-8 Eightballers flying the Sikorsky HH-60H Rescue Hawk and SH-60F Seahawk helicopters, and a deployment from VRC-30 Providers flying the Grumman C-1A Greyhound COD.
Definitely a Combat Cruise
CVW-9 flew 10,600 combat sorties, logged 54,390 hours, and dropped 275,000 pounds of ordnance during the 107 days of combat flight operations during this deployment. The flight deck crew recovered 9,600 arrested landings. Well, make that 9,599. VF-211 directly supported the three-week-long battle Operation Anaconda, flying 1250 combat sorties, logging 4200 combat hours and dropping 100,000 lbs of ordnance resulting in the 2002 VADM “Sweetpea” Allen Precision Strike Award for the Fighting Checkmates. On their return to CONUS VF-211 transitioned to CVW-1 aboard the Big E. After their next two deployments VF-211 became VFA-211 upon their transition to the F/A-18F Super Hornet in 2004.
During this deployment, Carrier Group 7 consisted of the Stennis, the Ticonderoga-class guided missile cruisers USS Lake Champlain (CG 57) and USS Port Royal (CG 73), the Arleigh Burke class guided missile destroyer USS Decatur (DDG 73), the Spruance-class destroyer USS Elliot (DD 967), the Oliver Hazard Perry-class guided missile frigate USS Jarrett (FFG 33), the Supply-class fast combat support ship USS Bridge (AOE 10), the Los Angeles-class fast attack submarines USS Jefferson City (SSN 759) and USS Salt Lake City (SSN 716), and the Canadian Halifax-class frigate HMCS Vancouver (FFH 331).
Answers Still Missing- Your Help Needed!
As to the cause of the tailhook failure, there is no publicly available accident investigation report for the mishap. However, there are those who claim corrosion control in the tailhook mount was to blame. Others say the hook assembly itself failed near the mount. There was also conflicting data regarding the modex worn by 618- some sources indicated 104 but most indicated 105. Also missing is 158618’s modex while with VF-41. Any additional information about Woods or McGowen would be appreciated. If anyone was there and can shed light on the event please contact me so I can update the story. We will fully credit any reliable source!
UPDATE: Thanks to readers Scott Eanes for providing the information about the jet’s flight path post-ejection, Scott Miller for LT Woods’ perfect callsign, and Ron Vaught for Ogre’s given name. Reader TheRaider Brad gave me some pretty solid clues as to the modex 158618 was assigned on 8 March 2002 and Ogre’s rank. Reader Ed Galvin provided Ogre’s status as a CVW-9 staffer. Thanks to all who provided information!