Grampaw Pettibone

Illustrations by Ted Wilbur
Brown Shirt Ballet

An experienced plane captain with a sound reputation for professionalism and diligence was directed to clean the canopy of an F-14A Tomcat spotted on the bow of the flight deck. Weather was normal for summertime in the North Arabian Sea—windy and humid with eight-foot sea swells. The plane captain wore his complete flight deck uniform including cranial helmet. He climbed onto the port wing. Standing on the nonskid section, he cleaned the forward, port side of the canopy. He began to clean the aft portion while standing between the nonskid area and the fuselage. The plane captain slipped and fell to the flight deck, landing in such a way that each leg straddled-a tie-down chain. Medical personnel rushed to the scene and transported the injured man by stretcher to sick bay. He was hospitalized for five days. Cause of the mishap was determined as personnel error in that the plane captain didn’t exercise appropriate caution under the circumstances. Due to humidity and sea spray, the aircraft was slippery. When he moved off the nonskid area, a fall was almost inevitable.
GramPaw Pettibone says

Grampaw Pettibone says:
Gramps has a special soft spot in the old ticker for those fellows in brown jerseys on the flight deck—the ones with backs bent from lugging heavy tie-down chains, and faces beaten by the heat and high winds that go with carrier flying. They’re special people and we cannot afford to lose a single one of ’em. I see many TFOA (things falling off aircraft) reports—hardware breaking loose from aircraft in flight. That’s an ulcer-breedin’ problem on its own. People falling off birds is another crucial matter needing special attention. Stories like this one have been comin’ in too often. Please! You plane captains out there, ashore or on the boats, don’t take a single chance when working atop an aircraft. Use the nonskid area whenever possible. Supervisors, see that they comply. There ain’t no comedy in straddlin’ a tie-down chain the hard way.

(Originally published in January-February 1985)


The routine AV-8A Harrier training mission involved a fire support exercise with four aircraft operating from an auxiliary landing field (ALF) and a secondary confined area landing (CAL) site. The pilot in this incident was the second pilot to execute a vertical takeoff (VTO)/accelerating transition from the CAL site. He had completed two successful VTOs into the visual flight rules pattern. His third VTO was normal and he began to “nozzle out” without noticeable difficulty.

Outside observers noted a nose-low aircraft attitude as he accelerated seaward, however. Over a bay, at 100 feet altitude, 120 knots airspeed, and one-half to three-fourth nozzle aft, he moved nozzles abruptly full aft. Consequently, the aircraft, with the low angle of attack, pitched sharply nose down and descended rapidly.

The pilot countered with aft stick and selected nozzles to the hover stop. At this point the pilot considered ejection. He rejected this alternative as he saw his control input becoming effective in arresting the altitude loss. Unfortunately, he could not prevent the tail of the aircraft from impacting the water. Still, he managed to complete recovery, regain altitude, and perform a vertical landing on the ALF runway. Damage was classified as substantial category C, and consisted of dents in the bottom of the fuselage near the speed brake, plus creases along the horizontal stabilizer.
GramPaw Pettibone says

Grampaw Pettibone says:

Holy Harrier-kiri! This gent is one lucky man. The near miss was labeled pilot error, resulting from an inadequate transition from vertical to horizontal flight. The angle of attack was low, causing the aircraft to have inadequate lift for wingborne flight at the time the thrust was vectored completely aft. The pilot had more than 400 hours of experience in AV-8As and perhaps through complacency became a passenger in his own aircraft. He was looking out of the cockpit and had not monitored the angle of attack closely enough during the critical phase of transition to conventional flight.

Once he recognized the dilemma, the flyer’s rapid corrective action saved the airplane and perhaps his life. The correct decision was probably to eject as he came too close to the water, but ejection may or may not have been successful, depending on the phase of the pullout when it was initiated. The pilot could not be faulted for not ejecting because of an established sink rate but he did accept a near miss with water entry.

Being what some might call the fastest nozzle-out man in town resulted in wet tail feathers, a bent bird, and near disaster. ’Nuff said!

(Originally published in July 1979)