NOTHING INSIDE or outside his speeding fighter plane gave Frenchie any hint that he was about to crash into the Mediterranean Sea below. All the instruments, dials, buttons, switches and gauges inside the cockpit of the F14 Tomcat fighter looked good. No red warning light commanded his attention. He had plenty of gas.
Lt. David Pierre (Frenchie) Jancarski looked around the world outside the cockpit. Viz -- for visibility -- was excellent on this early afternoon on 11 November 1983. Beams of bright light shot down through the blue sky, virtually unobstructed by clouds. The sunbeams passed right through the scratched plastic of the F14's cockpit and bore into the slightly rippled surface of the Mediterranean. This lit up the Med into a post-card blue. Frenchie looked straight down and saw he was responsible for the only dark spot on the water. The arrowhead shadow of his F14 raced over the waves at 400 miles an hour.
Off in the distance, Frenchie could see home, the USS John F. Kennedy, an aircraft carrier. She was one of the nation's supercarriers. President Reagan had changed her original orders to sail through the Suez Canal on the way to the Indian Ocean. Instead she was standing off Lebanon to help protect the U.S. Marines penned up at the Beirut International Airport. Frenchie and his radar intercept officer in the back seat, Lt. Cmdr. Ollie Wright, had just pulled two hours of aerial guard duty in the sky around the airport. Nothing exciting had happened despite all the fears of Higher Authority.
Higher Authority was the convenient but unaccountable term for everyone from the admiral commanding the battle group off Lebanon to the president of the United States in Washington. Frenchie, Ollie and every other aviator on the Kennedy had been told that Higher Authority was worried about another sneak attack on the Marines. Three weeks ago -- at 6:20 the morning of 23 October 1983 -- a lone terrorist had driven a truck filled with explosives into the Marine compound, detonated the load and had blown up himself, 220 Marines, 18 sailors and three soldiers, most of whom were asleep in their racks. Higher Authority was worried not only about another suicide attack on the Marines but about an outright invasion of their compound; about a kamikaze bombing of the American ships standing off Lebanon, including the Kennedy; about a night speedboat attack against the ships in the battle group; about a hang glider assault on the ships close to shore by Lebanese tribesmen laughingly called the Cruise Druze Threat by the pilots. Higher Authority, it seemed, was worried about everything.
Higher Authority also had to prepare for the possibility that the so far supine Syrian air force might suddenly rise above the ridges of the Bekaa Valley and take on U.S. planes off Lebanon and sometimes over it. Some of the U.S. planes patrolling off Lebanon were unarmed, like the EA6B Prowler electronic eavesdropper and signal jammer and the E2C Hawkeye warning and control plane. But the F14 fighter planes were armed with two types of missiles -- the heat-seeking Sidewinder and the radar-controlled Sparrow as well as rapid-fire guns to combat the Syrians -- or maybe even the Russians -- if they decided to do battle at some point.
The two-hour combat air patrol mission Frenchie and Ollie had just completed was one part of the U.S. military response to all the "what ifs" Higher Authority had pondered when American troops were dropped into the whirlpool of Lebanon. The two naval aviators from the VF31 Tomcatters squadron -- who flew under the slogan, "We get ours at night" -- saw nothing dangerous or exciting about flying along the edge of Lebanon. Their mission had been just another boring aerial patrol. They had flown up close to airliners coming into Beirut to make sure they were not bombers in disguise, which could suddenly veer off from an innocent looking landing approach and bomb the Marines at the airport or the ships offshore. Frenchie and Ollie also had to keep track of military planes all around them, but so far no Syrian MiGs had appeared to challenge them. Every aviator on the Kennedy itched for a kill to avenge the Marines and to prove himself in combat. But this day the only non-U.S. military planes Frenchie and Ollie had seen in the skies were friendlies, either Israeli or French.
Three days earlier -- on 8 November 1983 -- another F14 from the Kennedy's VF31 squadron had raced by a French F8 fighter from the carrier Clemenceau flying off the Lebanese coast. Lt. (junior grade) Cole (Bam Bam) O'Neil was piloting the F14 and Cmdr. John (Belly) Scull was working the radars in the back seat. It was a clear day like this one. Bam Bam, though a nugget pilot (the term for a pilot on his first cruise), was skillful and disciplined. Belly was an old pro who would have been watching the instruments one second and the F8 the next. Suddenly and for no apparent reason, the French pilot to his horror saw Bam Bam fly smack into the water. Bam Bam and Belly went straight to the bottom of the Med still strapped into the seats of their plane. Nobody would ever know why the plane went into the water. It would go into the Navy record books as a "mishap." Flying high-performance jets over the water was dangerous business. Accidents happened. Yet Bam Bam and Belly had been real live people, with wives and other loved ones. They were alive one minute and dead the next. Nobody could take their deaths with the equanimity the Navy term "mishaps" implied.
W HILE SHOCKED and saddened over the deaths of his squadron mates, Frenchie deep down could not forgive Bam Bam for flying right into the water with a $40 million fighter in broad daylight. He could not imagine himself doing the same damned fool thing. Especially on a beautiful day like this. Frenchie's landing grades showed he was not the hottest pilot in the squadron as far as getting the 28-ton Tomcat down on the deck of the boat. But he believed his skipper, who kept telling him his landings would improve with more practice. Today -- on what would have been his 136th landing, or trap -- Frenchie was determined to get the grade of OK. This was the equivalent of an A from the landing signal officer who stood at the edge of the flight deck and helped pilots land safely with radio warnings and commands. Only the grade of OK underlined -- an A plus -- was higher. The young pilot shook off the fatigue that had piled up from flying around-the-clock missions and concentrated on landing on the carrier dead ahead on the Med.
Frenchie could see that the skipper, Capt. Gary F. Wheatley, was doing all he could to make the upcoming landings easier for the pilots. Wheatley was steaming at high speed into the wind. The churning from the Kennedy's four propellers kicked a plume of green-and-white water out from her stern. The faster the carrier went into the wind, the steadier the wind would be pushing against the plane's flight control surfaces. This would make the plane more responsive to the split-second corrections fighter pilots made just before slamming their Tomcats down on the deck in a controlled crash.
But nothing can make a carrier landing really easy. Come in too low, and you hit the stern of the carrier. This was a ramp strike. You died. Come in too high, and your tail hook missed all four wire cables stretched across the flight deck to hold you down. This was a bolter. You roared off the front end of the carrier and tried again. Come in too far to the left or right of the center line painted down the canted landing deck, and you crashed into one of the planes parked on either side. This was a mishap. You burned up in the resulting fireball. Come in perfectly, and your tail hook snagged on the No. 3 wire and stopped you in the middle of a 150-mile-an-hour roll. This was "a nice pass." The landing signal officer would give you an OK. His grade would end up in color next to your name on the chart in the squadron ready room. No chart was studied with more intensity by the competitive fraternity of carrier aviation. The chart showed how good you were compared with the other pilots. Frenchie wanted to be higher up on the chart than he was.
Cmdr. John "Market" (because he played the stock market) Burch, skipper of VF31, wanted to preserve Frenchie's romance with his airplane but, at the same time, saw the need for placing a steadying hand on the young aviator. That is why he teamed him up with the veteran RIO (radar intercept officer) Ollie Wright. This combination was right out of the Navy management book for reducing risks: Match young aggressiveness with seasoned caution. Frenchie was single, happy-go-lucky. Ollie was married, serious. Youth with age; Frenchie was 28, Ollie, 38. Inexperience with experience; Frenchie was on his first cruise, Ollie his sixth.
While a 10-year age difference is not a great gap in civilian life, it is a whole generation in the military, where the cruel calendar is marked off by wars. Frenchie was a boy of 13 when the North Vietnamese staged their Tet offensive in 1968. Ollie was a man of 23 who could have fought in it. That made them a generation apart in wars. Ollie also had 3,000 hours in the air and had seen almost everything a pilot could do to an airplane. And he was not shy about sending cautionary words from the back seat to nugget pilots like Frenchie. The word in the VF31 squadron was that Ollie could be a pain in the ass but he could save your ass if you listened to him. This day, like every day and night he flew, Ollie was swinging his helmeted head from the instruments inside the airplane to the horizon, the sea and the carrier outside it. He knew they were lining up for the most dangerous part of carrier aviation: setting the plane on top of a matchbox bouncing on the sea.
Frenchie aimed his Tomcat for the right side of the Kennedy island poking up from her otherwise flatiron profile. CARRIER 12 The landing pattern called for him to roar to the imaginary point in the sky called The Break a few miles off the bow of the carrier; turn hard left without losing altitude; head downwind parallel to the ship; then start a 180-degree left turn across her wake to slip into the landing approach groove leading to the deck. Frenchie hit The Break at 400 miles an hour, pushed the stick over left -- you do not have to use the rudder much on the Tomcat -- and felt the plane skid around the turn. He eased back on the twin gray throttles with his left hand. The plane skidded around the turn on its momentum and then slowed to the desired 320 miles an hour. Frenchie pushed the button on the left side of the throttle near his left knee. This activated the mechanism that swept the Tomcat's wings forward to provide more lift and maneuverability at this lower speed.
Ollie looked outside and saw the wings start forward at the right instant. He looked inside again at the instruments. He did not like the way the altimeter needle was falling. They were dropping below 800 feet.
"Watch your altitude," Ollie warned Frenchie through the lip microphone.
The nose still did not come up. They were rapidly dropping below 600 feet. This was dangerously close to the water for a heavy jet flying slowly.
"Pull up! Pull up!" Ollie commanded.
The nose at last came up. But the plane was still mushing downward toward the sea. They would smack into the Mediterranean at 200 miles an hour unless the Tomcat could recover. Ollie saw whitecaps out of the corners of his eyes. He had never been that low over the water before. He knew it was too late for the plane to save itself -- and them. He reached between his kneeds for the yellow-and-black ejection loop. He pulled it up toward him, hard. This started a series of explosions. The first blew the canopy clear off the jet. The second blasted Ollie's seat straight up the rails and out into the open sky. The third explosion blasted Frenchie out of the plane a split second after Ollie had rocketed clear.
Ollie felt the explosion kick his butt. Then he felt the wind smack him hard in the face and chest. It twisted his head around like a rag doll's. Next came a big yank from above as his parachute opened. He would say afterward that "it was like God snatching you by the back of the neck and saying, 'Gotcha!' " The sudden braking action of the parachute straightened out Ollie's body. He felt himself swing sideways one time over the water. Remembering his Navy training given on shore in the swimming pool, he pulled the beaded loops of the life preserver straight out from his belt line and then down. He heard the hissing of his life vest filling with gas just as he hit the water. This meant the automatic system was working. Ollie would not have to pull the mouth tube out from under the front flap in his life vest to inflate it. The life preserver was also supposed to inflate once it tasted salt water if the aviator had failed to pull the inflation beads or if he could not inflate it by mouth. Ollie felt the preserver press against his neck as it inflated there. This would keep his head above water. The waist pockets of the life preserver would provide buoyancy for the rest of his body. Ollie snapped off the Koch fittings holding his air-filled parachute to his torso harness. The chute started to float away from him, a welcome sight. The chute was not going to live up to any of the horror stories all Navy aviators had heard. It was not going to fill up with water and pull him under, like an anchor. Nor could it now fall over his head and smother him. There were still the parachute shrouds to worry about. They could still entangle him. He felt a couple of shrouds around his legs. He gingerly moved them down his legs and out toward the chute being blown away from him. The blossom of nylon that had saved him scudded across the Med for a while, then sank out of sight. The water was a tolerable 70 degrees. Ollie felt fully conscious. He knew the ship was nearby. He dared think he would live through this -- his first ejection into the open sea. He could not see Frenchie. He worried about whether the pilot had gotten out of the plane in time.
The explosive charge under the seat had fired Frenchie out of the cockpit 0.4 seconds after Ollie. That split-second delay, designed to keep ejected aviators from colliding in midair, almost killed Frenchie. Only the guiding drogue chute had had time to open all the way before Frenchie slammed into the water. His big chute did not open like Ollie's to break his fall. The plane was flying forward and dropping downward when Ollie and Frenchie ejected. The upward thrust of the rocket helped Frenchie some. The drogue chute helped a little more. But he still hit the water at about 100 miles an hour. The impact would have killed most people. It knocked Frenchie unconscious and snapped bones. His automatic life preserver worked as advertised. It inflated by itself when it sensed salt water. This kept Frenchie's head above water even though he was unconscious. His head had hit something with such force that his red-and-black helmet was pierced and dented. He probably had collided with the wreckage of the plane. The inner liner of his helmet against his skull was not broken. His left leg hung under him on threads of bone and bleeding tissue. Luckily his oxygen mask had been torn on impact, providing breathing holes. Otherwise Frenchie would have suffocated after running out of the short supply of oxygen from the bottle packed into his survival kit. Lady Luck had run out on Frenchie when it came to his 136th trap. She returned in the nick of time to keep him breathing as he bobbed unconscious in the Mediterranean. Frenchie was bleeding externally and internally. Help would have to get to him fast to save his life.
"P LANE IN THE WATER! Plane in the water!"
I heard the call boom out of the loudspeakers shortly before noon. I rushed up to the bridge from the 03 level of the carrier. I took two of the steel steps at a time, entered the captain's sanctum of the inner bridge, and immediately felt the gloom of a funeral parlor. The officers and sailors standing on the bridge were talking in whispers. The Kennedy had lost Bam Bam and Belly just three days earlier when their plane crashed into the Mediterranean and disappeared with no final sound of distress. All of a sudden this lucky carrier, this great ship that had won so many awards seemed cursed. Had we just lost two fliers to the Med for no apparent reason?
"What did you see?" I asked the sailor who had been the lookout on the outside balcony in front of the captain's bridge.
"The end was toward the water, and the nose was up in the air, and then it hit," replied Seaman Recruit Nathan B. Amos.
That was all anyone had seen four miles out in front of the ship as Frenchie Jancarski and Ollie Wright left the safety of the sky and plunged into the sea. No one on the carrier knew that Frenchie was near death as he bobbed unconscious on the Med while Ollie was frantically waving at the searching helicopters he could see so easily. But the helicopter crews could not see him because it takes only a small wave to hide a human head in the folds of the Mediterranean.
Up in the back of helicopter No. 610, Petty Officer 3rd Class John Curran suddenly saw something red on the sea. Lt. Cmdr. Tom Withers, the pilot, headed toward it. It was the red of a helmet. Withers radioed to Airman Dan Rockel, 20, of Dixon, Calif., standing in the back of the hovering chopper, to get ready to jump into the sea. His first job would be to determine if there were a body under the floating helmet. His second would be to attach a rescue harness to the body, if there was one.
Rockel tapped his body slightly for the jump into the sea 15 feet below. He told himself to keep his legs at a slight angle so they would prevent his body from going too deep into the water. A deep dive would cost seconds that might mean the difference between the man below him living or dying. Holding his right hand over his face mask, Rockel jumped. Withers pulled the helicopter higher into the sky to reduce the spray being kicked up by the downwash of the whirling blades.
Rockel swam over to the red-and-black helmet. A head was inside it and a body was still attached to it. "Thank God," Rockel thought as he put his mouth close to the ear of the helmet.
"Hey, Buddy!" he shouted above the noise of the helicopter. "Can you hear me?" Are you OK?"
No response. Rockel removed the torn oxygen mask. He saw Frenchie's face. It had the sickly white, blank look of a dead man. Frenchie's open eyes stared unblinking. Rockel thought Frenchie was dead. Then he noticed Frenchie was breathing. Rockel paddled himself down into the water to search around Frenchie's body for injuries and entangled parachute shrouds. He touched Frenchie's left ankle and felt it swivel as if it were on a thread. Rockel gave the hand signals to the helicopter to lower the horse collar. The collar descended from the hoist on a steel cable and rested on the water. Rockel pulled the collar over to Frenchie. The rescue swimmer snapped himself and Frenchie into it and gave the hoist signal. Curran twisted the collar around so Frenchie could be laid on his back on the helicopter floor. Frenchie's lips had turned blue. Rockel and Curran read Frenchie's name tag on his flight suit and identified him to the pilot and copilot, who, in turn, radioed the news to the anxious ship. Pilot Withers raced for the flight deck about five miles away.
The second helicopter kept searching in a systematic pattern for the second aviator now known on the ship to be Ollie. Ollie heard the helicopters but failed in repeated attempts to attract their attention. He remembered his survival training and tried to follow it as he bobbed in the water. He pulled out from his survival vest a day/night flare. The day end for emitting smoke would not light. He lit the red flare at the other end designed for night time. The red flame would attract rescuers at night but would not show up as well as smoke in bright sunlight. If the day end did not work, Navy instructors had told Ollie to douse the night flame in water and then hold the smoking night flare above the waves. Ollie tried to go by the Navy book but the rule flare would not go out and start smoking, So he decided to hold up the flaming red night torch. Theory be damned. Somebody in the helicopter spotted it. The rescue bird flew to Ollie and perched itself in the sky over his head.
A IRMAN MARK PHILLIPS, 20, of Charleston, S.C., the swimmer in the helicopter, stood in the open doorway above Ollie. First Crewman MikeMellema, 22, of Cadillac, Mich., tapped Phillips on the shoulder three times. Phillips jumped, holding his legs in the bent position for the same kind of shallow dive Rockel had executed. He swam over to Ollie as the helicopter pilot, Lt. Rich Strickland, 35, of Worland, Wyo., took the helicopter up to 40 feet to reduce the wind the blades were sending down on Ollie and Phillips.
"Where's your D ring?" Phillips shouted into Ollie's helmeted ear.
Ollie held up that ring anchored to his survival vest. Phillips signaled to the helicopter to lower the rescue cable. Mellema sent down the hook. Phillips let it hit the water to draw off any buildup of static electricity before grabbing it. He snapped the cable into the D ring on Ollie's vest and snapped himself to Ollie as well. He raised his hand for the hoist signal.
"OK," Phillips shouted into Ollie's ear. "We're going up."
With some difficulty, Mellema and Phillips twisted the bulky Ollie so his back was to the side door. Then they worked him onto the floor of the helicopter on his back. His feet were still sticking out over the Mediterranean when Mellema ripped the Velcro-secured name tag off Ollie's flight suit. The crew up front radioed the ship that Ollie was safely in hand. After feeling him over for broken bones, Phillips and Mellema helped Ollie to a seat on the nylon bench running along the inside of the rear helicopter compartment. His life preserver was still inflated. It bloated his body so much that he had to use the female end from one seat belt and the male end from another to strap himself into the chopper.
"After surviving the ejection," Ollie told me later, "I didn't want to fall out the damn door."
Mellema asked Ollie: "Are you the only one?"
"No. There were two of us."
"Two airplanes?" Mellema pressed.
"No," Ollie replied. "Just one airplane. An F14. Two guys."
A few minutes later Mellema returned to Ollie and said, "We picked up the other guy. He's got a compound fracture of his leg, but he's still alive."
Ollie felt a little relieved. He still wondered how Frenchie was doing. He looked out the side door and caught a glimpse of home, the carrier. The door slid shut. He felt the helicopter settle down on what he assumed was the carrier. The side door slid open again. He saw the black, nonskid surface of the flight deck beckoning. He unsnapped his double-length seat belt, walked toward the open door, and jumped out onto the deck. he hit hard. The drop was farther than he thought. Flight Surgeon Tom Duntemann rushed up to him.
"Are you hurt?" Duntemann asked.
"No. I'm fine."
Frenchie was landed on the flight deck a few minutes after Ollie. He was still unconscious, near death. The medical team members gasped inwardly when they first saw him as they leaned into the helicopter. His face was ashen, his lips blue. Corpsmen lifted him as gently as they could onto a stretcher and carried him to the elevator on the flight deck. The doctors surrounded Frenchie as they walked hurriedly to the sick bay two decks below.
Dr. Howard H. Kaminsky, assistant chief of surgery at the Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, happened to be doing temporary duty on the Kennedy while the regular senior surgeon was taking board examinations back in The World. Kaminsky got his first look at Frenchie there in the sick bay and feared the young man lying in shock before him would die. A call went out for blood. Sailors jammmed the passageway almost instantly to save the life of a shipmate most of them inside this special city of 5,000 had never seen.
Kaminsky noticed that the transfusions, while bringing Frenchie out of shock, distended his belly. Something inside was ruptured, he realized, causing the blood being transfused into Frenchie to leak. Surgery was dangerous, but he felt there was no choice. Cutting into Frenchie's belly, he discovered the bleeding, ruptured spleen. He removed it and clamped shut the split blood vessels.
The operation was a success. Frenchie would recover and work on getting back into shape to fly again. He told me flying the F14 was his biggest joy in life.
"You can escape the workaday world in it. On a bad day, like in the winter when it's cold and it's raining, we take off and beam right through it all. Then it's the clearest, bluest day you've ever seen up there. And you fight and you have fun. You win or you lose or whatever. But you get something out of it. Then you come back down. It's almost as if you get away from the world at work and go into a place that's always beautiful. It never gets bad up there."