Two Tomcat pilots safe aboard Kitty Hawk after crash inside Iraq
By KENDRA HELMER | STARS AND STRIPES Published: April 3, 2003
ABOARD THE USS KITTY HAWK — An Air Force rescuer rushed to the two aviators after their F-14A Tomcat crashed in southern Iraq.
“I remember him asking me if I could walk as he was helping me up,” said “Gordo,” who walked away with only scrapes on his wrists after ejecting from the malfunctioning fighter early Wednesday. “I told him I could run … just point the way.” The pilot, “Vinny,” also safely ejected when the Tomcat suffered a mechanical failure.
The Carrier Air Wing FIVE aviators, who wanted to be identified by their call signs because of safety concerns for their families, flew in a transport plane to the Kitty Hawk about 13 hours after ejecting over southern Iraq following a successful bombing mission. A chorus of “Hey” and “Welcome back!” greeted the Black Knights when they opened their ready-room door.
The aviators are part of a shore detachment from Carrier Air Wing FIVE embarked on the Kitty Hawk.
The Tomcat and another F-14A were heading out of Iraq after a normal flight. Then, as they were looking for a tanker to refuel, one engine failed.
Next came a failure in the fuel transfer system that allows the good engine to use all the aircraft’s fuel.
“The transfer wasn’t working, so we’re just watching the fuel countdown,” said Vinny, 32, a lieutenant from Virginia. “We knew what was coming, I was just counting down the fuel level. When it got down to about 200 pounds, the right engine started to come down, the generator started to hiccup and it was time to go.”
Gordo yelled, “Eject, eject, eject!”
“I’m just flying,” Vinny said, “trying to keep the aircraft stable so we’re in a good envelope so when we go out the chutes work as advertised.”
Gordo initiated the ejection.
“The shock of the ejection seat just kind of knocks you down into what we call the small brain, and you just go back to thinking just what you’re trained to do,” Vinny said.
Gordo took comfort in that the only light below them came from the Tomcat as it slammed into the ground. The two broke out their global positioning system and charts and realized they were still in Iraq.
“Once I was boots on the ground I started shaking a little bit. It was not a friendly place to be,” said Gordo, 39, a lieutenant commander from Georgia.
The aviators’ wingman marked their position and provided a reassuring voice on the radio.
“It was a fairly surreal experience,” Vinny said. “You go from sitting in the warmth and comfort of your own cockpit to a violent windblast and hitting the desert floor pretty hard in your parachute.”
They were taken to a coalition air base in Ahmed Al Jaber, Kuwait, at about 1:50 a.m. The incident occurred about two hours after the Fighter Squadron 154 Tomcat launched from an undisclosed land base.
Though the Tomcat saw anti-aircraft fire earlier in the flight, hostile fire was not a factor in the crash, said Rear Adm. Matthew G. Moffitt, commander of the Kitty Hawk battle group, which has been in the Persian Gulf since late February.
The Tomcat crashed following a long day of sustained sorties that started around 11 a.m. Tuesday. Through early Wednesday, the air wing dropped its most ordnance since the start of the war. The number of its sorties has increased to support ground troops in their push into northern Iraq.
The squadron, based at Atsugi Naval Air Facility, Japan, is the only one that flies the F-14A Tomcat.
The rescue brings to 67 the number of coalition forces extracted from hostile situations by combat search-and-rescue operations.
From Tuesday afternoon through early Wednesday the air wing flew 69 dedicated strike missions in Basra and in and around Baghdad, involving 27 F/A-18 Hornets and 12 Tomcats. They dropped nearly 100,000 pounds of ordnance, said Lt. Brook DeWalt, Kitty Hawk public affairs officer.
The air wing’s Tomcats continued to fly sorties throughout the day Wednesday. Gordo and Vinny talked to their wives; the Navy notified the women earlier that their husbands were safe.
“She was just happy to hear my voice,” Vinny said of his wife.
Vinny and Gordo planned on hitting their racks after their 10-minute briefing with the media.
“We’ll go [flying] tomorrow if they’ll let us,” Gordo said.
On the USS Kitty Hawk, two aviators from Fighter Squadron 154 talk about ejecting from their F-14A Tomcat over Iraq on Wednesday. The two didn't want their names released. The Black Knights squadron is based at Atsugi Naval Air Facility, Japan.
KENDRA HELMER / S&S