Near-Death Experience #2

In February, 1958, I witnessed the mid-air collision of two planes over Norwalk, California, that killed almost 50 people.  It involved a DC-6, which had just taken off from the Long Beach Municipal Airport, and a Navy P2V, which had just taken off from Los Alamitos NAS.  I found out, after I started corresponding with Harold Grimsley’s widow, that Harold, the guy who died in my place in 1960, was supposed to be on THAT plane, but was late and missed the flight, being a near-death experience for Harold.

In the summer of 1961, my squadron “cruised,” for two weeks, at our home base, Los Al.  I had just been assigned to a new crew, with a real estate salesman for a pilot.  He was an idiot who almost got all of us killed.  We were going out on a “barrier patrol,” lasting 8 hours, and were going to rendezvous with a U.S. submarine, to practice finding and bombing a sub.  We carried 24 practice bombs.

I was nominally the radio operator, but I was also in charge of the ordnance, which consisted of a “smoke-light,” which I was to drop out of the camera hatch.  It would land in the ocean, sending up a plume of smoke, which we would bomb.  I was to score the bombing accuracy, and report my observations to the pilot, who was keeping score.  I had absolutely no duties to perform for several hours, and could have been reading the latest issue of PLAYBOY magazine, which I had with me, or even sleeping in one of the bunks in the tail.  I chose to become an observer in the tail, and notified the pilot that I was going to be an observer on the port side of the tail.

Our radar operator, the only person who has ever thanked me for saving his life, and the “MAD-man,” or Magnetic Anomaly Detector operator, which detects submarines when they are completely submerged, had to calibrate their equipment, so the pilot took us to the Long Beach Naval Station/Shipyard, to fly over a ship.  He found a minesweeper, that was entering the breakwater, and made two passes over it.  After the second pass, both guys reported their gear was 100% calibrated and ready to go.  The fool-assed pilot decided to make “one more pass” over the ship.

I was lollygagging in the tail, smoking a cigarette, and looking out the porthole, from which I had taken out the Plexiglas bubble.  At the precise moment we passed over the minesweeper, for the 3rd time, I saw a DC-6, which had just taken off from the Long Beach Municipal Airport, heading straight for the side of our plane, just a few hundred feet away.  As Robin Williams used to say, “Deja fucking vu;” it was Norwalk, all over again.  I had my microphone in my right hand, which was resting in my lap.  I raised my hand, keyed the mike, and said, “Aircraft 10 o’clock level, closing on collision course.”  About 2 or 3 seconds later, we did a hard right turn, like a fighter plane.  The fucking idiot should have just pushed the control column forward, and the other plane would have flown over us, because if the other pilot hadn’t reacted, the DC-6 would have plowed into our belly, instead of our side.  I was completely calm, and watched how the other plane continued to fly straight at us.  2 or 3 seconds after WE turned right, the other plane turned hard right, and we passed, belly-to-belly, about 30 feet apart.  Not a word was spoken, in my plane, for about 20 minutes, and I’d bet there were some soiled flight suits up front.  The radar operator, one of only three men in the crew who couldn’t see the other plane, even after I sounded the alarm, because he was on the starboard side of the plane, didn’t know what had happened until I explained it to him, several hours later, after we had landed.  He thought about it, for a few seconds, then stuck out his right arm, to shake hands, and said, “Thank you for saving my life.”  About three weeks later I went on active duty for two years, where JFK was my Commander-in-Chief for the entire time.


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