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Flying Through Water

Larry Duthie

You don’t forget a leader like Bill Searfus. And whenever I inspect tie-down chains, I see him vividly. That image of him wildly dancing.

I emerge from the ship’s island tower with a cluster of pilots, and we stride down the flight-deck toward our assigned birds. We carry a hint of swagger, and why not? This whole ship and its crew of some three thousand sailors exist to get attack aircraft into the air. We’re not full of ourselves—but close.

We’ve briefed, got it all down. I know where I’ll rendezvous with five other A-4s in my division, how we’ll circle over the ship and join up with twenty-eight more birds on this big strike. We’ve memorized the route that our strike-leader will navigate, where he’ll turn to bring us over our target. Today it’s an old French bridge, a dinky thing spanning a thin brown tributary. We know, too, the defenses to expect. So, yes, we’re up for this.

The morning light, after all that fluorescent glare bouncing off haze-gray paint below deck, strikes me as lovely: bright and crisp. The air, too, is pleasantly warm—not yet humid and tropical. The ship loiters, which is nice, but with no wind across the deck, black smoke swims down from the stack.

I’m assigned AH-415. I find it halfway to the fantail, port side, and begin my preflight inspection. I want to hurry this along because those stack-fumes eddying about have found me. Part of my airplane can’t be inspected anyway.

The aft half hangs out in space, way past the edge of the deck. Nothing’s leaking back there, I can see that. The antennas near the tailpipe look okay. The tailhook and fuselage, they’re good. No way to look closer. Sixty feet of open air separates the rear of my bird and the green water of the Tonkin Gulf. With its main wheels almost at the edge of the ship, 415 appears precarious. No worry, she’s tied down to the deck. Chained securely.

But then Bill Searfus had tie-down chains. Somehow, though, his were removed early. Maybe to save time. A misinterpreted hand-signal perhaps. I never heard. What I do know is that Bill’s chains were off when jet-blast from a turning aircraft swept up under his A-4.

With the heel of my hand, I bang each of the three tiedown chains snugging 415 to the deck. Hard.

I met Bill in training, when we were transitioning to A-4s. To keep the instruction tempo up, nine of us had been dispatched from Naval Air Station Lemoore in California to Nevada for a few weeks. The Navy had thousands of Nevada desert acres devoted to bombing ranges—and there at Fallon we never had weather cancellations. It was late winter, yet we enjoyed day after day of sunny flying.

We’d been sent there to perfect the fine art of dive-bombing, loft-bombing, strafing and aerial refueling. We flew two, sometimes three, hops a day.

All nine of us lived in the bachelor officers’ quarters, where we bonded as a group. Bill Searfus, a Navy commander with a brilliant smile and an upbeat attitude, was the senior officer among us. He was transitioning into A-4s alongside eight very junior officers. The rest of us had just recently earned our wings and would soon receive orders to squadrons, while he already had his assignment. Bill was to join a squadron as its executive officer, the number-two guy. And after a successful year as XO, he’d become the squadron’s skipper.

In the Western Pacific, the Gulf of Tonkin, the fleet was losing pilots, which is why our little detachment was hustled up to Fallon. The WestPac squadrons needed replacements—pronto—so our training-pace became a dash. Fatigue became an enemy. Little mistakes emerged. One of the guys bent a fuel probe on his bird when he came in hot while practicing to refuel behind an aerial tanker. I skidded an A-4 off a taxiway late one night when I hallucinated. Damage to the airplanes in both incidents was minimal, but the safety officer urged us to get as much rest as possible. Yet the hurry-up continued.

After we finished at Fallon and were back at Lemoore, Bill Searfus invited me to his home. A full commander, and he wanted an ensign at his party. I was amazed.

“We need to unwind some,” he said when he called me. It had never occurred to me during all the formalities of my earlier training that pilots would socialize this way, that when it came to flying airplanes in the fleet, rank would no longer be a great divide.

Were all eight from our Fallon detachment invited? I don’t recall. But I remember like yesterday how he greeted me by my first name when I arrived that evening. He introduced himself to my date as “Bill.”

Rock and roll music blasted from his living room. An array of hard liquor lined the kitchen counter, not beer as at our junior officers’ parties. He introduced us to his wife and told my date that she was far too pretty to be hanging around with a guy like me.

During the evening he kicked off his shoes, bopped around with his wife to Little Richard music, danced with her like a kid. And then he danced with my date, bounding around like an ensign. This was a Navy I had not known existed.

You don’t forget a leader like Bill Searfus. And whenever I inspect tie-down chains, I see him vividly. That image of him wildly dancing. The accident, too, the blast of jet exhaust lifting his nose until the front wheel comes up and his bird tips back—so far back that it continues over the side. Six stories to the sea. The carrier’s huge wake tosses his bird like a bathtub toy. I wasn’t there, but I see that.

It is possible, a hydrodynamic possibility, that as his plane was sinking, slipping down into the jade-green waters, it began flying. Gliding. They say an airplane will sail through water just as through air, because both air and water are fluids: Bernoulli’s Theorem.

My thoughts return to my tie-downs, I give the one near me another thump, and then I find I’m wondering how such a fine pilot could so simply be blown into the sea. I play it through my mind’s little theater again.

His airplane at first flutters side to side like a coin flipped into a fountain, and then his bird settles nose-down to begin that glide. Stabilizing, sailing through the warm green shallows, then down and down to the cold black depths.

Bill Searfus, husband, stocking-feet dancer, father and skipper of his squadron had already survived ferocious raids against Phuc Yen, a place closer to Hanoi than our target today, a MiG base massively defended with radar-guided anti-aircraft guns and surface-to-air missiles—the deadly SAMs. He survived that, made it through the savagery of defenses arrayed so thickly around Phuc Yen, the flak and SAMs swarming up like wasps, to be trapped inside twelve tons of aluminum and steel gliding through the dark waters of Tonkin Gulf.

I continue my preflight inspection. The plane captain follows me, ready to answer questions. I move forward along the port side of the fuselage to find everything is as it should be, so I climb the ladder and step over onto the wing, open a servicing hatch—okay—the hydraulic-fluid and oil reservoirs are firmly capped. No stray tools have been left inside the bird or the intake. We’re good to go.

Like a valet, the plane captain helps me strap in, locating each shoulder strap from behind and placing it onto my shoulder. I click the straps into steel fittings on my torso harness, then locate the seatbelt straps and do the same. I cinch the straps tightly. If they aren’t snug enough to pinch, an ejection won’t go well. I clip my oxygen mask onto my helmet, flick a switch and … ahh … sweet, pure oxygen.

I run through a quick check of switches in the cockpit. The ladder is pulled away. The air-boss calls for the jets to start. And soon enough the turbine in 415 spools up to idle speed.

Okay. Good start.

Hand-signals back and forth. The plane captain and I begin a choreographed dance with flaps and speed-brakes and control surfaces following his exaggerated moves. Exhaust gasses from running jets join the stack gas and thicken the air. Up and down the line pilots are pulling canopies shut. We’d be wise to leave them open. Go over the side with your canopy closed means water-pressure locks it in place. Yet, those hot fumes—I follow the others. I crank my air-conditioning to full-cold, and tiny balls of ice spit like flak from vent nozzles to bounce off my helmet.

Far back in my fuselage, tucked into a compartment, resides a frosty green bottle the size of a soccer ball. An hour from now that green bottle, source of this sweet oxygen, will nourish a fire that will burn like a cutting torch and kill 415.

Now, though, the oxygen is refreshingly crisp. It clears away the taste of jet exhaust and stack gas.

So, yes, 415 was lost later that morning. A hit, then fire. I ejected. But that’s another story. The events of that day continue to haunt me. I think about it a lot.

But almost as often, I think about Bill. All these years later I’ll find myself weeping in the warm water of my morning shower. Trance-like I’ll see Bill Searfus flying through jade-green seawater.

✽ ✽ ✽

Larry Duthie is a retired newspaper editor and publisher. He also did some freelance work during his writing career. His memoir, Return to Saigon, was published in September. It centers around his years as a naval aviator during the Vietnam War, when he flew 137 combat missions. In July, 1967, as the air war entered its most intense period, he was shot down near Hanoi.

After the war he was briefly a ski bum in Aspen, then using the G.I. Bill, he returned to college.  At the University of Colorado he met his wife and earned a bachelor of science degree in journalism, graduating with honors. He now lives on a small farm in Eastern Washington.

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