Swim Call

Jim M


Spinning props, flight decks, jet wash, one moment of distraction. Recipe for disaster, Navy aircraft carriers only need less than a second to flash your life away. The USS Forrestal CVA59, when I boarded her in 1961 was still a fairly recently built ship. First of her type to be built from the ground up with the angled flight deck. My rating which dealt with maintaining shipboard radio communications equipment also gave me more access to the ships island. A privilege which I used a lot to observe aircraft launches and landings. Any flight deck work is a dangerous occupation. Later on it would display to me it's really ugly side of that type of work. Whenever I had a free moment be it day or night I would head up into the island so I could watch takeoffs or recovery aircraft operations.
Before leaving on our Med cruise the yards had installed a PLAT system. Which basically was a early version of video cameras which used at that time very wide tape to record landings. Up in the ready room the pilots could replay these tapes to learn from any mistakes they had made while landing. There were two cameras buried in the deck which could record takeoffs and landings. There was also a camera on the rear of the island that could be manned and was used to record flight deck activity since it could be pointed in any direction.

One of our pilots who overshot his landing dropped the planes left wheel into the catwalk at the edge of the flight deck. Tilly, our crane, was brought out so the aircraft could be lifted back up to the deck. The manned camera was recording this entire sequence of events. So later on we were able to review exactly what happened. After Tilly was in position someone needed to climb up on the aircraft and get her hooked and ready to be lifted. One of the flight deck crewmen could be seen getting ready to climb up for the hookup. What he did next baffled us, he was wearing a life jacket which is normally not worn up on the deck. However he removed his life jacket I suppose to make it easier to climb up and get the hook into position. We watched him climb up and immediately slide down the aircraft fuselage and disappear over the side. I suppose he had not realized the aircraft was tilted a lot more than he could see from the deck. But we would replay the PLAT tape over and over so we could watch this guy take off his life jacket, climb up and immediately slide down into the ocean about 80 feet below.

Later on we got some feed back from the chopper crew who had launched immediately when the man overboard sounded. They made their best effort to try and recover this accident victim. The water the ship was traveling through was exceptionally clean and clear. The rescue team said when they arrived over the area they could easily see him. But he was already too far below the surface to successfully recover him. They also noted that it looked like with the ship moving at maybe 30 knots an him hitting the water from eighty feet his odd twisted position in the water below made it look like he had suffered a serious back injury. More than likely he was either knocked out from the fall or paralyzed from a back injury, either way he drowned and his body was not recovered.