Catastrophe Averted!

By Nicholas J. Mirales

One of the reactivated carriers was the Essex -class Antietam (CV-36). Commissioned in January 1945, she was en route to support the invasion of Japan when World War II ended. She was deactivated in 1949 after spending three years in the western Pacific supporting the postwar occupation forces in Manchuria, Korea, and North China. Reactivated in December 1950, in less than nine months she was heading for the western Pacific with Carrier Air Wing 15 (CVG-15) on board.

When she joined TF 77 on 15 October 1951, the Essex (CV-9) and Bon Homme Richard (CV-31) were on station. In keeping with her crew-given “Go Get ’em Antietam ” nickname, she commenced combat operations within seven hours of arriving on station by launching 35 aircraft to conduct combat air patrol (CAP), armed reconnaissance, and railroad-cutting missions. 1 The results from the first day in combat were reported as excellent, with attacks completed against two rail tunnels, a railroad bridge, track, and several rail cars. On the night of the 17th, the Bon Homme Richard departed station, leaving the Essex and Antietam to provide TF 77 its air power. Over the course of the next 15 days, the Antietam steadily increased the daily number of sorties flown, reaching 90 by 30 October, as the crew’s proficiency in arming, fueling, and launching and recovering aircraft improved. Night heckler missions (flights during the dusk-to-dawn hours to keep pressure on the enemy), naval gunfire spotting, photo recon, and close-air support were added to the mission set. On 31 October, the Bon Homme Richard returned to relieve the Essex . 2

On 4 November, the Antietam ’s crew was up before dawn preparing for the 0500 launch of a pair of two-ship AD-4NL night-heckler missions, an early morning launch of a strike package (19 propeller-driven aircraft and ten F9F-2B Panther jets), and the usual defensive CAP (eight Panthers) and antisubmarine patrol (AD-4 Skyraider) missions. During the predawn launch of the heckler aircraft, a broken bridle on the left catapult caused an AD-4NL Skyraider to crash into the water, but all three crew were recovered safely.

A few hours later, the strike package was launched. The principal attack aircraft were the prop-driven F4U Corsairs and Skyraiders. Having a slower speed and longer endurance than the jets, they were launched first. The Panthers, with fighter sweeps, armed recon, and CAP assignments followed on. All the aircraft completed their missions, and only one Skyraider (minor damage from small-arms fire) and a VF-831 Panther (significant damage from AAA hits) returned with battle scars.

Tragic End to a Routine Mission

Lieutenant George “Bucky” Brainard was flying in one of the CAP jets (side number 303). He had earned his wings of gold in mid-1943 and flown SB2C Helldivers and F6F Hellcats off the USS Hancock (CV-19) and Ticonderoga (CV-14) during World War II. Brainard saw action in the Battle of Leyte Gulf and later received a Distinguished Flying Cross for his action in attacking a Japanese destroyer in his rocket-equipped F6F. After the war, he transferred to the Naval Reserve and was assigned to squadron VFB-714 at Floyd Bennett Field in Brooklyn, New York. There he flew Hellcats, Corsairs, and FH-1 Phantoms.

VFB-714 went through several designation changes before becoming VF-837. It was a squadron of elite veterans, handpicked by their commanding officer, Lieutenant Commander Roland Kenton. VF-837 was the first reserve squadron to transition to jets. In January 1951, VF-837 and her sister-squadron, VF-831, were recalled to active duty. The squadron requested and was granted approval to transition to the Navy’s latest fighter, the Grumman F9F-2B Panther. All pilots and ground crew completed this transition in March 1951 and then transferred to Naval Air Station Moffet Field, California, with orders to report aboard the newly reactivated Antietam .

Lieutenant Brainard, having completed the usually routine mission on 4 November, this one in a plane belonging to VF-831, set up at 0945 for his landing approach: He lowered the gear, tailhook, and flaps, opened his canopy, reduced power to 52 percent, and slowed the plane to 115 knots. 3 The combination of the plane’s high speed, engine lag (spool-up time to full power), and the carrier’s straight deck made landing a first-generation jet on a flight deck a demanding task. Indicating 103 knots airspeed as he crossed the stern about 20 feet above the deck, his approach was normal and the landing signal officer cleared him to land. He cut power, lowered the nose slightly to descend, and then flared the nose, expecting to catch a wire.

The plane made a hard landing, bounced, and subsequently hit the flight deck in a slight nose-down attitude. The impact blew out the front tire, causing the nose wheel to disintegrate. In that nose-down attitude, the tailhook failed to catch any of the arresting wires. Hurtling down the deck at nearly 70 knots (about 80 mph), Brainard would have anticipated being stopped by one of two deployed Davis barriers. The Panther hit the first barrier, and its activating strap caught the damaged nose gear that was grinding along the deck. The main cable failed to properly activate as it, too, was caught by the dragging nose gear. The gear then collapsed, sending the Panther sliding on its nose toward the second barrier.

In anticipation of this very circumstance, the Panther had been designed with a barrier-engagement device. This was a retractable post that rose up in front of the canopy as the tailhook was lowered. Its purpose was to catch the activating strap and prevent the pointy-nosed jet from submarining under the barrier. Unfortunately, for reasons not listed in reports, the second barrier’s main cable failed to catch the main landing gear. Thus, once through that second barrier, Lieutenant Brainard was helplessly speeding toward a pack of Panthers, Corsairs, and Skyraiders parked on the flight deck directly ahead of him. In less than two seconds the out-of-control Panther collided with several of the parked aircraft, killing Brainard instantly. His Panther and two others were wrecked beyond repair; a fourth Panther, a Corsair, and two Skyraiders also were damaged.

Yet somehow, the stricken Panther’s jet engine continued to run, sitting now in a sea of twisted metal that contained trapped and injured crew, aviation fuel, bombs, and napalm. Immediately below, in the forward hangar deck, a contingent of the crew had assembled for Sunday services. It was a recipe for disaster.

A Crewman’s Desperate Gamble

Aviation Machinist’s Mate Nick Mirales was one of many crewmen on the flight deck at the time of the accident. An Antietam plankholder, he was on his second wartime cruise on board CV-36. After World War II he had transferred to the Naval Reserve and pursued his training as an aviation mechanic. The Brooklyn native had been assigned to VF-837 and was one of the squadron’s flight-deck troubleshooters. Recognizing the danger and realizing the engine could not be shut off by the inaccessible (and no doubt destroyed) cockpit controls, he charged into the carnage without a moment’s hesitation. In a daring display of quick-thinking resourcefulness, he crawled under the belly of the wrecked Panther near its still-running engine, opened an access panel, and closed a fuel-transfer valve. 4 The jet engine shut down. A major disaster had been averted. Without pause he then moved across the deck to help free a shipmate pinned in the wreckage of a plane that had been tossed onto the catwalk in the collision.

The accident killed three deck crewmen and injured nine others; a pilot also was hurt. The injuries ranged from broken bones, cuts, and contusions to dismemberment. All of them had been performing routine duties in what has been called the most hazardous workplace in the world. One can only imagine the losses and casualties that would have occurred if the engine had started a fire. U.S. carrier explosions/fires in subsequent years all reinforce just how close the Antietam came to a catastrophic disaster:

• 1966: Oriskany (CV-41)—44 dead, 156 injured, 6 aircraft destroyed

• 1967: Forrestal (CV-63)—134 dead, 161 injured, 21 aircraft destroyed

• 1969: Enterprise (CVN-65)—28 dead, 343 injured, 15 aircraft destroyed.

Just 33 minutes after impact, two Panthers were pushed overboard to allow the last of the returning strike aircraft to land. 5 Due to the extensive cockpit damage, Lieutenant Brainard’s body could not be recovered. A quick service was held, and he was buried at sea in his aircraft. The Antietam temporarily suspended combat operations; 4 November was officially noted as a red-letter day in the ship’s action report.

The ship resumed strike operations on 8 November (having paused a day to replenish supplies and then waiting out two days of adverse weather) and shortly thereafter was relived by the Essex on 16 November. On 6 January 1952, she returned to station equipped with the new positive-stop barricade installed forward of the Davis barriers. Consisting of two cross-deck cables connected to the arresting engine and laced with vertical canvas straps, the barricade was not dependent on the operation of the breakaway activating cables to engage the aircraft. Like the Davis barrier, the barricade was raised and lowered for each landing and then lowered to allow the aircraft to taxi forward. 6 Fortunately, the new barricade was not put to use for the remainder of the cruise, as the Davis barrier worked properly on the only other occasion it was needed. 7

Noted American author James Michener visited the Antietam during her deployment as part of the research for his book The Bridges at Toko-Ri (later a classic Korean War movie), which was centered on reservists flying in Task Force 77. 8 On 16 March 1952, CV-36 completed her fourth cruise off Korea. All told, she flew more than 6,000 sorties and earned two battle stars supporting TF 77 operations. Nine of her crew (four flight deck and five pilots) were lost during her Korean deployment. She returned to the States in April 1952 and was inducted into the New York Navy Yard for overhaul and modification in September of that year.

Legacies: A Modest Hero, an Angled Deck

Telling this story, and Nick Mirales’ role in preventing a genuine tragedy from mushrooming into a much larger disaster, is especially poignant for me because he was my father. After Korea, Dad went on to a successful 50-year career in aircraft maintenance, for which he received the Charles Taylor Master Mechanic Award. (Charles Taylor was the Wright brothers’ mechanic and is considered the first aviation mechanic in powered flight.) He was very proud of his military service, often sporting an Antietam baseball cap trimmed out with pins from the many crew reunions he attended. Typical of so many true heroes, he rarely spoke of Lieutenant Brainard’s horrific crash-landing. Indeed, it was not until after his passing, in August 2009, that our family discovered the citation Dad had received for his actions on 4 November 1951.

Given the small margins of safety involved with landing a first-generation jet on a straight-deck carrier and the limited data available, it’s impossible to determine what factors set in motion the chain of events that led to Brainard’s death. His name is recorded on a memorial plaque in Arlington National Cemetery. Among his surviving family is a nephew, Randy Altemus, who was motivated to become a naval aviator by the distinguished wartime flying service of both his father and his Uncle Bucky. In 1985, upon learning that Lieutenant Brainard’s name was not listed in the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, retired Captain Roland H. Kenton, a commanding officer who never stopped looking out for his men, contacted the family and helped correct the oversight.

VF-837 received orders to return to Korea on board the Princeton (CV-37) in 1953. As the ship departed Alameda and sailed under the Golden Gate Bridge, the unit was redesignated VF-154, the Black Knights. Over the years, VF-154 flew F-8s, F-4s, and F-14s, serving in Vietnam, Operation Desert Shield, Operation Iraqi Freedom, and Operation Enduring Freedom. Presently designated Strike Fighter Squadron 154 (VFA-154), similar to its Fighter/Bomber VFB-716 ancestry, the squadron now flies the F/A-18F Super Hornet as part of Carrier Air Wing 14 (CVW-14).

The Antietam emerged from the New York Navy Yard in December 1952 as America’s first angled-deck carrier and soon demonstrated the utility of the angled deck in support of jet operations: the ability to launch and recover aircraft while at the same time mitigating through-the-barrier accidents. In August 1953, she was redesignated an antisubmarine-warfare carrier. Operating from the East Coast, she deployed to the Atlantic and Mediterranean until April 1957. She finished her career as a training ship, providing carrier qualification for naval aviators until 1963, when she was mothballed at the same shipyard at which she had been built—the Philadelphia Navy Yard. In 1974 the Antietam was scrapped.

The Antietam had not been the first carrier to witness the type of accident it did on that November day in 1951. A month and a half earlier the Essex , sailing off Korea under TF 77, had 7 crew killed, 27 injured, and 4 planes destroyed when a battle-damaged F2H Banshee bounced over the barriers and hit the forward-parked planes. Nor was the Antietam the last. But when the last of the jet-capable Essex -class carriers received the angled-deck modification in January 1957, the Navy reduced by one the many hazards our pilots, air crews, and sailors face every day as they do their jobs on the flight deck.



1. “Navy Crews Nick Name Flattops,” Naval Aviation News , 7 December 1951, p. 7.

2. Action Report of CV-36, 15 October–16 November 1951, dated 17 November 1951, Naval History and Heritage Command, Washington Navy Yard, Washington, DC.

3. Speeds from “Pilot’s Handbook for Navy Models F9F-2, -3 Airplanes,” revised 15 February 1950.

4. Citation from Commander 7th Fleet to Aviation Machinist’s Mate Second Class Nicholas Mirales.

5. CV-36 Ship’s Log, 4 November 1951, Naval History and Heritage Command.

6. Tommy Thomason, “Davis Barrier Redux,” U.S. Navy Aircraft History, 1 October 2008, http://thanlont.blogspot.com/2008/10/davis-barrier-redux.html .

7. See “Arresting Gear” section (Part IV, Section A4) of Action Reports of CV-36, 16 January–9 February 1952, dated 17 February 1952, and 18 February–22 March 1952, dated 2 April 1952, Naval History and Heritage Command.

8. Action Reports of CV-36 18 February–22 March 1952, dated 2 April 1952, Naval History and Heritage Command.

 

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