It was time to go.
The aircrew of the US Navy E-2C Hawkeye aircraft had been working through the NATOPS1 emergency procedure for “ENGINE FIRE IN FLIGHT” and had reached the final point on the checklist:
“If fire warning light remains ON, and fire is still evident: BAILOUT, DITCH OR LAND.”
The twin-engine Hawkeye had just launched from the aircraft carrier when the starboard engine fire warning light illuminated, and despite working through the engine fire emergency checklist, the entire engine nacelle was engulfed in flames. Of the three choices in the procedure, landing or ditching always had been preferred to the bailout. The E-2C does not have ejection seats, and the five-man crew knew that successful bailout scenarios had not happened before. This crew chose to bailout. At an altitude of 4,000 feet, the crew released the parachutes from their seats, made their way to the main entrance hatch and jumped out, the three naval flight officers (NFOs) first, then the two pilots.
This crew leapt into the sea and also into history as the first full five-man crew to successfully bailout from a Hawkeye. Their story would follow them throughout their naval careers in profound ways. Illustrating many firsts and lasts, they reflect on the bailout, 30 years later.
Takeoff from the FID
The day was 8 July 1991, and the USS Forrestal (CV-59) was in her third month of a deployment to the Mediterranean Sea. The Forrestal, affectionately called “The FID” (for the ship’s motto, “First in Defense”) was the United States’ first supercarrier. The Mediterranean deployment was in the aftermath of Operation Desert Storm, in which the Forrestal and her airwing, Carrier Air Wing Six (CVW-6), did not participate. When Iraq invaded Kuwait in August 1990, The FID was in an operational stand-down after just returning from a six-month deployment, making the ship and her air wing last in line for deployment to Operations Desert Shield/Storm. After a frenetic series of fleet exercises in the fall of 1990, the ship was ready deploy again in January 1991. By then the war was already over and the Navy ordered the ship to stand down. After a few more startups and stand-downs, The FID’s deployment started in May 1991 and would last for nine months. In service since 1955, this would be the last operational deployment for the “First in Defense.”
The Forrestal’s Hawkeye squadron, the VAW-122 Steeljaws, was supporting Operation Provide Comfort over northern Iraq with other aircraft from CVW-6. It was a sunny, clear day in the eastern Mediterranean Sea, with “7 nautical miles of visibility, a distinct horizon, clear of clouds.”2 Although the E-2C is normally the first fixed-wing aircraft to launch in the flight deck cycle, this aircraft, call sign Steeljaw 601, needed an engine maintenance check before flight, and therefore launched next-to-last.3 All of the squadron’s aircraft had experienced a number of false engine-fire warnings over the past year, which would impact the decision the crew made later.
The pilots were Lieutenant Vincent “Vinny” Bowhers, the pilot in command, in the right seat, and Lieutenant (j.g.) John “Chet” Lemmon in the left seat. The NFOs were Lieutenant (j.g.) Terry “Merc” Morris, the radar officer, in the most forward seat; Lieutenant Commander John “Yurch"” Yurchak, the combat information center (CIC) officer, in the center seat; and Lieutenant (j.g.) Robert “Bobby” Forwalder, the air control officer, the farthest aft seat.4 The Hawkeye had just launched at 1154; approximately 20 seconds into the mission, the starboard engine fire warning light alerted the pilots. There was no visual indication of fire, no smoke, and sufficient engine power, and the crew thought it was another faulty fire sensor. They declared an emergency, the initial goal being to return to the Forrestal and land with the starboard engine shut down, if necessary. The Hawkeye turboprop engines have sufficient power to fly and land on a single engine. “We told the [Forrestal] tower that we would need eight minutes to dump fuel to get to a max trap [landing] weight,” Bowhers recalled. That would test the flight deck crew’s ability to clear the landing area for an emergency recovery.
‘We’re on Fire!’
As the crew was working through the emergency procedure, Forwalder reported seeing clear liquid trailing from the engine nacelle. The NFOs have windows on the starboard side and can look at the starboard engine nacelle, a view not available to the pilots. Yurchak recalled having “an element of patterned disbelief of the fire warning sensors,” thinking this was going to be just a scrubbed mission, when Morris exclaimed, “Yurch, we’re on fire!” Yurchak shifted the decision process with Bowhers from saving the aircraft to saving themselves—meaning a bailout. Yurchak relayed to the cockpit, “Vinnie, we're on fire!” Bowhers closed off the fuel flow, shutting the engine down, then activated the engine fire extinguisher, which quenched the blaze. Before they could feel any relief that the procedure had worked, a few seconds later the nacelle fire returned—and surged.
Bowhers recalled, “Yurch relayed enough urgency that we decided, let’s get out before it’s too late.” In addition to the bailout checklist items and making “MAYDAY” radio calls, additional risks were on their minds. The flaps could stress a fire-weakened wing, so the pilots decided not to use them to slow the aircraft. “The wing would have broken off,” noted Bowhers. “I remember specifically there was a ‘gripe’ on the autopilot not working.” If the autopilot also failed, the success of a crew bailout was slim.
Flying at approximately 180 knots, Lemmon pulled the door jettison handle. Because there is no “door missing” indicator in the cockpit, the pilots did not know if the door was removed. In a 1979 Hawkeye mishap, the crew had been unable to jettison the door, preventing them from bailing out and surviving.5 Bowhers called back to the NFOs on the intercom but heard no reply. Yurchak and Morris already had disconnected their intercom cables and were headed toward the door. Morris was the first of the NFOs to bail out. He was followed closely by Yurchak. After a slight delay, Forwalder followed.
While the E-2C crew was focused on their emergency procedure, the focus of the other aircraft and carrier personnel was on their safety and rescue. The last aircraft of this launch cycle, an F-14 Tomcat from the VF-11 Red Rippers, heard the “MAYDAY” call and immediately found and followed the Hawkeye, becoming the on-scene search-and-rescue (SAR) commander. Flown by Lieutenant Coby Loessberg (pilot) and Lieutenant Commander Doug Allen (radar intercept officer),” the Tomcat was shadowing the burning Hawkeye and Allen was counting out, “one good chute . . . two good chutes . . .” over the radio, providing situational awareness for the Forrestal and other airborne aircraft.6 Bowhers recalled that hearing the “good chute” calls on the radio let him know the NFOs were safely out of the aircraft. In the Steeljaws’ ready room, Lieutenant (j.g.) Randy Blackmon recalled hearing those radio calls and following the count along for the report of all the aircrew safely bailing out.
In the CIC, OS2 Dennis Hernandez was the air controller on duty. The CIC became crowded as officers gathered to monitor the situation. Hernandez recalls being focused on the radar scope and radios but remembered the senior air wing commanders behind him.
“The F-14 is counting chutes . . . and there’s a delay,” recounted Blackmon. “When they get to ‘three good chutes’ on the radio, we were saying, ‘Come on, Vinny!’” adding to the high tension of squadron-mates rooting for the safety of all five. Lieutenant Matthew Danehy, who conducted the post-incident investigation recalled three SAR situations: the NFOs, the first pilot, and the last pilot. Loessberg, in the Tomcat tracking the aircrew bailing out, recollected there was a time gap between the NFOs, and the first pilot, and then another gap until the second pilot bailed out. This time gap spread the aircrew over a total distance seven to eight nautical miles. “We need one more count,” Blackmon recalled, and when the call “five good chutes” came across the radio, “it was like ‘Yes!’ They had all made it.”
Rescue at Sea
Bowhers was one of the Steeljaws’ most senior lieutenants, in his third deployment with VAW-122. He recounted, “I actually didn’t follow NATOPS; I said, ‘John, get out!’” By having Lemmon bail out first he wanted to make sure Lemmon, who was a first-tour pilot, got out of the aircraft.7 The procedure calls for the autopilot to be engaged, permitting level flight while the pilots bail out. The “griped” autopilot was something the veteran pilot was clearly considering, putting his crewmate’s survival above his own.
“There were a lot of things that I decided were just dumb luck,” Bowhers recalled; when he trimmed the aircraft for level flight and engaged the auto pilot, “the funny part of the story was, it worked!” As Bowhers looked toward the door, he saw Lemmon waiting there for him. With no intercom system, Bowhers waved to Lemmon to bail out and then followed him.
Bailing out was just the first part of survival, because rescue from the sea is no simple task. Loessberg, who was flying in the F-14 overhead, recalled, “You could see the parachutes, but when they were in the water, they disappeared.” The men in the water became impossible to see from the air, despite clear daylight conditions.
“I was talking to Terry on the radio, but I couldn’t see him,” Yurchak noted, with the sea swells too large for visual contact. “I saw the H-3 fly over me, heading toward Terry [Morris], but when they saw me they stopped.” Yurchak was the first crewman to be rescued from the sea. Morris recalled that, after talking with Yurchak on their survival radios but not seeing the SAR helicopter, he set the radio down to access his flares. The retention lanyard on the radio had come loose, and he lost it “to Davy Jones’s Locker.” With some urgency, Morris began to fire off his pencil flares to attract the attention of the helicopter. Unable to contact Morris via the lost radio, the SH-3 with Yurchak and Forwalder on board hovered nearby. “They told me that they were waiting until I’d run out of flares so they could safely approach and recover me!” Morris said; he was the last to be rescued from the water.
Back in the Forrestal CIC, elation at the successful bailout was tempered by the next phase of the emergency. The burning aircraft continued flying. Petty Officer Hernandez, his watch station providing radar control of the strike channel, continued tracking the still-airborne Hawkeye. Hernandez identified an available F/A-18 Hornet, “Pirate 300” from VFA-137, and directed it toward the burning, unpiloted Hawkeye. The carrier airwing commander (CAG), Captain Stan Bloyer, decided to ensure Steeljaw 601 went safely into the water. He confirmed with Commander Vernon Huber, the Steeljaws’ CO, to make certain the first Navy shootdown of an E-2C Hawkeye involved a crewless aircraft. CAG Bloyer gave Martinez the order, which he then passed along: “Pirate 300, we want you to shoot down the E-2.”
This order, broadcast over the strike frequency, caused some concern in another Hawkeye, Steeljaw 603, airborne from the previous airwing launch cycle. Hernandez clarified to Pirate 300 to take the burning E-2, and “report you’ve got the right E-2.” Hernandez recalled being asked to confirm three separate times that Pirate 300 saw the Hawkeye “splash.” The USS Yorktown (CG-48) steamed to the crash site but was only able to recover minimal floating debris of Steejlaw 601.
Thirty years later, those around the mishap recalled both large and small details.
At the end of this final deployment of the Forrestal, her airwing was slated for decommissioning. Many junior squadron members were later transferred to other fleet squadrons where they would accrue experience to strengthen their careers. Both Lemmon and Forwalder were transferred to the VAW-124 Bear Aces. Sadly, it was on a deployment with the Bear Aces that Forwalder was lost in a subsequent Hawkeye mishap on 26 March 1993.
Huber (Captain, USN, Retired) recalled two major positive impacts that this first successful bailout yielded. First, that all five of the aircrew survived, and second because of this success, the prevailing attitude in the E-2 community that ditching was preferred over bailout was reversed. Responsible for the overall welfare of his squadron, Huber remembers gaining access to a rare satellite telephone to call his wife to share the emotional news with the Steeljaw families that all the aircrew were alive and safe.
Bowhers (Captain, USN, Retired), eventually commanded the VAW-124 Bear Aces. “I credit Yurch for saving all our lives,” he said. “. . . My big lesson is: Decide before it’s too late.” Bowhers recalled that the SAR helicopter flew right over him and didn’t see him. The high airspeed on the bailout caused Bowhers to lose his helmet (with its white reflective coating), making his recovery more challenging. The SAR helicopter couldn’t see him, but then got a direction-finding bearing on his survival radio signal.
The lessons of the mishap “allowed me to have conversations with people about safety that other people couldn’t have,” said Bowhers. After his return to the ship, he remembered to thank his maintenance team. “I told them, ‘You can write off the gripe on the autopilot—it worked!’”
Lemmon, currently Commander of Naval Air Warfare Center, Aircraft Division, became a test pilot and later commanded the Air Test and Evaluation Squadron 20 (VX-20). “Is this really happening?” he recalled. “We’re actually going through these procedures. I’m actually lifting this handle and jettisoning the main entrance hatch. This is gettin’ real!” His memories of the incident include lessons he has used to connect with systems testing and aircraft acquisition over his career, such as the redundant fire warning systems now in the E-2D aircraft. As an acquisition professional, he noted, “This is the one story that I relate to people, as it fits in with why what we do is so important in the acquisition side of the Navy.”
Lemmon had placed his wallet in his navigation publication bag, which remained in the burning aircraft after the crew had bailed out. In 1991, replacing identification cards, etc., while deployed at sea was not an easy task. “Never get separated from your gear,” is an old naval aviation adage, Lemmon noted, and to this day he always flies with his wallet in his flight suit pocket.
Yurchak (Captain, USN, Retired), would later command the VAW-116 Sun Kings. He recalled that he could see the progress of the engine fire, noting that the nacelle covering had burned away and he could “see through the engine. . . . I told Terry [Morris], ‘Get ready to go to the door,’” to be able to bailout as soon as it opened. Morris, however, recalled only hearing “Terry. Go. Door,” and he was standing ready to bail out as soon as the door opened. Yurchak remembered “total silence” while descending in his parachute and being able to watch the Hawkeye fly away.
Thinking about the minimal crash debris collected by the Yorktown, Yurch recalled, “I was able to scavenge a part of the aft fire extinguisher and the back cover from my emergency pocket checklist,” as a keepsake of his experience. As the mission commander, he briefed the crew that the tasking orders for this particular mission would be light, ironically saying after the briefing, “This is going to be a boring flight.”
Morris (Captain, USN, Retired) progressed through his career to command the VAW-123 Screwtops and later served as Carrier Air Wing Seven (CAG-7) commander. He recalled stowing his flight gloves on a loop handle above his flight station during preflight operations. As the E-2C was taxiing to the catapault, he noted, “Yurch told me, ‘Don’t leave them there,’ pointing to my gloves.” After another reminder from Yurchak, Morris took the gloves and put them in his flight suit pocket.
Later, he recalled, after the bailout when he was in the water, he was going to light off his signal flare to help the SAR helicopters find him and said aloud to himself “Gloves!” He was glad he had them. Having lost his radio and unable to communicate, Morris started lighting off his survival kit’s pencil flares, his gloves protecting his hands, hoping to attract the attention of the SAR helicopter.
Morris also recounted an impactful demonstration of leadership that day. After the crew was examined in the Forrestal’s medical department and declared fit, Huber brought them to his stateroom for a debriefing. “I’m so happy that you all survived,” he said. “It shoulda’ been me,” in that aircraft. Knowing how the post-incident shock could affect these naval aviators, Huber emphasized the need to rely on their training and professionalism. Morris recalled being told, “The most important thing is to get back into an airplane and fly again.” Morris credited the camaraderie of squadron mates and dedicated leadership of the CO for enabling him to recover from the stresses of this incident.
This was not the last time an aircrew had to bail out of a stricken E-2 Hawkeye. In 2010, an E-2C from the VAW-121 Bluetails had a mishap where all but one bailed out.8 Veterans of the Steeljaw 601 bailout were called on to counsel these newer Hawkeye survivors, using their shared experience to hasten the recovery of these younger aviators from the shock of a near-miss event.
Although a “brush with death” mishap can cause lasting trauma, the Steeljaw flight crewmembers continued to serve and developed into inspiring and dedicated leaders. The last to remain in the Navy, Rear Admiral Lemmon is still in a flying role. He summed up the experience by remarking, “Every now and then I think, I can’t believe I jumped out of an airplane that was on fire. You never know what tomorrow will bring.”
This article is dedicated to the memory of Lieutenant Robert A. Forwalder, 24 April 1967–26 March 1993.
1. “Naval Aviation Training and Operational Procedures Standardization,” the prescribed flight operating instructions for naval aircraft, includes emergency checklists that aircrew commit to memory.
2. U.S. Navy Safety Center Mishap report, “161343 08JUL1991_E-2C-VAW-122_LOST_AT_SEA”
3. The “Plane Guard” SH-3 Sea King helicopters are always the first to launch. They provide active search and rescue capability for the area near the carrier and are also the last to recover as the end of flight operations.
4. The author will use aircrew ranks as were held in 1991.
5. Peter Mersky, “5 Survived!” Approach 37, no. 10 (May 1992): 16. The NATOPS procedure warns negative air pressure caused by open escape hatches may prevent jettisoning of the main entrance door. The Hawkeye launches from the catapult with the these hatches open to accommodate possible ditching.
6. Allen was the Operations Officer for the CVW-6 Carrier Air Group Commander and not a member of VF-11.
7. The NATOPS procedure calls for the pilot in the left seat, where Lemmon was flying, to bail out last.
8. Lieutenant Steven “ABREK” Zilberman was unable to bail out and was sadly lost in this mishap during Operation Enduring Freedom. https://rememberingtrueheroes.home.blog/2019/04/02/navy-lt-miroslav-s-zilberman/.