As mentioned in a previous excerpt in “Personal Stories”, how did John Estes land orders to a land-locked Colorado Springs as a Navy Pilot?
But like Richard Easton’s accounts of his dad, Roger Easton and the Navy Research Laboratory, John’s story exemplifies the Navy’s foothold in the original militarized space story. Before he began his tour of duty at the space mecca in Csprings characterized by the famed Cheyenne Mountain, John’s Navy career was similar to many other naval pilots during the Vietnam era—though historically documented as a conflict since the U.S. never officially declared war on Vietnam, day-to-day operations for a serviceman showed no differentiation between ‘war’ or ‘conflict’. John and his peers served on aircraft carriers within a carrier battle group, comprised of an impressive fleet of frigates, destroyers and of course, a carrier at its core. At one point early in his flying career, John flew early warning missions off the coast of Vietnam in the newly minted E2C Hawkeye—“it was like trying to land a falling elephant on a postage stamp,” John remarked when asked about landing his Hawkeye on a boat. He was on float for 9 months at a time; 9-10 months was typical for West Pac, sometimes extending up to a year. He also recounted the story of his carrier, the USS Essex, going on mission to pluck Nasa’s Apollo 7 crew from the middle of the Pacific Ocean. But even before this usual 1970’s navy pilot path, John experienced a not-as-common event, after initial flight school and before his first (and only) space ops job. I’ll digress into this story to illustrate the example of the type of service member brought into early space operations.
In 1960, John was sent to Corpus Christi, TX to fly the AD-6 Skyraider, later designated the A-1. This was a single engine attack aircraft, or dive bomber; that’s right, an aircraft designed to nose dive towards the earth at top speeds with no redundancy to rescue the pilot should an emergency occur. John ‘Jack’ Estes paid attention in training and was intimately familiar with the quirks of this temperamental flying death box. There used to be a tradition for A-1 pilots to pay homage to their aircraft after the initial flight with a hearty steak and a grateful heart if it brought him back in one piece. The Skyraider had the dubious distinction of having no room for an instructor seat, leaving the student alone even in a maiden flight. John barely raised an eyebrow when asked how he felt his first time up in the A-1, “Well, it was an interesting flight.” Another Skyraider memory evoked a two-eyebrow rise, however. Jack Estes recalls one particularly harrowing flight in his A-1 attack aircraft. The day started as any other training day, two flights scheduled—1 in the morning, and 1 in the afternoon with a debrief and lunch in between. He was conducting dive bombing runs at Padre Island, which is now an international resort destination for beach-goers. The morning run was fairly routine. Debriefing proved it to be a decent hit on targets.
After lunch, at 1230CST, John readied for his afternoon ride in the sky thinking “Man, I can’t believe I get paid to do this!” He taxied down to the runway in serpentine fashion so he could see where he was going. The A-1’s nose sat higher than its tail with wheels on the ground, so the pilots were forced to zig-zag their way out to the field, keeping a fixed object in the distance in their sight with each zig-zag. Once on the runway, John applied throttle, flaps up, and he was airborne. Climbing about 5000 feet, he reviewed targets and the ordinance he would drop. Nearing the Padre Island coastal bombing field, he corrected course somewhat, throttled back, pushed the yoke forward to drop the nose and put the aircraft into a dive approaching 200 mph. A thousand feet of altitude flew by in moments—the earth was rushing toward him with what most would consider an uncomfortable rate of closure. The high angle dive for which the A-1 was designed also required deployment of the 2 feet by 4 feet air brakes affectionately known as the ‘barn doors’ to assist in dampening speed. Positioning on target, he readied the bombs at about 700 feet and was approaching max speed exceeding 300mph. Simultaneous to the leveling point, the Navy pilot dropped bombs when he noticed the familiar roar of the engine was replaced by an eery silence. His engine stalled at the low spot! This presented a significant problem as the Skyraider rode on a single propeller engine. The earth was rushing toward him—he made an attempt at a restart but the engine would not turn over! It was a no-go—what now? With no time to for sophisticated emergency maneuvers and the same time constraints demanding an instant decision, John thought “I’ve got some good momentum here,” so at just over 400 feet from getting up close and personal with the target that remained in sight, John violently pulled back on the yoke, forcing his Skyraider out of the dive and climbing silently towards the sun now. He only had one try left before gravity would overtake his momentum and send him into a free fall. With a quick prayer and another push of the engine switch, he heard the life-giving rumble and saw the tips of the propeller rise and fall over the crest of the nose. There was no time to think about what had just happened as instructions came over the radio from ground control– “don’t come back to base with any ordinance” was the directive. John regained his composure and flight pattern, entered another dive, blew up his target and returned to base. Upon alighting the runway, his heart beating a little faster, the pre-flight thought of the day changed to a sobering “I can’t believe I don’t get paid more for this…..”