Ghost Pilots

Jet's Near-Miss of Del Solved?

The actual story by Logan Jenkins at the San Diego Union Tribune on June 21, 2016 (as seen below) is beyond scary. The potential for damage, death, and destruction had never been higher. The scary thing is that this could accidentally happen again because as Alexander Pope once said, "To err is human." If it was not for some quick thinking and amazing piloting skills by Lt. (j.g.) C. W. Vandenberg, disaster would have been beyond imagination.

Lt. (j.g.) C.W. Vandenberg, center, receives The San Diego Union Award from Richard F. Pourade. The flier, who risked his life to turn back a pilotless jet from the San Diego area in 1954, was congratulated by Vice Adm. Harold Martin, at right. (U­T File)

by Logan Jenkins

N early 62 years ago, a runaway Navy jet loaded with rockets came within a hundred yards or so of turning the Hotel del Coronado, our Victorian crown jewel, into an ash heap.

Lost in the marine layer of time has been the precise effect, if any, of several jets that tried to alter the flight path of the pilotless F7U-3 Cutlass as it threatened the Del.

But as you’ll learn, just four months before Coronado’s near-death experience, San Diego was saved by a daring pilot under eerily similar circumstances

My God, what are the odds?

As chronicled in a May column, the afternoon of July 26, 1954, is burned into the Island’s long-term memory.

Vince Flynn, now a retired physician, was a 15-year-old boy on the beach when Lt. Floyd Nugent ditched his Cutlass off Coronado within sight of the beach.

But the Cutlass, which had damaged its landing gear when catapulted off the USS Hancock, did not go into the water as planned. It kept on flying in clockwise circles for nearly 30 minutes, going out to sea, turning, and then passing North Island as it returned to repeatedly terrorize the Coronado beach.

According to Flynn and others, several jets flew alongside the Cutlass, which was descending with each of the four loops. As the Cutlass was heading for the Del the last time, one plane appeared to nudge the wing of the Cutlass and cause it to veer right and land in the water, just a few hundred yards from the hotel.

Inexplicably, the coverage in The San Diego Union and the Evening Tribune failed to focus on aerial heroics. The only indication of a possible diversion was a buried Union quote from the Del’s tennis pro: “Two planes were flying above the craft, two others were close in at each wing. It looked like they were trying to steer the plane out to sea.”

Intrigued, I started sharing notes with Flynn, who’s proposed an article on the dramatic near-miss for the Smithsonian’s Air & Space Magazine.

To start, we requested the official accident report from the Naval History and Heritage Command in Washington, D.C. To my surprise, the report is classified. I appealed the absurd classification, but it could take up to a year for the report to be released, I was told.

In the May column, I ended with the promise that you’d be among the first to know if I ever learned, as Paul Harvey delighted in saying, the rest of the story.

The first new lead came from Doug Gueldner of San Carlos who directed me to a salty 1997 memoir, “The Wrong Stuff: Flying on the Edge of Disaster” by the late Cmdr. John Moore, a test pilot in the early Cold War era.

To prove how dicey flying the ill-fated Cutlass could be, Moore gives this second-hand account as Nugent prepared to eject:

“So Floyd trimmed up at 8,000 feet under the watchful eye of Nick Smith in an FJ-3 (Fury).... Good parachute, good water landing, good helo pickup and Floyd was deposited at North Island Air Station. Meanwhile, the Cutlass did not seem to miss Floyd one whit and just kept on going. It headed east toward San Diego, pursued by Smith, who had discovered that this Cutlass had exceptional perseverance. Nick made several valiant attempts to tip the wayward plane seaward by putting his wing under the stubborn F7U, gaining for his efforts only smashed running lights.”

Nicholas Smith III, records show, was a World War II ace. His grandchildren confirmed he was in San Diego about this time. In the ‘60s, he was the commander of the Navy Test Pilot School. He died about 20 years ago.

Was Smith the pilot who eyewitnesses like Flynn and Coronado lifeguard Russ Elwell saw nudging the Cutlass? It’s possible, though Moore can come off like a pilot in his cups spinning war stories at Coronado’s old Mexican Village.

In short order, I received another email out of the blue yonder.

Pete Hekman, a retired vice admiral in University City, expressed bewilderment that I was having trouble digging up the identity of the pilot who saved the Del.

“I find that difficult to understand,” he wrote, “since the pilot was given the keys to Coronado, the event made news everywhere, and even warranted an article in my hometown weekly newspaper” in the Central Valley city of Ripon.

The flier who saved the Del was one Arthur den Dulk, a fellow Riponian, Hekman said. It turned out to be an illuminating, but false, lead.

Den Dulk, who was indeed a Navy pilot, told me he was in Hawaii at the time. He said another Ripon native was the hero.

When I told Connie Jorgensen, who runs Ripon’s historical museum, why I was calling, she said, “I’m getting chills.”

She rushed over to the museum and sent me her voluminous file on Clarence Vandenberg, a native son of Ripon who, as fate would have it, died a month before.

Here’s the Los Angeles Times two-deck banner headline to a story datelined San Diego:

DARING FLIER SAVES CITY FROM PILOTLESS PLANE. The deck reads: Herds Jet With Own Wing Tips.

In San Diego’s morning daily, a headline gushes, “Flier Wins S.D. Union Award; Risked Life to Divert Plane.” In the Union photograph above, Lt. Clarence Vandenberg is receiving a commemorative watch from Richard F. Pourade, the paper’s editor.

There was just one glaring problem. The date was off by four months.

On March 27, 1954, a Cougar jet spun out of control 35 miles south of the Coronado Islands. The pilot ejected. The plane, however, righted itself at 4,000 feet, climbed to 8,000 feet and resumed normal flight, speeding straight toward San Diego at 200 knots. Vandenberg flew beside the “ghost” plane and, using air pressure from his wing, lifted the other plane’s wing. When the Cougar turned too far and was heading for land again, Vandenberg repeated the maneuver on the other side.

“I didn’t touch wings with the other plane,” Vandenberg explained later, “but if I had, I was flying steadily enough so that there would have been no danger.”

Easy for him to say.

In addition to the Union award, Vandenberg received the keys to Coronado on April 6.

Inexplicably, the reporting of the July Cutlass incident, which focused on the pilot’s safe ejection and retrieval, did not include any mention of the similar near-disaster just four months before.

I was mulling all this new information, trying to decide if I had enough to satisfy your insatiable curiosity, when San Diego’s Navy community delivered a bombshell.

Through an anonymous source, Flynn and I obtained the 1954 accident report marked “Confidential.”

As you might expect from the Navy, there’s no gee-whiz stuff. No “Holy crap! That damned Cutlass almost destroyed the Del!”

It’s mostly dull technical information about the steam catapult, a faulty plane part, the mechanics of a jet that, believe it or not, was pulled out of the drink and, after repairs, flew again.

Of most interest was a statement from Lt. D.L. Christianson, who was also in in a Cutlass when Nugent ejected.

According to the statement, Christianson’s plane and two other jets — an F9F-6 Cougar and a TV-2 Shooting Star — “all tried to steer (the pilotless Cutlass) away from San Diego area, but at 95-100 knots, none of us could slow down with it. I could momentarily move the wing to change the turn but five or 10 knots difference in my speed and that of (the Cutlass) made steering it impossible. It made four orbits starting at 7,200 (feet) and hit in the water about 300 yards off the beach from Southern Coronado.”

According to retired Capt. Dick Cavicke, a pilot who joined the squadron later, Don Christianson died in an automobile accident in the late ‘50s.

Looking back, it was the closest of calls for Coronado, one that still haunts Flynn.

For 62 years, he’s believed his own wide eyes that saw at least one unheralded pilot save the Hotel del Coronado that summer day.

It turns out that, according to two accounts (one of them official, the other a bit boozy), dumb luck may have been the crucial factor in the Del’s dodge of a fatal bullet.

But at the very least, Navy pilots were doing their damnedest up there to protect civilians.

To Flynn, the truth is a poignant reminder of what it is to be young and, though scared half to death, filled with admiration for the bravery of men in planes.

“Aren’t we all looking for heroes at 15?” he asked me Monday night.

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