It’s been about 10 years now since I first picked up an Alabama rig. Years ago when the a-rig first came on the scene I was making and selling a lot of striper tackle so making the transition to bass tackle wasn’t that hard, especially since an a-rig was just a sized down design of the u-rigs I made for stripers. At the time I was making a lot of u-rigs for the striper guys so it was just a matter of taking a Dremel tool and modifying one of my smaller lead head molds to accommodate smaller wire diameters. Once I finished the design we started manufacturing a-rigs for another label and they were sold at Sportsman’s Warehouse’s across the south. Back then my now son-in-law Levi was still in high school and worked in my shop after school helping me make the a-rigs to sell. Now it’s some 9 years later and he married my step-daughter and now they have a son, my grandson Dawson Hogan. Here’s a video from 9 years ago featuring the castable Georgia rig we designed and manufactured.
There were times when I would throw the a-rig but I always thought it to be a lot of work and in a way, cheating a bit, offering an array of baits instead of just one lure. Nonetheless, it is a good way to target fish and if you learn the technique it can be a lot of fun. The thing about the a-rig is that it mimics a school of bait and that little wired up bait ball can be used in a lot of different places as well as covering a lot of ground quickly. There are two ways that I use the a-rig in early spring and one of the two is around the docks, I really like moving down a row of docks with the rig and there are specific areas of the dock that I focus on. The first is making casts in front of a dock. That’s the first cast I make. Secondly is casting parallel to the sides of the dock and getting the rig as close to the dock as possible. I don’t really let the rig sink that much and I try and focus on keeping it around 5-6 feet in depth during the retrieve. When you let the rig go deeper around docks you take the chance of hanging cables or someone’s brush piles they dropped off their dock so I’m very careful around docks. Another area of the docks I like to throw the rig is the shady side or the shady areas around the dock as well as inside an empty slip (provided they don’t have a hidden lift). Usually in the afternoon bass will be very close to the shady areas and react to objects that pass through the shady patches.
The second area I like to throw my a-rig is just random points and shoals in the wind. Let’s face it, these fish put on the feed bag when the wind is blowing on these early spring rocky points and shoals so throwing an a-rig in these places is generally a lock on warm sunny days.
When I say “wind”, I don’t mean some mild breeze creating a pretty little choppy chop on the surface, I’m talking about a beefy wave event that can push the bait and your boat up onto the shoals or points. I know it’s uncomfortable to fish in the wind and waves but I learned a long time ago that comfort and big fish are rarely used in the same sentence. Big waves distort the fishes view and causes the fish to make bad reactional decisions. You need to get on that trolling motor and get out there in them big waves because those big bass are banking on your fear for not being there….
Such was the case this week when I got to fish. I only went out two times this week as it was a boat maintenance week for me. I fished the day I trailered my boat and I fished yesterday when I put it back in the water. On Tuesday I trailered my boat but before I did I wanted to make a lap around the creek. It was warm and windy on Tuesday and I took advantage of the wind that was blowing waves onto some rocky points that big females like to hang out on in early spring. They are stagers and they are generally looking to eat on those wind blown shallower rocky areas so that’s the areas I targeted plus with the Spot Lock function on the Minn Kota I was just setting the boat in deeper water and fan casting points in the waves. Here’s a few more I caught using this pattern in addition to the bass pictured above.
As far as gear goes, I’m using a pretty basic setup. The rod is a 7’6″ MH baitcaster with a good Shimano reel loaded with 14lb flouro. Here’s a picture of a pretty basic a-rig setup.
In addition to starting with the basic rigs I suggest finding a good plug knocker or rig retriever because you’re probably going to get it hung a few times during the learning process.
A-rigs are a lot of fun and you can cover a lot of ground throwing it. If you commit to throwing it all day, it will definitely work out your core and work a few back muscles that probably haven’t been awake for a while. Water temps are back into the lower 50’s and I’m beginning to see signs of life in the creek.
This past week I didn’t really get to fish a lot and only went out for a few hours on 2 different days. I mainly stayed inside and battled a stomach bug and recovered from the BFL last weekend. I did want to highlight one of the patterns I’ve been having fun with for the past 2 weeks and that’s the ned rig around deep docks. Last Monday I went out for a few hours and I noticed that I was getting more short strikes on my shaky head than usual so I sized it down to a 2.75 Z-Man TRD Finesse worm on a 1/5 NedlockZ jighead and that did the trick. I focused on docks that were 30 feet or deeper and I just skipped or pitched the worm all around the docks including just dropping it right in the front of the dock and letting it fall to the bottom and dead sticking it or just bouncing it very slow. Slow is the key for the deep dock fish right now but the rewards are a few bigger fish in the 4-5lb range. Right now we are getting ready for a big push from the bass as they start their pre-spawn staging and feeding for the spawn but until we see a rise in surface temps above 50 we may still be dealing with slower fish due to their metabolic condition. That’s why I’m still fishing slow bottom stuff like worms and jigs deep. Water temps are still below 50 and the back of the creek is very stained right now with lake levels about a foot below full pool and dropping slowly. If you’re looking for a fun little pattern and you have a lot of patience give the little Ned rig a shot on some deep docks right now and you might get a good one. Here’s a few pics from last week. The biggest one I caught this week pictured above was caught on the ned rig was when I was using a Canada Craw on a deep dock and the others were caught on a Green Pumpkin Goby pattern.
When I look back on my Navy career and my life in general, sometimes I wonder just what in the Sam Hill I was thinking during the second quarter of my life. You see, I’ve broken my life down into 4 quarters just like a football game. Unless technology extends my life, I believe I’ll live till around 80 years old, give or take a few years and barring any unforeseen problems. If I live till 80 I can break my life down into 4 quarters and right now I’m just starting the 4th quarter of my life, just hoping I can take it way into overtime. Sometimes it’s like I’m reminiscing about a whole other person when I think back to some of the stupid things I did during my time in the Navy and essentially a good portion of the whole second quarter of my life.
I wholeheartedly believe that some brains never fully develop until that person is well into their adult years and I’m one of them for sure. Dr. Phil actually said it on his show a few hundred times while dealing with young adults and problematic behaviors. That was me, I had problematic behaviors shortly after I joined the Navy. It wasn’t anything serious like bank robbery, it was mainly uniform type regulation infractions and a few alcohol related incidents and it was just that I did not agree with some of the petty regulations the Navy had to offer so I was on a quest to bend or break a few. Unfortunately for me, the Navy has been in the business of dealing with hard cases like me for a few hundred years and they have it down to a science. If you screw up, you pay the price and if you continue to screw up they usually up the ante every time. For instance, the first time, you may get a pass, the second time they start to limit your freedom, give you some crappy jobs and maybe take a little money from you. After that if you continue to screw up they start taking your stripes or they drop you in rank. After they have taken all your stripes and you still want to screw up, they either discharge you back to where you came from or they send you to a “Correctional Custody Unit” or CCU for 30 days of rehabilitation Navy style. On the west coast, the Navy CCU was on a small island in the middle of the San Francisco Bay, not too far from Alcatraz, called “Treasure Island”.
I was a hard case for sure but I was also a hard worker and the Navy had invested a bunch of money training me to work on jets. I can remember standing in my Master Chief’s office and him asking me if I wanted a discharge. It was kinda like that scene in the movie ‘Officer and a Gentlemen’ when Richard Gere looks up at Louis Gossett Jr. who is standing over him just after Gere got his butt beat down and a crying Gere says “I got nowhere else to go!!”. I wasn’t crying or anything like Gere in that scene but I told him I did not want to go back to Kansas and he told me I was going to go to CCU for 30 days so pack my bags. He said that if I ever screwed up again after CCU they were done with me and I would be thrown out of the Navy so this was my last chance. They had taken everything they could from me and now the rubber had met the road; either I straightened up or it was back to Kansas with my clown act. At the time I was young and single so heading off to the Bay area for 30 days and a wake up behind bars didn’t really rattle my cage too much so I was kinda looking forward to the change of scenery.
At the time I was stationed just outside of Fresno at a big Naval Airbase called Naval Air Station Lemoore. The ride to Treasure Island was about 4 hours and myself plus 3 other individuals were taken by the Navy’s Military police or MP’s in an enclosed van. The van was basically a cage on wheels with 2 long bench seats in the back. In addition to CCU on the island they also had a Navy Brig. The Navy brig is the equivalent of jail or prison and usually the hard cases waiting to get kicked out of the Navy or they were doing some time for crimes wound up in the brig. It was more like an extended stay for hardened criminals and Navy misfits. There were three guys in the back of our van besides me and they were all going to the brig to do hard time. They were shackled and chained to the metal benches we were sitting on but I was not handcuffed and I could move about freely. In the 4 hours we were riding together I got to know the guys in the back of the van with me and they were doing time for crimes like assault or robbery type stuff and one guy nicknamed “Ice Mike” was an acquaintance I had run across before while up to no good. Ice Mike was really a nice guy, he just had an anger management problem and at well over 6 feet tall and 250 pounds, when Ice Mike got mad someone was going to have a bad day. He was my friend by the end of the ride and we promised to keep in touch….LOL Not really, I just made that part up but we did cut up and laugh the whole way to Treasure Island in the back of the van with the other guys.
I was the first to be dropped off at the CCU building once we got onto the island. When we pulled up to the CCU building I was greeted by a “Master At Arms” First Class Petty Officer. A “Master at Arms” is like a specialized Navy police officer and the ‘First Class Petty Officer’ part is a rank of E-6. Their whole job in the military is that of a police officer. There were about 5-6 Master at Arms personnel serving as our hosts for the next 30 days while I was to be rehabilitated on Treasure Island. I can remember being told to stand at attention in a small foyer just inside the main entrance. I was standing with my toes touching a taped line on the floor and my nose was just a few inches from an American flag on a pedestal stand. Things were pretty quiet as I had arrived while everyone was at the chow hall for the evening meal. After 5 minutes or so the “Awardee’s started filing back into the building single file. (The “Awardee” tag is what we all were called while in CCU). They had to pass by me just to my left and I was able to sneak a peek through the corner of my eyes at my roommates as they filed back into the building. I’ll never forget the first Awardee I saw walk by me; his name was Patchen and he had just returned from some kind of sinus surgery and he had a gauzed up nose with two black, purple and blue eyes. At the time I didn’t know Patchen had just had sinus surgery and I thought maybe that was how they rolled around here and I was going to be in for a rough stay. After the dozen or so awardees filed in I was directed to the head Master at Arms office and I had a sit down chat with a Navy Chief about what was expected of me during my stay. Basically he told me that they were going to help me understand the difference between right and wrong in the Navy and how to be a better, more productive sailor.
My stay started with not being able to speak to anyone for the first 24 hours and I was also given a blue colored Dyno name badge. After the 24 hour no speaking period, since I was still a blue badge for the first 7 days, I could not watch tv in the evening, in the tv room or work out with gym equipment. Once I completed my 7 day period without causing any trouble I would be rewarded a green name badge and I would be authorized to watch tv in the evening for 2 hours as well as gym privilege’s. We ate 3 times a day and marched to the chow hall for our meals. We were spread eagle and searched for weapons every time we left the chow hall after a meal. The one story brick build we stayed in was essentially a few offices in the front of the building and a open barracks in the back with about 2 dozen beds with bars on every window. There were about 12 beds on each side of the room and a giant picnic type table that ran the length of the room where we could site and do book work. In the back of the room was an enclosed tv room and a small gym area with weights, a speed bag and a full size punching bag for us to take out our aggressions. One thing I did like about my stay was that we exercised twice a day and since I was a distance runner they would let me run around the island which was a 3 mile out and back, plus they would let me run twice a day. One of the Master at Arms guys was a tall, thin black guy by the name of Owens. He was a distance runner too and the only one that could half way keep up with me and since I always needed an escort we started running together. I don’t care who you are, when you run mile after mile with someone you get to know that person pretty well and Owens and I got to be good friends.
Owens had been in the Navy for over 16 years and was in great physical shape as well as a martial arts expert. More than once I watched him bounce a volleyball into the air about 7 feet and then deliver a flying roundhouse kick to the ball with the force of Pele. I made a deal with Owens and I helped him get faster at running by pushing his pace beyond what he had ever run before and he helped me learn to defend myself by teaching me some fly martial arts moves. We had a good time when we were running around the island and generally there was a beautiful view of Alcatraz as well as San Fran and Oakland while we ran. CCU itself was all about learning a different lifestyle and coping with the Navy in a more productive way. We would work on career development and positive motivation every day for hours on end. We spent hours sitting in a classroom listening to cassette tapes with motivational speakers like Gordon Graham and Earl Nightingale. Those are two names I’ll never forget because it was like we were being brainwashed by cassette tape in a semi-dark room and in complete silence except for the speaker on the tapes. We were constantly monitored to keep us from falling asleep and I’m mildly surprised they didn’t Scotch tape our eyes open and shine bright lights at us while playing the tapes. These sessions were mandatory and about the only thing I learned from that experience was to never listen to those two monotoned speakers ever again in my life no matter how long it lasts.
When I think back to my time on Treasure Island I believe that the most productive time I spent there was running with Owens because he was someone I could relate to and I respected Owens. He was able to convince me that life is a lot easier when you do the right thing in the Navy because he was living proof. One of his biggest goals while he was working at the CCU unit was to change people like me into sailors more like him. He also told me that there were a lot of people back at my squadron that were just waiting for me to screw up one more time so they could say “I told you so” and throw me out of the Navy. He told me if I learned nothing else from my experience at CCU, learn how to prove those “I told you so” people wrong. He said that if I did the right thing every day, day after day and went above and beyond, I could prove all of those naysayers wrong and so that’s what I did. I cleaned up my act and I did it for Owens, not for Earl Nightingale or Gordon Graham but Owens was the one person that got through to me so I did it for Owens. I returned to my squadron and cleaned up my act and was rewarded with our squadron’s Sailor of the Quarter award for my first Navy award ever just a few months after my return. I have received a ton of awards since but this one was special and still hangs on my wall of Navy memories.
Treasure Island is mostly closed down now and I’m not sure that CCU or the brig even exists anymore in the Navy but I got to see some pretty cool things while I was there too. It just so happened that while I was on Treasure Island it was Fleet Week in San Francisco and we got to sit along the waters edge and watch the Blue Angels perform over the Bay one Saturday afternoon during my stay. The Navy Blue Angels were flying the old A-4 Skyhawk at the time and I got to see one of the A-4’s ripping through the bay and right by us just feet above the water. The view of Alcatraz through the bars of my window for 30 nights was pretty profound and sent a message to me. It was an awesome site and the whole experience kinda changed the way I viewed the Navy.
More than likely if it hadn’t been for those long runs and long conversations with a First Class Master at Arms named Owens I probably wouldn’t of continued my career in the Navy but that 30 day trip to Treasure Island did what it was designed to do and I continued my Navy career.
As I reflect on my time at Treasure Island, I can’t help but to think it was just another fork in the road for me and I happened to choose the right path. My life has been filled with forks in the road and split second decisions that may have saved my life and I believe that I’ve had help because of my faith. I don’t quote scripture often but there is a passage in the Bible, Jeremiah 1:5 and it is a scripture that I ponder often.
“I chose you before I formed you in the womb; I set you apart before you were born. I appointed you a prophet to the nations.”
This week was a doozy and I hope I can get a reset this morning in church. It all started on Monday morning when I was dealing with the worst toothache in the world. The man-pain needle was pegged off the charts but I had a dentists appointment in the afternoon so I just ate a bunch of Motrin and went on about my morning. It started at the McDonald’s drive thru when the lady taking my order got snippy with me because I asked for a “regular” biscuit instead of a “plain” biscuit. Apparently she wasn’t able to make the correlation that early in the morning and with my toothache I was in no mood for McDonald drive thru shenanigans. She got snippy, I got snippy and then I told her I would help her out and cancel my order all together because I wanted a Hardee’s pork chop and gravy biscuit anyway so our transaction was over and I drove away mad. As I drove by the window to give her my stink eye I looked at the lady I was speaking with and she looked young and frazzled. It almost looked like she had been crying as we looked in each other in the eyes and I thought that maybe she was having a bad day too. Then I felt bad because my sore tooth was probably minuscule compared to the problems she may have been facing and that’s the moment when my punishment began this week. It just went from bad to worse as the week progressed…
On the fishing front this week it was fun. I was still on my little swimbait bite from the week before and I was still having fun with that. I was mainly fishing an area I named the horseshoe gauntlet because the brush piles are shaped in a large horseshoe on a flat and the bass mainly cruise the inside of the horseshoe shaped brush looking for bait. It’s like a big 40 foot across underwater corral of bass and a lot of fun when they eat what you’re throwing. I just hit the spot lock and make casts inside the coral with the little swimbait, letting it fall and dragging it till I feel the tick. The gauntlet had been reloading with bass very frequently so I could leave and come back 2 hours later for more fun. Most of these fish were the 1-2lb variety but every once in a while a bigger fish would show up. I was fishing the BFL tournament on Saturday so I wasn’t really thinking of the gauntlet for a tournament spot. The gauntlet is more of a minor league warm up spot before you go find the big girls out in the deep or you need a quick fix if you haven’t felt the little tink tink in a while. Here’s a picture of some of my gauntlet fish this week.
I also ran across another little bite that was cool this week and provided some bigger fish and that was the little ZMan ned rig combo. These deeper docks have been holding a few bigger fish and I found out this week that they were looking for the smaller stuff so I sized down my worm to a ned rig and started pitching it around deep 30-50 foot deep docks. It was a lot of fun but it was slow fishing. Once again, like the swimbait, the bite was slow but rewarding. Here’s a few fish from the ned rig.
Once the rain came I slowed down with my fishing and just tried to manage my toothache pain until Friday when we had a root canal scheduled. It was a necessary evil because my toothache pain was reaching unbearable stages and I needed it done before the weekend. Root canals haven’t changed any by the way. They are still as painful as I remembered from years past. Anyway back to the fishing. My neighbor and I hit the creek for a bit Thursday when it wasn’t raining and we ran across a few schooling stripers in a quiet cove. We both tied on a little weightless fluke jr and had some fun. My neighbor David has a friend from Louisiana that had recommended a recipe for striper so we kept a couple for David’s table fare.
When Friday morning arrived I was in the dentist chair bright and early getting a nerve drilled out by a dentist who lied to me. He said it was going to be fun and we were going to joke around during the procedure but the only joking we did was right before he hit a active nerve with his tiny drill and joke time was over. I think I would just as soon taken my chances with trying to pull a tooth from a greased up bobcat rather than sit in that chair and let a dentist hollow out the root of one of my molars. So we got the root canal out of the way and I got a few pain pills and a pat in the rear before heading home. I immediately ate one of the pain pills and relaxed for a while before heading down to the boat to get my gear for the morning tournament. After I let the Hydrocodone kick in real good on an empty stomach I took off trotting down to the dock and slipped and fell on our stone paver steps damaging my right arm. I had enough of being poked for one day already so I had Lisa just butterfly it up for my tournament. I think our doctoring skills need help but we got it fixed up only to have it come apart during the tournament.
Yesterday, tournament day it was my first time as a co-angler and I had a good time even though the weather sucked. We fished up north for a while and then came down to the south end. We hit the gauntlet briefly and I caught my biggest fish of the day, a solid 3 plus and my partner boated one also. We mainly fished docks with worms from that point on and I boated 3 more fish while my partner zeroed on docks. I wound up with 4 fish for 7.8 pounds and a 35th place finish out of 224 co-anglers. I got a little check and felt pretty good about the day after seeing some of the sticks that struggled along with me. It’s been a long week and it’s been filled with a lot of pain and suffering for me so I’m going to spend a little time this morning trying to get right with the big man upstairs and see if we can get a reset for next week. Have a good week!
“Every winter is different”….repeat after me, “Every winter is different”. Sometimes I tend to forget that and so right now I’m looking at a giant pile of brand new shaky head worms that I have invested my winter budget in and I can’t find a fish that will bite a worm to save my butt. For the last 3 years the shaky head has been my go to bait through the month of Feb. and I have amassed some giants over those 3 years on the shaky head but this year I had to change it up and I think I know why.
Back when I was in the Navy working on fighter aircraft, one of the many programs our squadron was required to maintain was the “Trend Analysis” program. The Trend Analysis program was a complexed study of every facet of each of our 12 aircraft and their many systems over a period of time in an attempt to find any trend in discrepancies that could later lead to catastrophic failures. I maintained the program for a few years and the attention to detail required in aircraft Trend Analysis is something that I try and transfer to our lake and fish habits. I’ve gotta be honest, tracking trends in fighter aircraft is far less complexed than tracking trends in fish habits. There are a lot of variables to fishing and the fish is a moving target. For the past few years I’ve flourished in the winter and shined like a diamond in a goats kulu when it came to Feb. and my shaky head pattern but this year it’s shaping up differently. It’s pretty much right in front of my face every day when I throw the worm and get snagged way more than I should and have little fish to show for it. It took me a minute but if you look at the water level data for the past 3 years you’ll see that the lake is trending downward and has been for a while. If you look at the past 3 years in data you’ll see that the lake rose sharply in each of those years and as the lake levels rose my worm bite took off. More than likely the bass were foraging the new shoreline from the sharp rise in lake levels where as so far this year there is nothing new for the bass to forage. Crawfish holes are drying up and submerged rocks are now dry. That leaves less options for the bass so it’s back to scrounging food in other places, with worms and crawfish out of the picture it’s most notably where the bluebacks and shad are hanging out.
The above hypothesis is why I have decided to drag swimbaits around endlessly to get my bites as I just needed to make the adjustment from worm to tiny swimbait. Basically, for the past 2 weeks my goal was to locate fish and drag a small swimbait slowly on the bottom to mimic the food source they are looking for. Here’s what I know; every morning when the sun comes up the bluebacks leave the shallows of the backs of the pockets and other shallow places and they move out to deeper water. The bass live in the lake and do this for a living so they tend to congregate in areas like shallow to deep drop offs and across flats in an attempt to ambush the bluebacks as they return to deeper water when the sun rises and warms the surface. This is important to remember, I’ll capitalize it for you: BLUEBACKS LIKE AND CRAVE SUNLIGHT and spotted bass like and crave bluebacks. My biggest suggestion is to find an area, whether it’s the back of a creek or the back of a pocket in a creek, if there is bait present in shallow areas and you see sporadic fish scattered on the graph, back off to deeper water, say maybe 25-30 feet and cast a little swimbait rig up into the shallows, dragging it down the slope or ledge very slowly. This week, I found a school of hundreds of fish and all that the bass were doing was feeding on bluebacks as they made their escape from shallow to deeper water chasing the sun as it broke the tree line. The key is to work the bait slowly, stopping every once in a while to see if dead sticking the bait will trigger a bite. I know it’s like watching paint dry but the rewards can be good. Here’s a picture of my setup this week and the bait I used to catch over 70 bass.
If we have a cloudy day, which we have a lot of right now, the bluebacks tend to scatter more so another trend I’ve been tracking is the striped bass trend. Striped bass on Lanier are very elusive in the winter but at the same time they are more predictable. During this time of year the gulls and loons can give away the location of the stripers and one cloudy day this week I chased the birds with a small spoon and caught a few nice stripers for a friend and his family to eat. If you’d like to learn more about the striper technique I’m using right now check out my bog posts about loons and gulls last month.
Water temps are mainly in the upper 40’s right now and here’s a few random pictures from my week:
In order to tell this story, I’ve got to go back a long way. I believe the year was 1989, shortly before the lead-up to the first Gulf War and I had been working on F-14 Tomcats for about 2 years. It seemed like the whole time I was in San Diego working on Tomcats I worked the night shift. The bad thing about working on Tomcats and working the night shift is is that your shift was supposed to end around midnight, but it seemed like it never ever ever ended around midnight. Most of the time we work on the jets till 2:00 AM, 3:00, AM 4:00 AM and sometimes we’d work on The jets until the sun came up and our day shift counterparts came in to relieve us. Our departure from work all depended on the next days flight schedule and aircraft availability to fulfill the mission. Basically, if the pilots needed 8 jets for the mission, we gave them 8 jets. One thing I can say about tomcats is that it was very hard work; it didn’t matter if you were an electrician, hydraulics man, metalsmith or engine mech, the work was hot, hard and dirty every night. The Tomcat was not only a big bad fighter jet, it was also a big fuel, hydraulic fluid and oil leaking dangerous hunk of metal and you had to respect that or things could be very bad. When young men work on multimillion dollar, 20 ton flame throwing machines of war, things can go from good to bad faster than a snake can strike.
I know you’re probably wondering about that catchy title of the story so I’ll get you up to speed on Navy squadrons and aircraft stuff before we get into the story. Generally in a fighter squadron you operate with 12 aircraft. Each aircraft is assigned a aircraft number from 00 up to 12 and out of those 12 aircraft a few may not be able to fly due to some form of scheduled or unscheduled maintenance. If a squadron can maintain an average of 7-8 aircraft being flight capable at any given time, you’re doing good. Some of the aircraft that are not flyable may have little problems that need minor maintenance attention and some may have big problems that require some form of specialized maintenance that could require months of waiting for the repair from a specialized group. That was the case with aircraft 00 which we appropriately named “Nuts” for short, so instead of saying “aircraft double zero” we just called her Nuts. Nuts had been a “hangar queen” of ours for just less than a year. Hanger queen means that it sat in the hangar unfixed for months. When the hangar queens are resting in the hangar waiting for specialized maintenance we would cannibalize the aircraft, meaning that we would take parts off of it in order to use for other aircraft to meet the flight schedule. Cannibalization was pretty common among the hangar queens and the longer an aircraft sat in the hanger the longer it would be cannibalized. In the case of Nuts, it spent close to a year in the hangar before the needed repair and after the repair was complete it was time to put it back together and fire it up….literally.
The bad thing about Nuts was that it had been cannibalized a lot and looked like Swiss cheese because it had so many holes in it before we put it back together. It was missing both engines, just about every computer had been taken out and probably hundreds of other parts including just about all of the gauges in the cockpits. It literally took us a few weeks just to get to the point of applying electrical power to the aircraft safely after we put it all back together. The engines were re-installed and every part that had been cannibalized had been replaced over the course of a few weeks. The longer an aircraft is in the hangar the longer it took to get it back in the air. We worked our butts off to make sure Nuts was ready to fly again before it’s year out of service was up. We had a deadline to meet and the aircraft needed to fly within a year or there was going to be some explaining to do with our Carrier Air Group Commander or “CAG”. CAG was our boss and you just didn’t let a jet sit a round for a year without flying it.
Once we put Nuts back together in the hangar, we jacked it up off the hangar deck and cycled the landing gear as well as many of the flight controls necessary for the aircraft to fly. Everything was working great in the hangar and it was time for us to tow Nuts out to the flight line to fire up the engines and bring the big jet to life. The engine mechanics were usually the ones in the front seat who started, ran the engines and did all the many maintenance checks that are involved with getting the aircraft ready for flight. The back seat of the Tomcat was for all the electronic equipment and the back seater had no controls for the engines, flight controls or many other systems. The back seater handled the navigation and weapons duties while the Tomcat pilot flew the aircraft. Most of the electronic testing and ground type electronic testing for us electricians and electronics technicians was done from the back seat. On the night we towed nuts out to the flight line for the first time it was late, we had been working all night just to get the jet ready to start. Everyone was tired and all we had to do was start the jet, try and run a few electronic tests as well as making sure the engines didn’t have any major issues. Well, like any other well laid plan in the Navy, it fell apart. Our engine mechanic and the guy that was going to start the engines on the Tomcat was my roommate “Chief” in the barracks and a good friend. I’m going to change a few names here because I think there may have been a procedure or two that was overlooked or bypassed to achieve our goal. In order to start and test the engines you needed to have a “turn qual” certification and it wasn’t easy to get. The squadron only maintained a few engine qualified folks and my roommate Chief was one of them. He hadn’t been a turn qual very long but we really needed to get the jet going and he was all we had.
It was probably 1am once we towed the jet out to the flight line and myself, Chief and about a dozen other ground crew folks started doing our checks. The jet was chalked and chained down for the engine run and I was going to be the electronic technician in the back seat while Chief ran the tests on the engines in the front once we got the jet started. In order to start a Tomcat you need a “huffer” which basically blows highly pressurized air into the engine to spin it up and turn it on. You also need an electrical cart to supply electrical power to the aircraft during starting. These two items are large pieces of ground equipment hooked up in close proximity to the aircraft and with a bunch of ground crew personal around the aircraft it’s pretty crowded. Chief and I finished all of our ground checks before climbing up into the front and back cockpit. The canopy was open and we jumped into the seats and started turning on instruments and gauges required for the start up. Chief and I had headsets on and we could talk with each other through the internal intercom system and we could also talk to the tower as well as our maintenance office inside the hangar. I was in the back seat doing my checks and talking to the ground personnel about 8 feet below on the ground. When it came time to start the engines we had to close the canopy as part of the procedures but I didn’t mind because we could turn on the air conditioning once we got an engine on line and it would be a lot more quiet and comfortable while doing my checks. We got the canopy closed and Chief gave the all clear to the ground crew and signal to apply huffer pressure to the aircraft. Chief was going to start with the left engine and then when the left was on line we would start the right engine. When the huffer kicked in I could feel the turbine blades on the big GE motor start to spin. Chief let the engine “windmill”, which mean letting the turbines spin without applying fuel or spark to the motor for a few minutes to warm it up. When Chief advanced the throttle from the off position to idle fuel would be sprayed into the combustion chamber of the motor and a giant 20k volt spark plug would ignite the fuel. I say “would be” sprayed into the combustion chamber but on this particular night something went wrong and the fuel didn’t ignite if it got fuel but for some reason the engine wouldn’t start. Chief told me over the intercom that he was going to make a second attempt to start the motor but we needed to raise the canopy to talk with a ground crew mechanic first. When Chief went to raise the canopy, it wouldn’t come up. The big canopy over the front and back cockpits was controlled by 3k pounds of nitrogen pressure and the bottle that held the nitrogen was depleted. We should have checked that before ever entering the cockpit but we were in a hurry and overlooked it. At that time we were a captive audience in the aircraft and the only 2 ways to get out of the aircraft in an emergency was to hand crank the canopy open with a small hand crank under the inside of the canopy sill and it took 275 turns and 5 minutes to open the canopy with the crank. The only other way was to blow or eject the canopy with the rockets that were inside the canopy sill and used for the pilot ejection sequence. If we had to blow the canopy it would result in some pretty bad burns and maybe death. Blowing a canopy was not advised and if you blew one and survived your Navy career would probably be over.
We gave hand motions to the ground crew to have them bring out a nitrogen servicing cart to service the nitrogen bottle so we could open the canopy. At that point we should have sat and waited till the canopy was serviced to continue but we made the decision to press on and try and start the engine again. Once again the motor didn’t light off so Chief kneeled the aircraft in an attempt to move any pooled gas around in the engine. Kneeling the aircraft mean collapsing the nose landing gear strut which is the position of the nose landing gear when it is launched from an aircraft carrier. When the strut is kneeled the nose of the aircraft is lowered considerably and any pooled gas in the engine is shifted to the front and when you are starting a Tomcat, kneeling the aircraft for a short period of time and then raising it somehow works for starting a stubborn motor. Once Chief kneeled and raised the aircraft he gave the ground crew the signal that he was going to try and start it one more time. We got the thumbs up from the ground crew Chief advanced the throttle to idle once again only this time there was a huge explosion in the back of the aircraft. The explosion lite up the night around the aircraft in a giant fireball and everyone on the ground scattered like roaches. I heard our maintenance department guys on the radio inside the hangar shout out “Nuts on Fire”!!!”Nuts on Fire”!!!From where I was in the back seat I could feel the heat from the fireball and when I looked back to the rear of the aircraft I could see flames engulfing the back half of the aircraft. Basically the engine had finally lite off but we had a lot of excess fuel inside the engine and when Chief raised the aircraft from kneel a lot of fuel ran out onto the tarmac underneath the aircraft which no one had seen prior to our startup attempt. When the motor finally lite off a line of burning fuel ran down the back of the tailpipe onto the ground and ignited the ground around the aircraft. At that point we were in big trouble, the back of the aircraft was on fire and I quickly realized I had no way out of the aircraft without blowing the canopy and risking my career and life. It was definitely a bad place to be in but out of a dozen people running from the fire only one grabbed a nearby Halon fire extinguisher bottle, ran towards the fire spraying Halon as he went and put out the flames. Words couldn’t properly describe the feeling of relief I had seeing those flames subsid as the Halon did it’s job. His name was Mike P and I’ll never forget that name or watching Mike calmly put out the fire and possibly save a couple of lives in the process. Things got pretty busy once Mike got the fire put out. The fire department showed up while Chief and I were waiting to get the canopy opened to get us out. I gotta admit that I was pretty rattled when I finally climbed out of the cockpit and put my feet on the ground. The aircraft had minor damage from the flames but nothing that couldn’t be fixed up. Nuts managed to get back in the air shortly after that night and it flew with our squadron for the next 3 years I was there. When I think back to that incident in the middle of the night, I thank my lucky stars and the big man upstairs for my survival in our Tomcat squadron. In my 5 years in the squadron we crashed 3 jets and lost at least 6 squadron personnel, one being a close fishing buddy of mine that I still think about often. Unfortunately bad things happen when you work on Navy jets and you rely on your training to save lives. Mike P knew exactly what to do when he saw the fire while 10+ other guys ran from the fire.