As told to the author by Jim Tobias
The winter of 1944 was typical for New England: cold, snowy, icy… miserable. This was our last week at the Navy training base at Groton, Connecticut, after which our unit was heading west to rendezvous with the USS Lexington, the recently-repaired aircraft carrier that was to be our new home.
Our last Saturday at Groton was also a training day. I was scheduled for an early morning aircraft recognition class, and was to then fly an F6F Hellcat gunnery training flight in our target-towing area southeast of Long Island. The aircraft recognition class ran late, though, so I arrived at the flight line just as the other five Hellcats in our six-ship flight were taking off.
I was met on the flight line by maintenance personnel who told me that the aircraft I had been assigned to fly was “down” for maintenance. This was not a surprise, as many of our training airplanes were battle-weary Hellcats that had just returned from the fleet. I was also told that the F6F parked one spot over had also been “down,” but was now “OK”… and was ready to go.
I prepared the substitute Hellcat for flight, and was soon airborne in pursuit of the others. But just as I joined the formation, one of my squadron mates broke radio silence to tell me that I was trailing smoke. Simultaneously with his call, oil began to wash over my front windscreen and I began to lose engine power. I knew that I had to get the airplane on the ground as soon as possible.
My first thought was that Groton, on the south shore of Connecticut, was not a good recovery option. First of all, at 32 miles across the water from the north shore of Long Island, it was a significant distance away. And second, the south end of Groton’s runway sat on a cliff, which – with my ever-decreasing power situation – was not particularly comforting.
The nearby south shore of Long Island was all rocks and sand dunes, which also ruled out an attempted beach landing. Most concerning, though, was the thought of ditching. The Atlantic was frigid this time of year, and we had been warned that our survival time in such waters would be a maximum of about 26 minutes. And, the likelihood of a rescue within that time period, of course, was nil. This quick mental process of elimination led me to recognize that the only decent emergency landing site available was the small road that ran along the south shore of Long Island toward the Montauk Point Lighthouse.
My engine problems started at an altitude of about 6,000 feet, which was our normal target practice altitude. At that low altitude, and at the rate of my continuing loss of power, I knew that I only had one chance to get it right… with practically no margin for error. I initially put my wheels down to expedite my descent toward the south shore, but the pilot of the patrolling Douglas SBD Dauntless that followed me down suggested (correctly) to make sure that my wheels were up for the landing on the narrow road.
My approach to the road worked out well, thankfully, as I was nearing a total loss of power as I got close to the shore. And, so much oil covered the windscreen by then that I could not see forward at all. So, I looked sideways out my open cockpit canopy, lined up on the road, and held the airplane in a near-normal, nose-high attitude to touch down as slowly as possible. The airplane gently smacked the road, skidded on its belly and rapidly decelerated. Shortly after touchdown, however, I slid across an unseen bridge that spanned a small ravine. The bridge’s guardrails tore at the bottom side of the wings and spun my Hellcat around backwards. I came to a stop less than 1000 ft. west of my “airfield’s tower,” the Montauk Lighthouse. I quickly secured the cockpit and exited my still-aft-facing Hellcat. From leaving the formation to leaving the cockpit had taken less than ten minutes.
Men from the Montauk Lighthouse arrived on the scene just a few minutes after I climbed out of the airplane. They took me back to the lighthouse, offered assistance, and then graciously handed me a cup of coffee. I had always thought that I could drink anyone’s coffee, but the brew they gave me that day was the strongest and foulest concoction I had ever tasted!
As with most every incident, I learned several valuable lessons from this unplanned experience.
- Never delay a response to a deteriorating situation. If I had delayed my attempted recovery by even a few minutes, I might not have survived to tell this story.
- Evaluate all possible options as thoroughly and as quickly as possible, and then choose the option that appears to provide the greatest likelihood of success and/or survival – even if it is only the best of several poor options. In my scenario, the road along the coast – even with its unknown bridge – was the only reasonable option available.
- Employ the best possible procedures and techniques for the given situation, drawing from your own personal knowledge and experience AND the collective input of any available outside help. The SBD pilot’s advice to make sure that I brought my wheels back up for the emergency landing, for example, was very valuable input.
- Emergencies are often accompanied by elements not covered in training (such as my oil-covered windscreen and continuing loss of engine power). Creative improvisation may be required.
- And finally, after successfully recovering from any incident at any unfamiliar facility, never, ever drink the coffee!
Montauk Lighthouse is now a museum and historical site. I understand that it is well worth visiting if you ever have the opportunity. To me, though, it is more than just a lighthouse; it is a towering monument to how blessed I was to walk away from a potentially disastrous accident without a scratch!