Sep 3

Operation Sea Orbit

Tuesday, September 3, 2019 12:01 AM

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At the end of a six month cruise to the Mediterranean, the aircraft carrier, USS Enterprise (CVN-65), the cruiser, USS Long Beach (CGN-9) and the destroyer USS Bainbridge (DDG-96), the first three nuclear powered ships of the U.S. Navy made a five month sojourn around the world. The tour demonstrated the power and ability of these ships, without taking on fuel or provisions the ships could still be battle ready when they returned to home port. As the force sailed around the world, a firepower show was performed for dignitaries of the various countries. To accommodate the dignitaries, a viewing deck was built on the super structure of the Enterprise that was rigged as a “green house”, from which they could view the demonstration through glass windows.

The aviators of the VA-76, author on the right
(Courtesy of the Author)

I was an aviator in VA-76, an attack squadron in Air Group 6, known as the “Spirits of 76”. We were called upon to be the “closing curtain” of the demonstration. Our Operations Officer formed an aerobatic team of four, just like the Blue Angels. LCDR, Boyd, our Ops Officer, flew the lead, LT Jobe the left wing, LT (j.g.) Dixon the right wing and I flew the slot in the diamond formation. After our normal missions, we practiced formation loops and rolls to prepare for the demonstration. It was decided the slot was the most dangerous position and it was eliminated. Since I was senior to the wing men, rather than sit out, I alternated between the left and right wing positions. Since we always rolled in the same direction, I referred to my flying as “an accident looking for a place to happen”…..totally different control movement with each flight to stay in position. I finished our flights drenched in sweat.

We approached the carrier’s bow at 600 knots right on top of the water. We were so low and so fast that the wing men actually had to step up on the lead’s wing, and in such proximity that our wing tips overlapped. As the lead pulled up into a loop in front of the ship, the wing man, a split second behind, dropped into the perfect wing position on the lead. Coming out of the loop, we passed over the ship doing a roll, then circling around we headed for the “green house” and pulled up into another roll over the ship. During these aerobatics, we streamed red, white and blue colors, “showing our colors to the world”. When they filled our tanks with the colored fuel, they would invariably over-flow them and the colored red and blue dye would roll down the deck. We became known as the “Kool-Aid-Kids”.

VA-76 fly over during Operation Sea Orbit
(Courtesy of the Author)

We carried a 300-gallon tank on the center line of the planes. It was to the ingenuity of the maintenance men that we were able to stream our colors. They rigged the tanks with a “dump valve” that opened when we depressed the machine gun switch on the control stick. They initially tried just about everything to make the colors stream, first with water and food coloring from the kitchen….nothing seemed to work. Finally, the ship’s captain sent a message to the Blue Angels and we got an expedited delivery of the fuel soluble dyes.

The force only made two port calls, Sydney, Australia and Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. A funny thing happened in Australia. The country gave us a baby kangaroo for the zoo in Norfolk. Everyone took pictures with the “joey”. The little devil was fed all the fresh vegetables that the ship had for the voyage. We were stuck with canned beans, corn and peas for the rest of the cruise.

When we left Sydney, we 400 sailors “jump ship”. (The people of Sydney were fantastic and loved the U.S. Navy). We got most of them back as we passed New Zealand. After arriving home, there were still five missing which never came back.

Flight of A4D Skyhawks, the author is in the #3 position
(Courtesy of the Author)

I wrote this story and, after it passed from my “skipper”, to the CAG (Commander Air Group), then to the captain of the Enterprise and finally the Admiral, it was then decided the article would be used to promote the operation. The Admiral placed a helicopter air born with a photographer, put the three ships in a line abreast of each other, and we performed rolls over them streaming the colors. I was given permission to commercialize my story, “VA-76 Shows Our Colors To The World”. I sent it to Look, Saturday Evening Post, Readers Digest and other magazines. I got rejection notices from each one with the basic statement “that it was not what our readers are interested in at this time.”

This was 1964 and the war was raging in Vietnam.