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Hersch Pahl's Non-Combat
"Cornerstone" Stories #2

The Search Mission

This story is one of the "cornerstones" of my aviation experiences, which I plan to share which involves the search for a very small object in 1600 square miles of open ocean (an area measuring 40 miles by 40 miles).

You are invited to come along with me. You have been selected because of your general understanding of nautical and aviation terms so that you will not have to ask questions. You will not have a microphone and I will not have time to answer questions anyway. You can look over my left shoulder and I will try to explain what is going on as we make this unusual journey.

We are going on a search mission to try to find a downed pilot and/or the wreckage of his aircraft (F4U Corsair), which landed in the water last night about dark. This carrier force was under an enemy attack so the downed pilot was not located or rescued.

I am leading this twelve plane search flight with my four plane division of Hellcats. The other 12 planes are F4U corsairs from another squadron.

F4U Corsairs from VBF-6 in formation, similar to the eight that participated in this search mission.

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Formation of F6F-5 Hellcats similar to the ones that the pilots in my division are flying for the search mission being related in this story.

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I will be doing all the navigation while others are keeping position in the formation and searching. WE are already on our way and are flying in a left echelon formation. The other 3 planes of my Hellcat division are flown by Daryl Grant, Richard Olson and Maurice Shay, but the other 12 pilots flying corsairs out there on my far left, are experienced fighter pilots from the same squadron as the downed pilot we are searching for. They all volunteered for this mission.

We still have a few miles to go before we reach the near corner of that large area to be search.

As they take their spacing and line up as briefed, it is thrilling to realize that we are looking at 12 powerful 2,000 + hp engines doing their thing. Counting my own Hellcat that makes 24,000 hp moving this search line along.

Note: When you look through the arc of one F4U to that of another you can see that they are already settled down at about the same RPM. Interesting?

The visibility is so poor that when they spread out in a searching line they will do well to see only the plane next to them. To help them stay in position, I will try to give them my heading that we are trying to make good.

You watch while I am busy with my navigation. Notice my clock here, this lapse time hand is keeping the time since we started our engines and this one is telling me minutes to go on this leg before we start searching.

Notice that there is no evidence of wind on the water, which is making the navigation problem a little easier but this low overcast and the low visibility, is making the job of searching more difficult and dangerous. Those guys out there searching have to be very careful to stay in contact with the next plane to him and try not to fly into the water. They must fly heads up and eyes out of the cockpit at all times so they must depend on my navigation.

Even though they have been briefed on the dangers of this situation, I feel that I need to caution them to watch their altitude very close. That glassy smooth surface that you see down there makes it difficult to judge ones altitude.

WE have been on this first leg for quite a while now. So we are getting ready to make our first turn. We will then move over the proper distance and then turn to the new heading to begin another sweep going the other way. This is going to be tricky. As I give them "Mark" and start a left turn, notice how they all start coming toward me to join up on me just like they do after take off from a carrier. Watch how they ease into a joined up position just like the professionals they really are. I will continue on to the start position for the next sweep going the other way.

Now as I make our turn to the left to pick up the new search heading, watch how the guys swing around to form the searching formation out there on our right. You see when we are going this way they are out on my right and after we make the turn to go the other way on the next strip they will be on our left

The guys are joshing me a little or making little hints that they "hope ol' Hersch is doing a good job", They realize that this is a navigator's night-mare and know that they are all depending on me as they haven't even been able to do any tracking, which most fighter pilots do on any other type mission.

We have made several searches back and forth but this one is a bit different because when we get about half way across, we should be about in the center of this huge search area and that is where we just might encounter the downed pilot in a raft or the wreckage of his plane. I am telling the guys that we are nearing the center and… You did not hear that, but one pilot has eye contact with something…

Wreckage has been sighted by the pilot flying the first F4U so, as previously briefed, we will all gather or join on him while we all take a look and are satisfied that it is just wreckage and there is no sign of life.

Now I am returning to the search heading and I repeat again what it is, while they are all taking up their positions reforming the search line.

It is later now and we have been searching, back and forth several times had have covered the whole 1,600 square miles as ordered and are now in the far corner of that area. I am making a wide easy turn and re-establishing the search line headed back toward the task force. The improved visibility in this area will make it a little easier for the guys and it won't be so dangerous.

Conveniently this heading back toward the fleet lines up pretty close to the center of the area where we saw that wreckage a while ago. If my navigation is any where near correct, we should see that wreckage again in the next 35 to 40 miles.

I am telling the guys to watch close and if any one spots that wreckage again just sound off and take a good look but this whole flight must keep right on going toward the task force.

There!! The guy on the far end just spotted the wreckage and indicates it is the same stuff we saw before so we will stay right on course and keep going toward the task force.

I know that everyone was glad to see that wreckage a second time because if anything, it proves that my navigation has been about right. Of course I'm pleased as it gives me confidence in my own navigation.

The search is really all over but the problem now is to conserve fuel and move on back to the force and try to get aboard before anyone runs out of fuel.

To make things a little more difficult, we were just informed that the fleet has moved on further south while we were gone and they have "bogies" in the area and are expecting an enemy attack. For that reason they don't want to take us aboard right away. I am telling them that we are nearing fuel starvation and will not be able to delay.

As we get closer to the fleet, I am telling our controller what our situation is and that we must make the gamble and land ASAP or start landing in the water.

Yes it looks pretty grim so in order to make sure that most of us get aboard I am inverting the flight. That is why we, who are flying Hellcats, are dropping back into the last position so that the F4U Corsairs can land first. Those guys who have been jockying their throttles to stay in position all day have been using more fuel than we in the lead position.

As we are approaching the destroyer screen around the carriers, I tell them once more that we are coming right on in and will try to get aboard before running out of fuel. Look up ahead there; those F4U's in the lead are making straight-in approaches. I just hope they make it.

Now you see we are in the traffic pattern making a close-in approach. I just hope no one has to take a wave off and go around again - that will cause him to use more fuel.

Nope, they are all getting aboard and you can see those flashes from those 5" guns as they are firing at something up high…

Hang on--- Here we go it is our turn to catch a wire…

Boy the tug of those shoulder straps on landing always feels good!

We are aboard and our prop is still turning…

We must follow the signals of those guys with the yellow shirts who will be parking us up forward...

What ever they are firing at, I hope they get him…

OK--- Now we are stopped and they are chocking us up so you get out and run for cover as fast as you can… In the island there on our right !!!

With all that noise going on it is hard to tell what is taking place.

Oh there you are! I tripped and fell down out there on deck and then had to talk to that guy from the staff about the results of the search. They are still firing at something out there so, let's get on down to the ward room under better protection.

OK, my good friend, it is about time that I let you go. There seems to be a lot of exciting conversation going on concerning the enemy attack that was going on while we were so concerned about getting all of our flight aboard.

Everyone seems to be talking about our skipper doing a great bit of seamanship by avoiding a collision with the Destroyer that got hit during that attack that was going on while we were coming aboard. I noticed that DD refueling along side but didn't pay much attention to it as those guys come by for fuel every little bit.

Now, you go ahead and find out what has been going on. I want to meet with my pilots for a short time. They did a great job and we did just what we were supposed to do but you see, this was one of those necessary thankless jobs that must be done in time of war. After it is completed, no one cares and it probably won't even make the record book.

Thanks for going along on this mission…

- Hersch Pahl

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October 1, 2007