Some years back, at the end of a low-level training flight in marginal weather, my flight of two Navy TA-4J Skyhawks landed at Naval Air Facility El Centro in California and encountered a microburst from a nearby thunderstorm. The wind proved too much for the little jets, and following a long, sideways skid, both came to rest just off the north side of the runway.
As I climbed down into the slick, sticky desert mud, I noticed, not 30 yards away, the lead A-4 lying on its side in a concrete drainage ditch. I stood in the deepening quagmire and squinted through raindrops the size of Ping-Pong balls, certain that something bad had happened to the other student and his instructor. Then the student walked around the nose of his jet, scowled, ripped his helmet from his head, and slammed it down on the ground. I hardly noticed. I was just glad he was okay.
As I stared at the upturned belly of the lead jet, a hand grabbed my elbow and nearly jerked me off my feet. Over the loud popping sound of rain pelting my helmet, I vaguely heard my instructor telling me to look out. A huge yellow fire truck, lights flashing and twirling, lurched to a stop on the spot where I had been standing. The crash crew climbed out and, finding no fire, went to work trying to rescue the other pilots, who were stranded on the far side of the flooded drainage ditch.
While they worked, an ambulance pulled up. The back doors flew open and two corpsmen jumped to the ground. They ran at us carrying what looked like the large white flotation belts water skiers wear around their waists. The first corpsman pointed at me and shouted, “Sir, lie down on the ground right now!” He was so emphatic that had I not been standing in several inches of mud, I might have obliged. Instead, I looked at my instructor, who, with his experience and flight time, surely would know what to do. He stared back, every bit as confused as I was.
The corpsmen continued to shout and run at us with those big white things. When they showed no signs of slowing, we backed away, then jogged, then finally turned and ran in the opposite direction. Since we were still wearing our bulky flight gear and G-suits, the corpsmen easily caught up to us.
We spent a few minutes wrestling with them as they tried to put the large white neck braces on us. The corpsmen had been given orders to strap us down under the assumption that we had ejected and might have spinal compression fractures or some such injury. Eventually, we convinced them that we had indeed climbed to the ground normally.
The firemen bridged the ditch with their ladders so the other pilots could crawl across. While this process kept almost everyone occupied, I noticed one of the younger members of the crash crew sneaking off behind the fire truck. Thinking he was unseen, the fireman tiptoed some 20 yards into the desert. There, he took a quick look around and picked up a large runway sign that we had apparently knocked from its stand and sent flying into the bushes when we slid off the pavement. After another quick glance, he carried the sign back to the truck and hid his souvenir.
Before I could say anything, I heard someone calling me. I turned and saw an official Navy car parked beside the ambulance. A Navy captain, wearing a leather flight jacket, motioned surreptitiously for me to come over.
I approached the captain, feeling weak-kneed at the thought that I must be in big trouble. He asked where my skipper was and if I knew what we planned to do with the A-4 in the ditch. I told him I thought we would probably just tow it out and fix it, but that I was just a student and really did not know. He looked wistfully through the pouring rain at the overturned jet. He said that just about every aircraft that the Blue Angels had ever flown was on display at the base’s front gate except an A-4, and that our jet would look really good there with a blue and gold paint job.
When everyone had been rescued from the drainage ditch, we climbed into the back of the ambulance for our ride to Medical. I noticed the other student staring at a huge ball of brown mud in his lap and realized that this object was his helmet, which he had thrown down earlier. I asked him why on earth he had done such a thing. He looked up at me as if the answer was obvious, and in a slow, Southern drawl told me that that was “what NASCAR drivers do when they crash on TV.”