This is a snippet from "The Intruders" by Stephen Coonts. The protagonist (naval aviator) has been transferred to a Marine Attack Squadron and his colleagues are chatting about the Marine aviators.
Tricky was a wiry, dark, compact man. Now his brows knitted. “Knew a
Marine fighter pilot once. Flew an F-4. He diverted from the ship into Cecil
Field one night. Black night. You guys know Cecil, big as half of Texas, with
those parallel runways?”
His listeners nodded. Tricky took another swig of beer. After he swallowed
and cleared his throat, he continued: “For reasons known only to God, he
plunked his mighty Phantom down between those parallel runways. In the grass.
Hit the radar shack head-on, smacked it into a million splinters.”
Tricky sighed, then continued: “The next day the squadron maintenance
officer went into Cecil on the COD, looked the plane over pretty good, had it
towed outta the dirt onto a taxi-way, then filled it with gas and flew it back to the
ship. It was a little scratched up but nothing serious. Things happen to Marines.”
They talked about that—about the odds of putting a tactical jet with a landing
weight of 45,000 pounds down on grass and not ripping one or more of the gear
off the plane.
“I knew a Marine once,” Billy Doyle said when the conversation lagged, “who
forgot to pull the power back when he landed. He was flying an F-4D.”
His listeners nodded.
“He went screeching down the runway with the tires smoking, went off the
end and drove out across about a half mile of dirt. Went through the base
perimeter fence and across a ditch that wiped off the landing gear. Skidded on
across a road, and came to rest with the plane straddling a railroad track. He sat
there awhile thinking it over, then finally shut ’er down and climbed out. He was
standing there looking ’er over when a train came along and plowed into the
wreck. Smashed it to bits.”
They sipped beer while they thought about forgetting to pull the throttle to idle
on touchdown, about how it would feel sitting dazed in the cockpit of a crashed
airplane with the engine still running as the realization sank in that you had
really screwed the pooch this time. Really screwed the pooch.
“Things happen to Marines,” Billy Doyle added.
“Their bad days can be spectacular,” Bob Landow agreed in his bass growl.
He was a bear of a man, with biceps that rippled the material of his shirt.
“Marine F-8 pilot was trans-Pacing one time, flying the pond.”
He paused and lubricated his throat while his listeners thought about flying a
single-seat fighter across the Pacific, about spending ten or twelve hours
strapped to an ejection seat in the tiny cockpit.
Landow’s growl broke the silence. “The first time he hit the tanker for gas, the
fuel cells overpressurized and ruptured. Fuel squirted out of every orifice. It
squirted into the engine bay and in seconds the plane caught fire.
“At this point our Marine decides to eject. He pulls the face curtain. Nothing
happens. But not yet to sweat, because he has the secondary handle between his
legs. He gives that a hell of a jerk. Nothing. He just sits there in this unejectable
seat in this burning aircraft with fuel running out of every pore over the vast
“This is turning into a major-league bad day. He yanks on the handle a couple
more times like King Kong with a hard on. Nothing happens. Gawdalmighty,
he’s getting excited now. He tries jettisoning the canopy. Damn thing won’t go
off. It’s stuck. This is getting seriouser and seriouser.
“The plane is burning like a blowtorch by this time and he’s getting really
excited. He pounds and pounds at the canopy while the plane does smoky
whifferdills. Finally the canopy departs. Our Marine is greatly relieved. He
unstraps and prepares to climb out. This is an F-8, you understand, and if he
makes it past that tail in one piece he will be the very first. But he’s going to give
it a try. He starts to straighten up and the wind just grabs him and whoom—he’s
out—free-falling toward the ocean deep and blue. Out, thank God, out!
“He falls for a while toward the Pacific thinking about Marine maintenance,
then decides it’s time to see if the parachute works. It wasn’t that kind of a day.
Damn thing streams.”
“No!” several of his listeners groaned in unison.
“I shit you not,” Bob Landow replied. He helped himself to more beer as his
Marine fell from an indifferent sky toward an indifferent sea with an unopened
parachute streaming behind him.
“What’s the rest of it?” Tricky demanded.
Landow frowned. There is a certain pace to a good sea story, and Tricky had a
bad habit of rushing it. Not willing to be hurried, Landow took another sip of
beer, then made a show of wiping his lips with a napkin. When he had the glass
back on the bar and his weight lifter’s arms crossed just so, he said, “He had
some Marine luck there at the end. Pulled strings like a puppeteer and got a few
panels of the rag to blossom. Just enough. Just enough.”
He shook his head wearily and settled a baleful gaze on Jake Grafton. “Things
happen to Marines. You be careful out there, Jake.”
“Yeah,” Jake told them as he glanced out the window at the reflection of small
puffy clouds on the limpid blue water. “I will.”