North American’s FJ-4 was low-slung, sex and built for speed.
The FJ-4 Fury slipped through the sound barrier with ease—my grandmother would have said “like grease through a goose.” Essentially a souped-up F-86 Sabrejet, it was exactly the kind of aircraft to get a U.S. Navy “nugget” pilot like me in trouble in 1958. Although the Fury saw active squadron duty for only four years, aviation experts of the era considered it the world’s best jet day-fighter without an afterburner. I couldn’t agree more: It was one sweet airplane.
The Fury’s story goes back to 1947, when North American Aviation sold the Navy a follow-on to the company’s famous prop-driven P-51 Mustang, a straight-wing jet designated the FJ-1. The Air Force bought a sweptwing version, the F-86, that was to gain fame in the skies over Korea. The Navy soon recognized its mistake and bought a navalized version of the Sabrejet, designating it the FJ-2. When that aircraft turned out to be underpowered for carrier operations, a more powerful Wright J65-W-4 engine was installed to produce the FJ-3. That one didn’t pan out either, however, as the engine proved prone to seize-ups and flameouts.
The Navy ordered a major rework on the FJ-3, which involved enlarging the fuselage, installing a bigger engine (the J65-W-16A, with 7,700 pounds of thrust) and giving it a “wet” wing—milling it out of a single piece of aluminum, so the wing could double as a fuel tank. The new bird that emerged was the FJ-4 Fury, entering service in 1956. Two years later 222 of the fighters were modified with beefed-up hardpoints on their wings so they could carry bombs and air-to-ground missiles. The updated aircraft was dubbed the FJ-4B. A dorsal fin along the aircraft’s spine marked the -4 and -4B models.
The FJ-4 Fury was not my first fleet aircraft; I had to work up to it. In November 1957, fresh from the Navy’s advanced jet flight syllabus in Texas, I joined Attack Squadron 56 at Naval Air Station Miramar, just northeast of San Diego. The squadron was then equipped with Grumman F9F-8 Cougars, the same sweptwing jet I had flown back at Chase Field in Texas.
Since our primary job in VA-56 was ground attack, the mock dogfights we engaged in were merely practice for our secondary mission. Conversely, the fighter squadrons had primary responsibility for air-to-air, with a backup air-to-ground mission. The distinction was blurry: We were flying fighter planes in an attack role. (The Navy finally resolved the issue with the F/A-18 fighter/attack aircraft.)
When we were not on a weapons deployment to the desert, we pretty much had free rein to do whatever we wanted in the air. And what we wanted to do was aerial combat. There were plenty of multiplane Navy battles fought to dubious conclusions in the wide-open skies over southern California back then. But an Air National Guard guy in an F-86 also slipped in on a regular basis and whipped our tails.
In July 1958, VA-56 was issued the FJ-4B Fury. All of us promptly fell in love with it. Unlike the Grumman Cougar, this fighter was supersonic. On my first Fury flight I accidentally went Mach 1, and had trouble believing the airspeed indicator. Now that we had a better bird, we went looking for that Air National Guard guy in his F-86. He stayed away—hunting Cougars, no doubt.
Since I’ve said all these nice things about the Fury, I should also point out that it was a mobile hydraulic leak. When you go out to preflight most planes, if you see a pool of hydraulic fluid under it, you are not going to fly. But with the FJ-4B, if you could jump across the puddle, you flew it.
In September 1958 I deliberately tried for a low-level Mach 1 “boom” and almost got myself into serious trouble. I was leading a section of two FJ-4Bs, with Ed—a fellow nugget—flying my wing on a beautiful California day. As we cruised along east of Los Angeles, I spotted a small mountain lake in what at first glance seemed a remote area. We were on squadron tactical frequency when I called out to my wingman: “Ed, hang on. I’m going to make a supersonic pass low over that little lake to the north. We’ll boom the fish.”
I pushed the throttle up and went into a shallow dive toward the mountaintop that cradled the lake. Ed came up: “Keep her subsonic, Brian. One of my drop tanks is loose and vibrating.” That call probably saved my career.
“Wilco.” I throttled back and settled in for a low-altitude run at Mach .97, barely under the speed of sound. Treetops flashed beneath my wings, and I noticed that Ed had stepped up; he was above me— standard practice when the leader was close to the surface. We zipped across a dirt road.
It was a beautiful scene. The lake was hidden somewhere behind the trees just then, but it would come into sight within a few seconds. Then I spotted houses among the trees. Houses? I glanced in my starboard rear-view mirror and saw a yellow school bus pull off the road into a ditch. I looked ahead and glimpsed a real street…with buildings. It was dawning on me that I was flying over a far-from-remote community. Holy cow, this is Big Bear.
I had a clear vision at that moment of some admiral ripping the wings off my chest. But they had to catch us first. We flashed past main street and then over the near shore of the lake. I went way down, right on the water. The lower we were, the harder it would be for someone on the ground (or the water) to get a good view of the side number painted on our aircraft.
“Ed, when we clear that lip up ahead, I’m going down.”
Big Bear Lake is in a crater. Up ahead of us there was a low lip of crater edge, followed by a sheer drop-off of several thousand feet. We skimmed over the edge, then I rolled inverted and pulled for the desert below. Ed stuck so close it was like he was welded to me. We bottomed out, and I led us south just under Mach 1, a few hundred feet above the ground. I wanted to be high enough to talk to Miramar but low enough that radar couldn’t pull us out of the ground clutter.
“Ed, I’m switching to Miramar Approach Control.”
I changed frequency and lied like hell, hoping to establish an alibi: “Miramar Approach, this is Champion 403, flight of two approaching the TACAN [tactical air navigation] fix at 20,000. Request a TACAN penetration and straight-in to a section landing.” The fix I referenced was 40 miles east of Miramar; we were actually 100 miles north of that position and about 19,000 feet lower.
“Roger Champ 403. You are cleared. Squawk Mode 3, Code 2,300. We do not have you on radar.” The “squawk” was a setting for my IFF (identification friend or foe) radar responder.
“Wilco, Approach. Squawking.” I wasn’t squawking. We were now about 50 miles from the TACAN approach fix, racing south along the east edge of the mountains.
“Champion 403, check your squawk. We still do not have you on radar.”
“Wilco, Approach. Maybe your radar is out.”
“We’ll check it, Champ 403. What is your position?”
“We’re at the TACAN fix, 20,000, commencing our descent.” We were now 30 miles from there, wending our way up through the mountains, still at low altitude. Given how low we were flying, I was amazed that Approach Control could hear me and I could hear them.
The radio was silent for a couple of minutes. Then: “Champion 403. Our radar appears to be functioning normally, but we still do not paint you. Say your position.”
“We’re five miles out, descending through 1,000 feet. Request clearance to land.” We were actually about five miles by then, still on the deck and traveling at high speed. I signaled to Ed, popped the speed brakes and ballooned up to 1,000 feet.
“Roger, 403. We have you now. You are cleared to land. Sorry about our radar. Don’t understand the problem.”
“No sweat, Approach. Thanks.” I signaled Ed again, dropped my landing gear, lowered the flaps and landed. Ed stayed right on my wing through touchdown and roll-out. When I pushed my oxygen mask out of the way, I gave him a big grin and thumbs up. We had pulled it off.
Once we cleared the runway, I signaled Ed and switched to Ground Control frequency. The radio growled: “Champion 403, this is Ground Control. The base operations officer wants you to report to him as soon as you shut down. Understood?”
Damn. “Wilco, Ground.” I looked over at Ed, who made a face.
Twenty minutes later I snapped to attention in the doorway of the NAS Miramar operations officer and did the knuckle rap on his doorframe. The ops boss looked up and glowered at me. “You Ensign Bryans?”
“Get in here.”
“Yes, sir.” I stepped up to his desk.
“Mister, you have flown your last flight. I’m going to make an example of you. We’re about to yank your wings so fast you won’t know you ever had them.”
“Why? For killing chickens, that’s why. Over 1,000 of them.”
“Chickens, sir? Where?”
“Over by Yuma, that’s where! As you damn well know! You and your wingman did a supersonic pass so low over some farmer’s chicken coop that over 1,000 chickens dropped dead.”
“Yuma? Sir, we weren’t anywhere near Yuma.” (This was true.)
“Oh yeah? Well, mister, where were you?”
“Umm…” My alibi might be worse than the crime of which I was accused. So I lied again. “We were doing high work over the Salton Sea, sir.”
“Can you prove that, mister?”
“I guess not, sir. But you have my word of honor that we did not kill any chickens near Yuma.”
“We’ll see about that. I have a call in to your commanding officer, and I’m about to start an investigation. You’re grounded until I get to the bottom of this.”
When I got to the squadron ready room, the skipper was just hanging up the phone on the duty officer’s desk. Ed was right next to him, looking poorly. The skipper just shook his head and went into his office. Ed and I sat—and waited.
An hour later the phone rang. The duty officer answered it, listened for a moment and then handed the receiver to me.
I swallowed before saying, “Ensign Bryans.”
“This is the operations officer. I have good news for you. You’re in the clear.”
I glanced at Ed and gave him thumbs up. “Yes, sir. Thank you, sir.”
“Yeah, well, sorry I ripped into you like that. It turns out that a witness in Yuma got the tail number of one of the chicken killers. They were two National Guard types in F-86s.”
We practiced carrier landings at Miramar for a big chunk of that October, flying a left-hand racetrack pattern at 500 feet that led to the left runway. Normal traffic stayed above us and used the right runway. Then on October 28 I flew aboard the attack aircraft carrier Kearsarge (CVA 33), positioned off San Diego. The FJ-4 came aboard at 130-plus knots, a whole lot faster than the old North American SNJ trainer I had qualified in. But the Fury was a sweetheart around the ship, and our day traps were no big deal. Not so my first catapult shot.
Kearsarge was equipped with two of the old H-8 hydraulic catapults. To prepare for launch, you taxied onto the start of a 225-foot slot in the carrier’s deck that was the catapult track. A bridle made up of inch-thick steel wires was hooked to one point on each side of the plane’s fuselage (near the main mounts) and into the curved mouth on the front of the shuttle plate that rode the slot in the carrier’s deck. The shuttle was attached to a piston situated in a long tube underneath the catapult track.
The holdback fitting, a piece of ceramic that looked very much like a weight lifter’s dumbbell, was slipped into a slot under the plane’s tail and attached to the deck with another steel cable. The shuttle was then tensioned—hydraulics moved it forward until the bridle was taut. At this point, the plane squatted from the forward pressure of the shuttle fighting against the strength of the holdback fitting. A huge steel blast deflector, located a few feet behind the plane, was then raised up at a steep angle.
When the crew was ready to shoot you off the bow, the yellow-shirted catapult officer stepped over in front of your wing to prove you wouldn’t be fired off until you were ready. He then raised one arm over his head and twirled two fingers. You shoved the throttle forward to 100 percent power and grabbed a small metal rod that stuck out of the cockpit wall slightly ahead of the throttle. You held the throttle head and that metal rod together in your left hand to make sure that your hand, and the throttle, didn’t fly backward when the cat fired.
After a quick check of the engine instruments, you gave the cat officer a salute with your right hand. Then you tucked your right elbow into your gut and set your hand behind the stick; you didn’t want it to come back in your lap on the cat shot.
The cat officer stepped away from in front of your wing, fingers still twirling over his head, and made sure your path was clear. Then he made a balletlike sweeping motion that took him down on one knee, face and arm toward the bow. His outstretched fingers touched the deck…and the cat fired.
In that instant the hydraulic catapult distinguished itself from the more modern steam catapult. The “slug” that caught the shuttle and pushed you down the cat track started from a point about 20 feet behind your plane. It had accelerated to full bore by the time it picked up the shuttle—and you—on its way to the end of the track and a final speed of about 165 mph. When this force hit you, the holdback fitting snapped in two; it didn’t even slow the shuttle down.
The first time this happened, I blacked out. I woke up about 60 feet above the water, flying. I was so thrilled that I keyed the UHF radio button and yelled “Yah-hoo!”
I also blacked out the next time. It didn’t affect everyone like that, but I blacked out momentarily almost every time I was fired from a hydraulic cat. It was even more of a thrill when I began making night launches.
To practice for our air-to-ground role, we periodically carried a “shape,” a blue fake bomb the approximate size and weight of one of the nuclear weapons we were expected to drop if the “balloon went up.” This turned out to be a problem with the FJ-4B, which was so low-slung that we had to carry the dummy bomb on a wing station. It was so heavy that it caused the aircraft to swerve toward that wing as we accelerated down the runway. To compensate, we started at the edge of the runway, cocked off at an angle. The bird slowly swung toward the heavy wing, and the runway heading, as we gained speed. If we did it right, the rudder would become effective about the same time we were pointed in the right direction. We could then hold the runway heading until the FJ-4 became airborne. (We never tried this on a catapult.) The obvious solution was to carry two nukes, but the Navy never bought that idea.
In January 1959, the squadron got a new mount. As great as the FJs were, their stubby legs had not really been compatible with our nuclear weapons mission, so the Navy replaced our beloved FJ-4Bs with 12 spindly legged, delta-wing Douglas A-4D-1s—birds that were tall enough to carry a nuke under the centerline.
Some of us got to fly both the FJ-4Bs and the A-4Ds that month, which meant we spent some time testing them against each other over southern California. We concluded the FJ-4B was a superior fighter above 15,000 feet, but the A-4D’s delta wing made it the better bird at low altitude. And low was where we intended to operate.
Brian Bryans logged 3,669 hours in 13 different types of aircraft, made 652 carrier landings (163 of them at night) and flew 183 combat missions during the Vietnam War. He later commanded Attack Squadron 35 aboard USS Nimitz. His self-published memoir, Flying Low, is available at brianbryans.com.
Originally published in the March 2009 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here.