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When Germany launched its first V-1 “buzz bomb” against London on June 13, 1944, Britain was ill-prepared to deal with the new threat. Anti-aircraft guns and barrage balloons initially proved ineffective, as did the use of fighters to intercept and shoot down the swift, pulse-jet equipped V-1. Soon, however, brave RAF pilots developed new techniques to battle the buzz bombs. One involved positioning the wing of their aircraft inches below that of the V-1, a maneuver that aerodynamically pushed the wing of the V-1 up, overrode its gyros and sent it tumbling to earth. That same maneuver, known as “toppling,” would play a role in a remarkable peacetime incident a decade later.

The morning of March 26, 1954, broke sunny and clear in San Diego, Calif., with calm winds, unlimited visibility and a forecast high of 66 degrees. By all accounts, it was shaping up to be an idyllic day for flying. As Lt. j.g. James Maccoun settled into the cockpit of his brand-new Grumman F9F-6 fighter at Naval Air Station Miramar, north of the city, and Aviation Electronics Technician 3rd Class Norman Brunn climbed aboard his Sikorsky HO4S-3 anti-submarine helicopter at Naval Auxiliary Air Station Ream Field, to the south, neither could have had the slightest notion how the fates would soon bring them together.

Navy fighter squadron 112 (VF-112), based at Miramar, had recently returned from a six-month tour of duty in the western Pacific aboard the aircraft carrier Kearsarge. The CO of the squadron was Commander Steve Morrison, whose son Jim would gain fame more than a decade later as the lead singer of The Doors. On that March morning, four of Morrison’s pilots were preparing for an air-to-air gunnery practice sortie: flight leader Lt. j.g. Clarence “Van” Vandenberg, Lieutenant Averill, Ensign Bruce Huntley and Maccoun. Having flown the F9F-5 Panther during their previous deployment, they were in the process of transitioning to the upgraded F9F-6. The -6 variant that the quartet of pilots were strapping into retained the same power plant as its -5 predecessor, but featured a longer fuselage, swept wings and tail and a new feline name: Cougar.

The fighters’ four 20mm cannons would not be fed with live ammunition that morning. Instead, gun camera footage would be used to score the shooting abilities of three of the pilots, pitted against a fourth towing a gunnery banner. The four Cougars, their shiny new gloss sea blue paint gleaming in the morning sun, taxied to the active runway and took off in two-ship elements. Maccoun and Huntley, with the gunnery banner attached to Huntley’s aircraft, took off at 10:26, followed a few minutes later by Vandenberg and Averill. All four turned south toward the gunnery range near the Coronado Islands, about 15 miles off the coast of Mexico’s northern border.

About that same time at Ream Field, Brunn, a sonar operator trainee with helicopter anti-submarine squadron 2 (HS-2), and his trainer, Sonarman 1st Class G.W. “Ham Bone” Hamilton, were climbing into the passenger compartment of their Sikorsky. HS-2 had been established two years earlier as the first anti-submarine warfare helicopter squadron on the West Coast. Its mission that day would be to familiarize Brunn with the finer points of the then-fledgling business of detecting submarines using the helicopter’s sonar equipment. The pilots—Lt. Cmdrs. R.H. Crowder and M.A. Stone—lifted off and turned west, out over the blue Pacific.

While Maccoun and Huntley climbed their F9F-6s south past San Diego Bay minutes after departing Miramar, they nearly had to abort their mission. The gunnery banner, a flat nylon cloth with a radar reflector at the front, had been attached to the Cougar’s dive brakes by several hundred feet of cable. As Huntley recalled,“The tow cable broke and the banner was lost, leaving about 8 feet of cable connected.” A quick decision was made to use Huntley’s aircraft itself as the target, and he momentarily extended his speed brakes, shedding the remaining cable and then continuing on to the practice area where the other three pilots would work on their“shooter” skills.

Huntley reported, “I left Coronado Island at 10:37 on a [southerly] heading for simulated gunnery, myself acting as target [while]Maccoun broke off to join the firing group.” As flight leader, Vandenberg would make the first gunnery pass. “South of the [Coronado] islands with the [target] aircraft at 15,000 feet, I initiated my run from about 21,000 feet with [Maccoun] just above and [left] of my position,” Vandenberg recalled.

Maccoun described what happened next: “I started a gentle turn to follow [Vandenberg] down on a low G run [with] 90 percent power on and an indicated airspeed of 190 knots. As soon as I had approximately 30 degrees of bank the plane stalled. Forward pressure did not check the stall. I leveled the wings [while] adding more forward stick. The plane continued in a stall, buffeting as the nose continued in a steeper dive until I was near vertical. After a loss of5,000 to 6,000 feet, I informed the flight leader of my predicament[when] the plane began spinning to the right.”

Vandenberg reported that as he pulled up from his run past Huntley’s target aircraft, “I heard [Maccoun] call that he was in an uncontrolled stall and saw [his] aircraft in a spin at approximately15,000 feet.”

Maccoun focused on attempting to recover control: “I tried forward stick and a slight amount of opposite rudder [with] no results and then released everything. I noticed my airspeed approaching250 knots [and] dropped the speed brakes in order to keep from gaining excessive speed and as a possible method of recovery from the spin.” As his Cougar continued spinning past 11,500 feet, “The plane started to spin tighter. I don’t know the exact number of spins, but at least three complete ones before the wrap up feeling hit me. At this point I called and said I was getting out. I pulled the pre-ejection lever [to jettison the canopy], positioned my body and feet, and pulled the [ejection seat] curtain.”

Vandenberg, Huntley and Averill could do nothing but watchas Maccoun’s aircraft spun down toward the waves. Twenty-two minutes after takeoff, Maccoun broadcast, “I’m leaving it.”

“I saw the canopy jettison, glittering in the sun, at 10,000 to 8,000 feet,” Vandenberg said. “I turned away to see my instruments [and] didn’t see the seat eject.”

Thinking that Maccoun was still inside the plunging jet, Vandenberg dived after it. As he did so, something unexpected happened. Maccoun’s aircraft, which had dropped to near vertical, suddenly began to level out and then started to climb again. “I called to [Maccoun] thinking him still in the aircraft, [but] did not receive an answer,” the flight leader said. “I pulled alongside his plane and saw that the seat and pilot were gone. By that time, the plane was back to 8,000 feet. The strange thing was that this plane had come out of the stall and spin with such good trim and was flying so evenly.”

Too evenly, as Vandenberg quickly noted. In the seconds that followed, he saw the pilotless Cougar was now slowly descending, headed directly toward San Diego.

Huntley was then at 15,000 feet, orbiting the area where he believed Maccoun had ejected. The flight leader instructed Huntley to broadcast a Mayday, continue his orbit and coordinate rescue efforts while Vandenberg stayed with the wayward Cougar, which continued descending toward the heavily populated shore.

Thinking fast, Vandenberg then maneuvered his fighter to the right of the pilotless Cougar: “I eased under the [right] wing of [Maccoun’s] plane and brought the tip of my [left] wing up close so that the air flowing over the top of my wing pushed against [the bottom of] his. I didn’t touch the wing—just the air flow did it.” In the course of a tense 12 minutes that seemed like an eternity, Vandenberg repeated the toppling maneuver several times, allowing the vortices from his wingtip to slowly and gently turn the other Cougar 180 degrees, until it was on a southwesterly heading. “I wanted to make it crash at sea,” he said.

Vandenberg would continue to herd the pilotless plane away from the coastline for 55 miles. “Finally,” he recalled, “I got down to 800 feet, pulled away and let the plane go.” There were no witnesses as the shiny new F9F-6, with only 71 airframe hours, plunged into the Pacific 25 miles off Ensenada, Mexico.

After ejecting, Maccoun had released himself from his seat. He free-fell to around 4,000 feet before pulling his ripcord. “I hit the water and unbuckled the chest strap,” he said. “I inflated my raft and crawled in putting out a dye marker.” High above him, Vandenberg was returning from steering the wayward fighter out to sea and just about to rejoin Huntley when he spotted the green dye marker, two miles west of where Huntley was orbiting. “I dove down to check,” said Vandenberg, “and found [Maccoun] sitting in a life raft waving.”

Huntley recalled, “I immediately started orbiting that spot and directed rescue while Vandenberg returned to base due to low fuel.”

Alerted by the Mayday, and aware that a pilot was in the water,helicopter pilots Crowder and Stone headed toward the scene,notifying Hamilton and Brunn to be prepared to pull the downed airman aboard. The situation presented the chopper crew with a dilemma, however.

Despite many requests, HS-2’s helicopters had not been outfitted with external rescue hoists. Using the sonar gear to bring the pilot aboard was also out. “The sonar gear was deployed through a hole in the [fuselage floor],” Brunn explained. “We couldn’t raise the pilot by the sonar cable, as the hole was too small to bring him through.” Scanning the cabin, he and Hamilton hurriedly devised a plan. “We tied the helicopter tie-down ropes together and made a loop at the lower end.” They would try to use this makeshift rig to haul Maccoun aboard through the sliding side door.

Maccoun had been bobbing in his life raft for a little more than30 minutes when he heard the rhythmic whump, whump of the approaching HO4S—guided toward him by the circling jets until Crowder and Stone sighted his bright-green dye marker. “Our pilots did a great job of hovering and we got the line over to him,”recalled Brunn. “After he was in the loop, he gave a thumbs-up.” With Hamilton stiffly braced on one side of the open door and Brunn on the other, the two men hauled Maccoun aboard handover-hand. “He was cold and wet, [with] no obvious injuries,”Brunn said. “As it was too noisy to converse, he nodded his thanks and we headed to land.” Depositing Maccoun ashore minutes later,the Sikorsky headed back out to sea to continue its training mission—just another day at the office.

The story of the pilotless Cougar and Vandenberg’s quick-thinking action to turn it away from the city made headlines across the nation. He became something of a local hero, and the mayor of Coronado awarded him the key to the city.

For their improvised rescue efforts, Norm Brunn and the entireHO4S crew received the “Winged S” Helicopter Rescue Certificate from the Sikorsky Corporation. That program had been initiated in 1950 in order to “Honor those who perform rescues flying a Sikorsky helicopter in acknowledgment of their humanitarian efforts.” To date, an estimated 2 million lives have been saved by Sikorsky helicopters.

The award was well deserved, but the helicopter crewmen and the rest of their squadron were also about to receive something far more important to them. It turned out that Lieutenant Maccoun was the son of retired U.S. Coast Guard Rear Adm. William E.Maccoun. According to Brunn, “It wasn’t long after the rescue we were finally outfitted with [external rescue] hoists.” In his view,there was a direct connection between the son of an admiral beingrescued with lengths of rope tied together and the helicopters ofHS-2 finally being equipped with rescue hoists.

“We needed an advocate, and apparently Admiral Maccoun stepped up,” said Brunn. “Bless him!”


Craig A. Thorson previously wrote about the first U.S. Marine Corps helicopter transport squadron, HMR-161, in our May 2012 issue. That article, “Marine Chopper Salvage,” won the 2013 General Roy S. Geiger Award for best feature about Marine aviation, presented by the Marine Corps Heritage Foundation. Further reading: Grumman F9F Panther/Cougar, by Brad Elward.

Originally published in the May 2015 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here.