This Naval aviator was a cowboy maverick of legendary fame
It takes an incredible amount of intestinal fortitude to take off from the deck of a ship, and a little more to land on a pitching deck.
No matter how hard a Naval Aviator might be, trying to land on that same pitching deck in the middle of a storm after you learn that your landing gear was ripped off is enough to rattle the cool of any man- and it takes an even cooler individual to help talk you back onto the ship.
Fortunately for one aviator, that “cooler individual” was Commander John “Bug” Roach, a cowboy maverick of legendary fame and the coolest of cats when it came to a crisis.
In March of 1987, after a mishap during a catapult launch sheared the landing gear off of his A-6 Intruder all-weather bomber, US Marine Captain Rand “Atlas” McNally what’s facing a difficult choice: land the aircraft on the pitching deck of the USS Ranger, or eject into the stormy waters off the coast of Alaska.
On duty as Landing Signal Officer and ready to answer the call was Commander Roach, who, with a very gentle voice and great confidence, began to talk the Marine back down to the deck
Urging him not to second-guess himself and to take all directions from the LSO, Bug began to guide Atlas through the process as he made his one and only approach to the Ranger’s violently-pitching deck.
“You gotta trust me on this one,” Bug said. “If I think you’re looking good, ya’ are.”
As the large, net-like capture device bring up from the deck of the ship, Atlas began his approach.
“Power, power,” Bug urged as that was came in on somewhat of a shallow approach.
Suddenly, the Intruder came into view, and Bug gave the order, his voice rising to a calm shout.
“Cut, cut cut!” He said. “Drop your nose, drop your nose!”
The A-6 slammed into the net, his wing scraping along the deck in a shower of sparks.
Suddenly, the bomber came to a stop.
“Just for the record,” Bug said of Atlas’ landing, “That was a 5 [out of 5].”
“Hey Bug,” one officer radioed in. “You are superb.”
Joining the Navy in 1966 after graduating with a journalism degree, Bug flew F-8 Crusader fighters during the Vietnam war, later transitioning to F-14 Tomcats.
Known for valuing his time in the cockpit and on the deck more than promotions, he was allegedly passed over for promotion several times and known for his antics. Naval Aviators loved Bug for his personality and professionalism, and at one time he was the Navy’s senior LSO, having supervised over 130,000 landings.
By the early 1990s, Bug had flown over 250 combat missions in two wars, sailed 11 cruises and had over 5,000 flight hours and over 1,000 carrier landings to his name.
Sadly, Bug was killed in October of 1991, when the engine and ejection seat of his A-4 Skyhawk aggressor plane failed, leaving him unable to do anything but ride the bird into the waters of Southern California. In the end, Bug’s aircraft quit before he did.
Leaving the Marine Corps shortly after his rough landing, “Atlas” McNally joined the Navy Reserve and became a Lieutenant Commander. Flying Intruders during Desert Storm, Atlas was engaged and had recently taken the Nebraska bar exam in 1994. He would never learn that he had passed the bar- McNally was killed when his A-6 crashed off the coast of San Francisco, with the ejection seats for both Atlas and his Bombardier/Navigator failing to properly deploy their respective parachutes.
The character, courage, and acumen of men such as Bug and Atlas were best summed in the form of a question, asked by (the fictional) Rear Admiral George Tarrant in the 1954 Korean War film, The Bridges at Toko-Ri.
“Where do we get such men?” he asked as another wave of then-new jet planes launched from the carrier’s deck. “They leave this ship and they do their job. Then they must find this speck lost somewhere on the sea. When the find it they have to land on it’s pitching deck. Where do we get such men?”
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