The AJ-1 Crash of September 8, 1956
USS Coral Sea


My first awareness of this accident that VAH-5 had on the deployment that followed the one on which I had been was when I discovered the picture on page 109 of Ginter's book. For more than a couple of years I had no idea of who was involved. In 2003 I learned that the bombardier/navigator was Bob Fitzsimmons. We did not seem to remember each other but we had been in the squadron simultaneously for a very short time before I left. Soon after we became reacquainted Bob sent me an email message relating the details. Still later I found a couple of eyewitness accounts and pictures on the USS Coral Sea site.

That which I am about to present to you is Bob's account and material that has been "borrowed" from the web. I will give you a link to the original source in order to give credit and so that you can consult the original, but I feel justified in having "archived" the material here in order to present it all together in one place. The first two accounts from the web, those of Jerry Dempsey and of Michael Delaney are both eyewitness accounts and seem quite direct and reliable. However, the third account, by Grady Pittman, contains a considerable amount of misinformation about the type of airplane (there never was an AJ-3), the composition of the crew (the plane had no co-pilot, but rather had a bombardier/navigator in the right seat), number aboard (four not three), and the rumored suicide of a survivor (not true).

Actually, I jhave a much lengthier account from the bombardier/navigator, Bob Fitzsimmons, that I will be adding to this file later when I get a chance.

I begin with Bob's email account:

I flew with two Dets while deployed....VAH-5 Det 33 on board Intrepid (CVA-11) and briefly with the same Det (different number) on board Coral Sea (CVB-43). It was during an emergency arrested landing on board Coral Sea on 8 Sep 1956 that the AJ-1 BuNo 124864(NB-7) which had suffered a hydraulic failure resulting in a no flaps approach created havoc on the flight deck. The LSO had little experience in waving the AJ (as it turned out) and because the bird was "fast" signaled an early cut. The end result was that the bird settled very quickly and the hook hit the round down and broke off the bird. Coral Sea was a straight deck carrier at that time, and we bounced over the barriers (the Davis Barrier was not rigged) and did strike damage to 13 airplanes forward. Initial impact was to another AJ parked portside (nose toward the island) which skewed us to port and next we ran up the back of an AD-5 the engine of which served as really effective battering ram knocking everything out of our (and its) way as we slid up the flight deck. We finally came to a stop abeam the #1 elevator with our nose fully to port. There was a small fire in the area of the jet engine which was quickly extinguished by the crash crew. There were 4 of us on board, and we had been airborne 4 hours at that time. I had some minor injuries (cuts/bruises) and was one scared guy. The 3rd crewman, AOC Bill Kelly, was scared and OK as was our flight time passenger AOC Jack Allen. The HAAC, LCDR J. Caton was very seriously injured and remained in a coma for several months. He never flew again and was disability retired a couple of years later.


1956 Med Cruise

I was on cruise in Coral Sea from August 56 to Jan 57. Approximately, mid cruise, we had an AJ with a hydraulic failure (partial flaps, I think) go through the barriers and into the pack up forward. If memory serves me correctly, 13 aircraft were destroyed and the pilot was severely injured and sent to the hospital in Wiesbaden. Cannot remember if there were any fatalities but it was a heck of a wreck up fwd, particularly viewing it from my vantage point at about 5k in the dog pattern.

[Preceding submitted by Jerry Dempsey]

Attached are 5 shots of the 1956 AJ crash that I took as a Navy photographer on board the USS Coral Sea (CVA43).
Background...The AJ lost its hydraulics, therefore, the use of his flaps to keep his plane airborne, at a reasonable landing speed, was not an option. On deck, the operations officer gave the order to clear the forward deck. The ship turned into the wind with all the speed it could muster in order to reduce, as much as possible, the plane's deck speed. But, on his approach, wanting (I assume) not to miss the 1st arresting wire, his hook hit the edge of the deck and snapped off...without a connection to the arresting wire the plane proceeded to crash, at high speed, into the planes parked on the forward deck.
All told I took a 50 shots--from what you see here to the full rescue and damage/control exercise. The AJ photos were taken w/a K20 handheld aerial camera using B/W HS film at 1/500sec.

[Preceding and the pictures that follow were submitted by Michael Delaney]
[Note: The captions beneath the pictures are the captions as they appear on the Coral Sea web site. For an image 20% larger, right click on the picture and ask to view image. Kenneth Wooster]

AJ crash aboard Coral Sea 9/8/56
AJ touches down on deck-hook snaps off. If you look you can see the broken hook in the air just above [below?] the horizon.
[Image Source - Michael Delaney]

AJ crash aboard Coral Sea 9/8/56
The AJ makes contact with both the low barrier wires and then sheds the nylon high barriers (High barriers not shown).
[Image Source - Michael Delaney]

AJ crash aboard Coral Sea 9/8/56
Here the AJ has come through the barriers without any slowdown heading into the forward parked planes aircraft.
[Image Source - Michael Delaney]

AJ crash aboard Coral Sea 9/8/56
The AJ has made its first contact on its port wing. One interesting point--look at the forward deck, just to the left of the parked jeep, and you'll see one lucky sailor as he runs to port for cover.
[Image Source - Michael Delaney]

AJ crash aboard Coral Sea 9/8/56
Full contact. See that piece of wing on the horizon --that sailed about 2 feet over my head before crashing into the main stack.
[Image Source - Michael Delaney]

Also from

1956-57 MED Cruise

I didn't see this one but I was on the hanger deck at our "shop" when it happened. I heard one hell of a noise, looked up and smoke was coming down into the hanger bay so I knew something was wrong.
I ran up to the flight deck and saw fire around the port cat. which was crammed with parked planes. Several planes were destroyed and the crash crew put the fire out quickly. We were instructed to throw parts and pieces over the side in order to clean up.
The entire nose of the AJ-3 was sheared off showing the seats of the pilot and co-pilot with nothing around them but the bulkhead that they were attached to (pilot and co-pilot had been removed). I think 12-15 aircraft were destroyed.
The information I got was that the AJ-3 had lost hydraulic pressure and could not lower his flaps nor lock his tail hook in the down position. Having no flaps prevents the plane maintaining a safe air speed when landing. This situation was relayed to the Air Boss and the pilot had requested permission to proceed to land at some airfield. Permission was denied by the Air Boss (for those of you on the 1956 Med Cruise you can remember his famous expression- Expedite-Expedite). Anyway, the plane came in "hot" and the speed being such, it was too much for the tail hook and it snapped off. Being on a straight deck carrier there was only one way to go, straight. From the information I received I understand the plane jumped the barriers and the nose smashed into the wing tip tank of another AJ-3 [sic] parked forward (see photo #4 and you can see the right engine and nacelle of the parked plane. This is what sheared the nose off of the plane. You can see the AD-6s parked forward in the planes path. These belonged to my squadron, VA-104. We lost 5 aircraft in this accident as well as other squadrons, VF-103, VF-106, etc..
I understand the pilot lost his life with the co-pilot injured. A chief was sitting in the lower compartment behind the co-pilot and escaped uninjured. I understand that later he committed suicide. Not confirmed, just a rumor. We proceeded to Naples (I think) and off loaded what was left of the planes involved in the crash and returned to sea.
I have tried to relive those days on the Coral Sea and hope that this information will fill some voids and enlighten our sailors as to what happened there and what life was like on a straight deck carrier with no air conditioning, no E-mail, no TV, and a very small gedunk and no game room. Our game room was on the flight deck.

[Preceding submitted by Grady Pittman]

VAH-5 was deployed to Port Lyautey (with detachments aboard ships) from 15 May 1956 until 15 October 1956. The dates of this Mediteranean cruise of USS Coral Sea were 23 July 1956 to 11 February 1957. The time for VAH-5 to operate off USS Midway would thus have been in the overlapping period of time. The interval would have been shortened at the beginning because of the ship's need to cross the Atlantic and get on station in the Med and at the end, by the squadron's need to get back to Port Lyautey and make preparations for their flight back to Sanford. As for actual operation dates, Bob Fitzsimmons has told me that he left USS Intrepid on 10 August and was in Port Lyautey until 31 August, boarding USS Coral Sea in Naples on 4 September.

The AJs were not actually a part of the ship's airgroup, and the Heavy Attack squadrons usually had their own LSO, who would have been familiar with the plane. On 8 September 1956 VAH-5's LSO had not yet arrived aboard.
Bob Fitzsimmons says of the situation. "One of the Air Group LSOs was "paddles" on 8 September. I personally have very great doubts that he ever flew the AJ at all anywhere, and was unfamiliar with the no flap characteristics of the airplane.
"Therein lies a huge part of the problem! If the Air Boss had allowed us to bingo to the beach, it would have saved 13 valuable airplanes!"

See also my file re Accidents for which I seek the BuNo of the aircraft.