By Jim Stewart

They were always the last to leave the ship. It meant waiting up to an hour in the noise and heat while a backwash of jet fumes filled the fat old plane, gently rocking it in the night.

By 6 p.m. on Jan. 25, it was already dark in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea. Aboard the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Nimitz, the EA-3B “Whale” – the oldest, slowest and heaviest jet to be launched from today’s supercarriers – waited its turn after the fighters, them the attack aircraft, then the tankers and submarine hunters thundered into the sky.  Despite the cold outside, the heat was oppressive inside the belly of the Whale. Making it worse was the regulation winter gear: flight suits plus a heavy, rubberized set of water-tight coveralls called “Poopsie suits” to protect the fliers from hypothermia if the failed out, a life preserver with pockets crammed full with things a man lost at sea would need – homing beacon, strobe light, medical supplies, knife, fish hooks ,line, then the parachute. Walking to the plane, the men resembled waddling ducks.

Lt. Alan Levine, 26, the new pilot, sat in the left-hand seat. He as a Hofstra University math major who was just a “nugget” – rookie – to other pilots until he had a few more missions under his belt. Levine had studied in Paris at the Sorbonne, a cool, reserved man who’d lately taken up computers and the piano.

On Levine’s right. Lt. Cmdr, Ron Callander squeezed into what was normally the co-pilot’s seat. He was the navigator and, at 37, oldest man aboard, HE was the only Vietnam vet, a recipient of two Bronze Start, a career Whale man retiring in 18 months: his wife and three kids enjoyed Navy life, but it was time to go. In the tiny cockpit, Levine had the only control wheel to fly the plane; Callander’s seat was a work table.

The other five crewmen were all intelligence analysts. In a seat back-to-back with Levine’s was 22 year old technician Rick Herzing. He was 10 when his cousin skidded an A-6 off the Nimitz and safely ejected into the water, landing squarely in the middle of the spreading fuel stain from the sunken jet. A deckhand, in his excitement to mark the location, fired a flare into the sea, and the water erupted in flames and death. No plea by Herzing’s mother could keep him from following his cousin into the Navy. He wasn’t supposed to be on the Whale now; at the last moment another crewman was bumped and Herzing begged to take his place.

Steel beach picnic with Ranger 12 in the Background

Herzing’s world was a set of dials and screens scanning the airways for electronic signals. To his immediate left was a short ladder that led down into the electronics bay where the remaining four sat side by side in swivel chairs facing a bank of tape recorders and scanners.

At the rear was Lt. Steve Batcheider, 30, the senior intelligence evaluator. The son of a New Hampshire Supreme Court justice, he was a man held in deep respect, even awe, by his peers: he was on the Navy’s fast track for intelligence analysts. It was Bat who helped Navy pilots intercept the Egyptian airliner carrying the Achille Lauro hijackers.

Next to him was Lt. Jim Richards, 27, the junior evaluator, another fast-track intelligence man who had taken part in both bombing raids against Libya. Then case the two linguists: Pat Price, 26, the Russian interpreter, and Craig Rudolf, 20, the Arabic specialist. Price was technically not a Whale crew member, but rather part of a secret unit known only as Navy Security Group Department: 30. He was an unlikely Navy spook, part of Alabama’s all-state choir and college president of the Baptist Student Union. Rudolf was a tough luck case: a kid who wanted to be a radar technician but was color blind to shades of green – the color of most radar screens. Things were now finally going his way.

At approximately 7 p.m., Levine – always addressed by the plane’s call sign Ranger 12 – was told to prepare for launch.

Operator positions inside an EA-3B

It took a few minutes for the carrier catapult to build up the extra surge of steam needed for the heavy plane, but when all was ready, Levine brought the two Pratt & Whitney engines to maximum power as the launch officer knelt beside the plane, pointed with two fingers to the deck and then out to sea. The catapult fired. In less than 140 feet, the Whale was traveling 150 miles per hour. The crew was slammed back into their seats by the jolt, their vision almost blacked out by the pressure. By the time they could focus again, the Whale was climbing into the sky.

Their mission lasted three hours and 45 minutes. What they did that night is classified. So is what happened to them when they returned to the Nimitz. None of it is the sort of thing the Navy wants to talk about. There are investigations to conduct, hearings to be held. Moreover, carrier pilots are a flight fraternity not given to public self-examination.

And careers are at stake. The decisions of the Nimitz’s captain and air group commander in the crucial hour leading up to the tragedy are under investigation by the Navy.

But some things are safe to assume.

Given the Nimitz’s location and recent events in the Middle East, is safe to assume they were eavesdropping on the Libyans and on several Soviet ships in the neighborhood. It was a moonless night with scattered clouds and calm seas. There was the standard “milk bowl,” a murky haze over the Mediterranean that comes from dust blowing off the nearby African coast and mixing with colder sea air, making everything a little fuzzy. Pilots don’t like it.

The flight went routinely, the Navy says. At approximately 10:30 pm Levine acknowledged the return sign and turned the big plane for home. The crew prepared for landing.

They had less than one hour to live.

Craig Rudolph 1986, photo courtesy of Tom LaLumiere

Launching a plane from a carrier requires few pilot skills. The catapult provides the kick in the pants and, if the engines do their job, the plane is airborne. Landing is a different story. There is no slow glide like commercial jets, a soft sinking feeling and then the kiss of tires or tarmac. Carrier landings are controlled crashes on 400 feet of grooved steel the width of a basketball court.

Night landings are worse. From the air, the flight deck looks like an illuminated postage stamp. One Navy pilot says that when the moon is down and vision is obscured, night landings are “like practicing bleeding.”

By all accounts, Alan Levine was pretty good at it in training. He had graduated No. 2 in a class of about 12 at the Navy’s Pensacola flight school. The top grad gets his choice of plane. No. 2 gets what the Navy tells him to take.

Sherri Price speaking in January 1989 at the dedication of the Price Fitness Center, Monterey California to the memory of her husband, Patrick Price.

What Alan Levine got was the EA-3B. Ordered in 1949 and christened “Skywarrior,” it was originally to be the Navy’s carrier-based long-range nuclear bomber. But by the time Skywarrior joined the fleet in ’56, the Navy’s nuclear hardware was on submarines. Instead, engineers jammed the plane with electronic gear and seats for four men. At 72,000 pounds and a wingspan of 72 feet, it remains the heaviest thing to fly off an aircraft carrier. And with its swollen belly and molten gray skin, someone suggested it looked like a whale. The name stuck.

A Whale’s mission typically lasted four bone-numbing hours, flying in circles at 35,000 feet, quietly vacuuming up all the voice and digital radio signals within its horizon. For the pilot and navigator it is tedious. For the intelligence analysis, though, there are Soviet ships to monitor, land-based “bear” bombers routinely flying close to an American battle group to test its reactions. Such cat-and-mouse games are a feast of intelligence for the silently trolling EA-3B.

As Ranger 12 turned toward the Nimitz turned into the wind so there was at least a 12-knot stream blowing straight down the deck to help slow the plane. Four cables stretch across the deck of a carrier: If the plane’s tail hook catches the No. 3 wire, that is the best grade merits and “OK.” To miss all of the wire is a “bolter.” Often, that means trouble.

Levine flew downwind toward the carrier, paralleling the ship’s course. Once past, the Whale banked sharply to approach from the stern.

Aboard the plane, the tapes of electronic and voice signals they had scooped from the sky were stored away and loose gear tied down – anything unsecured would become a missile when the plane jerked to a halt. In the rear, the four intelligence analysts swiveled their seats forward; every man cinched his seat harness.

On the roof of the cockpit and the four-man bay, two hatches were popped, allowing a frigid steam of sea air in. These were the escape hatches if the plane hits the water. Regulations called for the hatches to be opened every takeoff and landing. Some thought the practice silly, the plane wasn’t airtight, and the passenger bay was below the waterline.

At three-quarters of a mile from the carrier, Levine heard the landing signal officer instruct him to “Roger ball.” This meant the plane was close enough for the pilot to see an orange ball of lights glowing on the left corner of the carrier. The ball was centered on a set of vertical and horizontal green lights.

Pilots call it the “meatball.” If the pilot sees the orange ball above the line of green lights, his approach is high. If it is below the, he’s low. The goal is to keep even.

Levine acknowledged the call………”Whale Ranger 12. Five point four. Ball.” That told the landing signal officer the type of plane, the pilot’s call sign, how much fuel was aboard – 5,400 pounds – and that Levine had sighted the meatball.

With one eye of the approaching deck, his right hand on the throttle, and quick glances at his airspeed indicator, Levine coaxed the big jet down. He worked quickly. At 140 miles an hour, the Whale closed on the ship in 12 seconds.

The first attempt was too high. Over his headset, Lt. Batcheider could hear the landing signal officer tell Levine to get the plane down. Looking out through a small side window next to his seat, Batcheider would first see the carrier’s phosphorescent wake, then the blinking lights of the rescue helicopter that hovered off the ship during landings. Finally, the blur of parked aircraft and the shadow of the carrier island itself.

And then, nothing, instead of a breathtaking jerk and the reassuring screech and bang of wheels on the desk, there was a sinking sensation. The tail hook had missed. Levine went to afterburner and the plane fought its way into the sky. He would have to try again.

It was now 10:41 p.m.

Even under the best of conditions, the arrival of a normally shore-based Whale – not accustomed to making carrier landings – is always a moment of suspense for a ship’s captain. In the old days, only last-place jet students and converted propeller-trained pilots ended up being assigned to Whales. There were horrendous crashes. Retired Adm. Clarence A. Hill recalls watching Whale crews emotionally embrace and shake hands after each successful landing. Now the Navy spread its best pilots around. That’s how Alan Levine had ended up in a Whale.

Aboard the Nimitz, Ranger 12’s request to circle for another pass was routinely acknowledged and approved. Night “bolters” by rookie pilots are not uncommon.

But a trickle of concern began to spread through the Nimitz’s nervous system.

After a first miss, pilots say, thoughts of family and friends fun through the mind. A cool, even cocky, professional can become a rattled young man. One pilot says it’s as if someone let loose a snake in the cockpit. Leonard Snead, a retired rear admiral and Whale pilot, was sitting in the navigator’s right seat when a pilot lost his nerve. “After 10 passes he still couldn’t land. The sweat was showing through his flight suit. His face was white. I said, ‘To hell with this.’ We went up to 5,000 feet, leveled off and I crawled over and changed seats with him.”

But no one else could fly Ranger 12.

Twice more Levine came in high and flat, the hook missing all four cables. Each time the Whale went to afterburners, the engines sucking four times harder at the dwindling fuel supply.

By now, it was clear a crisis was at hand. The landing signal officer (LSO), usually silent except for occasional instructions, talked soothingly over the radio to the pilot. Levine’s squadron commander also came on the radio. Aboard the plane there was little the crew could do. As the man in the right hand seat, Callander would have been the one to talk most to Levine. It would have been out of place for the others to speak except for brief words of encouragement.

At 10:55, Levine was told to “bingo,” to turn east toward an 8,000 foot runway at a naval air base on the island of Crete. “Bingo” means to give up, delaying operations the next day. Pilots hate to bingo.

To make it even that far, however, the old plane would have to refuel. Circling in a tight pattern over the Nimitz was an A-7 attach plane converted to a tanker. Normally that role was reserved for the A-6, a larger, two-engine jet that provides a steadier platform. The smaller plane is more difficult to refuel from. It was a crucial difference.

Levine now had to fly close behind the A-7 and align on a basket circled in lights that trailed from a long fuel hose. Then, with a subtle boost of power, he would plunge the refueling probe that stuck out from his plane into the waiting basket and the Whale could nurse on 400 pounds of fuel a minute.

But instead of the steady drafting effect of an A-6’s twin engines, the A-7’s single exhaust nozzle buffeted the older plane. Levine jammed the probe too hard into the basket, crimping it. Refueling was impossible. Only the carrier was left.

At 11:07 p.m., Levine made his fourth pass at the Nimitz. Too high.

He circled immediately and tried once more at 11:13. High again.

The voices from the ship did not pause now. Coaxing, soothing, they told Levine there was still enough time. But inside the cockpit, red warning light glowed next to the fuel gauges. Loudspeakers barked across the deck of the carrier: “Rig the barricade.” Deck crews had been drilled repeatedly for this event. Quickly, the fourth arresting wire was raised 20 feet above the deck. From storage bins came a strange looking curtain of nylon strips. They were hung from the wire so that the resulting net looked like a long Venetian blind turned sideways. Shields were raised in front of other parked aircraft to protect them. All unnecessary personnel were off the deck.

This was the final answer for a plane too damaged to land otherwise. Or a pilot too rattled to land at all.

On the Whale, the crew heard the ship tell Levine to make normal approach. The net would do the rest. It had worked often in the past. Even planes this size had been jerked to a halt by the webbing with little damage. Some had flown again in only an hour.

And there was another option. Parachutes. But the sea carried no guarantees. Bailing out was like a circus act – you hung by crossed hands from a bar above the escape chute and let the wind turn and then sucks you from the belly of the plane. By the time the plane was steadied on automatic pilot and each man had jumped, they would be spread over a wide area in the darkness below.

Sometimes, crewmen were unconscious by the time they hit the sea. Or the life preserver would automatically inflate only to have the parachute grad a man like an octopus and drag him under. It is unclear who decided. One wife said the men were told there was only a 15 or so percent chance of survival if they jumped into the water. Every tenet of Navy training said to stay with the plane.

Ranger 12 roared toward the Nimitz at 130mph, a blur of flame and metal too high one last time. The Whale’s front wheels caught the top of the net, snatching her nose-first from the sky, and in a shower of spares the jet skidded down the deck, twisting in a long metal-on-metal scream toward the ship’s edge. It was a 60-foot drop to the sea. Ranger 12 broke in half and disappeared.    

Within moments, the carrier’s four bronze propellers washed over the wreckage. All that remained for rescuers was a wisp of steam and bubbles.

It was 11:28 p.m. on the last Sunday in January.

What happened that moonless night in the Ionian Sea never registered on the American consciousness. So much more demanded our attention that day: a president seemingly immobilized by crisis, a missing hostage negotiator in Lebanon, a winter storm.

But most of all, it was the fiery image of Challenger and seven dead astronauts. It was the first anniversary. Half a world away, seven more lives were only a whisper lost in a storm, an irony little noted. The averages that fly with Navy pilots every day day 70 more will follow this year.

The Nimitz searched for her lost sons for three days. It found no bodies no significant wreckages where the Mediterranean is more than two miles deep. On Jan. 28 the search was called off. There was a one-paragraph statement issued by the Pentagon. Few newspapers ran the story.

Two by two, the notification officers made their rounds.

In Plymouth, N.H., they told state Supreme Court Justice William and Elizabeth Batcheider, in Saint Mary’s, PA, they came in the evening to tell the parents of Rick Herzing.

At the naval station in Roosevelt Road, Puerto Rico, Craig Rudolph’s mother was watching cable television news. There was a brief mentions that a Navy plane had crashed in the Middle East. She and her husband looked at each other, but said nothing. The next morning, the officers came.

In Syosset, N.Y., they told Ruth Levine her son had been in an accident. They would return when there was more definite word. “I started shiva at that point.” She said, referring to the Jewish mourning ritual. “I knew.”

In Rota, Spain, home base of the downed fliers, four wives received visits.

On the day America remembered Challenger, the squadron commander dispatched Western Union Mailgrams to the seven families. The messages began: “It is with completed sadness I report…”

The following morning, Sherri Price went to the Rota flight line and made someone show her a Whale. She crawled into its belly and sat in one of the leather-backed seats for a long time.

“I wanted to know where he was sitting, what he was doing,” she said. “I wanted to see where the hatches were. I knew then that if anyone could have gotten out of that plane, Pat Price would.”

“When I had seen it all, I had a peace of mind. He honest-to-God loved this country. I wish America could have known him.”