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By the People… Making history in Brazil

By By Craig Ziemba/Special to The Star
April 25, 2001
Craig Ziemba lives in Meridian and works at Naval Air Station Meridian and Key Field's Air National Guard base. He wrote a cover story for the recent "Profile 2001: By the People" edition. Ziemba has written a book based on his experiences; this is the final installment in an eight-part series featuring excerpts from his journals.
It is Aug. 21, 2000 and I am in Brazil. I took "104," a refurbished Skyhawk, up today for its first flight in 71/2 years. Our mechanics had to basically rebuild the entire hydraulic system and rework the engine, but it was finally ready to fly.
The jet performed remarkably well and after a short confidence hop, I took it back up over the Atlantic a second time for a complete post-maintenance test flight. Right away I noticed that the engine was running a bit hotter than usual and I climbed up to altitude in no time.
After completing engine checks at 16,000 feet, 26,000 feet and 36,000 feet, the check flight required accelerating past .9 Mach ("Mach" is the sound barrier) to check the high-speed control response, so I nosed over into a 25-degree dive and the jet began a rapid acceleration through .9.
Supersonic in a Skyhawk
I have had A-4s all the way up to .97 Mach before, and usually that is as fast as they will go. The limit on A-4KUs is 1.1 Mach. Although I'm sure it's been done, I have never spoken with anyone who claimed to have gone supersonic in any model Skyhawk.
Since the airframe is designed for subsonic flight, as you approach the speed of sound, the controls become very rough, the nose begins to pitch down and it feels as if you have run up against a wall. That's the point at which I had always begun decelerating before.
But today, 104 accelerated so quickly through .95 that I thought, "I might never get another chance to break the number,' so why not?" I stayed in the dive. The controls got very heavy and the airframe began to buffet as I became transonic and pushed through the sound barrier.
Then, just as I hit Mach 1.0 on the airspeed indicator, the stick came back slightly and the air became smooth again. I was supersonic in a Skyhawk. Passing 24,000 feet, I pulled the throttle back and gingerly decelerated through transonic back to speeds the jet was designed for. It gave me quite a bit of satisfaction to take my little Scooter supersonic, and when I landed our mechanics were as excited about it as I was.
Most challenging landing ever
It is Sept. 11, 2000. Today was one of the most challenging days I have ever had flying at the ship. In the morning, I launched out to Brazil's 55-year-old aircraft carrier Minas Gerais on the first of two carrier suitability test hops.
The Brazilians had not used the ship for aircraft operations in 25 years and had never landed an A-4 on it. The first step in making jet carrier aviation a reality was to perform touch-and-go landings on the flight deck to test the aircraft and visual glideslope equipment (called the "ball").
The Minas Gerais is half the size and one-fourth the weight of American carriers, so our primary concern was making sure that the ball used for glideslope indications would ensure enough clearance between the bottom of my jet and the back of the ship.
Also, the landing area was extremely short, and we needed to make sure there was enough flight deck available to touch down and take off again. A team of engineers demonstrated on paper that everything should work, so there was nothing left to do but give it a try. As the only experienced, current carrier aviator on the continent, I volunteered.
Talking me down
I flew dozens of passes under the watchful eye of Potsie, a retired U.S. Navy LSO who stood on a platform at the end of the ship and monitored my clearance over the stern on each approach. There was 40 knots of wind and the little boat was bobbing like a cork, so it took several passes for Potsie and I to get comfortable with the pitch and roll of the ship.
The ball (an English version designed for Harriers and helicopters) was not able to give me adequate glideslope information on final approach, so Potsie ended up talking me down the last few seconds of each landing. It was pretty sporty, but do-able, and today the Brazilian Navy made their first big step towards carrier aviation.
When I landed, admirals with tears in their eyes shook my hand, hugged me, and told me how long they had waited for this day. By the end of the week, we had the first Brazilian naval aviators landing on their ship.
I promised Jenny that I would let her know as soon as I was back safe and sound from the ship, so on my way back to base, I shook our hotel with a 600-knot flyby (no rules down there) and scared the staff half to death. What a boondoggle!

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