Friday, August 22, 2008

Will `Ace' McCain Flame Out Again?

Too good not to quote extensively.

Over the years he's played many roles and worn many titles, including Navy aviator, prisoner of war, hero, congressman, U.S. senator, Washington insider, maverick outsider and, now, presidential candidate. But the one title of which few are aware is that of "service ace."

John Sidney McCain III is known among many of his Vietnam flight buddies as "Ace" McCain. This title has not been bestowed upon McCain because he destroyed five enemy aircraft. On the contrary: It was five on our side -- in fact, five of his own. Since throwing his hat into the presidential ring, the fact that McCain was graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy nearly at the bottom of his class has been publicized. His star-crossed flying, on the other hand, remains unknown to most

Robert Timberg, author of The Nightingale's Song, a book about Annapolis graduates and their tours in Vietnam, wrote that McCain "learned to fly at Pensacola, though his performance was below par, at best good enough to get by. He liked flying, but didn't love it." Timberg counts himself a friend of McCain and has written a McCain biography.

It wasn't long after arriving in Pensacola that McCain racked up the first of his five crashes, beginning in 1958, on his way to becoming a "reverse ace." As told by Timberg, "McCain was practicing landings; his engine quit and he plunged into Corpus Christi Bay. Knocked unconscious by the impact, he came to as the plane settled to the bottom."

There was, however, no engine failure with the aircraft. According to one of McCain's former flight instructors, "The engine was removed from the aircraft that afternoon, mounted on a test stand and a new propeller installed. [It] was flushed with fresh water and started. It ran just fine. So the theory of engine failure was proven false."

The instructor added that McCain was "positively one of the weakest students to pass our way, and received consistently poor marks and a number of Dangerous Down grades assigned by more than one instructor. He had no real ability and was clearly out of his element in an airplane, and way over his head even as a junior naval officer."

The second of McCain's crashes occurred while he was deployed in the Mediterranean. "Flying too low over the Iberian Peninsula," reports Timberg, "he took out some power lines [reminiscent of the 1998 incident in which a Marine Corps jet sliced through the cables of a gondola at an Italian ski resort, killing 20] which led to a spate of newspaper stories in which he was predictably identified as the son of an admiral."

Crash three occurred when McCain was returning from flying a trainer solo to Philadelphia for an Army-Navy football game. According to Timberg, McCain radioed, "I've got a flameout." He went through the standard relight procedures three times. At one thousand feet, he ejected, landing on the deserted beach moments before the plane slammed into a clump of trees."

By 1967, McCain was ready for battle and assigned to the USS Forrestal as an A-4 Skyhawk pilot. While seated in the cockpit of his aircraft waiting for takeoff, a freak accident occurred when a rocket slammed into the exterior fuel tank of McCain's plane. Miraculously, McCain escaped from the burning aircraft, but dozens of his shipmates were killed and injured in the explosions that followed.

McCain's final downing came just three months later when his A-4 Skyhawk was hit by antiaircraft artillery over Truc Bach Lake near Hanoi, North Vietnam. McCain spent the next five-and-a-half years as a prisoner of war and, upon return to the United States in 1973, like the other returning POWs, McCain became an instant hero. The POWs had been treated abominably, yet stood up to their torturers and were deserving of the accolades they received. But some questioned the number and types of medals bestowed upon "Ace" McCain, the son of the admiral commanding in the Pacific as well as the grandson of another admiral.

"McCain had roughly 20 hours in combat," explains Bill Bell, a veteran of Vietnam and chief of the U.S. Office for POW/MIA Affairs -- the first official U.S. representative in Vietnam since the 1973 fall of Saigon. "Since McCain got 28 medals," Bell continues, "that equals out to about a medal-and-a-half for each hour he spent in combat. There were infantry guys -- grunts on the ground -- who had more than 7,000 hours in combat and I can tell you that there were times and situations where I'm sure a prison cell would have looked pretty good to them by comparison. The question really is how many guys got that number of medals for not being shot down."

"John McCain," says another Navy pilot and acquaintance of that era, "was the kind of guy you wanted to room with -- not fly with. He was reckless, and that's critical when you start thinking about who's going to be the president," The old pilot laughs, and then continues: "But the Navy accident rate was cut in half the day John McCain was shot down."

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