Formerly known as "Cruzers in Korea"

Sunday, March 15, 2009

13 Years Ago Today

Sunday, March 15, 2009

On the flight deck of the John C. Stennis two days ago here in Korea.

The John C. Stennis aircraft carrier is in Busan.  Some of my staff took a tour on the carrier the other day.  I think they really enjoyed the tour.  We even got to ride the aircraft elevator up and down aka Tom Cruise in Top Gun.  My mind couldn't help but wander though for a couple of reasons.  It was strange not having any S-3 Vikings on the flight deck.  It was even stranger thinking back to what happened on this flight deck 13 years ago.

I dug back into my old journal.  My squadron was onboard the Stennis for her very first at-sea period with an Airwing in March 1996.  It's called a "shakedown".  It was 6 weeks out to sea off the waters of Puerto Rico.  Here is the journal entry I made while onboard the Stennis on 16 March 1996, a day after we lost two members of our squadron, Don "Stump" Cioffi and Tom "Casper" Wilcox:

16 March 96 - Saturday
It’s funny how things can change so drastically in such a short period of time.  I’m a little bit numb right now so maybe the words I use to describe what happened to Don and Tom may be a little bit jaded.  Tom Wilcox and Don Cioffi are dead.

At about 10:00 pm last night, Tom and Don went off the bow on a normal catshot and impacted the water at over 100 knots.  The jet seemed fine.  The catshot seemed normal.  They had good endspeed coming off the end.  What happened to the jet is something that everyone has been contemplating for the past several hours.  I didn’t see the catshot myself.  I was in the Surface Warfare Module standing my second watch ever as ASUW Watch Officer.  As a matter of fact, I relieved Tom Wilcox from his shift as the ASUW Watch Officer.  I was thinking that he was a little bit of a slug because he didn’t sign in or out of the watch log book.  

Tom gave me a quick and dirty passdown.  He informed me that a quick reaction strike was in progress (QRS) and that all was going well.  There really wasn’t much going on as far as the watch was concerned.  Good, I thought because I wouldn’t know what to do if something were to happen.  I could never have imagined what was about to take place.  

I was about to go crazy with boredom with my watch.  I made a few radio calls to one of  the S-3’s that were flying and that was about it.  One of  the OS’s came in on her shift and startled the room with her remarkably rich vernacular of cuss words and bad attitude.  Rosie Perez on steroids.  I was seriously considering taking her aside and saying a few words to her about her attitude and her vulgar language.  She would’ve made truck drivers blush.  I was waiting for Mookie to come around the corner with a pizza with extra mozzarella.  After stealing my seat, she began working on her charts and informing everyone within earshot about how much she hated her job.  I was pretty new to the module so I didn’t say a dang thing to her.  Besides, she might’ve beaten my ass.  Things mellowed out a great bit.  I could feel my head nodding a good bit and considered cutting out of  there a few minutes early.  I wasn’t accomplishing anything besides taking up oxygen and space.  For some strange reason, like the head ASUW Watch Officer coming by, I didn’t take off early.  

We were in a super deep lull when I heard someone from the TAO’s spaces say in a soft yell, “S-3 in the water!  S-3 in the water!”  I quickly galloped over to the adjacent room and saw everyone with their ears pricked, out of their seats, and eyes all on the plat.  There was a great flurry of people rushing to the forward part of the ship.  I was clueless because I thought the last S-3’s had launched for the night.  I thought maybe it was an S-3 that they were taxiing around or something.  That would be a better scenario because then if the jet was in the water, it would’ve gotten there by falling over the side of  the carrier.  “This is not a drill!  This is not a drill!”  Those words came blaring out of the 1MC.  On the plat, you could see lights flashing around and people everywhere.  People were scurrying all around me in the module.  I frantically asked anyone if they saw the plat during that catshot.  No one in the module had.  I still didn’t know what had happened.  My brain cells started to work again and I figured out that it had to be an alert tanker that had launched, or tried to launch.  At some point in the game, I ran back to the Ready Room and tried to get a clue about what had happened.  Don Cioffi and Tom Wilcox had the alert tanker.  They took the catshot, got airborne, got a very slight roll to the right, slowly got lower and lower and then hit the water.  As simple as that.  No ejection, no blowing of the canopies.  

Whip and Rocky were running around all over the place, barking orders.  We need this, we need that.  They are the two safety gurus so that’s understandable.  The ready room was full of people making statements.  As far as what actually happened, I don’t think anyone is gonna know for a long time.  We can only speculate right now.  I think they were just distracted by something long enough for them to hit the water.  Maybe the radios died or went crazy on them on the catstroke.  They could’ve been fumbling with those for about 3 seconds and just didn’t know how bad of a position they were in until it was too late.  That’s the most logical explanation to me.  After seeing all of the crash and burn video, it’s hard to think that Don and Tom have now become footage for other Naval Aviators to learn from.  That may sound like a harsh and callous thing to say.  Don and Tom will be the first ones to agree with me though.  Some of the other situations I’ve been running through my head aren’t as simple or easy to live with.  Like what if there was a problem with the jet and they did try to eject in time and the ejection seats failed?  They failed in Faso’s situation.  It’s a possibility.  That’s a very scary thing for me to think about.  I have to trust that all of my survival equipment is exact, right, and fully functional.  To have that piece of armor taken away from me would be dreadful.  I also thought about the fact that Don may have let Casper take the catshot.  I really don’t think that’s what happened though.  

It’s almost stupid to be going over all these things in my head.  It doesn’t really matter does it?  They are dead and that’s that.  Don and I just started our friendship.  I mean, we had years left to drink and joke together.  Tom and I weren’t very close.  I looked up to him as one of the top NFO’s in the squadron.  You know, just a smart senior guy with a huge brain and lots of know-how in the jet.  I am really gonna miss Don though.  Carol liked him a lot.  He was always mister loud and outspoken.  That’s one of the things that made Don a special guy though.  He was always game to go out partying with us.  I had a really good time with him on cruise.  Whether it was working out or partying in some portcall, Don was always a lot of fun.  I clearly remember midrats with him the night before he died.  Emphatic and bitching as usual.  We were talking about MOVLAS and guys and their terrible passes and how bad the XO sucks in the jet and Ted’s radio calls and Grayballs scorching through altitudes he wasn’t supposed to be scorching through and all sorts of things like that.  I remember him telling us about the girl in the movie and how she was totally hot.  I remember him over at my place drinking a beer with Carol and me.  I remember getting into a heated debate with him and Carol and me over women in the military at Waffle House at 3:00 in the morning.  I’m really gonna miss Don.  He was talking about us two being roommates together for the next cruise.  I guess I need to find another roommate.


Me, Stump and Casper before a flight.

Bluto, Stump, Joose, me and Roach in Corfu, Greece.

The Scouts gathered in DC to remember Don and Tom on the 10 year anniversary of their passing.  It was a great gathering.

Tom and Don - we won't forget you.  C2



Honoring your shipmates speaks highly of you. It's good for their families and good for all of you.

The Cruzers

JihadGene - I appreciate the kind words. Your blog is hilarious btw.


I stumbled upon your blog tonight. For some reason I decided to type in "Don Cioffi" and see what information came up about the accident. Reading your journal entry of the night of the accident took me back to the phone call I received from Don's dad telling me Don had been killed in an accident.
I met Don when he was stationed in Kingsville. He and I became best friends and his passing was devastating. I will never forget him and his bigger than life personality. For a Jersey boy, he blended in Texas well.

DeAnna Hamblin (Patterson)

The Cruzers


If my memory serves me correctly, Don spoke of you very fondly. Yes, he was a larger than life personality, a person I will never forget. I hope that when your mind wanders and ends up for no reason whatsoever on Don, the end result is a big smile on your face.

Take care,


I found your blog while searching for "Don Cioffi" images, which I have not done before. Don's absence has always been a void, and a saddening part of life. I do often remember "Donny boy, Donny, Don, Too tall, etc, especially when work is work, and a smile is required.

He was like the brother that always provided a hand, and would do anything for me.

I was returning from over seas, when I was given the reality check that he was gone.

Don embodied the best in many of us, and he is missed. Our first born "Donovan" is named in his honor. I am glad Don considered you a friend.
It was a time in our lives where he and I did not see or talk nearly enough. Thank you for your service, your blog, honoring his memory, and being his friend. My wife Bridget and I remember long discussions with Donny arguing about who knows what!!
Also thanks for the pictures of him working. Don's friend always...
Sean Ennevor

The Cruzers

Really appreciate you sharing those memories about Don. I know he would be greatly honored that you named Donovan after him.


Like Sean and Deanna, I also was Googling Don Cioffi and found your blog. It brought back a flood of memories growing up with Don and of the accident. He was like a brother to me (his mom still refers to me as son#3). I still have his Navy picture and shell casing from the 21 gun salute from his service in Jacksonville displayed in my home.

Talking with your squadron about Don at that time showed me how much you guys cared and helped me get through.

My kids are just now getting old enough for me to tell them stories about Dad's best friend that they have seen in the picture so many times. (They will have to be a lot older to hear some of the other stories.)

It was a pleasure meeting you guys in Jacksonville then (and hanging out at Gators after the service was a big release).

Thank you for your service to our country and take care.

Ted Ernst

The Cruzers


I remember the memorial service in Jacksonville well. The salute, the eulogy, the missing man formation flyover of the S-3 Vikings - I thought it honored Don and Tom well.

It's very comforting knowing that his memory lives on with great friends like you.

Take care,

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