Assaulted by the Birdcage


I worked as a Com/Nav Tech (Communication/Navigation), which also included the ECM (Electronic Counter-measures) gear.  Mainly I was a “black box changer”, but occasionally I had to chase wires and repair them.  On the A-6 much of the avionics was mounted in the aft fuselage in the “Aft Equipment Bay”, more commonly referred to as the Birdcage.

The Birdcage had a door on the bottom of the plane with three latches on the forward end of the door.  These latches would be released and the Birdcage door would pivot on its hinges until the safety catch would engage.  The door would have to be lifted slightly, the safety catch would be manually released, and then the birdcage would be lowered until the hydraulic pressure would hold it in place.  This was particularly difficult in that the door of the Birdcage also housed avionics boxes, along with the chaff/flare dispensers, not to mention the structure itself making it fairly heavy.  I would hate to guess the weight of it, but would ballpark it somewhere between 250-300 pounds.  One would then proceed to the nose wheel well and turn a lever to release the hydraulic pressure, thus letting the Birdcage swing down into the fully opened position.  Then a small ladder would be folded down to provide access up inside the plane onto a small landing inside the Birdcage, where you would be pretty much surrounded by an array of black boxes and wire bundles.  This sequence of steps could be and usually was accomplished by one person.

One of the biggest hazards of this was when you were covering a launch and the plane had problems.  You could access the Birdcage while the plane was turned up, but had to be very careful moving around as the Birdcage was located just aft of the engines’ exhaust.  One of the first times I performed this duty while still at Cherry Point I learned this lesson the hard way when I came out of the Birdcage and stood up about two or three feet behind the exhaust pipe.  I realized my mistake just before I hit the pavement and rolled about 40 feet behind the plane.  Luckily, nothing was hurt other than my pride.

I inadvertently discovered another hazard associated with the Birdcage while I was at the Rose Garden.

I was working on one of the birds and had to get into the Birdcage.  No big deal, I did it almost daily.  I scurried underneath the plane, popped the three latches, the cage dropped down to the safety catch.  It was easiest to lift the door to pull the safety catch while facing to the rear of the plane, so that’s the way most everyone did it, including me.  I pushed up with my left hand while reaching for the safety catch with my right.  No easy task for someone as skinny as I was back then, but once you learned the technique it wasn’t all that difficult.  Once I released the safety catch, I began lowering the Birdcage to catch the hydraulic pressure.  As I said, I did this almost daily, so as with most things that are repetitive, a routine develops and assumptions are made.  I discovered the first problem in that the plane had no hydraulic pressure.  I found out later that it had no hydraulic fluid, which is a requirement!  Normally, when a plane was in a dangerous condition such as this, red tags were stuck everywhere to let other maintenance personnel know that there was a problem.  But, alas, no red flags were on this bird.  The second problem was that, being a skinny lightweight; I didn’t have the strength to push the birdcage back up to engage the safety.  What a dilemma.

I don’t remember the exact sequence of events after trying to lift the Birdcage several times.  I remember trying to call for help, but no one was around, or else they were enjoying my predicament too much.  My next conscious moment found me lying flat on my back with my fingers laced together behind my head just as I once did on my parents living room floor while watching television.  As I opened my eyes, two fellow Marines were leaning over me asking if I was alright.  I don’t recall who they were or if they were even from our squadron.  I sat up and started to say that I was fine, but just as I opened my mouth to speak, blood started pouring down over my chest

To make an already long story shorter, I apparently lost my battle with the Birdcage and somehow got my head under it as it swung down with whatever force it had due to the weight of it.  My forehead was scuffed as it must have hit me in the back of the head and drove my forehead into the tarmac.  The blood was coming from a nasty gash just behind my right ear.

What brought this story to my mind was that I was looking through the Guestbook and noticed a couple of Navy personnel had signed in and remembered my trip to sickbay that day.  The Doc had me lay on a table/bed while he cut the loose meat off from the gash and threw it in a shallow pan laying right in front of my face.  Really grossed me out!  I took a number of stitches and some pain pills and went back to work.

Another day…another dollar.