John McCain was training in his AD-6 Skyraider on an overcast Texas morning in 1960 when he slammed into Corpus Christi Bay and sheared the skin off his plane's wings.
McCain recounted the accident decades later in his autobiography. "The engine quit while I was practicing landings," he wrote. But an investigation board at the Naval Aviation Safety Center found no evidence of engine failure.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday, October 09, 2008 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 44 words Type of Material: Correction
McCain's aviation record: An article in Monday's Section A about Republican presidential nominee John McCain's record as a naval aviator quoted Jeremiah Pearson and said he had been a Navy officer who flew 400 missions over Vietnam. Pearson was an officer in the Marines.
The 23-year-old junior lieutenant wasn't paying attention and erred in using "a power setting too low to maintain level flight in a turn," investigators concluded.
The crash was one of three early in McCain's aviation career in which his flying skills and judgment were faulted or questioned by Navy officials.
In his most serious lapse, McCain was "clowning" around in a Skyraider over southern Spain about December 1961 and flew into electrical wires, causing a blackout, according to McCain's own account as well as those of naval officers and enlistees aboard the carrier Intrepid. In another incident, in 1965, McCain crashed a T-2 trainer jet in Virginia.
After McCain was sent to Vietnam, his plane was destroyed in an explosion on the deck of an aircraft carrier in 1967. Three months later, he was shot down during a bombing mission over Hanoi and taken prisoner. He was not faulted in either of those cases and was later lauded for his heroism as a prisoner of war.
As a presidential candidate, McCain has cited his military service -- particularly his 5 1/2 years as a POW. But he has been less forthcoming about his mistakes in the cockpit.
The Times interviewed men who served with McCain and located once-confidential 1960s-era accident reports and formerly classified evaluations of his squadrons during the Vietnam War. This examination of his record revealed a pilot who early in his career was cocky, occasionally cavalier and prone to testing limits.
In today's military, a lapse in judgment that causes a crash can end a pilot's career. Though standards were looser and crashes more frequent in the 1960s, McCain's record stands out.
"Three mishaps are unusual," said Michael L. Barr, a former Air Force pilot with 137 combat missions in Vietnam and an internationally known aviation safety expert who teaches in USC's Aviation Safety and Security Program. "After the third accident, you would say: Is there a trend here in terms of his flying skills and his judgment?"
Jeremiah Pearson, a Navy officer who flew 400 missions over Vietnam without a mishap and later became the head of human spaceflight at NASA, said: "That's a lot. You don't want any. Maybe he was just unlucky."
Naval aviation experts say the three accidents before McCain's deployment to Vietnam probably triggered a review to determine whether he should be allowed to continue flying. The results of the review would have been confidential.
The Times asked McCain's campaign to release any military personnel records in the candidate's possession showing how the Navy handled the three incidents. The campaign said it would have no comment.
Navy veterans who flew with McCain called him a good pilot.
"John was what you called a push-the-envelope guy," said Sam H. Hawkins, who flew with McCain's VA-44 squadron in the 1960s and now teaches political science at Florida Atlantic University. "There are some naval aviators who are on the cautious side. They don't get out on the edges, but the edges are where you get the maximum out of yourself and out of your plane. That's where John operated. And when you are out there, you take risks."
The young McCain has often been described as undisciplined and fearless -- a characterization McCain himself fostered in his autobiography.
"In his military career, he was a risk-taker and a daredevil," said John Karaagac, a lecturer at Johns Hopkins' School of Advanced International Studies and the author of a book on McCain. "What was interesting was that he got into accidents, and it didn't rattle his nerves. He takes hits and still stands."
McCain, the son and grandson of admirals, had a privileged status in the Navy. He was invited to the captain's cabin for dinner on the maiden voyage of the Enterprise in 1962, a perk other aviators and sailors attributed to his famous name, recalled Gene Furr, an enlisted man who shared an office and went on carrier deployments with McCain over three years.
On another occasion, McCain was selected to make a commemorative landing on the Enterprise and had his picture taken in front of a cake in the officers' galley, Furr said.
McCain's commanders sarcastically dubbed him "Ace McCain" because of his string of pre-Vietnam accidents, recalled Maurice Rishel, who commanded McCain's VA-65 squadron in early 1961, when it was deployed in the Mediterranean. Still, Rishel said, "he did his job."
Here is a closer look at those three incidents:
Corpus Christi, Texas, March 12, 1960