McCain was practicing landings in his AD-6 Skyraider over Corpus Christi Bay when he lost several hundred feet of altitude "without realizing it" and struck the water, according to the Naval Aviation Safety Center accident report on file at the Naval Historical Center in Washington.
The plane, a single-engine propeller plane designed for ground attack, sank 10 feet to the bottom of the bay. McCain swam to the surface and was plucked from the water by a rescue helicopter.
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.
While he has contended that the engine quit, investigators collected extensive evidence indicating otherwise. Cockpit instruments that froze on impact showed the engine was still producing power. When water quenched the exhaust stack, it preserved a bright blue color, showing that the engine was still hot. And an aviator behind McCain reported that the engine was producing the black smoke characteristic of Skyraiders.
Investigators determined that McCain was watching instruments in his cockpit that indicated the position of his landing gear and had lost track of his altitude and speed.
The report concluded: "In the opinion of the board, the pilot's preoccupation in the cockpit . . . coupled with the use of a power setting too low to maintain level flight in a turn were the primary causes of this accident."
Southern Spain, around December 1961
McCain was on a training mission when he flew low and ran into electrical wires. He brought his crippled Skyraider back to the Intrepid, dragging 10 feet of wire, sailors and aviators recalled.
In his 1999 autobiography, "Faith of My Fathers," McCain briefly recounts the incident, calling it the result of "daredevil clowning" and "flying too low." McCain did not elaborate on what happened, and The Times could find no military records of the accident.
When he struck the wires, McCain severed an oil line in his plane, said Carl Russ, a pilot in McCain's squadron. McCain's flight suit and the cockpit were soaked in oil, added Russ, who nonetheless said McCain was a good pilot.
The next day, McCain went to the flight deck with his superior officers and some of the crew to inspect the damage. A gaggle of sailors surrounded the plane.
Clark Sherwood, an enlistee responsible for hanging ordnance on the squadron's planes, recalled standing on the deck with McCain. "I said, 'You're lucky to be alive.' McCain said, 'You bet your ass I am,' " Sherwood said. "He almost bought the farm." Sherwood, now a real estate agent in New Jersey, said he considered McCain a hero.
Calvin Shoemaker, a retired test pilot for the Skyraider's manufacturer, Douglas Aircraft, said extended low-level flights are difficult in any aircraft and for that reason Skyraiders were seldom flown at altitudes below 500 feet.
After hearing a description of McCain's record, Shoemaker said the aviator appeared to be a "flat-hatter," an old aviation term for a showoff.
Cape Charles, Va., Nov. 28, 1965
Over the Eastern Shore of Virginia, McCain descended below 7,000 feet on a landing approach in a T-2 trainer jet, according to accident records. He said he heard an explosion in his engine and lost power. He said he tried unsuccessfully to restart the engine.
He spotted a local drag strip and considered trying to glide to a landing there but finally had to eject at 1,000 feet. The plane crashed in the woods. McCain escaped injury and was picked up by a farmer.
In his autobiography, McCain said he had flown on a Saturday to Philadelphia to watch the annual Army-Navy football game with his parents. The accident report does not mention Philadelphia but rather indicates that McCain departed from a now-closed Navy field in New York City on Sunday afternoon and was headed to Norfolk, Va.
In a report dated Jan. 18, 1966, the Naval Aviation Safety Center said it could not determine the cause of the accident or corroborate McCain's account of an explosion in the engine. A close examination of the engine found "no discrepancies which would have caused or contributed to engine failure or malfunction."
The report found that McCain, then assigned to squadron VT-7 in Meridian, Miss., had made several errors: He failed to switch the plane's power system to battery backup, which "seriously jeopardized his survival chances." His idea of landing on the drag strip was "viewed with concern and is indicative of questionable emergency procedure."
The report added, "It may be indeed fortunate that the pilot was not in a position to attempt such a landing."
McCain also ejected too late and too low, was not wearing proper flight equipment and positioned his body improperly before ejecting, the report said.
The official record includes comments from pilots in his own squadron who defended McCain's actions as "proper and timely."
About two weeks after issuing its report, the safety center revised its findings and said the accident resulted from the failure or malfunction of an "undetermined component of the engine."