This is the story of US Navy Chief Gilbert “Chevy” Chavaria, as told by 3 of his VF-154 shipmates. They witnessed his heroic actions to save a life on the flight deck of the USS Coral Sea.

Working on the flight deck of an aircraft carrier is one of the most dangerous places in the world. There are hundreds of people on the topside of a carrier. Different colored shirts scurry about the flight deck, each focused on a specific task depending on their job. Most of them blend in to the “controlled chaos”.

Except for one particular Chief—on one particular day.

This is the story of Chief Gilbert “Chevy” Chavaria, and how he gave his life in an effort to save the life of a shipmate.

The year was 1982. It was a typical day for the USS Coral Sea in the Indian Ocean during their WESTPAC cruise. The winter weather made for high seas and the ship was rocking side to side. The Black Knights of VF-154 flew F-4 Phantoms at the time.

AT3 Fleming, an avionics technician in VF-154 recalls what Chief Chevy was like.

“He was this larger than life guy, and yet he was one of us. I mean he was still a Chief, and he didn’t take any crap.

Don’t even start whining around the guy. Chief Chevy was always telling us guys in the line shack to get down grab a pad eye and keep your heads on a swivel.

It’s a dangerous place (referring to the flight deck). I did all the work up cruises with Chief. He had our backs and we had his.”

Chief Chevy directing a VF-154 F-4 Phantom (courtesy John Nyberg)
Chief Chevy, center arm raised, with a VF-154 F-4 Phantom (courtesy John Nyberg)

Deadly Jet Exhaust

A cold and blustery wind deep in the middle of the ocean greeted the flight deck crew that morning. Fleming recalls that it was so cold that it was nice to get some jet blast on you because at least it was warm.

“You couldn’t breath and it made your eyes water, but at least the jet exhaust was warm” he recalled.

The USS Coral Sea was in the middle of flight ops. There were several aircraft turning on deck or taxiing around. The planes and pilots were all getting ready for the next launch, which was about to happen in 10 minutes.

A VF-21 jet was chained in front of elevator three with a plane captain standing by it. A VF-154 jet was in the process of taxiing aft to the waste cat after refueling next to the island. As the Phantom was turning toward the cat, the nose wheel began sliding along the number 4 arresting cable.

AE2 Nyberg was near the scene and recalls how the tragedy unfolded.

“So much comes to mind when seeing this take place because it is well known that the yellow shirt is going to direct the pilot to “goose” the throttles and get the bird over the cable.

The VF-21 plane captain was standing between the missile pylon and the fuselage of his aircraft, directly in line of the jet exhaust. He was not paying attention and did not see what was about to take place.

Chief Chevy was on the other side of the exhaust from where I was standing and we saw it at the same time, however, Chief jumped into action first.”

Immediately Chief Chevy knew that the plane captain was in jeopardy of becoming blown back into the jet from a direct blast of jet exhaust. The plane captain’s position placed him in a perilous position, directly in front of the missile pylon.

Chief ran towards the plane captain, frantically waving his arms in an effort to get the young sailors attention. It worked, as the plane captain was able to maneuver away from the jet blast.

Unfortunately, the jet blast left another victim in its wake.

Fleming recalls “the yellow shirt was really waving his hands signaling to give her more power, so that’s what the pilot did. At 80% the J-79 makes a lot noise and a lot of black smoke.”

There was nothing anyone else could do.

AMH2 Brad Corkwell saw the scene as if it was in slow motion.

“As the blast came up on Chief, he turned his back to it. In that second the blast picked Chief up off his feet and forced/pushed him into missile pylon of the jet behind him.

The blast was so strong that when it blew him I could see him on his tippy toes and at times his feet did not touch the deck. He had to have traveled 20 to 30 feet.”

Chief Chevy’s body made a direct impact, while airborne, with the jet’s missile pylon.

Corkwell immediately ran to the aid of the hurt Chief. He held his head until emergency medical personnel could arrive. Blood was pouring out of both nostrils. A stretcher arrived to take him down to sickbay and then soon after he was transported from the Coral Sea to the nearest medical land based facility.

A Hero To Those Onboard

Chief Gilbert “Chevy” Chavaria passed away en route to medical attention on shore.

Nyberg reiterates, “Chief Chevy did not simply lose his life on the flight deck. Chief Chevy gave his life while saving the life of another man.”

Some of Chief Chevy's crew. Nyberg center with camera. (Courtesy: John Nyberg)
Some of Chief Chevy’s crew. Nyberg green shirt with sunglasses. (Courtesy: John Nyberg)

Fighter Squadron VFA-154 (now flying Super Hornets) gives a maintenance award given each year in honor of Chief Gilbert “Chevy” Chavaria. His legacy still lives on some 34 years later.  It is a small token of gratitude for a man who made a grand impact on so many young lives-—and most importantly saved another.

Special thanks to Brad Corkwell, JJ Fleming, and John Nyberg for their recollections on that fateful day.

Top Photo: The USS Coral Sea (CVA-43) Photo credit: Wikipedia