Photo credits—courtesy of J. Monroe Smith, Captain, USN (Retired) and Senior Chief Robert L. Lawson, PHCS (AC), USN (Retired).
Beyond all things is the ocean.
—Seneca, 4 B.C. – 65 A.D.
Prologue embarks the reader aboard USS Enterprise as she patrols the waters off Vietnam in December 1974. John Monroe “Hawk” Smith and his Radar Intercept Officer, Lieutenant Joe “Crash” Zahalka, man-up for a daytime fighter mission and are catapulted off the ship for what they believe will be a boring, but routine, combat air patrol sortie.
The action quickens as the weather deteriorates and a small mechanical malfunction restricting vision through the windscreen takes on new significance and compromises the Tomcat and her crew. Without any visual contact outside the aircraft, Hawk commences an instrument approach through a thunderstorm to a small ship tossed by a raucous sea…
Hawk lowered the landing gear, flaps, and slats and decelerated to 150 knots. In typical Hawk fashion, he built a mental balance sheet. In the “good” column, the airplane had no other malfunctions. We have lots of gas, no vertigo, one of the best F-14 back seaters in the fleet, and if we don’t make the landing and don’t hit the ramp, we can execute a missed approach and drag a tanker with us to Thailand—if we don’t hit the ramp.
In the “ungood” column, the weather is getting bad in a hurry. I can’t see out the windscreen and no matter how good Crash is I need to see in order to land this monster. And I just know Climax’s deck is gonna’ be pitching. If I’m low and the deck is high, we’re going to end up as a twenty nine million dollar smear on the back of the boat.
To survive, Hawk will have to fly the best approach he has ever flown.
Chapter 1, “Paddles Contact!”
“There always came that exquisite moment of human judgment when one man—a man standing alone on the remotest corner of the ship, lashed by foul wind and storm—had to decide that the jet roaring down upon him could make it … he could defer his job to no one. It was his, and if he did judge wrong, carnage on the carrier deck could be fearful.”
—James A Michener
Through the combined efforts of the landing signal officer, Lieutenant Grover “Skip” Giles and “Crash”, Hawk brings the Tomcat aboard the Enterprise in a landing that should not have been possible…
As they approached the ramp, Skip advised, “A little power and don’t climb!”
Now, nearly over the ramp and with no sensory inputs other than those he saw on the instrument panel and heard from Paddles, Hawk put Bullet 205 nearly perfectly on-speed, on glide-slope, and on centerline.
Hawk was suddenly aware of a darker shade of gray passing underneath them and then felt the bone jarring kaa-thump of their F-14 hitting the landing area. Hawk, slammed both throttles to the stops. At that same instant, he and Crash were hurled forward against their harnesses. The tailhook caught the number two wire.
Chapter 1 brings a successful conclusion to the situation primed in the Prologue and sets the stage for a return to Hawk’s roots and the beginning of Hawk’s thirty year Navy odyssey.
Chapter 2, “Beginnings”
A good take-off does not guarantee a good landing.
—John Monroe “Hawk” Smith
Chapter 2 introduces the reader to John Monroe “Hawk” Smith. It describes his formative years and the many experiences, adventures, and lessons which would shape and prepare him for the rigors of life as a naval aviator. At a fraternity dance, Hawk meets a gorgeous, vivacious, blue-eyed young woman, Virginia Patricia Hudgins, known to her friends as Miss Jenny. Hawk had always taken comfort in being in control of his life but when it came to Miss Jenny, there was some doubt. In a short time, he realizes he has fallen deeply and completely in love with Miss Jenny. Four years later, in the fall of 1962, they have a quiet, private marriage ceremony.
Life just couldn’t be sweeter in 1963. Hawk was building performance hot rods, completing his BS degree, and married to the woman who was the epicenter of his world. But then a curious thing happened. Half way around the world the United States was involved in a dirty little war that threatened to grow larger. On Hawk’s 23rd Birthday, 25 January 1963, the draft board cordially invited him to take his physical and placement exams. The draft policy in 1963 was a definite speed-bump and one that threatened to cause a major disruption in his life. Hawk decided to enlist in the Naval Reserve. This would allow him to complete his military obligation but avoid the unattractive possibility of being drafted…
In May 1963, Hawk drove to the Norfolk Naval Base to sign up for the Reserve program. He took a battery of exams, and was consistently the first to complete each test. For better or worse, this attracted the proctor’s attention. Following a second battery of tests Hawk was found to be qualified to begin Naval Aviation training.
“What exactly do I have to do to get into the F-4 or RA-5?” Hawk asked. The recruiter answered, “Well sir, it’s pretty simple. You just need to be in the top of your class in the training command. The candidates with the best scores get first choice.”
“Fair enough. Where do I sign?”
Hawk signed the contract for Naval Aviation Observer training on 23 August 1963. One month and two days later he reported to Naval Air Station (NAS) Pensacola, Florida—the Cradle of Naval Aviation.
Chapter 3, “Preflight”
Those who enter these hallowed halls cavalier and reckless, depart as Naval Officers, disciplined and committed.
NAS Pensacola, the “Cradle of Naval Aviation” is tightly woven into the history of Navy and Marine Corps aviation. This chapter describes Aviation Officer Candidate School (AOCS), “Preflight”, and provides a very personal account of the confusion and disorientation which the candidates are subjected to upon entering training. It explains the challenges of AOCS training: military, academic and physical and provides a graphic account of the coherent reconstitution process used by the Marine drill instructors…
There should have been a drum roll. Lightning bolts should have lit the morning sky and the earth should have trembled. This would be the day that introduced Class 36-63 to the exquisite art of psychological control. They were about to learn what mental domination in the hands of experienced manipulators could do to a ragtag cluster of egocentric, soft, spoiled, undisciplined, unprincipled invertebrates. Hawk and his class were about to get an introduction to discipline from the dogs of Hell—the U.S. Marine Corps drill instructors.
This chapter also recalls Hawk’s disillusionment during AOCS, the pep talk by his brother-in-law, Lieutenant Thaire “Bubba” Hudgins, and the energizing effect it had on Hawk to complete the preflight program. It covers Hawk’s three-day survival-training course at Eglin AFB, captures the thrill of commissioning, and the long-standing tradition of honoring the Marine drill instructor—the man that made the resurrection possible.
Chapter 4, “Flight Training”
For they had learned that true safety was to be found in long previous training, and not in eloquent exhortations uttered when they were going into action.
—Thucydides: History of the Peloponesian Wars, v, c. 404 B. C
Military aviation, even in a training environment, is, by nature, a dangerous profession as is amply depicted by recalling a near mishap during a routine training mission…
For a moment Dick and the pilot stared at one another in total disbelief. In the aft cabin, the students quickly unstrapped from their seats and scrambled for parachutes. Meanwhile, the pilot calmly brought the throttle to idle, and selected the full fuel tank. After a few chugs and snorts, the starboard radial roared back to life and an air of relative calm slowly settled over the students again.
When they had safely landed and were walking back to the squadron, Hawk quietly reviewed the incident. Even with five aircrew in the airplane on a standard training sortie, somebody managed to overlook something. It wasn’t a big item, not like lowering the landing gear or something. It was just a little gauge among a lot of other gauges, but Dick dropped it from his scan for a few moments. The results could have been catastrophic.
In the midst of a strenuous training syllabus, it occurs to Hawk that they seem to spend an inordinate amount of time learning to survive in many different life-threatening conditions and environments. Chapter 4 sketches the content and requirements of water survival and the low-pressure chamber training for jet aircrews. It also takes the reader on a tour of a little known, survival program in Maine’s outback. It is here that naval aircrew are exposed to the harshest realities and lessons of survival behind enemy lines.
Chapter 5, “The RAG”
What can you conceive more silly and extravagant than to suppose a man racking his brains, and studying night and day how to fly?
—William Law, A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life, xi 1728
The Replacement Air Group (RAG) training syllabus for F-4 Phantom Radar Intercept Officers was grueling. This chapter captures the high and the low points of learning the Phantom aircraft and its mission. It details the pressures on the students during ground school and the flight syllabus.
This chapter provides an in-depth description of the dynamics of “flying the ball” and acquaints the reader with the ecstasy of day-arrested landings and the terror of the night trap. It also describes that single most important mission that distinguishes the naval TACAIR community from all other military aviation units … carrier operations…
“Nutgrass one-zero-three” advised the LSO, “you’re high, work it down.” The pilot reduced power in response to the call. They were high and to compound matters they were fast. The LSO noted this and called, “One-zero-three you’re fast. Work it on speed.”
This call compelled the pilot to squeak off more power, but the ball just sat on the top of the lens. The pilot made a third power reduction and the ball settled slightly. At this point they were approaching the ramp, beginning to decelerate, still descending to glideslope, and the throttles were still well below normal approach power settings.
Suddenly, everything caught up with them at once. The ball dropped to the bottom of the lens, the LSO screamed for more power, and the pilot pulled the nose up hoping to catch the sink rate. His response nearly stalled the aircraft.
Hawk strained to see the ball but caught only a momentary glimpse of a cherry red ball lying on the bottom of the lens accompanied by brilliantly flashing wave off lights.
KAWHOMPPHH!!! The Phantom came aboard with all the grace of a pallet of bricks. The impact caged his eyeballs and shot a spike of pain through his spinal column. They hit hard—harder than Hawk thought anything could hit without ending up in the hanger deck forty feet below.
Chapter 6, “Diamondbacks”
Oh, hear us when we cry to Thee,
For those in peril on the sea!
—The Navy Hymn
Hawk reports to his first command and, for better or worse, is quickly thrown into the jaws of a fleet fighter squadron…
Hawk arrived at VF-102’s hangar the last week of February packing a parachute bag crammed with personnel folders, pay records, health records, flight gear, and logbook. He lugged his gear from the parking lot to the hangar, then abruptly stopped, dropped his parachute bag on the pavement, and let his eyes drink in the sight of Phantoms resting ominously on the Diamondback flight line. He was bedazzled by the scene. Row after row of mighty Phantoms, chocked and chained to the tarmac as if unshackled they were compelled to rain fury and havoc over the countryside. They sat quietly, obediently … but radiated a rare balance of power and beauty, even in silence.
These were not the orange and white teenee-weenees in the training command, not the slow moving SNBs, the classrooms on wings in the VT squadrons, and appeared far different from the groomed and pampered Phantoms Hawk remembered in the brochures and public relations photos. These were warhorses, death-dealing battle machines of the most powerful Navy in the world, replete with gray war paint, bomb racks, missile rails, and drop tanks.
Hawk quickly gains an appreciation for the complexities of a squadron: the aircraft, jobs, people, and the heavy responsibilities of leadership. Chapter 6 sketches the daily routine in a squadron and acclimates the reader to life aboard ship: the watches, duty assignments, and the shipboard antics of junior officers in perpetual pursuit of amusement.
Hawk’s leadership acumen as a branch officer matures significantly after his boss explains what made their enlisted personnel “tick”. And although the flying is more than Hawk ever hoped for, it is also more dangerous than he ever imagined. In just a few months time he is involved, a “near-miss” during a night intercept sortie, and the devastating loss of two Diamondback crewmen in a mid-air collision.
Chapter 6 sets the stage for a provocative examination of the mission and tactics of the Phantom based on the 1950s threat analysis of Soviet strike doctrines. This section acts as a primer to examine why, in the early years of the Vietnam conflict, the Phantom became the right fighter in the wrong war.
This chapter concludes by describing preparations for getting underway and the emotional roller-coaster ride that precedes an overseas deployment.
Chapter 7, “Deployment”
Our aircraft carriers have lasted longer than a majority of our very expensive overseas air bases.
—Vice Admiral W. A. Schoech, USN
Three short blasts from America’s whistle echoed off the buildings and the surrounding ships and announced that she was underway. The sound took on a mournful tone and shook Hawk to full sobriety. This was it. He’d been preparing for this moment, whether he knew it or not, since his first day in Indoc. It was the first step of an adventure he’d both awaited and dreaded. He was a Naval aviator and he was doing what Naval aviators do—he was going to sea.
Hawk felt the first tremors of the deployment shutter through the steel flight deck as a fraction of America’s 280,000 shaft horsepower were transmitted to the four props thirty-five feet below the waterline. Hawk could barely see Miss Jenny in the crowd now.
After all the time he’d mentally prepared for this, Hawk admitted, he wasn’t ready—
USS America (CV-66) shoves off for a seven-month routine deployment that is anything but. Chapter 7 discusses the composition, organization, and mission of the airwing and that of an aircraft carrier as she patrols the Med. It captures the sorrow of casting off, and the concerns sailors have for the families left behind. It addresses the tight brotherhood that develops in a squadron, describes air operations including Bear intercepts, and lays out the many challenges of just staying alive aboard ship.
Chapter 7 articulates the role of the Navy fighter crew and, as a prelude to later chapters, discusses the lack of air combat training given to the crews in the mid 1960’s. It reviews, in detail, Hawk’s humiliation and frustration during his experience in the NATO Joint Exercise Fairgame IV and the catalytic effect it had in pushing him to excel as a Phantom RIO.
At-sea periods, ports-of-call, the exotic—and not so exotic—wonders of liberty in far-away lands is graphically detailed in this account of Hawk’s first overseas adventure. It captures Hawk’s exhilaration when he was notified of his acceptance to Pilot Training, and finally, it sketches the sorrow of leaving his squadronmates and the thrill of coming home.
Chapter 8, “Retreading”
Let us remember that one man is much the same as another,
And that he is best who is trained in the severest school.
—Thucydides; History of the Peloponesian Wars, i. c. 404 B.C.
The road to pilot wings was hard and paved with challenges and adventure. Chapter 8 describes the pilot syllabus and the perils of flight training. Hawk is energized by three objectives: winning his pilot wings, returning to his beloved Phantom, and staying alive. This chapter introduces Lieutenant Commander Frank Kolbeck, who, more than any other, helped make those objectives achievable.
This chapter recalls Hawk’s metamorphosis in becoming part of the machinery and learning to feel the airplane, and recounts Hawk’s love affair with the F-9 Cougar.
Too many “tiger parts” were at work and conspire to lure Hawk into an unauthorized, unbriefed air combat engagement with a fellow student during their solo flights. There were no close calls but Hawk’s first fight left him with a festering enigma which only stimulated his quest to master the art of air combat.
Hawk’s reputation in the air combat maneuvering phase draws the attention of the instructor staff. This chapter describes the “showdown” between an instructor “ringer” and Hawk in a “pull-no-punches” brawl in the sky…
Later in the ACM syllabus, instructor pilots, some with more than a thousand hours, were finding it exceedingly difficult to show Hawk anything new. In fact, they started deviating from the planned script to see just how far they could push Hawk out of the academic box.
It was clear that he was far beyond solving the problems of canned setups. Soon the word was out, Hawk was beating the instructors.
Unknown to Hawk, on the last flight in the syllabus he was scheduled against the best ACM instructor in the squadron, a USMC fighter pilot.
… “Fight’s on!”
Hawk turned in.
They both maneuvered hard and both exerted tremendous “G”-loads. As the fight progressed, the airspeed dropped, the fight radius collapsed, and their angle-of-attack increased. Hawk had never flown the Cougar so slow, at such a high angle-of-attack, and was surprised and happy to discover it still flew at all.
Their rolling scissors, initially vectored slightly above the horizon, began to arc downward, below the horizon. They were both running out of energy, but still they fought on and still the fight was neutral.
The fight radius collapsed further. There was no clear advantage to either pilot and the Marine instructor called, “Knock it off”.
It was a welcome thing. Hawk was out of breath, energy, and ideas.
Chapter 8 concludes with the climatic trip to the ship for Hawk’s carrier qualifications and the awarding of his second Wings of Gold.
Chapter 9, “The F-4 Pilot RAG”
During the first part of the air war over Vietnam in the 1960s, the pilots of the U.S. Navy and Air Force had been ill-trained and unprepared for close-in air-to-air fighting. Far too many pilots had been lost for the number of MiGs shot down.
—Randy “Duke” Cunningham
The air war in the skies above Vietnam had raged for two years by the time Hawk reported to the Phantom RAG. Some hard lessons from Vietnam and the alarming findings of two highly classified Mig exploitation projects forced analysts, tacticians, and fighter pilots to conclude that the Phantom was not a fighter—not, at least, using the tactics taught in the Phantom community. Captain Ronald “Mugs” McKeown, an innovative tactician and Navy combat Phantom pilot, explained it best…
“The F-4 wasn’t really designed as a fighter. After every war in this century we’d say, ‘that was a great war but we’ll never dogfight again!’ So the F-4 was designed to be a long-range interceptor and launch Sparrows at twelve to twenty miles. But the problem was we had to get a visual ID which means they took our ace and trumped it. So we wound up like a giant with a long rifle trapped in a phone booth by a midget with a knife!”
Analysts, tacticians, and experienced fighter pilots agreed, Phantom crews were put in a box. But the dismal performance, they believed, was not attributable to an inferior aircraft, weapons systems, or command and control.
Experts pointed to three fundament problems: there were few fighter tactics which compensated for the restrictive rules of engagement, there were few offensive and defensive maneuvers specifically designed to optimize the Phantom’s tremendous thrust-to-weight, and there was no institutionalized training. These were serious problems and quickly drew the attention of military leadership.
Through the relentless efforts of several USAF and Navy fighter pilots, the “interceptor first” rubric was shattered. This action allowed some innovative and highly talented experts to modify and modernize tactics which leveled the air-to-air playing field. Chapter 9 tells of the evolution of fighter tactics and training, and Hawk’s own experiences in the F-4 RAG.
The grand finale and the last phase of the Phantom RAG was the trip to the ship for the carrier qualification stage. Chapter 9 concludes with a description of the anxiety of the night trap, the “bubble” phenomenon, and the good and the ugly Landing Signal Officers on whose shoulders rests the safety of carrier aircrews.
Chapter 10, “Sluggers”
Never, ever trust anybody with your life who doesn’t have as much to lose as you!
—John Monroe “Hawk’ Smith
Hawk checks into his first fighter squadron as a pilot. This chapter covers the turn-around period leading up to the July 1969 Med deployment of VF-103 Sluggers aboard USS Saratoga. It recalls the sidesplitting, unbriefed dogfight which resulted in some very tense and very embarrassing moments for Hawk and his best friend “G” Man…
Four miles to the southwest, in the cozy cockpit of an F-8 Crusader, Walt Teachgraber was thoroughly enjoying his third familiarization flight. He held a comfortable cruise position, slightly aft and one half mile away from his instructor. Walt was cautiously aware of the tantrums the F-8 could throw if mistreated or mishandled. He was carefully nudging the fighter through the maneuvers building more respect and a better feel for the jet with each passing moment.
The F-8 in the hands of an experienced Crusader pilot was a magnificent and deadly piece of machinery, one that commanded the deference and admiration of fighter pilots the world over. Two twenty-millimeter Colt-Browning cannon were housed on each side of the slender nose and as many as four Sidewinders could be strapped to the shoulder stations. The F-8’s thrust-to-weight was not as good as the Phantom’s but the wing loading was better and theoretically it could turn better at lower airspeeds. The beast also had a dark side though. It was highly unstable when maneuvering at slow speeds or at high angle-of-attack, and prone to take fledgling Crusader pilots on unexpected and very short airshows—exciting and entertaining—but tactically unsound and structurally unwise.
Walt was aware of the Crusader’s reputation, but, for the moment, he was enjoying the flight immensely. Little did he know that his world was eight seconds away from being rocked. The Phantoms were coming … and coming fast.
Hawk and Ed started a slight right turn to converge on the F-8 section. The Crusader pilots still hadn’t seen them. Hawk hit them at Mach one point two and thumped the leader—he flew under and close enough for the leader to actually feel the impact from the high-pressure area built by Hawk’s supersonic Phantom.
“MiGs! MiGs! Cleared to fire!” Hawk shouted over the radio.
“Roger. Fox one on the lead F-8 headed two eight zero at fifteen thousand feet.” G-man yelled.
Chapter 10 also recounts the horrible mishap of a Crusader pilot during a dissimilar air combat training sortie with Hawk which leads to a much deeper look into Hawk’s air combat constitution. It addresses Hawk’s lapse in discipline when he performed an air show over his grandparent’s farm—and, finally, sets the ramp in place for Super Sara’s 1969 med deployment.
Chapter 11, “Super Sara”
This ship is alive just as all who have served in it are alive either in reality …or in spirit and memory such as those who have served and serve no more. SARATOGA is Super Sara, we … all of us … have made her more than a ship … she is part of us and we are a part of her.
—CNO, Admiral M. Boorda, Decommissioning Ceremony of USS Saratoga on August 20, 1994
On 9 July 1969, USS Saratoga began her ninth deployment to the Med. Chapter 11, describes the preparation by ship’s company and the airwing for this deployment and the mental conditioning that takes place when families are pulled apart for duty. This chapter tells of Hawk’s training for the LSO profession and details the serious responsibilities and thrills of the job.
Although Sara’s team had expected and hoped for a combat cruise to the western Pacific that was not to be. Still, there was plenty of excitement in the Med in 1969. The high-jacking of a TWA airliner, a percolating crisis in Lebanon, and Soviet fleet exercises in the eastern Med added mass to the decision to keep Sara on Med patrol.
Within months of a successful coup in Libya, the mad boy Mohammar Qaddafi threatens to take-over Wheelus AFB. This chapter chronicles the events at the Wheelus front gate as General Chappie James, packing his service Colt .45 meets the mad boy at the head of a military column. Knowing the full weight of Saratoga task force was within easy strike range of his country, Qaddafi proves to the world that he is not so mad after all when he turns his column around and heads back into the desert. Hawk and his shipmates learn from this experience that sometimes carriers fight battles and sometimes they deter them.
This chapter also recalls the unforgettable pleasures of hosting the Royal Navy Fighter Squadron, the Omegas…
In October 1969, Captain W. H. O’Neil was directed to support the Royal British Navy Fighter Squadron 892, the Omegas, led by Commander Brian Davies, the CO. They were based in Yeovelton, England and flew to Malta to meet the Sara when she arrived on 12 October.
The excitement and camaraderie of hosting the Omegas made for a short seven days. They were tough pilots and flew aggressively and professionally. All the CAG 3 crew were elated to know the Omegas were allies. The entry in the Slugger’s command history submission summed up their feelings nicely, “The Sluggers will always remember the friendships made and the lessons learned from this unique experience.”
The Sluggers and the entire airwing enjoyed their visit and their friendship. To show them just how much, the Sluggers hosted a “Farewell” party for them. It was a very special and memorable event, but it was the right time for the Omegas to be leaving. The LSOs were near the edge, the jet blast deflectors were scorched, and the Sluggers were out of booze.
“Super Sara” continues with a hard look at the lessons driven home when Hawk tangled with three … make that four … A-7s in “Mig Alley”, and concludes with Hawk’s follow-on orders to a very unusual squadron at Point Mugu.
Chapter 12, “VX-4”
The instruments of battle are valuable only if one knows how to use them.
—Ardant du Picq. d.
In April 1970 Hawk checks into one of the most technologically advanced commands in the Navy: VX-4, the fighter test and evaluation squadron. Hand picked for this assignment, it is here that Hawk blossoms as an officer, a tactician, a weapons expert, and sharpens his air-to-air fighter skills. Chapter 11 discusses tactics development projects for several types of U.S. aircraft. It includes the account of flying with some of the bravest (and craziest) pilots in the military—the U.S. Army attack helicopter pilots…
Hawk was given a demonstration flight in a Huey Cobra early in the project. “I sat in the co-pilot/gunner position in the front seat. The pilot let me fly it out of the chocks. I tried to air taxi but I was all over the place. I was basically out of control from the time he gave it to me until he took control back.”
“Talk about sensitive controls … it was like trying to balance a grapefruit on the end of a pencil. The warrant officer was totally cool and said in a calm voice, ‘All right, you’re doing fine Hawk. You’re lookin’ great, but let’s stop going in circles.’”
“It might have been funny to my line crew,” Hawk thinks back, “but they stopped laughing when they were running for cover.”
“When the warrant officer finally took control of the Huey back, he gave me a familiarization flight and capabilities demonstration I’ll never forget. With barely enough altitude to call it a hover, he air taxied to the intersection of runway zero-three and two-seven and then added power. When the pilot started the takeoff run I was looking straight out the front of the windscreen at a whole lot of concrete and I knew that wasn’t right. We roared down the runway and I kept expecting him to do what we do, rotate—at least by the end of the runway. He never did. He continued past the departure end of the runway, picking up speed all the time. I was hoping for more altitude to accompany the airspeed but that didn’t happen either. We climbed just a little to clear the cars on Highway 101 but as soon as we did—and not by much—the pilot dropped it down again.”
“There were rows and rows of tomato plants suspended by short stakes to keep them off the ground. I looked on both sides of the helo and realized the skids were level with the top of the stakes. I was sure glad it wasn’t a pumpkin patch.”
“Where they good? Jesus they were smooth and had bravado out the ass! This was a good-deal hop for us and we needed it to understand just what we were up against during the project tests.”
“We were able to take them up in a Phantom. We did all types of high-“G” maneuvers, vertical work, and rudder reversals and even took them through the Mach number. It didn’t scare ‘em none. These guys were absolutely fearless!”
In 1969, the first Harriers were delivered to the Marine Corps. They were a revolutionary air-to-ground platform, but the question was, could they fight? In the very first evaluation of the VSTOL aircraft in the air-to-air role, Hawk’s appraisal of the AV-8 Harrier and Marine pilots skyrockets.
This chapter introduces some of the élan personalities who reshaped fighter tactics, and training—many of whom would evolve into the Navy leaders and decision makers in fighter and strike fighter development. Finally, chapter 12 provides an introduction to the Navy’s most expensive and successful air-to-air weapons system—the Grumman F-14 Tomcat.
Chapter 13, “Anytime Baby!”
The very-high-tech F-14s, with their two-hundred-mile radars, were able to maneuver into firing position long before the Libyans ever saw them.
—John F. Lehman Jr. Former Secretary of the Navy describing action against the Libyan Air Force on 19 August 1981
In continuation of Hawk’s tour in VX-4, he is assigned as the project officer to the biggest and most significant program in naval fighter history: the C/V21 F-14 Tomcat Project. Chapter 13 chronicles the story of the most successful (and expensive) missile shoot in fighter aviation, and Hawk’s role in the secret exploitation project that proved the air superiority of the F-14 Tomcat over two real world Mig fighters.
It explains the trials, efforts, and victories of the test pilots, evaluation aircrew, and Navy leadership who struggled against the clock and political antagonists to push the Tomcat through the Initial Operational Test and Evaluation (IOT&E) and the Operational Evaluation (OPEVAL) requirements. It explains Hawk’s influence in the development of fighter tactics for the world’s first “Third Generation Fighter” and addresses the conflicts with agencies external to the Navy who fought against the Tomcat from the start, and who, thankfully, lost their battle…
The Joint Evaluation Team concept mandated that Naval Air Systems Command and Operational Test and Evaluation Forces synergistically integrate efforts and resources. Naval Air Test Center, Patuxent River completed all tests which led to the Safe for Fleet Use certification; Naval Missile Center met the scope and schedule of the missile and radar Technical Evaluations; and VX-4 completed operational evaluations necessary for the announcement that the F-14 Tomcat was Operationally Suitable for Service Use.
The hard work, sacrifices and struggle paid off. Working together the various agencies very likely saved the program, delivered the Tomcat to the fleet on time and gave the Navy a fighter unlike any other in the world. It could out accelerate any operational fighter in the Soviet inventory, and, if the Tomcat needed to get down and grovel, its victim had a very slim chance of surviving. For the first time since the Korean War, the Navy had a fighter that could actually fight.
Hawk was happy just to be one of many in the phalanx of the committed. He was fortunate beyond his expectations to be a part, albeit a small part, of VX-4. In his three year assignment he had walked and flown with legends—giants in naval aviation: Vice Admiral Swoose Snead, Captain Jim Foster, Lieutenant Commander Mugs McKeown, Commander Stinger Ready, Commander Smoke Wilson, Kurt Schroeder, Chuck Sewell, and many others.
He’d had some fun along the way and made a definitive impact in other communities and services too. He’d flown six different types of aircraft, developed fighter tactics for and against Army attack helicopters, developed fighter tactics for the Marine Harrier, and helped exploit performance data on aircraft he couldn’t even, at that point, talk about. But, by far, his most difficult challenge and his proudest achievement was the role his team played in bringing the Tomcat, the world’s first, Third Generation Fighter, to the fleet.
In July 1973, VF-1 and VF-2 took delivery of the world’s most lethal fighter and the first “Third Generation” aircraft. Chapter 13 tells the story of bringing the Tomcat to the fleet.
Chapter 14, “CAG 14 Paddles”
You’ve got to land here son. This is where the food is.
Transmission to carrier pilot following his sixth wave off
Hawk checks into CAG-14 as they prepare for their September 1974 deployment to the western Pacific aboard USS Enterprise. This will be the first deployment of the F-14 Tomcat. It must go well and the senior CAG LSO will have much to do with the success or the failure of this deployment.
Hawk has logged more F-14 time than any naval aviator. He was an LSO in two squadrons and is the premiere choice as CAG-14’s senior LSO. While his credentials are impeccable, Hawk understands the significance of his responsibilities and has many concerns…
The arrival of the Tomcat elevated CAG-14’s stature and visibility. They had become the Navy’s showcase airwing. It was no accident that CAG-14 was assigned to the USS Enterprise, America’s first nuclear powered carrier, and not by happenstance that she was scheduled for an around the world cruise. And it was no surprise that the personnel assigned to CAG-14 and the two fighter squadrons were experienced, tested, and maybe a little too good.
That was part of the problem. In Hawk’s words, “The airwing was full of senior, hand-picked, salty officers. They were plenty talented but seemed to be somewhat cavalier, and, around the boat, their cowboy attitudes came out. The question wasn’t whether the pilots could get the planes aboard, but could we use ‘em again after the landing.”
A similar attitude seemed to have migrated to the LSO ranks. “Waving is an opinionated business. By my thinking the squadron LSOs didn’t have the critical eyes, the tight tolerances, or the where-with-all to take control of the platform, and there didn’t seem to be any sense of urgency to change things.”
“It was a tough situation. We had a lot to do and not much time to get it done.”
Hawk was on the horns of a dilemma. Thoroughly stressed and popping antacids like M&Ms, he wrestled for weeks with several concepts to improve the airwing’s performance. He became aware of two truths: it was going to be a tough job to change things, and to do it right he could not let friendship conflict with professionalism.
This chapter details Hawk’s struggles and victories in preparing a team of LSOs and Airwing-14 for a western Pacific deployment and what was marquee’d as an “Around the World Cruise”. It describes the enchanting liberty ports in Asia, several high-tension landing incidents aboard Enterprise, the “Thump-Bang” F-14 engine failure phenomenon, and Captain C. C. Smith’s high-speed run from the Tonkin Gulf to Subic Bay to “get his boys home for Christmas.”
Finally, Chapter 14 primes the reader for the continuation of Enterprise’s deployment and the around the world cruise … that wasn’t.
Chapter 15, “The Around The World Cruise That Wasn’t”
Maritime superiority for us is a necessity. We must be able in time of emergency to venture in harm’s way, controlling air, surface, and subsurface areas to assure access to all the oceans of the world. Failure to do so will leave the credibility of our conventional defense forces in doubt.
In 1969, Captain Frank W. Ault submitted the Air-to-Air Missile System Capability Review. The “Ault Report” was a 480-page document that analyzed air-to-air performance of Navy aircraft, weapons, and aircrew in the early stages of the Vietnam air war. Captain Ault submitted 242 recommendations. One of the principal recommendations was the creation of a postgraduate school for fighter aircrew to improve aircrew expertise in weapons systems, airmanship, and fighter tactics. That very year, the Naval Fighter Weapons School was born. TOPGUN, as it was to be known, became the world’s most elite and influential fighter training and tactics development institutions of its time.
In March 1976, Hawk was assigned as one of the first executive officers to this special school. This chapter recounts the history of TOPGUN, and the influence it had in changing the mind set, tactics, and weapons systems in the fighter community. It captures the preparation for ACEVAL/AIMVAL and the effect Hawk had in overhauling the tactics and strategies used by the Red Force in this epochal joint project—a project which furnished the blueprint for modern Navy fighter tactics for years to come…
Hawk left for Miramar Sunday afternoon but before he did, JW “Falcon” Taylor, the officer in charge of the Navy Blue Force, gathered both teams together for a mass debrief.
“I think what we learned this weekend,” JW started, “is that we have a lot more to learn.”
It was a succinct, humble, and accurate statement.
Hawk’s new Red Force tactics redefined the fight by targeting the weaknesses of the F-14 systems. When the Blue Force came to grips with the fact that even the mighty Tomcat could be fooled, when the cold truth finally settled-in that they had to reduce their reliance on the technology and improve their tactics, they altered their formations, radar techniques, and section responsibilities.
The ACEVAL/AIMVAL warm-up was completed several days later. When Navy Red Force pilots joined their Air Force counterparts at Nellis AFB they brought the tactics they had used in Yuma. They were complex, dynamic, and exploited the weaknesses of the new generation F-14 and F-15 fighters. These became the foundation of the Red Force tactics employed during ACEVAL/AIMVAL and were based on the tactics Hawk had scribbled on a napkin in a small pub in Yuma, Arizona.
When the joint Blue Force began AIMVAL/ACEVAL in October 1977, they squared off with the toughest adversaries in the world.
Finally, chapter 16 tells the story of the politics, personalities, and the hardcore dedication of some of the nation’s finest fighter aircrews—the TOPGUN instructors.
Chapter 17, “Command”
All the regulations and gold braid in the Pacific Fleet cannot enforce a sailor’s devotion. This, each officer in command must earn on his own.
—Lieutenant Commander Arnold S. Lott:
Brave Ship, Brave Men, 1965
Nine months after checking into TOPGUN as the XO, Hawk screened for command and was elevated to the position of Commanding Officer. Hawk soon discovers that all that glitters is not gold. The pressures, risks, and responsibilities of leadership become nearly insurmountable. When a new Admiral comes to Fightertown USA, Hawk and his squadron come under, first, the scrutiny, and then the concentrated assaults of Fighter Wing. Hawk is besieged by one JAG investigation after another, based more on one senior commander’s angst against them than any wrongdoing.
In the midst of JAG investigations, flight violation reports, an exodus of the fighter communities best and brightest, and personal assaults, Hawk still has a squadron to run. He puts his personal concerns aside and concentrates on the important issues: expanding and improving training to the fleet, upgrading the squadron threat simulator aircraft, and delivering to Congress the first operational assessment on what would become the FA-18 Hornet.
Hawk’s job was also about maintaining the morale and enthusiasm of his squadron personnel and grooming the next generation leaders. Sensing what the boys at Fighter Town USA needed was a hundred proof shot of morale booster, Hawk approved the release of the infamous TOPGUN Christmas Card…
By early December 1977, Hawk had narrowly escaped strong disciplinary action as a result of several Judge Advocate General investigations convened by Fighter Wing: the section taxi incident; several course rule violations; and a serious misappropriation charge.
There were common denominators in each of the JAGs. Each was initiated with the slimmest presumption of wrongdoing. Each JAG commenced without the benefit of solid research. Each seemed to be directed more to denigrate than to discover evidence, and finally, when Hawk and TOPGUN were cleared of all wrongdoing—no apology was offered.
The fact was, Hawk never expected nor desired an apology from Fighter Wing. More than anything, he simply wanted to be left alone so TOPGUN could continue their work. His staff was running full-tilt on several important projects—projects critical to all TACAIR squadrons—and time was of the essence.
Being ignored by Fighter Wing was not in Hawk’s future however. In December 1977, the TOPGUN Christmas card had made its way to places no one thought it would go.
“Command” faithfully describes powder train of circumstances facing Hawk and the TOPGUN team following a seemingly innocuous and innocent decision … a decision which nearly had cataclysmic reverberations.
Chapter 18, “Training the Fleet”
In the end Monroe managed to protect one of the crown jewels of naval aviation—Navy Fighter Weapons School. From my standpoint, that’s what he was there to do.
—Commander Richard “Turtle” Redditt
It’s “flank speed” for Hawk and the TOPGUN team. Results of ACEVAL/AIMVAL, the Soviet’s two new Third Generation Fighter entries, and emerging air-to-air technologies crank up the urgency of TOPGUN’s central focus: to analyze and disseminate the lessons of AIMVAL/ACEVAL and develop tactics to counter the threat of the latest Soviet fighters: the MiG 29 Fulcrum and the Su-27 Flanker.
Concurrently, Fighter Wing discovers the existence of the TOPGUN Christmas Card and directs an investigation. This has the potential of ejecting Hawk from his command, disestablishing TOPGUN, and undoing all they have accomplished. It’s not until the investigating officer, Commander Leighton W. Smith, a sagacious and fair-minded senior officer, explains to the Admiral the visceral commitment of Hawk to his command and his command’s allegiance to Hawk that Fighter Wing stands down…
Command was supposed to be fun, exciting, rewarding—an opportunity to carry on a proud Navy tradition to motivate, inspire, and synergize a team to accomplish a mission. For Hawk, command had been anything but fun. Yet the experience, the lessons, and the accomplishments were more valuable than anything he could have ever imagined.
“In spite of all the difficulties, these were the finest days of TOPGUN. The mission, talent, reputation, and the spirit couldn’t have been better. It was growing, going places, improving the service to the fleet, improving the entire fleet’s ability to complete its mission, and we had a champion who guarded us against the naysayers and those who would corrupt our mission,” Commander Turtle Redditt reflected.
“Monroe had a clear vision of TOPGUN’s mission. He was committed to protect that mission against all threats that would jeopardize it, including Fighter Wing. Hawk was very satisfied and, in fact, proud of what his people were doing, and he was absolutely not going to allow a bunch of riff-raff wing-weenies ruin their work or disrupt fleet training no matter how painful the punishment.”
“All of us thought a hell of a lot of Monroe. He was a hard worker, brilliant, and dedicated. We knew if we had the wrong guy there, TOPGUN could have been killed off. We saw him as the rational voice of reason protecting us from the terrorists at great personal and professional risk.”
“In the end Monroe managed to protect one of the crown jewels of Naval aviation—Navy Fighter Weapons School. From my standpoint, that’s what he was there to do. To do all this, to fight so many powers from so many directions so valiantly was incredibly selfless and courageous. And it wasn’t without some battle damage to Hawk, but I’m sure he’ll tell you today—it was all worth it.”
Ultimately, “Training the Fleet” is the story of Hawk’s perpetual drive to improve tactics and train the fleet TACAIR communities, but it is also a study of loyalty in its purest sense. It is the account of Hawk’s commitment to his people, to his squadron, and to his Navy. And it is the very personal story of his unselfish and unwavering willingness to sacrifice his own career for the principals, people, and the institution he held even more dear.
Chapter 19, “Blue Skies & White Water—Reflections”
Old men forget: yet all shall be forgot, But he’ll remember with advantages What feats he did that day …
—Shakespeare: King Henry V, St Crispin’s Day Speech
Hawk retired on 1 October 1993 following a naval career and an odyssey that spanned thirty years and took him around the world many times. This chapter brings perspective to his growth as a naval officer, his seasoning as a fighter pilot, his hardening as a commanding officer, and his ascension as a leader.
Chapter 19 provides insight to the enormous contributions Hawk made to the fighter community, and summarizes his roles in delivering the first Third Generation Fighter, modernizing tactics and improving training for the TACAIR crews, and inspiring, through personal example, the leaders who followed in his footsteps.
Finally, chapter 19 serves to highlight a career dedicated to the Navy, and to bring to full clarity the aspirations and sacrifices of a man who wanted nothing more in his life than to Fly Navy.
Every pilot, every aircrewman, lives with the knowledge that one day, they’ll walk out to their aircraft either knowing or not knowing that it will be the last flight of their life. Regardless the outcome, that day will be heartrending and horrible. And so it was for Hawk. On 13 December 1980 he left his cherished Black Lions and his last fleet flying assignment. That assignment, and each that followed, was packed with their own set of challenges, frustrations, and rewards. Hawk enjoyed them all, but nothing brought the satisfaction nor the endorphin spike as the ride down the catapult track strapped in the cockpit of a fighter.