The USS Enterprise (CVN-65) steamed peacefully a hundred miles off the coast of South Vietnam. It was mid-December 1974, and the carrier held her position beneath a blue sky in the South China Sea.
The Treaty of Paris had been signed on 27 January 1973. Based on that agreement, the last U.S. combat troops had left Vietnam on 29 March and the prisoners of war had been returned on 1 April 1973. But the peace was short-lived. Both sides reengaged in war by January 1974. Some Americans remained in South Vietnam, and actions were under way to evacuate all U.S. personnel and many South Vietnamese loyal to the U.S. government.
In preparation for the evacuation U.S. military elements remaining in South Vietnam were tasked to maintain a presence, inhibit the spread of hostilities, and safeguard U.S. personnel and interests. This called for a precarious balancing act. Our armed forces had to appear powerful, alert, and capable—without being unduly provocative.
The Enterprise was one of the many vehicles essential in maintaining that balance. She was the world’s first nuclear-powered carrier and emblematic of American ingenuity and resolve.
Back at home the politicians, the media, and the nation at large, had virtually written off a war that had no clear end state, no tangible national benefits, and the lives of too many Americans lost. This reality, however, neither diluted the mission of the Enterprise nor denuded the carrier’s enormous strategic significance.
She was a thousand feet long and ninety-five thousand tons of compelling big-stick diplomacy. With a sustained speed of more than thirty-two knots, she could reach any navigable point on any sea in two weeks. She carried more than eighty aircraft with a strike capability greater than the military forces of most nations. Her primary mission was power projection, but on this day, and in the weeks that would follow, she was tasked to maintain forward presence.
She steamed over the horizon, out of sight of the Vietnamese leadership but never far from mind. She represented a constant and indelible reminder that United States wanted peace, but more than that she wanted her people back.
More than 5,500 sailors and Marines served the ship. They represented all races, ethnicities, and stations in life. Each had individual responsibilities, but all of them worked toward a common mission: to sail their ship and to launch, recover, and maintain their aircraft. All hands understood this and all were committed to it.
Lieutenant Commander John Monroe Smith, USN—call sign “Hawk”—was one such member of the Enterprise team. Born and raised in Columbia, South Carolina, he was the product of a close family and public schools and raised at a time when community ties and national pride both ran deep. Of average height, he had sandy blond hair and hazel eyes and well muscled from decades of competitive sports and motorcycle racing. Even in his early years he was interested in airplanes and awestruck by jets. He had no idea that he could actually “fly Navy” until 1963, when a recruiter suggested he consider a career in naval aviation.
According to the Navy entrance exams, he had above-average intelligence with an unusual flair for understanding kinematic relationships, spatial-orientation problems, and electro-mechanical systems. His hand-eye coordination skills and reflexes also were above average. His only deficiency lay in his reluctance to acknowledge that he was not bullet proof. By all indicators he had the skills, attributes, and requisites of a Navy fighter pilot.
Now, eleven years after that chance meeting with the recruiter, he still considered himself fortunate beyond measure to be able to serve his nation and his Navy, and to fly fast airplanes. Few could be so blessed.
Hawk was Carrier Air Group 14’s landing signal officer (LSO) and attached to the airwing staff. The fact that he had three previous assignments in Fighter Squadrons: one as an F-4 radar intercept officer (RIO), one as an F-4 Phantom pilot, and one as an F-14 Tomcat operational test pilot in Air Test and Evaluation Squadron Four, qualified him to fly the F-14As assigned to both Fighter Squadron One and Fighter Squadron Two —the fighter force of CAG-14.
Hawk was scheduled to fly an F-14 on a combat air patrol mission off the Vietnamese coast. He and his RIO, Lieutenant Joe “Crash” Zahalka, had just completed the mission brief and were headed to maintenance control to review the aircraft data book for Bullet 205, one of twelve F-14As assigned to VF-2.
Crash was a mainstay in VF-2 and a long time friend of Hawk’s. They had served together in VX-4. Hawk had been the F-14 project officer, and Crash had assisted him on several F-14 projects. Considering their combined F-14 experience, it was highly unlikely that there was any pilot/RIO team more technically knowledgeable and flight experienced in the Tomcat than these two.
In maintenance control they scanned the aircraft data book, checked the fuel load, and verified the weapons loadout: two AIM-9D Sidewinders, two AIM-7F Sparrows, and a full load of 20mm ammunition—standard load-out for the combat air patrol mission. They signed the book, donned helmets, and made their way to the flight deck.
Hawk paused on the steel flight deck, seven stories above the water and took in the sights and sounds of the world’s most lethal three acres. Everywhere he looked, he saw movement, not the arbitrary sashays of people with nothing to do and all day to do it but an intricate choreography of men with a mission, men with intent and purpose, men preparing for the next launch.
Hawk breathed in the scenery. Blue prevailed in various shades and intensities. The sea, a rich cobalt blue that shimmered and glistened in the sun’s rays, gave way to the light blue of the sky at the horizon. Only occasional cumulus buildups, towering above the sea, marred the purity of this perfect neon sky.
The clatter of chains being dragged across the flight deck, the wail of the huffers cranking up, and the whisper of the sea wind over the deck were common and—to Hawk—welcome sounds.
Hawk took a step toward his jet but was then captured by a familiar sensory assault. A noxious blend of potent aromas engulfed him: tire rubber, cable grease, paint, catapult steam, jet fuel, and jet-engine exhaust assailed his senses and stung his eyes. Individually, each was unpleasant enough. Collectively they were the reassuring fragrances of the mission, the ambrosia of a warship, the essence of life at its very best. Hawk subconsciously knew that no matter how long he lived he would never again breath in these scents without being transported back to the flight deck of a carrier.
Hawk shook off the reverie and refocused on the task. Crash had just begun the preflight check when Hawk arrived. He climbed up the ladder to the front cockpit and laid his helmet bag, kneeboard, and flight pubs on the starboard console and checked each of the thirty-six inspection items on the seat. He then climbed back down the ladder to begin the preflight. Hawk looked at each inspection panel, hinge pin, drain line, fastener, latch, flight control surface, and quick disconnect. He studied both engine intakes and both tailpipes. He ensured that each of the three landing gear and four missiles had safety pins installed. His eyes scanned everything visible and his hands touched everything within reach. When he was satisfied that the Tomcat was airworthy, he remounted the steps to the cockpit and strapped himself in.
Electrical power brought the cockpit to life, and Hawk initiated an internal communications system check with Crash. Crash was good to go. Hawk raised two fingers and the enlisted plane captain dutifully applied huffer air to start the massive jet engine. Hawk made several other system checks—all good. He placed his hand above the canopy bow, in line with the center windscreen and cycled the rain-removal switch—nothing. He paused, verified that he had moved the correct switch and cycled it again—still no air movement. Hawk exhaled heavily and considered the problem.
In his mind’s eye, he reviewed the bleed air and electrical system, to determine if there was a circuit breaker or another valve that might affect the rain removal system. No, this was binary, when on, bleed air was directed to the center panel of the windscreen to blow water and ice off the bulletproof glass. When turned off, the air stopped.
Hawk considered the flight-risk factors. It was day with steady winds, a moderate sea and small cotton-ball clouds in the area. Hawk thought, what can possibly go wrong on a day like this?
Availability of the F-14 was not good, owing to the fact that this was the first deployment of the mighty Tomcat, and parts support was shaky at best. There was no telling when he’d be able to get another Tomcat hop.
If they didn’t get airborne, they might miss a chance to bag a North Vietnamese Mig. So far the Vietnamese air force had not taken aggressive action toward U.S. aircraft. Today, however, could be the day they mounted a massive saturation strike on the Enterprise, and Hawk would miss out if he didn’t launch.
The peer-pressure angle also was nibbling at him. Could he really stand the blast from the ready room cowboys once they found out he cancelled a flight for something so insignificant as a rain removal problem.
Finally, there were the competence and confidence factors. Hawk knew the airplane, he knew his limits as a carrier pilot, he knew the ship’s capabilities, and he knew the weather patterns. He was confident that he could get this beast back onboard even if the weather was poor. Everything favored the decision to go.
“Crash, I’m not getting any rain removal air. We briefed a recovery in good weather, but I reckon there could be more build-ups in the area when we come back. I’m thinking we’re still good to go.”
The fact that Crash was a lieutenant and Hawk was a lieutenant commander had no juice in this discussion. Hawk had spectacular fighter credentials, was, at one time, the F-14 project officer, and was currently the CAG LSO—and that did carry water.
“Hawk. the weather looks good and even if we do have to fly through a shower or two, how bad could it be? I’ll go if you’ll go!”
“Okay then, let’s get this mutha started!”
Hawk cranked up the engines and completed the post start checks. A thumbs-up to the plane taxi director signaled that they were ready to taxi. The taxi director ordered the chocks removed, taxied Bullet 205 a few feet forward, gave a brake check, and then passed control to a second taxi director who guided the fighter to catapult number three, one of two catapults on the angled flight deck. Hawk extended the wings to their full sixty-four-foot span, lowered the flaps, and slats and double-checked each item on the take-off checklist. The taxi director carefully directed Bullet 205 into position to allow the launch bar to engage the catapult shuttle.
Half a dozen maintenance personnel, final checkers, catapult crew, ordinance personnel, and quality-assurance reps swarmed around Bullet 205, making final inspections and preparations for launch. With the launch bar securely attached to the shuttle, the catapult officer, or shooter, gave the signal to take tension. A familiar “ka-thunk” accompanied the drop in the fighter’s nose as the nose gear strut was fully compressed in final preparation for the launch.
The shooter signaled Hawk to release the brakes, then gave the two-finger turn-up signal. Hawk responded by bringing both throttles smoothly forward. The engines rumbled, the airplane shook, and the temperatures soared to eleven hundred degrees Centigrade. Hawk scanned the instruments and indicators a final time, cycled the stick to all stops to ensure no binding of the flight controls, and asked, “You ready to go, Crash?”
“Let’s do it!”
Hawk saluted the shooter smartly. The shooter extended his open hand above his head, palm outward, made a fist, and opened his hand again signaling Hawk to go into afterburner. Hawk pushed both throttles into the afterburner position and both heard and felt, deep in the bowels of the airplane, the power erupting out the tailpipes. The shooter turned to scan the length of the catapult track and the airspace directly in front of Bullet 205, knelt down on one knee, touched the deck, and pointed forward, the signal for the catapult operator to fire the cat. Hawk and Crash were ready for this. They rested their helmets against the ejection seat headrests and tightened their legs and abdominal muscles in anticipation of the jolt which sent their 68,000-pound fighter from zero to 150-knots in less than 300 feet.
At the end of the cat stroke, the Tomcat sprang into the air. Hawk eased on a bit of back stick, came out of burner, raised the gear and flaps, and made a slight port clearing turn. As they accelerated to 350-knots Hawk made a climbing turn to rendezvous with his wingman already in a port orbit overhead the ship. Hawk completed the join up, took the lead from his wingman and turned toward their assigned combat air patrol station nearer the beach.
Enroute to their station, Hawk signaled his wingman to move into combat spread position. He then checked his weapons switches, fuel state, and engine gauges.
Their jet was operating perfectly. The engines were strong and all the systems were up except the rain-removal. This was a full “up” combat capable fighter and they were ready to put the “combat” into combat air patrol—if only a North Vietnamese fighter pilot would be so bold and so foolish to cross swords with them.
Unfortunately, combat air patrol sorties are notorious for being perhaps the most monotonous task of all the airwing’ s missions. They are generally regarded as gas-burning, butt-numbing drills that could cure the worst insomniac.
These sorties are so boring, Hawk thought. But they don’t have to be. If the North Vietnamese pilots had a little more go-for-it spirit, a little more testosterone, and a lot less discipline, this could turn out to be a spectacular sortie. This could be an extraordinary sortie. This could even be an air-medal-producing sortie.
Hawk and Crash had a load of missiles and 672 rounds of 20mm aboard—and they knew how to use them. But the opposition had shown absolutely no interest in tangling with the world’s most lethal fighter. Apart from an occasional surface-to-air missile site lighting up its radar as Navy planes ventured near the coast, there had been no reports of threats. No air medals this cruise, Hawk figured.
Bullet 205 and 202 arrived at their assigned station. Hawk set up a racetrack pattern, which allowed Crash to tune his radar on the Vietnamese coast to the west. For the next hour and a half, Hawk was going to drill holes in the sky while Crash diddled with the radar. God, this was going to be boring.
Still, it was great just to get out and fly, to enjoy the magnificence of their surroundings, which were strikingly beautiful. The wingman’s F-14 glistened against the blue backdrop. The thin trail of exhaust made it easy to keep him in sight. The deep blue of the sea was framed by the lighter blue of the sky, and this was punctuated by the white columns of towering cumulous cloud buildups, and …
Wait a second!
The clouds are getting bigger, Hawk observed. The build-ups are squeezing out the VFR flying space and, based on the growing number of white caps, the surface winds were picking up.
Not a problem, Hawk concluded, we’re equipped for bad weather, and if it gets ugly coming aboard, we can always grab the tanker and head for Thailand.
Always have a plan but always have a back-up plan, Hawk whispered to himself.
A massive saturation raid by the North Vietnamese Air force had not disturbed the monotony of the sortie, as Hawk had fantasized, but now he had other things on his mind. The weather continued to deteriorate.
The clouds climbed and thickened and seemed to absorb all of the pockets of clear air. Hawk’s concerns were heightened when Climax Marshal transmitted, “Bullet 205, your marshaling instructions follow …”. The current weather report was next: “Indefinite ceiling, visibility partially obscured, one-half mile in rain.”
This was not good. It meant that Climax was taking precision instrument approaches and therefore the weather at the ship was deteriorating.
“I don’t know how they do it”, quipped Hawk to Crash. “It could be crystal clear with a million miles visibility in all quadrants and if there’s one damned weather cell in the area, Climax will not only find it, she’ll match its speed and direction for as long as it lasts!”
No use whining about it, Hawk and Crash had plenty to do. They turned toward their marshal point, got a fuel check from their wingman, and released him. Crash adjusted the radar to improve the picture on the Enterprise and the surrounding weather. Not good! The ship was in the center of a forest of cells which appeared to be heavy.
En-route to marshal, Hawk lowered his tailhook, stowed his gear, and received the status of the duty tanker and a weather report for Thailand. If the weather at the ship is really bad, Hawk figured, we can still grab the tanker and head for Thailand. Hawk talked Crash through his thought process, “It’s an 850 nautical mile bingo, but with 10,000 pounds of fuel we can do it. We’d still need to find the tanker and coax another 5,000 pounds of gas out of him. Of course, that could be a problem. If that doesn’t work, we can always jump out and think up a good story to tell at our flight disposition board on the way down. Always have a back-up plan, Crash.”
Bullet 205 commenced the penetration on time. They were in and out of the clouds all the way down, but Hawk expected to have maximum fuel when he came aboard. Ten miles from the ship they hit a big cell and were pelted by rain. Outside visibility dropped to zero.
Hawk attempted one more time to get the rain removal operating—no luck. The center windscreen was solid water; everything was distorted. The side panels were no clearer.
Hawk and Crash worked as a team. Hawk flew the airplane, kept it on speed, on altitude, and on the inbound radial to the ship. Crash backed up everything and kept a current radar picture. He maintained a running monologue of important information, keeping the cadence smooth and his voice tempered. He also made Climax acutely aware of their problem.
Climax, “Bullet 205, ten miles, perform landing checks.”
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 deteriorating rapidly. I can’t see and no matter how good Crash is I need to see in order to land this monster. Further, I just know Climax’s deck will be pitching, and 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.
Five miles from Climax and level at 1,200 feet over a frothy ocean, Hawk checked the gear and flaps, “Crash, I show wings at twenty degrees, three down and locked, flaps full, hook down, harness locked, speed brakes to go, and five point four on the gas. It’s raining harder than a cow pissing on a flat rock, and the rain-remove still ain’t working. I can’t see shit up here. How you doin’?”
Crash responded, “Roger on the gear. We’re on altitude, on airspeed, working our way to centerline, and I can’t think of a funner thing to do right now!”
The anxiety of the situation was relentless. Hawk focused on the task and let no other thought intrude.
“Bullet 205, on glide slope, three quarters of a mile, call the ball,” radioed Climax Approach.
“Paddles, 205. Clara! I’ve got no rain removal and I can’t see the ball or the ship!”