ROGER BALL REVIEWS
Roger Ball! is a biography of US Navy legend John Monroe “Hawk” Smith, his soul mate and wife “Miss Jenny”, and their adopted son as they made way through over thirty years of first their upbringing, their chance meeting and wonderful courtship, marriage, and their combined focus for a successful, rich career in naval aviation with all its engagement with extended family.
When I first saw the book’s title “Roger Ball!” I had an impulsive urge to read it. My learning of the naval aviation usage of the saying "Roger Ball" stems from enjoying the movie Top Gun. Early into the opening, there is a scene depicting an F-14 Tomcat fighter pilot with call sign Cougar on glide slope for landing on an aircraft carrier. The Landing Signal Officer aboard the ship exclaims, “Roger Ball” and soon thereafter the fighter’s arresting hook snares the arresting cable to bring the jet to a full halt on the flightdeck. Hence, a book with the title “Roger Ball!” is dead-on for locking on my impulsive interest.
The author, retired Navy Captain Donald E. “Duck” Auten, flew Navy attack jets and jet fighters for several years all the while making tailhook arrested landings on and catapult launches off of US Navy aircraft carriers all around the globe, day and night, calm weather and severe. He even had the exhilarating job as aggressor pilot playing the role of bandit for mock dogfights with fighter pilots sharpening their aerial warrior skills. His own outstanding Navy career is testament to his own courage and commitment to being a naval aviator and all who contributed to making him such from the very beginning and throughout his career. He worked closely with hundreds of Navy professionals at all levels of each organization in which he served. As was he, others keeping them on course to success mentored each of them to varying degrees. Yet, often there comes along a leader who particularly stands out, and for Don Auten and many of his peers, that legendary leader is naval aviator John Monroe Smith, call sign “Hawk”.
As author Donald Auten explains, “Roger Ball!” is the clipped transmission the Landing Signal Officer (LSO) who is stationed at the stern of the aircraft carrier makes. The LSO exclaims to the pilot of an aircraft as he or she commences his or her final approach to the deck of a carrier, “Roger Ball”, a verbal confirmation that the LSO has sight of the aircraft, that it is in the proper configuration for landing, and within parameters to continue the approach to successful recovery on the flightdeck. In naval aviation lexicon “Roger Ball!” most simply means, “You’re looking good. Keep it coming!”
John Monroe “Hawk” Smith dreamed during his adolescence and young adult years of the 1950s of earning the coveted US Navy wings of gold. He did ultimately do so during the early 1960s, first as a radar intercept officer (RIO), and then ultimately earning wings as a fighter pilot. Author Donald Auten takes the reader through each phase of all “Hawk’s” thirty years involving tours in the cockpit to his significant contributions of leadership and command, including the shaping and development of TOPGUN.
Tom Wolfe describes in his book titled “The Right Stuff” that there is a vital and unique combination of skills a fighter pilot must simultaneously possess … the stuff … to successfully negotiate through the demanding regime of mental calculus, emotional focus and ranges of compression, and physical challenges for winning in the air combat arena on a sustained, repeated basis. Author Donald Auten explains in great, intriguing detail the arduous flying curriculum, allies’ coalition military air combat exercises, and Naval Air Force deployments marking “Hawk” as owning that rare stuff.
It is intriguing to learn about the mix of ingredients that tempered Hawk’s mettle through growing up playing competitive, arduous, exhausting, exerting sports, including motorcycle racing, doing well in academics, working hard for cash, and stepping up to serve voluntarily whenever needed.
Roger Ball! Illuminates that a successful Navy career predominantly requires a strong home front. This support for high probability of career success and actualization author Donald Auten addresses through writing about the delicate balancing of family and career. These naval aviation careers require months, possibly years of separation from the home front, with very real potential for fatal demise or serious injury.
Author Donald Auten takes us to the late 1960s when aeronautical engineers in the free world and behind the Soviet Union’s iron curtain rolled out variable-sweep wing fighters and bombers. Their wings swept in and out to change the geometry of the aircraft to meet changes in aerodynamic requirements to win aerial combat fights or extending range for dropping bombs on target. These designs expanded the scope of air combat significantly, as the wing designs allowed high swept-back maneuverability, yet fuel efficient extended-wing lift for cruise or loiter time. The United States produced the FB-111 and B-1 bombers for its Air Force and the F-14 Tomcat fighter jet for its Navy. Meanwhile a collaboration of Germany, the United Kingdom, and Italy produced the Tornado, and the Soviet Union the MiG 23 and MiG 27. Roger Ball takes the reader to those overwhelming times when aeronautics, politics, and budgets intertwined to meet a stark reality that aerial combat success required a whole host of new shrewd and complex tactics and strategies.
As a civilian, I have flown twice aboard Navy C-2 Greyhound turboprop aircraft out to sea to land or “trap” on aircraft carriers underway. Until reading Roger Ball! I did not fully appreciate the dynamics of the pilot and Landing Signal Officer in getting our plane down on the flightdeck in one piece. I had taken the role of the Landing Signal Officer for granted. My understanding was that a pilot essentially flew down to the flightdeck using his or her visual acuity to line up on the lens system radiating up from the aircraft carrier’s stern to bring the aircraft in for a ‘trap’ on the flight deck. Now I know that “recovery” of aircraft to a carrier is a ‘my life depends on you’ dialogue of verbal instructions or orders, and intuition between the pilot and LSO. My uninformed perception had been that LSOs are essentially a back-up system to simply aid the pilot, but primarily it was all on the pilot. I did not appreciate the magnitude of differential equations each LSO’s mind must run on each approach to viscerally put a pilot into the glide slope that earned the significance of calling “Roger Ball!” Adding to that set of demanding requirements of the LSO is the environment of daylight, dawn and dusk, nighttime, rain, snow, wind, and sea states, plus being physically, mentally, and maybe emotionally draining each minute out there on post. I’ve been out there on an aircraft carrier’s flight deck both during catapult launches and arresting hook recoveries. Despite the tight-fitting goggles, cooked jet fuel residue found its way past the seals and made my eyes stream with water. I cannot imagine hours on end of my eyes being subjected to those stinging conditions.
Roger Ball is a must-read book yielding a harvest of appreciation for the men and women who serve in all services of the US armed forces and its allies.
Donald “Duck” Auten is the author of “Roger Ball”, a captivating book covering the career of an exceptional Naval aviator and leader, John Monroe “Hawk” Smith, Captain, USN (Ret). “Roger Ball” captures and presents a comprehensive, personal narrative spanning the many training and development phases in the molding of a remarkable Navy pilot, officer, and leader, “Hawk” Smith.
As a former Naval officer, reading “Roger Ball” allowed me to again experience, through “Hawk’s” eyes and emotions, the many facets of life that comprise the close-knit world of Naval aviation, both in war and in peace.
I liked how “Hawk’s” traits of dedication, integrity, and courage of convictions were to become his moral compasses throughout the book. Bottom line: If you want to become a part of the world of Naval aviation, then “Roger Ball” is your book. I highly recommend it as an addition to any reader’s library.
“Duck” Auten has crafted a masterpiece in Roger Ball! To those of us who were fortunate enough to know and learn from Monroe “Hawk” Smith and his beloved Miss Jenny, this “can’t-put-down” saga is a perfectly focused look into the heart and soul of a great American and an outstanding leader. Between the lines, “Hawk’s” tactical prowess, courage under fire, and loyalty to his profession serve as an example to us all, now and going forward.
“Hawk” lived and breathed turnin’ and burnin’ and he made some excellent ball-flyers even better, all because he was and is completely and consummately dedicated to Naval Aviation. “Hawk’s” absolute commitment to doing it right the first time, every time, and keeping it fun all the time, created a generation of highly successful fighter aircrews who are forever indebted to “Hawk” for showing them how to fly, fight, and win…and take care of the talented Sailors who make it all happen.
The TOPGUN mantra, courtesy of General Adolf Galland, sums it all up…”Only the spirit of attack, born in a brave heart, will bring success to any fighter aircraft, no matter how highly developed it may be.”
Thanks “Duck”…Bravo Zulu! We love ya “Hawk” and Miss Jenny for your spirit, bravery, and leading the way!
Captain, USN (Retired)
When I was a kid my Grandmother’s house was situated in the approach pattern for NAS Norfolk and I grew up with my eyes glued to the sky. I lived and breathed airplanes and thought the men who flew them were truly larger than life. One of those men was a close high school friend of my parents, my “Uncle John” Smith, and although I never really saw all that much of him, I certainly got an earful around the supper table—some truths certainly, some lies probably, but all the stuff of legend.
Fast forward 30 years and imagine my delight at finally getting my hands on a copy of Roger Ball. I was thrilled to learn more about Uncle John and his colorful career in naval aviation (is there any other kind?), but ultimately I took away so much more. Through Donald Auten’s gifted narrative, I got to revisit a time and place I had too little appreciation for when I was there, I got a sense of what it was like at the controls of some of the greatest aircraft of the 20th century, and I got to see how one man, true to himself and firm in his convictions, can make a lasting difference.
I also came to understand that there are certain timeless tenants in leadership that some people just “get” while others learn them through slow, often painful experience, if at all. John Smith got them. Much of what is hailed as “best practice” in business and government today just made good sense to John 40 years ago. The cast of characters that parade through the pages of Roger Ballare case studies in leadership style: what works and why, what fails and how. I hadn’t picked up Roger Ball to find career inspiration, but it was there nonetheless, and I could almost hear John chuckling to himself.
From Pensacola to the Mediterranean and across the wide Pacific, Roger Ball offers vivid moments of determination, exhilaration, panic, calculation, and pride. Anyone with an interest in naval aviation, a love of history, or an appreciation for the dynamics of leadership and motivation will be amply rewarded in its pages. Moreover, I guarantee they’ll be highly entertained!
When hearing of my interest in true stories of war, airplanes and 'Fly Boys' I always get a remark like "That's unusual for a woman!". Perhaps my love of those things can be explained by having had a father who, in WWll as a B-25 pilot with the USAF, was killed on a day in the Pacific in April, 1944 known as 'Black Sunday'.
When reading the story of John Monroe 'Hawk' Smith one comes away with the understanding that this is a flesh and blood man who is not only a figure of near mythical proportions in the pantheon of Naval Pilots, but is one who has also become a living Icon. In reading about his leadership skills, the changes he brought about and the way in which the Navy now deals with some of the policies he brought to bear, as well as the respect with which he is generally regarded among his 'brothers', it seems very much deserved. His loyalty and bravery stand out, as does his allegiance to our Flag and to our Nation as well as to his fellow Naval brothers, regardless of station and rank.
In reading about some of the sorties he and others flew, the author has the ability to bring the reader into the action, capturing the smells and sights so that they leap off the pages and into our senses! Some to be sure are heart stopping, some are achingly tragic, but others are also so humorous that it makes the reader laugh out loud! The author paints beautiful pictures with his words.
It is obvious to this reader that this is a community of large and fragile egos, with genuine love, loyalty and respect not only to this Nation, but steadfastly to each other! It brings to bear that we are damned lucky to have this caliber of youngster willing to love their country enough to make the ultimate sacrifice so that we may remain a free Nation! We owe them a real debt of gratitude and I for one, salute them, and believe they are TRULY genuine heroes!
I'm indeed very grateful that the author brought them to life on these pages! A GREAT READ of the first order
Ms. Mary Lee Rogers