Roger Ball Book Cover

Roger Ball!” is the clipped transmission the Landing Signal Officer (LSO) makes to the pilot of an aircraft as he commences his final approach to the deck of a carrier.  It means that the LSO has sight of the aircraft, it is in the proper configuration for landing, and within parameters to continue the approach. In naval aviation lexicon “Roger Ball!” most simply means, “You’re looking good.  Keep it coming!”

Appropriately, “Roger Ball!” is also the title of a historical biography of a Navy fighter pilot. It chronicles the life experiences of John Monroe “Hawk” Smith from his earliest days, his budding infatuation with jet aircraft, to the many adventures and experiences that would shape and prepare him for a career as a Navy fighter pilot, Commanding Officer of TOPGUN, and tactical innovator.

This work takes the reader on a journey that each pilot and Naval Flight Officer experience in the training command, the squadron, and overseas deployments.  It captures the hardships of cruise, the thrill of piloting a fighter, the terror of night arrested landings, the excitement of overseas adventures, the heartbreaking pain of losing squadronmates, and euphoria of returning home.

Set against the backdrop of many historical events, continuous tension in the Middle East, a war seemingly without end in Southeast Asia, and a Navy fighter community mired in supine training convention and arcane fighter doctrine, is the story of one man’s struggle to change things—to make the Navy fighter community better.  But it is far more than that.  It is the story of Navy Tactical Aviation (TACAIR) at its worst and its finest.  It is the story of commitment, loyalty, leadership, and the raw personal courage of naval aviators.

Hawk’s story, “Roger Ball!” is a tale that should be told.  It intertwines the true, first hand accounts and experiences of a fighter pilot with the significant developments in the fighter community and historical events in which Hawk was a part.  Finally, it speaks to the men who laid their careers and sometimes their very lives on the line for their shipmates and their country.

For everyone who spent time in the service, for those who were, or aspire to be a military aviator, for anyone interested in a career in the military,  for those history buffs who are intrigued by many of the air-to-air programs and air combat development projects which resurrected the Navy and Air Force TACAIR communities to tactical preeminence, this is a must-read work.

Captain John Monroe “Hawk” Smith retired from the Navy on 1 October 1993.  It was a long run and an exhilarating odyssey of trial, sacrifice, and achievement.  It was far more than a small boy could ever have imagined and the adventure of a lifetime for one who had dared to dream that he could one day … FLY NAVY!

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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.

Dennis Hall



Long before I met Hawk, I’d heard of him.  He was a legend in the fighter community.  My first knowledge of Hawk came in October 1976.  I had reported to VA-27 aboard USS Enterprise several months after Hawk had departed for orders to Naval Fighter Weapons School—TOPGUN.  As a squadron LSO, I spent quite a bit of time on the LSO platform.  There I was treated to a steady stream of Hawk’isms, quotes, anecdotes, non-standard LSO terminology, and countless sea stories.  Clearly, Hawk had made an indelible impression on the LSOs and, as I came to discover, on the entire airwing. When Hawk’s name was uttered, it was done with warm smiles and in reverent tones.  I became quite curious about this man. 

As my three-year tour with VA-27 was about to wind up, I was introduced to a squadron at NAS Lemoore which provided dissimilar air combat training and adversary support.  After three years and nearly 800 hours flying the A-7E Corsair, an eleven-ton dump truck, in the air-to-mud mission, I was ready for a change of mission and platform.  In September 1979, I received orders to VA-127, the Pacific Fleet Adversaries.  

All Adversary Pilots were required to complete the TOPGUN Adversary course prior to certification as Adversary Instructors.  I reported to TOPGUN in February 1980 and discovered that Hawk had been the Commanding Officer of TOPGUN until March 1978.   Again, I’d missed him, but evidence of his presence was everywhere—in the tales of his airmanship, in the changes he had driven in modernizing fighter doctrine, in the expansion of tactics training to fleet units, and also in the professionalism and obvious pride of the TOPGUN instructors.  My curiosity grew. 

I spent three years in VFA-127 and, much to my happy surprise, was rewarded with yet another adversary squadron assignment, this time to VFC-13 at NAS Miramar, Fighter Town USA, in San Diego, California.  I reported in June of 1982 as the Squadron Safety Officer.  Miramar had been Hawk’s stomping ground and, although he was assigned to the USS Ranger (CV-61) at the time, according to the scuttlebutt, Hawk was coming back home.

My big moment to actually meet the man came in August of 1983 when he returned to Fighter Town as the Fighter Wing Operations Officer.  After six years of hearing about Hawk and seeing the results of his work, I was eager to meet him. 

Although Hawk held a prominent position at Fighter Wing and his time was in high demand, he always made himself available for his shipmates.  From the senior officers that regularly visited the wing to the greenest recruit airman with a problem—Hawk made time for them all.  I scheduled an appointment with him, an all too transparent meeting to review VFC-13’s mishap plan.  That first meeting was not disappointing. 

For the next ten years, our professional paths crossed many times.  From 1989 through 1990, it was my great fortune to work for Hawk at Naval Air Forces, Atlantic Fleet headquarters (COMNAVAIRLANT).   It was a surprise to no one that Hawk was quickly recruited to the front office: Chief of Staff of COMNAVAIRLANT under Vice Admiral Jack “Stinger” Ready.  Admiral Ready had been Hawk’s first fleet pilot and a long time friend.  It wasn’t this relationship, however, that moved Hawk to the front office. 

I’d worked for many senior naval officers by this time and had never been disappointed with their leadership styles or qualities, but Hawk was different.  He was a cut above.  He exuded all those traits ingrained in the senior officer ranks but had a most spectacular knack for energizing, organizing, and pointing people toward worthy goals.  He was not a disciplinarian.  He did not lead from the rear.  He never scolded or badgered.  People followed him because they wanted to, because they believed in him, because if he told you to take a hill, you knew he’d be there first. 

Hawk was a bit of an anomaly.  He was politically attuned but, paradoxically, not politically motivated.  He was deeply committed to the Navy but also outspoken, unwavering, and quick to identify and correct problems regardless of the political fallout or personal sensitivities.  Some of Hawk’s attributes did not always ingratiate him with the Navy hierarchy, but his approach to problem solving was something the Navy desperately needed.

My time at COMNAVAIRLANT was the most formative years of my naval leadership development.  It was the first time I’d been out of the cockpit and my first staff job.  I hated it.  But I learned more about leadership, group psychology, and team building in two years from watching Hawk in action than I had in the previous fifteen.

In 1990 I was ordered to Naval War College followed shortly after by a commanding officer assignment to VFC-12, an adversary squadron at NAS Oceana.  My time in the cockpit was welcomed indeed but only a brief interlude. Before I knew it, I was deep within the bowels of the Pentagon performing payback for my command tour.  In August 1993, I received a call from Hawk.  He informed me that he was retiring.  The news hit me like a wrecking ball.  It was difficult to imagine the Navy or tactical aviation without Hawk.  He’d been such a part of both.

Hawk retired from the Navy on 1 October 1993 after a 30-year career of extraordinary achievements for the Navy and unwavering devotion to the people who served it.    

I completed my Pentagon assignment in 1993 and was awarded a major shore command in San Diego not far from where Hawk and his lovely wife, Miss Jenny, had retired. This was indeed fortunate, not only because I was back in San Diego but also because my wife, Katie, and I had an opportunity to catch up with Hawk and Miss Jenny. 

I retired in 1998 and finally had time to engage a project that had been on my mind for years.  I wanted to tell a true story about modern naval fighter aviation.  I quickly realized it was impossible to tell this story without recounting the evolution of naval fighter aviation and call attention to some of those who drove the changes.  And, I discovered, it was most difficult to sketch the exhilaration, feeling of achievement, and rollicking fun of carrier aviation without also addressing the terror, anguish, and personal sacrifices of everyday heroes working in one of the world’s most unforgiving and lethal environments. 

I was equipped with many of my own experiences to draw from: deployments; ship operations; air combat training; and command responsibilities—but I wanted a different frame of reference. 

During my career, following the lessons of the Vietnam War, I watched the renaissance of Navy TACAIR unfold.  I was an observer to the ascension of TOPGUN, fleet introduction of the F-14 Tomcat, initial trials of the FA-18 Hornet, the largest, most expensive air combat evaluation in history, ACEVAL/AIMVAL, and the overhaul in fleet tactics training.  Hawk, conversely, was, in varying degrees, concentric to all these achievements.

I wanted to explain the significance of these milestones in the Navy fighter mission, but I was compelled to report them through the experiences of someone who had been involved with them.  I realized I needed to tell Hawk’s story. 

When I first broached the subject, Hawk responded in typical humble fashion, “Write about somebody famous.  Write about a hero. Write about somebody with lots of combat time.”  True, Hawk was not famous and had very little combat time, but he was a hero.  He was one of those who worked without fanfare—too absorbed in the mission, too busy trying to make good things happen to draw any attention to himself. 

I was relentless.  After four years of pestering Hawk, in a weak moment, he conceded.  We began work on “Roger Ball!” 1 July 2002.

Research, initially, was slow.  I was convinced to tell the story the way it needed to be told, to enrich authenticity and accuracy, I had to crawl into Hawk’s brain and explore the inner workings of his mind, to understand what he did, how and why he did it, and describe his drives and concerns.   I wanted to understand and convey his inner-most thought processes in aerial engagements, life-death crises, times of great internal conflict, and during those lonely times of uncertainty when one has to choose between convenience and conviction—between right and wrong.

Much to my happy surprise, Hawk was open and proactive.  He willingly transported me back to the scene of events, to render historical, technical, and personal detail to the many stories captured in this work.  I spent thousands of hours researching history, tactics, aircraft, weapons systems, fighter performance characteristics, and hundreds more interviewing Hawk and many of those who influenced the dramatic changes in the Navy’s fighter community.  Not surprisingly, gathering details of events, conversations, specific nuances, and personal recollections after the passage of three decades was difficult.  I must confess, I had help in fusing the parts of this story together. 

This work reflects the efforts of numerous people who improved the technical accuracy, the historical fidelity, and offered small clusters of important personal recollections that could not be found in official documents or historical records.  For their efforts in breathing life into “Roger Ball!”  I wish to thank the following individuals: Admiral Leighton W. Smith, USN (Retired); Vice Admiral Michael T. Bucchi, USN (Retired); Rear Admiral John R. Wilson, Jr., USN (Retired); Rear Admiral Paul T. Gillcrist, USN (Retired); Rear Admiral Jay A. Campbell, USN (Retired); Captain Ronald E. McKeown, USN (Retired); Captain Clinton L. Smith, USN (Retired); Commander Richard K. Pottratz, USN (Retired); Commander Katherine S. Auten, USNR (Retired); Commander Joseph H. Zahalka, USN (Retired); Commander Richard A. Redditt, USN (Retired); Colonel Earl Young, USA (Retired); Commander Joseph F. Satrapa, USN (Retired); Commander Jeremy Gillespie, USN; Major Chris Guarnieri, USMC; Mr. John Sherwood (Naval Historian); Senior Chief Robert L. Lawson, PHCS (AC), USN (Retired); Sergeant Alan J. Weiss, USAF (Retired); Technical Sergeant Yancy Mailes, USAF; Mr. Mark Evans (Naval Historian); Mr. Robert Young (Naval Historian).  

Finally, but most importantly, I also wish to thank the person who, more than any, gave me criticism, enthusiasm, and a steady wind over the deck: Colonel John Grider Miller, USMC, (Retired).

John Monroe “Hawk” Smith will never be a household name, but I hope this work paints a portrait of a U.S. military officer, like thousands serving America today, who was willing to work and struggle, often at great personal risk, for those principals, people, and institutions he held dear.

If “Roger Ball!” is enlightening, these men and women helped make it that way. 

If it is poignant, I have successfully told Hawk’s story.

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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[1] “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[2], two AIM-7F Sparrows[3], 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[4] 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[5] 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[6] 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[7] 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[8] 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!”

“Amen, brother!”

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.”

“Roger, Climax.”

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[9]!  I’ve got no rain removal and I can’t see the ball or the ship!”

On the Ball1 - ver 3 Blue Gradient

[1] Call sign or nickname.

[2] Air-to-Air heat seeking missiles.

[3] Air-to-Air Radar guided missiles.

[4] Huffers: small car-sized carts used to start jet engines.

[5] Internal communications system:  the system aircrew use to communicate to one another.

[6] Catapults: steam driven mechanism which assists in accelerating aircraft to take off speed.

[7] Combat spread:  a tactical formation in which the wingman maintains a position approximately 6,000-feet abeam of the lead aircraft.

[8] Climax is USS Enterprise’s (CVN 65) call sign. “Marshal” is the collective name of the flight controllers on-board Enterprise who provide holding instructions, traffic advisories and weather reports.

[9] Clara: a report to the LSO that the “ball” – the glide slope reference light – is not visible.

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The commanding and comforting voice of Lieutenant Commander Grover “Skip” Giles, CAG 14’s LSO team leader, came over the radio, “Paddles contact.  Keep it coming.  You’ve got a good start!”

The LSO’s voice bolstered Hawk’s confidence, but he could sense—rather than see—a new dynamic in 

play.  Less than two hours ago the weather was absolutely beautiful, but cumulus buildups had quickly populated the area and grown rapidly in size and intensity.  There were exceptionally strong vertical wind-shear currents associated with these cloud formations, and strong, gusty, surface winds as well.

Hawk had spent many years operating on carriers, as both a pilot and as an LSO.  He understood the effects of winds upon water and the corresponding results of ground swells on large ships.  He understood that the increasing velocity of the winds also would slowly increase the size of the ground swells.  He further realized that these ground swells, depending on the angle off the bow, would cause the ship to pitch and roll, and that would exacerbate the movement of the flight deck.  He guessed that they were working with a deck pitching between six and eight feet. That meant from a low deck to a high deck, measured at the stern of the ship, the ramp, the oscillation of the ship would vary the hook-to-ramp clearance between twelve and sixteen feet.

“A little right for line up, ” Paddles advised.

Hawk responded as though the LSO commands were wired directly to his hands, bypassing any analytical processes that might delay the response. He made a quick-but-short lateral stick input and eased in a touch of back-stick to hold the nose up so there was no associated descent, then he leveled his wings again.

A perfect glide-slope to a three wire provided a hook-to-ramp clearance of fourteen feet.  Under these conditions, if Hawk managed to fly a flawless three-wire pass the hook to ramp clearance could be as low as six feet or as high as twenty-two feet.  Without clear visual definition of the optical landing system, it would be highly unlikely that he’d be on glide-slope.  Hawk quickly calculated the numbers.  If we were even a little low, say three feet below optimum glide-slope, and the deck was at the top of its eight-foot cycle when we came across the ramp, we’d only clear the ramp by three feet.  If we were even lower … 

This line of logic took Hawk’s mind to a place he didn’t want it to go. He’d lost too many friends on the back end of ships.  There was simply no margin for error.  With the help of Skip and Crash, and through the grace of God, Hawk was going to put his Tomcat right on centerline and right on glide-slope.

He ignored the potential of slamming into the ramp and channeled his attention on the demands of flying the jet.  He concentrated on being perfect.

Hawk had no tolerance for a “satisfactory” effort.  He had little patience for anyone who tried to do less than a perfect job, but he was far more demanding of himself.  He hoped that his perpetual struggle for perfection would pay off this day.

Now, inside a half-mile from the ramp, with no more sensory inputs 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.”

“A little more right for line up,” Paddles called again.

Hawk’s hands were moving even before Skip completed the transmission.

Although he felt an anxious tendency to overcompensate and overreact, Hawk commanded himself to remain focused, alert, cool, and smooth, to feel the airplane, and to be perfect.  Hawk concentrated on flying the instruments and willed his muscles to respond precisely and quickly to the LSO’s calls.  Occasionally, he stole glances out the windscreen.   He might have been looking through the bottom of a dirty shot glass under Niagara Falls.  He saw nothing recognizable.

He knew the ship was close and getting closer, but all he saw was a distorted film of water.   There was no dividing line between air and water and no sight of the ship’s white wake to console him.  The world was shades of indistinguishable blurred gray.

“Looking good Bullet,” Paddles advised. Keep it coming and hold what you’ve got!”

Skip kept the comm flowing.  This kept the feedback loop active, and comforted Hawk and Crash to know they had friends pulling for them.

As they approached the ramp, Skip advised, “A little power and don’t climb!”

The next thing Hawk was aware of was a darker shade of gray passing underneath them and then the bone jarring “kaa-thump” of their F-14 hitting the landing area at 126 knots and a 650 feet per minute rate of descent.  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.

The three-G deceleration was a reprieve and cause for celebration. Hawk pulled the throttles back to idle, raised his hook and flaps, and swept the wings aft.  He still had difficulty seeing in the downpour, but he picked up the taxi director looking cold, wet, and almost as relieved as Hawk to get Bullet 205 home.

Hawk’s toes danced on the rudder pedals in response to the taxi director’s signals.  Now that they were safely aboard the ship and heading for their tie-down area, Hawk noticed that his knees were shaking involuntarily.  The adrenaline was still coursing though his system, but, with the crisis behind him, he was free to think about the gravity of their situation and the mishap that almost was.

What he was thinking at that moment was that they had just completed an arrested landing without ever seeing the carrier.

That wasn’t possible!

Or it shouldn’t have been and, indeed wouldn’t have been, had it not been for the impeccable radar work of Crash and the extraordinary LSO work by Skip!  Clearly there were other forces at work.  Hawk concluded that their success was thirty percent Crash’s radar finesse, forty percent LSO control by Skip, and thirty percent airmanship, but more likely one hundred percent divine intervention.

The plane captain signaled Hawk that the landing gear and weapons safety pins were installed, chocks were in place, and the tie-down chains attached.  He signaled Hawk to shut down.  Hawk complied, raised his canopy, and was instantly drenched in the downpour.

Hawk and Crash quickly climbed out of the jet, closed the canopy, and made their way to the catwalk. Hawk’s legs were rubbery.  They reminded him of a freshly plucked G-string on a bass fiddle.

Hawk considered their good fortune. The jet isn’t dented. There’s no smear on the back end of the Enterprise, and Crash and I are alive.  I have some people to thank!

They walked in reflective silence towards maintenance control, each considering his precarious and fragile mortality.

Words spoken long ago echoed through the chambers of Hawk’s memory, ”A good takeoff does not guarantee a good landing.”

These were Hawk’s words spoken some twenty-eight years earlier.  They expressed one of his earliest rules for a situation completely unlike this, but the truth and clarity of the words had far more meaning this day.

The recovery was over.  The helm of the Enterprise came around.  She started a slow turn to steam downwind.  On the flight deck, men—wet and chilled to the bone—moved with intent and purpose to make ready for the next launch.

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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.

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 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.

Those who enter these hallowed halls cavalier and reckless, depart as Naval Officers, disciplined and committed.

(Source unknown)

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.

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.

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. 

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.

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.

Let us remember that one man is much the same as another,
And that he is best who is trained in the severest school.


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.

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. 

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.

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,

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.

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. 

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.

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. 

You’ve got to land here son.  This is where the food is.

—Unknown LSO

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.

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.

—President Reagan

In January 1975, the Vietnam War appears to wind down.  Enterprise sails into the Indian Ocean on what her crew believes will be the beginning of an around the world voyage.  This chapter chronicles the resurgence of the “Thump-Bang” F-14 engine failures, the gutsy decision to down the F-14s, and the conflict between Hawk and the Air Boss during the Navy’s first F-14 barricade landing… 

The last aircraft had no sooner cleared the foul line than V-2 division, the cat and arresting gear team, sprung into action.  A collage of colored jerseys descended on the flight deck and rushed to erect the barricade.  When finally the barricade was erected and set, Hawk reviewed procedures one last time with Quail.

“Quail,” Hawk had dropped the normal radio discipline; it was time for a more personal touch. “The barricade’s up, the deck is steady, and we’ve got twenty eight knots of wind over the deck.  I want you to make a practice approach to see what you look like, then we’ll bring you around for score.” 

“Fly a whole ball low and fly the best pass of your life. I’ll call you only if it looks like you need help.   You’re gonna’ lose the ball behind the barricade stanchion in close—just hold what you’ve got and it’ll re-appear.  When I know you’ve got the ramp made, I’ll give you three ‘CUT’ calls, ‘CUT, CUT, CUT.’ When you hear that, I want you to spot the deck and land the airplane.  You’ll roll right into the barricade.  Shut the engines down as soon as you hit the deck. You’re gonna’ have to trust me on this one, Quail. It’ll be a cake walk!”

“Roger Hawk. Copy all!” Quail responded.

Hawk had just deviated from barricade procedures.  He knew the roll-angle the Boss had set on the lens would be too high and to compensate for that Hawk had directed Quail to fly a low pass into the barricade.  Hawk expected a blistering call from the Boss at any moment.

Quail brought his Tomcat back to the base recovery course for a first look.  He flew steady, on-speed, and on-glide slope.  Hawk waved him off in the middle of the approach and cleared him for the downwind leg. 

It was twilight now. The sun had set, fuel was an issue, and there was simply no time to waste.  Hawk turned Quail back to final with enough straightaway to get his heartbeat under control and his airplane trimmed up.  Just as Quail rolled onto final, the LSO phone rang and the enlisted LSO assistant grabbed it.  He turned to Hawk and yelled, “Sir, it’s the Boss and he sounds plenty pissed!”

Hawk never took his eyes off Wolfpack 103, now three-quarters of a mile on centerline and on glideslope.  “Not now,” Hawk responded.  “I’m busy.  Tell him I’ll call him back later.”

The phone talker relayed the message to the Boss. Then, out of the corner of his eye, Hawk saw the phone talker, who wore earplugs and a sound attenuation device, leap back from the phone as if bitten by a snake.  Hawk had no idea what the Boss had bellowed into the phone, but, whatever it was, it was loud and barbed.

Chapter 15 continues with the humanitarian assistance the Enterprise crew provided the people on Mauritius in the wake of a devastating hurricane and the hilarious account of the salt water wash-down Captain C. C. Smith gave the Soviet guided missile cruiser Dimitri Pozharski as it steamed into port.

The North Vietnamese began the final assault on South Vietnam in April 1975.  Enterprise was ordered to join forces with USS Hancock, USS Midway, USS Coral Sea, and units of the Air Force to cover the Marine Corp’s gallant extraction of the last Americans from Vietnam in operation “Frequent Wind”.  This chapter provides an encapsulated essay and a very personal account of those somber, final days of America’s longest war.

Chapter 14 concludes with the airwing fly-off, a warm reception at NAS Miramar, and Hawk’s pursuit for orders to the most unusual tactical squadron in the world—TOPGUN.

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.

—Adolph Galland,

Commander WWII Fighter Forces, Luftwaffe

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.

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

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. 

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. 

Old men forget: yet all shall be forgot,
But he’ll remember with advantages
What feats he did that day …

—Shakespeare: King Henry

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.