US Military Aviation

APR 12 2011
Military Aviation >> US Navy > Grumman F-14 Tomcat: Landing...and then stopping

I was posted to VF-124 “Gunfighters” flying the F-14A and F-14D Tomcat in the summer of 1991 as part of the UK/USA military exchange program. A junior Lieutenant Commander in the Royal Navy, and an Air Warfare Instructor by specialisation, I had two full front-line tours on the Sea Harrier under my belt. Most of all, I couldn’t believe my luck. I was going to fly another iconic aircraft, I would be based in southern California, and I wouldn’t have to leave my family behind.

I had wanted to fly fighter jets for as long as I could remember, but one of the most intensely motivating experiences that happened for me along the way was watching the BBC’s “Sailor” series of the 1970s. Filmed aboard the last but one HMS Ark Royal, with her steam catapults and arrestor wires, each programme opened with the view from the cockpit of one of the aircraft carrier’s Buccaneers or Phantoms, as it raced low over the sea toward that great ship, set to the haunting melody of Rod Stewart’s “I am sailing”. Undoubtedly the most exciting episode featured a rookie Buccaneer pilot’s first attempts at hooking a wire – it looked difficult, and clearly his nerves tightened another notch with every pass that he missed those wires, but I was captivated.

As I joined up in 1977, the days of the “old” Ark Royal were numbered, and the Royal Navy announced it was going “VSTOL” (Vertical and Short Take Off and Landing). That boyhood dream of catching a wire on a carrier deck was set aside for the time being, while I concentrated on competing for one of the few slots available on the new Sea Harrier.

Well, more by luck and determination than anything else, I got there. So after several years of stopping and then landing on my ship, when the chance to go and learn to land first, and then stop, was offered, I was not going to turn it down!

Of course, when I checked in to the “Gunfighters” at Miramar Naval Air Station, I didn’t find myself going straight to have a look at a carrier. VF-124 was the Pacific Fleet’s Tomcat RAG (Replacement Air Group – or OCU in British parlance), and as such was the biggest F-14 squadron on the base with 42 aeroplanes. I should say here that if that number impresses, there were 14 other Tomcat squadrons based at Miramar! Home ported in San Diego were the six carriers of the Pacific Fleet, each owning an air wing of which two F-14 squadrons formed a part. My job, once familiar with the Tomcat, was to be an instructor pilot (IP) on VF-124.

From an IP’s point of view, “teaching” a new student to fly, and then operate the F-14 was necessarily conducted somewhat remotely. There being no such beast as a two stick Tomcat, the IP was paired with a freshly winged graduate from an A-4 training unit, and sat at the simulator console while he (or she) flew their last two training details before strapping on the real thing.

Next, the rightful occupant of the rear seat, the venerable RIO (Radar Intercept Officer) stepped aside while the IP, almost entirely unfamiliar with the myriad of sensor controls and displays in the rear cockpit, took his place. Talk about the blind leading the partially-sighted! My job was to talk my rookie pilot through some simple manoeuvres out over the Pacific Ocean, before baby-sitting him back to Miramar for a (hopefully) uneventful landing. Naturally, all conducted with stiff upper lip, and minimal grasping of ejection seat handle – my only meaningful control on these early trips.

I should add at this point, and not just for the benefit of any ex-US naval aviator who had the misfortune to be a student of mine, that the only liability in the cockpit on any of these sorties would have been me. I still marvel today at the touching optimism of my American bosses as they threw me to the lions in those early days, after just 40 hours in the jet. I am quite certain my US colleagues didn’t understand a word I said at times – they were just too polite to say (and, I daresay they tactfully fixed any misunderstandings between themselves when I was out of the way).

So I began my “productive” time on the Tomcat teaching the basic phases of the course: intercept procedures involving simulated engagements, well beyond visual range, with the mighty Phoenix and Sparrow missiles. The massive power of the AWG-9 weapon system could not fail to awe after several years spent flying the much smaller Sea Harrier. From here on in, student pilots and RIOs were trained together in formations of two or more F-14s. My job would generally be to brief and lead the flight. Invariably my “backseater” would be a student RIO, and my wingman a rookie pilot chaperoned by an experienced Instructor RIO.

After radar intercepts the course moved on to air-to-air gunnery, low altitude training and air-to-ground (bombs and strafe). Anything involving firing the 20mm Gatling gun was a great deal of fun. Used to twin, juddering 30mm Aden cannon, where you could almost hear and feel every round leaving the barrels, the M61 Vulcan ripped the air with a smooth roar and a near beam of lead. In air-to-air, four Tomcats would fly what the US Navy called a “squirrel cage”: this involved four shooters flying a continuous, sequential barrel-rolling attack against a further, lone F-14 towing a 30 foot long flag in a straight line. A more potent recipe for a mid-air clatter would be hard to imagine.

Similar to practice at home, each aircraft was loaded with rounds painted a different colour, so that the white nylon flag could be dropped over the field and scored afterwards. What was not the same as at home was that instead of a friendly Hawk or Canberra pilot to tow the banner, the IPs took turns to haul it themselves! Hard to say where I felt more vulnerable on these missions: was it trying to keep tabs on three other jets cork-screwing around the “cage”, or craning my neck checking the shooters were firing at an angle-off that kept me safe as the “tug”?

Having afterburners was a whole new treat for this fighter pilot – and one I never tired of. Though I’d been “tapping the burners” from time to time thus far, the High Pop event in the bombing phase gave the best taste yet of what reheat could do for you. Five “zones” or stages were available, '1' being the first, '5' the last and biggest. Of course, that wonderful kick in the back came at a price – fuel flow in zone 5 rocketed to 2,000 lb/min. Our aircraft, without external tanks, carried 16,000 lb – you do the math, as my USN colleagues would have said.

The High Pop meant rushing along the desert floor with wings swept manually to 55 deg, then pulling up into a 60 deg climb, which to a Harrier pilot may as well have been vertical. Full burner carried the big, heavy F-14 (affectionately known amongst many of its crews as the Titanium Cloud) effortlessly to 15,000 feet. At the apogee, with target visually acquired and switches made the aircraft was rolled on its back and pulled down into a 45 deg dive attack. Exhilarating stuff, though there is a “special award” to the “winner of the Anglo-Saxon bombing derby” hanging on my study wall at home that says the Brit exchange pilot did not exactly cover himself in glory on his first High Pop mission. One for another time maybe...!

Naturally, it is for air combat manoeuvring (ACM), that, thanks to Hollywood, the Tomcat enjoys an immortal association. Left until near last, because sensibly enough, it is almost until last that ACM is left in the training syllabus, the “dogfight” is something one of the largest fighters ever built does surprisingly well. Boiled down to its essentials ACM is about what the fighter pilot does when he can see his enemy, and needs to get his fighter into a position where he can shoot first. The best flying machine for the job will generally have a low wing-loading (big lift producing area to mass ratio) and high thrust to weight (self explanatory). The Tomcat, with its wings swept forward, had both of these. Having a good aeroplane and weapon system were only part of the story of course.

Around 20 ACM training sorties were designed to take a rookie crew of two young Ensigns and turn them into a team that could start to use that aeroplane and weapon system to its full potential devastating effect.

The Tomcat had to be handled with care in combat however. By definition, the pilot who could best use the corners of his fighters operating “envelope” gave himself an edge – ie: turning the hardest, flying the slowest (slow is not always bad – remember “he’ll fly right by...”?) Flying any aircraft at the corners of the envelope, certainly before “fly by wire”, has its dangers, and the F-14 was not invulnerable.

The “A” model, which I did most of my flying in, sported Pratt & Whitney motors that would snuff for a pastime if the pilot combined high angle of attack with sideslip and engines in afterburner. Hence the health warning that came with the Tomcat, and was parodied (somewhat clumsily) in the immortal line from TopGun: “I’m in a flat spin, headed out to sea!” Flat spin right enough, and a very real corner of the envelope trap for the unwary: with engines set nine feet apart, one of them stalled with the other still producing full power, the F-14 was likely to go “off to the races” as one of my old RIO buddies liked to say. The ensuing spin was likely to be flat in attitude, and wind up to a very high rotational rate – a rate that could, and sadly very occasionally did, incapacitate the crew.

But all aircraft have their vices, and in my opinion, the Tomcat was blessed with very few. At 20,000 feet and below (wings automatically out once turning, since they are programmed as a function of Mach) she pitched like the proverbial dingbat for an aircraft of her size. Actually, it seemed as if it were only her size that gave her any disadvantage at all – the little sportscar A-4s and F-16s of Fighter Weapons School, usually our training adversaries, could be very hard to find and keep tabs on, whereas the “Titanium Cloud” was a veritable eye-magnet.

At the risk of sounding disloyal to the Sea Harrier, an aircraft I flew and loved for many years, if it came down to a “knife fight in a phone booth”, I’d have to take the F-14. Apart from anything else, the pilot losing out could run away a lot quicker!

Everyone likes to save the best for last: the undisputed climax of the course had to be taking the Tomcat out to the carrier. My turn had arrived to land and then stop! As you might expect, the rookie pilot, or somewhat green Brit IP for that matter, didn’t get to sling on his kit and go straight out to have a shot at the '3 wire' – there was a serious and lengthy apprenticeship to be passed first. Field Carrier Landing Practice (FCLP) amounted to some 15 sorties flown to a dummy deck on dry land. Each sortie clocked up around ten passes, all graded and debriefed in exactly the same way they would be at sea by a Landing Safety Officer (LSO).

The LSOs deserve a special mention here: despite modern innovations including superb Head Up Displays, it was, and still is this small cadre of highly trained professionals that keep the odd errant pilot from disaster. They watch (and listen), and generally know before the pilot in the cockpit knows himself, that he is going to go low. You might get anything from a call of “a little power”, if there is time to salvage the approach safely, to “Wave Off! Wave Off!" with accompanying flashing red lights, if there isn’t. You may fly the approach, but the LSO literally owns it.

The other item outside the cockpit with near God-like status for the carrier pilot was the “meatball”. Simply a gyro-stabilised ball splitting a horizontal datum line, this equipment told you whether you were high or low on the glidepath to hook the target, number 3 wire (meaning your hook struck the deck in the middle of the four wire array). Your aim was to fly the correct speed, lined up with the centreline of the deck, with a meatball sitting bang between the datum lights, all the way down to the wires.

FCLP was flown mostly at night, since to arrive at the end of the final turn with a centred ball, on speed, etc, meant hitting quite a tight little window in the sky. Hence it was really an exercise in flying accurately on instruments, with the RIO monitoring and assisting with parameter call outs where necessary. Only the landing box would be lit, adding to the realism, since there was nothing else outside to distract. As a Sea Harrier pilot I had one or too ugly habits to unlearn too. When a tailhook aircraft hits the flight deck the pilot applies full power, and keeps it applied until the wire brings him to a stop. Anyone who has flown or watched a Harrier knows the throttle is always slammed shut when the wheels touch. Now I also had to drive my aircraft straight into the deck, no slowing down, which in some ways actually turns out to be easier once you get used to it.

Even 150 passes at the dummy deck didn’t prepare me fully for the real event. I don’t think it can for anybody. Compared to the Invincible Class carriers I was used to, the USS Abraham Lincoln is an absolute leviathan of the seas. However, the runway bit of it still looked woefully small as I broke into the circuit over a mercifully calm Pacific, that first morning of Carrier Qualification (CQ).

With my back-seater doing his best to calm down the near terminally over-excited Brit, I promptly “gooned-away” (Lt Gary “Smiley” Smilowitz kindly informed me) my first two looks at the deck. I don’t think the LSOs had seen a planform F-14 going through the wake and around the back of the island for a long time, there was just a stunned silence, presumably while the AirBoss, aka Wings, fought a near overwhelming urge to send me back to Miramar there and then. Thankfully I was dealt a joker, but hard CQ rules said those two recce runs counted (nil points) and I had some catching up to do to lift my grade average to a pass by the end of my two days.

I decided my cock-up was that I had reverted to Harrier downwind spacing, so third time around I made the “Abe” look a bit smaller. The rest was almost a blur: thankfully the “ball was on the mirror” as we came through the 45 so I at least knew which way I had to adjust. It’s just 20 seconds from rolling out on final to being in the wires – in that short time the Tomcat has earned itself another affectionate nickname – “the Turkey”. Though the epithet would have been better applied to me that day, the F-14 with wings out, everything dangling, spoilers and massive horizontal stabs flapping up and down while the pilot wrestles with the slippery meatball, apparently does a fair impression of a turkey. Well, you had to be there.

Anyway, probably working the controls so hard the poor aeroplane had no time to react, I dutifully slammed my Tomcat into the deck and was wrenched to a halt in about 300 feet. That’s the bit you don’t practice ashore, and it takes the breath away – though according to “Smiley” clearly not completely, because I was screaming. Apparently. Don’t remember which wire it was, that first one didn’t matter. It is quite likely I even had to be told to select idle power – a lot of first timers keep there throttles parked all the way forward until they get the laconic “we got you, son...” from the AirBoss. Like I said, it was a blur.

I would have quite liked to have popped down to the Wardroom for a breather and a nice cup of tea after that, but there wasn’t a moment for self congratulation. The tensioned wire drags you back a few feet, drops off the hook, you raise the hook and straight away you are taxiing off the runway (the next guy is right behind you, even in CQ) and toward one of the bow catapults, flaps up and sweeping the wings back as you go.

B****y hell, I thought we got close enough to the edge of the ship in Sea Harriers, but the Tomcat has a lot of nose in front of the nosewheel, and I was convinced the yellow-coat wanted to send me to join the fishes. My marshaller's sheer exasperation with my inept taxiing showed clearly (even behind his goggles) as he worked at getting my noseleg in just the right spot over the catapult track. This bit was definitely tricky for the ham-fisted Brit, but with a lot of cajoling from “Smiley” and a lot of skill from the yellowcoats, we found ourselves in position over the shuttle.

Launch bar down, wings out, flaps down, trim set, jet blast deflector coming up behind us, hooking up, hold-back attached, checks done, full power, salute the catapult officer – whole aircraft now shaking and straining at the leash... I must have forgotten something, but the truth is I am surrounded by professionals and that is not going to happen. You don’t know, certainly when you are as green as I was, exactly when the catapult is going to be fired – you just sit there, panicking ever so slightly, and not really breathing. You guard, but don’t hold the stick, and wait. I know now it is only three or four seconds at most, but it seems much longer that first time.

My second scream of the day accompanied that first catapult launch. It is zero to 140 in a few aeroplane lengths and not much time at all. It is an “E” ticket ride as some of my colleagues liked to say. An “E” ticket in this instance, for those not old enough, is not something you exchange for a boarding pass, rather a pass for the most heart-stopping ride in the theme park. A few years back, anyway. Fortunately, again, for the rookie pilot, there is precisely nothing for him to touch during the launch, or I would surely have found a way to muck it up. The Tomcat is trimmed, and at the end of the catapult stroke, when the serious acceleration stops, the stick leaves your groin where it has been parked under the g-force, and assumes the trimmed position, and the F-14 flies away … and you take another breath.

If it is possible, it got even more fun after that. I gradually came down from near-earth orbit, and settled to the task of flying as I’d been taught, and listening to “Smiley”, who whilst he may only have had an ejection seat handle for control, had seen an awful lot more of this than I had and was full of top tips. By night, almost weirdly, it got easier. This is because instead of a tight little circuit, the pilot flies a long, straight-in instrument approach. Fully configured, on-speed all the way, the only thing that really happens is at around half a mile you look up from your instruments and continue flying the ball to the wires. There is no horrible slowing down to be done as in the Harrier, teetering around like a ping-pong ball on a jet of water, stuck in what seems like an interminable black hole before you can make out enough of the ship's lights to know which way is up. No. You just keep on driving it straight into the wires. Much less scary than the Harrier.

My scores started getting better, and I even picked up my first compliment. At least, Smiley said it was a compliment. What he actually said was the LSOs were digging my act. I’m not sure to this day, but at the end of the second day, I got my CQ. A happy man.

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