Actually after one year spent at Naval Air Station Pensacola, future RIOs progressed to the Replacement Air Group (RAG), a squadron aimed to train naval aviators in specific types of aircraft.
The Grumman F-14A Tomcat was the first of the American teen-series fighters, which were designed incorporating air combat experience against MiG fighters during the Vietnam War. However despite the fact that the F-14 was a formidable dogfighter, what made the Tomcat unique was fleet air defense role. To accomplish this mission the aircraft was fitted with a powerful weapons system known as the AWG-9 which was able to support the AIM-54 Phoenix that provided an unprecedented one-hundred mile range and included a small onboard radar to guide itself to the target during the final phase of flight.
Because of the AWG-9’s impressive capabilities a Radar Intercept Office (RIO) in the back seat of the F-14 was required to optimize it in various stages of a mission. But, as explained by Tomcat RIO with twenty years experience, Dave “Bio” Baranek in his book Before Topgun Days: The Making of a Jet Fighter Instructor, several stages of training were required to become a skilled F-14 Radar Intercept Officer.
Actually after one year spent at Naval Air Station (NAS) Pensacola, future RIOs progressed to the Replacement Air Group (RAG), a squadron aimed to train naval aviators in specific types of aircraft.
Bio was assigned to Fighter Squadron (VF) 124 Gunfighters at NAS Miramar, the RAG for West Coast Tomcat Fleet squadrons, where he was trained to become an F-14 RIO.
As he recalls in his book, among the first Tomcat flights there is one that stands out in his memories.
Shortly after having arrived at RAG, Bio flew a cross-country to Denver with his F-14 instructor pilot (IP), Ron “Crush” Gollhofer. As Baranek reports, the flight took place over a weekend: he and Crush along with their wingman landed at Buckley Air National Guard Base (now Buckley Air Force Base) just outside Denver. They stayed at Gollhofer parents’ home and went to a Broncos football game, but, as Bio explains, the highlight of the trip was their departure Sunday evening, which actually was the start of his third Tomcat flight.
Once ready to take off, Crush told Bio to request an “unrestricted climb:” if this procedure were cleared, they would not have had to conform to the stepped climb profiles that accommodated a wide variety of traffic, from propeller-driven Cessnas to Boeing 737s, and instead would be able to use their fighter’s power and zoom quickly to altitude. Although it seemed completely reasonable for a fighter, it was just a request that would have to be made, and granted or not. However since air traffic around Buckley was light the request was granted and Buckley Tower cleared Bio and Crush to take off and climb unrestricted to 18,000 feet.
To better understand what an unrestricted climb looks like Baranek in his book takes us in the cockpit of their Tomcat ready to go: “We took the runway. Crush pressed the brakes and ran the engines to military power, and the jet’s nose dipped. He wiped out the controls, throttled up to afterburner, checked the instruments, and asked if I was ready to go. I was, and he released the brakes. The nose popped up and we accelerated quickly. I called airspeeds, we rotated, and Crush raised the landing gear and leveled off to fly down the runway as we accelerated. In the evening darkness, I was keenly aware of the bright blue-white glow of flame from our engines forty feet behind me. Lights on hangars and buildings streaked by in my peripheral vision. I looked at our rapidly increasing airspeed as we neared the end of the runway, and Crush yanked back on the stick to launch us into a steep nose-high climb. ‘Buckley Tower, Navy November Juliet 426, airborne, switching Departure.’ I tried to sound like I belonged here, but I’m sure the controllers in the tower knew that I was both new and loving it. Since Buckley is about 5,600 feet above sea level, it took quite a bit less than thirty seconds for us to reach our assigned altitude of 18,000 feet. Crush smoothly leveled off while I rapidly switched through the Departure Control frequency and contacted Denver Center. We were cleared to climb to a higher altitude and start the route back to Miramar. I was storing all the sensations and images in my long-term memory, and looking forward to a nice flight home, when Crush said, ‘Okay, get some contacts on the radar.’”
Of all the training environments faced by a Tomcat crew, possibly the most challenging one for a RIO was that of a so called MISSILEX (a Missile Exercise, where a “live” missile is launched against a drone acting like an airborne target). In Before Topgun Days Baranek tells the story of the second AIM-7 Sparrow he ever shot: in Dec. 1982, while attached to the VF-24 Fighting Renegades Fleet squadron, he and Lieutenant Commander Steve “Drifty” Smith were in fact chosen to launch a Sparrow at a target over the Pacific Ocean off Southern California.
Since the missile shot had to follow a test and evaluation (T&E) profile, both drone and Tomcat were required to fly supersonic, an aspect that added more challenges to the already complex drill scenario.
As they approached the launch range, Drifty shoved the throttles to Zone 5 (maximum afterburner for F-14A) and they accelerated through Mach 1, then an AQM-37 target drone was launched by an A-6 Intruder operated by the Pacific Missile Test Center.
Let’s join Bio again in the Tomcat cockpit to live with him the tense moments he experienced during the MISSILEX: “Our range to the target was thirty miles. That may sound like a long distance, but we were supersonic and so was the drone. Add the two speeds, and you find that the range was shrinking by more than two thousand feet each second. […] One minute after the start [of the intercept], we were at the right range and angle to launch the Sparrow. I pushed the red ‘missile launch’ button. The 500-pound weapon jumped off the jet with a strong thump – that was the small explosive charges that made sure it cleared the plane – and rocketed out ahead of us. […] I sweated the radar picture. I had two small green lights indicating the radar was still locked on the drone. But the track was near the edge of my scope. If it went off the scope, that meant the radar antenna could not turn enough to follow target. Our radar would break lock, the AIM-7 would go ‘stupid,’ and I would have to try to find that little drone again. That was hard enough when fighter and target were going 300 knots or less; at over 600 knots… I didn’t want to think about it. Halfway through the turn my “radar lock” lights went out. I had messed up the intercept! ‘Broke lock,’ I growled to Drifty. ‘Going to search.’ I didn’t have to include the dammit! that I was thinking. ‘Bio, relax,’ Drifty drawled. ‘It was a direct hit. We broke lock because the target is gone. We just blew it out of the sky.’”
Photo credit: all images used with permission of author Dave “Bio” Baranek