The night carrier landing where a US Navy F-4 had both main landing gear tires blown after snagging the one wire in mid-flight and impacting on top of the third arresting wire

A nightmare of the worst order: the US Navy F-4 pilot who caught #1 Wire on his RIO last night carrier landing

By Donald Auten
Mar 19 2024
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Roger Ball!

He was the second of two children and born on 25 January 1940 in Shandon Baptist Hospital in Columbia South Carolina. He, in every way, gave the appearance of a normal, healthy, well-developed kid of average height, slender but not skinny. History would show that he was anything but normal.

His name was John Monroe Smith, and “Roger Ball!” is his story—a tale that should be told. It intertwines the true, firsthand accounts and experiences of a fighter pilot with the significant developments in the fighter community and historical events in which Captain John Monroe Smith, USN, call sign “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.

Hawk was a legend in the fighter community. During his thirty-year career, he forged a reputation as a skilled and lethal aviator in the air-to-air combat arena, a natural tactician, and consummate leader. To many, he was one of the most essential pathfinders in the modernization of the naval air war arts.

He was just a man, but his story, his life adventure, is a high-fidelity history of personal achievements for naval tactical aviation, devotion to a cause, and service to his nation. It was a time during and shortly after the Vietnam conflict that America became ideologically divided. The military was disillusioned with the intrusion of nonwarriors in the White House over the conduct of the war, and tactical aviation of all the services was struggling to catch up to the realities of the war’s hard lessons. It was a time when the Navy needed leaders and tenacious thinkers to set things right again. It was Hawk’s time!

Pilot Training Request

Shortly after Fairgame IV, friends told Hawk about a Navy notice which announced that Naval Aviation Observers and other line officers would be considered for pilot training following a successful pilot aviation physical.

The Vietnam War was heating up and the Navy needed more pilots. Hawk really didn’t care what the reason—this opportunity could be redemption, resurrection, and Christmas all rolled into one event.

From day-one Hawk wanted to be a pilot—to actually be at the controls of the airplane. When he failed the pilot flight physical because of a slight astigmatism, he was devastated but not defeated. He proudly took his seat in the back of the Phantom, but his heart was always in the front seat.

A nightmare of the worst order: the US Navy F-4 pilot who caught #1 Wire on his RIO last night carrier landing

Hawk had to respond quickly. He persuaded Doc Bendixon to perform the aviation physical and he passed with flying colors. Visual acuity and all other physical requirements were met or exceeded.

Next, he met with the skipper and requested his endorsement on the submission letter to BUPERS. Commander Morris gave it instantly and without reservation: “Lieutenant Junior Grade Smith is unconditionally qualified and eminently suited for service as a Naval Aviator.”

Hawk submitted his letter just days after the notice was released. He was well aware there were no guarantees, and to avoid another crushing disappointment, he purposely ignored the subject—or tried to.

Pilot Training Acceptance

On April Fool’s Day 1966, the ship was steaming in the calm waters of the eastern Med when Hawk received a telegram notifying him, he had been accepted for pilot training. Hawk’s first thought was that it was a very cruel April’s Fool’s joke—a mean-spirited hoax by the JOs. He’d been so successful in avoiding even the thought of pilot training, he had nearly forgotten about it.

The telegram looked official and certainly had the right markings and content, but if there was one thing Hawk knew, it was that the imagination and energy JOs invested in conceiving the perfect prank was boundless. Still …

Hawk ultimately broke down and showed the telegram to the skipper. Commander Morris looked it over. “Hawk, this is no joke! You’re headed for flight school. Your class convenes on the 22nd of May. Congratulations!”

Night Taxi #1 Wire landing

Hawk was accepted to pilot training and that was a whirlwind streak of good karma, but if Hawk had learned anything about fate and life on the pointy end of the spear, it was, it ain’t over until the fat lady sings!

As the deployment continued, Tilly’s (Hawk’s assigned pilot) work around the ship erratically improved. Tilly wasn’t consistently bad on the ball, but occasionally he could be downright unattractive. In the daytime, he was fairly competent. At night it was not unusual for Tilly and Hawk to see all five cells of the lens, both sides of centerline, and all three colors of the approach lights. Nighttime with Tilly always kept Hawk’s sensors up and operating on high.

Tilly was very conscientious and tried exceptionally hard to improve. The one thing that kept him alive was the fact that he executed every command Hawk issued—instantly!

Tilly had attracted the attention of the LSOs, and that was never good. He was summarily invited to the LSO platform to observe day and night recoveries. Ordinarily invitations to the LSO platform were delivered to two types of pilots: those who showed promise of becoming LSOs and those who showed a propensity to become a big smear on the round down. Tilly was of the latter variety.

The LSOs

USS Midway Sailor recalls when during a typhoon 35 planes (a mix of F-4s, A-6s and A-7s) successfully landed at night on the carrier. Their crews never saw the ship once.

The LSOs hoped that by watching landings from the platform Tilly would improve his understanding of the complexities of flying the ball and gain a better feel for what the LSOs expected from the pilots.

Hawk, in perpetual pursuit of knowledge, and to psychologically bolster Tilly, accompanied him to the platform. Almost at once Hawk was enamored with the LSO’s job. They were outside, in the elements, making split-second decisions, and assisting aircrews coming aboard the ship—day and night.

LSOs were responsible for the safe and speedy recovery of millions of dollars worth of equipment and were the last safety link in keeping aircrew out of the water and off the round down. LSOs were highly unheralded and vastly under appreciated.

The LSO stuff excited Hawk. After weeks of observing flight ops from the platform the LSOs acknowledged Hawk had a natural eye for the job and a rare knack for multi-tasked, complex activities—a prerequisite for an LSO. By any measure, Hawk was equipped with the skills to become an LSO. There was one large knee-knocker in the way, though; LSOs duties were restricted to pilots only. This was disappointing news but didn’t stop Hawk from applying. Even after his request was denied, he spent countless hours on the platform learning the trade.

Night intercept training sortie

Tilly’s time on the platform was well spent. He demonstrated a new gained appreciation and understanding for ball flying almost immediately.
Not long after Hawk and Tilly paid penance to the platform gods, they were scheduled for a night intercept training sortie. Tilly took great care in briefing every element of the mission and was determined to fly the mission as briefed.

Hawk was impressed and rejuvenated by Tilly’s turn-around. Hawk remembers the flight well and the approach even better. “This particular April night was dark, very dark, and the deck was moving around a bit. The launch was without incident and the mission went pretty well. We proceeded to the marshal stack and penetrated right on time. Tilly was on top of everything. It was like flying with Stinger Ready again. Tilly’s approach was everything he promised it would be, up to a point.”

#1 Wire on last night landing

Hawk positioned himself as he did for every carrier approach: left hand on the alternate ejection handle, right hand on the canopy handhold. He monitored the approach by looking through the pilot’s port side, quarter panel. If things got too sporty, all he had to do was lean back in the seat, and jerk up on the alternate ejection handle.

Tilly was on-and-on when CCA transmitted, “Milkvine one-zero-four, three-quarters of a mile, call the ball!”

Tilly responded, “Milkvine one-zero-four, Phantom ball, two-point-eight.” The expected “Roger Ball” from paddles never came. Tilly and Hawk continued.

From Hawk’s vantage point, Tilly was on glide slope, on centerline, and on speed. He had a great start. Hawk was alert to fact that the LSOs had not roger’d their ball call, but he was not alarmed… not yet. Hawk continued the data feed to Tilly. “On glide slope. On speed. On glide slope. A little decel. Good line up. On glide slope. Deceling. Little decel. Still deceling, Tilly!”

Tilly was on glide slope but was flying the ball primarily with the nose instead of making timely adjustments with the throttles. Hawk, with more urgency now, said, “Maybe some power about now, Tilly!”

#1 Wire on last night landing: a nightmare of the worst order

Tilly never responded with more power. He continued to hold glide slope with the nose and continued to decelerate.

Hawk recognized this development and commented several times, each with escalading forcefulness, “Deceling Tilly!” But there was no come-on with power. To compound the problem, Paddles hadn’t given Tilly any advisory power calls and hadn’t hit the cut lights signaling for more power.

With growing alarm and volume Hawk yelled, “Tilly we’re DECELING! Power! POWER! POWER!!!” Suddenly, in-close, the centered ball hung for a second, sagged a bit, then rocketed straight off the bottom of the lens alerting Hawk to an imminent ramp strike.

A nightmare of the worst order: the US Navy F-4 pilot who caught #1 Wire on his RIO last night carrier landing
This print is available in multiple sizes from AircraftProfilePrints.com – CLICK HERE TO GET YOURS. F-4B Phantom II VF-84 Jolly Rogers, AG204 / 151491 / 1964

The hook struck the deck a few feet from the round down and they skittered into a one-wire. Much to Hawk’s complete amazement, there was no earth rattling explosion or fireball.

“GAWD DAMN IT, Tilly!” Hawk exclaimed.

“Dog gone it!” he responded meekly.

Tilly and Hawk made a shaky trip back to the ready room. About the same time, Pete Brown, the CAG LSO, stormed in, threw his logbook into a chair, and said, “Tilly you’ve just made the worst pass of the entire cruise.”

Hawk quickly came to the defense of his pilot, “Hang on there partner! We didn’t hear a damn thing from you guys, and we didn’t get any cut or wave off lights either. What’s the story on that?”

Pete, red-faced, hesitated and then explained, “We saw the approach develop and called for power several times and when we didn’t see you guys responding we tried to wave you off. We were on the wrong frequency, and that’s my bust, but you guys almost killed yourselves out there.”

The only reason I didn’t eject

That was the understatement of the entire cruise.

Tilly tried hard to do well. He was pretty down after the flight, and the debrief with the LSO didn’t help a thing. Hawk sensed his embarrassment. He didn’t need to add to Tilly’s shame by belaboring the issue, so he kept his thoughts to himself.

“It all happened so fast,” Hawk recalled later. “It was as good a night pass as Tilly had ever flown, and it was just unbelievable how fast it all went to shit.

“The only reason I didn’t eject was that by the time I realized we were going to crash, we’d already landed. It took a 25th of a second to understand that we were crashing, and it took another 25th of a second to realize we didn’t.

“It was ugly, and it was scary, and it was, on the positive side, my last trap as a RIO.

Roger Ball!, Odyssey of a Navy Fighter Pilot is available to order here.

The VF-142 F-4B that was able to make an emergency landing aboard USS Ranger after her radome was destroyed by Vietnamese AAA
This model is available from Historic Aviation – CLICK HERE TO GET YOURS.

Photo credit: U.S. Navy


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Donald Auten

Donald Auten

Donald E. Auten, a native of Southern California, graduated from Long Beach State University and Salve Regina University, receiving a Master of Science degree and the Naval War College, where he earned a Master of Arts in National Security and Strategic Studies. Although originally trained as a light-attack pilot, he graduated from TOPGUN fighter and adversary courses and became an adversary instructor pilot in four adversary commands. In the course of seventeen years of training and operational flying, Donald completed six squadron assignments and logged nearly five thousand hours. He retired from the Navy as a Captain (O-6) following a twenty-seven-year career and completed several staff postings on both coasts, and a three-year assignment at the Pentagon as a Joint Strategic Plans Officer and two commanding officer assignments: Commanding Officer of VFC-12 and Commanding Officer of Naval Air Reserve, San Diego. Following his release from active duty Don was worked at Commander, Naval Special Warfare Command (SEALs) in Coronado, Ca, as a Future Force Planner. He makes his home in Etna, Wyoming with his wife, Katherine Sullivan Auten and their crème Labrador, Megan. Donald is the author of “Roger Ball!, Odyssey of a Navy Fighter Pilot”, “Alika, Odyssey of a Navy Dolphin”, and “Black Lion ONE”.
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