Interview with CAPT Bill Switzer, USN (Ret.) by Dave Baranek
Before fly-by-wire and digital flight controls came along, US Navy fighter pilots wrestled with heavy controls in turbulent air to bring themselves and their war machines home. We spoke with CAPT Bill “Striker” Switzer, a former Navy fighter pilot who has carrier landings in three legendary fighters – F-8, F-4, and F-14 – for his candid and sometimes surprising comments.
CAPT Switzer’s experience includes more than 150 Vietnam combat missions in the F-8, two years flying the F-4 with the Blue Angels, and command of an F-14 squadron. He also served as an air wing commander (CAG) and later as one of the first “Super CAGs.” He has more than 6,000 flight hours and more than 1,150 arrested landings. Let’s see what he has to say…
• F-8 Crusader
When Switzer was finishing training as a Navy pilot in March 1967, the popular jets were the A-6, F-4, and F-8, and he said it was “a matter of pride” to select F-8s. He finished near the top of his class, requested Vought’s single-seat fighter, and was ordered to the F-8 RAG at NAS Miramar. (note 1) There he was designated “must pump” and received accelerated training. Two weeks after finishing the RAG he was flying Vietnam combat missions in F-8Es, assigned to VF-191 “Satan’s Kittens,” flying from the USS Ticonderoga (CVA-14). (note 2)
After operating over hostile territory Navy pilots faced the challenge of a carrier landing. A well-known recruiting film from the 1970s said that a pilot’s fastest heartbeats on a combat flight were during the night carrier landing at the end. Switzer dealt with the F-8’s landing speed, which was higher than other aircraft, and the Ticonderoga’s flight deck, which was much smaller than what he had qualified on in the RAG. Switzer said, “You don’t think about that, you just fly the ball. We had antiquated instruments compared to today’s aircraft and no head-up display. You just scan, scan, scan.” He was of course referring to the Navy pilot’s visual scan when landing: meatball, line-up, angle of attack. (note 3)
“I had some problems early on from spotting the deck, looking at the flight deck instead of maintaining that scan. My CAG and LSO went over the basics with me and I ‘got it.’ After that I had some of the best landing grades in the air wing.” (note 4) Switzer was developing good habits and skills that would serve him well the rest of his career.
“I can’t say enough about the scan. Because of approach speed and scan, you had to work your ass off. But I liked the F-8 because it was challenging and you felt really good when you had a good landing.” Attitudes like this helped develop the strong camaraderie of F-8 pilots and cemented their reputation for pride, confidence, and performance.
Switzer recalls that squadrons flew the hell out of their F-8s, which led to some failures. “We occasionally had to use the RAT (ram air turbine for auxiliary electrical power) and if it happened at night, it gave us only partial lighting, so that made things even more interesting.”
Finally, he points out that as a small carrier, the Ticonderoga moved around a lot more than the bigger carriers. “You’re concentrating on your scan, flying the ball, and then it disappears! The LSO would say, ‘Keep it coming.’ And you trusted them so much, you kept it coming.”
• F-4 Phantom II
Based on his flying skill and reputation, Switzer was selected for the Blue Angels. After a brief transition at the F-4 RAG he “spent two years flying tight formations with minute throttle and control changes.” He then went back through the RAG before joining the “Screaming Eagles” of VF-51 aboard the USS Coral Sea (CV-43) for a deployment that saw the end of the Vietnam War as well as the Mayaguez incident. (note 5)
He has the fewest comments about carrier landing in the F-4. It was bigger and heavier than the F-8, but was well-designed and the two J79 engines provided ample thrust at low altitude for carrier landings. “The F-4 was the most honest of these three. It was responsive and reliable. I enjoyed it. It was the most predictable.” He said the approach speed of the F-4 was a little slower than the F-8, but that wasn’t significant – the F-4’s flying characteristics made the difference.
Adding to his comments about the F-4, Switzer said you could almost fly the ball by listening to the ECS (environmental control system). “It was loud and it had a distinctive sound at the right throttle setting.” On the other hand, he did not like the auto throttles (note 6): “The system wasn’t reliable. I tried it once and it really messed up my pass! Never used them again.”
• F-14 Tomcat
Switzer received transition training at the F-14 RAG before serving as an air wing operations officer. He was then selected for squadron command and reported to the “Fighting Renegades” of VF-24 as executive officer before fleeting up to commanding officer.
Large and sophisticated for a fighter, the F-14A had a notorious weakness, its TF30 engines, and pilots were warned early. During CQ in the RAG, “Instructors emphasized that the TF30 would take longer to spool up. You learned to deal with it. Plan ahead. But you’re on a bigger deck, with more hook-to-ramp, so that compensated some for the engines.”
A positive attribute of the F-14 was good visibility – a result of Grumman applying lessons from the air war in Vietnam. Switzer said the view looking forward was better than the other two fighters.
He also commented about the F-14’s flight controls. “If you put in almost any control input, you had to add power because with the big wing and all the control surfaces, it would cause drag.” This was something Tomcat pilots got used to.
Switzer also said, “You could wipe out the cockpit and not much happened.” (Wipe out the cockpit refers to moving the stick around.) But an F-14 pilot could use this to his advantage: “If you’re high on glideslope and you don’t want to change the throttles, just slap the stick around and you’ll come down.”
• Final thoughts
These fighters qualify as “legends,” and CAPT Switzer is one of relatively few who has traps in all three types. When I arranged this interview, I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I was surprised that the F-4 was his favorite, and he has several good reasons.
I enjoyed talking to CAPT Switzer for this article, because it took me back to 1981-82 when we flew together in VF-24 and logged about 80 traps on the USS Constellation (CV-64). We also had a low-altitude ejection together – CAPT Switzer didn’t even get a parachute! – but that’s another story.
Thanks for taking the time to talk with us, Striker. Keep it coming.
The author would like to thank former squadronmates Rob “Preppy” Thompson and Paul “Nick” Nickell for assistance with research, and Jon “Hooter” Schreiber with editing.
Author Dave “Bio” Baranek was a RIO with 2,500 flight hours in the F-14 Tomcat. He was commanding officer of VF-211 from August 1997 to August 1998. His third book, Tomcat RIO, was published in 2020 and tells this story and many others from his career, along with dozens of his photos.
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