“I saw his two afterburners. He is probably doing 500 knots, straight downhill, with both afterburners. And I thought, ‘Gotcha!’ I came up over the top, repositioned my nose, and I’m looking at an arcing MiG-29,” Captain Sam “Slammer” Richardson, F-14 Tomcat Pilot.
Designed in 1968 to take the place of the controversial F-111B, then under development for the Navy’s carrier fighter inventory, the F-14 Tomcat was designed with emphasis on close-in fighting “claws” along with standoff missile fighting.
Overall, the F-14 was without equal among Cold War’s Free World fighters. Six long-range AIM-54A Phoenix missiles could be guided against six separate threat aircraft at long range by the Tomcat’s AWG-9 weapons control system. For medium-range combat, Sparrow missiles were carried; Sidewinders and a 20mm were available for dogfighting. In the latter role, the Tomcat’s variable-sweep wings gave the F-14 a combat maneuvering capability that could not have been achieved with a “standard” fixed planform wing.
In 2021 renowned former F-14 pilot and Topgun instructor retired US Navy Captain Sam “Slammer” Richardson appeared in one of the episodes of the podcast series the F-14 Tomcast. He told exciting and funny flying stories, and made comments sure to surprise some aviation enthusiasts. He provided insights that benefited the flight simulation community and informed those interested in US Naval Aviation history.
I was one of the hosts of the F-14 Tomcast (I was an F-14 RIO and Topgun instructor) and my co-host was former F-14 pilot and Topgun instructor Craig “Crunch” Snyder.
We started with Slammer’s background and experience in Navy pilot training. When he earned his Wings of Gold, there were no F-14 seats available so his commanding officer directed him to a program where he would temporarily instruct other students. He said this was a beneficial experience that gave him more air sense.
Moving to his early time in the Tomcat, he credited some of the stars of the West Coast F-14 community with teaching him and inspiring him to become a skilled pilot: “Pogo” Clark, “Nasty” Manazir, “KD” Bringle, “Killer” Killian, and others. “They wouldn’t teach you tricks. You had to learn the basics: energy management…where the Tomcat had the advantage…and the disadvantage.”
Slammer offered many pearls of wisdom, such as the benefits of using a lot of rudder to help the Tomcat roll when flying slow. “When you did it right, it was magic.”
He got Crunch’s attention when he said, “The Tomcat is a very easy airplane to fly.” It made sense when he followed up with, “But it’s a very, very hard airplane to fly well.”
During the discussion, Slammer provided valuable insight into topics such as the Strike Fighter Weapons and Tactics (SFWT) program of aircrew qualification, which substantially improved Navy fighter and strike-fighter training.
When I asked him about the much-maligned TF30 engines, Slammer said, “Those weren’t good engines. You had to fly the engines.” But he went on, “If I was gonna fight the airplane I liked the A.” Later in his career, when he was commanding officer of VF-101 (the East Coast F-14 training squadron), he preferred to fly in an F-14A when he was going up against instructor pilots flying the F-14D, which had more powerful engines. When Slammer won the engagement, it made the other instructor realize he had a lot to learn about the Tomcat and couldn’t rely on the engines to get them out of every situation.
The story sure to get the most attention was when Slammer described a memorable 1v1 training engagement against a Luftwaffe MiG-29 Fulcrum in the late 1990s while he was attached to VF-14 Tophatters. “One day I was fighting a MiG-29. The first fight I’ll never forget did not work out well for me. I tried the aggressive pressure fight and failed miserably.”
After that first engagement, he said, “I’m scramblin’ through my mind. What do I gotta do? I realized I can’t fight the airplane, I gotta fight the pilot.”
So, at the start of the second engagement, Slammer said: “I intentionally flew directly under him. I knew he was aggressive as hell, and sure enough he bit. I saw his two afterburners. He is probably doing 500 knots, straight downhill, with both afterburners. And I thought, ‘Gotcha!’ I came up over the top, repositioned my nose, and I’m looking at an arcing MiG-29” [as the following image shows].
Slammer used his knowledge of his opponent’s aircraft limitations to get into a favorable situation. “It’s very impressive to see gun camera (video) with a MiG in the reticle.” He forced the MiG-29 pilot to call “Knock it off.” Afterwards, he said the Fulcrum pilot could only talk about how he lost the fight against the Tomcat.
Slammer said, “I got into his head.” Which is yet one more example of von Richthofen’s statement, “The quality of the crate matters little. What matters is the quality of the man inside it.”
Co-host “Crunch” Snyder reiterated the lesson, pointing out that Slammer had a gameplan for the fight, thinking two and three moves ahead. I’ve quoted Slammer extensively here, but believe me, I’ve only scratched the surface.
Unfortunately, the video is temporarily unavailable during mid-2023. It is expected to be online again in late 2023.
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.
Photo credit: U.S. Navy and U.S. Air Force