“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,” CAPT Bill Switzer, former US Navy Crusader pilot.
The following is the first part of an interview with CAPT Bill Switzer about Carrier Landing in the F-8, F-4, and F-14, USN (Ret.) by Dave Baranek.
CAPT Bill “Striker” Switzer, USN (Ret.) was born in Illinois but grew up in rural West Virginia near the capital city of Charleston. His childhood sounds wild by today’s safety-conscious standards, but it helped form the fighter pilot who survived combat and excelled as a Blue Angel. When he was 8 years old the sight of two P-51 Mustangs crystallized young Switzer’s goal of becoming a fighter pilot. Nothing came easy, but this dream kept him going, and a Navy recruiter’s presentation in college set him on the path to Wings of Gold. He went through AOCS in 1965.
Switzer became a Navy fighter pilot and his 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.”
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. Switzer has more than 6,000 flight hours and more than 1,150 arrested landings in three legendary fighters – F-8, F-4, and F-14. Let’s see what he has to say…
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.”
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.
- 1. RAG: Replacement Air Group, an old designation that had been officially changed in 1963. The new term was FRS for Fleet Readiness Squadron, but the RAG nickname stuck.
- 2. This article uses the ship designation that was in effect at the time being discussed, whether CVA or CV.
- 3. Meatball is the slang term for the Navy’s Optical Landing System, mounted to the left of the landing area on a carrier.
- 4. CAG was the informal term for the air wing commander, left over from when he was “commander, air group.” LSO refers to the Landing Signal Officers stationed next to the landing area who oversee all carrier landings.
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.