“I knew about VF-84 Jolly Rogers from the movies and building models as a kid. It’s a great public relations and recruiting tool. Somebody should always ‘fly the bones’!,” Lt. Paul Ratkovich, former VF-84 Jolly Rogers F-14 pilot
The disestablishment rumors started flying early in 1994, a few months after our return aboard [Theodore Roosevelt (CVN 71)]. They were pervasive from the mess decks to the ‘O’ Club. But they didn’t make sense. We had come off a very demanding but very successful deployment. As the only F-14 squadron aboard and the battle group’s only tactical aerial reconnaissance asset, we were in great demand,” explained Commander Brad Goetsch, who shepherded the squadron toward its destiny from January 1994 to May 1995 when he was relieved as commanding officer by Commander Dan Cloyd.
Goetsch continued, “We flew in support of Operations Provide Promise and Deny Flight over Bosnia-Herzegovina and Southern Watch over Iraq. Tasking was so heavy that we set a record with 216 missions and more than 60 miles of film in support of the theater commander’s intelligence requirements. Roosevelt was frequently extended at sea to provide continuous tactical intelligence for the theater commander. We got nothing but accolades from above.”
It was mid-spring when the fighter wing commander told Cdr. Goetsch that the rumors were real. Fighter Squadron (VF) 84, NAS Oceana, Va., would be disestablished on 1 October 1995.
“I imagine it’s like being fired or forced to retire. The feeling is very personal. My initial response was to push for an early disestablishment. Let’s save millions of dollars and get it over with as quickly as we can. I was concerned about morale during the 18 or so months we faced before closing the door. However, in hind-sight, having time for the system to absorb our people while trying to get as many guys as possible the orders they wanted has been an advantage.”
During the interim, the easy approach would have been to fly the fun hops and go home at three. But that would not be consistent with the Brad Goetsch style. A former Atlantic Fleet Pilot of the Year and Naval Aide to the Vice President of the United States prior to reporting to VF-84, Goetsch was determined to make the most of the hand he was dealt. He explained, “We were in the process of implementing TQL [Total Quality Leadership], and I thought we could apply TQL principles to make the disestablishment as efficient and effective as possible.
“It was obvious we would no longer be on the tip of the spear, but with no air wing or ship commitments, we would no longer have to contend with the primary disadvantage in this business—long-term family separation. We would have the freedom to pursue the kind of flying fighter crews live for—tactical training without deployment interference—and we could get our troops as much career-enhancing schooling as possible.”
The squadron scheduled a four-day TQL retreat to plan its approach to the disestablishment. The Executive Steering Committee, consisting of CO, X0, department heads, Command Master Chief and Maintenance Master Chief, augmented by other selected officers and sailors, met and decided that the Jolly Rogers still had something to offer. Their focus was on VF-84’s TARPS (Tactical Air Reconnaissance Pod System) capability. They argued, “We have what is badly needed—combat-ready TARPS with Iraq and Bosnia-experienced aircrews.” They wanted the chance to make their case to the top brass.
“The cohesiveness and spirit demonstrated by what could have been an unmotivated group was inspiring,” Goetsch continued. “Instead of giving up and feeling sorry for themselves, these guys were saying, ‘Hey, it’s us against the world, and we can show them that we are too good to be given up on.’ Though I knew our efforts would probably be futile, the benefits of fighting as a team until the very end made the final outcome seem unimportant. We developed a tactical reconnaissance proposal identifying our capability and making it known we were ready and would go on short notice anywhere needed, ashore or afloat. We also committed to pursue the most aggressive training schedule possible. We were a funded fighter squadron and we were determined to be the best.”
The original plan was for VF-84 to move from Carrier Air Wing (CVW) 8 to CVW-7 in January 1995. VF-143 was scheduled to undergo a major F-14B aircraft upgrade. The changes made in their aircraft were to be so extensive and done at such a rate, in terms of number of aircraft that would be unavailable to the squadron at one time, that it would force VF-143 to the sidelines as a deployable squadron for about two years. VF-84 was to spend 1995 working up with CVW-7 and deploy with it aboard George Washington (CVN 73) in early 1996.
“In anticipation of the air wing switch, we chopped to Fighter Wing, U.S. Atlantic Fleet, in April 1994,” Cdr. Goetsch explained. “During that time frame the VF-143 upgrade was reprogrammed so that their workups and scheduled deployment would not be impacted. Obviously, there was no longer a need for us to move to CVW-7. Since we weren’t part of a deploy-able air wing, we became a target during the downsizing.”
Lieutenant Commander Steve Mooradian, VF-84’s Administration Department Head, was worried when he first heard the rumors about the squadron going away. “I had just bought a house and we heard all kinds of things, like we would be sent to fill billets in Japan,” he said. “It was depressing to think the Navy was going to disband the Jolly Rogers with all that its symbol and reputation had come to mean. The uncertainty was the worst part. I thought we’d be picked apart. They’d take our people and aircraft and we’d soon be unable to function as a squadron. I thought we’d be a squadron in name only—a skeleton—and I feared safety and morale would be a major issue.” But he was happy to add, “That didn’t happen because of Skipper Goetsch and XO Cloyd. They are class guys who care about people. We also had a strong fighter wing commander who went to bat for us.”
Although Mooradian, along with pilot Lieutenant Scott Leach, augmented VF-41 during one of its sea periods, he feels that being in a disbanding squadron has been a “double-edged sword.” He explained, “I’ve lost some experience in terms of going to the boat, but tactically I’m ahead of where I would have been. We don’t have to spend time or fuel money for [field carrier landing practice] preparing for the boat. Also, training from land allows more time in each hop for tactics.
“Since October 1994, we have taken advantage of Air Force funding contributions by making three deployments to the Air Force Weapons and Tactics Center at Nellis AFB, Nev., where we had the opportunity to fight against the best in the Air Force,” Mooradian continued. “In the same seven-month period, we deployed to a Marine Corps expeditionary airfield at 29 Palms, Calif., to participate in a major live-fire CAX [combined arms exercise]. We lived in tents, ate field rations and flew from aluminum matted runways, dropping 187 live bombs in a two-week period—hardly typical for an F-14 squadron. In each case, prior to deploying, we fought against anybody and everybody on the East Coast who wanted to play.
“Most importantly, I won’t lose the carrier experience,” he added. Before joining VF-84, Mooradian was a former radar intercept officer (RIO) turned pilot, so his sea duty had been limited. “Although I don’t relish being the guy nobody knows when you start over, I’m very happy to be going to VF-103 and flying the F-14B for a full three-year tour.”
Cdr. Goetsch was concerned that VF-84’s junior officer aircrew would suffer the greatest negative career impact because they would have less shipboard experience than their peers. However, he, Cdr. Cloyd, the fighter wing commander and Bureau of Naval Personnel (BUPERS) detailers worked aggressively to obtain orders that would help them overcome this disadvantage.
VF-84’s most junior pilot, Lt. Paul Ratkovich, joined the Jolly Rogers in mid-cruise aboard Roosevelt in June 1993. When he learned of the planned disestablishment, Ratkovich said, “I thought my career was about to end. I’m an Aviation Officer Candidate with a reserve commission. In an environment where so many reserve officers were being involuntarily released from active duty, this effectively moved up my planned rotation date by a year. I was also disappointed about the patch going away. I knew about the Jolly Rogers from the movies and building models as a kid. It’s a great public relations and recruiting tool. Somebody should always ‘fly the bones’!”
Ratkovich had applied for regular officer augmentation every six months for two years. In November 1994, after four augmentation boards, he was accepted as a regular officer. A few months later, he learned he would be going to VF-103 for a two-year tour.
“Although I’m light in carrier experience, I’ll make that up with another cruise in VF-103, and I know I’m far ahead of where I’d normally be tactically thanks to the Jolly Rogers.”
Ratkovich remembered, “One day at Nellis I was fighting a guy in an F-15C with 2,000 hours in type and here I was with 300 hours in my jet and I was beating him. This shouldn’t have happened. It wasn’t me, it was our squadron training and leadership. Not only are Skipper Goetsch and X0 Cloyd as good as it gets in the cockpit, they have created an atmosphere that encourages the development of aggressive fighter crews. We’ve learned if you fight well, you can defeat someone in a superior aircraft. In VF-84 we are encouraged to be innovative tactically.”
Ratkovich’s back seater, RIO Lt. Kevin Sidenstricker, joined VF-84 during its last cruise in July 1993. A former Aviation Electronics Technician Second Class in VF-1, Sidenstricker said, “When I heard the news, I thought we were going to be put on the shelf. Forget things like Top Gun [Navy Fighter Weapons School] and Forward Air Controller (Airborne) quotas. Losing things like that limits our junior officers’ competitiveness. But that didn’t happen due to accommodations made for us by the fighter wing.”
Sidenstricker, who will report to VF-41 for a two-year tour and was recently selected for augmentation, reflected, “Looking back, this has been interesting. Since March 1994 we’ve had no aircrew check-ins. That means no new factors in unit cohesiveness and crew coordination. You constantly hear from others at Oceana that they’ve never seen a tighter ready room in terms of personal relationships. Knowing we are the last of the Jolly Rogers has kept us tight.
“[…] Of course, no new guys also means there are less guys left to share the existing workload. As a junior officer, I am holding two fairly responsible and unrelated billets—Legal Officer and Operations Schedule Writer. The only thing I wish were different is that we would have had an opportunity to go to the boat, especially for the pilots. After all, an F-14 squadron is a naval asset.”
Not surprisingly, VF-84 led all Fighter Wing, U.S. Atlantic Fleet, units in joint operations participation during Cdr. Goetsch’s tenure as CO. And, amazingly, considering that the F-14A is now in its third decade of service life, the Jolly Rogers achieved a 99.6-percent sortie rate by completing 666 of 668 scheduled joint air combat training sorties.
“[…] Joint operations, especially with the Air Force, have.provided us with more bang for the buck,” explained Jolly Rogers’ Operations Officer LCdr. Gordon Carter. “We bring our aircraft, fuel and ordnance. They pay per diem expenses, hotels and local transportation. They also pay for the sophisticated ranges we use during those deployments.”
He said, “We have more requests than we can handle. They like us because they know they’ll get a good fight. They know we have a reputation for being very innovative and they’re likely to see tactics they’ve not seen before. We also have a reputation for not ‘gaming it.’ In other words, we In other words, we don’t cheat. We’re professional in presentation; we’ll fit the scenario they want. By the same token, when we have a specific training interest, they’ll meet our requirements.”
Cdr. Cloyd, the squadron last commanding officer, officer who participated in the first Navy air strike of Desert Storm, stressed, “We need to continue to hone the edge. We pushed real hard to go through [the Strike Fighter Air Combat Readiness Program] in June and July. It’s important to maintain the war-fighting focus until the day we turn out the lights . . . VF-84 may cease to exist, but the Jolly Roger spirit and capability will live on in other squadrons.”
Cdr. Brad Goetsch, a quiet, modest gentleman whose personality and leadership style, according to many he commanded, contradicts his aggressiveness in the cockpit, is philosophical about not having had the opportunity to take his squadron to the boat. “It’s timing. I wasn’t the first guy it happened to and am not likely to be the last,” he acknowledged. “I am very proud of this squadron and honored to have been its CO. We took on an aggressive operations plan and did very well. In the past 18 months, we flew more joint operation hours and sorties than all other F-14 squadrons combined. We delivered more live ordnance than any other squadron in the Navy. We were the first Tomcat squadron to operate out of an expeditionary airfield and participate in a major live-fire CAX. During Green Flag 95-3, we outperformed Air Force F-15s, F-16s, F-111s and Navy/Marine Corps F/A-18s in both the fighter and strike roles.
“We sent two crews to Top Gun and two crews to the Marine Aviation Weapons and Tactics Squadron. We sent one junior RIO, who needed deployment experience, on cruise with VF-111 and we sent one junior pilot for three months to work on the staff of Joint Task Force Southwest Asia, which oversees our operations over Iraq. And our commitment to schooling paid off as our advancement rate was double that of any other Atlantic Fleet F-14 squadron,” Goetsch noted.
Cdr. Goetsch described the Jolly Roger “skull and crossbones” as “the most well-known combat aviation symbol in the world. In flight training, people want to go to the squadron with the skull and bones.” For over 40 years, VF-84’s heritage, tradition and pride have promoted a spirit of survival: “Who wants to fight? Bring ’em on!” This attitude has served its members well during the disestablishment process, and has secured for the squadron a lofty place in the history of Naval Aviation.
Photo credit: TSgt. M.D. Lynchard, PH2 Bruce R. Trombecky, LCDR Dave Parsons / U.S. Navy
Artwork courtesy of AircraftProfilePrints.com