That time a former US Navy F-4 RIO undergoing pilot training flew an Unauthorized Engagement with his T-2 against another Buckeye student pilot

That time a former US Navy F-4 RIO undergoing pilot training flew an Unauthorized Engagement with his T-2 against another Buckeye student pilot

By Donald Auten
Apr 9 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!

T-2 student pilot at VT-4

When last we left Hawk, he was an F-4 Radar Intercept Officer (RIO) in Fighter Squadron 102, aboard USS America, five months into a six-month deployment to the Med. He had just been selected for pilot training and he was posted to Training Squadron FOUR (VT-4) at Naval Air Station (NAS) Pensacola.

The VT-4 curriculum was the final phase of basic jet training. VT-4 also flew the T-2 Buckeye but they had the latest model, the T-2B. These were formidable, reliable, and more powerful airplanes with two J-60-P-6 engines producing three thousand pounds of thrust per side. This, a 56 percent increase in thrust, pushed the thrust-to-weight ratio to over point six, which, for a basic jet trainer, was nothing to snicker about. By Hawk’s assessment, “It was a hotrod! Just like the Phantom, it actually had excess power.”

Air combat maneuvering (ACM) and basic fighter maneuvers (BFM) were restricted to advanced jet training only, and then, only allowed after proper ground school, a formal mission brief with all parties, and a thorough demonstration of each of the maneuvers by a competent and designated basic fighter maneuvering instructor. Students were never authorized to fly BFM sorties without an instructor in the flight and for good reason.

In Beeville, Texas, two student pilots in advanced jet training conspired to conduct an unauthorized BFM sortie during their first solo hop. They met at the designated location and altitude but somehow managed to collide on the very first pass. They were lucky enough to live through the midair but almost didn’t survive the Admiral’s flight disposition board which followed.

The luck of the Irish and the hearts of tigers

Rumors following the disposition board indicated that the hapless students entered into a rather noisy and animated argument over who actually won the engagement based on being the pilot last to touch down following the ejections.

That time a former US Navy F-4 RIO undergoing pilot training flew an Unauthorized Engagement with his T-2 against another Buckeye student pilot

These two young aviators were fortunate indeed. They didn’t die in the collision and because the Navy needed every pilot available, they didn’t get cut from the program. They had the luck of the Irish and the hearts of tigers.

The call of aerial combat is strong in the heart of a true tiger and Hawk was full of tiger parts. The problem with the combination of tiger parts and success in the training syllabus is overconfidence and a self-perpetuating belief that success in one phase promises success in all.

An Unauthorized Engagement with another T-2 Student Pilot

It was a dazzling blue sky punctuated with tall cumulus clouds that stood like corn stalks and swept the horizon. Hawk, on his first and what could have been his last T-2B solo hop, was darting over, under, and around the clouds when he caught sight of a classmate also on a solo flight.

Hawk had plenty of gas and time before he had to get the aircraft back to the barn and saw no other traffic in the area. It seemed like the perfect opportunity for an unbriefed and unauthorized dogfight.

Hawk began a hard left turn and was passing down his friend’s left side, a mile away, when his friend spotted him and also came hard left. Hawk tried to convert to his friend’s six o’clock position but his opponent’s turn prevented that.

Both aircraft were in a level, hard port turn at 14,000 feet, 250 knots, and 2,500 feet apart. Hawk had managed to gain a slight positional advantage on his friend but he was of no immediate threat nor was he likely to become one. In one full turn the fight had stagnated.

Hawk knew the position he wanted to maneuver his jet to—1,500 feet behind, twenty to thirty degrees inside his opponent’s turn, with his nose on his friend’s aircraft—a perfect gun tracking solution. He knew where he needed to go, he just wasn’t sure how to get there against an uncooperative bogey. Unauthorized or not, this was his first dogfight, and his opponent was simply not assisting.

Low yo-yo

From Hawk’s vantage point the problem was obvious—he needed more airspeed to close the distance. The solution, at first, was not. The only way to gain any additional airspeed was to descend. Then, he struck on an idea—the low yo-yo.

From his fighter experience, he had seen his pilots perform this maneuver with varied success. He’d never performed one of his own, although he thought he understood the theory well enough to try one.

Hawk maintained back stick pressure, over-banked the airplane farther to the left and into a slightly inverted position. He pulled nose down and inside his opponent and then leveled his wings while he kept the nose low. In just a few seconds the little J-60-P6’s screamed, and the Buckeye was brimming with airspeed—he could feel it in the stick.

That time a former US Navy F-4 RIO undergoing pilot training flew an Unauthorized Engagement with his T-2 against another Buckeye student pilot

As he expected, airspeed rapidly increased and though he was still descending he was also beginning to gobble up the lateral distance to his friend. Hawk then pulled back on the stick and eased the nose above the horizon and bore-sighted his friend.

Judging from the developing geometry, it was becoming apparent that while the low yo-yo was indeed successful at reducing the nose to tail distance, Hawk had unwittingly initiated two additional problems. He had cut to the inside of his friend’s turn and created an enormous angle-off problem. Hawk might be able to generate a slashing attack on his friend but the extreme angular difference would not permit any stabilized tracking solution.

The second problem was airspeed. Hawk had generated a bit too much air speed, which equated to too much closure, which meant an overshoot was inevitable.

High yo-yo

Reduced to their most basic elements, the two problems were excessive closure and excessive angular difference with the defending aircraft. Again, he drew from what little fighter training he had in the fleet to solve the problem. The high yo-yo immediately came to mind.

By easing off his turn, leveling the wings, and pulling the nose above the horizon, Hawk was able to extend behind and above the defending aircraft. The high yo-yo maneuver opened the distance between Hawk and his classmate and as Hawk happily noted, reduced his airspeed and avoided a massive horizontal overshoot.

Hawk finally fitted the missing piece into the puzzle. Now that he had the geometric alignment of the two aircraft stabilized, he needed just one more low yo-yo to close the distance and arrive at a tracking solution. Hawk drifted slightly to the outside of his friend’s turn and just as his aircraft arrived in the right piece of sky with the right airspeed and altitude, just as it appeared that one final low yo-yo might bring him victory, the unthinkable happened—his friend leveled his wings and pulled his power back.

The other T-2 student pilot becomes bored and heads home

Although initially more intrigued than concerned with the baby tiger act taking place behind his wing-line, Hawk’s friend finally became bored with all the buffoonery, leveled his wings, and headed home.

Ah-ha! Hawk rejoiced. He had hoped for a victory against a committed and worthy adversary but no matter, a kill was a kill, and this solved everything.
Hawk kept the power up and turned hard, nose down and into his opponent. In seconds he closed the distance on his friend and co-altitude with no angular difference, arrived in a perfect tracking position. Hawk was very tempted to call a shot but thought better of it. Anyone could be monitoring the frequency.

In retrospect, the decision to engage his buddy wasn’t smart. Although Hawk was never in a position close enough to collide with his friend, Hawk realized his actions, influenced by tiger parts or not, were unauthorized and unsafe. He was working on the teetering edge of a violation that could have meant the end of his career.

All that aside, the experience was most perplexing and gave Hawk an endless three-dimensional puzzle to noodle over. How do you maneuver your aircraft for a shot against an uncooperative pilot who actually knows his stuff? It’s just not possible, unless the opponent helps.

That time a former US Navy F-4 RIO undergoing pilot training flew an Unauthorized Engagement with his T-2 against another Buckeye student pilot
Roger Ball!, Odyssey of a Navy Fighter Pilot is available to order here.

Photo credit: US 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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