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In the wake of the hard lessons of the Vietnam War, a pantheon of committed naval aviators struggled valiantly to modernize fighter aircraft and overhaul tactics. It was a seemingly titanic task marked by political intrigue, doctrinal apoplexy, and sadly, petty politics.
Roger Ball!, Odyssey of a Navy Fighter Pilot, is the personal story of one of those naval aviators, Captain John Monroe “Hawk” Smith. It chronicles his growth as a naval officer, his seasoning as a fighter pilot, and his hardening as a commanding officer.
In chapter 1 titled “Paddles Contact!,” the book tells the story of when through the combined efforts of the landing signal officer, Lieutenant Grover “Skip” Giles and his Radar Intercept Officer (RIO) Lieutenant Joe “Crash” Zahalka, Hawk brings an F-14 Tomcat from VF-2 Bounty Hunters aboard USS Enterprise (CVN-65) in a landing through a thunderstorm that should not have been possible.
The commanding and comforting voice of Lieutenant Commander Grover “Skip” Giles, CAG 14’s LSO team leader, came over the radio, “Paddles contact. Keep it coming oh-five. You’ve got a good start!”
The LSO’s voice bolstered Hawk’s confidence, but he could sense—rather than see—a new dynamic in play. Less than two hours ago the weather was absolutely beautiful, but cumulus buildups had quickly populated the area and grown rapidly in size and intensity. There were exceptionally strong vertical wind-shear currents associated with these cloud formations, and strong, gusty, surface winds as well.
Hawk had spent many years operating on carriers as both a pilot and as an LSO. He understood the effects of winds upon the sea and the corresponding results of ground swells on large ships. Hawk understood that the increasing strength of the winds would slowly increase the size of the ground swells. He further realized that these ground swells, depending on the angle off the bow, would cause the ship to pitch and roll, and that would exacerbate the movement of the flight deck.
“A little right for line up,” Paddles advised.
Hawk responded as though the LSO commands were wired directly to his hands, bypassing any analytical processes that might delay the response. He made a quick but short lateral stick input, eased in a touch of back-stick to hold the nose up, and then leveled his wings again.
A perfect glide-slope to a three wire, the target wire, provided a hook-to-ramp clearance of fourteen feet. He guessed they were working with a deck pitching between six and eight feet from center. Under these conditions, if Hawk managed to fly a flawless three-wire pass, the hook-to-ramp clearance could be as low as six feet or as high as twenty-two feet. Without clear visual reference to the optical landing system, it would be highly unlikely that he’d be on glide-slope. Hawk quickly calculated the numbers. If we’re even a little low, say three feet below optimum glide-slope, and the deck was at the top of its eight-foot cycle when we came across the ramp, we’d only clear the ramp by three feet. If we were even lower …
This line of logic took Hawk’s mind to a place he didn’t want it to go. He’d lost too many friends at sea. There was simply no margin for error. With the help of Skip and Crash, and through the grace of God, Hawk was going to put his Tomcat right on centerline and right on glide-slope.
He ignored the potential of slamming into the ramp and channeled his attention into the demands of flying the jet. He concentrated on being perfect.
Hawk had no tolerance for a satisfactory effort. He had little patience for anyone who tried to do less than a perfect job, but he was far more demanding of himself. He hoped that his perpetual struggle for perfection would pay off this day.
“A little more right for line up,” Paddles called again.
Hawk’s hands were moving even before Skip completed the transmission. Although he felt an anxious tendency to overcompensate and overreact, Hawk commanded himself to remain focused, alert, cool, and smooth, to feel the airplane … to be perfect.
Hawk concentrated on flying the instruments and willed his muscles to respond precisely and quickly to the LSO’s calls. Occasionally, he stole glances out the windscreen. He might have been looking through the bottom of a dirty shot glass under Niagara Falls. Hawk saw nothing recognizable.
He knew the ship was close and getting closer, but all he saw was a distorted film of water. There was no dividing line between air and water and no sight of the ship’s white wake to console him. His world was shades of indistinguishable blurred gray.
“Looking good, Bullet,” Paddles advised. “Keep it coming and hold what you’ve got!”
Skip kept the comm flowing. This kept the feedback loop active, and comforted Hawk and Crash to know they had friends pulling for them.
As they approached the ramp, Skip advised, “A little power and don’t climb!”
Now, nearly over the ramp and with no sensory inputs other than those he saw on the instrument panel and heard from Paddles, Hawk put Bullet 205 nearly perfectly on-speed, on glide-slope, and on centerline.
Hawk was suddenly aware of a darker shade of gray passing underneath them and then felt the bone-jarring kaa-thump of their F-14 hitting the landing area. Hawk, slammed both throttles to the stops. At that same instant, he and Crash were hurled forward against their harnesses. The tailhook caught the number two wire.
The three-G deceleration was a reprieve and cause for celebration. Hawk pulled the throttles back to idle, raised his hook and flaps, and swept the wings aft. He still had difficulty seeing in the downpour, but he picked up the taxi director looking cold, wet, and almost as relieved as Hawk to get Bullet 205 home.
Hawk’s toes danced on the rudder pedals in response to the taxi director’s signals. Now that they were safely aboard the ship and heading for their tiedown area, Hawk noticed that his knees were shaking involuntarily. The adrenaline was still coursing through his system, but with the crisis behind him, he was free to think about the gravity of their situation and the mishap that almost was.
What he thought at that moment was that they had just completed an arrested landing without ever seeing the carrier. That wasn’t possible! Or it shouldn’t have been and indeed, wouldn’t have been had it not been for the impeccable radar work of Crash and the extraordinary LSO work by Skip! And clearly, there were other forces at work.
The plane captain signaled Hawk that the landing gear and weapons safety pins were installed, chocks were in place, and the tie-down chains attached. He signaled Hawk to shut down. Hawk complied, raised his canopy, and was instantly drenched in the downpour.
Hawk and Crash quickly climbed out of the jet, closed the canopy, and made their way to the catwalk. Hawk’s legs were rubbery. They reminded him of a freshly plucked G-string on a bass fiddle.
Hawk considered their good fortune. The jet isn’t dented. There’s no smear on the back end of the Enterprise, and Crash and I are alive. I have some people to thank!
They walked in reflective silence toward maintenance control, each considering his precarious and fragile mortality.
Words spoken long ago now echoed through the chambers of Hawk’s memory, A good takeoff does not guarantee a good landing. These were Hawk’s words spoken some twenty-eight years earlier. They expressed one of his earliest rules for a situation completely unlike this, but the truth and clarity of the words had far more meaning this day.
The recovery was over. The helm of the Enterprise came around. She started a slow turn to steam downwind. On the flight deck, men—wet and chilled to the bone—moved with intent and purpose to make ready for the next launch.
Roger Ball!, Odyssey of a Navy Fighter Pilot is available to order here.
Photo credit: US Navy
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