Cold War Era

The lessons learned by US Navy F-4 crews from the exercise where French fighters trailed airliners and outmaneuvered and outclassed their Phantom IIs

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!

Reparation upon the French fighters

In the first part of this story we explained how French Mystere IV and Super Mystere B2 fighters outmaneuvered and outclassed US Navy F-4 Phantom IIs during exercise FAIRGAME IV [CLICK HERE to read the article].

Resigned to the knowledge that temperance was not one of his virtues, and now experiencing a fully pegged humiliation meter, Hawk was determined to reap reparation upon the French even if it meant getting cozy with the other side of the ROE.

Occasionally, ship and airborne early warning radar operators painted multiple targets trailing commercial airliners. The French pilots were known to accompany airliners on tracks that flew near the America battle group using them as their Trojan horse. This was strictly against the ROE and a hard violation of international aviation regulations, but quite effective. To counter this, Navy controllers tried to vector fighters on suspect targets but international air traffic controllers ordered Navy aircraft away from the commercial carriers. As soon as the Navy jets turned to honor controller directives, the French fighters attacked Navy airplanes and ships.

French fighters trailing airliners

Late in the exercise, Hawk and Tilly borrowed a page from the French pilot’s playbook. They were vectored toward an airliner suspected of being trailed by a French jet. As expected, the controllers ordered Tilly and Hawk to avoid the airliner by at least five miles. Hawk roger’d the transmission and gave the impression that they were breaking off the intercept. Tilly turned the IFF to standby but continued the run. Hawk gave Tilly vectors that would put them five miles abeam the airliner. As they approached the airliner Hawk shot Tilly a staccato of commands which produced a perfect stern conversion on a lone French fighter in-trail on the commercial jet.

Mystere IV French fighters

“Bigger than shit,” Hawk recalls, “we had a Mystere hangin’ on the airliner. He didn’t see us and why should he even bother to look? The US Navy didn’t break the rules. We continued to press the attack. We had good overtake, a clear sky, and complete surprise. Then we pulled into his six o’clock and called a Fox Two Sidewinder shot. It was a good shot, definitely a kill.

“Just a few seconds after we simulated the missile shot the Mystere pilot finally picked us up and the fight was on. After three or four turns with the guy, we we’re down to fifteen thousand feet in a fight I knew we shouldn’t be in. We pretty much got our clock cleaned. We had some very important maneuvering rules reinforced in that fight, but it was worth it just to beat the French at their own game—for once.”

Lessons learned from the exercise with French fighters

There were no universal lessons learned forum convened at the end of the exercise and no consolidated airwing debrief. The airwing seemed to shrug their shoulders as if to say, “That was a tough one team. We’ll get ’em next time!”

From a political perspective, the rules of engagement seemed to be rigged in favor of the French from the start. As they demonstrated many times, the French pilots generally ignored the rules and were clearly uninhibited by international aviation regulations. The Navy, on the other hand, was expected to observe all rules and regulations. Further, the Navy was forbidden to strike French targets and bases at night. The French didn’t work an evening shift.

The America Carrier Group rigidly maintained their operations plan and was, therefore, predictable. Navy ships maintained steaming tracks well within the radar coverage of the French land-based radar and consequently, the French were aware of America’s location at all times. Whether this was part of the ROE stipulations or due to Navy inflexibility was never revealed, but it made the entire battle group vulnerable.

The French understood the Navy shipboard radar limitations and adroitly exploited them. They came in fast, below the radar horizon, and hit with little or no warning. The French were exceptionally punctual at hitting the airwing jets at their most vulnerable time, and the ship was most accommodating. The French consistently ran their strikes at the end of the cycle when America’s jets were low on fuel and just prior to the next launch. It wasn’t until the end of the exercise that America finally began to run a flex-deck and assign tankers to the BARCAP fighters.

Super Mystere B2 French fighter

No gunsight cameras

The Navy Phantoms and A-4s did not have gunsight cameras. For decades, the importance of gunsight cameras has been well documented and enthusiastically endorsed. It allowed analysts to assess the success of their pilots, evaluate the abilities of the opposition, and study the capability of enemy aircraft. For unknown reasons, the Phantom was built without a gunsight camera.

The French, however, had gunsight cameras and used them religiously. They had more gunsight film of Navy fighter and attack airplanes than Cecil B. Demille had of chariot races. They were even gracious enough to present Navy aircrew with many exquisitely framed photos of gun-sight pipers precisely overlaid on the VF-102 and VF-33 Phantoms.

The Navy aircrew actually had several valid kills. The shots that Tilly and Hawk took would have killed two Mysteres, but they had no gun camera, no way to assess the success or quality of their attacks and therefore, no way to confirm the kill to the satisfaction of the French pilots.

The Navy broke one of the golden rules: train like you plan to fight. The F-4 aircrew trained to perform intercepts which maximized the systems around which the Phantom was built, but most of the initial engagements with the French were classic dogfights. The aircrew consistently found themselves stuck in dogfights against highly maneuverable airplanes. This was very much driven by ROE stipulations, but sadly, it appeared that Navy leadership did not recognize the likelihood of being strapped with the same rules of engagement in a wartime scenario—such as Vietnam.

By the end of the exercise most aircrew showed a positive learning curve. Airmanship skills were improving, situational awareness was enhanced, and tactical discipline was slowly displacing testosterone-induced bravado.

It’s not the plane, it’s the pilot

This print is available in multiple sizes from – CLICK HERE TO GET YOURS. F-4B Phantom II VF-84 Jolly Rogers, AG204 / 151491 / 1964

Hawk took the humiliation personally. “We just had our collective assess handed to us by a second-rate military club flying a bunch of cheap, little airplanes by pilots who didn’t even hold down an honest sixteen hour-a-day job. We looked like a bunch of buffoons, a bunch of toothless Boxers growling at the milkman. All we did was make noise, smoke, and good targets!”

For as long as Hawk could remember, it chaffed him when the rules weren’t fair, the referees didn’t call the play honestly, or the other team cheated. “This wasn’t fair, but it did reflect the real world and I learned the true meaning of the dictum: If you ain’t cheating, you ain’t trying.

“Know the rules; they’ll set you free, and sometimes,” Hawk concluded, “the main rule is—there ain’t no rules.”

He was convinced that better tactics, better training, and being more one with the airplane was mandatory if they were to succeed in real air combat. At no time did Hawk believe the problem was the airplane. “It’s impossible to fly in an F-4, light the burners, feel that thunderous power, and not believe in your heart you could kill anything in the air. But we didn’t maximize the true capability of the airplane. We didn’t fly the Phantom to the edge of its full maneuvering envelope.”

Roger Ball!, Odyssey of a Navy Fighter Pilot is available to order here.

Photo credit: Cobatfor Own work, Mike Freer – Touchdown-aviation via Wikipedia and U.S. Navy

This model is available AirModels – CLICK HERE TO GET YOURS.

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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