Cold War Era

The night carrier landing where a Navy F-4 pilot turned in his wings after blowing his Phantom II main landing gear tires because it snagged the one wire in mid-flight, impacted on top of the third arresting wire

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!

F-4 Phantom II Day CQ

When the brief ended the crews grabbed their flight gear and suited up. This exercise looked like a snake shedding his skin in reverse: G-suit, harness, survival vest, oxygen mask, gloves, and helmet—they wormed into their survival gear then headed to Maintenance Control, signed out their F-4 Phantom II then stepped up to the flight deck.

Ken cycled the control stick and rudder to the stops to ensure there was full-throw of the flight controls, placed the stick full aft, and asked, “Hawk, you ready to go?”

“Yep. I’m ready!” Hawk responded.

Ken saluted the catapult officer and eased his helmet against the headrest. The catapult officer returned the salute, scanned the area along the catapult track, then bent down on one knee, touched the deck, and pointed forward, signaling the catapult operator to fire the catapult.

The jolt was instantaneous and severe. In three seconds, they were hurled nearly three hundred feet down the flight deck and tossed into the air like a javelin. By Hawk’s account, “I was pinned to the seat and couldn’t move anything but my eyeballs. The force of the catapult shot was amazing. I was simply stunned by how many ‘Gs’ the shot produced. I’d guess about three and a half ‘Gs’ accelerating, but it sure seemed like more.”

Second CQ sortie

Hawk was scheduled for his second CQ sortie the following day, 27 January, with a Lieutenant Commander. As smoothly as things had gone the previous day, Hawk had no misgivings about the upcoming CQ sortie. It would be a cakewalk, he thought, especially since he had flown several other sorties with this pilot and knew him to be extremely knowledgeable, capable, and professional.

Hawk met his pilot in the ready room where they briefed and suited up. They climbed to the flight deck and completed the start-up and post-start checks, and then taxied to the forward catapults.

The ride down the catapult was a rush and identical to the six Hawk had the day before. They completed three traps and three more cat shots without incident. Hawk was getting to be an old hand at this game and becoming more comfortable and confident with each trip around the ship. Following the fourth trap, they were directed to the hot pumping area for more fuel. Their Phantom was filled with full internal fuel but no wing fuel. This fuel loading significantly affected the weight and balance of the aircraft—a critical issue during the catapult shot, as Hawk and his pilot would soon discover.

Fueling was complete as the sun neared the western horizon. The pilot and Hawk were directed to catapult one for their fifth cat shot of the day. They were to launch, enter holding, and wait to begin their night qualifications. Everything seemed to be progressing normally. No one gave much thought to the change in the weight and balance of the aircraft.

F-4 Roller-Coaster Ride

Their Phantom was directed forward and connected to the catapult. Just as he had done four previous times, the pilot positioned the stick full aft for the shot. The catapult fired and they took their very short ride to the end of the ship. It was identical to the previous four cat shots, that is, until the end of the stroke.

At the bow, the Phantom’s nose pitched up wildly. Hawk saw nothing in front of the airplane but blue sky. There was an undecipherable explicative from the pilot, then a terrific pushover forcing the nose back down toward the horizon. Had it not been for his lap and shoulder restraints, Hawk would have been pinned against the canopy. Looking through the front windscreen, Hawk saw the horizon flash by and then a blue seascape filled the windscreen. On came positive “G” once again and the panorama changed back to sky. After several horrific oscillations, the Phantom steadied out and approached something akin to a controlled climb.

It was obvious the pilot was shaken, and Hawk had a few concerns of his own. Jesus! That couldn’t be right! I sure hope we don’t do that again!

Unintended thrill

With the near catastrophe behind them, the pilot climbed to their assigned altitude and entered holding. Once established in holding, the pilot dropped the hook. When things had settled down, the pilot finally discussed their rollercoaster ride off the catapult. He was surprised by the Phantom’s wild nose pitch-up. The pilot had positioned the horizontal stabilator full aft as required for a normal CQ fuel load. This time, because the aircraft was fueled differently, the Phantom had a different center of gravity, placing it well aft of normal. The new weight and balance, in combination with full aft stick input, forced the nose to pitch up, almost stalling the aircraft. The pilot made a miraculous recovery after several pitch oscillations and no doubt saved the airplane and their lives.

The pilot apologized for the unintended thrill. Hawk didn’t know what to think. He knew they had been in great peril for what seemed like minutes but didn’t know if he should thank the pilot for saving them or ask to be let out at the next stop. Instead, he wisely said nothing and concentrated on his tasks.

Night carrier landing

Soon after the sun had set, they were directed to commence their first approach. At ten miles from the ship and 1200 feet altitude, they lowered the gear and flaps and slowed to 150 knots. Inside three miles, they intercepted the glide slope. Hawk monitored the approach through the pilot’s left-hand quarter panel. By the feel of the airplane and the whine of the engines, Hawk sensed they had a good approach started. At three-quarters of a mile, the pilot called, “Nutgrass one-zero-three, Phantom ball, four-point-zero.” Hawk felt they were settling slightly and confirmed his suspicion when he saw the ball sitting below the datum lights. The LSO called for power at the same time the pilot added power … too much power, and the ball climbed past the datum lights toward the top of the lens.

“Nutgrass one-zero-three” advised the LSO, “you’re high, work it down.” The pilot reduced power in response to the call.

They were high and to compound matters, they were fast. The LSO noted this and called, “One-zero-three you’re fast. Work it on speed.”

This call compelled the pilot to squeak off more power, but the ball just sat on the top of the lens. The pilot made a third power reduction and the ball settled slightly. At this point they were approaching the ramp, beginning to decelerate, still descending to glideslope, and the throttles were still well below normal approach power settings.

Suddenly, everything caught up with them at once. The ball dropped to the bottom of the lens, the LSO screamed for more power, and the pilot pulled the nose up hoping to catch the sink rate. His response nearly stalled the aircraft.

Main landing gear tires blown during night carrier landing

Hawk strained to see the ball but caught only a momentary glimpse of a cherry red ball lying on the bottom of the lens accompanied by brilliantly flashing wave off lights.

KAWHOMPPHH!!! The Phantom came aboard with all the grace of a pallet of bricks. The impact caged his eyeballs and shot a spike of pain through his spinal column. They hit hard—harder than Hawk thought anything could hit without ending up in the hangar deck forty feet below.

Nutgrass one-zero-three came across the ramp in a nose high attitude and snagged the one wire in mid-flight. The Phantom landed, or rather impacted, squarely on top of the third arresting wire, causing both main landing gear tires to blow. As they chattered to a stop, the pilot pulled the throttles to idle and exclaimed, “Good God!”

In the rear cockpit, Hawk was taking inventory. His neck and back were smarting fiercely, warning and caution lights flashed all over the cockpit. A yellow shirt ran to their airplane to survey the damage while the LSOs waved-off the next several aircraft. The pilot followed the yellow shirt’s signals, folded the wings, raised the flaps, and shut down the engines.

A tug was quickly hooked to the nose gear and the Phantom was towed clear of the foul line and spotted just aft of the tower.

A long list of problems

No sooner was the Phantom chocked and chained, then the pilot bolted from the cockpit and disappeared into flight deck control. Flight ops were still very much underway and twilight had given way to total darkness. Hawk eased himself gingerly down the boarding ladder, favoring his back and exercising his neck while troubleshooters swarmed around the plane. He surveyed the area expecting to see a trail of fluids and broken parts marking the path from the landing area to the Phantom’s position, but there were none. Other than the blown tires and a bit of wrinkled metal on the leading edges of both wings, there was no apparent damage.

Hawk recalled, “I’ve wrecked bicycles, played football with some big southern boys, been hit by cars twice while riding motorcycles, and totaled my dad’s 1956 Buick, but I’ve never felt an impact as hard as that!”

The walk back to maintenance control was quiet, lonely, and long. When he arrived at maintenance control, Hawk grabbed a hand full of gripe sheets and began scribbling in the description of a long list of problems indicated by the cockpit warning lights that sparkled like a Christmas tree. It was going to be a marathon debrief with some very unhappy maintenance personnel.

Pilot turns in his wings after night carrier landing

Later that evening, the buzz was out; the squadron had almost lost an aircraft, and a pilot had turned in his wings. Hawk spent a few quiet moments in his room sorting things out. He replayed the incident and contemplated the meaning of all that had happened. What a day. I’ve almost been killed on both ends of the boat, my pilot just turned in his wings, and my back feels like it’s broken. I’ve still got more night work to go, and to make matters worse, now I don’t even have a pilot to fly with. What the hell else can go wrong? One way or another, I’m gonna get this done!

Stubborn—maybe. Resilient—definitely. Many with less grit would have considered a new profession at this point. Hawk did not, but it did occur to him that his Phantom was probably in worse shape than he was.

Last night carrier landing

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

The following night, Hawk was paired with fleet Phantom pilot that was going through an abbreviated CQ process. He was well known for his calm steadiness working around the ship. Hawk was plenty happy about that, but he’d already made his mind up anyway that come hell more high pudding he was gonna complete his CQ requirements.

Hawk only needed two night catapult launches and two arrested landings and they happened all too quickly. Just as hawk was settling down and beginning to have more fun than a kid at a County Fair, it was over.

They exited their Phantom and, on the way, back to maintenance control, the full value of the night’s accomplishment finally dawned on Hawk. We’ve completed the dreaded night CQ phase without incident. I didn’t die on the back of the boat, and it is actually possible to launch into the tar-black night, fly around, and land safely on the ship. This carrier operations stuff ain’t that bad after all!

Night CQ phase completed

The following night, the rest of class completed the required traps. With the exception of the Phantom badly bent on the second day, all the jets were flown back to Key West.

Hawk must have made an impression because not only was he one of the few JOs to fly off the ship, Commander Ellis, the RAG CO, personally asked for him in his backseat. Hawk counted his blessings: he was just a few sorties away from receiving his wings and checking into a real Fleet Phantom outfit. Life was sweet!

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

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

Photo credit: U.S. Navy

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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