F-14 Tomcat

The story of an F-14 Tomcat CAP mission off the Vietnamese coast flown in preparation for Saigon, South Vietnam evacuation

Roger Ball!

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 the prologue the book tells the story of an F-14 Tomcat combat air patrol mission off the Vietnamese coast.

USS Enterprise off the coast of South Vietnam

The USS Enterprise (CVN-65) steamed peacefully a hundred miles off the coast of South Vietnam. It was mid-December 1974, and the carrier held her position beneath a blue sky in the South China Sea. The Treaty of Paris had been signed on 27 January 1973. Based on that agreement, the last US combat troops had left Vietnam on 29 March and the prisoners of war had been returned on 1 April 1973. But the peace was short lived. Both sides reengaged in war by January 1974. Some Americans still remained in South Vietnam, and actions were under way to evacuate all US personnel and many South Vietnamese loyal to the US government.

In preparation for the evacuation, US military elements remaining in South Vietnam were tasked to maintain a presence, inhibit the spread of hostilities, and safeguard US personnel and interests. This called for a precarious balancing act. US armed forces had to appear powerful, alert, and capable—
without being unduly provocative.

The Enterprise steamed over the horizon, out of sight of the Vietnamese leadership but never far from mind. She represented a constant and indelible reminder that the United States wanted peace, but more than that she wanted her people back.

More than 5,500 sailors and Marines served the ship. They represented all races, ethnicities, and stations in life. Each man had individual responsibilities, but the entire crew worked toward a common mission: to sail their ship and to launch, recover, and maintain their aircraft. All hands understood this, and all were committed to it.

F-14 CAP off Vietnam coast

Hawk was one such member of the Enterprise team.

Hawk was Carrier Air Group 14’s landing signal officer (LSO) and attached to the airwing staff. The fact that he had three previous assignments in Fighter Squadrons—one as an F-4 radar intercept officer (RIO), one as an F-4 Phantom pilot, and one as an F-14 Tomcat operational test pilot in Air Test and
Evaluation Squadron Four—qualified him to fly the F-14As assigned to both Fighter Squadron One (VF-1) and Fighter Squadron Two (VF-2)—the fighter force of CAG-14.

Hawk was scheduled to fly an F-14 on a combat air patrol mission off the Vietnamese coast. So far the Vietnamese Air Force had not taken aggressive action toward US aircraft. Today, however, could be the day they mounted a massive saturation strike on the Enterprise, and Hawk could miss out if he didn’t launch.

This print is available in multiple sizes from AircraftProfilePrints.com – CLICK HERE TO GET YOURS. F-14A Tomcat VF-2 Bounty Hunters, NK201 / 159625 / 1976

He and his RIO, Lieutenant Joe “Crash” Zahalka, had completed the mission brief and were headed to maintenance control to review the aircraft data book for Bullet 205, one of twelve F-14As assigned to VF-2.

In maintenance control they scanned the aircraft data book, checked the fuel load, and verified the weapons loadout: two AIM-9D Sidewinders, two AIM-7F Sparrows, and a full load of 20mm ammunition—standard load-out for the combat air patrol mission. They signed the book, donned helmets, and made their way to the flight deck.

After Hawk and Crash along with their wingman in Bullet 202 took off and once en route to their station, Hawk signaled his wingman to move into combat spread position. He then checked his weapons switches, fuel state, and engine gauges.

Boring sortie

Their jet was operating perfectly. The engines were strong and all the systems were operating normally. All that is, except the rain-removal. Other than that rarely used system, Hawk and Crash had a full “up” combat-capable fighter, and they were ready to put the combat into combat air patrol.

Unfortunately, combat air patrol sorties are notorious for being perhaps the most monotonous task of all the airwing’ s missions. They are generally regarded as gas-burning, butt-numbing drills that could cure the worst insomnia.

These sorties are so boring, Hawk thought. But they don’t have to be. If the North Vietnamese pilots had a little more go-for-it spirit, a little more testosterone, a lot less discipline … if only they would be so bold and so foolish as to cross swords with us, this could turn out to be a spectacular sortie. This could
be an extraordinary sortie. This could even be an air-medal-producing sortie.

An F-14A from VF-1 Wolfpack during Tomcat’s first deployment in April 1974. F-14s from VF-1 and VF-2 covered “Operation Frequent Wind”, the US evacuation of Saigon, which marked the Tomcat’s only involvement in the Vietnam War. (Via Air Power)

North Vietnamese fighters show no interest in tangling with the F-14 Tomcat

Hawk and Crash had a load of missiles and 672 rounds of 20mm aboard—and they knew how to use them. But the opposition had shown absolutely no interest in tangling with world’s most lethal fighter. Apart from an occasional surface-to-air missile site lighting up its radar as Navy planes ventured near the
coast, there had been no reports of threats. No air medals this cruise, Hawk figured.

Bullet 205 and 202 arrived at their assigned station. Hawk set up a racetrack pattern, which allowed Crash to tune his radar on the Vietnamese coast to the west. For the next hour and a half, Hawk was going to drill holes in the sky while Crash diddled with the radar. God, this is boring.

Still, it was great just to get out and fly, to enjoy the magnificence of their surroundings, which were strikingly beautiful. The wingman’s F-14 glistened against the blue backdrop. The thin trail of exhaust made it easy to keep him in sight.

A massive saturation raid by the North Vietnamese Air Force had not disturbed the monotony of the sortie as Hawk had fantasized.

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

This model is available in multiple sizes from 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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