The Black Lions of VF-213 were among the first Miramar squadrons to receive the F-14A Tomcat, beginning conversion to it in September 1976, the new F-14 replacing venerable F-4B Phantom II’s. Quickly becoming proficient on their new mount, VF-213 departed for their first cruise as part of CVW-11 in October 1977. This first cruise took place on board the USS Kitty Hawk (CV-63) and saw VF-213 paired with VF-114 ‘Aardvarks’, a pairing that was to last until the Aardvarks were disestablished in April 1993. According to HOME OF M.A.T.S., after their Kitty Hawk cruise VF-213 and CVW-11 shifted to the USS America (CV-66) and took part in two Mediterranean cruises, one in 1979 and the other in 1981.
During the 1979 cruise John Monroe “Hawk” Smith was the Commanding Officer of VF-213.
John Monroe Smith is a living legend in Naval aviation: an all-American boy living his dream, a dream of becoming the best fighter pilot and carrier aviator in the Navy. He succeeded in being the best in a way that only one with unbridled passion, fierce commitment, boundless energy, unconditional dedication and relentless resolve can experience.
As told by Donald Auten in his book Black Lion One: TOPGUN Trailblazer Capt. John Monroe “Hawk” Smith in Command of VF-213, when it came to honing the “fighter edge,” Hawk was not too proud to borrow ideas from other organizations, even other services. The Air Force F-15 Eagle pilots used Redfield six-power riflescopes attached to the heads-up display (HUD) to increase the visual identification range of the adversaries during the intercept phase. The value of this technique was first vividly demonstrated during ACEVAL/AIMVAL in 1976.
During the 1979 deployment aboard USS America, when the Navy supply system tried to satiate the Black Lions with a scope (144 pair) of black plastic reading glasses (clearly a product of the Navy’s birth control policy) instead of the riflescopes they ordered, Hawk asked his father to purchase and send him a 3 x 9 variable-power Weaver riflescope. Since there were no F-14 HUD-mounted scope brackets in the supply system, Hawk designed one. With the help of Petty Officer Vergara in the Lions’ airframe shop, a handcrafted bracket was machined and mounted to the right side of the windscreen frame.
The Black Lions pilots completed a tactical assessment that found that against a MiG-sized target, the VID range was extended from an average of 3 miles to over 7 miles. This was significant in that it allowed the fighters to launch missiles well before the merge, thereby improving both the probability of a kill and survivability in an attack.
Hawk approached Dick Scharff with an idea that would allow all the fighter squadrons to purchase riflescopes. Dick saw the benefit of the proposal but explained he couldn’t order the scopes without approval from ComFit. This was an unusual “open” purchase; in fact, it was a first-time-ever buy, and expensive to boot. Dick, for this one, needed guidance from on high.
Hawk expected this and already had a plan on the drawing board that would bypass the normal torpid supply chain decision process. He’d fly RAdm. Gillcrist on an intercept sortie that would demonstrate the power and the tactical significance of the riflescope.
Joe “Crash” Zahalka, Black Lions’ senior and most experienced RIO, flew with RAdm. Gillcrist while Hawk and his RIO “Chief” served as the bogey during an intercept hop over the Pacific just southeast of San Clemente Island.
They flew slow-speed intercepts at 20,000 feet—slow speed to maximize the admiral’s time to “tweak” the riflescope. The intercepts began at 30 miles. When Crash called a radar lock at 20 miles, Hawk made a 90-degree turn to put his aircraft perpendicular to the admiral’s flight path and then rolled the aircraft to provide a planform view of all 63 feet of the Tomcat. The admiral made the transition from the HUD to the riflescope at a whopping 20 miles and was at once amazed to clearly identify the bogey as an F-14.
The crews returned to Miramar and debriefed in the ready room. The admiral was brimming with accolades concerning the Black Lions’ tactical breakthrough but was puzzled as to just what Hawk wanted him to do.
“Monroe, I’m completely impressed, but what do you need me for?”
“Admiral, it’s simple, really. I’d like you to endorse the system and give all your fighter squadrons approval to purchase the scopes.”
“That’s it? That’s all you need?”
“That’s it, sir!”
“Well, consider it done!”
And with that, all Miramar fighter squadrons had approval and, surprisingly, funding to purchase riflescopes.
For anyone interested in an unvarnished look at the career of an extraordinary Naval Aviator and fighter pilot, you could not hope to find a story better told than Donald Auten’s Black Lion One. Hawk’s record and exploits are not only legendary and entertaining to read, but provide many memorable lessons in leadership. My only regret in reading Black Lion One is that it ended far too quickly!
Black Lion One: TOPGUN Trailblazer Capt. John Monroe “Hawk” Smith in Command of VF-213 is published by Schiffer Publishing and is available to order here.
Photo credit: Robert L. Lawson and LCDR Ken Neubauer / U.S. Navy
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