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VF-213 Black Lions
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.
F-14 Tomcat maneuvering flaps
As both the Black Lions and Hawk soon learned the Tomcat was a beast, and a complex beast at that. But, as told by Donald Auten in his book Black Lion One: TOPGUN Trailblazer Capt. John Monroe “Hawk” Smith in Command of VF-213, the Grumman engineers were very successful in designing a fighter/interceptor that, despite its size, could turn with little jets and still sprint to supersonic airspeeds. They did this by maximizing the development of lift from as many surface areas and lifting devices as Possible, and fitting the Tomcat with thunderous engines.
At nominal and high angles of attack, such as those conditions encountered in ACM, the undersurface of the airplane generates a massive lifting force—in fact, about half the total lifting force is produced by the airframe. The 63-foot, high-aspect-ratio wing (when swept forward) and the ingenious design of variable slats and flaps greatly added to the lifting force generated by the airframe. In effect, the Tomcat built lift from the underside of airframe, the tapered variable-geometry wing, and several lifting devices on the wing, which changed the effective chord’ and camber’ of the wing.
The flap system had two primary modes: landing/takeoff and maneuvering. Further, the maneuvering mode had two types of operation: automatic and manual. In the automatic-maneuvering flap operation, the Alpha computer controlled the position of the flaps and the slats. Data inputs to the Alpha computer included airspeed, altitude, wing position, and angle pf attack. In this mode, the maneuvering flaps were positioned on the basis of the amount of force the pilot placed on the control stick. In response to that demand (and the other data inputs), the Alpha computer positioned the flaps and slats.
While it was “automatic” and took much of the guesswork out of the equation, it did not provide for full throw of the flaps, nor did it achieve full optimization of the flaps and slats.
There were a couple of other snags with the automatic mode: the time delay between demand and actual positioning of the flaps and slats, and the turbulence over the tail surfaces generated by the auxiliary (inboard) flaps.
In the “automatic” mode, the Alpha computer made flap and slat adjustments on the basis of data and pilot input supplied at that moment in time. It did not have the prescience to adjust flaps for aerodynamic demands that were about to happen; it could not divine the pilot’s future configuration needs. The pilot, of course, could. By using the “maneuver flap and slat thumbwheel” located on the left side of the stick grip, he could override the “automatic” feature. In effect, by toggling the thumbwheel the pilot could position the flaps and slats early, in anticipation of future needs, and avoid the inherent lag time associated with computer-controlled maneuvering flaps.
Manually deploying the F-14 Tomcat maneuvering flaps
The turbulence generated by the auxiliary flaps presented a different problem and required a different solution.
The auxiliary flaps were positioned inboard, close to the wing root and upstream of the horizontal and vertical stabilizers. During slow-speed maneuvering at a very high angle of attack, disturbed, turbulent air created by the auxiliary flaps flowed over and around those surfaces, reducing their effectiveness and pilot controllability.
Aircrew who had experimented with cutting the auxiliary flaps out of the circuit—keeping them from deploying by pulling the auxiliary flap circuit breaker—discovered that slow-spec hi-angle-of-attack controllability was greatly enhanced.
F-14 Tomcat maneuvering flaps to maximize the performance envelope
So, by manually deploying the maneuvering flaps and slats and deselecting the auxiliary flap circuit breaker, the pilots were able to vastly improve high-angle-of-attack, slow-speed maneuvering and controllability in three key areas: full mechanical throw of the maneuvering flaps, pre-positioning of the flaps and slats for future needs, and reduction of the turbulent airflow around the tail surfaces.
“Technically” it was a small thing, but in terms of maximizing the performance envelope of the Tomcat, it gave substantially better pitch and roll authority, rudder control, and general “pointability,” enhancing handling characteristics in the dogfight arena.
The tactical innovations and procedural initiatives developed by the Black Lions were not “close hold” secrets to be released only to those with knowledge of a secret fraternal-order handshake. These refinements were disseminated to all Tomcat squadrons in order to improve the breed and the mission effectiveness of the entire community.
Innovation and pioneering efforts were not limited to aircraft-maneuvering protocols. Hawk was adamant about maintaining section integrity throughout the flight. It chafed him mightily that the Navy’s foremost fighter was the only tactical aircraft not authorized to make section takeoffs.
F-14 Tomcat section takeoffs
During the 1979 F-14 NATOPS conference, the Black Lions submitted a change proposal to authorize section takeoffs’ for the Tomcat. “We [Navy],” Hawk wrote, “have the best and largest tactical fighter in the world, but the only fighter restricted from tactical section takeoffs. It’s important to initiate policy to maintain section integrity during the takeoff and throughout the flight, especially during conditions of poor weather. VF-213 hereby submits a change proposal to the F-14 NATOPS to prescribe tactical section takeoffs in order to enhance section integrity and safety.”
The change proposal was accepted without counterargument (a rare thing) and was incorporated into the F-14 NATOPS manual. This was a small but important victory for the Tomcat community, and a feather in the Black Lion warbonnet.
Donald Auten book’s Black Lion One
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!
According to Schiffer Publishing, this historical biography of John Monroe “Hawk” Smith, Navy fighter pilot, is a gripping account of valor, sacrifice, and adventure during one of the most tumultuous periods in carrier aviation.
– Hawk, having completed a stunning tour as commanding officer of TOPGUN, received orders to a frontline F-14 Tomcat squadron—VF-213, the “Black Lions.”
– Hawk joined the Black Lions prior to their March 1979 deployment. Several critical factors portended to a most arduous workup period and deployment—there were issues lurking. But Hawk was a man who did not shy away from a challenge.
– Soon, the Lions would have opportunities to show their colors.
– These included the first-ever Fighter Derby at NAS Miramar, California—the “World Cup” for naval fighter squadrons, and Constant Peg, a highly classified “Black Program” that exposed aircrews to the capabilities of Soviet fighters.
Aviation enthusiasts and historians will be captivated by the historical fidelity and descriptive air combat engagements, amused by the perpetual mirth of TACAIR aviators, and inspired by lessons of leadership that apply to all walks of life.
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 / U.S. Navy