F-14 Tomcat

Tomcat RIO recalls Challenging Long-range Practice Strike where his F-14 flew with an overlooked protective cap on one AIM-9 Sidewinder

Tomcat RIO

So there we were, Hap and me in our F-14A Tomcat, in filthy mid-November weather at 3 AM, flying on a long-range strike as fighter escort for some A-6 Intruders. Nights weren’t always pitch black, but, as you can read in my book Tomcat RIO, those are the flights you remember.

The briefing had started at 10 PM. As a spare, I was tempted to give it my full inattention, but there was always a slim chance we might launch.

At 2 AM—you knew this was coming—we launched.

A VF-2 F-14A Tomcat screams above the USS Ranger steaming in the Pacific Ocean off the San Diego coast. (DoD photo by LCDR David Baranek)

It was November 1988. I was a RIO with the Bounty Hunters of Fighter Squadron 2 (VF-2), aboard the USS Ranger for a month of pre-deployment training. On this night we were off the coast of Baja California. My pilot for this flight was Hap.

As the catapults started hurling aircraft off the deck, Hap and I sat in our turning spare, anticipating returning below deck soon and having a midnight snack. But then one of our squadron’s Tomcats went down, the flight deck crew ran over to our jet, and soon we were on the cat, spewing flames from our afterburners. The moon had set before midnight, so we launched into blackness.

Rendezvous with the strikers and a KA-6 tanker

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

Hap and I rendezvoused overhead with the strikers and a KA-6 tanker. The group pushed northeast and everyone took on a few thousand pounds of fuel.

The plan for this strike called for everyone to top off at the start, and that tanker would immediately return to the carrier. Why refuel when we just took off? For one thing, we had burned some 2,000 pounds of fuel just getting a thirty-three-ton Tomcat five miles up. Once up at altitude, and flying realistic strike speed, that 2,000 pounds would give Tomcats and Intruders about 150 nautical miles additional range. Another tanker waited in the darkness ahead.

After topping off we climbed higher for the long flight. The A-6s were assigned a target in Utah’s Wendover Bombing Range, a trip of 600 nautical miles each way. For the Intruders it would be good training for the upcoming deployment. No bandits were lurking behind every cloud, so for the Tomcats it was a dry run.

A VF-2 Tomcat in formation with an A-6E Intruder from VA-145, above the North Arabian Sea in October 1987, during the six-month deployment of USS Ranger.

Los Angeles is nothing less than spectacular when you see it from the sky at night. We took in the view through breaks in the clouds, which soon obscured the ground completely. As the weather worsened, the flight spread out, first into two-plane sections, then singles, then at different altitudes to avoid collisions. Good radio contact seemed to be the only thing holding us together in the severe weather.

Refueling from an Air Force KC-10

Then things got complicated. It was time to refuel from an Air Force KC-10.

Hap didn’t say much, but I’m sure he felt some of the trepidation I did. In the North Arabian Sea we would spot the tanker’s lights from 50 miles and join in a controlled formation, but now our air traffic controller had us hold while the strike leader discussed Plan B with the tanker crew.

An A-6E from VMA(AW)-121 takes fuel from a KC-10 in the late afternoon above the North Arabian Sea in October 1987, during the six-month deployment of USS Ranger.

On ICS Hap asked me about our radar. “You said the scope is good. Can you see the A-6s and bad cells of weather?”

“Yup, I’m staying in search and watching everything in front of us. I can see the tanker sometimes.” That made us both feel better.

I hadn’t flown much with Hap, but I was comfortable with him in this mess. He hadn’t logged much time in Tomcats, but he’d learned a lot about them during his first flying tour as an adversary in the Philippines. He was an Air Force kid, and after college he wanted to fly. The Air Force recruiters seemed to be dragging their feet, so he went Navy. Both services were steering him toward training as a back-seater, even though he had 20/15 vision. He finally won Navy pilot training and excelled.

A VF-2 Tomcat refuels from a KC-10 above the North Arabian Sea in October 1987, during the six-month deployment of USS Ranger.

Tomcat RIO and the “Bat signal” for aerial refueling

As the KC-10 crew searched for a clear area, our strike plan was falling behind schedule. Several aircraft were in heavier clouds and felt their safety was compromised, so they diverted to NAS Lemoore. The Ranger had made sure the airfield would be open for just such a situation, but refueling was delayed due to storms, so they landed and waited.

Hap asked if I thought we should divert. I said I was comfortable but would keep it in mind. It was good to get that option on the table.

The KC-10 finally found a gap in the clouds and we all gathered for a fill-up. When it was our turn, Hap eased up to the basket. Something in my peripheral vision got my attention. The KC-10 was flying along the side wall of a well-defined cloud. To help us get oriented, they had turned on the spotlight that illuminates the tail, a holdover from the aircraft’s origin as an airliner. It projected a circle of light on the clouds with a silhouette of the tail fin.

A RIO’s view of tanking from a KC-10. I took this during an evening mission supporting Operation Earnest Will, flying above the North Arabian Sea in October 1987.

This was our “Bat signal” for aerial refueling. Although I sometimes question this recollection, I know I saw it. Too bad I couldn’t get a photo, but for an overnight mission like this I didn’t even take my camera.

With all tanks full, the remaining aircraft continued the mission. The A-6s dropped their bombs while we circled nearby. Then we all headed south to hit the Ranger’s deck.

Overlooked protective cap on one AIM-9 Sidewinder

The sun was up as we approached the ship, and a small “situation” emerged. In the scramble to break down our spare and get it launched, something was overlooked: the protective cap on one of our AIM-9 Sidewinders. The missile wasn’t visible from the cockpit and there was no air-to-air portion of the mission, so we had no idea the cap was still on the missile until we checked in with Ranger at the end of the flight.

Photo taken by our wingman showing the overlooked protective cap on the nose of our AIM-9 Sidewinder. It was embarrassing, but there was no damage and a lesson was learned. (DoD photo by LT Tony Moore)

They had taken inventory after the launch, discovered the cap was missing, and figured out where it probably was. Since we couldn’t see it from the cockpit and they really wanted to know, the ship had another VF-2 jet join on us, and they verified the cap was on the missile.

It was unlikely the rubber cap would come off when we trapped, but flight deck personnel were extra cautious. We landed without incident and debriefed.

Hap and I logged 5.1 hours. Despite the drop-outs and cap snafu, the air wing could chalk up a 600-mile strike.

Bio’s latest book, Tomcat RIO: A Topgun Instructor on the F-14 Tomcat and the Heroic Naval Aviators Who Flew It, is available now from online retailers. To learn more about the author and his career, visit www.topgunbio.com.

This Model is Available from AirModels! CLICK HERE TO GET YOURS.

Photo credit: all images used with permission of author Dave “Bio” Baranek

Dave Bio Baranek

Dave "Bio" Baranek was an F-14 RIO and Topgun instructor. He retired from the Navy in 1999 and has written three books about his flying experiences. His latest book, Tomcat RIO, was published in 2020. His website is www.topgunbio.com.

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