After working as a college intern at North American Rockwell, Pat O’Brien decided he wanted to be in flight test. When NAVAIR told him he could fly, he signed on. Months later he was flying in the rear cockpit of a brand-new F-14 Tomcat.
Pat O’Brien liked airplanes and was good in math and science. As a teenager he planned to join US Air Force ROTC to pay for college and continue into the Air Force to fly – it seemed like a natural as he was growing up in the late 1960s. But after he started at Ohio State University, an Air Force physical brought bad news. He recently told me, “They uncovered an old back injury that not only disqualified me from flying, but prevented me from even being in the service. No scholarship for me.”
O’Brien wasn’t easily deterred, however: as he worked toward a degree in aerospace engineering, he also worked three jobs to pay for college as well as flying lessons for a private pilot license. During his junior year he got an intern job with fabled North American Rockwell in Columbus, Ohio, working on the XFV-12A. (Bio note: Look that one up if you’re not familiar with it!) He says, “I found the job too structured. Several people tried to discourage me, but I decided I wanted to work in flight test.”
Nearing graduation, O’Brien interviewed with major aerospace companies and the US Navy’s Naval Air Systems Command (NAVAIR). When NAVAIR told him he could fly, he signed on. O’Brien received his diploma in June 1974, and reported to Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Maryland, in July to start work as part of the Naval Air Test Center (NATC). The base is commonly known as Pax River.
O’Brien recalls that the F-14 was conducting carrier suitability testing, but there were many other mundane flight test tasks such as validating antennas for the Tomcat’s various systems at multiple angles and ranges. O’Brien continues, “Navy pilots flew the aircraft, but they needed someone to align the INS (inertial navigation system) and handle other routine duties in the back seat. There weren’t many RIOs, and few engineers wanted to fly, so I went flying!” The flights would’ve been dull for experienced aircrews, but O’Brien enjoyed being in the Tomcat. He said the Navy assigned qualified Naval Flight Officers (NFOs) to fill the back seat for risky flights such as determining minimum speed for aircraft carrier catapult launches.
“I loved any flying! In addition to the F-14 I also flew in the F-4, S-3, KA-6, and others.” He told me about a memorable flight in a TA-7 Corsair II: the program had some extra flight time, so O’Brien manned up with a test pilot and they strafed and dropped practice bombs on a target hulk in the Chesapeake Bay!
O’Brien loved flying, but his real job was managing flight testing for the NATC Carrier Suitability department. He had to turn down some flights due to the demands of his job. But one of the memorable things about the job is that his name was painted on the rear cockpit of an F-14, bureau number 158613!
The Navy pilots he flew with sometimes played tricks on him. They would ask him to look at something on the left wing, and then roll the aircraft to the right, causing his head to hit the left side of the canopy. (Bio note: This is a common fighter pilot trick on new back seaters.) He viewed this as a sign of acceptance, that he could take a joke.
An interesting event during his time at Pax River was the drag race between an F-14 and famed racer Tom “Mongoose” McEwen for HOT ROD magazine (September 1975). If you look closely at several photos, you can see O’Brien’s name on the jet used for the test.
Unfortunately, O’Brien didn’t keep a logbook at NAVAIR. He estimates he had only a dozen or so flights in the F-14, and another dozen or so in other jets. His only traps (carrier arrested landings) were in other aircraft. But he made a lifetime of memories and, after a few years of being known simply as “The Rookie” he earned a callsign that has endured: PaddyO.
PaddyO stayed with NAVAIR until 1979, then left to pursue a different career. But he never lost his love of flying. He earned a commercial pilot license and instrument qual. Today he lives in St Petersburg, Florida, and flies both a Columbia 400 and an RV-8. He’s also on the advisory committee for his local airport.
His story is a reminder of the benefits of pursuing your dreams.
Bio is an occasional contributor to The Aviation Geek Club and the author of two books, Topgun Days and Before Topgun Days. His latest book, Tomcat RIO, was published in 2020.