“I looked at our rapidly increasing airspeed as we neared the end of the runway, and Crush yanked back on the stick to launch us into a steep nose-high climb,” Dave “Bio” Baranek, F-14 Tomcat RIO.
Dave “Bio” Baranek enjoyed a successful and satisfying 20-year career in the Navy, starting with assignments to F-14 squadrons as Tomcat Radar Intercept Office (RIO) and the elite TOPGUN training program, and later assignment to the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the US 7th Fleet. At one point, he commanded an F-14 Tomcat fighter squadron, responsible for nearly 300 people and 14 aircraft worth about $700 million. He completed his career with 2,499.7 F-14 Tomcat flight hours and 688 carrier landings.
The Grumman F-14A Tomcat was the first of the American teen-series fighters, which were designed incorporating air combat experience against MiG fighters during the Vietnam War. However despite the fact that the F-14 was a formidable dogfighter, what made the Tomcat unique was fleet air defense role. To accomplish this mission the aircraft was fitted with a powerful weapons system known as the AWG-9 which was able to support the AIM-54 Phoenix that provided an unprecedented one-hundred mile range and included a small onboard radar to guide itself to the target during the final phase of flight.
Because of the AWG-9’s impressive capabilities a RIO in the back seat of the F-14 was required to optimize it in various stages of a mission. But, as explained by Baranek in his book Before Topgun Days: The Making of a Jet Fighter Instructor, several stages of training were required to become a skilled F-14 Radar Intercept Officer.
Actually after one year spent at Naval Air Station (NAS) Pensacola, future RIOs progressed to the Replacement Air Group (RAG), a squadron aimed to train naval aviators in specific types of aircraft.
Bio was assigned to Fighter Squadron (VF) 124 Gunfighters at NAS Miramar, the RAG for West Coast Tomcat Fleet squadrons, where he was trained to become an F-14 RIO.
As he recalls in his book, among the first Tomcat flights there is one that stands out in his memories.
Shortly after having arrived at RAG, Bio flew a cross-country to Denver with his F-14 instructor pilot (IP), Ron “Crush” Gollhofer. As Baranek reports, the flight took place over a weekend: he and Crush along with their wingman landed at Buckley Air National Guard Base (now Buckley Air Force Base) just outside Denver. They stayed at Gollhofer parents’ home and went to a Broncos football game, but, as Bio explains, the highlight of the trip was their departure Sunday evening, which actually was the start of his third Tomcat flight.
Once ready to take off, Crush told Bio to request an “unrestricted climb:” if this procedure were cleared, they would not have had to conform to the stepped climb profiles that accommodated a wide variety of traffic, from propeller-driven Cessnas to Boeing 737s, and instead would be able to use their fighter’s power and zoom quickly to altitude. Although it seemed completely reasonable for a fighter, it was just a request that would have to be made, and granted or not. However since air traffic around Buckley was light the request was granted and Buckley Tower cleared Bio and Crush to take off and climb unrestricted to 18,000 feet.
To better understand what an unrestricted climb looks like Baranek in his book takes us in the cockpit of their Tomcat ready to go: “We took the runway. Crush pressed the brakes and ran the engines to military power, and the jet’s nose dipped. He wiped out the controls, throttled up to afterburner, checked the instruments, and asked if I was ready to go. I was, and he released the brakes. The nose popped up and we accelerated quickly. I called airspeeds, we rotated, and Crush raised the landing gear and leveled off to fly down the runway as we accelerated. In the evening darkness, I was keenly aware of the bright blue-white glow of flame from our engines forty feet behind me. Lights on hangars and buildings streaked by in my peripheral vision. I looked at our rapidly increasing airspeed as we neared the end of the runway, and Crush yanked back on the stick to launch us into a steep nose-high climb. ‘Buckley Tower, Navy November Juliet 426, airborne, switching Departure.’ I tried to sound like I belonged here, but I’m sure the controllers in the tower knew that I was both new and loving it. Since Buckley is about 5,600 feet above sea level, it took quite a bit less than thirty seconds for us to reach our assigned altitude of 18,000 feet. Crush smoothly leveled off while I rapidly switched through the Departure Control frequency and contacted Denver Center. We were cleared to climb to a higher altitude and start the route back to Miramar. I was storing all the sensations and images in my long-term memory, and looking forward to a nice flight home, when Crush said, ‘Okay, get some contacts on the radar.’”
Photo credit: all images used with permission of author Dave “Bio” Baranek