Short sea story:
One of my first training command CO’s had last flown the RF-8P before taking command of the training squadron. The RF-8P was a photo-reconnaissance version of the venerable Crusader jet – last of the gunfighters. The F-8 cohort were hard men, and they threw themselves into the art and science of air combat knowing their lives depended upon it. They played hard ball in the air, even in training: Mishap rates for the single engine gunfighter were atrocious compared to the newer F-4 Phantoms just coming on line during the Vietnam war.
The Navy had placed a huge investment in advanced combat systems in the F-4 Phantom to increasingly take the aircrew out of the loop, meaning that dangerous air combat training could reduced or eliminated – smart missiles would make up for dumb pilots. The Navy tried to tie the hands of the Crusader crews during training as well, but that proved a much harder policy to enforce in the single seat fighter community. Their Spartan devotion to the art of air combat paid off: The F-8 had the highest kill ratio of any US aircraft in Vietnam.
The Navy Fighter Weapons School – TOPGUN – was instituted as much as anything else because we’d come to rely on the technology of the box more than the capability of the man flying it. It was a successful expenditure of resources: Navy kill ratios after the Weapons School’s debut went from 2.3:1 to 13:1.
There were two F-14 squadrons in my CO’s air wing, which kept the RF-8 jocks busy since the only thing that Tomcat crews liked better than pictures of themselves was having somebody else around to take the picture, and hopefully coo approvingly.
The plan was for my CO to complete his own RF-8 mission and then rendezvous overhead the carrier prior to recovery to use his on board cameras to catch the perfect, four ship diamond – a hero shot for proud display on the F-14 squadron’s ready room bulkhead. He found the four ship as they were returning to mother, dialed up their squadron common frequency in his aux radio during their descent and began giving them helpful hints on how to fly a better looking formation, while noting dispassionately that they’d leveled off at angels three overhead the ship, vice the 2,000 feet they’d told him to expect.
Getting formation advice from a Crusader guy was probably hard on the Tomcat crews’ egos, because – you guessed it – for fighter guys it’s better to die than look bad. It wasn’t always easy to look good in a Tomcat though. The jet carried a lot of gas, had a big radar and could go like a striped-ass baboon in full grunt, but there was just so much of it and the whole thing could be damned awkward to handle, especially in slow speed flight. It wasn’t for nothing that the jet earned the nickname “Turkey” behind the ship. Lots of moving parts.
But the RF-8 jocks were proud of their work as well, and so your man wanted to take a great picture for future generations of F-14 pilots and NFOs to point at with pride. Nor did it hurt tweaking them a bit, I imagine. To their growing frustration, my CO continued to provide helpful hints to get them into the proper “parade” formation:
Him: Slot, forward a bit – you’re sucked.
Slot: How’s this?
Him: A little more. Right wing, you’re loose, close it in. In fact, you guys are all kind of loose – let’s see some formation flying.
Flight lead: (Tremulously) How’s this?
Flight lead: (Harshly) And now?
Him: Closer still, you’re showing me nothing here.
Flight lead: TAKE THE FRACKING PICTURE FER DOG’S SAKE!!!
My CO took the picture, cleared the Tomcats back to a loose cruise formation and then – in the best traditions of the naval service – cut them out of the pattern for a sh!t hot break. Once on deck he took his photo roll straight to the ship’s intel center to be developed, only to shake his head sadly at the wretchedly loose formation. Were there no standards in this new fighter community?
The F-14 crews wandered in shortly afterwards, clearly shaken from the experience and wringing the sweat out of their flight suits. My CO showed the prints to the flight lead, asking, “Really, is this the best you guys can do out there? It looks like a cruise formation instead of parade. Very sloppy. There used to be pride in fighters.”
The Tomcat lead took one look at the picture and said to my CO, rage simmering in his voice: “That’s not us, you moron! You took a picture of our sister squadron at angels 3! We were at angels 2, like we briefed, flying two feet away from each other in 50,000 pound airplanes squeezing the black juice out of the stick!”
The light came on: The CO had been sitting atop the wrong formation of Tomcats issuing “get closer” instructions to another four ship across the rendezvous circle that he didn’t even have visual contact with. He extricated himself with a quick, “My bad,” and bustled out the hatch.
It was Crusaders. Stuff happened.