Back in the old days, Crusader pilots arrogated to themselves a place among the pantheon of gods, and considered attack pilots to be lesser beings what with all the mud stirring they did. When they transition to Phantoms things were a little better, for the F-4 crews spent nearly as much time flying air-to-ground missions as did the A-4 and A-7 crews. By the time the F-14 Tomcat came along, the “pure” fighter mindset had returned to the fore, and although the aircraft had been designed to be capable of dropping air to ground ordnance, the mission was eschewed by the fighter crews as being an act of “lèse majesté.”
A few years later the FA-18 came along, with the capability to perform equally well in both the strike and fighter roles. The rivalry between the Hornet jocks and the Tomcat crews for pre-eminence was considerable, and it was – mostly – all in good fun.
I first met Mean Jim when I had just gotten my wings, and was sent back down to Pensacola for the Flight Instructor Training Course, which was designed to teach us the theory of learning. Like we hadn’t just spent the last 18-22 months on the stick end of that subject.
I don’t remember much of that time, when I was a mere nobbut JG with a world ahead of me, and only 18 purgatorial months as a Selectively Retained Graduate standing between me, the fleet, and my Navy Cross (which, for the record, still hasn’t shown up in the mail – I’m on the brink of despair). But I do remember Mean Jim.
He was a burly Tomcat RIO with a head of blond hair that seemed to be perpetually thinning, and he was armed with a rapier wit. When one pilot instructor mentioned that his Naval Flight Officer students were, well: Goofy. Mean Jim responded that he hadn’t noticed, what with all the goofy pilots out there on the tip o’ the actual spear flying no-kidding, fracking combat missions. Which sort of set the tone for the rest of the one-week class. Mean Jim was not to be lightly trifled with. In the world of naval aviation, where twisting the blade was considered a form of art, the man was a veritable Michelangelo.
I saw him again a couple of years later, he was a hinge (department head) for one of the simple fighter squadrons (as opposed to the nobler Strike Fighter Squadrons) of Carrier Air Wing 14, embarked aboard the World’s Finest Warship. His enthusiasm for placing the needle had if anything been augmented rather than reduced by his time in Pensacola. Only now his targets were the FA-18 squadrons rather than SERGRAD lieutenant junior grade instructor pilots.
Mean Jim was much given over to formulating and reciting doggerel at the Foc’s'l Follies ceremonies that marked the end of a line period at sea. His biting poetry does not survive in my archives, but I do recall that it had to do with “Mud Daubers” (Hornets) running out of “gas” (fuel), and set the Tomcat jocks to paroxysms of teary-eyed laughter. Themselves being as proud as peacocks, gifted with inexhaustible reservoirs of amour-propre and easily amused. The poems were simple stuff as contrasted to the Hornet squadrons’ presentations, many minutes of HUD camera video showing F-14s from the rear hemisphere. These were joyfully edited and displayed with inspirational musical scores. Which were of a very high quality of cinematic excellence, if memory serves.
Having in time o’er-come the tyranny of Pacific distances (or much of it) we found ourselves in the Philippines, where for some reason or another that no one ever bothered to explain to me, the air wing was disembarked to fly for a week from the Cubi Point Naval Air Station while the ship remained pierside at Subic Bay. We did not protest.
Cubi had a “composite” squadron of A-4 Skyhawks based at the airport, most of them two-seat trainers. For the male aviators stationed there the squadron was something of a boulevard for broken toys. For the female junior officers it was pretty good duty, cast aside the company they kept. They had gotten jets out of flight school, but- the combat exclusion laws still being in effect – couldn’t get a fleet seat. The squadron’s job was to drag banners for the blackshoes professional surface warfare officers to shoot at until their 5″ guns jammed, which happened with sufficient rapidity and regularity to render the mission something of a lark. When the opportunity arose, they would also fly as opposing forces in dissimilar air combat training for transiting air wings.
Not terrible work flying Scooters out of the PI, if you could get it. But neither was it career enhancing. In fact, it was something of a burial ground. Awfully hard on young marriages, as it turns out. But that’s another story.
A day came when we had prepared, briefed and were in the execution of an air wing alpha strike, with the Cubi scooters as our OPFOR. It was already hot and humid as we manned up at 0900, but the skies were burning blue and bejeweled with puffy cloud formations. In moments we had the blowers plugged in and were headed joyfully to our rendezvous circles with laughter in our heart, for it’s jolly fun to race around at 400 knots through the jungle-covered mountains and valleys the better to cast 25-pound “blue death” practice bombs at a defended target.
As was the custom of those days, the Tomcat guys – who continued to abure anything so prosaic as moving mud – pushed out in front of us on a fighter sweep, with every intention of clearing the skies of Skyhawks and then beating us back to the club for beers. After another turn or two at our holding point our turn came to follow them, and as I pushed out into combat spread on our initial course, I grabbed the towel rack on my canopy bow, stretching my neck and shoulders to look between my tails, just for the habit pattern that was in it. Because it’s the one you never see who gets you. Which is when I saw a Scooter parked at my lead’s six o’clock at two miles, closing rapidly.
This was something of a surprise. Adversaries typically being in front of you at the very beginning a fight, rather than alongside you in the holding circle.
Turns out that the the composite squadron folks – lacking radars, ground controllers, inertial navigation systems and pretty much everything else – had simply marshaled alongside our strike package, waiting for the various elements (fighter, air defense suppression, attack and electronic attack) to push out in sequence, joining them for a decent interval before calling them dead. Being in an “administrative” mindset prior to the fight’s on call, no one – your correspondent included – had noticed them.
“Break left” I hollered to my flight lead on the Aux Radio, which prolly came as a nasty surprise to him so early in the game. But he was a credit to his profession and broke as I’d directed – after 90 degrees of turn the bandit pitched off, allowing us to resume towards the target for the training that was in it. Which is when we heard the Tomcat four-ship in front of us get shot down on the strike common frequency by their very own bandits, in lilting and feminine tones, the shock, disgrace, and horror of it. Four highly trained fighter crews flying expensive, high tech fighters shot down in sequence. By girls.
The game plan called for “regeneration” at the target for those that had been called out, so the fighter sweep raced to that point to regain some shred of their dignity and get back into the fight. A few minutes later – with my own problems to work through, whizzing along atop the jungle canopy at 500 feet and keeping a sharp eye out for the logging wires that often spanned the valleys – I heard Mean Jim’s voice on the strike common frequency declare that the Tomcats were back alive: “We’re coming back,” he declared declaritively, adding ” we’re mad as hell.”
Which condition, if true – and I had no reason to doubt that it wasn’t – was probably not much ameliorated by the next call on the radio: “Atoll, Kill, southern F-14″, repeated in rapid succession until they were all pretty much dead again. The Scooter jocks knowing the target area, with all of its radar hidey holes, as well or better than anyone.
They were a might peckish in the debrief, and there were aspersions cast against the composite squadron’s professionalism. Not to mention the lack of realism and so on. Having shacked our targets and escaped unscathed, the Hornet bubbas were tempted to take the high road over the whole thing.
Tempted, but not, in the end, seduced.
A few weeks later we found ourselves in Diego Garcia, again debarked – the blackshoes professional surface warfare officers having profligately run through the gas money needed for to steam the ship – and it was time for yet another Foc’s'l Follies. And once again we were treated to one of Mean Jim’s poetic assaults on “Mud Daubers.” Only this time, I had penned a bit of doggerel of mine own, wherein the Cubi Alpha strike was immortalized in epic verse. Having been freed of shipboard duties explicitly for this purpose, I putted back out to the ship in a whaleboat over the crystal lagoon with a soft breeze stirring my hair, privately pleased at my performance, which had been received joyfully by the Hornet pilots, albeit somewhat less so by the Tomcat fellers.
That night they trashed the officer’s club, ketchup and mustard everywhere, crockery broken and furniture heaved into the waiting sea. The entire air wing was assessed non-trivial damages for the repair.
I partly blame myself.