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Roger Ball!: The Odyssey of John Monroe "Hawk" Smith Navy Fighter Pilot

Roger Ball!: The Odyssey of John Monroe "Hawk" Smith Navy Fighter Pilot

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Roger Ball!: The Odyssey of John Monroe "Hawk" Smith Navy Fighter Pilot

4.5/5 (3 évaluations)
697 pages
10 heures
Oct 17, 2008


"Roger Ball! is a magnificent read about a great and distinguished life well lived. John Monroe Smith is a living legend in Naval aviation: an all-American boy living his dream, a dream of becoming the best fighter pilot and carrier aviator in the Navy. He succeeded in being the best in a way that only one with unbridled passion, fierce commitment, boundless energy, unconditional dedication and relentless resolve can experience."
-Ed Allen, Rear Admiral, USN (Retired)

In the wake of the hard lessons of the Vietnam War, a pantheon of committed naval aviators struggled valiantly to modernize fighter aircraft and overhaul tactics. It was a seemingly titanic task marked by political intrigue, doctrinal apoplexy, and sadly, petty politics.

This is the personal story of one of those naval aviators, Captain John Monroe "Hawk" Smith. It chronicles his growth as a naval officer, his seasoning as a fighter pilot, and his hardening as a commanding officer. It tells of the raw courage of naval aviators and captures the visceral loyalty, unswerving commitment, and the unsinkable camaraderie that is the brotherhood of naval aviation.

Roger Ball! is a seven-g, heart-in-the-throat story of the very unforgiving profession of naval aviation.
Oct 17, 2008

À propos de l'auteur

Donald E. Auten, Captain, USNR, was a career naval officer before retiring in 1998. Although originally trained as a light attack pilot, he was selected for the Navy adversary warfare specialty, graduated from TOPGUN?s fighter and adversary courses, and became an adversary instructor pilot. Donald completed six squadron assignments, including a commanding officer tour in VFC-12. He has logged nearly five thousand hours. He lives with his wife and two Labradors in Coronado, California.

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Roger Ball! - Admiral Leighton W. Smith

The Odyssey of John Monroe Hawk

Smith Navy Fighter Pilot

Donald E. Auten

Foreword by

Admiral Leighton W. Smith

USN, retired

iUniverse Star

New York Bloomington Shanghai

Roger Ball!

The Odyssey of John Monroe Hawk Smith Navy Fighter Pilot

Copyright © 2006, 2008 by Donald E. Auten

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced by any means, graphic, electronic, or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, taping or by any information storage retrieval system without the written permission of the publisher except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews.

iUniverse Star

an iUniverse, Inc. imprint

iUniverse books may be ordered

through booksellers or by contacting:


1663 Liberty

Drive Bloomington, IN 47403


1-800-Authors (1-800-288-4677)

Because of the dynamic nature of the Internet, any Web addresses or links contained in this book may have changed since publication and may no longer be valid.

Photo credits—courtesy of J. Monroe Smith, Captain, USN (Retired) and

Senior Chief Robert L. Lawson, PHCS (AC), USN (Retired). Photographs on book cover provided by Senior Chief Robert L. Lawson, PHCS (AC), USN (Retired).

ISBN: 978-1-60528-005-9 (pbk)

ISBN: 978-0-595-60382-4 (cloth)

ISBN: 978-0-595-60012-0 (ebk)

Printed in the United States of America.





Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20





To Miss Jenny and the thousands of women who perform the toughest job in the Navy

—the Navy wives.

Lord, guard and guide the men who fly, Through the great spaces in the sky.

—Navy Hymn


Roger Ball! doesn’t just take you into the fighter pilot’s cockpit as so many fine books about aviation have done. This book puts the reader inside the skin of one of the Navy’s true characters. John Monroe Hawk Smith, as described by Duck Auten, was a fun-loving, raucous, irreverent, hell-bent-for-leather southern boy whose only real desire in life initially was to be the best fighter pilot in the Navy. He loved every aspect of that profession, was damn good at it, and devoted thirty years of his life helping make Navy fighter pilots the most lethal weapon in our military arsenal. And to his credit, Hawk’s contributions to fighter tactics, techniques, and procedures are still applicable and relevant to today’s strike-fighter mission.

Roger Ball! makes for an exciting story and Duck does one hell of a job immersing the reader in all aspects of naval carrier aviation and keeping him engaged throughout a very compelling, true story. So, strap in and enjoy a great read and one hell of a ride!

—Leighton Warren Smith

Admiral, U.S. Navy (Retired)


Roger Ball! is the clipped radio transmission the Landing Signal Officer (LSO) makes to the pilot of an aircraft as he commences his final approach to the deck of a carrier. It means that the LSO has sight of the aircraft, it is in the proper configuration for landing, and it is within parameters to continue the approach. In naval aviation lexicon Roger Ball! most simply means, You’re looking good. Keep it coming!

Appropriately, Roger Ball! is also the title of a historical biography of a Navy fighter pilot. It chronicles the life experiences of John Monroe Hawk Smith from his earliest days, his budding infatuation with jet aircraft, to his many adventures and experiences as a Navy fighter pilot.

Long before I met Hawk, I’d heard of him. He was a legend in the fighter community. My first knowledge of Hawk came in October 1976. I had reported to VA-27 aboard USS Enterprise several months after Hawk had departed for orders to Naval Fighter Weapons School—TOPGUN. As a squadron LSO, I spent quite a bit of time on the LSO platform. There, I was treated to a steady stream of Hawkisms, quotes, anecdotes, nonstandard LSO terminology, and countless sea stories. Clearly, Hawk had made an indelible impression on the LSOs and, as I came to discover, on the entire airwing. When Hawk’s name was uttered, it was done with warm smiles and in reverent tones. I became quite curious about this man.

As my three-year tour with VA-27 was about to wind up, I was introduced to a squadron at NAS Lemoore that provided dissimilar air combat training and adversary support. After three years and nearly eight hundred hours flying the A-7E Corsair, an eleven-ton dump truck, in the air-to-mud mission, I was ready for a change of mission and platform. In September 1979, I received orders to VA-127, the Pacific Fleet Adversaries.

All adversary pilots were required to complete the TOPGUN adversary course prior to certification as adversary instructors. I reported to TOPGUN in February 1980 and discovered that Hawk had been the commanding officer of TOPGUN until March 1978. Again, I’d missed him, but evidence of his presence was everywhere—in the tales of his airmanship, in the changes he had driven in modernizing fighter doctrine, in the expansion of tactics training to fleet units, and also in the professionalism and obvious pride of the TOPGUN instructors. My curiosity grew.

I spent three years in VFA-127 and, much to my happy surprise, was rewarded with yet another adversary squadron assignment, this time to VFC-13 at NAS Miramar, Fightertown USA, in San Diego, California. I reported in June of 1982 as the Squadron Safety Officer.

Miramar had been Hawk’s stomping ground and although he was assigned to the USS Ranger (CV-61) at the time, according to the scuttlebutt, Hawk was coming back home.

My big moment to actually meet the man came in August of 1983 when he returned to Fightertown as the Fighter Wing Operations Officer. After six years of hearing about Hawk and seeing the results of his work, I was eager to meet him.

Although Hawk held a prominent position at Fighter Wing and his time was in high demand, he always made himself available to his shipmates. From the senior officers that regularly visited the Wing to the greenest recruit airman with a problem—Hawk made time for them all. I scheduled an appointment with him, an all-too-transparent meeting to review VFC-13’s mishap plan. That first meeting was not disappointing.

For the next ten years, our professional paths crossed many times. From 1989 through 1990, it was my great fortune to work for Hawk at Naval Air Forces, Atlantic Fleet headquarters (COMNAVAIRLANT). It was a surprise to no one that Hawk was quickly recruited to the front office: Chief of Staff of COMNAVAIRLANT under Vice Admiral Jack Stinger Ready. Admiral Ready had been Hawk’s first fleet pilot and a longtime friend. It wasn’t this relationship, however, that moved Hawk to the front office.

I’d worked for many senior naval officers by this time and had never been disappointed with their leadership styles or qualities, but Hawk was different. He was a cut above. He exuded all those traits ingrained in the senior officer ranks but had a most spectacular knack for energizing, organizing, and pointing people toward worthy goals. He was not a disciplinarian. He did not lead from the rear. He never scolded or badgered. People followed him because they wanted to, because they believed in him, because if he told you to take a hill, you knew he’d be there first.

Hawk was a bit of an anomaly. He was politically attuned but, paradoxically, not politically motivated. He was deeply committed to the Navy but also outspoken, unwavering, and quick to identify and correct problems regardless of the political fallout or personal sensitivities. Some of Hawk’s attributes did not always ingratiate him with the Navy hierarchy, but his approach to problem solving was something the Navy desperately needed.

My time at COMNAVAIRLANT was the most formative years of my naval leadership development. It was the first time I’d been out of the cockpit and my first staff job. I hated it, but I learned more about leadership, group psychology, and team building in two years from watching Hawk in action than I had in the previous fifteen.

In 1990 I was ordered to Naval War College followed shortly after by a commanding officer assignment to VFC-12, an adversary squadron at NAS Oceana. My time in the cockpit was welcomed indeed but only a brief interlude. Before I knew it, I was deep within bowels of the Pentagon performing payback for my command tour. In August 1993, I received a call from Hawk. He informed me that he was retiring. The news hit me like a wrecking ball. It was difficult to imagine the Navy or tactical aviation without Hawk. He’d been such a part of both.

Hawk retired from the Navy on 1 October 1993 after a thirty-year career of extraordinary achievements for the Navy and unwavering devotion to the people who served it.

I completed my Pentagon assignment in 1993 and was awarded a major shore command in San Diego, not far from where Hawk and his lovely wife, Miss Jenny, had retired. This was indeed fortunate, not only because I was back in San Diego but also because my wife, Katie, and I had an opportunity to catch up with Hawk and Miss Jenny.

I retired in 1998 and finally had time to engage a project that had been on my mind for years. I wanted to tell a true story about modern naval fighter aviation. I quickly realized it was impossible to tell this story without recounting the evolution of naval fighter aviation and calling attention to some of those who drove the changes. And, I discovered, it was most difficult to sketch the exhilaration, feeling of achievement, and rollicking fun of carrier aviation without also addressing the terror, anguish, and personal sacrifices of everyday heroes working in one of the world’s most unforgiving and lethal environments.

I was equipped with many of my own experiences to draw from: deployments, ship operations, air combat training, and command responsibilities—but I wanted a different frame of reference.

During my career, following the lessons of the Vietnam War, I watched the renaissance of Navy TACAIR unfold. I was an observer to the ascension of TOPGUN, fleet introduction of the F-14 Tomcat, initial trials of the FA-18

Hornet, the largest, most expensive air combat evaluation in history, ACEVAL/ AIMVAL, and the overhaul in fleet tactics training. Hawk, conversely, was, in varying degrees, concentric to all these achievements.

I wanted to explain the significance of these milestones in the Navy fighter mission, but I was compelled to report them through the experiences of someone who had been involved with them. I realized I needed to tell Hawk’s story.

When I first broached the subject, Hawk responded in typical humble fashion, Write about somebody famous. Write about a hero. Write about somebody with lots of combat time. True, Hawk was not famous and had very little combat time, but he was a hero. He was one of those who worked without fanfare—too absorbed in the mission, too busy trying to make good things happen to draw any attention to himself.

I was relentless. After four years of pestering Hawk, in a weak moment, he conceded. We began work on Roger Ball! 1 July 2002.

Research, initially, was slow. I was convinced that to tell the story the way it needed to be told, to enrich authenticity and accuracy, I had to crawl into Hawk’s brain and explore the inner workings of his mind, to understand what he did, how and why he did it, and describe his drives and concerns. I wanted to understand and convey his innermost thought processes in aerial engagements, life-death crises, times of great internal conflict, and during those lonely times of uncertainty when one has to choose between conviction and convenience—between right and wrong.

Much to my happy surprise, Hawk was open and proactive. He willingly transported me back to the scene of events, to render historical, technical, and personal detail to the many stories captured in this work. I spent thousands of hours researching history, tactics, aircraft, weapons systems, fighter performance characteristics, and hundreds more interviewing Hawk and many of those who influenced the dramatic changes in the Navy’s fighter community. Not surprisingly, gathering details of events, conversations, specific nuances, and personal recollections after the passage of three decades was difficult. I must confess, I had help in fusing the parts of this story together.

This work reflects the efforts of numerous people who improved the technical accuracy, the historical fidelity, and offered small clusters of important personal recollections that could not be found in official documents or historical records. For their efforts in breathing life into Roger Ball! I wish to thank the following individuals: Admiral Leighton W. Smith, USN (Retired); Vice Admiral Michael T. Bucchi, USN (Retired); Rear Admiral John R. Wilson, Jr., USN (Retired); Rear Admiral Paul T. Gillcrist, USN (Retired); Rear Admiral Jay A. Campbell, USN (Retired); Captain Ronald E. McKeown, USN (Retired);

Captain Clinton L. Smith, USN (Retired); Commander Richard K. Pottratz, USN (Retired); Commander Katherine S. Auten, USNR (Retired); Commander Joseph H. Zahalka, USN (Retired); Commander Richard A. Redditt, USN (Retired); Colonel Earl Young, USA (Retired); Commander Joseph F. Satrapa, USN (Retired); Commander Jeremy Gillespie, USN; Major Chris Guarnieri, USMC; Mr. John Sherwood (Naval Historian); Senior Chief Robert L. Lawson, PHCS (AC), USN (Retired); Sergeant Alan J. Weiss, USAF (Retired); Technical Sergeant Yancy Mailes, USAF; Mr. Mark Evans (Naval Historian); Mr. Robert Young (Naval Historian).

Finally, but most importantly, I also wish to thank the person who, more than any, gave me criticism, enthusiasm, and a steady wind over the deck: Colonel John Grider Miller, USMC, (Retired).

John Monroe Hawk Smith will never be a household name, but I hope this work paints a portrait of a U.S. military officer, like thousands serving America today, who was willing to work and struggle, often at great personal risk, for those principles, people, and institutions he held dear.

If Roger Ball! is enlightening, these men and women helped make it that way. If it is poignant, I have successfully told Hawk’s story.


Beyond all things is the ocean.

—Seneca, 4 BC-AD 65

The USS Enterprise (CVN-65) steamed peacefully a hundred miles off the coast of South Vietnam. It was mid-December 1974, and the carrier held her position beneath a blue sky in the South China Sea.

The Treaty of Paris had been signed on 27 January 1973. Based on that agreement, the last U.S. combat troops had left Vietnam on 29 March and the prisoners of war had been returned on 1 April 1973. But the peace was shortlived. Both sides reengaged in war by January 1974. Some Americans still remained in South Vietnam, and actions were under way to evacuate all U.S. personnel and many South Vietnamese loyal to the U.S. government.

In preparation for the evacuation, U.S. military elements remaining in South Vietnam were tasked to maintain a presence, inhibit the spread of hostilities, and safeguard U.S. personnel and interests. This called for a precarious balancing act. U.S. armed forces had to appear powerful, alert, and capable—without being unduly provocative.

The Enterprise was one of the many vehicles essential in maintaining that balance. She was the world’s first nuclear-powered carrier and emblematic of American ingenuity and resolve.

Back home the politicians, the media, and the nation at large had virtually written off the war: a war that had no clear end-state, no tangible national benefits, and the lives of too many Americans lost. This reality, however, neither diluted the mission of the Enterprise nor denuded the carrier’s enormous strategic significance.

She was a thousand feet long and ninety-five thousand tons of compelling big-stick diplomacy. With a sustained speed of more than thirty-two knots, she could reach any navigable point on any sea in two weeks. She carried more than eighty aircraft with a strike capability greater than the military forces of most nations. Her primary mission was power projection, but on this day, and in the weeks that would follow, she was tasked to maintain forward presence.

She steamed over the horizon, out of sight of the Vietnamese leadership but never far from mind. She represented a constant and indelible reminder that the United States wanted peace, but more than that she wanted her people back.

More than 5,500 sailors and Marines served the ship. They represented all races, ethnicities, and stations in life. Each man had individual responsibilities, but the entire crew worked toward a common mission: to sail their ship and to launch, recover, and maintain their aircraft. All hands understood this, and all were committed to it.

Lieutenant Commander John Monroe Smith, USN, call sign Hawk, was one such member of the Enterprise team. Born and raised in Columbia, South Carolina, he was the product of a close family and public schools and raised at a time when community ties and national pride both ran deep. Of average height, he had sandy blond hair and hazel eyes and was well muscled from decades of competitive sports and motorcycle racing. Even in his early years he was interested in airplanes and awestruck by jets. He had no idea that he could actually fly Navy until 1963, when a recruiter suggested that he consider a career in naval aviation.

According to the Navy entrance exams, Hawk had above-average intelligence and an unusual flair for understanding kinematic relationships, spatial-orientation problems, and electro-mechanical systems. His hand-eye coordination skills and reflexes also were above average. His only deficiency lay in his reluctance to acknowledge that he was not bulletproof. By all indicators he had the skills, attributes, and requisites of a Navy fighter pilot.

Now, eleven years after that chance meeting with the recruiter, Hawk still considered himself fortunate beyond measure to be able to serve his nation and his Navy and to fly fast airplanes. Few could be so blessed.

Hawk was Carrier Air Group 14’s landing signal officer (LSO) and attached to the airwing staff. The fact that he had three previous assignments in Fighter Squadrons—one as an F-4 radar intercept officer (RIO), one as an F-4 Phantom pilot, and one as an F-14 Tomcat operational test pilot in Air Test and Evaluation Squadron Four—qualified him to fly the F-14As assigned to both Fighter Squadron One (VF-1) and Fighter Squadron Two (VF-2)—the fighter force of CAG-14.

Hawk was scheduled to fly an F-14 on a combat air patrol mission off the Vietnamese coast. He and his RIO, Lieutenant Joe Crash Zahalka, had just completed the mission brief and were headed to maintenance control to review the aircraft data book for Bullet 205, one of twelve F-14As assigned to VF-2.

Crash was a mainstay in VF-2 and a longtime friend of Hawk’s. They had served together in VX-4. Hawk had been the F-14 project officer, and Crash had assisted him on several F-14 projects. Considering their combined F-14 experience, it was highly unlikely that there was any pilot/RIO team more technically knowledgeable and flight experienced in the Tomcat than these two.

In maintenance control they scanned the aircraft data book, checked the fuel load, and verified the weapons loadout: two AIM-9D Sidewinders, two AIM-7F Sparrows, and a full load of 20mm ammunition—standard load-out for the combat air patrol mission. They signed the book, donned helmets, and made their way to the flight deck.

Hawk paused on the steel flight deck, seven stories above the water, and took in the sights and sounds of the world’s most lethal three acres. Everywhere he looked he saw movement, not the arbitrary sashays of people with nothing to do and all day to do it but an intricate choreography of men with a mission, men with intent and purpose, men preparing for the next launch.

Hawk breathed in the scenery. Blue prevailed in various shades and intensities. The sea, a rich cobalt blue that shimmered and glistened in the sun’s rays, gave way to the light blue of the sky at the horizon. Only occasional cumulus buildups, towering above the sea, marred the purity of this perfect neon sky.

The clatter of chains being dragged across the flight deck, the wail of the huffers cranking up, and the whisper of the sea wind over the deck were com-mon—and to Hawk—welcome sounds.

Hawk took a step toward his jet but was then captured by a familiar sensory assault. A noxious blend of potent aromas engulfed him: tire rubber, cable grease, paint, catapult steam, jet fuel, and jet-engine exhaust assailed his senses and stung his eyes. Individually, each was unpleasant enough. Collectively they were the reassuring fragrances of the mission, the ambrosia of a warship, the essence of life at its very best. Hawk subconsciously knew no matter how long he lived he would never again breathe in these scents without being transported back to the flight deck of a carrier.

Hawk shook off the reverie and refocused on the task. Crash had just begun the preflight check when Hawk arrived. Hawk climbed the ladder to the front cockpit and laid his helmet bag, kneeboard, and flight pubs on the starboard console and checked each of the thirty-six inspection items on the seat. He then climbed back down the ladder to begin the preflight. Hawk looked at each inspection panel, hinge pin, drain line, fastener, latch, flight control surface, and quick disconnect. He studied both engine intakes and both tailpipes. He ensured that each of the three landing gear and four missiles had safety pins installed. His eyes scanned everything visible and his hands touched everything within reach. When he was satisfied that the Tomcat was airworthy, he remounted the steps to the cockpit and strapped himself in.

Electrical power brought the cockpit to life, and Hawk initiated an internal communications system check with Crash. Crash was good to go. Hawk raised two fingers and the enlisted plane captain dutifully applied huffer air to start the massive jet engines. Hawk made several other system checks—all good. He placed his hand above the canopy bow, in line with the center windscreen and cycled the rain-removal switch—nothing. He paused, verified that he had moved the correct switch and cycled it again—still no air movement. Hawk exhaled heavily and considered the problem.

In his mind’s eye, he reviewed the bleed air and electrical system to determine if there was a circuit breaker or another switch that might affect the rain-removal system. No, this was binary, when the switch was on, bleed air from the engine was directed to the center panel of the windscreen to blow water and ice off the bulletproof glass. When turned off, the air stopped.

Hawk considered the flight-risk factors. It was a clear day with steady winds, a moderate sea, and small cotton-ball clouds in the area. Hawk thought, what can possibly go wrong on a day like this?

Availability of the F-14 was not good, owing to the fact that this was the first deployment of the mighty Tomcat, and parts support was shaky at best. There was no telling when he’d be able to get another Tomcat hop. And it occurred to Hawk that if they didn’t get airborne, they might miss a chance to bag a North Vietnamese MiG. So far the Vietnamese Air Force had not taken aggressive action toward U.S. aircraft. Today, however, could be the day they mounted a massive saturation strike on the Enterprise, and Hawk could miss out if he didn’t launch.

The peer-pressure angle also was nibbling at him. Could he really stand the blast from the ready-room cowboys once they found out he cancelled a flight for something so insignificant as a rain-removal problem?

Finally, there were the competence and confidence factors. Hawk knew the airplane; he knew his limits as a carrier pilot; he knew the ship’s capabilities; and he knew the weather patterns. He was confident that he could get this beast back onboard even if the weather was poor. Everything favored the decision to go.

Crash, I’m not getting any rain-removal air. We briefed a recovery in good weather, but I reckon there could be more buildups in the area when we come back. I’m thinking we’re still good to go.

The fact that Crash was a lieutenant and Hawk was a lieutenant commander had no juice in this discussion. The fact that Hawk had spectacular fighter credentials, was, at one time, the F-14 project officer, and was currently the CAG LSO did carry water.

Hawk, the weather looks good, and even if we do have to fly through a shower or two, how bad could it be? I’ll go if you’ll go!

Okay then, let’s get this mutha started!

Hawk completed the post start checks. A thumbs-up to the plane taxi director signaled that they were ready to taxi. The taxi director ordered the chocks removed, taxied Bullet 205 a few feet forward, gave a brake check, and then passed control to a second taxi director, who guided the fighter to catapult number three, one of two catapults on the angled flight deck. Hawk extended the wings to their full sixty-four-foot span, lowered the flaps, armed the slats, and double-checked each item on the take-off checklist. The taxi director carefully directed Bullet 205 into position to allow the launch bar to engage the catapult shuttle.

Half a dozen maintenance personnel, final checkers, catapult crew, ordnance personnel, and quality-assurance reps swarmed around Bullet 205, making final inspections. With the launch bar securely engaged with the shuttle, the catapult officer, or shooter, gave the signal to take tension. The familiar ka-thunk accompanied the drop in the fighter’s nose as the nose gear strut was fully compressed in preparation for launch.

The shooter signaled Hawk to release the brakes, then gave the two-finger turn-up signal. Hawk responded by bringing both throttles smoothly forward. The engines rumbled, the airplane shook, and the temperatures soared to eleven hundred degrees Centigrade. Hawk scanned the instruments and indicators a final time, cycled the stick to all stops to ensure no binding of the flight controls, and asked, You ready to go, Crash?

Let’s do it!

Hawk saluted the shooter smartly. The shooter returned the salute, extended his open hand above his head, palm outward, made a fist, and opened his hand again, signaling Hawk to go into afterburner. Hawk pushed the throttles into the afterburner position and both heard and felt, deep in the bowels of the fighter, the power erupting out the tailpipes. The shooter turned to scan the length of the catapult track and the airspace directly in front of Bullet 205, knelt down on one knee, touched the deck, and pointed forward, the signal for the catapult operator to fire the cat. Hawk and Crash were ready for this. They pressed their helmets against the ejection seat headrests and tightened their legs and abdominal muscles in anticipation of the jolt which sent their 68,000-pound fighter from zero to 150 knots in less than three hundred feet.

At the end of the cat stroke, the Tomcat sprang into the air. Hawk eased on a bit of back stick, came out of burner, raised the gear and flaps, and made a small port clearing turn. As they accelerated to 350 knots, Hawk began a climbing turn to rendezvous with his wingman, Bullet 202, already in a port orbit overhead the ship. Hawk completed the join up, took the lead from his wing-man, and turned toward their assigned combat air patrol station nearer the beach.

En route to their station, Hawk signaled his wingman to move into combat spread position. He then checked his weapons switches, fuel state, and engine gauges.

Their jet was operating perfectly. The engines were strong and all the systems were operating normally. All that is, except the rain-removal. Other than that rarely used system, Hawk and Crash had a full up combat-capable fighter, and they were ready to put the combat into combat air patrol.

Unfortunately, combat air patrol sorties are notorious for being perhaps the most monotonous task of all the airwing’ s missions. They are generally regarded as gas-burning, butt-numbing drills that could cure the worst insomnia.

These sorties are so boring, Hawk thought. But they don’t have to be. If the North Vietnamese pilots had a little more go-for-it spirit, a little more testosterone, a lot less discipline ... if only they would be so bold and so foolish as to cross swords with us, this could turn out to be a spectacular sortie. This could be an extraordinary sortie. This could even be an air-medal-producing sortie.

Hawk and Crash had a load of missiles and 672 rounds of 20mm aboard—and they knew how to use them. But the opposition had shown absolutely no interest in tangling with world’s most lethal fighter. Apart from an occasional surface-to-air missile site lighting up its radar as Navy planes ventured near the coast, there had been no reports of threats. No air medals this cruise, Hawk figured.

Bullet 205 and 202 arrived at their assigned station. Hawk set up a racetrack pattern, which allowed Crash to tune his radar on the Vietnamese coast to the west. For the next hour and a half, Hawk was going to drill holes in the sky while Crash diddled with the radar. God, this is boring.

Still, it was great just to get out and fly, to enjoy the magnificence of their surroundings, which were strikingly beautiful. The wingman’s F-14 glistened against the blue backdrop. The thin trail of exhaust made it easy to keep him in sight. The deep blue of the sea was framed by the lighter blue of the sky, and this was punctuated by the white columns of towering cumulous cloud buildups, and ...

Wait a second!

The clouds are getting bigger, Hawk observed. The buildups are squeezing out the clear air flying space, and based on the growing number of white caps, the surface winds are picking up.

Not a problem, Hawk concluded, we’re equipped for bad weather, and if it gets ugly coming aboard, we can always grab the tanker and head for Thailand.

Always have a plan but always have a backup plan,

Hawk whispered to himself.

A massive saturation raid by the North Vietnamese Air Force had not disturbed the monotony of the sortie as Hawk had fantasized, but now he had other things on his mind. The weather continued to deteriorate.

The clouds climbed and thickened and seemed to encroach on all the pockets of clear air. Hawk’s concerns were heightened when Climax Marshal, the Enterprise’s controllers, transmitted, Bullet two-zero-five, your marshaling instructions follow ... The current weather report was next: Indefinite ceiling, visibility partially obscured, one-half mile in rain.

This was not good. It meant that Climax was taking precision instrument approaches and therefore the weather at the ship was deteriorating.

I don’t know how they do it, Hawk quipped to Crash. It could be crystal clear with a million miles’ visibility in all quadrants and if there’s one damned cloud in the area, Climax will not only find it, she’d match its speed and direction for as long as it lasts!

Amen, brother!

No use whining about it; Hawk and Crash had plenty to do. They turned toward their marshal point, got a fuel check from their wingman, and released him. Crash adjusted the radar to improve the picture on the Enterprise and the surrounding weather. Not good! The ship was in the center of a forest of cells that appeared to be heavy.

En route to marshal, Hawk lowered his tailhook, stowed his gear, and received the status of the duty tanker and a weather report for Thailand.

If the weather at the ship is really bad, Hawk explained to Crash, we can still grab the tanker and head for Thailand. It’s a 650 nautical mile bingo, but with eight thousand pounds of fuel, we can do it. We’d still need to find the tanker and coax another three thousand pounds of gas out of him. Of course, that could be a problem. If that doesn’t work, we can always jump out and think up a good story to tell at our flight disposition board on the way down. Always have a backup plan, Crash.

Bullet 205 commenced the penetration on time. They were in and out of the clouds all the way down. Ten miles from the ship they hit a big cell and were pelted by rain. Outside visibility dropped to zero.

Hawk attempted, one more time, to get the rain-removal operating. No luck. The center windscreen was solid water; everything was distorted. The side panels were no clearer.

Hawk and Crash worked as a team. Hawk flew the airplane, kept it on speed, on altitude, and on the inbound radial to the ship. Crash backed up everything and kept a current radar picture. He maintained a running monologue of important information, keeping the cadence smooth and his voice tempered. He also made Climax acutely aware of their problem.

Bullet two-zero-five, ten miles, perform landing checks, Climax approach transmitted.

Roger, Climax, Crash replied, and then added, We have a rain-removal malfunction and might have difficulty visually acquiring the ship.

Roger oh-five. Keep us advised.

Hawk lowered the landing gear and flaps, armed the slats, and decelerated to 150 knots. In typical Hawk fashion, he built a mental balance sheet. In the

good column, the airplane has no other malfunctions. We have lots of gas, no vertigo, one of the best F-14 back-seaters in the fleet, and if we don’t make the landing and don’t hit the ramp, we can execute a missed approach and drag a tanker with us to Thailand—if we don’t hit the ramp.

In the ungood column, the weather is getting bad in a hurry. I can’t see out the windscreen, and no matter how good Crash is, I need to see in order to land this monster. And I just know Climax’s deck is gonna be pitching. If I’m low and the deck is high, we’re going to end up as a twenty-nine-million-dollar smear on the back of the boat.

Five miles from Climax and level at at twelve hundred feet over a frothy ocean, Hawk checked the gear and flaps one last time. Crash, I show wings at twenty degrees, three down and locked, flaps full, hook down, harness locked, speed brakes to go, and five point four on the gas. It’s raining harder than a cow pissing on a flat rock, the rain-removal still ain’t working, and I can’t see shit up here. How you doin’?

Crash responded, Roger on the gear. We’re on altitude, on airspeed, working our way to centerline, and I can’t think of a funner thing to do right now!

The anxiety of the situation was relentless. Hawk focused on the task and let no other thought intrude.

Bullet two-zero-five, on glide slope, three-quarters of a mile, call the ball, radioed Climax Approach.

Paddles, two-zero-five. Clara! I’ve got no rain-removal, and I can’t see the ball or the ship!

Chapter 1

Paddles Contact!

There always came that exquisite moment of human judgment when one man—a man standing alone on the remotest corner of the ship, lashed by foul wind and storm—had to decide that the jet roaring down upon him could make it... he could defer his job to no one. It was his, and if he did judge wrong, carnage on the carrier deck could be fearful.

—James A Michener

The commanding and comforting voice of Lieutenant Commander Grover Skip Giles, CAG 14’s LSO team leader, came over the radio, Paddles contact. Keep it coming oh-five. You’ve got a good start!

The LSO’s voice bolstered Hawk’s confidence, but he could sense—rather than see—a new dynamic in play. Less than two hours ago the weather was absolutely beautiful, but cumulus buildups had quickly populated the area and grown rapidly in size and intensity. There were exceptionally strong vertical wind-shear currents associated with these cloud formations, and strong, gusty, surface winds as well.

Hawk had spent many years operating on carriers as both a pilot and as an LSO. He understood the effects of winds upon the sea and the corresponding results of ground swells on large ships. He understood that the increasing strength of the winds would slowly increase the size of the ground swells. He further realized that these ground swells, depending on the angle off the bow, would cause the ship to pitch and roll, and that would exacerbate the movement of the flight deck.

A little right for line up, Paddles advised.

Hawk responded as though the LSO commands were wired directly to his hands, bypassing any analytical processes that might delay the response. He made a quick but short lateral stick input, eased in a touch of back-stick to hold the nose up, and then leveled his wings again.

A perfect glide-slope to a three wire, the target wire, provided a hook-to-ramp clearance of fourteen feet. He guessed they were working with a deck pitching between six and eight feet from center. Under these conditions, if Hawk managed to fly a flawless three-wire pass, the hook-to-ramp clearance could be as low as six feet or as high as twenty-two feet. Without clear visual reference to the optical landing system, it would be highly unlikely that he’d be on glide-slope. Hawk quickly calculated the numbers. If we’re even a little low, say three feet below optimum glide-slope, and the deck was at the top of its eight-foot cycle when we came across the ramp, we’d only clear the ramp by three feet. If we were even lower .

This line of logic took Hawk’s mind to a place he didn’t want it to go. He’d lost too many friends at sea. There was simply no margin for error. With the help of Skip and Crash, and through the grace of God, Hawk was going to put his Tomcat right on centerline and right on glide-slope.

He ignored the potential of slamming into the ramp and channeled his attention into the demands of flying the jet. He concentrated on being perfect.

Hawk had no tolerance for a satisfactory effort. He had little patience for anyone who tried to do less than a perfect job, but he was far more demanding of himself. He hoped that his perpetual struggle for perfection would pay off this day.

A little more right for line up, Paddles called again.

Hawk’s hands were moving even before Skip completed the transmission.

Although he felt an anxious tendency to overcompensate and overreact, Hawk commanded himself to remain focused, alert, cool, and smooth, to feel the airplane . to be perfect.

Hawk concentrated on flying the instruments and willed his muscles to respond precisely and quickly to the LSO’s calls. Occasionally, he stole glances out the windscreen. He might have been looking through the bottom of a dirty shot glass under Niagara Falls. He saw nothing recogHe knew the ship was close and getting closer, but all he saw was a distorted film of water. There was no dividing line between air and water and no sight of the ship’s white wake to console him. His world was shades of indistinguishable blurred gray.

Looking good, Bullet, Paddles advised. Keep it coming and hold what you’ve got!

Skip kept the comm flowing. This kept the feedback loop active, and comforted Hawk and Crash to know they had friends pulling for them.

As they approached the ramp, Skip advised, "A little power and don’t climb!"

Now, nearly over the ramp and with no sensory inputs other than those he saw on the instrument panel and heard from Paddles, Hawk put Bullet 205 nearly perfectly on-speed, on glide-slope, and on centerline.

Hawk was suddenly aware of a darker shade of gray passing underneath them and then felt the bone-jarring kaa-thump of their F-14 hitting the landing area. Hawk, slammed both throttles to the stops. At that same instant, he and Crash were hurled forward against their harnesses. The tailhook caught the number two wire.

The three-G deceleration was a reprieve and cause for celebration. Hawk pulled the throttles back to idle, raised his hook and flaps, and swept the wings aft. He still had difficulty seeing in the downpour, but he picked up the taxi director looking cold, wet, and almost as relieved as Hawk to get Bullet 205 home.

Hawk’s toes danced on the rudder pedals in response to the taxi director’s signals. Now that they were safely aboard the ship and heading for their tie-down area, Hawk noticed that his knees were shaking involuntarily. The adrenaline was still coursing though his system, but with the crisis behind him, he was free to think about the gravity of their situation and the mishap that almost was.

What he thought at that moment was that they had just completed an arrested landing without ever seeing the carrier. That wasn’t possible! Or it shouldn’t have been and indeed, wouldn’t have been had it not been for the impeccable radar work of Crash and the extraordinary LSO work by Skip! And clearly, there were other forces at work.

The plane captain signaled Hawk that the landing gear and weapons safety pins were installed, chocks were in place, and the tie-down chains attached. He signaled Hawk to shut down. Hawk complied, raised his canopy, and was instantly drenched in the downpour.

Hawk and Crash quickly climbed out of the jet, closed the canopy, and made their way to the catwalk. Hawk’s legs were rubbery. They reminded him of a freshly plucked G-string on a bass fiddle.

Hawk considered their good fortune. The jet isn’t dented. There’s no smear on the back end of the Enterprise, and Crash and I are alive. I have some people to thank!

They walked in reflective silence toward maintenance control, each considering his precarious and fragile mortality.

Words spoken long ago now echoed through the chambers of Hawk’s memory, A good takeoff does not guarantee a good landing. These were Hawk’s words spoken some twenty-eight years earlier. They expressed one of his earliest rules for a situation completely unlike this, but the truth and clarity of the words had far more meaning this day.

The recovery was over. The helm of the Enterprise came around. She started a slow turn to steam downwind. On the flight deck, men—wet and chilled to the bone—moved with intent and purpose to make ready for the next launch.

Chapter 2


A good take-off does not guarantee a good landing.

—John Monroe Hawk Smith

The Formative Years

Earliest Memories

A good take-off does not guarantee a good landing. This was a lesson John had learned at the age of six. From his earliest years, he had learned many such lessons. He was blessed with an inquisitive mind, abundant energy, and found himself immersed in a world of things that needed exploring. Some of those early exploratory efforts had ended in misadventure, but they also became the source of many of his greatest lessons.

John Monroe Smith was the second of two children born on 25 January 1940 at Shandon Baptist Hospital in Columbia, South Carolina, to Mrs. Lucille and Mr. William Monroe Smith. He had fine blond hair and hazel eyes, which—even in his earliest days—seemed to be interested in everything around him.

John’s father worked for General Motors Acceptance Corporation. Early during World War II, the Smiths moved to Detroit, Michigan where John’s father accepted a position at the Tank Production Center of General Motors. It was there that John formed his first memories of air raids, blackout drills, kindergarten, friendly neighbors, a tonsillectomy, introduction to girls, and Halloween costumes.

Following the end of the war, the Smiths returned to Columbia. On Christmas day, 1946, Santa Claus delivered one of John’s most memorable surprises—a fire-engine red Schwinn bicycle. This was a special gift and offered freedom to explore the great expanses that lay beyond the immediate neighborhood. There was a problem, however.

His bike had a twenty four-inch frame which put the crossbar level with the lower part of John’s chest. The size disparity presented a couple of challenges, not the least of which was mounting the bike and at the same time building speed in order to balance. It was clear, before any exploration could begin John had to devise a solution for these problems.

Most fathers would stand alongside their sons to give them a lift on to the seat and a gentle shove to propel the novice from a standstill to a rolling start. Not John’s father. He believed that confidence and independence were best achieved by youngsters who figured things out for themselves. John was a problem solver and no stranger to his father’s philosophy. He was eager to prove his prowess on his new bike, and in a short time he developed successful solutions to all the problems on his own.

At age seven, John had shed his baby fat, but had kept his blond hair and ready smile. He was of average height and slender but not skinny. He had an appetite that would have pleased a mother tiger but with such a tremendous metabolism and perpetual high-energy state, only muscle tissue stuck to his frame.

If he was in one location for long, his hands, eyes, and brain became engaged in studying, designing, or building something. Some might confuse his high energy with hyper-activity. It was not. There was simply too much in his world that he needed to do, too many places he needed to go, and there was only so much time in one day. When on the move, he was either running or riding his bike. His bicycle seat seldom was used, however. He was usually at full speed—head down, back flexed, and leaning hard into the pedals. As John recalled, There was only one reason to change locations—where I was going was more interestin’ than where I’d been, and it seemed to me that there was no reason to be burning daylight gettin’ there!

The Farmhouse

Summer was special, and John’s favorite season. School was out and it was a time for family vacations. This meant long visits with his grandparents, John and Etta Williams.

It was a four-hour drive in the family car from Columbia to his grandparents’ farm, tucked in the tobacco country of Rockingham County, North Carolina. John drank in the sights along the way. He marveled at how the straight roads, tall pines, and flat lands of South Carolina were mystically transformed into the winding roads, rolling hills, and leafy tree canopies of North Carolina.

John remembers how his grandparents would bolt from the tiny white farmhouse when the family car rumbled down the dusty gravel road and into the driveway. There the Smiths would be greeted by barking dogs, hugs, kisses, and expressions of utter amazement at how he and his sister had grow’d.

The farm was a special place, a sanctuary of natural enchantment where time stood still. As late as 1947, his grandparent’s one-bedroom cabin had no electricity, no phone, no bathroom, and no running water. Wood stoves were located in the bedroom and living room and sat quietly until winter approached. A third stove in the kitchen, however, remained in year-round use and was the congregation point of many memorable family gatherings.

While the tiny farm had few of the creature comforts a city kid might want, true excitement and the opportunity to explore was everywhere around the farm. The hilly countryside was a land of absolute enchantment and beckoned John to explore. Everything in it thrilled and tantalized the senses. The sights, sounds, and smells from the huge garden, fields of tobacco, corn, wheat, hay, and the lush green pastures completely enveloped John and forged an indelible memory in his fertile mind. John recalls the surrounding forests, and kerosene lanterns flickering to the evening sounds of katydids and whippoorwills that announced the fall of darkness.

Nighttime in the country brought a new appreciation for darkness to John. It was a universe of absolute blackness—without light slipping from the family home, thrown from a passing car, or the ambient glow from the surrounding town. Darkness in the country was complete, saturating, and devoid of any light God did not intend. John would not experience darkness as total and complete as this until he was introduced to night carrier operations. That was many years away, though, and for now, he was entranced with the beauty of the vast countryside and the opportunity to explore and discover its many mysteries.

Mysteries of Flight

There were adventures to enjoy and mysteries to explore back home in Columbia as well. At the age of nine, John was lured into the amazing world of gas engines when he bought a crashed, gas-engined, wire-controlled airplane for fifty cents. He became mesmerized by the operation of the reciprocating engine. It was magic the way a tiny mechanical device consisting of a connecting rod, crankshaft, piston, cylinder, and carburetor could turn a propeller and pull an airplane through the sky.

When he bought the airplane, nothing worked. He removed the engine from the fuselage and attempted to start it, without success. He disassembled the engine and tried to imagine how it all worked. At first nothing made sense. He spent countless hours studying the movement of the parts, the kinematic relationships, and the structures and devices that developed, translated, and consumed mechanical energy.

John had no manuals, no instructions, and no one who could mentor him on small engines. All of his effort relied on observations, assumptions, analysis, and trial-and-error. When he finally developed an understanding of what each part did and the relationships of the parts to one another, he reassembled the engine and reconnected the fuel line.

With a dry-cell battery connected to the glow plug, he primed the cylinder and hand cranked the prop. After several snorts, coughs, and backfires, the little engine sputtered to life. After John adjusted the fuel mixture, the engine smoothed out and ran perfectly. John was exhilarated. He was Demetrius in the coliseum of reciprocating engines!

His next test was rebuilding the airframe and flight-control surfaces. With focused fascination, John examined each of the airplane’s parts: wings, fuselage, empennage, elevator, flight control guides, and control wires. He theorized which way the prop needed to turn to produce thrust and in which direction the elevators had to rotate to develop positive pitch. He also considered the previous owner’s crash and tried to draw conclusions about possible design flaws based on the crash dynamics.

He remembered that, following a successful takeoff, the airplane had nosed over and dived into the ground. This could have been caused by either a control error or an engineering defect possibly in the form of a weight-and-bal-ance problem. John visualized the conditions of the airplane in flight and came up with a perfectly plausible explanation to a perfectly bad assumption-the problem was not a control error. He concluded that there was a weight-and-balance problem, and—if that was the problem—there was probably too much weight in the nose.

John rebuilt the entire airplane, reinstalled the engine and fuel tank, and then added gravel to the empennage. Theoretically, this would balance the heavy-nose problem experienced by the previous owner.

With the help of a friend, John proceeded to flight-test stage. Following a successful engine start, John ran to the control handle to which the elevator control wires were connected. He completed a quick flight control check and signaled his assistant to release the airplane. The airplane bounced across the grass, rotated nose up, briskly climbed skyward, and then immediately ... went out of control. Shortly after lift-off it was painfully apparent that John’s rebalanced airplane had some very serious aerodynamic concerns—there was now too much weight in the tail. One tight loop after take-off and John had another airplane to rebuild. Flight time for this sortie would be logged in the decimals.

This incident gave rise to two lessons not new to aviation but certainly new to John. First, be sure of your assumptions or the ass thing will get you, and secondly, a good takeoff does not guarantee a good landing.

Upon reflection, he admits, I wasn’t always certain about my solutions to problems, but I was always certain that every problem had a solution.

Experiences with model airplanes—both good and bad—captured his imagination. Interest in real airplanes was an unsurprising next step.

The nearest airfield to his home was Owens Field, in Columbia, a mere fifteen-minute bike-ride away. John and the neighborhood kids

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