Skyhawk Homecoming

Dad wanted to be impressed, and he paid dearly for the privilege.

Though that isn’t his name on the Skyhawk pictured, this is indeed a photo of the author taken aboard the USS John F. Kennedy in 1969. ( COURTESY TOM PETILLO)
Air & Space Magazine

I was 24 years old with brand-new wings on my chest, assigned to the A4 Skyhawk Replacement Air Group (RAG) at Naval Air Station Cecil Field, Jacksonville, Florida. The RAG trained the newly minted naval aviators flying the replacement for the prop-driven Douglas A-1 Skyraider, designed by Collier Trophy-winner Ed Heinemann. Heinemann also designed its replacement, the A-4 Skyhawk jet, which became known as “Heinemann’s Hotrod.” Its mission spanned from close air support to the delivery of a single nuclear bomb.

In 1968, I was assigned first to a Replacement Air Group (RAG) and then to my fleet squadron, VA-83, both based at Cecil Field, but soon to move to the air wing of the USS John F. Kennedy for its shakedown cruise in the Caribbean, and then on to a deployment in the Mediterranean that would last most of 1969.

One of our RAG training missions was to fly from our home base in Jacksonville to Marine Corps Air Station in Yuma, Arizona for live ordnance delivery and close air support practice using the Chocolate Mountain Bombing Range. We were each to fly the 2,000 miles to Yuma as wingman to a RAG instructor pilot. We departed Cecil Field early June 15, 1968, and my lead pilot decided on a first refueling stop at NAS Memphis. While refueling, I asked my flight lead if, on the way to our next refueling stop at Sheppard Air Force Base in Texas, we could fly over Lake Village, Arkansas, where I had grown up. He agreed, even telling me I could take lead as we approached our “target.”

I called my dad to give him our ETA, and he assured me a crowd of spectators at the local golf course. About 10 minutes north of Lake Village, we descended to 1,500 feet and flew a perfect formation completing two full circles of the golf course with a climbing turn to the west. I was sure we had left a Blue Angels-worthy impression among the good ol’ boys of Lake Village. The flight out, the live ordnance experience at Yuma, and the flight back all burnished the “indestructible” feeling of being a young naval aviator!

The next time I talked with my dad, I had to ask how the airshow had impressed him and his friends. It wasn’t the response I expected: “You embarrassed me. I thought you Navy pilots were hot [stuff]. We could hardly see you, you were so high. I promised an airshow and what I got was a couple of barely visible airplanes flying in a big circle.” That took the wind out of my sails.

Leaving the RAG for VA-83, we FNGs (as the seasoned naval aviators called us, with the last two letters standing for “new guys”) trained for carrier ops but continued our land-based training before deploying. Our squadron was big on “proficiency flying,” so we took advantage by flying to a military base in San Antonio (to pick up office equipment for our shipboard stay) and to NAS Brunswick, Maine (to pick up lobsters for squadron parties).

I also managed a solo flight to Little Rock Air Force Base on a weekend that the University of Arkansas Razorbacks were playing in Little Rock. Dad and I were big Razorbacks fans, and we made plans to attend the game together. I decided that on my outbound flight the day before the game, I’d show Dad some fancy flying he couldn’t dismiss.

Taking off, I leveled for the cross-country leg at 31,000 feet and settled back for the hour-long flight to Jackson, Mississippi. Why Jackson? That was where I would cancel the instrument portion of my flight, telling air traffic controllers I would descend to beneath 18,000 feet where I could proceed under visual flight rules.

Descending from the flight levels beginning at Jackson would provide a build-up of airspeed, and I could arrive at Lake Village at about 500 mph and at 200 feet above the ground.

Main Street of Lake Village sits perpendicular to the bottom of horseshoe-shape Lake Chicot, the largest oxbow lake in North America formed by the meandering Mississippi River. If I followed the curve of the lake, I could make a 6-G turn to aim straight down Main Street. Flying low to elude radar was a skill A-4 pilots practiced frequently. This would be great practice, I reasoned. Buzzing Main Street was certainly exhilarating but didn’t provide much chance to wave to my friends in Lake Village. At the western end of Main Street, I pulled up into a 60-degree climb and performed two 360-degree aileron rolls. That, I assured myself, would get Dad’s attention.

As we drove to the stadium the next day, I waited impatiently for him to bring up the subject of the flyover. I was determined not to mention it, but eventually I broke and prepared to bask in glory.

“Yes, son,” he said. “We recognized your drop-by and it cost me $500.”

It was about time I got credit for being a hot-[stuff] Navy pilot, but why was he on the hook for $500? Back when that was serious money? Mr. Gibson’s Liquor Store, he reminded me, was at the western foot of Main Street. When I pulled up, the reverberations had knocked most of his inventory off the shelves. Dad had paid off Mr. Gibson not to turn me in. (I’m hoping the statute of limitations has expired by now).

For years after my Main Street caper, Dad assured me that even Air Force B-52s and C-130s flying low missions in the area were blamed on Tommy Petillo. I never disabused them of the thought!

After graduating from the Naval Academy in 1966, Tom Petillo served five years as a Navy pilot. He has owned four Mooneys, a Cirrus, and a Steen Skybolt.

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