The Real Top Gun

Nobody handled a Tomcat like Snort

Dale Snodgrass is known as a virtuoso of the F-14 (left, with squadron ops officer Dirk Hebert at right, in 1990). (Dale Snodgrass)
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After Desert Storm,where Snodgrass served as a squadron commander and led 34 strikes, he and Ellis designed a sequence that included the F-14 and the Tigercat flying formation aerobatics. He then spent about 10 days practicing at the Air National Guard base in Battle Creek, Michigan, to see if and how it could be done.

Flying close magnifies the risk of collision, especially between dissimilar airplanes, so flying formation requires a great deal of trust between the pilots. The Tigercat, a sleek 1940s design, and the F-14 are so different that most pilots could not imagine the two flying formation aerobatics. During the nose and wing attitude changes of a looping or rolling maneuver, the speed and flying characteristics of each airplane change in dramatically different ways. One airplane can accelerate while the other slows up. One airplane might need massive amounts of power, while the other’s throttle is nearly at idle.

Snodgrass had been thinking about it for a long time and felt sure he could do it. Ellis decided he was willing to try: “There are some pilots who seem to have a special sense of awareness of where they are at all times,” he says. “Dale has that particular ability. His flying is smooth and aggressive at the same time. His senses are a little sharper than other people’s. He knows when he is an inch from the ground, when he has wingtip clearance and can roll the plane into knife edge right on takeoff.”

Air boss Ralph Royce describes the first time he saw them. “On the runway, you could hear the 2800s [Pratt & Whitney engines] on the Tigercat and could barely hear the jet. They came down the runway, the Tigercat humming and Snort not even in [after]burner. Ellis lifted off and kept it fast. Snort stayed under him. Then he came off the runway, sucked the gear up, and called ‘Pull.’ I’ve seen a lot of guys do a lot of things in airplanes and I don’t get impressed too easily, but when I saw that I said, ‘Ho boy, we’ve got something different here’…. They were clearly two consummate professionals working at the peak of their ability.”

All of Snodgrass’ display flying has been amazing: from the crisp, aggressive demos of the F-14 to the elegant solos in P-40s, P-51s, T-6s, and boomerang-winged F-86s. His new formation act makes the retro beauty of the MS-760 Paris Jets sexy again. But nothing compares to the Flight of the Twin Engine Cats. It also gave birth to the Navy’s Legacy Flights and the Air Force’s Heritage program, both of which pair old and new fighters at airshows.

In spite of his remarkable flying skills, and his ability to manipulate the rules to do extraordinary things, Snodgrass, like all junior officers flying red-hot machines, occasionally found himself in trouble for hotshot flying. Once, for example, a high-speed flyby with an aerobatic split-S to a landing got him confined to quarters for 10 days.

But nothing impeded his progress up through the Navy or out into the civilian airshow world, in which he has enjoyed a fully sponsored career since 1999. He has also taught advanced bush flying to pilots in Africa. And in St. Augustine, Florida, where he lives with his wife, Denise, he teaches formation flying and aerobatics to warbird owners, and provides upset training—recovering from unintentional aerobatic flight—for corporate pilots and MS-760 Paris Jet customers.

Meanwhile, more than two decades later, the famous photograph has taken on a life of its own, showing up all over cyberspace. When I showed it to the man behind the Starbucks counter pouring espresso shots into my latte, he already knew it. “Oh yeah,” he said. “That’s the Top Gun guy.”

Debbie Gary lives in an airpark near Houston, Texas, where she flies her Super Cub for fun.


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