Tomcat Tribute

The Navy’s fearsome fighter retires.

Feathers ruffled, a "Turkey" rests on the deck of the Harry S. Truman while a Sikorsky MH-60S Knighthawk hoists in supplies for the carrier population. (PHA Gregory A. Pierot, USN)
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That lasted until my first squadron tour with VF-32 in 1976. Launching from the USS John F. Kennedy, working on my cool clearing turn off the catapult (always a challenge in a 64-foot-wingspan, 30-ton jet): Rotate, gear up, snap right, change heading, snap left...uh oh. No snap left. No stick movement past center. We stay in our right turn, nose slowly falling through the horizon around 100 feet. There's lots of screaming help coming from the Air Boss over the radio, but his words aren't clear. What I do hear clearly is the voice coming from the back seat: "Do you have it?" To my surprise I answer, "No." The stick will just not go left. To his everlasting credit, while watching the water streak by just under our right wingtip and with his hands on the lower handle, Jerry "Mountain" Argenzio-West gave me a couple more seconds to get the airplane going where it was supposed to with rudder and afterburner. Despite jammed flight controls, we recovered and got the aircraft back aboard ship. With that test, and after 3,000 hours in the F-14, I am convinced it was the pilot-RIO team that made the Tomcat the great classic fighter it was.>>> Steve "Spoon" Weatherspoon, VF-32

Besides operating the radar, F-14 RIOs also operated the inertial navigation system; monitored the hundreds of circuit breakers surrounding the back seat that controlled the airplane's electronics, including control surfaces and avionics; did virtually all the talking on the radios; and commanded both ejection seats (in carrier operations). The RIO operated the mission systems and could fire both the Sparrow and Phoenix missiles. Only the RIO could set up and operate the cameras and targeting system.




The Real Top Gun

When Dale Snodgrass retired from the Navy in 1999 as the world's highest-time F-14 pilot, with more than 4,800 hours and 12 years as an F-14 demo pilot, he was famous for his finesse, his aggression, his relentless pursuit of the unexpected, and even, sometimes, the not-yet-approved-such as formation aerobatics on the wing of old Grumman fighters. But in 1985, at the Pratt & Whitney celebration in Hartford, Connecticut, he was a new demo pilot and few people had seen him fly.

That Saturday was the kind of day when nobody expected much. Cloud base was barely 1,000 feet, the visibility was a misty three miles, and a number of the pilots had already decided not to perform. Snodgrass said, "I'll fly." He was just back from the north Atlantic, where rain, fog, salt spray, and low clouds were the norm.

With the burners lit, the F-14 roared to life, accelerated down the pavement, and lifted just high enough for wing clearance. Then Snodgrass rolled the fighter into a turn so low, so steep, and so tight that anyone who expected minimum weather to produce minimum performance was instantly on alert.

The F-14, which is big, loud, fast, and powerful enough to climb straight up for 15,000 feet doing vertical rolls, is also agile and versatile enough to entertain a sophisticated audience on a minimum weather day, especially in the hands of a maestro. Snodgrass rolled past the crowd gear up, gear down, wings sweeping through a kaleidoscope of designs, from forward like a wide embrace to backward like a plummeting hawk, afterburners lit, speed brakes out, in knife-edge turns, and hard pulls. A tight, low, fast-paced F-14 would have been entertaining on any day, but in Hartford that day, under clouds the color of cardboard, in air dripping with moisture, the demo was something the crowd won't forget. Snodgrass says, "When we cranked around the corner, on the break and in the turns, the airplane would disappear in vapor, encased in a cloud. All you could see was flames coming out of one end and the nose at the other.">>> Debbie Gary, Aerobatic Pilot

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