The F-14 Tomcat

Occasionally we had civilians (usually dignitaries) get a ride in a jet off of the Kitty Hawk.  The story in the snippet below was a frequent description upon their return.

F-14 Tomcat

Click the link and read the whole thing. It’s a hoot.

Below is an article written by Rick Reilly of Sports Illustrated. He details his experiences when given the opportunity to fly in an F-14 Tomcat. If you aren’t laughing out loud by the time you get to “Milk Duds,” your sense of humor is broken.

Now this message is for America’s most famous athletes: Someday you may be invited to fly in the back-seat of one of your country’s most powerful fighter jets. Many of you already have … John Elway, John Stockton, Tiger Woods to name a few. If you get this opportunity, let me urge you, with the greatest sincerity…

Move to Guam.

Change your name.

Fake your own death!

Whatever you do ..

Do Not Go!!!

via The F-14 Tomcat Association..

F-14 Fly-by. Don't try this at home.

Here is a pretty interesting shot of a fly-by that is NOT recommended procedure. We had a few similar events while I was aboard the Kitty Hawk, and the result was always some discipline of the pilot … then put him right back to work.

Black Balls. Yes, we must talk about it.

We do need to talk about black balls — don’t worry guys, not that kind!  This is a “sea story” and like sea shanties, such stories are often full of fantasy … but this one is true.

The setting is 1968, sometime roughly around the time of the Tet Offensive in Vietnam, and we’re on Yankee Station in the Gulf of Tonkin. Yankee Station is merely a dot on a chart in the Gulf, some 35 miles in diameter and marked into three equal pie-shaped operating areas for aircraft carriers.  We’re aboard the Super Carrier, U.S.S. Kitty Hawk — the last of the conventionally powered carriers, and which was decommissioned in 2008 after 49 years of service. (details on the ‘Hawk here) Continue reading “Black Balls. Yes, we must talk about it.”

It was a dark night and the sea was raging

Seas were running 70 feet and even in the dark of night we could see glimmers of light as the typhoon whipped spray from the tops of wave crests and they were bathed in the occasional moonlight that escaped the cloud cover.

kitty-hawk-cva-63-1967-ships-insigniaIt was July 1969 and from the navigation bridge of the U.S.S. Kitty Hawk, CVA-63, even the might of the 90,000 ton carrier with its cargo that included 5,000 sailors and marines was yielding to the mighty force of the typhoon.

The ‘Hawk had  been at anchor in Hong Kong harbor with at least 3,000 of its 5,000 men ashore enjoying a well-deserved R&R of six days or so.

Sailors had dispersed throughout Hong Kong whether seeking inexpensive (but finely tailored) clothes, sight-seeing or exploring for wine, women and song. The ship had departed San Diego on New Year’s Eve 1968 and on Jan 1 was enroute to Pearl Harbor.yankee_station_location_1

By Jan 25 we were on Yankee Station off of Viet Nam so the R&R was a hit!

We still had a day left in Hong Kong. That’s when the news came. Typhoon Viola had been well out beyond the Philippine Sea in the Pacific but now had turned and was headed straight for Taiwan and the Northern tip of the Philippine Islands and … toward Hong Kong. Now the last place an aircraft carrier needs to be in heavy weather is in a harbor. No amount of anchoring could guarantee that an anchor might not drag, or lose its hold entirely, possibly allowing the ship to be run aground in the harbor and — no doubt — wiping out everything in its path.

Viola has been described this way:

Large Super Typhoon Viola, which formed on July 22 east of the Philippines, brushed northern Luzon with winds of 150 mph on the 26th. It continued to the northwest, and weakened due to lack of inflow. Viola hit southeastern China as a minimal typhoon on the 28th, and dissipated the next day. The typhoon caused 11 deaths, with 17 missing. (emphasis added)

From via accessed Feb 28, 2009.

The call went out for all hands to return to the ship. All 3,000+ of them who were now scattered all over Hong Kong and Kowloon. Navy Shore Patrol scooped sailors off of the streets and out of bars and brothels.   It was July 27, 1969 when we got underway.

As one of several underway Officers of the Deck (what is an Officer of the Deck?), it happened I had the watch that dark night as we sought to escape the wrath of the storm. My recollection is that we simply slipped out to the South China Sea between Hong Kong and the island of Taiwan and headed South. We were running downwind with two “cans” in company — those were the escort destroyers who had ported with us in Hong Kong. Off our port beam was another carrier with her two destroyers and we were all running before the 70 foot seas.

We were fortunate on the carrier with its 1081 foot length and 275 foot beam amidships. We were pitching into the wave troughs and rolling about 10 degrees side-to-side, but the destroyers would disappear from sight in the troughs and were rolling 30-50 degrees side-to-side. They were frequently scribing a 90 degree arc as they rolled from left to right and back again. We were lucky, they were miserable.

I had the evening watch, 8 to midnight. We were some hours into my watch when the radio-telephone barked and aroused us from the monotony of watching the bow dip into the approaching wave with “green” water occasionally breaking over the bow. USS KITTY HAWK (CV 63)

Back to the radio in a moment, but you need to appreciate the fact that the bow on the carrier is 90 feet off the water.

The term “green” water refers to enough water to have the green look of the deep sea — in other words, a LOT of water!

Our aft lookout had informed the bridge that he thought he saw an extra red mastlight astern of us. We could sometimes see more of the destroyers, but often we could only identify their red lights at the very top of the mast. But this was yet another light. Again the lookout called up to the bridge and this time he was certain that from the rolling, deep swells shrouded by driving rain and blowing spray, he could see a ship gaining on our group from astern, coming up between us and the other carrier which was about 500 yards off our port beam.

Radar was of no use as the “sea return” was such that all surface contact images were obliterated. We could not confirm the lookout’s report.

The radio call started with our tactical callsign “Pawtucket.” But that was the last normal part of the call.  Even over the howling wind surrounding the glass-enclosed bridge some 135 feet above the water line, the speaker blared “Pawtucket, this is the U.S.S.R. Cerchenko (making up the name as I don’t recall it). You know us as the Russian trawler. We are approaching you from astern.”  The voice on the other end – identifying as a Russian – was in perfect, unbroken midwestern English. “We request to steam in company with you during the storm” the English/Russian voice continued. In perfect English, using our tactical callsign, I had an enemy ship (it was still the “cold” war, remember) trying to talk to me!

What the &^#%^& I thought! What now? I’m in charge of this ship and it’s 5,000 men, it’s the middle of the night, there is nothing in my training about this scenario and the Captain is sound asleep in his at-sea cabin.  This so-called “trawler” was the electronic surveillance vessel that shadowed ships on Yankee Station. They would not only collect electronic intelligence but also harassed with such capers as trying to cross our bow as we started flight operations, in violation of the international rules of the road.

“Quartermaster” I called to the sailor across the bridge, “please wake the Captain.” The Captain instructed me to have the trawler continue and to take station directly on our port beam, midway between the two carriers. He was unconcerned because, as dictated by the traditions at sea, any ship and its sailors will come to the aid of another. Those trawlers were not large vessels and she sought, and received from the United States Navy, the safety of company during the storm.

“USSR Cerchenko this is the USS Kitty Hawk, please take station on our port beam between the two carriers and keep station on us” I reported back to the trawler. And there she stayed for, as I recall, a couple of days until the weather abated. You see, the storm was chasing us so we stayed in it for a long while. We kept an eye on her, and she on the ‘Hawk.  Later, as luck would have it, I was back on the bridge when I took the final call.  “Kitty Hawk, this is USSR Cerchenko. Thank you very much. Request permission to depart company.” So here, again in perfect English, this Russian is requesting permission to leave? Like she needed it. But that was the polite thing to do in the context, and once again I picked up the black plastic handset to the radio circuit, pushed the button, and said simply “permission granted.”

The upshot of that was that had the trawler been a US Navy ship we would have tactical command of that ship while it is part of our formation so I guess I can claim that for a short while, I had tactical command of a Russian ship!  🙂

It was an interesting episode. Interesting about our two countries — the United States and Russia — in that the usual adversarial encounter of the electronic surveillance they conducted on us off of Yankee Station was set aside in the context of the potential jeopardy of the seas; and interesting about the humans involved to conduct that simple event with genuine interest for the other as if it were a daily occurrence.

Here is the Hong Kong harbor — while it appears protected, it would be a dangerous harbor for a carrier to be caught in.


I think I was there … at Top Gun

It was a fairly routine day, as if there is anything remotely resembling routine on an aircraft carrier.  The ‘Hawk, U.S.S. Kitty Hawk, was at the time the No. 1 attack carrier in Uncle Sam’s canoe club.  It was 23 January 1968 and I was the communications traffic officer, and a mere LTjg.  There being not a lot to do during nine month-long cruises I had also volunteered as an underway Officer of the Deck (OOD).  As luck would have it, I was one of only three combat-qualified OODs at the time. It was my second cruise on the ‘Hawk.  Click here for some details on her.

My duties as the comm traffic officer included generally supervising all activities in the comm center with  5 or 6 watch officers under me; but also to check all of the message traffic both incoming and outgoing to insure proper routing and handling.  A typical day included around 750-1,000 message daily and standing one of seven bridge watches. Except at this time with only three of us, the day consisted of slightly over two bridge watches daily (on the average) with my running to the comm center to check the messages, make a pass through the message processing center, then hitting the rack, eating or occasionally catching a movie.

Having just completed a bridge watch, I had checked messages in the office and was walking into the comm center.  Clacking sounds from the teletypes were the constant greeting and companion in the center; but suddenly there was extra clacking and a cacophony of bells that had an inherently urgent ring to them.  Extra clacking and unfamiliar bells were going off. Something was decidedly different.

In fact, the extra, strident sounds were right next to me and were coming from a usually quiet location just outside the main comm center.  Suddenly, I realized the difference and was frightened by it even before I looked down.  There was one teletype machine that was dedicated to Top Secret, flash traffic.  The meaning of Top Secret is, I think, obvious.  We received a fair amount of TS traffic (always printed on pink paper) but “flash” traffic? Rare.  The “flash” designation means it’s gotta get from Point A to Point B like 5 minutes ago.  Right now is almost too late.  It’s the kind of delivery priority that you would reserve for such as announcing the attack on Pearl Harbor.

And this was similarly an astounding event that might make the existing conflict in Viet Nam seem simple.  My best recollection of the message is approximately as follows:

  • From:  CincPac (that would be Commander in Chief, Pacific Fleet)
  • To:  U.S.S. Kitty Hawk
  • Flash, Top Secret
  • Subject:  Orders re: seizure of U.S.S. Pueblo
  • The U.S.S. Pueblo (AGER-2) has been boarded by a North Korean patrol boat and is believed to be incapacitated and has possibly been seized. Make immediate plans to proceed to the Sea of Japan to effect rescue. Further orders to follow.

That first message was just about that short and terse.  I knew the Captain was still on the bridge so I hand-carried it to him myself, not trusting in the “bunny tube” (pneumatic tubes like department stores once used) for this event.

We made an immediate course change, the Navigator was summoned to the bridge to assist the Quartermaster in laying the detailed route from our present track which was toward Subic Bay, Phillipines because we had just finished 30 days on the “line” on Yankee Station. So much for that R&R!  As it turned out, U.S.S. Enterprise was in port in Sasebo, Japan and it was determined that she could get underway and reach the Sea of Japan faster than could we. Our orders were then to return to Yankee Station. That would put three carriers in the operating area, the only time during my two cruises that this would occur.

Yankee Station was a 35-mile diameter circle off of Viet Nam which was the carrier Op area. It was divided into three sectors, each being a pie-shaped slice. The object was that each carrier would operate in a designated sector and this would keep not only the carriers but their takeoff and landing patterns separated. With only two operating it was easy. With all three sectors “hot” it would become interesting because with two on the line one would fly days and the other one nights, but with three of us on the line there would come to be two active at all times, thus complicating both the surface picture and the air picture.

Why was this done?  The thought was that the North Korean provocation was extraordinary and the broader impact was totally unknown.  Was this a concerted effort with North Viet Nam? With the Chinese or the Russians? Was this a precursor to something bigger?  Nobody knew.

We would eventually spend 75 days on the line and my days during that time consisted of checking traffic (which had more than doubled since we carried a 3-star flag, Commander Attack Carrier Air Wing 7th Fleet), grabbing a bite of chow, racing up to the bridge (there were still only three of us qualified as OODs), running back down to the comm center and grabbing a sandwich on the way and then grabbing an hour or two of rack time before starting over again on that cycle.  I was averaging 2-3 hours total sleep each 24 hour period, never all at one time.  Luckily the junior officer’s mess had food available 24 hours a day and I would eventually eat my weight in bacon sandwiches — a handful of bacon from the “grease bin” with a bit of mayo folder in bread that was usually a bit stale.

So where does Top Gun fit into this? Remember when Tom Cruise’s character, Maverick, joins his graduation (his RIO, Goose, had died when ejecting after their F-14 entered an unrecoverable flat spin) and they suddenly get orders due to a crisis?  The crisis was a disabled Naval vessel and the ship to which Maverick, Iceman and the others reported was … you guessed it … the Enterprise.

The Navy established Top Gun in March of 1969 (see this Top Gun page), about a year after the Pueblo incident. I have to believe that a lot of the inspiration for the rescue crisis in the movie (although it was released much later, in 1986) was the Pueblo incident.  Further, the markings on the supposed Mig-28’s (there is no such Mig) were North Korean.  Also, Iceman’s squadon patch is the Black Lions, VF-213, which was embarked on the ‘Hawk during the Pueblo incident.

The dogfight is also reminiscent of another incident from my days on hawk involving an F-4 that survived an unbelievable dogfight and multiple SAM attacks.  But that’s another story.

Some links about the Pueblo incident:

Operation Red Fox — Air Force operation.

Dept. of the Navy photos — Naval Historical Center

An outstanding retrospective entitled PUEBLO a Retrospective, by Commander Richard Mobley, U.S. Navy covers the event in great detail.  ( Accessed Aug 7, 2005.

From World Knowledge Library comes an artcle with some cross-referenced detail.

Jim Liewer, Documents: U.S. ruled out military action over USS Pueblo for fear of war with Chinese or Soviets,  Stars and Stripes, Jan. 27, 2002, ( Accessed Aug. 8, 2005. This article discussed the political aspects of failing to attempt a rescue as now better known due to de-classification of documents.

Splash one more

I’ve guessed that the movie Top Gun is loosely based on the seizure of the U.S.S. Pueblo by the North Koreans in 1968 and have written about that.  I think that the dogfight is highly reminiscent, but obviously not based directly on, an incident that also happened in 1968 to an F-4 Phantom based on the ‘Hawk, the U.S.S. Kitty Hawk during one of my two cruises.  Here’s how the story goes to my recollection.

The F-4 was over the North (N. Viet Nam) when the crew saw a surface-to-air missle (SAM) lift off, toward them.  The typical maneuver was to dive right at the SAM and then jink one way or the other at the last moment. Obviously an important timing issue there!  Then a dual-site lit up (two SAMs fired simultaneously) and more radical maneuvering, then another and another.  I don’t now recall how many total SAMs were fired at this F-4 but it was a half-dozen or better, some in pairs, and the manuevering as was later described to me was radical, to say the least.

At some point they were jumped by Migs and while evading them (and in the process downing 3 of them) the F-4 was the target for more SAMs.  At some point the dogfight and SAM-dodging took them down to the deck and they were at a very high rate of speed … “hauling ass” was the pilot’s description to me.

They wound up flying through a valley, almost on the deck, and successfully had evaded the last of the Migs. They took that action because they were out of missiles and canon ammo, and now were running low on fuel.  It was time to  head for the ship.

Suddenly the RIO screams at the pilot “don’t pull up, DIVE damn-it … we’re inverted.”  They were inverted, flying through a valley at an extremely low altitude and the RIO realized that the pilot was disoriented and did not appreciate one very important reality:  they were upside down and  climbing for altitude would actually have put them into the ground, instantly.

Meanwhile, back on the ship, there was “joy in mudville” for the air battle had been followed over the radio broadcast and it was clear that a hero was on the way back. He called “feet wet” (meaning now over water) and would soon be in sight because we were only about 75 miles off the Vietnamese coast. And he was still “hauling ass.’

Then, just as did Maverick in Top Gun, the F-4 jockey requested a fly-by which was summarily denied. Not to be deterred, a supersonic fly-by did indeed occur to the delight and wild cheering of the flight deck crew and spectators gathered on the signal bridge.  The Captain just grinned (he was just 6-8 feet from me … it was my watch) as he heard the air boss cuss the pilot.

The F-4 circled the ship and entered a left downwind (they’re ALL left downwinds for carrier patterns) for landing when he flamed out … out of fuel.  There it was:  $3.5 million worth of airplane (hey, it was 1968) and the heroic crew punching out less then 1/2 mile from the ship on a downwind approach to landing.

Splash one more ….