You won’t believe it but U.S. Navy legendary planes (F-4, F-8 and F-14) could fly with folded wings, asymmetric configurations.
To save space aboard the deck of U.S. flattops, aircraft built for carrier operations can fold their wings making room for more planes.
Obviously wings must be extended tbefore catapult launch.
But what happens if the wings aren’t unfolded before take off?
Even if the pictures in this post show aircraft that were safely brought back without any trouble, for sure no aircraft can fly in those configurations.
One case in which the wings were forgotten folded occurred in August 1960, when a US Navy F-8 took off from Naples and climbed to 5,000 feet, when its pilot felt an amount of pressure on the stick: immediately, he started to look around to discover why its Crusader was facing the pressure amount and noticed that the wings were still folded.
Instantly he started to dump as much fuel as possible, and after 24 minutes of flight he was able to come back to Naples, landing safely.
He said that his Crusader faced no serious problems during the unusual kind of flight and the landing had been very fast but uneventful.
At least seven more times F-8s took off with wings folded, in several occasions at night, but without any mishap, proving Crusader strength and revealing the great job done by Vought engineers.
Six years later was the turn of an F-4B (BuNo. 152327) aircrew belonging to VF-14 Tophatters to experience a “wings folded” flight: in fact, on May 10, 1966, LT JG Greg Scwalber and his RIO (Radar Intercept Officer) Bill Wood were launched from USS Roosevelt (CVA-42) and once airborne they discovered that their Phantom II was flying with outboard wings folded.
They immediately understood that the locking mechanism was not properly set before launch. They quickly dumped all external stores, dropped the flaps and after declaring an emergency they diverted to the nearest airport that was Navy airfield in Cuba.
After 59 miles of flight Scwalber and Wood were able to made a successful arrested landing at a speed of 170-180 knots. As happened with the Crusader the F-4B BuNo 152327 returned into service few days later.
At least one Air Force crew had the chance to experience this strange kind of flight with their F-4, but the Rhino revealed to be a very robust airframe and it always brought its aircrew back home even without its wings fully opened.
The last impressive picture depicts the third F-14 prototype (BuNo 157982) with its wings swept asymmetrically: with the starboard wing locked fully forward and the port wing swept fully aft.
To reduce deck spotting area its wings could be “overswept” to 75°, eliminating the need for the folding mechanism of the wings. However in this photo the wings position is the result of tests undertaken to explore how the Tomcat could return back to the carrier with this asymmetric configuration.
Six flights were made between Dec. 19 1985 and Feb. 28, 1986 in this unusual configuration and landings were conducted with the aft-swept wing at up to 60°. These trials were conducted after four fleet aircraft found themselves in this difficult situation.
In 1988 a naval aviator performed a remarkable flyby with his F-14 Tomcat
The stunning image in this post will probably remind our readers the famous scene of Top Gun (when Maverick buzzes the tower with his F-14 Tomcat during a high speed flyby):
Maverick: “Tower, this is Ghostrider requesting a flyby.”
Tower: “Negative Ghostrider, the pattern is full.”
Goose: “No no, Mav this is not a good idea.”
Maverick: “Sorry Goose, but it’s time to buzz the tower.”
But the true story behind the picture above is quite different. In fact this photo was taken on the 1988 Dependents’ Day Cruise of the USS America (CV-66) and the F-14 Tomcat driver who performed this incredible super low, super close pass is Dale “Snort” Snodgrass, a pilot who has become synonymous of Tomcat.
Grown at Long Island, Dale’s dad was a test pilot and “Snort” set a new standard within the naval aviation program becoming the first flight school graduate to be selected for the newly formed F-14 pipeline as explained by Snodgrass himself in the book Grumman F-14 Tomcat Bye-bye, Baby…! :
“I was the first ensign to complete day/night Tomcat quals, right out of flight school. I was rewarded with the privilege of picking up a brand-new Tomcat at the factory for delivery to the west coast. To make the flight truly historic we stuck another ensign in the RIO (Radar Intercept Officer) seat.”
Before arriving to the Naval Air Station (NAS) Miramar, Dale and his RIO made a fuel stop at Luke Air Force Base (AFB): “We’d let the Air Force get a close-up look at the Tom. We were the first F-14 ever seen at that huge base. A general came to greet us at the VIP parking ramp. Luke was scheduled to receive its first F-15 Eagles the next day. At that time no one under the rank of O-4 major had flown the Eagle. Let’ em get a load of a real fighter, Navy style! The final flight over to Miramar was short, so we whacked the Air Force a final time with a sunset takeoff. Zone V (which was the maximum afterburner thrust setting for TF-30 engine) burner to 20,000 feet and still over their runways! The departure controller watched in amazement and then asked our aircraft type. My RIO responded, “We’re an Eagle Eater, Baby…!”
In the Navy, Dale amassed more hours in the F-14 than any other pilot, and is considered the “highest time Tomcat pilot”, with over 4,800 hours and more than 1,200 arrested carrier landings and for 14 years he has flown F-14 demos that people still talk about today.
Nowadays “Snort” is still in the air shows circuits and he is qualified in the F-86 Sabre, P-51 Mustang, F4U Corsair, T-6/SNJ Texan, MiG-15, MiG-17 and MiG-21.
About the low pass over the USS America, “Snort”, at the time Executive Officer (XO) of VF-33 Starfighters, released this interview to John Sponauer:
“It’s not risky at all with practice… It was my opening pass to a Tomcat tactical demonstration at sea. I started from the starboard rear quarter of the ship, at or slightly below flight deck level. Airspeed was at about 250 knots with the wings swept forward. I selected afterburner at about ½ miles behind and the aircraft accelerated to about 325-330 knots. As I approached the ship, I rolled into an 85 degree angle of bank and did a 2-3 g turn, finishing about 10 – 20 degrees off of the ship’s axis. It was a very dramatic and, in my opinion, a very cool way to start a carrier demo. The photo was taken by an Aviation Boson’s Mate (by an ABE3 who was the petty officer of third class Sean E. Dunn that was in charge in Launching & Recovering Equipment) who worked the flight deck on the USS America. Just as an aside…the individual with his arms behind his back is Admiral Jay Johnson” who became the Chief of Naval Operations for the Navy.”
At this point one question may raises in our minds: was the tactical demonstration well performed the day after this training? Take a look at the photo and judge by yourself.
By the way, the image on top is the one of the flyby, the one here below depicts the rehearsal..
Developed at the end of the 1960s to be the best air superiority fighter in the world, the F-15 proved to be a real MiG Killer during the Operation Desert Storm scoring most of the allied aerial victories.
During the Air War over Iraq the mighty Eagle proved also to be a very robust airframe, bringing back its pilots also after suffering serious damages.
After the first ten days of the first Gulf Air War, to avoid the destruction of their air force, Iraqis flew their aircraft to Iran and to prevent this “exodus” the U.S. Air Force was forced to establish a permanent BARCAP (BARrier Combat Air Patrol) whose aim was to protect the zone between the Iraq and Iran borders, 24 hours in each day of the week.
The task to fly these missions was given to the F-15s flights: each of them was composed by four airplanes which covered a six hour window before being replaced by the following four ship of Eagles.
As the four ship approached the bandits it became clear that “Muddy” and the number three of the formation, “Bagwan” Baughan were the lead in the engagement: due to “Bagwan” F-15 radar breakdown, the clearance to engage was confirmed to “Muddy”.
So the F-15s approached the bandits, which were flying in a line abreast formation and had entered in the Sparrows shot range: Watrous locked the nearest and fired its first AIM-7, followed, five seconds later, by another one. But both missiles missed the target.
At this point the F-15s were above the bandits and “Muddy” saw them under its Eagle: he nosed over and simultaneously jettisoned its three tanks still full of fuel: the reduced weight produced a great jolt followed by an instantaneous acceleration at supersonic speed.
Thanks to the speed he had achieved “Muddy” was close enough to lock again the nearest bandit and fire the third Sparrow; once again the missile missed the enemy aircraft, so Watrous fired its last AIM-7 and finally the Sparrow hit the bandit which lost its right wing and crashed on the ground inverted, leaving no time to the pilot to start the ejection sequence.
Image credit: U.S. Air Force
“Muddy” had also a good tone on its AIM-9 Sidewinder missiles, but the other bandits were outside the IR air-to-air missile range, the F-15 was close enough to Iranian border and at Joker (the fuel level that dictates the end of the mission and the beginning of the recovery). So Watrous formed up with “Bagwan” and it was at this point that he noticed something strange at his left wingtip.
The jettison of the three tanks produced the sudden jolt which broke two feet of the left wingtip, leaving the wire of the position light in the air.
The two F-15s moved to the tanker again since they were low on gas and during the air refueling the boomer took a picture of Muddy’s Eagle without the left wingtip.
Once the tanks were full of fuel again, “Muddy” and “Bagwan” were able to safely return to the base, while the other two F-15s ended the BARCAP: Watrous had to wait several days before its kill was confirmed and the bandit was identified as a MiG-23 Flogger. This delay was due to the fact that during the explosion of the enemy fighter, “Muddy” was alone and separated from the rest of the flight. But the greater surprise came few months later when he received a package with the picture of its Eagle without the wingtip taken by the boomer, as a reminder of a hard workday.
“Muddy” Watrous aerial victory was the only kill for the “Wolfhounds” during Desert Storm, their last major deployment, before being disbanded in January 1994.
But in late 1988, tensions between Washington and Tripoli raised again. In fact the United States government accused Libya of building a chemical weapons plant near the town of Rabta and once again Gaddafi warned the U.S. against interfering in Libyan affairs, reiterating the threat of military actions. In response to Gaddafi’s menace, the USS John F. Kennedy (CV-67) and its battle group were dispatched to conduct a “freedom of navigation” exercise off the Libyan coast.
On Jan. 4, 1989, in the morning, four pairs of F-14s, two of those belonging to the VF-14 Tophatters and two with the VF-32 Swordsmen, were flying Combat Air Patrols (CAP) close to the Gulf of Sidra, while a single E-2C from the VAW-126 Sea Hawks supported them.
For several years, due to terrorist concerns, the crews had to remain anonymous and their names withheld from reports, but today we know that the two VF-32 Tomcats on the southernmost CAP station, were the BuNo. 159610, call sign “Gipsy 207” flown by Swordsmen skipper Commander Joseph B. Connelly and by Commander Leo F. Enwright as Radar Intercept Officer (RIO) and the BuNo. 159437, call sign “Gipsy 202″ crewed by Lieutenant Hermon C. Cook III and Lieutenant Commander Steven P. Collins as RIO.
The two F-14s were armed with four Sparrows and two Sidewinders, since they were launched before the intended loadout of four AIM-7s and four AIM-9s was complete. After being refueled by a KA-6D Intruder, the two F-14s with Gipsy 207 leading the section, returned to their CAP station, when the Hawkeye, call sign “Closeout”, warned them that two Libyan aircraft had taken off from Al Bumbah airfield.
Almost immediately the contact was picked up by the Tomcats radars at a distance of about 72 miles and locked up: this procedure was aimed at alerting the Libyan fighters that they were monitored by armed F-14s.
Several times this was enough to persuade them to turn away, but this time the bogeys kept coming.
The Tomcats began the engagement at 20,000 feet descending toward the bogeys that were descending from 10,000 to 8,000 feet. The two F-14s performed also a thirty degrees turn away from the enemy fighters but the bogeys countered it with a turn which placed them in a fast collision course against the Tomcats.
But the turn executed by the American fighters also to put the F-14s between the bogeys and the aircraft carrier, giving to the Tomcats an advantage position to provide protection to the USS Kennedy.
What nobody could know, was that in a matter of few minutes the events that had started as an almost normal close encounter would turn into a real air to air combat, as reported by the Rear Admiral Paul t. Gillcrist in his book Tomcat! The Grumman F-14 Story.
At 11:58:43 the US fighters leveled off at 3,000 feet and 475 knots, while the bogies were closing on a collision course at a range of 53 miles and descending. To avoid a head-on engagement with the enemy aircraft armed with radar guided air to air missiles, the F-14s turned a second time trying to offset themselves from the bogeys, hoping to gain a tactical advantage.
Less than one minute later, at 11:59:16 the Libyans, controlled by their own ground controlled radar, had already turned back towards the Tomcats with a closure speed of about one thousand knots. The air warfare commander on Kennedy transmitted to the two Swordsmen crews the coded signal “Warning yellow, weapons hold, I repeat, warning yellow, weapons hold”.
This radio call caused some misunderstanding since it was interpreted that the F-14s were not cleared to fire, but a “yellow, weapons hold” is used to alert the fighters that there is a possible threat to the battle group (warning yellow), and weapons hold reminds that peacetime ROE (Rules Of Engagemt) still apply and the fighters must assess hostile intent or threat, or act in self defense in order to shoot.
At 12:00:53 Enwright reported that bogies had jinked at him for the fifth time and that the Libyans were inside of twenty miles: at this point he directed the section to turn “on” the master armament switches. At a range of exactly 12.9 miles Enwright aboard Gipsy 207 fired a Sparrow missile and Connelly executed thirty degree turn to the left while Cook III onboard Gipsy 204 performed the same maneuver to the right.
In this way, at 12:01:20 the two F-14s turned back into the bogeys and Enwright fired a second Sparrow. Connelly still couldn’t see the enemy fighters but he noticed that on its right Gipsy 202 fired a Sparrow and at the same time Cook III called “Tally-ho, eleven o’ clock high. They are turning on me” and he casually told to Collins “They got one off”.
This statement caused some confusion, since Enwright believed that the now detected MiG-23s had fired and he began to release defensive chaff bundles. Meanwhile Connelly followed Gipsy 202 missile flight which exploded into the right intake duct of the second Flogger.
At 12:01:57 Gipsy 207 began a hard right turn to position himself to the six o’clock position of the lead MiG-23 which was passing in front of him from left to right. The second damaged Flogger instead, streaming black smoke entered a right turn and was lost from view after its pilot ejected.
At 12:02:06 Connelly was at six o’ clock position of the first MiG-23 and reported “Good kill, good kill, I’ve got the other one” while switching on his stick to select Sidewinder. But no familiar tone came from the missile’s seeker head on his head set. While Enwright was shouting “Select Fox 2, shoot Fox 2”, Connelly switched back to Sparrow, but since they were overtaking the Flogger, he shifted again to Sidewinder which eventually emitted the right tone.
Connelly pulled the trigger, the missile left the left wing station and hit the MiG-23 in the fuselage just behind the cockpit.
At 12:02:36 Connelly reported to the E-2C that they had “splashed two Floggers and that there were two good ‘chutes in the air”.
In the days after the engagement Libya tried to confuse things by asserting that the Floggers were unarmed reconnaissance aircraft, but the video footage recorded in the Tomcats TCS (the Television Camera System, the camera mounted under F-14’s nose which enhanced crew ability to identify the enemy early in an engagement) clearly showed that the MiG-23s were armed with air-to-air missiles, proving that Libyan fighters represented a real threat.
In the video below you can hear the radio communications of the engagement and see the footage recorded by the F-14s.
The SR-71 impressive mission record was reached thanks to some unique features of its airframe, such as its ability to fly at more than three and a half times the speed of sound at 88,000 feet, its small (for the time) Radar Cross Section (RCS) and its sophisticated electronic countermeasures (ECM).
These flight characteristics made the Blackbird safe against any attempt of interception conducted by enemy fighters or surface-to-air missiles (SAM), during its reconnaissance missions in the Russian skies during the Cold War years.
In fact the Phoenix was developed to shoot down Soviet cruise missiles which flew at an altitude similar to the one reached by the Blackbird. Moreover with a speed between Mach 4 and Mach 5, the AIM-54 was fast enough to cause serious problems to the SR-71.
But, the capabilities featured by the Tomcat and its long range missiles, weren’t matched by any Russian interceptor, and to stop SR-71s’ overflights, the Soviets developed an aircraft which had similar characteristics to those owned by the F-14.
As we have recently explained, the only aircraft that had a speed close to the one of the SR-71 was the MiG-25. But even if it could fly at Mach 3.2, the Foxbat wasn’t able to sustain such speeds long enough to reach the Blackbird.
Another serious problem which affected the Foxbat was the lack of effectiveness of its R-40 missiles (AA-6 Acrid based on NATO designation) against an air-to-air target smaller than a large strategic bomber.
These deficiencies were settled when a more advanced MiG-25 development, the MiG-31, entered in service in the 1980s: the Foxhound was armed with a missile very similar to the US AIM-54 Phoenix, the R-33 (AA-9 Amos as reported by NATO designation).
This weapon was ideal not only for shooting down the American bombers, but also to intercept and destroy fast reconnaissance aircraft, such as the SR-71.
This statement was dramatically confirmed in Paul Crickmore’s book Lockheed Blackbird: Beyond The Secret Missions.
In this book one of the first Foxhound pilots, Captain Mikhail Myagkiy, who had been scrambled with its MiG-31 several times to intercept the US super-fast spy plane, explains how he was able to lock on a Blackbird on Jan. 31, 1986:
“The scheme for intercepting the SR-71 was computed down to the last second, and the MiGs had to launch exactly 16 minutes after the initial alert. (…) They alerted us for an intercept at 11.00. They sounded the alarm with a shrill bell and then confirmed it with a loudspeaker. The appearance of an SR-71 was always accompanied by nervousness. Everyone began to talk in frenzied voices, to scurry about, and react to the situation with excessive emotion.”
Myagkiy and its Weapons System Officer (WSO) were able to achieve a SR-71 lock on at 52,000 feet and at a distance of 120 Km from the target.
The Foxhound climbed at 65,676 feet where the crew had the Blackbird in sight and according to Myagkiy:
“Had the spy plane violated Soviet airspace, a live missile launch would have been carried out. There was no practically chance the aircraft could avoid an R-33 missile.”
After this interception Blackbirds reportedly began to fly their reconnaissance missions from outside the borders of the Soviet Union.
But the MiG-31s intercepted the SR-71 at least another time.
On Sept. 3, 2012 an article written by Rakesh Krishman Simha for Indrus.in explains how the Foxhound was able to stop Blackbirds spy missions over Soviet Union on Jun. 3, 1986.
That day, no less than six MiG-31s “intercepted” an SR-71 over the Barents Sea by performing a coordinated interception that subjected the Blackbird to a possible all angle air-to-air missiles attack.
Apparently, after this interception, no SR-71 flew a reconnaissance missions over the Soviet Union and few years later the Blackbird was retired to be replaced with the satellites.
Even if claiming that the MiG-31 was one of the causes of the SR-71 retirement is a bit far fetched, it is safe to say that towards the end of the career of the legendary spyplane, Russians proved to have developed tactics that could put the Blackbird at risk.