CDR John “Bug” Roach: A Legendary Fighter Pilot And Probably The Greatest LSO (Landing Signal Officer) Ever

"Bug" Roach flight jacket and photo. (Image credit: National Naval Aviation Museum)

If you have an interest in Naval Aviation, you must have heard about Commander John “Bug” Roach.

Few days ago, the Facebook page of the National Naval Aviation Museum posted an interesting edition of their #MemorabiliaMonday: the photographs of the flight jacket that belonged to CDR John “Bug” Roach.

He was born on Aug. 26, 1944, in Monterey, California and received his Naval Aviator wings in 1966. He served as an F-8 Crusader pilot during the Vietnam War, before transitioning to the F-14 Tomcat.

CDR Roach was a veteran of 11 cruises in 23 years, logging over 5,000 hours of flight time in various fighter aircraft, over 1,000 carrier landings, and over 250 combat missions spanning two wars (Vietnam and Desert Storm).

“Hero”, “Legend”, “Best in a group of Bests”: these are just a few comments you will find under that FB post from people who worked with, met or were “waved” by Commander Roach. In fact, not only was “Bug” a great fighter pilot he was also, if not the greatest, one of the greatest LSOs ever.

Landing a jet on an aircraft carrier is anything but easy. The first and most obvious reason lays in the fact that the angled flight deck moves as the carrier sails in rectilinear motion. Then, you can add poor weather, a pitching deck, the darkness of the night, the lack of an alternate airfield, a low fuel state, a payload that includes live weapons, a failure and the stress for a long mission, and you get a very rough idea of the factors that can make a trap landing extremely difficult.

In such a demanding scenario, LSOs play a crucial role. Using radio callsign “Paddles”, these skilled and experienced pilots watch the landing of all the aircraft and provide the pilots with radio guidelines to adjust the final phase of the approach, complementing IFLOLS (Improved Fresnel Lens Optical Landing System) and ICLS (Instrumental Carrier Landing System) visual information. LSOs provide talkdown to pilots approaching the carrier, from the last three quarters of a mile all the way to touchdown, the last fifteen-eighteen seconds of their flight (the most critical part of it). Instructions radioed to the pilots (also to prevent the pilot from concentrating on the deck, thus not paying as much attention to the optical landing system) are concise: “Little low”, “Little right”, “Power”, but extremely important. The reassuring voice of the LSO can make the difference: it can give the approaching pilot the confidence needed to perform a successful landing even in the most critical conditions.

Among the LSOs who have served aboard U.S. Navy aircraft carrier, first as part of the team observing and assisting the recoveries from the special aft platform on the flight deck, then as Air Wing or CAG LSO, “Bug” Roach has become a legend among all Naval Aviators. According to this memorial page, he waved 130,000 trap landings, more than any other LSO in the Navy.

Recognizing his contribution to naval aviation, the Northern California Coastal Navy League established the Commander John “Bug” Roach Paddles Award for LSO excellence. When this award was established, “Bug” was still on active duty. At the 1990 Tailhook Convention, where the first award was presented, the following facts were supplied about CDR Roach’s LSO career:

He made four separate CAG LSO tours. In addition he was recalled on two other occasions as a ready alert CAG LSO due to his expertise. During his tenure as a CAG LSO he waved without mishap:

  • ten barricade arrestments
  • twenty single engine approaches
  • five aircraft missing main landing gear
  • two A-4 aircraft with major battle damage
  • the first ever S-3 with an unlocked wing
  • a night, hand-held radio (PRC-90), talkdown of six aircraft with no meatball and with the flight deck illuminated by the headlights of flight deck tractors, following a total engineering casualty on the ship.

Want an example of “Bug” at work? Here below you can find a pretty impressive one.

It’s Mar. 9, 1987, and an A-6 Intruder that had torn one landing gear off on an earlier trap landing attempt, piloted by US Marine Captain Rand “Atlas” McNally (who would be killed in an A-6 mishap in the San Francisco Bay in 1994) and his B/N (Bombardier/Navigator), needs to land at night on the pitching deck of USS Ranger. The aircrew in the attack jet need to engage the barricade. The video starts with “Bug” talking to the pilot and explaining what to do, what to expect, with a gentle and reassuring voice.

“I’m going to be talking to you; listen carefully, do everything I tell you and we’ll fly you through the other side”

“If I think you’re looking good…You are.”

“it’s just a case of the two of us will put you into that barricade. You’re going to be doing all the work I’m going to be doing all the critiquing.”

Then, as the aircraft approaches the ramp:

“Still holding a little bit low just a little power on, there you go, the deck steadied out a little bit looking real good, keep the scan going little power on, little power just a little”, then “cut! cut! cut! cut! cut! cut! cut! drop your nose! drop your nose! stay with it, stay with it, stay with it, stay with it, stay with it”

“Beautiful!”

Unfortunately, “Bug” was killed on Oct. 2, 1991.

He was flying as Bandit 31 with VF-126, the Pacific Fleet adversary squadron based at NAS Miramar. His A-4E suffered an engine failure forcing him to eject over the Pacific off San Diego. Bug’s last words were “What a lousy day. Well, I gotta get out of here. I’ll see you guys….” His wingman, “Dude” Holden, never saw a good chute, though.

In “Wave-Off! A History of LSOs and Ship-Board Landings“, Commander USN (ret.) Robert R. “Boom” Powell, says:

“John James “Bug” Roach III may be the last Paddles known for his individual skill and personality. The nature of the waving business has always been evolving and the LSO has gone from one man with paddles to a team operating sophisticated devices.

Bug delighted in any new devices that could make recoveries safer. He considered development of new LSOs one of his main goals. He judiciously worked trainees into the team on the platform. He taught, he encouraged, he inspired. The result was a generation of well-qualified LSOs who could brag that they were Bug trained.

But, when the going got tough, he was the one with pickle in one hand and radio handset in the other who took control and eased tension with his voice and reputation. Like the fictional Beer Barrel, when you heard Bug controlling, you knew you were in the best of hands”.

About David Cenciotti 4418 Articles
David Cenciotti is a freelance journalist based in Rome, Italy. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviationist”, one of the world’s most famous and read military aviation blogs. Since 1996, he has written for major worldwide magazines, including Air Forces Monthly, Combat Aircraft, and many others, covering aviation, defense, war, industry, intelligence, crime and cyberwar. He has reported from the U.S., Europe, Australia and Syria, and flown several combat planes with different air forces. He is a former 2nd Lt. of the Italian Air Force, a private pilot and a graduate in Computer Engineering. He has written four books.