Tag Archives: Grumman F-14 Tomcat

Before Topgun Days: a book reveals how F-14 Tomcat Radar Intercept Officers were trained

Behind the scenes of the making of an F-14 Tomcat RIO.

Although the Grumman F-14 Tomcat had evolved into a multi-mission strike fighter when it was eventually retired from U.S. Navy service in 2006, the last of the “Grumman Cats” was originally conceived to be one of the best air-to-air fighters ever built, a goal reached thanks to its speed, its high maneuverability and its sophisticated weapon system.

The lessons learned during the Vietnam War showed that the fighter that the F-4 Phantom replacement had to excel in WVR (within visual range) engagements and feature those BVR (beyond visual range) capabilities essential for a premiere Navy fighter. Thus Tomcat crews were trained to conduct intercepts almost from the start of training in Pensacola and continuing with their assignment to the RAG (replacement air group, a squadron dedicated to training aviators for a specific type of aircraft).

As explained by the twenty-year experienced Tomcat Radar Intercept Officer (RIO) Dave “Bio” Baranek in his new book Before Topgun Days: The Making of a Jet Fighter Instructor, depending on the learning objectives, the intercept would either end when “we got close to the target, or would include engaged maneuvering after the merge.”

According to “Bio” one of these sorties, flown with LT Jim McArthur (who would later become an admiral) as his instructor pilot, and their wingman in the second F-14 was Sandy Winnefeld (a student RAG pilot, Baranek’s college friend, and a future admiral himself) and his instructor RIO Willy Driscoll, the Vietnam MiG ace, was particularly memorable.

This hop was a “2 vs 2 intercept to engagement” with a TA-4 Skyhawk and an F-15 Eagle as opponents.

As Baranek recalls: “As with the Tomcat, the designers of the Eagle applied the hard lessons from aerial combat in Vietnam and took advantage of further advances in engines and aerodynamics. The Air Force jet was lighter, unencumbered by the heavy structure that the Tomcat needed for repeated carrier landings, nor by the Tomcat’s heavy radar and other systems that came with the Phoenix missile. With its incredible maneuverability, the Eagle was a challenge for the Tomcat.”

Noteworthy, given that the engagement took place in the skies over the range near Yuma, the rough terrain of the area challenged the AWG-9 in automatic modes and the Tomcat RIOs in manual modes. Flying at an altitude of 20,000 feet and at 350 knots, both groups – the F-14s and their adversaries – were closing at a speed of 700 knots. As Bio says “It was cool to have a college friend and a flying legend on my wing.”

TA-4

The intercept began and Bio started to direct the F-14s’ attack, when Driscoll came up on the radio and said: “My radar is acting up, Dave, you’re going to have to run this one.” His radar problems left their section without Driscoll’s experience during the engagement, but also reminded the aircrews that in the real world radar sometimes fails.

So, with encouragement and a little coaching from his pilot, Bio directed the two F-14s through the intercept, calling an AIM-7 Sparrow missile shot and describing the radar picture for the wingman.

“We got a tally-ho on both adversaries, streaked past them at the merge…and the fight was on! Though it was more maneuverable than the TA-4, the F-15 was also larger and easier to keep track of. Even so, duking it out with a nimble little guy and his big brother was challenging as our two F-14s maneuvered aggressively in a vigorous dogfight. I have to admit that the details are a blur: I don’t remember who took shots, who won or lost. After about two minutes the fight ended with “Knock it off” on the radio. […] One thing I do remember: Driscoll’s radar was fully functional on the second and third engagements of the flight. Did I get “sandbagged,” an old trick of instructors to see how I would handle it? Or did he just have a knack for fixing an AWG-9 during a dogfight? I’ll never know, but I do know I was in awe of his radar and communication skills. He (Driscoll) definitely lived up to his reputation.”

But for U.S. Navy aircrews being fully capable to man their aircraft during real combat operations is not enough: indeed, before being assigned to an active duty squadron they must be qualified to operate from an aircraft carrier and the biggest challenge they have to overcome during CQs (carrier qualifications) is called “night carrier qualification.”

Night CQ

In “Before Topgun Days” not only does the author bring the reader onboard a Tomcat during carrier night flight operations but also provides a unique description of these tense moments: “Surreal is not a strong enough word to describe the experience of calmly flying around a pitch-black sky for an hour, steadily monitoring red-lit instruments, breathing oxygen through a mask, talking on the radio and occasionally trading small talk or mission-related comments with your pilot. We really could have been sitting in a black room. Until the final two minutes of greatly increased activity and stress, followed by the physically jarring arrested landing that suddenly placed us on a small world dimly lit by orange lights. In this place we talked to each other and interacted with people outside for a frenzied few moments until we were again brain-scrambled by a cat shot into the serenity of darkness. This time it was only a few minutes of serenity before we again started the relentless rush of a night carrier approach.

No, surreal is not a strong enough word.”

“Before Topgun Days” tells how student RIOs were brought to this level of skill through a structured training approach that begins in Pensacola. Baranek gives detailed descriptions of his early training, which was exciting and challenging, and tells about the times he thought he might not complete the program. But he did. Several vignettes from Bio early days in a fleet F-14 squadron that show how well the training prepared him for the real world finish the book.

Baranek

Image credit: Dave “Bio” Baranek

Watch this video of Iranian F-14 Tomcats escorting a Russian Tu-95 bomber during air strike in Syria

Persian Tomcat and Russian Bear fly together during a strike mission against ground targets in Syria.

Something really interesting details have been exposed by the material released by Russia’s MoD lately.

Indeed, as you can see in the video below, IRIAF (Islamic Republic of Iran Air Force) F-14 Tomcat interceptors escorted Russian Air Force Tu-95 Bear bombers flying in Iranian airspace during their 9h 30mins missions (from Engels airbase and back, along the Iraq-Iran-Caspian Sea 6,500 km-long corridor) against terrorist targets in Syria.

F-14 IRIAF escort Tu-95 composite

With the U.S. Navy retiring the legendary F-14 in September 2006, nowadays the IRIAF is the only operator of the Tomcat, a type of aircraft that Tehran has kept airworthy throughout the years in spite of the embargo imposed after the 1979 Revolution.

Not only did the Iranians keep some F-14s in active service but they have also upgraded it with some domestic avionics upgrades and weapons that should extend the life of the last flying Tomcats until 2030.

How two F/A-18s brought their pilots home after colliding mid-air during air combat training

The risky business of being an adversary pilot.

Dissimilar Air Combat Training (DACT) is one of the most important parts in the training of modern fighter pilots. At the same time, an air combat maneuvering (ACM) session, where friendly and (simulated) enemy fighters fly against each other, can be one of the most dangerous training environment.

Although quite rarely, mid-air collisions do occur, sometimes with fatal results.

The evidence DACT can be quite dangerous is in the following photos, taken after a mid air occurred on Apr. 22, 1996 between two F/A-18As (BuNo. 162454 and BuNo. 162475) from VFC-12 Fighting Omars.

The two Hornets, along with another F/A-18, were playing the MiG-29 role during a Strike Fighter Advanced Readiness Program (SFARP) sortie. Flown by the Flight Lead LCDR Greg “Stubby” Stubbs and his two wingmen, LCDR Greg “G.I” Anderson and LCDR Cal Worthington, the three F/A-18s engaged two VF-41 F-14s that were escorting an EA-6B Prowler.

Almost immediately the two Tomcats scored two kills with simulated missile shots at eight miles out against LCDR Stubbs and against LCDR Anderson.

The three Hornets remained in formation together until the merge point (where friendly fighters meet enemy fighters) and following the rules of engagement the two “MiGs” killed by simulated shots, executed aileron rolls to give the students a visual indication of which Bandits were killed and which one they should attack.

It was in the middle of the second aileron roll that Stubbs and Anderson collided, as explained by LCDR Stubbs himself to Rick Llinares and Chuck Lloyd for their book Adversary: America’s Aggressor Fighter Squadrons.

The nose of the Hornet flown by Anderson ripped through Stubbs F/A-18’s left wing and clipped off half of the vertical tail, while Anderson Hornet’s nose cone along with his canopy and his drop tank were lost. One of his engines was damaged as well.

The “Knock it off” (the signal given by the pilots to stop a training air engagement) of the furball was called and someone said on the radio that a mid-air had occurred. LCDR Worthington called Stubbs asking him if he could control his F/A-18. Stubbs applied right stick, right rudder and started pulling the power back a little bit and the nose came up. He answered to Worthington “yeah, I have it.” In the meantime also Anderson called to say he was fine, even if the sound of the wind filled his radio communications.

F/A-18A 1

Both the damaged Hornets headed towards the coastline, with Stubbs assisted by Worthington, while the F-14s were trying to communicate with Anderson. Since the Tomcats weren’t able to contact LCDR Anderson because of a radio problem, Stubbs said to Worthington that he had to join up with Anderson since he was facing more serious problems: in fact Anderson had lost his probes during the collision and his airspeed and altitude indicators didn’t work.

Even though the Coast Guard station in Elizabeth City was the nearest airfield, it lacked an arresting cable system and so Stubbs and Anderson decided to go to Oceana. Not only did the aircraft configuration make a standard approach almost impossible, but Stubbs also discovered that his Hornet entered in dangerous left rolls if the speed descended below 200 knots. So the long runway and the arresting cable system available at NAS Oceana were the best option for them.

Hornet

After consulting with a McDonnel Douglas representative Stubbs decided to land without lowering his remaining flap. Two more Hornets, flown by LCDR Bertran and Bowman, joined up with him while he was preparing to lower his landing gear.

The damaged Hornet touched the runway at 200 knots, a speed that exceeded both the arresting gear engagement speed limit (175 knots) and the speed limit beyond which the hook might be ripped off (182 knots).

Few moments later also Anderson came to landing: his F/A-18 had lost the whole canopy aft of the windscreen (hence the sound of the wind that filled his radio communications) and wires were flapping out of the nose, beating against the side of the jet, but he was able to safely land.

midair 2

After two months, both pilots returned to flight status. Among the lessons learned in the mishap there was the need to put more emphasis on how pilots have to come out from the merge during the pre-flight briefing.

Conversely this accident was a significant testament to the sturdiness of the F/A-18: in fact although both the fighters were written off, the two Hornets were able to bring back home their pilots safely even after sustaining huge damages shown in the photos above.

Image credit: U.S. Navy via aircraftresourcecenter.com

Rare video shows an F-14 Tomcat as it appeared through the onboard Television Camera Set

Watch this rare footage featuring some interesting images taken from aboard an F-14 Tomcat by using the TCS (Television Camera Set).

Filmed by Dave “Bio” Baranek, author of the book Topgun Days: Dogfighting, Cheating Death and Hollywood Glory as One of America’s Best Fighter Jocks, and a twenty-year experienced Tomcat Radar Intercept Officer (RIO), from onboard his F-14 making use of the television camera set (TCS) mounted in the chin pod, this clip shows 2,5 minutes of video of Tomcats flying with US Navy Fighter Squadron 2 (VF-2) Bounty Hunters around 1989.

As explained by Bio himself, the story behind this video is quite interesting: “I have to say that the opening segment (head-on pass) was a boring ‘1v1’ during deployment, so the comm is kind of sloppy, because we were basically fooling around. But when we got back to the ready room and looked at the video, I thought, ‘That is a keeper!'”

The TCS was a camera that could be slaved to the radar antenna providing a gray-scale visual image to the aircrew. Even if it had a fairly limited field of view and was heavily affected by atmospheric haze, the TCS was one of the F-14’s most interesting system. Being integrated into the weapons system in fact, it was useful in many scenarios: although the television camera set was most useful at high altitude where the air is clear, it delivered to the Tomcat aircrew a unique first sight-first shot capability given the fact that the aircrew could visually identify (VID) hostile aircraft at a greater distance than using eyeballs alone.

Other interesting segments of the video show four Tomcats sweeping their wings, and a cool F-14 night catapult shot from USS Ranger using maximum afterburner.

The story of an F-14 Tomcat RIO who became prisoner of war during the First Gulf War

The dramatic story of a US Navy Tomcat RIO, POW during Operation Desert Storm.

As we have recently explained, in the early morning of Jan. 21, 1991, the F-14B (BuNo 161430, at the time designated F-14A Plus) from the VF-103 “Sluggers,” callsign “Slate 46”,  flown by Lt. Devon Jones and RIO Lt. Lawrence Slade, was hit by an Iraqi SA-2 Surface to Air Missile.

The crew was forced to eject due to the violent flat spin which followed the SAM explosion.

During the descent, the two men saw each other for the last time before entering the clouds and once they put their boots on the ground their fate was quite different.

In fact, while Lt. Jones was saved with a spectacular Combat SAR mission, Lt. Slade tried to go as far as he could from the Tomcat crash site, walking for about 2 ½ hours in the desert using his radio every hour without receiving any reply.

Then, while Slade tried to hide himself near a little knoll, the Iraqis found him.

“At about 1030, a white Datsun pickup truck came around the knoll,” Slade says in the book Gulf Air War Debrief.

“It was probably bad luck because I don’t think they were looking for me; they were just driving by. Two men stopped and got out. One had a 12-gauge shot gun, the other, an AK-47. […] They approached me, but it never crossed my mind to pull out my pistol. I was obviously had. They made me strip off all my gear.”

The two men were very polite and after they put Slade between them in the pickup, took him in their tent where they fed him.

Then, after the lunch, they put him again in the pickup and they asked him if he wanted to go to either Saudi Arabia or Baghdad. Of course, he told them Saudi Arabia, choosing the most northern town he could recall. Slade knew that if the trip took three hours, it would have been Baghdad; eight, Saudi Arabia. Sure enough, 3 ½ hours later they pulled into an army camp, and he knew it wasn’t Saudi Arabia. For the rest of the day Slade was shuttled to six different camps, blindfolded and handcuffed. Nevertheless he was for sure a subject of interest, since people came out to see him, take pictures of him and poke at his gear. They’d pick on him, kick him, and if they spoke English they’d say things like “You kill our children.”

Slade spent the following three days in Baghdad where he experienced very harsh interrogations, then he was transferred in the first of several prisons where he spent his POW (Prisoner Of War) experience.

As he recalls: “In retrospect, I was shot down on the fourth day of the war and they had already had a few prisoners: a couple of Tornado crews, an A-6 crew and a Marine OV-10 crew. ”

Lieutenant Slade and his fellow POWs changed different prisons in Baghdad where they also experienced several allied bombs raids, the most intense of which was the one that took place on Feb. 23, when 2,000-lb bombs almost completely destroyed their jail.

But for sure the most impressive experience faced by Slade were the interrogations by Iraqi jailers. He had a total of six interrogations, some of what they called soft-sell, where they just asked him questions. Then there were the hard-sells, where they pounded on him. For the most part, they didn’t use any classic torture methods. They just beat him up, tied his hands behind his back and double-blindfolded him to the point where he couldn’t even blink.

They beat allied prisoners even when they answered their questions. Slade, as well as the other POWs answered to the questions just to make beatings stop “even though the answers were complete garbage. Some I didn’t know the answer to, and I’d tell them, then I’d make up something. I could hear them writing it down. I thought, ‘You idiots!’ […] Some time toward the end of February, they banged me up against the wall and broke my seventh vertebra.”

During these interrogations Slade was blindfolded and never saw his interrogators, probably so that he could not identify them later, or perhaps because the Iraqis understood how terrifying it is to be blind in the hands of  a torturer.

Lt. Slade endured interrogation, torture and starvation in the Iraqi hands for 43 days: even if his six weeks as a POW were not anywhere as long as six years in North Vietnamese prisons, to Lawrence Slade every week must have seemed like a year.

F-14B Slade 2

Image credit: U.S. Navy