First Tomcat Flight

This is the story of a milestone: my first flight in an F-14A Tomcat as a student radar intercept officer (RIO), which took place 19 September 1980. In my particular situation, the second and third flights add details about the training environment, so I have included them in this account. All three of my flights were in 160660. Our wingman for the second flight, shown here, was 160689.

With wings swept per standard procedure in the Tomcat community, NJ 433 tucks in as we approach the break at Buckley.
In the year after graduating from college and Navy ROTC, I completed flight training at NAS Pensacola and joined the F-14 Tomcat RAG*, VF-124, at NAS Miramar in San Diego. My class had been in the RAG about two months and we were progressing through our training as planned, so we knew our first Tomcat flights were coming soon. The week it came was typical: I had one or two graded simulators every day, plus a few lectures. On Wednesday one of the instructors, Lt. Ron Gollhofer, put out the word that he was looking for a student RIO to fly to Denver with him over the weekend, a “cross-country” flight. I said I was interested. But first I had to complete my first flight, which according to squadron rules had to be a local flight from Miramar. Friday morning at 8:00 I had a simulator that focused on radar use, then at 10:45 I had my “safe-for-flight” simulator. This one covered all standard procedures required on a normal flight, along with some emergency procedures. I passed, and was cleared to fly the Tomcat as a Student RIO.

The brief for my first flight started at 2:00 on a Friday afternoon. LT Gollhofer was a Denver Broncos fan and his callsign was “Crush.” By now it was easier for us students to call the instructors by callsigns; soon we would have our own.

Having completed about forty flights in VT-10 and VT-86 (training squadrons), as well as dozens of Tomcat simulator sessions, I was well prepared but still excited. The instructor demeanor, ready room ambience, briefing binder, and many other peripherals were similar to what I had gotten used to in Pensacola. But instead of the background buzz of a weekday morning, this was a beautiful Friday afternoon in San Diego. So as I was briefing to start the next stage of my career, people were leaving the squadron headed for home. Actually, more were headed to the Officers’ Club. Things were fairly quiet by the time we finished the flight brief around 3:00 and went downstairs to put on our flight gear.

By now it took me only a few minutes to get dressed: g-suit, parachute harness, survival equipment. In the F-14 we added another item of flight gear to what we had worn in the T-2 and A-4: leg restraints. Leg restraints are two thick nylon straps fastened around each lower leg, holding a metal buckle at each heel. They connect to the ejection seat and prevent the flier’s legs from flailing in the violent windblast after a high-speed ejection. Like the shoulder belt of a car, the mechanism allowed free movement of our legs, but in the case of an ejection it would pull them in tight to reduce injury. By now I thought, “Want me to wear more gear? No problem.”
Besides, leg restraints looked cool; they said I fly fighters.

I was then initiated into something all Tomcat fliers have experienced: waiting for a jet. By Friday afternoon VF-124’s fleet of Tomcats was running rough after another demanding week of training flights. No one would have blamed us if we had just cancelled, but I wanted my first flight and Crush wanted to go to Denver. My first flight was a requirement for his trip, and the rules said takeoff and landing had to be at Miramar. So we told Maintenance that if they could get a flyable jet, we would take it. The Training department was happy because it would be one more block checked for the week. I’m sure the Squadron Duty Officer (SDO) would rather have called it a day, but Crush said, “Stick around, we’re going flying,” so the SDO had to stay behind the duty desk.

The biggest limiting factor was sunset – first flights had to be conducted entirely in daylight, even for student RIOs flying with experienced pilots – so we could not wait too long. Maintenance came up with a jet and a plane captain (PC) got it ready to fly, and we walked out to the flight line in the late afternoon sun.

25 to 30 Tomcats were parked silently in three neat rows on the VF-124 flight line. Scores of other squadrons’ Tomcats were lined up on the jet-fuel-stained concrete for hundreds of yards around us, along with some Phantoms. Squadron flight lines at the west end of the field held E-2 Hawkeyes, and the line farthest east consisted of Topgun's A-4 and F-5 adversary jets. But I was concentrating on finding my jet among those on VF-124’s line, and trying to stay calm while chatting with Crush. I had a lot on my mind.

Crush shepherded me through my first Tomcat pre-flight that really mattered. (The others had just been practice.) He wanted to complete the event, but still it wasn’t a free pass for me. He quizzed me on the correct readings for the hydraulic reservoir pressure gauges (1,800 psi) and observed my inspection of an engine compartment while the PC held open the access panel. We climbed up to the top of the jet to complete the pre-flight, finishing with the canopy inspection and ejection seats. Then we pulled the safety pins on our seats and stepped down into our cockpits and strapped in.

NJ 433 sweeps the wings and shows its belly for a photo.
I clipped my leg restraints to the receiver buckles near the bottom of the ejection seat. The PC stood on the foldout step and helped me strap in and connect myself to the aircraft systems – oxygen, communications, g-suit. He then helped Crush and backed down the ladder, closing all panels as he went, finally folding the ladder back into its compartment. I swept through my cockpit switches from left to right as I had done in the training squadrons and Tomcat simulators, while Crush performed a similar inspection up front. The F-14’s rear cockpit had many more switches than the T-2 and TA-4, but using an orderly sweep I was able to complete the setup. Or so I thought.

Crush signaled the PC to apply electrical power, which allowed me to use the radio. I put our clearance on request, sounding a little better than I did ten months earlier in VT-10, but I had reverted to using a detailed script until I got used to the new aircraft and airfield. Crush then gave the PC the signal to turn on the high-pressure air supplied through a thick hose, which allowed him to start the engines. The engines provided air conditioning to all aircraft systems, so I closed the huge Plexiglas canopy. Over the ICS I said, “Canopy coming.” When he said, “Clear,” I moved the handle forward with my right hand.

Once the canopy had closed and slid forward into its locks, I moved a toggle switch to place the AWG-9 radar and weapons system in Standby. I entered our latitude and longitude into the inertial navigation system and turned my attention to the 9-inch diameter tactical information display (TID) cathode ray tube low in front of me, where I could watch the progress of the inertial navigation system alignment. In the middle of the screen the onboard checkout routine displayed its progress as it ran through checks of selected aircraft electronic systems.

Start-up went well and I got our clearance. Once Miramar Ground Control gave us permission we taxied out of our parking spot. Crush asked how I was doing and I said, “Pretty good except I can’t see any symbols on the TID, just dots.” Crush asked if I had pushed all of the display pushbuttons for the TID and I said, “Oh, that would probably help.” I pushed them, and the TID showed all the symbology and labels I expected. We taxied out to the hold short area. I was proud of myself for not letting this small oversight become a real problem. Crush thought it was good that I didn’t get rattled and handled it with humor. (I never again forgot to push those buttons!)

I called for takeoff just before 6 PM, a little more than an hour before sunset. There were no other airplanes active on the field, and Miramar Tower cleared us immediately. We taxied onto the runway and got on centerline. Crush pressed forward with his toes to apply the brakes, and moved the throttles forward to military power. The jet’s nose dipped in response to the engines’ thrust. With his right hand on the stick Crush wiped out the controls, then with his left hand moved the throttles forward to minimum afterburner – Zone 2 in the F-14. “Ready?” “Yes!” “Here we go!”

Crush released the brakes as he moved both throttles forward to maximum afterburner – Zone 5. (The afterburner injects pure fuel into a metal tube that extends aft of the basic engine and ignites it; most fighters have them. Afterburners, or burners, provide an increase in thrust of 50% or more. The F-14’s afterburners have five stages or zones; Zone 5 is max burner.)

I had learned all of this in classes but had never experienced it before. The word “wow” is inadequate to describe a clean Tomcat full burner takeoff. The nose popped up when he released the brakes and we accelerated down the runway. “Off the peg.” I called airspeed as I had before, only quicker. “60 knots” came in about 8 seconds (and we weighed almost 60,000 lbs). Crush reported, “Nosewheel steering off.” I called “100 knots” eleven seconds after brake release. Seconds later Crush smoothly programmed the stick a few inches aft, and – accelerating through 130 knots less than fifteen seconds after brake release – we took off. Shortly after we left the ground Crush raised the landing gear handle near his left knee and moved the stick forward a little to fly down the runway. At 180 knots he raised the flaps.

In this clean configuration we rapidly accelerated along Miramar’s 11,000-foot runway. I looked at the jets, hangars, and control tower blurring past outside as Crush pulled the jet into a brief climb to the departure altitude of 2,000’ and turned to the departure heading that would take us over less-populated areas as we flew roughly five miles to the coast. By now Crush had pulled the throttles back out of afterburner; otherwise we would have exceeded air traffic control speed restrictions. A Tomcat in full afterburner at low altitude is an incredibly powerful machine, as I would learn in the coming weeks and months of flying.

While trying to appreciate the power and blurring scenery, I managed to switch my radio as required from Miramar Tower to San Diego Departure Control. Crush took care of the essentials as I tried to do my part. Despite the training I was a little "behind the airplane": my brain was trying to process all of the new inputs and sensations in addition to performing my duties as a RIO. In a few more flights I would be pulling my own weight, but on this flight Crush kept us out of trouble. We soon found ourselves over the Pacific near San Clemente Island.

Uninhabited except by goats and rotating crews of Navy personnel, San Clemente is a 20-mile-long landmark about 50 miles off the coast of Southern California. Even in the age of inertial and GPS navigation, it is a priceless visual reference point.

The sun seemed to move faster than normal as it descended in the western sky, no doubt hastened by our concern for a daytime-only flight. Crush ensured that I performed such essential tasks as running an airborne systems check and using the radar to search for airliners flying from Los Angeles International Airport 80 miles north of our location – no problem for the AWG-9. We performed a few loops and turns just to give me small sense of aircraft capabilities.

He asked if I wanted to go supersonic and of course I said, “Sure!” So he advanced the throttles to Zone 5. I felt a purposeful acceleration, and in a few seconds my airspeed indicator said 1.1 Mach. Block checked; no drama. We slowed down to subsonic speed and Crush called the SDO to check on the official time of sunset. We were about to turn into a pumpkin so he turned east and I called San Diego Approach Control to start our trip home. As I recall we landed at roughly the exact time of sunset. That's my story and I'm sticking to it.

View from the cockpit as an F-14A climbs in full afterburner. RIO/photographer in the foreground on the left.

A thin layer of ice provided just enough refraction to create the rainbow outline around the sunburst in this photo taken at 41,000'.

Since the flight had gone smoothly and it was now after 7 PM, we completed a quick debrief and arranged to meet at the hangar at 8 AM Saturday to fly to Denver. I went back to the bachelor officers’ quarters and told my buddies about the flight. I was the first among us to complete my first flight, so I had the best story for a few days, but soon we would all share the experience.

Our weekend trip was great – what else could be said of an overnight trip from San Diego to Denver in an F-14? A student pilot in my class flew in formation with us, with an instructor RIO in his back seat. It was a graded flight for him as it was for me. Over the weekend the two aircraft completed a total of four training events that would normally have required several days of flying from Miramar. Crush had me demonstrate as much of the weapons system capabilities as I could. We landed at Buckley Air National Guard Base just outside of Denver. While in Denver we stayed at his parents’ home and went to a Broncos football game. But for me the highlight was our departure Sunday evening.

My daytime-only restriction was gone. Our wingman left early while Crush and I stayed a little later; family-time for him. We would launch and fly home alone. We planned the flight, filed a flight plan, pre-flighted the jet, and strapped ourselves in. Even though this would be just my third Tomcat flight, I was quickly becoming more comfortable, and soon we were ready to go. He told me to request an “unrestricted climb,” something new to me. If cleared we would not have to conform to the stepped climb profiles that helped regulate air traffic, and instead would be able to use our fighter’s power and zoom to altitude quickly.

Buckley Tower cleared us to take off and climb unrestricted to 18,000’.

We took the runway. Crush pressed the brakes and ran the engines to military power, and the jet’s nose dipped. He wiped out the controls, moved the throttles forward into afterburner, checked the instruments, and asked if I was ready to go. I was, and he released the brakes. The nose popped up and we started to roll, accelerating quickly. I called airspeeds, we rotated, and Crush raised the landing gear and leveled-off to fly down the runway as we accelerated. In the evening darkness I was keenly aware of the bright blue-white glow of flame from our engines 40 feet behind me. Lights on hangars and buildings streaked by in my peripheral vision. I looked at our rapidly increasing airspeed as we neared the end of the runway, and Crush yanked back on the stick to launch us into a steep nose-high climb.

“Buckley Tower, Navy November Juliet 426, airborne, switching Departure.” I tried to sound like I belonged here, but I’m sure the controllers in the tower knew that I was both new and loving it.

NJ 433, F-14A BuNo 160689, en route Miramar to Buckley. Crush passed the lead to the student pilot for a few minutes to give him some relief from formation flying.
Buckley is about 5,600 feet above sea level, and it took less than 30 seconds for us to reach our assigned altitude of 18,000’. I wish I had punched my stopwatch! Crush smoothly leveled off while I rapidly switched through the Departure Control frequency and contacted Denver Center. We were cleared to climb to a higher altitude and start the route back to Miramar.

I was ensuring that I stored all of the sensations and mental images in my long-term memory, and looking forward to a nice flight home, when Crush said, “Okay, get some contacts on the radar.”

Oh yeah, I’m a student….

I pointed the AWG-9 radar antenna southwest – the direction we were headed – toward any airliners flying into Denver. In seconds several contacts appeared on the TID. Shifting to more of a “student mode” I reported a contact to Crush: “Single target, 12º left, 85 miles, 33 thousand feet, 850 knots closure.” I then used both automatic and manual modes to “lock” targets – to make the radar antenna physically point precisely at a single target and determine detailed information about it. Using the radar to show multiple targets and locking a single target were techniques I had practiced in the simulator, basic RIO skills, so this wasn't especially challenging.

While I fleetingly resented the reminder of my student status, it was a price to be paid for flying in a powerful two-seat fighter above the Western United States on a beautiful Sunday night. My radar work went well and made the flight go quickly. Our flight to Miramar took 2.0 hours, and my grades were 4 Average, 4 Above Average.

Okay, being a Student RIO wasn’t so bad.

*RAG: replacement air group. This was the squadron that trained newly-winged flyers on the aircraft they would fly in the fleet. The term was officially changed to "fleet readiness squadron" in 1963, so RAG was obsolete, but the nickname stuck. All squadrons that trained fliers in Fleet aircraft were called RAGs. VF-124 was the West Coast F-14 RAG; the East Coast F-14 RAG was VF-101 at NAS Oceana in Virginia Beach. There were RAGs for the A-6, P-3, S-3…at least one RAG for every major type of aircraft the Navy flew.

About these photos: I shot the VF-124 aircraft photos on color print film, using a Petri-brand SLR that I had bought in a pawn shop as a teenager in 1974. These images are scanned from 30-year-old 3½ x 5 prints. I took the over-the-shoulder photo of afterburner in 1982, using color slide film and a Konica FS-1.