Get into the cockpit with CDR Reggie Hammond when he intercepts a Russian SU-24 Fencer near the coast of North Korea in one his first flights in the F-14 Tomcat.

It was just another day at the office. I was a brand new naval aviator, or “nugget”, in an F-14A Tomcat squadron, forward deployed to Atsugi, Japan and operating on the Tip of the Spear. I had arrived in August 1998 and immediately started working up to become a combat wingman in Carrier Air Wing FIVE. I was on my first underway aboard USS KITTY HAWK (CV-63) for Operation FOAL EAGLE/ANNUALEX. Those were two exercises in the Fall we did to reassure our allies on the Korean Peninsula and the islands of Japan that we cared about them.

There isn’t much of a “warm up” period when you get sent to Japan. Only the best ball flyers can go because of the notorious winds and rough seas that are commonplace the second you get underway from Yokosuka. Never mind the fact that most guys in our all male air wing thought practice landings at Iwo Jima were much worse than landing on the ship. At over 600 miles from the nearest alternate field, and prone to pitch black nights, wicked cross winds and 15 minute rain squalls, practice landings in Iwo were almost worse than the real thing.

Today I was flying with a seasoned Radar Intercept Officer (RIO). “Sassy” had all the knowledge that I wanted, it was just a matter of flying with him enough times for us to “mind meld” and become an effective crew.

The Tomcat had a tandem cockpit. You did not sit side-by-side where you could give each other knowing glances, elbow one another or let the Bombadier-Navigator (BN) do the flying if autopilot wasn’t working, like they did in the A-6 intruder. Instead we had to rely on the brief and the Intercockpit Communication System inside the aircraft to pass gouge back and forth.

F-14 RIO Cockpit (photo montarabi.com
F-14 RIO Cockpit (Credit: montarabi.com)

We were floating somewhere in the Sea of Japan, between Japan and the “dagger into the heart of Japan”, also known as Korea. We had briefed a flight known as Basic Fighter Maneuvering, also known as dogfighting. I was pumped up because my RIO and I would be fighting the most senior pilot in my squadron, our Executive Officer.

It was a fairly calm day and man-up had gone well; we were stacked in line for the bow catapults behind a couple of F/A-18C Hornets waiting our turn for launch and I was watching the swells on the open ocean slowly pitch the bow up and down. Suddenly, on tower frequency, we received a call from the Air Boss.

“Black Knights, kick button 3 for words.”

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I was a nugget, so I didn’t know how common this was. Turns out, it was the first and last time I heard this call directed towards me in the 15 years I was a naval aviator.

The “words” were interesting. There had been some news of Su-27 Flanker activity from Russia in the vicinity of our Exercise the previous day and now it seems there was either a Su-24 Fencer (Air-to-Ground and Reconnaissance platform) or a Su-27 (the baddest of the bad Air-to-Air fighters in the world at the time, next to the Tomcat) heading our way.

They wanted us to “investigate”.

The ships Air Boss and Mini-Boss control all aircraft operations on the flight deck. U.S. Navy photo Photographer Mate 2nd Class James Watson (Released)
The ships Air Boss and Mini-Boss control all aircraft operations on the flight deck. U.S. Navy photo Photographer Mate 2nd Class James Watson (Released)

Dear God, my hands started to sweat immediately. Didn’t they know I was a newbie and hadn’t even mastered BFM yet, much less tangling with a fighter from another country, the most feared in the western world no less?

“Sassy” took over in the cockpit. He figuratively massaged my shoulders, told me it was going to be “fun”. Maybe threw in a few choice expletives to get his point across and locked my mind back on the task at hand. Launch quickly and determine intentions.

The aircraft in front of us on the flight deck moved like Moses parting the Red Sea and we taxied straight into the catapult’s shuttle for launch. The ship had an old, salty, mean Lieutenant as an Aircraft Handling Officer. They are always the best kind of sailor to have around for making shit happen on the flight deck.

 An F-14 Tomcat assigned to the Black Knights of Fighter Squadron One Five Four (VF-154) launches past steaming catapults on the bow of the ship. U.S. Navy photo by Photographer Mate 3rd Class Todd Frantom. (RELEASED)
An F-14 Tomcat assigned to the Black Knights of Fighter Squadron One Five Four (VF-154) launches past steaming catapults on the bow of the ship. U.S. Navy photo by Photographer Mate 3rd Class Todd Frantom. (RELEASED)

We were off the deck, in full Zone 5 afterburner with an immediate turn on course.  This is extremely rare and basically a “license to steal”. The XO was right there and I joined up as “Sassy” started our airborne checks.

Honestly, I was so far behind the jet as we climbed away from the water at 0.9 Mach, I was hanging on to the horizontal stabilizers on the back of the aircraft when I heard my flight lead come over the radio and say, “Dash 1 is lead nose, press”, which for fighter guys means “my Radar is garbage, you have the lead”!

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Without skipping a beat, “Sassy” began to run our intercept. Our Radar was 100% and we snagged a “hit” at the advertised maximum range. The distance would be seeing something like seeing a car on one of the boulevards in Los Angeles while you cruise down 4th Avenue in San Diego.

160412-N-ZZ999-005 BALTIC SEA (April 12, 2016) A Russian Sukhoi Su-24 attack aircraft makes a low altitude pass by USS Donald Cook (DDG 75) April 12, 2016. Donald Cook. (U.S. Navy photo/Released)
A Russian Sukhoi Su-24 attack aircraft makes a low altitude pass (U.S. Navy photo)

He gave me headings to fly and then we set ourselves up for a stern conversion. In training, we don’t usually mix Air-to-Air intercepts with clouds, so I was surprised when the “bogey” dumped his nose and went straight for the deck. We lost him on Radar as well as visually because he blew right through a solid undercast before we were close enough to even make out what kind of aircraft we were joining on.

It was at this most unfortunate of times an EA-6B Prowler materialized from nowhere. As the third aircraft off deck, he’d pointed directly towards us and was now set up for a beak to beak pass with me at about 1200 knots. I couldn’t tell if he saw me or not, but the result was a 200 foot pass that would’ve made a Viking cry out in fear.

Immediately after removing the seat cushion from my rear end, I called my XO on the radio, “Well, now what, ‘Gus’”?

His reply was just what I had hoped for, “We follow him down”.

“Sassy” threw our Radar into pulse mode and I swept the wings back and relit the “blowers” to get us supersonic as we descended through 2000’ and into the “goo”. Luckily the cloud deck was only about 500’ thick, so we were well above impacting the water when we broke out below the cloud deck.

I immediately got a tally when “Sassy” locked the bandit up on our nose at about 5 nm. It was obvious he knew he was locked up because he immediately turned hard right for 90 degrees as I slid in behind him. My first thought was “okay, so now I have a Flanker turning hard into me, just above the water, I don’t remember them teaching me what to do here in flight school”.

Hustle is the right thing to do when you are supposed to move with a purpose, so I kept the closure at about 200 knots until I could just see his canopy glint from the sun peeking through the clouds. It was definitely not a Flanker, which I knew from studying photos and the single tail was a dead giveaway that we were overtaking a Fencer, a much less capable platform:

like clubbing a baby seal instead of meeting a lion on safari

I threw the throttles to idle, thumbed the speedbrakes out and started to slip the aircraft with right wing down and top rudder to perform the infamous Tomcat “hockey stop”. Just as I slid up onto his wing, I noticed the pilot was wearing an orange exposure suit and a boxy white helmet that reminded me of 2001: A Space Odyssey or the Apollo program. These guys were obviously a long ways from home.

Ever since the movie Top Gun came out in 1986, I’d been waiting for this moment. It was classic because the pilot knew we were around somewhere. But when he glanced to his right at me, it was obvious by his classic “double-take” and full head turn on the second look that he had no idea I was 10 feet off his wing already. “Sassy” whipped out his Navy-issued black and white 35 mm wet film camera and started snapping photos for posterity and Intel.

(Sorry, had to be done)
(Sorry, had to be done)

The Fencer pilot was not happy we had found him and either was a terrible flight lead or just the most uncooperative formation partner I’d ever had. He was on a mission to “rig” ships in our Battle Group and proceeded to fly with complete disregard for us, as evidenced by repeatedly turning hard into me when I was within distance to see the “whites of his eyes”. The only cool thing about flying formation on him was the fact that his engines sounded like a Harley-Davidson with pipes. They were noticeably louder than a western fighter’s motors.

He flew over the top of Japanese destroyers we were cruising with at 200 feet. It was disconcerting to say the least, because many of the ships were belching smoke and it was like flying formation on someone in heavy turbulence. International law does not allow direct overflight of another country’s vessels, but this did not stop our Russkie friend from taking probably some of the best photos ever of these ships at blazing speeds and ridiculously low altitudes.

I’m sure our Japanese naval friends enjoyed the show considering I was right there and our XO was about a mile in trail to make sure if anything happened to me, there would be consequences.

Our Admiral had to have been “antsy” because he kept asking us over the radio if the Fencer was carrying any kind of ordnance. It wasn’t exactly easy to determine whether he was just taking pictures or on a suicide mission to find and sink our carrier, so we were to make sure he knew there would be no “funny business” today.

Just about the time I thought we were running low on gas from all the time we’d spent in Afterburner during the first 15 minutes of our flight, our controller told us they’d launched a KC-135 Stratotanker out of Japan to top us off.

 An F-14 Tomcat conducts aerial refueling with a U.S. Air Force KC-135 Stratotanker during a mission. U.S. Navy photo
An F-14 Tomcat conducts aerial refueling with a U.S. Air Force KC-135 Stratotanker during a mission. U.S. Navy photo

Rewind to the part where I told you I was a “nugget”. The KC-135 is affectionately known as the “widowmaker” because of the rigid basket that it uses to refuel Navy fighters. It is less than forgiving and one of the missions I had yet to do on my “work ups” was to see my first “big wing” Air Force tanker.

Thank God for “Sassy”. As the XO picked up escort duty, we were “relieved” to get away from our “midair waiting to happen” Fencer flight lead. We pointed directly east and started sweeping the horizon with our Radar to find the flying gas station coming out to meet us.

Sassy gave me a quick brief on the way that sounded like this:

When we join up on his left wing, I’ll do all the talking, you get to a position 6 feet behind the basket with the probe out, stabilize the left engine in Zone 2 afterburner and trim the rudder.

The left engine has to be in afterburner or we’ll fall out of the basket because the tanker will be going so fast and our TF-30 engines are a little underpowered for big-wing tanking. Modulate the right throttle to control closure and to stay in the basket. When you ‘hit it’ you’ll need to drop down and to the left slightly to turn the hose leading to the basket to your 1 o’clock position on the canopy. If you don’t make it look like the ‘knuckle’ on your right index finger when it’s bent, we won’t get any fuel.

Any questions?”

“Where’s my mommy,” I think I replied.

Thankfully, it went just as “Sassy” described. I quickly received 12,000 pounds of gas and a much needed second heart attack for the day, trying to stay in the basket and not break off the refueling probe’s door. We normally remove before flight if we expect to do “big-wing tanking”. Better to leave it on deck than to break it off and suck it down the right motor I think was what our Maintenance Officer had told me.

Tomcat w/refueling probe door removed (Credit: reddit.com)
Tomcat w/refueling probe door removed (Credit: reddit.com)

Just as we were disconnecting and ready to pitch back into the intercept and escort role, we received good news, “the bogey is bugging out”. Now for my third heart attack of the day.

“We need you to ‘buster’ back and make it aboard at the end of the recovery that is already in progress”.

Hmmm, I thought, I just topped off to 20,000 pounds of gas in an afterburning Tomcat and I have about 10 minutes until I have to land at below 6,500 pounds because of all the ordnance we are carrying.

As I plugged in “full grunt”, we pulled out in front of the KC-135 on his right side with two beautiful roman candles shooting out 30 feet behind the jet. With the wings “pinned back” at 68 degrees, we began a slow pull up to about 45 degrees and then a gentle barrel roll to the left out in front of the tanker and ended on a heading pointed away from his left wing and directly towards “mother”.

“Thanks for the gas!” was the only thing I could think to say. I have a feeling they didn’t mind giving it to us considering our wise use of American muscle as payback.

Landing on the ship is never easy. Being late is just plain “bad form”. We shot into the overhead at about 500 knots and I tried to rip our wings off as we executed a 270 degree break turn directly above and then behind the ship to set up for landing.

I can’t say it was a wonderful landing, but a good pilot never passes up a good wire when the ship is waiting to turn downwind and you’re the only thing between the guys working on the flight deck and a lunch break.

Kitty Hawk "Photo of the Day" Courtesy: Reggie and Sassy
Kitty Hawk “Photo of the Day” Courtesy: Reggie and Sassy

The icing on the cake was the “Photo of the Day” that my RIO had taken. Don’t ask me how they do it, just be proud if you are American that they do. His photographic evidence of our adventure remained outside the ship’s Intel office for one year, as it couldn’t be knocked off the top of the hill.

Thanks, “Sassy”.

Special thanks to Reggie Hammond for his insights on this cool story.

Top Photo credit: U.S. Navy photo by Photographer’s Mate 3rd Class Todd Frantom. (RELEASED)