In Naval Aviation we have a saying, “Live by the gouge or die by the gouge.”

For those of you that don’t know what the “gouge” is let me educate you! The gouge is a very important part of Naval Aviation. Here is a good test for you, if someone claims to be a Navy pilot and they don’t know what the gouge is then you know something is not right.

Good things to know, tricks of the trade, little secrets that can help you get the job done, the inside scoop, the skinny and the poop are all terms used to describe the gouge. When someone gives you some gouge listen up! But be careful and consider the source as ‘bad’ gouge can literally ruin your day.

Here is an example of how ‘good’ gouge can make you a hero (at least in your own mind). During F-18 Replacement Air Group training (the RAG) you need to qualify in mid-air refueling the Hornet. I should note that in the ‘new Navy’ the RAG is called the Fleet Replacement Squadron (FRS). So much for tradition but that is another story.

In my case, as a young, aggressive and enthusiastic F-18 pilot the ‘check in the block’ for refueling was going to take place off the shores of Jacksonville, Florida behind an S-3 Viking tanker. The Lockheed S-3 was designed to be a carrier based, four seat sub hunter. Affectionately known as the “Hoover” the S-3 kind of ran out of subs to hunt after the Soviet Union (USSR) disappeared so it did double duty as an airborne refueling platform.

S-3 Viking Refueling
The View Refueling. Photo Courtesy of Photographer’s Mate 3rd Class Christopher Stephens (DefenseLINK) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
This worked for me as I always heard the S-3 was a great platform to refuel on unlike some other aircraft so I was excited about getting an easy qual. The day before my scheduled flight I started hearing stories about other students getting a ‘down’ on their refueling qualification flights. Just so you know a ‘down’ in Navy flight training is a failure. If you fail a training event you will have to try again at a later date. The general rule was that if you got three downs you were out!

I never ‘experienced’ a down and did not want to start now. How could you fail tanking off an easy plane like the S-3? So I sought out some guidance from an experienced Hornet pilot I knew at a neighboring squadron. His call sign was ‘Tex Bob’ and he knew his stuff. My first question upon tracking him down was, “Hey Tex Bob! What is the gouge for tanking behind an S-3?”

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Well, Tex Bob was more than happy to help and proceeded to give me the gouge in less than one minute! Now, I can’t share with you what he told me as sometimes the gouge may be classified and I am 100% sure what Tex Bob told me to do was! Well, maybe.

The day of the flight comes. Four F-18’s take off from NAS Cecil Field, three students and one instructor in search of a lonely S-3 tanker somewhere out over the Atlantic Ocean. I guess someone figured we (three squared away F-18 RAG students) could not find the tanker on our own so they had an instructor pilot (IP) lead us. Maybe the IP was actually going to watch and grade us but that never crossed my mind at the time. I figured he was our babysitter.

I was dash three in the formation. As we approached the S-3, the IP went into some type of holding pattern while we (students) lined up to try our hand at tanking on the S-3 refueling basket. By the way, we did not actually refuel. Our mission was just to have six or eight (I forget how many) successful ‘plugs’ on the basket. You had a successful plug when you put the Hornet refueling probe in the refueling basket. The red light on the back of the S-3 would then turn green. Once you saw green you would drop back away from the refueling basket a little bit and then move forward to try it again until you got your qual.

I had a great view as the F-18 student pilot in front of me was cleared in to refuel. To my surprise, no matter how hard he tried he could not get that probe into the basket! He kept trying and trying with absolutely no success. How could this be so hard I thought to myself? Then I heard the IP come up on tac freq on the radio and tell student #1 to “RTB” or return to base. Wow! I just witnessed a down right in front of my eyes!

I was next and quickly told that I was cleared in to refuel. No worries right? All I could think about was if the gouge I had was good. All of us had gotten two full hours of refueling techniques in the briefing before the flight yet student #1 had just failed. Could I really trust ‘one minute’ of gouge from Tex Bob or should I rely on the briefing techniques which were different?

I decided to do what I think most naval aviators do and put my trust in the gouge. Totally focused on the gouge, I push the throttles forward to close in on the S-3 and refueling basket. To my complete surprise I got a good plug on my very first try! The gouge worked perfectly! I proceeded to do the rest of my plugs with no misses at all and was given the golden words “Casper RTB” by the IP.

f18 hornet refueling
Plugged! U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Jason Robertson [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Since we were solo returning to base I took advantage of my success and celebrated with some victory rolls on the way back and some other fun maneuvers that I won’t mention. Maybe that will be a story for another day. Needless to say, I bought Tex Bob a beer at the club that Friday night. Some might say I should have shared my gouge with the other students in my flight to ensure their success. To those people I say, you just don’t understand.

Featured Image Courtesy of U.S. Navy photo by Cmdr. Thomas Lalor. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons