“OK boys,” the Skipper said, “take your plane home for the weekend. See you Monday.”
It was a late summer day in 1958. The Skipper was Commander Martin G. O’Neil, Commanding Officer, Fighter Squadron Fourteen, the “Tophatters,” the Navy’s oldest continuous active duty flight squadron.
Big, ham-handed, a veteran of the brutal air war in the Pacific, O’Neil was the kind of CO depicted in the movies. To the two-hundred officers and enlisted men under his command he was a father figure as well as the Skipper. Gruff and detached, as a CO has to be, we knew that he was a softy at heart. Our greatest fear was that he would screw up his carrier landings.
Fifteen years after the battles of Tarawa, Saipan, The Marianas, Leyte Gulf, this old tail hook pilot was commanding a bunch of energetic young jet jockeys. We were flying one of the earliest carrier aircraft that could go supersonic—just barely: the McDonnell F3H-2N “Demon.” It was heavy and underpowered, but could hit Mach 1.3 in afterburner. It was a bear to land. The cockpit was far forward of the swept wings, and its landing approach was nose high, twenty feet off the deck. You could barely see over the nose. The final approach had to be “dirty:” full flaps, speed brakes out, power high in order to retain thrust if you missed a wire, at which point you firewalled the turbine, cleaned up, and went around again, with every eye above deck looking at you.
The skipper may have been a terror as far as the Imperial Japanese Navy was concerned, but when it came to catching a wire on the USS Franklin D. Roosevelt, CVA-42, the terror was the embarrassment of the CO botching his landings.
Minimizing the embarrassment was the task of the squadron Operations Officer, LCDR Francis Murphy. He would schedule the Skipper only for daytime flight operations and calm seas. There was never a wink or a snicker from anyone. Skipper O’Neil had our respect. “Murph” was also ready to give the married pilots a break. They were a little more hesitant to be assigned night bad weather operations than the others: “Dud” Dudzic, Bob Fabiszewski, “Mo” Barnes, Gene Fitzsimmons, Gerry Barente, Bob “Loc” Lynch, Harry Milner, Gene Lund, me. I was eager for those assignments.
My self-image was a fearless street kid. As a Naval Aviator I had found the perfect stage on which to play that role. On the Roosevelt, I volunteered to be the “hot cat” pilot.
The hot cat pilot was the first line of defense for our Fast Carrier Task Force—Carrier Division Two, Sixth Fleet. At night, when most of the crew, exhausted by daytime flight operations, were sacked out below decks, the hot cat pilot was entrusted to protect the carrier and all the ships in the task force. He sat in a fully armed interceptor that was positioned on the steam catapult, plugged in to the auxiliary power unit (APU), all systems activated, ready for the launch order. The instruments were illuminated in a soft red glow that preserved his night vision. The carrier deck was dark and quiet except for the starboard green running light and red to port. The bow spray sometimes churned up luminescent sea creatures.
I was in my element. I wore a red bandana around my neck, ready to perform, to play a role, to show off. That was me—the eager kid in the classroom always shooting up his hand before the teacher even finished asking the question, the youngster wearing a straw hat and twirling a walking stick, singing “The Yellow Rose of Texas” at a Settlement House talent night. Now, the only eyes that were on me were those of the Captain on the bridge, and the flight deck sailors ready to fire up the Demon’s Allison J71 turbojet engine.
When Air Control picked up a bogey on its radar—usually a French Mystere or Italian Fiat in a NATO exercise probing the carrier task force’s perimeter—the voice of the Air Boss would come through my earphones: “Prepare to launch!” Immediately I would see an illuminated red wand rotating, signaling that the APU was starting the turbine. By the time the carrier had turned into the wind I had checked the engine instruments, cinched tight the seat restraints, pulled down my visor, and was ready for launch.
The command came. Up went the blast shields. I pushed the throttle past the detent into afterburner, wrapping my gloved fingers around a small metal post so that my grip would not be loosened by the 3G cat shot. I gave a salute, meaning “Ready;” the green wand went horizontal as the flight deck crew ducked, and the catapult bridle threw the fully loaded twenty ton Demon into the air at about 130 knots, forcing my helmet against the headrest. Immediately when airborne I leaned into the radar hood, where the flight instrumentation and the intercept information was displayed. Visual flight over the ocean at night is impossible anyway. Air Control gave me a vector (compass heading) and “Angels” (altitude) to aim for, and the intercept was underway.
VF-14 was the only all-weather night fighter squadron in the task force. If it were combat the other aircraft in the squadron would be launched. But on these NATO probes it was only the hot cat pilot—me much of the time.
We offered a big surprise on our intercepts. We were the first Navy squadron to be equipped with the Sparrow III air-to-air semi-active radar guided missile. It enabled us to accomplish what fighter pilots before us could never do in aerial combat—engage an opponent head on while he was approaching, even from a point a few thousand feet below the attacking aircraft.
The classic dogfight maneuver was to get on the opposing fighter’s tail or pull to the inside of his turn so that your guns were aimed at a point just ahead of him—a lead—for a burst. The introduction of the Sidewinder heat-seeking missile, which we also carried, simplified the intercept solution, for it could acquire, (find and lock onto), a jet’s hot exhaust from a cone behind. This was more effective against slower-moving jet bombers than high performance fighters.
The Sparrow’s head-on capability changed the game forever. This gave me a chance to show off again, beginning with the air controllers who were unfamiliar with what we could do, trying to position me for a tail intercept. I would reply “Negative,” then astonish them by requesting a vector for a head-on attack. Later, this young lieutenant would be given the assignment to go from ship to ship to brief the controllers and the brass on the new naval warfare: the ships could be dispersed in a greater radius from the carriers than before because the interceptors could carry out head-on Sparrow III intercepts. I was lecturing the admirals!
On this warm Florida day, Fighter Squadron Fourteen Commanding Officer Martin G. O’Neil was telling his young pilots they could take a squadron Demon home for the weekend. Our home station was Cecil Field, Jacksonville, Florida. Home for me was Boston’s West End, a thousand miles away. I put my Navy blue dress uniform into a single-suiter, packed a couple of white shirts, a ditty bag and spit-shined black shoes, checked the upper air winds in Aerology, and filed a flight plan direct from NZC Cecil Field to the South Weymouth Naval Air Station, NZW. That would be a stretch for the Demon, but I was counting on the jet stream to whisk me along.