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Elite F-14 Flight Officer Explains Why The Tomcat Was So Influential

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We sat at the end of the runway, our F-14's GE-110 motors humming, awaiting our clearance to begin what would be the last F-14 Demonstration ever. The Air Boss's voice crackled over the radio: "Tomcat Demo, you're cleared to five miles and 15k feet. The air show box is yours" At that very moment, I distinctly remember what my Commanding Officer told us before the show: "Fellas, make it a memorable one… just not too memorable!"

LCDR Joe "Smokin" Ruzicka was the Radar Intercept Officer (RIO) to fly the last F-14 Demonstration before the Tomcat's final demise in 2006. Commander Ruzicka took the time to sit down with Foxtrot Alpha to talk Tomcats and share his amazing experiences and lasting impressions of being part of one of the most competitive, demanding and rewarding cultures in American history- the F-14 Tomcat community.


Photo Courtesy of Mr. Yukihisa Jinno

Being in the Navy's premier fighter jet couldn't be a bad thing, right?

My hometown used to have a sign at the city limits that said, "Welcome to Crandall, TX, Home to 1001 friendly people—and a few old grouches." No one from our town, to my knowledge, had ever attended a service academy—not even the old grouches. It seemed like a great opportunity and something that was outside of my comfort zone and probably everybody else's comfort zone I knew at the time.

I was accepted to West Point and the Naval Academy, so when deciding between the two, I chose the latter, because it seemed to provide the most flexibility in your post school military specialty. Who wants to pound the ground when you can sail on the high seas? It was in those 4 years at Annapolis where I decided I wanted to fly.

When I took the vision test for the commissioning physical my junior year, I tried to pass it without wearing glasses. The nurse administering the exam asked me, "Honey, do you wear glasses?" I replied, "Yes, ma'am." She snapped back, "Well I suggest you wear them from now on, especially when you are driving!" Sadly, I knew my best hope to fly was as a Naval Flight Officer (NFO).

Flight school in Pensacola was a great experience. It was essentially USNA South for all of the aviation selectees from the class of 1996. Lots of time spent at the Flora-Bama lounge, golfing on Perdido Key, and of course flying the T-34 Mentor and T-39 Sabreliner.

After a couple of cross-country trips to San Diego, I was convinced that the home base of the S-3 Viking was for me. However, a couple of friends who had already been selected for Tomcats convinced me to put my name in the hat for the Big Fighter. Oceana, Virginia didn't sound as awesome as San Diego, but being in the Navy's premier fighter jet couldn't be a bad thing, right?


When two guys had flown together a lot, it made them almost act and think as one person...

When you first showed up to the RAG, you really got a sense of how the two-man crew concept worked. The RIO's (Radar Intercept Officer) responsibilities were completely different than the pilot's, but the two needed to work closely in tandem. Both crew member's relied on each other- even down to the RIO having control of the ejection sequence- because conventional wisdom said the pilot would want to stay with the jet until it was too late.

The jet could not be flown, and certainly not fought, without both the Pilot and the RIO. The great part about the two man crew was the mutual respect we shared for each other. I remember a salty pilot telling me one time, "There's been a few bad RIO's who have gotten me in trouble, but then there's also been a few good ones who have saved my ass."

With the 1960's technology in the jet and a multitude of sensors, weapons, and equipment, the Tomcat was too complicated and too cumbersome to be controlled by one individual. A typical mission's workload would be divided into segments: think on the ground, administrative in the air, combat, and then administrative back with a final of landing/trapping.

During start-up, the pilot handled all of the engines, control surfaces, and other on-board checks while the RIO handled the AWG-9 (radar), LANTIRN targeting pod, a few other systems, clearance with ATC and most other communications. In fact, the RIO probably did 90% of the communication. Most RIOs wouldn't even let the pilots talk on the primary radio; it was a matter of pride and control. I think the pilots liked not having that burden because it allowed them to concentrate on flying.

One of the challenges was always trying to cycle circuit breakers when things were broken in the jet. The Tomcat had eight panels of circuit breakers in the back behind the RIO that looked like eight 1970's Lite Bright games all stuck together. The hardest part was making sure you pulled the correct one, as a misstep in that department could be fatal. Pulling circuit breakers was done mostly by feel. Being strapped into an ejection seat, you certainly couldn't turn around easily and verify visually what circuit breaker you were pulling. The good news is there was a method to finding the right circuit breaker based off of its location, assuming you had practiced. The bad news was sometimes you needed to have the flexibility of a 7 year-old girl with a broken arm to reach it!

Crew resource management (CRM) dictated what your job was for that specific flight. The majority of the cockpit was "decoupled", meaning there were certain things only the Pilot could perform, and certain things only the RIO could perform. It was a system of checks and balances. This strengthened the crew concept in my opinion, and added to the jet's lethality. When two guys had flown together a lot, it made them almost act and think as one person.

For example, on an air-to-ground mission when dropping laser-guided bombs, the RIO's job was to find the target with the LANTIRN pod and designate it. The pilot would verify it was the correct target and then "pickle" (fire) the weapon. Then it was back to the RIO to fire the laser and guide the weapon to impact while the pilot continued to fly the jet, looking for SAMs, etc.

For Air-to-Air missions, the RIO worked the radar to acquire the bandit with the AWG-9. The Pilot would correlate the bandit to the threat information called out by the E-2C Hawkeye to ensure it was the correct target. The pilot would then select, arm and select and fire the appropriate missile. Then it was back to the RIO to maintain radar support as the intercept progressed and the missile flew down-range.

One of the best training hops was 2 v 1 "the hard way." This was two bandits vs one fighter. In the WVR (Within Visual Range) arena, the pilot kept tabs on the bandit you merged with while the RIO kept sight of the bandit who was free and disengaged. If the RIOs bandit brought his nose to bear (meaning he's pulling back into the fight to take a shot or make a merge happen), then the RIO would call a switch (if the pilot did not move the jet). Then it was back to forcing a neutral pass with the new bandit and trying stiff arm the disengaged bandit. Those kinds of fights get pretty wild and hairy, but they were fun. When two guys were used to flying with each other, these types of complementary actions were where the two man crew was at its best.

One of the biggest selling points of the two person crew was the Tomcat's ability to perform the Forward Air Controller role...

In the 1970's and 1980's, the Tomcat was primarily an air-to-air fighter. The threat was the USSR and the mission was being able to fend off the hordes of over the horizon bombers. As the times and technology changed, luckily the Tomcat was a pretty versatile multi-role fighter due to its adaptability and modularity. People forget that it had a TARPS pod, which could bring back some pretty awesome wet film photos from a reconnaissance mission. With the addition of the LANTIRN in the early 90s, and later with GPS for the B and D Tomcat models, it was a very viable air-to-ground platform. In fact, I would say as a stand-alone weapon system, the LANTIRN was as good if not better than our current ATFLIR targeting pod on the Super Hornet, specifically from a picture quality and user-friendly standpoint.

Finally, one of the biggest selling points of the two person crew, was the Tomcat's ability to perform the Forward Air Controller (Airborne) role known as "FAC(A)." The FAC(A) role increased as the GWOT evolved. In fact, my old squadron, the Black Knights of VF-154, was providing FAC(A) under CENTCOM for numerous USAF and Navy assets during the early stages of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

As a FAC(A), your role is to coordinate air strikes from available air assets in an effort to support troops on the ground. The theory is that as an airborne asset, the FAC(A) has the ability to see the battlefield in the same perspective as the striking jets. In this sense, the goal is to eliminate any and all fratricide because the FAC(A) has the ultimate authority to give a "Cleared Hot" call (authorization to release weapons) to other strikers. The FAC(A) knows exactly where the friendlies are in relation to the target and can see the strikers nose position relative to the target, thus determining if there is a chance of bombs not ending up on that target.

In the Tomcat, the pilot's job was to maneuver the jet to get into a position where he could give a "Cleared Hot" call. With multiple strikers inbound separated by time (normally 30 seconds to a minute), this could be a challenge. Typically, one striker is off target with bombs away while the next striker is inbound and in a dive. This is where the RIO tends to earn his money as he visually acquires the inbound striker, talks his pilot's eyes onto him, and then switches to see where the first striker's bombs' hit. When you add SEAD and artillery coordination, close proximity of friendly troops, buddy lasing (having one jet designating a target while another drops the weapons) for laser guided bombs and a MANPAD being launched at someone, it becomes a dynamic and challenging mission; one where two aviators in the cockpit provides an added level of tactical advantage and situational awareness.


The Tomcat's ability to add energy and head into the vertical was a serious advantage over the Super Hornet...

In a BFM (Basic Fighter Maneuvers ie a dogfight) engagement, the pilot has to think about energy management. Fighter pilots always talk about a Rate vs a Radius fight, which in layman terms means how fast can you go around the circle you are turning versus how short of a radius can you make your circle. Some Fighters perform better in a rate fight while others perform better in a radius fight.

For example, if a Tomcat was in a BFM engagement with a Super Hornet, the Tomcat's best chance to win the fight (we are assuming "Sticks and Stones" meaning each fighter has only a gun remaining) is to try and force the Super Hornet to bleed off energy at the first pass. The Tomcat would force the Super to honor his nose position, make a neutral pass at the merge and then go vertical. The Tomcat's ability to add energy and head into the vertical was a serious advantage over the Super Hornet. Conversely, the Tomcat would not want to get into a slow speed fight with the Super. With both jets at slow speed, the Super has a better ability to maneuver his nose for a shot than the Tomcat.

The F-15C is probably the premier BFM fighter and more capable in that area than the Tomcat. You have to remember, the F-15C has a 9G turning capability versus 6.5 to 7.0 G for the Tomcat. But the F-15C is strictly air-to-air, so there are trade-offs in capabilities between the two jets.They don't drop bombs, we do. Another thing: a lot of success in BFM has to do with the pilot's ability to maximize the jet's capability. Fortunately, the best trained guys who fly the F-15C are on our side!


The idea was to make at least one of the enemy fighters blow up in front of his wingman's face, thus making him think twice about pursuing us...

Our squadron did a night AIM-54 Phoenix shoot where we shot two Phoenixes at range against a drone. The shots were staggered by about 2 miles, one right after the other. Our lead safes, while on NVG's, followed both missiles toward the target. They reported back that the first Phoenix was "Boola Boola", meaning a direct hit and completely destroying the drone. They said what happened next was pretty amazing. The second Phoenix quickly made an adjustment off what was left of the drone and hit the largest remaining part. Remember, this 1,000lb missile is traveling at Mach 3.0 and only a couple of miles behind the first missile, so there was very little time for the missile to react. I guess the Ordies had programmed it for "pulverization mode".

The good thing about the Phoenix was its range. We used to brief that we would shoot one Phoenix at "range" (and I won't say what that range was, but it was far) into any unresolved group of aircraft declared hostile. The idea was to make at least one of the enemy fighters blow up in front of his wingman's face, thus making him think twice about pursuing us.

The bad thing about the Phoenix was it's old technology, which made it cumbersome and sometimes not function properly. It required its own cooling pump and sometimes the rocket motor wouldn't fire, making the missile fall dead off the rails. This earned it the not so glamorous nickname "Phoenie-Bomb".

It's hard to say whether the Tomcat would have benefited from the AIM-120. Certainly a newer missile with newer technology would have been a great addition, but could it have been adapted to the platform and the AWG-9 without a huge cost?


The scary part about landing on the boat at night is everybody has a scary story. That's A LOT of scary stories...

People always talk about how difficult it is to land on the boat, but I think that idea should be broadened. Most don't realize how DAMN difficult it is to simply get launched off the pointy end, go fly a mission with live weapons, get to marshal with enough gas for an approach AND THEN attempt a crashed landing on a floating, moving object at night and in bad weather.

There are so many moving parts to carrier operations at sea. Space is such a premium, the boat becomes the world's worst Rubik's cube: in the hangar bay, on the flight deck, and in the confined operating sea spaces. Gas is as scarce as water is in the Sahara; the only tanker is another Super Hornet and he only has enough gas to give you 1.8 passes at the ship (BTW, .8 passes doesn't help you much). Simple maintenance and parts supply becomes much more restrictive. There's very little room to work on the jet and your parts are whatever the boat has in its stock. Finally, the boat has the requirement to launch aircraft while still being a ship—both from a training perspective and an operational perspective. When your runway has to float, cook everyone a meal 4 times a day, and do a bunch of laundry using nuclear power—it just adds another layer of operational difficulty.

I'm glad I don't have any more night traps. Go stand in one corner of a really dark room with a small pen light at the opposite end. Look through a paper towel tube searching for that light. If you find it, that's what the boat looks like at night from 20 miles.

The scary part about landing on the boat at night is everybody has a scary story. That's A LOT of scary stories. However, landing on the boat at night is what sets us apart from every other Navy (and Air Force) in the world.

I don't know which is worse, being the guy in front who has control of the jet or the guy in back who only has control of the ejection seat. Thankfully, I rode along with some outstanding pilots during the majority of my night traps.


The final year of the demo and the Tomcat's sundown were bitter sweet...

I guess everybody gets 15 minutes of fame in life and I was lucky enough to spend mine strapped into the most iconic fighter in the world. The Commanding Officer of VF-101, Paul "Butkus" Haas, picked "Rocco" Tangredi and I to fly the final F-14 Tomcat Demo in front of the home crowd at NAS Oceana, Virginia, and it was one hell of a ride.

I like to think that flying the Tomcat Demo was pretty much within the capability of every Tomcat pilot and RIO who had a reasonable amount of time in the jet. There was nothing special about us in terms of skill, we just worked hard and got lucky. Out of the 4 of us selected for the final year, two guys went on to become Blue Angels and the other two flew the very last Tomcat Demo. It would be fitting to say Rocco and I got a decent consolation prize.

The Tomcat Demo was always a crowd favorite (probably right behind the Blues in terms of popularity) and it even amazed Tomcat pilots themselves. I remember talking with "Lucky" Riley one time about the dirty (landing gear extended) double Immelmann. Lucky said he was watching a practice show and he incredulously remarked to himself, "they do an Immelmann dirty?!! Oh my. And then they do another one on top of that one???" I told him we got a Flap warning light during the second Immelmann, meaning we were over speeding the flaps. The damn jet was GAINING ENERGY in an upside down dirty configuration!!! Those GE-110 engines were impressive.

The final year of the demo and the sundown were bitter sweet. You knew it was the last time a lot of folks were ever going to see the jet fly. Some of my favorite shows included Ft. Lauderdale, Chicago, and my hometown show at the Fort Worth Joint Reserve Base. It's always fun to perform in front of family and friends. When we taxied by the crowd I would look for my dad. He is an old University of Texas Longhorn grad, so when I spotted him I would give him the Hook 'em Horns sign from the jet, that way he knew I saw him and my Mom.

There were tons of Tomcat fans who reached out to us before and after the final show. We had folks from Europe and even Japan travel to see us in the last year of the demo. It's been nine years and people still occasionally contact me asking for autographs. People always say it was their favorite jet and I believe it. That's a pretty impressive following for the Big Fighter.

There is a great caption in the book Bye Bye Baby about our show at Nellis Air Force Base where the F-22 made its first airshow appearance. I can't do the caption justice, so you'll have to read it yourself, but I think it captures the essence of how we went out with a bang in our final year.


Tyler's note: The excerpt from Bye Bye Baby Smokin is referring to is this:

"I was at the big Nellis Air Show, and everybody was buzzing about the first public demo of the F-22. Lots of generals in the bleachers, the whole deal. The F-22 was just plain lame. Hard deck of 1000 feet AGL, weak turns, no high-speed passes. Like they're afraid to break the thing, which they were. Who's up next on the schedule? Why, the Tomcat, of course. These guys just beat the place up. Flogged this Air Force base mercilessly. The crowd goes bananas, and I'm yelling along with them. Tell me who those two lunatics were, and I'll buy them a cocktail."


–Brian "Punchy" Shul, SR-71 Blackbird Pilot

I don't recommend, I DEMAND that you buy Bye Bye Baby and read for yourself this and the many other funny, terrifying and thrilling accounts from the Tomcat's long career.


The Super Hornet is an awesome aircraft, but I fear a lot of its greatness comes from technology...

The best way to describe the differences in the two platforms is to use the analogy of a muscle car to a mini-van, with the Tomcat being the former and the Super Hornet being the latter. The muscle car doesn't have much to it in the way of fancy technology, just some raw speed and the coolness of a Steve McQueen movie, but it gets the job done. The mini van on the other hand is a very nice car, complete with DVR's for the kids, Air Conditioning, power windows, and lots of places to put your sippy cup. It's a great car—-but it's still a mini-van.

Don't get me wrong, the Super Hornet is an awesome aircraft, but I fear a lot of its greatness comes from technology. In the Tomcat, I think you had to be a better aviator because the technology just wasn't there. It was up to the aircrew to maximize its performance (or minimize it if you sucked). Conversely, in a Super Hornet loaded with APG-79 (AESA radar), MIDS (advanced data link), ATFLIR (advanced targeting pod), AIM-9X (high-off boresight air-to-air missile) and JHMCS (helmet mounted display), you can be a sub-par aviator and let the technology pick up the slack.

I don't want to completely slight the Super Hornet crowd. They've been given a great airplane and are doing great things with it even as this is being written (the USS George Bush is currently underway readying for Iraq). But the level of commitment, money, time, and effort it takes to get a guy up to speed and maintain proficiency in all mission areas is a pretty difficult challenge. Furthermore, I am concerned that what we've come to in the last few years with only the Super Hornet in the carrier aviation fleet is an aircraft and aircrew that are "jacks of all trades, masters of none".

Every aviator will tell you that your skills erode very quickly if not practiced. Unfortunately, it's pretty tough to practice every mission, on every flight, every time you fly, especially in our current political and financial environment.


That thing can make one hell of a bat turn...

We've really made a huge leap in technology over the past 10 years. AESA radars along with the AIM-9X, MIDS, and JHMCS have completely revolutionized fighter aircraft. The Air Force will balk and throw "stealth" in there as a quality, but they don't land on carriers. My Maintenance Master Chiefs would/will love that corrosion control program (on the F-35C).

If you have a Super with AESA, you've reached the pinnacle of the jet's capabilities. The air-to-air mode is superior to anything I ever saw in the Tomcat, particularly in terms of user friendliness. The air to ground mode has superb resolution. The radar can in theory, run air-to-air and air-to-ground simultaneously. I like to think of the AESA as a snow plow that catches snow in the air while also moving it off the ground. Pretty awesome if you ask me. If we were not making revolutionary improvements to our inventory you would have to be worried.

Probably even more revolutionary is the AIM-9X with a JHMCS used in the WVR (dogfight) arena. Imagine flying in spread formation at a mile apart, looking over your right shoulder and designating the guy you are about to fight. After "FIGHTS ON" is called, the next words out of your mouth could be "FOX-2" (launching of a short ranged missile). Yikes! That thing can make one hell of a bat turn.

If you could add anything to a jet that would make a significant weapons impact it would probably be a powerful and robust Infrared Search & Track (IRST) system. Technology has figured out how to hide from radar, but we haven't really figured out how to hide or diffuse heat very well. An IRST with some decent range and ability to avoid ground clutter could be a game changer.Unfortunately, we might still be at the concept stage with that idea.


Tyler's note: The Super Hornet will be fitted with an IRST on its centerline tank in the near future, the USAF is actively debating fielding a IRST for its fighter aircraft, namely the F-15C, as well.


You are still a co-pilot, not just R2D2 in the back...

The hardest part for new WSO's (Weapon Systems Officers) is to not get "sucked inside" the cockpit by all of your sensors. You are still a co-pilot, not just R2D2 in the back. I used to tell new guys to strive for looking 50% inside the jet and 50% outside the jet. By looking outside you build air sense and situational awareness. This makes you a better crew member/co-pilot, which is the ultimate objective. Unfortunately for new guys, the ratio was 90% inside, 10% outside, but that is why you train.

I loved flying with the USMC at their Fleet Replenishment Squadron (what RAGs are called now), VFMAT-101, in Miramar. We had an exceptional bunch of guys as instructors there—both Navy and USMC. It's so frustrating that the Navy gave Miramar up because it is THE premier location for flying fighters. It's proximity to San Clemente Island for Field Carrier Landing Practice (FCLP), El Centro for live bombing, and a TACTS range for air-to-air engagements, combined with 350 days a year of great weather make it a dream. Oh, and by the way—when you land—you are in San Diego. I feel lucky to have experienced it like the Tomcat bubbas did in the late 1980s.

The two services have different approaches to their air power assets. The USMC is all about Close Air Support and protecting Marines on the ground. The USMC's mission is quick strike, knock down the door. They really emphasize the Air-to-Ground mission with the Hornet being one of many assets in the Marine Air-Ground Task Force (MAGTF).

The Navy adds more balance into their approach with Hornet missions. The USN has to protect the CVN/strike group, a mission that calls for a more defensive mindset than the USMC's. Additionally, there are numerous other critical missions such as surface search, self-contained large force strike packages and close air support missions.


The bottom line concern is does the F-35 meet our needs for the price...

We have some real challenges with the F-35. In fact as I write this, the entire JSF fleet has been grounded for an engine fire . Not a good thing at this stage of development, especially considering its past history. When the B variant breached Nunn-McCurdy (a large cost overrun) back in 2010, the program was really struggling. To me, the problems with the B version seemed pretty simple—the more parts that move the more things break! Unfortunately, there is not a good answer for the problems with the other two versions.

In the F-35's team's defense, we are really building 3 different jets. Furthermore, there are some serious international relations issues (maybe self inflicted) that complicate matters. Fortunately, we have some really great, sharp, capable people working on the project and doing their best to make this program succeed. We desperately need it to succeed. It's a testament to the USA's ingenuity and capability.

However, when you step back and take a strategic look at the program, the bottom line concern is does the F-35 meet our needs for the price? I would say the jury has not yet made up their mind on this question, but much like the OJ trial, they are tired of sitting in court waiting for the lawyers to finish their case.


Drones are cheaper than fighters, they don't get sick like pilots, and most of all, they don't have a guaranteed pension...

UCAV's and helo's are the future. In 25 to 30 years, you better be able to hover or be good at video games. This is because your best chance of flying will be in a helicopter or flying a drone from the proverbial phone booth. UCAV's also make financial sense. Drones are cheaper than fighters, they don't get sick like pilots, and most of all, they don't have a guaranteed pension.

A good friend of mine and former Tomcat pilot Greg "Drano" Malandrino, along with Jeff "Lick" McClean wrote an excellent article for Foreign Policy magazine that describes the best and hopefully most probable outcome for integrating drones into our current force. Additionally, I recently read a great book called The Second Machine Age that speaks to our world's ongoing rapid technology development and how humans need to work with the machine to unleash our full technology capability and ingenuity. Drano and Jeff's article is an excellent discussion and application on how our battlefield integration with UAV's captures the idea of working with the machine.


Photo via AP

He's a little ornery, but very sharp and witty and has a motor that puts a lot of 20 something's to shame...

What's the old saying, "I'd rather be lucky than good?" Well, I was very lucky to be selected as John McCain's Legislative Fellow for 2011.

The most common question I get is "What's he like?" and I always answer the same way: he's kind of like your grandpa in that he's a little ornery, but very sharp and witty and has a motor that puts a lot of 20 something's to shame. I think he would have made a great president. Unfortunately, he's going to have to settle for being a Great American, but that's pretty darn good.

I was fortunate to collaborate in writing his remarks for the 100th Anniversary of Naval Aviation at Tailhook and additionally be the assigned staff member during his visit to the convention. One of the best meetings during our time there was between the Senator and his old Commanding Officer, Admiral "Doc" Abbot (then in his 90s). They probably had not seen each other in close to 40 years. Time stood still for a moment as the two talked like they were back together on the USS Intrepid. I don't think I've ever heard the Senator say "sir" so much in one conversation.

Inside the Beltway is really its own battlefield. Peeking behind the curtain you realize how difficult it is to affect change and how most issues don't just have a left or right view point, but a full 360 degrees of viewpoints. I have faith in the system but unfortunately, a lot of American's currently don't. Every good idea should not be a law, so the checks and balances are there for a reason—even if it seems like nothing ever gets done.

The financial challenges within the DoD and Navy match the same financial challenges currently in front of the country as a whole. Paying for pensions and medical care inside the military sounds a lot like paying for Social Security and Health care out on Main Street USA. With a finite amount of money, lawmakers and DOD leadership are looking for pathways to curtail spending. The problem is when those cuts dig into an earned benefit. I think everyone saw the potential political suicide last year when Congress voted to reduce working age retirees' cost of living adjustments.


I don't think we will ever have a plane that captures and defines a culture as strongly as the F-14 Tomcat did...

I always like to say there are two kinds of people in this world: those who were a part of it (the Tomcat Community) and those who wish they were. I don't think we will ever have a plane that captures and defines a culture as strongly as the F-14 Tomcat did. It was camaraderie, hard work, fun, rock and roll, and sex appeal all rolled into one. Sure we had a movie made about us, an awesome looking jet, and a fan base that could rival the New York Yankees, Dallas Cowboys and Notre Dame all rolled into one (well maybe not Notre Dame). But the culture was much more than Tom Cruise riding his motorcycle down the runway—it was a sense of teamwork, pride, and family.

Our maintenance personnel loved the jet probably more than the pilots and RIOs who flew in it. A lot has been made about how the maintenance hours on the Tomcat were a factor in its retirement and how it was often broken. Let's face it, when you slam a jet down on the deck of an aircraft carrier and then launch it off the front end again—doing this repeatedly in a saltwater environment—you are likely to bend and break a few things. Additionally, when your logistical parts supply line stops at the waterline and you aren't able to drive down to the depot and pick another part off the shelf, your ability to repair jets becomes a pretty big challenge. The Air Force does not have to face these types of challenges and it's only a matter of time, if not now, for the Hornet crowd to face the same problems.

I don't want to dispute how tough it was to keep it flying, but I will say everyone who worked on the Tomcat felt like it was an earned privilege. Furthermore, I have been in Tomcat squadrons with sortie success rates better than the Hornet. I know if you asked Master Chief Steve "Woody" Woods, and probably a couple hundred others, if they wanted to come out of retirement to get the plane flying again, the word "yes" would come out of their mouths probably before you finished your sentence. We asked a lot from our maintenance folks and they delivered.


Photo via AP

Guys use the term "Bag Strike" when you go out on the town in your flight suit...

Did the flight suit and the Tomcat's notoriety help with the ladies? Hell yes. When you have a face for radio, a flight suit tends to help make your Goonies appearance fade into the background. What does Jerry Seinfeld say? The actual percentage of people considered "good looking" is around 4%. Well, for the other 96% of us, you better have something that sets you apart! You've still got to bring a little personality to the table, but for most fighter guys that is not too much of a problem.

Guys use the term "Bag Strike" when you go out in town in your flight suit. One fall we were asked to do the pregame flyby at a Kansas City Chiefs game at Arrowhead. We arrived in KC earlier in the weekend and hit all the BBQ joints and local bars. On Sunday, after performing the flyby, we were invited up into the owner's box (Mr. Lamar Hunt), got a tour of the stadium, met a few cheerleaders—pretty much the works. Let's just say there was a lot of "bag striking" going on that weekend and even a few confirmed kills.


Photo via AP

Most guys and gals who fly fighters know their strengths and hide their weaknesses...

A lot of people think we are all arrogant, and while that is probably true, I would rather use the term "self-confident." Most guys and gals who fly fighters know their strengths and hide their weaknesses. It's simply human nature and people do it to survive in a Ready Room environment. Some guys use the "volume makes you more correct" mantra, as long as I talk loud and often, people think I know what I am talking about.

Most are family guys who don't get to spend enough time at home. With deployments stretching 9-10 months, family time is precious and dwindling. It's tough for guys who have kids because you don't get to see enough of them. I think this is going to be a major issue where more money (i.e. bonuses) won't solve the problem. Leadership better take a hard look at dwell/rotation time or there will be lots of MBA programs filling up with ex-Navy personnel.

I think for the most part women have integrated well into the culture. There have certainly been a few women who probably should not have been fighter pilots; but for every one of the women who was not cut out to do the job, there were probably also two guys there who you were scratching your head about. It's all about doing your job and making an impact. If you can do that—you're on the team.

As far as how I think we can improve the Navy from a fighter crew's perspective, let a cruise experienced Junior Officer (JO) provide some strategic level input. There are way too many good ideas being drawn on an O Club bar napkin every Friday night that should not be thrown out Saturday morning with the beer bottles. The Navy chain of command needs to listen from below A LOT MORE than it currently does, or the Navy is going to have a difficult time over the next 10-15 years, particularly in regards to retention.


More about LCDR Ruzicka:

"Smokin" Joe Ruzicka is a recovering Naval Aviator, much like his old boss John McCain. He currently flies a desk at the Navy International Programs Office in Washington D.C. Look for him to make a run for Congress in 2020.


Foxtrot Alpha would like to thank LCDR Ruzicka for spending the time to share in his own words his thoughtful insights and fantastic stories with our readership, and thank you Joe for your service and those fantastic Tomcat Demos as well! We wish you well in your future endeavors and please come back and share another story or two or chime in a hot topic whenever you feel like it.


All photos via the DoD, or Public Domain except were marked

Tyler Rogoway is a defense journalist and photographer who maintains the website Foxtrot Alpha for You can reach Tyler with story ideas or direct comments regarding this or any other defense topic via the email address