Roger Ball!

He was the second of two children and born on 25 January 1940 in Shandon Baptist Hospital in Columbia South Carolina. He, in every way, gave the appearance of a normal, healthy, well-developed kid of average height, slender but not skinny. History would show that he was anything but normal.

His name was John Monroe Smith, and “Roger Ball!” is his story—a tale that should be told. It intertwines the true, firsthand accounts and experiences of a fighter pilot with the significant developments in the fighter community and historical events in which Captain John Monroe Smith, USN, call sign “Hawk” was a part. Finally, it speaks to the men who laid their careers and sometimes their very lives on the line for their shipmates and their country.

Hawk was a legend in the fighter community. During his thirty-year career, he forged a reputation as a skilled and lethal aviator in the air-to-air combat arena, a natural tactician, and consummate leader. To many, he was one of the most essential pathfinders in the modernization of the naval air war arts.

He was just a man, but his story, his life adventure, is a high-fidelity history of personal achievements for naval tactical aviation, devotion to a cause, and service to his nation. It was a time during and shortly after the Vietnam conflict that America became ideologically divided. The military was disillusioned with the intrusion of nonwarriors in the White House over the conduct of the war, and tactical aviation of all the services was struggling to catch up to the realities of the war’s hard lessons. It was a time when the Navy needed leaders and tenacious thinkers to set things right again. It was Hawk’s time!

Two smokers on the nose

When last we left Hawk, he had completed the F-4 replacement air group (RAG) syllabus. After that he was assigned to VF-103 Sluggers at NAS Oceana.

Turnaround training was in full progress in preparation for the upcoming July deployment date. Aircraft availability had improved significantly and Hawk and his boss, G-Man, were scheduled for what was supposed to be a formation, tail chase, and basic fighter-maneuvering sortie in the VACAPES operating area. They were heading south along the coast. Hawk was in combat spread on G-Man’s left side when suddenly Hawk saw a flicker of movement in the distance. There, in front of them, crossing from left to right, less than six miles away were two F-8 Crusaders in cruise formation. They were just begging to get tapped.

Ordinarily when faced with a decision that entails some danger or risk, a responsible person considers the problem. He would perform a coherent cost versus-benefit analysis. He might complete an operational risk analysis, consider all the ways a venture might go wrong, and then examine both the severity of the hazards and the probability of their occurrence before taking action. Hawk and G-Man did none of that. They attacked!

“Hawk has two smokers on the nose, right one-thirty, slight left-to-right cross!” Hawk transmitted.

G-Man responded, “Roger, tallyho!”

F-8 VF-84 print
This print is available in multiple sizes from – CLICK HERE TO GET YOURS. F-8C Crusader VF-84 Jolly Rogers, AG200 / 145559 / 1962

Hawk, “I have the eyeball, you’re the shooter.”

“Roger, I’m the shooter!” G-Man replied.

A magnificent and deadly piece of machinery

This exchange signaled the initiation of a tactic born from the rules of engagement in Vietnam. It allowed one jet, the “eyeball,” to take the lead and fly close enough to a suspected hostile aircraft to visually identify it. If the “eyeball” confirmed the unknown as hostile, he would transmit, “MiG! MiG! Cleared to fire!” At that point the “shooter,” still several miles away but well within the maximum range of the missile, could release weapons and avoid a turning engagement with the bogey.

Hawk took the “eyeball” role and pushed the throttles into after-burner. The engines dutifully responded. Twin plumes of white flame leapt fifteen feet behind the jet. He and his RIO Ed were pressed against their ejection seats and their Phantom dashed out in front of G-Man.

Four miles to the southwest, in the cozy cockpit of an F-8 Crusader, Walt Teachgraber was thoroughly enjoying his third familiarization flight. He held a comfortable cruise position, slightly aft and one-half mile away from his instructor. Walt was cautiously aware of the tantrums the F-8 could throw if mistreated or mishandled. He was carefully nudging the fighter through the maneuvers building more respect and a better feel for the jet with each passing moment.

The F-8 in the hands of an experienced Crusader pilot was a magnificent and deadly piece of machinery, one that commanded the deference and admiration of fighter pilots the world over. Two twenty-millimeter Colt-Browning cannons were housed on each side of the slender nose and as many as four Sidewinders could be strapped to the shoulder stations. The F-8’s thrust-to-weight was not as good as the Phantom’s, but the wing loading was better and theoretically it could turn better at lower airspeeds.

The dark side of the beast

The beast also had a dark side, though. It was highly unstable when maneuvering at slow speeds or at high angle-of-attack, and prone to take fledgling Crusader pilots on unexpected and very short airshows—exciting and entertaining—but tactically unsound and structurally unwise.

Walt was aware of the Crusader’s reputation, but for the moment, he was enjoying the flight immensely. Little did he know that his world was eight seconds away from being rocked. The Phantoms were coming … and coming fast.

Hawk and Ed started a slight right turn to converge on the F-8 section. The Crusader pilots still hadn’t seen them. Hawk hit them at Mach one point two and thumped the leader—he flew under and close enough for the leader to actually feel the impact from the high-pressure area built by Hawk’s supersonic Phantom.

“MiGs! MiGs! Cleared to fire!” Hawk shouted over the radio. “Roger. Fox one on the lead F-8 headed two eight zero at fifteen thousand feet,” G-man yelled. After the pass Hawk reversed his turn to the left and pulled into the vertical, arcing toward their high six o’clock position. He maintained the tally looking down and over his left shoulder. What he saw the lead F-8 do next surprised him.

Crusader Spinning: The US Navy F-8 pilot who went into a spin after an unauthorized ACM engagement with US Navy F-4 Phantom IIs

The proper tactical response for the flight lead should have been to unload, select afterburner, and extend out of the fight with his wingman until he built up his situational awareness and put together a plan. In that case, the number one option of that plan should have been to disengage. Instead, the lead Crusader pilot began a right turn into the threat sector, toward G-Man, then reversed his turn and pulled his nose up to try to engage Hawk, now high above him.

An unauthorized ACM engagement and a natural disdain for the Phantom community

Some Crusader pilots were hampered in making sound decisions by two logic inhibitors: irrational confidence in the performance superiority of their jet and a natural disdain for the Phantom community.

Pulling his nose up to engage Hawk was an interesting and brassy move but it just wasn’t going to happen—not today. Hawk had nearly twice the speed of the F-8s and was already in an offensive position high above the lead Crusader. Hawk could almost read the Crusader pilot’s thoughts, hey … nobody can do that to me—I’m in a Crusader!

“Fox two on the F-8 in a nose high port turn,” G-Man called out, his second shot for the day.

Meanwhile Walt was trying to put everything together. What started as an enjoyable and satisfying familiarization flight over the blue waters of North Carolina had become frenetic.

A Mach doughnut dragging what appeared to be a Phantom across the sky had just flown under his leader’s aircraft. His lead had pulled up hard and into the Phantom. Then, from out of nowhere, a second Phantom had materialized and was now hammering his lead. Walt initially turned hard to the left and pulled his nose up. Everybody else had his nose up, it seemed like a good thing to do. It was not.

Hawk was now nearly ten thousand feet above Walt. He saw G-Man pushing the lead F-8 around, and correctly assessed that the lead F-8 was not a threat. Hawk switched to engage the wingman—clearly the wingman was without clue one. He figured he could get a shot on the wingman but it was going to take some fancy flying to get into position.

F-8 departure during ACM engagement with F-4 Phantom IIs

Hawk pulled the power back, rolled his Phantom inverted and pulled the nose down toward the Crusader, which, by now, had run out of airspeed. Hawk slapped the flap handle to half-flaps and punched-out the speed brakes. If I only had a gun! (Sung by the Scarecrow in the Movie “The Wizard of Oz” to the music of, “If I only had a brain!”)

The lead F-8, having initially climbed after Hawk, was now about out of energy, teetering on the brink of controlled flight, and being pressed hard by G-Man. G-Man, at twenty-six thousand feet and dead six o’clock on the F-8 was refining yet another shot. For all intents and purposes the pilot of the lead F-8 was a dead man.

Crusader Spinning: The US Navy F-8 pilot who went into a spin after an unauthorized ACM engagement with US Navy F-4 Phantom IIs

Hawk continued the attack on Walt, but he had such an enormous altitude advantage he was in jeopardy of overshooting his target. Hawk was high over head, inside the F-8’s turn and using everything he could think of to keep from overshooting. Everything was hanging in the breeze: flaps down, speed brakes out, and if he pulled off any more power he was sure Ed would jump out.

Hawk was slow, very slow and still closing on the F-8 from slightly above. Just as it occurred to him that it was just not possible for the Crusader to fly as slowly as it was, Walt’s F-8 departed. It swapped ends and tumbled in front of Hawk. It passed down his left wing so close Hawk initially thought they had collided. He heard the Crusader as it streaked by his canopy. The F-8 departure became a fully mature spin in three turns.

F-8! Spin! Spin!

Hawk threw the stick to the left, stomped the left rudder pedal to the floor, brought his Phantom around in a nose-low spiral, and yelled over the radio, “F-8! Spin! Spin!”

G-Man, not knowing who made the transmission or which aircraft was spinning, hollered, “Get out of there!”

Hawk replied, “Wait a minute. The F-8’s spinning, not me!”

Hawk quickly switched to Guard frequency and transmitted, “F-8 in a spin, you’re spinning left.” Then he immediately thought, Ah shit. That’s bad. We just gave it all away. Now everybody monitoring Guard is going to realize something’s up. There’s gonna be a whole lot of ‘splaining to do later!

Meanwhile, the lead F-8 was making a run for it. G-Man gave chase until it disappeared into the under-cast.

Walt’s F-8 continued to gyrate and lose altitude. He descended through the undercast in what looked like a fully developed spin.

Hawk followed Walt down. He lost sight of him in the clouds but continued to descend and leveled off just below the undercast. When he picked the Crusader up again, much to Hawk’s relief, and surely to Walt’s as well, the Crusader was flying straight and level, in controlled flight about three-thousand feet above the water.

Hawk joined on the F-8 and transmitted to G-Man that the F-8 was okay. When he saw the lead F-8 joining his wingman, Hawk separated and climbed back through the cloud layer to rejoin G-Man.

F-4 model
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An unauthorized ACM engagement

In that one flight, almost everything that could go wrong nearly did. G-Man and Hawk had just incited an unbriefed, unauthorized ACM engagement which resulted in a departure, a fully developed spin, a near mid-air collision, and then the grand finale—the turd in the punchbowl—a spin call over Guard frequency.

What else can go wrong? Hawk wondered.

Well, they could have forgotten that the field was having quiet hours and no overhead traffic was being accepted. And that’s exactly what happened.

On the way back to the field Hawk tried to recall the fight as he scribbled down the high points on his kneeboard card. It was then that he noticed the large block print reminding him of quiet hours at Oceana. Hawk was of a mind not to tell G-Man but then thought the news might be better received from him rather than the tower controller. “G-Man, look at the clock.” Hawk said over the radio.

Hawk waited a few seconds to let the meaning of the transmission sink in.

“Ah shit,” G-Man responded.

Quiet hours at Oceana

After some discussion between the tower and G-man over the validity and then the duration of “quiet hours,” G-Man and Hawk were allowed to fly a section straight-in approach but were directed to shut down at the end of the runway and have their aircraft towed back to the line. They landed, cleared at the end of the runway, and called the duty officer for a tow.

The SDO asked maintenance for a volunteer and a truck to recover the foursome. The troops volunteered in droves. The maintenance people truly liked their bosses but any opportunity to embarrass them was time well spent.

The ride back to the squadron seemed to take forever. They huddled in the back of an old yellow pickup as it trundled down the taxiway. G-Man stared at his boots, lost in thought. He exhaled, looked skyward, smiled, then looked at his squadronmates, “What a day. And it’s not even noon yet!”

That time a former US Navy F-4 RIO undergoing pilot training flew an Unauthorized Engagement with his T-2 against another Buckeye student pilot
Roger Ball!, Odyssey of a Navy Fighter Pilot is available to order here.

Photo credit: U.S. Navy