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!

Phantom versus Scooter

When last we left Hawk, he was completing the F-4 replacement air group (RAG) syllabus. After he completed the RAG syllabus he was assigned to VF-103 Sluggers at NAS Oceana. With no domestic distractions to speak of, Hawk fully immersed himself in studying everything he could about tactics and flying at every opportunity, and he didn’t much care what kind of jet he flew in. He wiggled himself into every tactics sortie he could and never missed a chance to fly in the rear cockpit of the aircraft the RAG used as the MiG simulator—the TA-4 Skyhawk.

That time US Navy F-4 crew members stole an A-6 and relocated it in their Squadron’s hangar. It took three days to the Intruder unit to discover that one of their jets had been pinched.
VF-103 F-4

The McDonnell Douglas built A-4 Skyhawk, affectionately called the Scooter, began life on June 12, 1952, as a light attack, carrier-based jet with a nuclear mission. It had a twenty-seven-foot wingspan and weighed in at eleven thousand pounds empty.

The early Scooters did not have the top speed or the energy addition rate of a MiG-21, nor did they have the low speed turning performance of the MiG 17. However, if the MiG-21 and the MiG-17 mated, their offspring might look and act very much like the A-4. It represented an acceptable cross between the two real-world threat aircraft and was one of the few aircraft that could perform the dissimilar air combat training mission.

ACM All-Stars

Hawk eagerly flew the standard air combat training sorties in the Phantom RAG syllabus. He mastered the rudder reversal, improved his vertical work, and quickly learned all the basic fighter maneuvers taught. Overall, he did exceptionally well, partly because of his previous experiences and partly because he had the advantage of flying several backseat bogey sorties in the TA-4. During those, he was treated to a very different view of the F-4 versus MiG simulator fight. He saw, firsthand, many variations of tactics and maneuvers and realized that each of the instructor pilots used slightly different techniques. Hawk watched, observed, and learned from the best of VF-101’s instructor pilots. One of the best was Lieutenant “Killer” McQuigan.

Model
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Killer had red hair and freckles. He was five foot, seven inches tall and had very wide shoulders. He looked like a Leprechaun and seemed almost fragile, but he was tagged with the call sign “Killer” for good reason. Flying an F-4B on 13 July 1966, Killer McQuigan and Robert Fowler were given partial credit for a MiG-17 kill with a Sidewinder over North Vietnam. Killer’s MiG disappeared into a cloud just as the Sidewinder intercepted it. The kill was never confirmed but, in all likelihood, it was a successful engagement.

Killer was considered, by those who knew him, the best ACM instructor in VF-101. By Hawk’s account, “He was a natural pilot, a master in air combat, and if there was anybody who could teach the fighter trade it was Killer.”

World-class events

Another remarkable instructor pilot and one of the few qualified to fly both the Phantom and the Scooter was Lieutenant “Tubby” Johnson. Air combat training sorties with Tubby were thrilling and inspired many a revelation for Hawk. “Tubby could fly the hell out of the TA-4. He flew it to the bitter edge of the envelope and did a spectacular job simulating an aggressive, real-world bogey. What the TA-4 lacked in airframe and engine performance was more than compensated for by Tubby’s technique, savvy, and incredible airmanship.”

Occasionally, Tubby and Killer met in the coliseum of air combat. These fights were world-class events. Aerial duels played out in this arena were masterful contests where one maneuver would be countered by another maneuver which was countered by yet another. From Tubby’s rear cockpit Hawk saw moves and maneuvers he wasn’t sure there were names for. “Although they were in different types of airplanes and each performed better in certain flight regimes, neither pilot was the least bit tenuous about working anywhere in the performance envelope. They were in a class by themselves, but they had a couple of things in common—they were both unpredictable and totally fearless.”

Intruder print
This print is available in multiple sizes from AircraftProfilePrints.com – CLICK HERE TO GET YOURS. A-6E Intruder VA-35 Black Panthers, AJ502 / 151582 / 1977

It was inspiring for Hawk to learn that even against a very well-flown A-4, the Phantom had an area in the maneuvering envelope where it enjoyed a definitive advantage. After many embarrassing engagements against a variety of airplanes, Hawk saw with his own eyes that a well flown Phantom could not only survive an engagement against a low loaded winged bogey, the Phantom could kill it.

The F-4 crew members that stole an A-6

A study done long ago analyzed the personalities, drives, physical characteristics, and life experiences of naval aviators to identify common tendencies, traits, and similarities. There were many. Eighty percent of the naval aviators interviewed were within four inches of one another in height. More than half of them were the oldest sons in the family, few of them had ever broken a bone, nearly all played organized sports in high school and college, and most were extroverts. Although not specifically addressed in the study, there was another similarity—nearly all had an abundant, and often juvenile sense of humor.

One of the many A-6 squadrons stationed at Oceana was the A-6 RAG, VA 42. VA-42 had many A-6s, so many, in fact, that some of the Slugger JOs wondered if they’d miss one or two. Others pondered just how long it might take for the squadron to discover a missing jet. The Slugger JOs decided to relocate a VA-42 A-6 to assess the squadron’s watch standing proficiency, accounting procedures, and determine their response time.

The Slugger JOs set together a bold plan. Several JOs would distract the line watch while Hawk and his cohorts hooked up a tug and towed the A-6 to the Slugger hangar. The hiding location wasn’t well thought out, though, and neither was the idea of painting the Slugger emblem on the A-6 tail. Even dim-witted iron-haulers (A-6 crew) would eventually find their A-6 and then, based on its location and the Slugger crest emblazoned on the tail, identify the guilty party.

That time US Navy F-4 crew members stole an A-6 and relocated it in their Squadron’s hangar. It took three days to the Intruder unit to discover that one of their jets had been pinched.
VA-42 A-6

Intruder squadron’s CO finds A-6 stolen by F-4 crew members

There was high anxiety and tension for several days after the heist. Then, as the days passed, it subsided into calm indifference. Nobody seemed to miss the airplane.

Three days following the crime, in a sudden whirlwind of excitement, somebody at VA-42 finally discovered that one of their jets had been pinched. After an exhaustive search, it was found.

VA-42’s CO went through the overhead. He contacted CAG-3 who demanded blood-trophies—preferably heads. CAG called for an immediate meeting with the Slugger skipper and XO and raised holy-hell, and just as shit rolls downhill, the delinquent Slugger JOs had an earful.

Of course, the CO wanted to know what possessed them to do such a thing, but then he employed the famous interrogation technique used in field naval aviation evaluation boards. “Was this done on the spur of the moment or was it planned?” the skipper demanded to know. This left the respondents no maneuvering room. If they answered that there was no plan, then they appeared irresponsible and impulsive—not fit to fly Navy jets. If they responded that it was planned, then they were guilty of forethought and malice—not fit to fly Navy jets.

Impulsive and stupid? Cunning and criminal? The best response was to remain silent and look repentant and simple. They wisely said nothing at all. The CO made the point loud and clear. They were expected to behave like mature and responsible naval officers—or learn to plan better.

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