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!

Exercise FAIRGAME IV: French fighters Vs US Navy F-4 Phantom IIs

According to the USS America 1966 command history submission, “The joint French/U.S. Exercise, FAIRGAME IV,” conducted from 28 February to 10 March 1966, “simulated conventional warfare against a country attempting to invade a NATO ally. America participated with strikes, fighter cover, and air support for amphibious operations.”

Fairgame IV was a scripted war game in that it had very specific objectives and rules of engagement. U.S. Navy forces were tasked to protect the task force and conduct coordinated air strikes during preset time windows on selected targets defended by French aircraft. The mission of the French forces was to protect the land-based assets and attack USS America and her escort ships.

US Navy F-4 pilot recalls when he got into a fist fight with his RIO after a combat mission. The next day they flew together like nothing had ever happened.

Rules of Engagement

The rules of engagement specified that no (simulated) shots could be taken on an aircraft until it was visually identified as a hostile bogey. This was prudent and reflected real world considerations but also meant that use of the Phantom’s primary air-to-air weapon, the AIM-7 Sparrow, would be greatly restricted. It also meant that most engagements would be close-in, maneuvering fights conducted in the visual arena.

The America Battle Group conducted operations within the range of the American built and NATO supplied, French land-based radar. The French used picket ships to identify U.S. warships, pinpoint their position, and develop steaming tracks. This data, in conjunction with intelligence gathered from the land-based radar and aircraft, allowed the French forces to assemble key information about the Navy’s operation plan.

The French planning staff was quite competent. After America had completed a few launch and recovery cycles, the French knew launch times, cycle duration, number and type of aircraft launched, configuration, range of the aircraft, and number of tankers available.

According to America intelligence officers, the French pilots were also quite competent. They were young, aggressive, independent, had a liberal interpretation of the rules of engagement, and extracted the full performance capability from their airplanes.

America’s aircrews, the intelligence officers explained, could expect to see two types of Dassault Mysteres: a Mystere IV, which looked like an F-86, and a Super Mystere B2, comparable to the North American F-100 Super Sabre. They might also see the French twin-engined, light bomber, the Sud-Ouest Vautour II, similar to the Douglas A-3 Skywarrior, and the Entendard, an aging but agile little fighter.

Fighter Performance Characteristics

The French aircraft were Korean War vintage designs which packed guns and short-range air-to-air missiles. And though they were not equipped with powerful engines, their aircraft were very maneuverable in a turning engagement owing to their low wing loading. Wing loading is an important characteristic for aircraft designed for maneuverability. It is a ratio of the aircraft’s weight to its wing surface area and measured in pounds-per-square foot. When maneuverability is the prime design objective, the lower the wing-loading ratio the better. A low loaded wing allows the aircraft to take-off, land, and fly at slower airspeeds. It also allows a conventional tactical aircraft to turn better, fly at a higher angle-of-attack, and develop a better pitch-rate or instantaneous turn-rate at lower airspeeds.

The wing loading for both the Super Mystere and Mystere IV was in the vicinity of fifty pounds per foot compared to the whopping seventy-three pounds per foot of the Phantom.

A second critical performance characteristic is thrust-to-weight. Thrust-to-weight is a ratio of the maximum thrust of the aircraft’s engines to the weight of the aircraft. High thrust-to-weights ratios are desired and for fighter aircraft of the Phantom’s vintage, at least .8 thrust-to-weight was necessary.

Thrust-to-weight generally determines an aircraft’s ability to accelerate, rebuild energy, and sustain a hard or high “G” turn. Thrust-to-weight also defines a fighter’s ability to engage in a vertical fight.

The vertical fight, also referred to as an energy fight, is identified by a plane of engagement that is predominately vertical as opposed to the WWII and Korean War dogfights in which the plane of engagement was usually horizontal.

The exercise where French Mystere IV and Super Mystere B2 fighters outmaneuvered and outclassed US Navy F-4 Phantom IIs
Mystere IV French fighters

Mystere IV and Super Mystere B2 fighters Vs F-4 Phantom IIs

The Phantom’s thrust-to-weight was nearly .9 compared to the .52 thrust-to-weight of the Super Mystere B-2 and the .46 thrust-to-weight of the Mystere IV. On paper, the Phantom was a force to be reckoned with in an energy fight, but in the mid-1960s, few Navy fighter pilots had explored the Phantom’s true potential in the vertical arena.

So, at the onset of Fairgame IV, America’s fighter crew were tossed into a war game with restrictive rules of engagement against aggressive French fighter pilots flying small but highly maneuverable fighters. It promised to be a very enlightening eleven days.

Good Guys—Zero

Tilly and Hawk were crewed together during the exercise. Hawk recalls his first frustrating experience early in the exercise. “We were sitting on deck, waiting for the ship to turn into the wind so we could launch. It was recovery time for the previous cycle and the returning Phantoms, Intruders, and Skyhawks were in the Delta stack, low on gas, and waiting for their Charlie time. Just as America began her turn into the wind, the French hit us. They roared into the stack engaging every plane they saw. The French decimated our jets then bolted out of the area before we had a chance to launch.”

“Our airborne aircraft were short on three things: fuel, airspeed, and information. It was the end of their cycle, and they had no gas to engage, and no warning of an inbound threat.

“You talk about low—the French jets were almost in the water. They had to climb to get above the flight deck. Since our pilots didn’t have any advanced warning, they didn’t have time to build airspeed or form a defensive barrier. The only airplanes that had gas were still on deck, and of course we couldn’t launch because it wasn’t time to launch. The first Phantoms that launched gave chase, but the French were long gone.”

It was a spectacularly effective tactic and sadly, continued to work even after several days into the exercise.

French fighters outmaneuver and outclass US Navy F-4 Phantom IIs

The flying didn’t stop at night for America’s aircrews—only the humiliation did. Each evening, just as America’s aircrew were launching for their first night missions, the French pilots were sipping wine, shooting down their Jean Pierre watches, and toasting to one another’s combat triumphs.

As the exercise progressed and the number of engagements increased, it became clear that America’s aircrews were usually outmaneuvered and outclassed by the French. It was not, however, due to lack of bravery, resolution, or aggressiveness that the Navy aircrew were losing most of the air-to-air engagements; they all took their turn, entered the lion’s den, and fought hard. The problem was that the restrictive rules of engagement forced the Navy fighter crews to engage in a manner they were not trained for and against small, nimble fighters they had not trained against.

The exercise where French Mystere IV and Super Mystere B2 fighters outmaneuvered and outclassed US Navy F-4 Phantom IIs
Super Mystere B2 French fighter

Hawk became more than a little annoyed by the lopsided scoreboard, “The USS America, the most powerful ship in the U.S. arsenal, carried the most combat capable fighters in the world—and the home team was getting waxed on every launch. Even when we managed to intercept the French and simulate missile shots, they were ignored. Subsequently, we were defiled, beaten like a piñata, and then ignobly shot.”

The Navy aircrews were humiliated, disgusted, and angry—the seeds of revenge were cast, but before they could exact any retribution, they had to come to grips with the fact that testosterone induced bravado was a poor substitute for airmanship, prudence, and tactical discipline.

F-4 Phantom II Vs French Mystere

Mid-way through the exercise Tilly and Hawk were crewed together on a day, force protection sortie. Ordinarily tactical aircraft flew in sections, but on this event, they were scheduled as a single fighter.

Not far from the ship, Hawk and Tilly had a radar hit on a bogey aircraft. They carefully completed a rear quadrant intercept staying well below the horizon to hide their smoke and to make it more difficult for the French pilot to see their monstrous Phantom. At four miles, Tilly identified the target as a Mystere. Hawk and Tilly made a by-the-book simulated Sidewinder attack on the Mystere and called a Fox Two shot. They had a considerable airspeed advantage on the French jet and closed for a follow-up shot. The instant the French pilot realized he was under attack he jinked hard into the Phantom, leveled his wings, stood his jet on its tail, and took it pure vertical.

Tilly tried to match the pull-up but had neither the pitch-rate to initiate the turn nor the wing loading to sustain it. The Phantom had an energy advantage but that translated into a horizontal overshoot, which carried it in front of the French aircraft. The French pilot eagerly took advantage of the overshoot.

Tilly had two options. He could light up the burners, unload, and make a clean bug-out and still claim credit for a Fox Two kill or he could continue his turn into the Mystere.

Something never seen before

Testosterone induced bravado displaced tactical discipline and Tilly pulled into the Mystere—the worst thing he could have done. As soon as Tilly began his turn, Hawk saw something he had never seen before, “The Mystere was well above us and pointed straight up. As soon as we overshot, the French pilot did some kind of vertical reverse and came straight down on our canopy, converging toward our six o’clock position. I don’t know what the hell he did, don’t know if he ran out of airspeed and departed on-top, or completed a hammerhead turn—he just flipped the sucker around and came right back down on us. I’d never seen anything like it. The next thing I knew the French pilot was corkscrewing down on our airplane for a gun run.

“I was struggling to keep him in sight and I lost him for a second and when I picked him up again he was at high six-o’clock. I was looking over my shoulder at a whole bunch of Mystere intake. He appeared to have a solution for a gunshot, and I thought that if it were for real, he’d have gunned our brains out.”

Tilly’s Near Miss

VF-84 F-4 print
This print is available in multiple sizes from AircraftProfilePrints.com – CLICK HERE TO GET YOURS. F-4B Phantom II VF-84 Jolly Rogers, AG204 / 151491 / 1964

In a last-ditch gun-defense, Tilly came hard right and forced the Mystere off to the left. The engagement had degenerated into a knife fight. They were both under 300 knots. The Phantom was in heavy buffet, and the Mystere was having its way with the Phantom. The French pilot stabilized his overshoot and started to reposition to the Phantom’s six-o’clock for another gunshot. Then, Tilly did something completely out of character and utterly unexpected—he reversed his turn and pulled for all the Phantom was worth into the Mystere. In a fraction of a second the French pilot’s gunshot solution turned into a near midair collision. The French pilot took immediate, appropriate, evasive action and then went home.

“God damn, Tilly, didn’t you see him?” Hawk questioned. “Well yeah. But I was pissed,” Tilly grumbled.

Lessons learned

There were some valuable lessons learned from this fight. First—the French weren’t supermen. They were aggressive, knew their airplanes, and were skilled in the art of air-to-air combat—but they could be beaten. Second, the Navy crews had to fight the fight they were trained for, use their radar and weapon systems the way it was made to be used and third, they had to stick to the game plan.

Hawk and Tilly used the tactics they had been taught, and they performed flawlessly—at least initially. Hawk obtained a solid radar contact, identified the contact as a bogey, performed a rear quadrant intercept, and took a heart of the envelope, Fox-Two sidewinder shot. The probability of a kill was high. After the shot, discipline broke down and the game plan frayed.

Tilly tried to out-turn a small, highly maneuverable fighter flown by a pilot who knew his plane and his business. After the Fox Two call, Tilly should have continued the overshoot, unloaded the airplane, and selected afterburner. The Mystere, not having the thrust-to-weight of the Phantom, would not have had a shot. Finally, Tilly’s turn into the French pilot was not only tactically unsound, it was dangerous.

Ingredients of a true fighter pilot

It illuminated, however, a trait common in Navy TACAIR pilots—aggressiveness. It is this fundamental characteristic that acts as the primordial foundation upon which success as a tactical aviator is built. But it must be tempered with discipline, shaped with experience, and forged with conviction for the mission objective.

Tilly had the initial ingredients of a true fighter pilot. All Hawk had to do was help keep him alive until some of the other requisites had a chance to mature.

Roger Ball!, Odyssey of a Navy Fighter Pilot is available to order here.

Photo credit: Cobatfor Own work, Mike Freer – Touchdown-aviation via Wikipedia and U.S. Navy

USN F-4
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