A Tomcat Pilot's Early Struggles to Tame the Mighty F-14

The F-14 proved to be a handful for many pilots, but for fighter pilot-in-training Paul Nickell, landing the huge fighter became an elusive skill to master—and one that would end his dream if he didn't succeed.  

Courtesy of Paul Nickell

Fighter pilot-in-training Paul Nickell made it through the rigors of primary and advanced flight training to earn his coveted wings of gold—and an assignment to fly what was then the Navy's newest and most complex fighter, the F-14A Tomcat. Going from the spritely TA-4J Skyhawk to Grumman's fleet defender would prove to be a bigger challenge than Paul imagined, and the aircraft's unique handling qualities during landing were a beast that he had to quickly learn to control in order for his dream of flying Navy fighters to finally come true. 

In this the fourth and final installment of our in-depth series recounting Paul's time at the stick of an F-16N, flying as a Topgun student and as an instructor, and deploying on his first cruise with the Tomcat, we see what it took to begin his career as a fighter pilot, and the rocky start of his love affair with the most iconic fighter jet of all time.

Mastering the Skyhawk

I joined the navy with no previous flight training. However, I had flown several times in small aircraft, including the T-34B on several occasions with Navy recruiters. For someone with no flying experience, Navy flight training is very difficult. Early on, you’re being exposed to so many new things that it is simply overwhelming. By the time I started advanced jet training in the TA-4J Skyhawk, things had changed. I knew how to fly, navigate, adhere to ATC procedures, and it was just a matter of learning a new jet. Also the syllabus started to focus on more tactical missions such as low level flying, bombing, strafing, and air combat maneuvering (ACM). It was just a taste of all the excitement to come.  

The TA-4J was a great aircraft to fly. It was a two seat version of a real combat aircraft, the A-4 Skyhawk, a workhorse of the Vietnam War. It was small and agile, boasting a 720 degree per second roll rate which would bang your helmet on the side of the canopy if you slammed the stick to the side. It was a tight cockpit, which fit like a glove.  

Courtesy of Paul Nickell

Once strapped in with the canopy closed, your shoulders were touching the sides of the canopy rails. You felt like you were a part of the jet—the two of you were one. One of the beauties of the TA-4 was that in the approach environment, it flew exactly like what you were taught to think a navy jet should fly like. Attitude controlled airspeed and power controlled rate of descent. So once you got it trimmed in pitch, it pretty much maintained that speed. If you started to see a change in glideslope from the meatball, you simply made the appropriate power correction to return to a centered ball. I loved flying it, and the way that it flew.  

By the time I completed the advanced jet training syllabus, culminating in six traps (ed. note: a "trap" is an arrested carrier landing) aboard USS Lexington (CV16), I was extremely comfortable and confident flying a true navy carrier aircraft, especially in the landing environment. However, the skills that I had mastered flying the TA-4 would to some extent come back to haunt me as I moved on to the mighty F-14A Tomcat.

Teething Tomcat

After earning my wings of gold, I reported to the west coast F-14 replacement air group (RAG)—VF-124 at NAS Miramar. It was a great time to be in the navy in San Diego! The anti-military sentiment that had existed through the latter part of the Vietnam war and beyond was dying off as we rolled into the Reagan years. 

I had several months before I started F-14 training. During that time I completed an instrument refresher course with VF-126 flying in the back seat, once again in the TA-4J, and also spin and out of control flight training in the T-2C Buckeye. Additionally I accomplished my Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape training, otherwise known as SERE school. To this day, I still have copies of my SERE school completion letter to ensure that I never have to go through it again!  

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Finally I started F-14 training. After weeks of ground school and simulators for this complex aircraft, it was finally time to man up an actual F-14 and go fly. Even though the F-14 was a two seat aircraft, there were no trainer versions. No F-14s had flight controls in the back seat, only weapons system controllers. So your first flight in the jet was essentially a solo. 

For your first two flights you were scheduled with an F-14 instructor pilot in the back seat, but he could only talk to you, he could not fly the aircraft from there. But not to worry, statistically the odds were good that nothing would go wrong on that first flight or two. I’ll never forget walking out to the jet for my first F-14 flight. Compared to anything I had flown before, it was huge, and it was awesome looking! We preflighted the aircraft, manned up, and after starting the engines, completed about 10 minutes of systems and control checks. After that it was a short five minute taxi to Runway 24 Right and we were ready to go. 

We made our way onto the runway and as I lined up on centerline, we were cleared for takeoff. I held the brakes, ran the engines up to full military power, then released the brakes and lit the afterburners. We began to accelerate rapidly and within seconds we were approaching 80 knots. Suddenly there was a huge boom and the jet immediately started veering to the left. Even though it was my first takeoff, it was obvious to me that things were not going well. I jerked the throttles back to idle, deployed the speed brakes, and started manually braking while correcting back to runway centerline. We slowed, cleared the runway, and taxied back to our ramp.  

The F-14 had ramps in each engine intake that were hydraulically driven down at high mach numbers to reduce the area of the intake. It turned out that the left ramp intake had incorrectly deployed as we were on our takeoff roll, causing the left engine to enter into a compressor stall and lose thrust. Sucking a ramp down was not a common occurrence with the F-14, and with over 1100 hours in the Tomcat, it only happened to me one time…on my first takeoff roll! 

Wrestling the Turkey Bird to the Ground

Because of aircraft availability and due to other phases of training having higher priority for the jets, it ended up being several days before my first actual flight. Fortunately this time there were no problems on the takeoff roll. The big thing on the first flight was to go supersonic, not that there was really much to it. The F-14 would easily go supersonic and within the cockpit you noticed very little.  

As you approached mach one, the acceleration rate would decrease somewhat, and then as you went through the number, the acceleration rate would increase again. After 30-40 minutes of familiarizing myself with the handling of the F-14 in the Southern California Warning Area of San Diego, we headed back to Miramar with plenty of gas to do multiple touch and go’s. 

Courtesy of Paul Nickell

With all of the different training phases required to master the varied weapons systems of the F-14, the phase that washed the most pilots out of the syllabus was carrier qualifications (CQ). It didn’t matter how well you could fight and employ the weapons systems of the jet, if you couldn’t get back aboard the ship, you were not going the fly the F-14.  

For that reason, emphasis on carrier type landings started with your first flight, and continued until your last night trap and completion of the CQ phase. Returning to Miramar, we smoked into the break at the standard 325 knots, made a crisp roll to almost 90 degrees of bank, and pulled about five Gs in a decelerating turn to downwind. Quickly slowing, I configured for landing and rattled through the before landing checklist.  

I had all of the pattern altitude gouge numbers and landmarks firmly committed to memory and flew them as precisely as possible so that I would roll into the groove with a centered meatball and a good start for the approach. At Miramar, Runway 24 Left was a shorter runway and was usually used for touch and go's. It had a meatball and a carrier deck landing area painted on it. As the wings came level I noticed that the ball was starting to go slightly high, so I reduced the power, but after several seconds the ball was getting higher and I was starting to get indications of being slightly slow. I tried giving it a little more time, but the situation only got worse.  

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Finally I pushed the nose down and the ball started to come down and we got back on speed. As we approached a centered ball I added power to slow the descent, but very quickly we were getting low and fast. These cycles continued down to an uneventful touch and go and then a turn to downwind for another approach. After seven to eight more touch and go’s, we were down to 2,000 pounds of fuel remaining, and it was time for a full stop landing.  

By this time I was beginning to realize that the techniques and motor skills that had worked so well for me in the TA-4J were not working so well in the F-14. The Tomcat was definitely a different jet to land. It had a lot of lift when fully configured to land, especially with no missiles, rails, or external fuel tanks. The old adage of "attitude controls airspeed and power controlled rate of descent” didn’t work the same way in the F-14. If you wanted to change the rate of descent, it needed a power correction, but you also had to nudge the nose up or down some to get a quicker response to the power change. To help with this, it had a system called Direct Lift Control, or DLC. 

In the landing configuration you pushed a button on the side of the stick to engage DLC. It caused all of the spoilers on the top of the wings to extend slightly. Once engaged, there was a small thumb wheel on the stick, spring loaded to centered, that you could roll forward to cause the spoilers to raise higher and cause the aircraft to “elevator down." If you rolled the wheel aft, the spoilers would go down causing the aircraft to “elevator up."  DLC up was not very effective, but DLC down would help as you got close to the ground and started to flatten out in ground effect.  

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Needless to say, the jet was large and had a lot of moving parts when coming aboard the boat. Because of it’s tendency to slide around laterally in the groove, some called it the “frisbee." Lineup was difficult to maintain, especially at night, yet it was critical due to it’s large wingspan. Because of it’s size and many moving flight control surfaces flapping around on an approach, most called it the “turkey.” 

After 6-7 flights I was starting to get much more comfortable in the Tomcat. The next flight was what we called an FCLP hop, which stood for Field Carrier Landing Practice. The difference now was that instead of myself and the Radar Intercept Officer (RIO) I was flying with being the judge of my landings, a fully qualified Landing Signal Officer (LSO) would be out by the runway grading every landing. All of the pilots in my class went out and got in 8 to 10 touch and go’s, or what we called “bounces." Once complete, we all waited in the squadron ready room for the LSO to come in and individually debrief us.  

When it came to my turn, the LSO informed me that he was giving me an UNSAT (unsatisfactory) grade for my landings, otherwise known as a “down."  I was surprised, but accepted it from someone who had a lot of experience with carrier landings. I had made it all the way through the training command and gotten my wings without any UNSATs, so needless to say this was difficult to swallow. But realistically I knew that I was struggling to land the F-14 well.  

Old Habits Die Hard

When my brain got overloaded with flying the jet on the approach, it would revert back to what had worked well for me in the TA-4, “first learned/best remembered,” and that just didn’t hack it in the Tomcat. Several weeks later, after mentally recovering from the down, I flew one of my last FAM (familiarization stage) flights on a Friday afternoon. When we returned to the ready room, it was desolate. My RIO instructor sat down and informed me that he was giving me an UNSAT for my landings because as I came through the 45 and rolled into the groove on one landing, he saw the ball go from high on the lens to low on the lens. To me, this was devastating!  

After eight to ten landings, I couldn’t even remember seeing that, but I was in no place to argue. He started telling me that not everyone was cutout to be a pilot, and at that point I pretty much tuned him out. I had worked way too hard and come way too far, straight from the flight training to the F-14 RAG, to start thinking I couldn’t hack it now. I later learned that this RIO had originally started out in pilot training, washed out, and then went through Naval Flight Officer (NFO) training, and ended up as an F-14 RIO. Maybe that was his course, but it wasn’t going to be mine.  

I spent a miserable weekend in beautiful San Diego, knowing what Monday would bring. I hadn’t been the only one in my class of seven pilots to receive a down during the earlier FCLP period, but this second down for landings really put me up on the rig-line—highly visible for the wrong reasons—a place that I did not want to be! I knew that word of my second down for landings would spread quickly through my class, and I was embarrassed to walk in to the squadron on Monday morning. Fortunately my class leader was a great guy and what we called a RIO retread. He had previously been an F-4 and F-14 RIO who after his first sea tour had gone back through pilot training, and was now checking out an an F-14 pilot. We talked a good bit and he was nothing but positive, giving me great encouragement. I also sat down and talked to the two squadron LSOs, one of which was the one who had given me the first down from the FCLP period, and they also were very positive. 

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F-14A over the farms of Southern California. 

They decided to get me a couple of extra FCLP periods, no pressure, just to let me relax and fine tune things. No one ever insinuated that I was dangerous, but the reality is that there’s a huge difference in not being dangerous landing on a 14,000 foot runway, and being ready to go land on an aircraft carrier in the day, much less at night. 

In one of the extra FCLP periods, the LSO who had downed me earlier actually rode in the backseat of the F-14 I was flying to see if he could determine any trends that I needed to correct. We even turned the air system in the jet off to minimize cockpit noise so that he could hear the engines as I worked the throttles. At the end of those two periods, both LSOs were satisfied that I was making good progress and should continue on to the next phase of training, while getting as many landings at the end of each training flight as possible. Both of those LSOs were great guys, and I started spending more time with them, picking their brains for every tidbit I could get about landing the F-14. They also let me to start coming out to the LSO platform when they were waving other classes to see what landings looked like from that perspective. Maybe that would help me when I was landing the F-14. 

Even "Basic" Tomcat Training Can be Deadly

The next phase of F-14 training was basic Intercepts. On one of the hops, my instructor RIO and I went out into the warning area to fly intercepts against a TA-4J. In the briefing he told me about a way to do a vertical intercept. Normally on an intercept you would come in with possibly some vertical separation, but in particular with lateral offset so that you would have room to turn and join or attack, depending on the mission. For the vertical intercept he had the A-4 come in at about 10,000 feet and we were somewhere above 15,000 feet, at about 325 knots. We had no lateral offset—a 180 degree out pass.  

At a certain range he instructed me to roll inverted and start my pull down so as to roll out behind the TA-4. The problem was that I had yet to visually acquired the TA-4 and was very concerned about blindly pulling down into him. As a result I pulled very easily and as the nose came down with a light G pull, the F-14 started to accelerate rapidly. I never acquired the TA-4 visually and by about 10,000 feet I had a bigger problem on my hands. I was now pointed straight down, supersonic, and accelerating. 

Courtesy of Paul Nickell

By then I realized that it was time to pull and pull hard! The marine cloud layer off the coast of southern California usually came up to about 2,000 feet above the water. I don’t remember what altitude we descended to, what our speed was, or how many Gs we pulled, but we were down in the marine cloud layer when we finally bottomed out and started climbing again. My heart was pounding, and it was quiet in the cockpit. I’m sure it scared the instructor RIO also, but he never really mentioned it. He knew how to do the vertical attack from his perspective, but there were some things I needed to know from a pilot’s perspective that were never briefed. 

I learned some very valuable lessons that day! It’s interesting how old fighter pilots’ “funny stories” often involve a brush with death. That was a close one, but not my closest. That was yet to come.

Learning to Fight in the F-14

The last phase of training prior to carrier quals was the ACM/Tactics phase. The early flights were one F-14 verses one bogey (1 V 1). The bogey’s were usually an A-4 simulating a MIG-17 or an F-5 simulating a MIG-21. Usually they were flown by VF-126, Topgun, or VFC-13. The F-14 could easily defeat either one of these adversaries, if the Tomcat was flown correctly, and especially when it employed its forward quarter missile capability. However, it was very easy to get suckered into a slow speed, high angle of attack fight, at which the A-4 in particular excelled. Even when you knew that the bogey was bleeding off his energy to intimidate you, if you weren’t extremely disciplined about flying your jet by the numbers, you’d find yourself in a slow speed fight, otherwise known as “groveling."  Once in a groveling match, a successful “bug out” was about all you could hope for.  

The best pilots in the 1 V 1 arena knew the appropriate game plans for the different threats, could feel the jet’s performance by the way it was handling, and were very disciplined when being intimidated by aggressive bogeys. It took time for most of us to master all of these attributes.  

Once we had basic maneuvering of the aircraft mastered, the phase continued with 2 V 1, 1 V 2, 2 V 2, and then 2 V Unknown scenarios. In these flights, the RIOs were much more involved, because most of these engagements would begin with about a 30 mile intercept. The RIO’s ran the intercept until the fighters were in the visual arena, and then the pilots took it from there. 

One of the most challenging aspects was communication. You had two pilots and two RIO’s with two radios and an intercom within each aircraft. Additionally there was usually an Air Intercept Controller (AIC) on the primary frequency. This AIC might be land based, on a ship at sea, or in an aircraft such as an E-2C or AWACS. We worked a great deal on comm discipline. Using standard terminology and being brief and specific (comm brevity) could make a huge of difference in the Situational Awareness (SA) that you at the merge.  

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E-2 Hawkeye, F-14 Tomcat, F-5 Tiger II and the A-4 Skyhawk over Southern California circa the 1980s—three of the four aircraft shown Paul would end up flying. 

One of the problems with the Tomcat was that depending on what radar modes the RIO was using, often the pilot had no visual display in the cockpit of the tactical situation. To make matters worse, if the RIO was using a mode which allowed the pilot to see the radar picture, the pilot’s 5 inch square repeater display was located low in the cockpit and directly behind the stick grip. On top of that, if the RIO did not zoom the range scale in as you approached the merge, the pilot would be looking at the entire tactical picture in about one square inch on the display. Consequently, most of the pilots tactical SA approaching the merge was based upon a verbal description between the RIOs and the AIC. 

Pre-merge, depending on the weapons loadout and rules of engagement (ROE), we would simulate forward quarter missile shots, but in those days generally we did not call “kills” based upon those shots. Arriving at the merge, the pilots pretty much took over from a comm, maneuvering, and weapons employment standpoint. RIOs would shift their attention more to defensive lookout and helping the pilot maintain good tactical SA through inter-cockpit communication. Overall the ACM/Tactics phase went very well. It was demanding, challenging, exhilarating, and very rewarding. By the time it was complete, I felt like I had a good handle on how to employ the F-14 as a true air-to-air fighter.

Landing on an Island in the Pacific Before a Carrier in the Pacific

The final phase of F-14 training had finally arrived—carrier qualifications. To complete the phase, we would get two daytime touch and goes, ten daytime arrested landings (traps), and six night traps. Prior to going to the carrier, which for me would be the USS Constellation (CV-64), we would accomplish 8-10 FCLP periods getting 8-10 practice approach/landings during each period. We started with a day period at Miramar and from then on about all of the remaining periods were at night. A few were at Miramar, but most were either at NAF El Centro or out on San Clemente island off the coast of San Diego. Both of these airports were much more challenging than Miramar because they were in more remote and darker areas—more like a ship at sea.  

San Clemente was particularly challenging. Usually there would be four to five aircraft there flying around a radar pattern with very little help from a ground based controller. Often times at the pattern altitude we were in the marine cloud layer, with the RIOs using the F-14’s AWG-9 radar to keep us clear of each other. And it was dark out there. You would come out of the clouds and see nothing but the lighted carrier deck landing area outlined on the runway, and the meatball. It was a complete black hole. It was by far the closest thing I’ve ever experienced to an aircraft carrier landing, except that it sat on a 100 foot plus cliff of bedrock as opposed to a pitching, rolling, and heaving hunk of steel in the sea. If any place could prepare you for the boat, San Clemente was it.  

Courtest of Paul Nickell

An A-7 refuels a Tomcat at dusk.

I eked my way through the FCLP periods, surviving one period at a time. I was definitely getting more comfortable landing the Tomcat, but old habits die hard, and at times in the heat of battle, I would revert to them. Finally at the end of the FCLP periods the LSOs informed me that I would be going to the boat for day quals, and if that went ok, night quals as well.

My assigned RIO for this final phase of training was an experienced fleet RIO who was now an instructor at the RAG. His callsign was "Chief." Chief was my rock through the CQ phase. He flew with me through all of the FCLP periods, and was always positive and supportive. He didn’t try to teach me to be a pilot, but he would offer me his observations and let me try to figure out how to make changes. Over time we developed a great rapport.  

Time to Head to the Boat

Finally my day CQ period arrived. Chief and I manned up and launched out to meet up with the “Connie” which was working 40-50 miles west of San Diego. The weather was Case II which meant that there was an overcast layer of clouds, so we would end up holding away from the ship until they had room in the pattern for us. Eventually they called us in, giving us a vector toward the carrier and we began our descent through the cloud layer.  

Five to six miles behind the ship I had it in sight. We went into the break at 800 feet, 350 knots. Just as at the field, we turned, slowed, and dirtied up for the approach, only leaving the hook up for the first touch and go. Although this would be my first carrier landing in the F-14, I had the experience of four touch and go’s and ten traps in the T-2C and TA-4J, so this wasn’t a completely new experience. The touch and go’s went relatively well, and after the second, we got a call from the LSO on the radio telling us to drop the hook. I did and successfully trapped on the next pass.  

Courtesy of Paul Nickell

After four or five cat shots and traps, they spun us around into an area between the island and landing area known as the six pack to refuel us. After refueling, I completed the remainder of my ten traps. As we taxied up to the catapult for a shot back to the beach, the LSO came up on the radio, gave me a verbal pat on the back, and told me that they’d see me back tonight for night quals. 

To this day, I can still remember the boost in confidence that that radio call gave me. I still had night quals to go, but for the first time since my confidence was shattered back in the FAM phase, I was starting to feel better about my landing abilities and thought that I might actually successfully complete F-14 carrier quals. We blasted off, returned to Miramar, and rested three to four hours before heading back out to the boat.

Courtesy of Paul Nickell

The Night is Dark and Full of Surprises

That evening we arrived back in the holding pattern, known as the marshall stack, at our scheduled time and commenced holding. We held for about an hour, and finally we were called down. As opposed to the day visual pattern around the ship, night approaches are flown as a straight in approach from well aft of the ship with some approach control guidance and also instrument approach guidance.  

I slowed and configured on schedule and by three to four miles out I could see the illuminated landing area. Some F-4 Phantoms were also carrier qualling and as we were switched to the final radio frequency. A Phantom crew that was heading for the beach asked for a burner cat shot and climb. My mind was so busy that the call pretty much went in one ear and out the other. 

By now we had called the ball at three quarters of a mile and I was completely absorbed in meatball, line-up, and angle of attack.  All of a sudden there was a bright blueish white light illuminating from ahead of the landing area and then up it zoomed through the sky. I immediately thought something had happened on the carrier deck and that I would soon be waved off. That momentary diversion of my attention allowed me to get slightly low. I got an LSO call for “a little power” followed a few seconds later by a “POWER” call. I responded to both, but not enough, and the next call was “WAVE OFF!" Away I went, turning downwind for another approach.  

Courtesy of Paul Nickell

Night carrier quals were not starting off well for me. I got a call on downwind from the LSOs saying that they needed to see a more positive response to their calls from me, and I made up my mind that they would definitely get what they wanted. The next pass went better, with no burner cat shots, and me responding to the LSO’s appropriately. It ended with my first night trap! Immediately the next challenge confronted me, taxiing around on the flight deck at night. It was eerily illuminated by orangish flood lights from the island, so that if you were in that area, you could pretty much see what was happening with aircraft and personnel. Strangely though on approach, you noticed none of this illumination, only the lighted outline of the landing area.  

As you taxied  away from the island toward the extremities of the deck, everything was dark, including the taxi directors—except for their illuminated wands. As I taxied around the pitching, rolling deck with other aircraft also moving, at times it was almost impossible to tell if I was moving or if other aircraft were moving. At one point, while waiting to taxi onto the catapult, I was holding the brakes and my knees were shaking so badly that I finally had to set the parking brake and relax them for a few seconds. I don’t known if it was fear, stress, or just from mashing the brakes so hard for so long, but later, even after two cruises and over 100 night traps, the same thing would happen if I sat for very long at night holding the brakes. I think I just exerted so much energy mashing the brakes, for fear of unknowingly taxiing over the side of the flight deck into the black abyss of the night sea.  

Courtesy of Paul Nickell

Finally I was directed onto the catapult for my first night cat shot. Boom, the catapult fired, and after a couple of seconds of tremendous acceleration, we were heaved off the deck into total darkness. Once again we were vectored around the pattern. My next five passes all resulted in successful traps. After the last one, the LSOs came up on the radio and congratulated me and told me that my F-14 carrier qualification was complete. They said they would see me back on the beach for my debrief. Finally after many months, the monkey was off my back.  

Chief and I returned to Miramar and landed on the 14,000 foot runway there. What a difference in so many ways than the boat! Clearing the runway, Chief called on our squadron frequency to let them know we were on deck. The reply was, “welcome back page boy.”  We were both confused, and when Chief queried them, we realized that they were telling me that I had received orders to VF-24. “Page Boy” was a call sign that had been assigned to VF-24 flights years before, but had long since disappeared. Any time someone wanted to get under the skin of a VF-24 pilot, they would bring up the page boy call sign. 

 It didn’t bother me one bit, I was going to be a VF-24 Fighting Renegade! 

Courtesy of Paul Nickell

Contact the editor: Tyler@thedrive.com