(Nov. 22, 2017) The Lions have Met. From 2000 – 2012 I was on operational sea duty orders for the first time. I was attached to the Black Lions of VF-213 working on reconnaissance cameras and laser targeting systems aboard the F-14D Tomcat. Years later I reported to my second operational assignment: sea duty aboard amphibious transport dock USS Ponce (LPD 15), the Proud Lion.
I have the Quarterdeck flags from Ponce with me (I was given them and two slivers of wood from her well deck after she was decommissioned in October). I took them and visited the National Naval Aviation Museum on board Naval Air Station Pensacola. The museum houses an F-14D Tomcat from VF-213. This particular Tomcat, bureau number (“BUNO”) 161159, is one of the jets I physically turned wrenches on back in the day. I got a photograph of me holding the Proud Lion’s flags and well deck pieces next to the Black Lion’s F-14D Tomcat as the Lions finally met.
Later, as I was looking over my old plane, I heard an Australian accent saying, “That’s probably a laser.” I saw a father talking to his teen-aged daughter and pointing at the F-14D’s double-chin pod.
I couldn’t resist…or let incorrect information go uncorrected.
“That’s actually a television camera system, or TCS,” I said.
The two looked up, startled.
“I used to work on F-14s,” I went on. “In fact, I worked on this very aircraft when I was with VF-213.”
The two looked delighted. The girl asked if the aircraft had a laser on it for targeting bombs.
“No, it wasn’t built with one,” I led them to a weapons pylon under the starboard wing. “However, one of the systems I maintained and loaded onto the jet was a laser-targeting pod the Navy bought from the Air Force. It was six feet long, weighed about 600 pounds, and we attached it here with a hydraulic lift called a skid.”
“600 pounds? That’s huge!” The girl said.
“Sort of, depends on how you look at it,” I responded. “The main system I worked on was a reconnaissance camera pod that was 17 feet long and weighed 2,000 pounds. It was so big it had to be mounted under the jet between the engines.”
They were suitably impressed. Unfortunately, I didn’t get their names.
I’ve watched the National Naval Aviation Museum grow from a single building and several aircraft exhibited outside to three full buildings since I first visited the place when we moved to Niceville in 1986. Once this road trip is done, I’m leaning towards settling in Pensacola, partly so I can volunteer at the museum.
Following my impromptu mini-presentation, I had lunch in the Cubi Point Cafe. The cafe is a recreation of the Cubi Point Officers Club that used to exist at the now-decommissioned Naval Air Station Cubi Point in the Philippines. When the club was shut down the furnishings brought to the museum in Pensacola.
I sat at the bar next to two ladies, both in their early to mid-60s. Both were former pilots swapping stories (yes, I admit I was eavesdropping!). The age of these women meant they had to be part of the first wave of female pilots in the Navy, back in the days when women were only allowed to fly cargo planes on and off the carriers…and only grudgingly allowed to do so at that.
What struck me was their conversation was not concerned with any of that. They were like any two pilots, reminiscing about hard landings, inarticulate radio communications, and the times the carrier wasn’t where it was supposed to be. I wonder—has time now moved so far along that these first-wave female pilots can just enjoy remembering the fun of flying?
Upstairs in the main building is a new exhibit on flight deck operations. I met two volunteers up there that both had interesting stories.
Stan Grossman was a Marine Corps officer who got out…but discovered he missed flying. Instead of coming back in the Corps or the Navy, he gave up a regular commission and joined the Army as a Warrant Officer to fly helicopters. We had a chance to chat for a bit before he introduced me to Chuck Hubbard, another volunteer and retired antisubmarine warfare pilot. Unlike Grossman, Hubbard stayed with and retired from the Navy. Interestingly enough, Grossman just looks like a grizzled, retired Marine officer (I thought he was a retired Colonel until he told me his full story), and Hubbard has the polished, chiseled looks and neat white hair one would expect of the stereotypical retired naval officer.
And then there was the me, the stereotypical retired Navy Chief and former aircraft maintainer; white beard getting slowly thicker, slightly more casual conversational style than the officers, and a bit more of a grease-monkey take on working on a flight deck. And yet, at the same time, all of three of us were united into easy conversation by shared service, retirement, and the comfort of no longer needing to interact based on rank.
I believe Hubbard started scheming to recruit me as soon as I mentioned thinking of settling in Pensacola. He was especially keen to learn of my personal connection to the VF-213 F-14D Tomcat I’ve already mentioned. Upon learning I’m a retired Chief Mass Communication Specialist and Navy instructor, he asked to if I’d mind auditing and evaluating his program.
I had no objection to this…and that’s where I think he decided to make his move.
Flight deck Sailors wear various colored jerseys and life preservers to identify their jobs and responsibilities. He was telling a story about how he, as a pilot, had the most respect for the “yellow shirts,” the Sailors on the flight deck who handle, direct, and control the aircraft on the ground, and the “purple shirts,” who fueled the aircraft. Then he points to me and says that I as a “green shirt” (aircraft maintainer) probably had a different take on this, and enlisted me to explain my role on the flight deck.
During the ensuring discussion, he casually slipped in that I worked on the F-14D on display in the new building. Of course I had to share some stories about that.
Then he mentioned I once got blown 40 feet down a flight deck when an aircraft turned it’s jet wash on me unexpectedly, so I had to answer questions about that!
It was flattering to be a minor celebrity and get to be an educator again, even for just a few moments. If Mr. Hubbard were trying to recruit me, well…he could not have come up with a better strategy!
Even funnier was the fact that the Australian father and daughter I’d met earlier were part of the group Mr. Hubbard co-opted me to speak in front of…and I still neglected to get their names! Sheesh…
Another interesting personal fact: tomorrow is Thanksgiving Day. Twenty years ago tomorrow I left boot camp for my first school at Pensacola. We arrived that night, and I was seriously depressed. I had called home from Chicago’s O’Hare Airport earlier to say hi to my folks, and my brother was visiting with is girlfriend (now wife). Hearing them all there in Niceville made me very homesick…especially as I’d be only 50 miles away in Pensacola by that night, but unable to go home on liberty for some weeks.
That was my first holiday spent away from home in the Navy (countless more followed). That weekend I went to the museum and hung out a bit—my first time there on active duty. It made sense for me to try and find some comfort there, considering the many hours spent there as I grew up helped cement my desire to join the Navy in the first place.
Today was my first time at the museum in 20 years as a civilian. It’s going to take time to really wrap my head around my new place as a retired veteran—still part of the Navy, but also outside of it. I am very grateful to Chuck Hubbard for pulling me into his presentation. That was a good moment.
If you’re in Pensacola, plan a day to visit both the National Naval Aviation Museum and Pensacola Lighthouse. Both are located on board Naval Air Station Pensacola, and both are accessible by the general public. At the museum you’ll see the first plane to fly the Atlantic, a full-size mock up of the island of a WWII escort carrier, Coast Guard aircraft, POW exhibits, lighter-than-air aircraft displays, and even the Navy’s contributions to the space program…
…Better yet, just go and meet the volunteers. You’ll be amazed as they whisk you away into world-spanning adventures with their sea stories! The human experience of these men and women who faced and overcame war, boredom, discrimination, uncertainty, and shifting geopolitical realities will enthrall you for hours.
Who knows? You might even want to enlist and join us on the flight deck yourself!