Travel Log: Wings of Gold, Part 3

(Niceville, Florida; June 19, 2021) – The United States Navy answered the beckoning call of Florida’s mild, warm weather and generally sunny skies early in the 20th century, establishing its hub for naval aviation training in Pensacola.

Today, Naval Air Station Pensacola hosts the National Naval Aviation Museum, one of the largest aviation museums in the world.  I grew up visiting this facility, my own love of the Navy and naval aviation bolstered, nurtured, and fired up by the adventures I learned of in its hallowed halls.  Having been a former F-14 Tomcat maintainer myself, I thrilled every time I saw the great Tomcat outside the building’s front launching skyward from its pedestal.

Imagine my shock when I discovered back in 2007 that the museums’ newest addition—the last F-14 Tomcat to fly a combat mission—was a Tomcat that I actually worked on myself years earlier when I was attached to the Black Lions of VF-213!

All aircraft have a ‘Bureau Number,’ or ‘BuNo’ for short.  The BuNo is like the VIN on your car; it never changes.  Your car will have multiple license plates during its life as it cycles through owners and states of residence, but the VIN never changes.  Similarly, naval aircraft are all assigned ‘nose numbers’ by the squadrons they’re flying with, but those nose numbers change whenever the aircraft is cycled to a new squadron, or the squadron itself shifts into a new air wing. The BuNo, however, never changes and is used to track the aircraft through its lifetime.

One of the first photos of a Tomcat on the line I ever took, and the first of BuNo 161159. Naval Air Station Fallon, Nevada. (PH3 Nathanael ‘Sparky’ Miller, 26 September 2000)

When I was in VF-213, one of our jets was nose number 111, or ‘Triple Sticks,’ as we airdales called her.  Triple Sticks was one of the first aircraft I interacted with when I reported to VF-213, and she was one of our higher-scoring aircraft during the opening days of Operation Enduring Freedom.  In fact, what I remember most about good ole’ Triple Sticks is that I don’t remember much.  I have very few specific sea stories about maintenance headaches and other such minutiae about her for a simple reason—unlike many other jets we worked on, Triple Sticks usually worked!  She was a very reliable aircraft.

While home on leave, I got my Pop and I on a tour of the Naval Aviation Museum’s ‘backlot’ in 2007.  These were aircraft stored on the NAS flight line prior to the construction of the museum’s new Hangar Bay One building.  As Pop and I were touring around, I was, of course, eager to see the new Tomcat in the collection because she was the last Tomcat to fly in combat, and because she had been part of my old squadron, VF-213 (her final flights happened years after I left VF-213, but the connection was there).   As Pop and I were looking her over, I glanced down at the BuNo (all aircraft have their BuNo stenciled on their sides, usually near the aft end), and did a very distinct double-take at the digits: 161159.  My jaw hit the tarmac and I told Pop, “I know this airplane!  I recognize that number!”

I dug into my photo archives that night and realized BuNo 161159, now painted with nose number 204, had been in VF-213 with me under nose number 111!

Two thoughts struck me simultaneously.  I was elated that a bird I’d turned wrenches on was a safe retirement in one of my favorite museums, I did a facepalm because I simply wasn’t old enough to have a plane I worked on in a museum!

I was attached to VF-213 when we deployed with Carrier Air Wing 11 aboard USS Carl Vinson (CVN 70) in July 2001.  I was a Photographer’s Mate 2nd Class at the time.  Our shop worked on the TARPS reconnaissance cameras and the LANTIRN laser-targeting/infrared video pods.  VF-213 operated the F-14D model, which was the only model of Tomcats in which all aircraft were TARPS camera capable, meaning we had great flexibility in flying reconnaissance missions as well as combat missions since all our birds were capable of both (only some of the F-14B models were TARPS capable, so those squadrons were limited in which aircraft they could field for aerial photo missions).

F-14D BuNo 161159 on the catapult aboard USS Carl Vinson (CVN 70) prior to launching a strike during Operation Enduring Freedom. (PH2 Nathanael ‘Sparky’ Miller, November 2001)

We were two days out from the Arabian Gulf (or Persian Gulf if you’re more familiar with that name) on a sunny day the calendar called September 11, 2001.  After the brutal attacks unfolded on our country, the Carl Vinson strike group never entered the gulf, but instead took up station in the Arabian Sea, awaiting orders since we were, at that moment, pretty much on Afghanistan’s doorstep.

When the orders to strike came in, I helped launch the first reconnaissance mission of Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) at approximately 13:00 or so on October 7, 2001.  That mission returned to Carl Vinson around 15:00, and some of our team ran the film down to the lab for processing while I oversaw the removal of the TARPS pod from that jet and the configuration of a LANTIRN pod.

Tomcat BuNo 161159, ‘Triple Sticks’ back then, was loaded up as a backup bird in case one of the main strike birds broke down that night.  None broke down, and VF-213 led off the first Navy manned strikes of Operation Enduring Freedom around 18:30 the night of Oct. 7, 2001.  The Enterprise strike group, taking the day shift for strikes, launched the next morning.

Triple Sticks didn’t fly that night, but she sortied on her first combat mission of OEF the next evening (October 8th).  She racked up an impressive scoreboard, gaining a reputation for being an ‘Old Reliable’ airplane.

F-14D Buno 161159 in the NAS Oceana ‘Hush House,’ a special hangar in which we could run the jets up to full afterburner for maintenance checks. Virginia Beach, Virginia. (PH2 Nathanael ‘Sparky’ Miller, 26 April 2002.)

I visit my old friend every time I get to Pensacola.  Running my hand along her fuselage always brings back memories, good and bad.  Sadly, two of the sailors that were in my shop back in those days have passed away, but I can see them in our green flight deck gear, tool pouches hanging off their hips, whenever I spend time talking with Tomcat 161159.  Her nose number might be 204 now, but, to me, she’ll always be Triple Sticks.

That’s the joy of and excitement of visiting a military museum.  You never know if any of the docents or guests have a direct connection to the aircraft, equipment, and other artifacts you’re viewing.  Some, like myself, have actually launched the planes in front of you from the flight deck of an American aircraft carrier.  Others might not have touched that particular bird or weapon or vehicle, but they worked on and with its type in other situations.  If you meet people with such connections, take time to listen to their stories.  Let these men and women help you find a deeper connection to the story of that plane, ship, weapon, or event.  Let these people help history come alive to you; such people are always a limited resource as we all pass into history in our time.

Triple Sticks—Tomcat BuNo 161159—will never fly again, but she’s far from grounded.  As long as people listen to the stories she and her veterans, like me, can tell, she will forever soar in the imaginations of those who gaze upon her sleek lines.  She is but one of the small fleet cared for by the National Naval Aviation Museum.  When you visit Pensacola, enjoy our Florida sun and beaches and water, but take a day to check out this remarkable facility and soar on wings of gold through history!

Check out Part 3 of my video about the museum at: https://youtu.be/kf8WrKs_ZDk

National Naval Aviation Museum website: https://www.navalaviationmuseum.org/

F-14D BuNo 161159 now on permanent display at the National Naval Aviation Museum. Pensacola, Florida. (Nathanael Miller, 23 December 2018)

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Nathanael Miller’s Photojournalism Archives:

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