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Black Lion One is a biography of US Navy captain John Monroe “Hawk” Smith, focused on his time in command of VF-213, an F-14 Tomcat squadron. Hawk Smith was a Vietnam combat pilot and one of the early commanders of the Navy Fighter Weapons School, TOPGUN. The book provides aviation enthusiasts with great new insight into the capabilities of the F-14 and the workings of a carrier-borne fighter squadron. For a more general audience, the book carries lessons in leadership and performance management, along with a heavy dose of pilot humor.
One such humorous anecdote from the book revolves around an F-14 stranded on a runway in Valencia, Spain. The plane was stranded due to a combination of bad weather and low fuel. This particular plane was heavily armed, including with the AIM-54 Phoenix missile. The Phoenix was, at the time, the most advanced and the most highly classified air-to-air missile in the world. Particularly due to the presence of the missile, the aircraft needed to be guarded 24/7. For the first night, the pilot and navigator camped out with the plane. On the second night, the duty was assigned to an enlisted Marine. At this point, I will turn over the story to an excerpt from the book:
“The aircrew departed for the BOQ just as night fell, and, with the Marine watching
over their airplane, all was well . . . for a time.
The early September evenings in the Med couldn’t be considered cold, but the young
Marine, taught to “innovate, adapt, overcome” and make best use of available resources,
realized it would be far cozier in the cockpit of the F-14 than outside, and from there, he
reasoned, he could still provide security. There was only one impediment to the plan—gaining
access to the cockpit. The resourceful Marine surveyed the outside of the cockpit area and
discovered a small panel with stenciling. He couldn’t quite make out the words in the poor
light but realized it had something to do with the canopy. Not to be thwarted by the details,
he thought it was the control to raise the canopy—and it was—but only once.
The Marine opened the panel, grasped the handle, and realized it was connected to a
very long lanyard. That should have warned him that it was not the prescribed device to
open the canopy. It should have, but it didn’t.
The Marine backed away from the Tomcat, uncoiling the lanyard as he went, farther and
farther until he hit the end of the lanyard. An ever-so-slight tug on the handle and, as advertised,
the canopy opened.
The explosive cartridge fired and sent thousands of dollars’ worth of canopy twirling
end over end, narrowly missing the tail section of the Tomcat.
Message traffic sizzled over the airwaves between Rota, the ship, and Washington, DC. In
response to Rota’s message describing the situation, “Marine guard inadvertently jettisoned canopy
from VF-213 F-14A. Missiles, AIM-7F (1), AIM-9F (1), and AIM-54 (1), aboard and intact.””
Happily, nobody was harmed in this incident, and the plane was eventually recovered. On the other hand, there was more embarrassment on the horizon for those involved, when the incident was reported up the chain of command...