27 April, 2018

Profile 121: F-8 Crusader as flown by Steve Russ, VF-53

When I was a kid, there was a show on the Discovery Channel called, “Wings.”  Remember it?

It was, in a word, AWE-SOME.  A spiritual moment, really as I realized that there were more like me out there, at least enough for some network wonk to recognize our existence and approve the production costs.

"Wings" was also a sit-com that didn't have enough airplanes to make it interesting for me. 
Bummer.  I never refer to "that" Wings.
Only this Wings.

But, Wings never completely satisfied.  Too often, the show was more about the ‘data’ than the stuff I knew gave greater meaning to the show—the subjective, human-side of history.   I learned this first-hand when I did my very first published interview with Morris Jeppson, Bomb Electronics Officer on the nuke-delivering Enola Gay during their Hiroshima mission.

I remember asking Morrie if anything “weird” happened during the fateful mission and he said, “Weird?  Funny you ask that.  No one has ever asked me that before!”  

He proceeded to tell a story that blew my mind.  More on that some other time.  But the point is, I learned that studying history is less about the "names, dates and places" and more about the people that populate it.  But, as they say, "the facts make the fellow and the fellow makes the facts."  

"Morrie" Jeppson, nuclear scientist. Funny who your family knows, eh?  My time with Morrie ended up being my first published interview on the now defunct "Dogfighter.com" in 2001.
Read up on Morrie, here.
This post is a comparison/contrast of exactly what I’m referring.  See, a technical drawing is really lifeless without the 'people' story behind it.  But, without the drawing, the more personal stories are much more difficult to capture.  But there's the rub - where does a story really start?  And stop?  In this context, while watching “Wings,” I often found myself frustrated by all the unasked/edited-out questions.

This thing called, “Life” is just too big sometimes.


Have a look at the airplane on the top of this post.  It's a Vought F-8E Crusader circa September 21, 1968.  It’s depicted in markings as it flew with U.S. Navy fighter squadron VF-53—the Iron Angels—while stationed on the aircraft carrier, USS Bon Homme Richard.*

Mega-Man® looks like a ripoff of VF-53's "Iron Angel" mascot!  My childhood is RUINED.  Unleash the lawyers!

It's proof-positive that eventually, I get around to fulfilling commitments—I started the drawing in 2016.  However, it's also proof—no, make that an illustration—of the fact that studying History is something that devoted mavens and casual observers can both enjoy.

First, to satisfy the geeks among us, I'll go over some of the details behind this particular drawing.  We'll go from nose to tail (right to left for those who aren't particularly familiar with aircraft).

I googled "History Teacher" and this is what I found. 
I think he might be just the guy to rectify the  "Iron Angel" vs "Mega Man®" controversy!

Note the “200."  Though every airplane on an aircraft carrier has an identification number that associates itself with a particular squadron, the "00" after the "2" signifies that the Commander of the Air Wing—basically, commander of all the carrier's aircraft—has dedicated this particular airplane as ‘his.’  It doesn’t mean that it’s his exclusively.  In fact, anyone in the squadron rated to fly the aircraft can and probably will, fly it at some point or another.  For the commander, however, if the event arises and he needs to make a presence, “00” is the airplane that he’ll prefer.

Here’s where things get a bit complicated.  The Commander of the Air Wing is called the “CAG” - short for Commander of the Air GROUP.   Though technically, the term Air Group was changed to Air Wing in 1963, the CAG name stuck; “CAW” sounds somewhat less-cool than CAG.

I hate Facebook.  But I love Facebook.
Thank you for the photo, Facebook.  And, please...whomever took this photo, please tell me!
(Jan 10, 2020...the photo author is Budd Sutliff who was on the cruise w/Russ.  Awesome!)

“00” also has another name by which its referred—“Double Nuts.”  This is especially helpful when the need arrises to identify an aircraft independently of its pilot.

So, putting it together, if we were go back in time and overhear a conversation in the carrier’s maintenance facility, the Crew Chief might say something like, “Double Nuts is down with a hydraulic problem.  The CAG will have to fly two zero six today.”

Fascinated?  There’s more!
See the black banner-shape underneath the canopy?  That's the spot where the guns were located.
Official U.S.Navy photo taken by Michael Mihalevich

Have a look above at the black banner-shape below the canopy.  It signifies the space reserved for the gun ports of the four 20mm cannon (two on each side).  The reason it's black is because it helped hide the staining that resulted from firing these explosive-spewing hoses of death.  Many F-8s sport this sort of paint treatment over the gun ports.  Some F-8s didn't however—perhaps their Crew didn't mind scrubbing?  Dunno.  All I know is that this particular Crusader had the design shown.

But, about those guns…

The four 20mm cannon were powerful armament in their own right.  A one-second burst would put out about fifteen pounds of explosive shells.  Put another weigh (pun!), that’s about the weight of a heavy bowling ball but instead of knocking down pins, it knocks down MiGs.

Interesting trivia about F-8 guns: there was a selector switch that allowed the pilot to choose between firing two or four at a time.  Of course, firing two effectively doubled the firing time at the expense of lowering the total-weight of ordnance.  But—and I swear this is true—the vibration of the four 20's going off at once could jiggle the gunsight loose!

However, the guns are especially significant in that the F-8 Crusader was the last American jet fighter to be designed around the gun, as opposed to missiles (or a combination of the two).   Of course, the F-8 ended up being adapted to carry missiles; this is obvious as my artwork is depicted with AIM-9 Sidewinders on fuselage mounts.  Yet, the original “guns only” design dicta is why the F-8 is sometimes referred as "The last of the gunfighters.” 

Ok.  Now, notice the wing.  Four things are notable:

1. Mounting the wing on top of the fuselage allowed for a thinner (faster) wing because the bulky landing gear could be stowed inside the fuselage as opposed to the wing—which would have made the gear spindly and potentially troublesome.

This slim wing design is reflects the 1950s engineering mantra of speed.  To this point, the F-8 set a gob of records.  Cleaned up (i.e. no external tanks, missiles, etc.) the Crusader could shriek along at 1,000+mph. 

You can see how the wing pivots up - some smart-butt wrote "Sock It To Em" on the fairing.  As for the guy, he's the Plane Captain and he's asking the pilot to move the control stick forward to check elevator action.
Official U.S.Navy photo taken by Michael Mihalevich

2. The thin wing may have been great for going fast but not for going slow (which is important in landing).  So, the Vought designers allowed the whole wing unit to pivot up, allowing the F-8 to keep it's nose low for take-off and landing.  More on this ‘feature’ later…

3. A large part of the wing, basically from the center-forward, could drop to create extra slow(er)-speed lift for flight requirements such as cruising, assembling formation...any time when speeds slower than 400mph were required. Pilots called this wing configuration, "Cruise Droop.”  For the aviation-aware, this feature was like a flap, only on the front of the wing.

See the wings folded up?  More on this later.  But just get a good mental picture.
Official U.S.Navy photo taken by Michael Mihalevich

And, 4. The last 10' or so of the wing could fold upward to conserve space on the aircraft carrier.  Interestingly, the F-8 could actually fly with the wings in this condition!  But the feature was never preached or intentionally practiced. More on this ‘feature’ later, too!

Moving right along (actually to the left), note the colorful tail art...and now, note the much more subtle tail artwork below. 

Obviously, I drew two versions of the same airplane.  Actually, the simpler yellow-black version was the first one I did and only later, after a helper dug up an old photo, did I learn that this particular F-8 also had the much more colorful livery.  Frankly, I don't know which one I like better!

The chevron-ish shape is the particular tail-art of VF-53 and the simple yellow-black coloration was applied to all aircraft with the one exception shown up at the beginning of this post.  The more colorful representation is yet another affectation of the CAG as their designated aircraft were often garishly decorated for the sole purpose of...showing off?  Tradition?  Who knows.  But in this particular case, the airplane wore both schemes during her service with VF-53.

The "NF" on the tail is also an identifier of the Air Wing (assigned to the Carrier).  Note too that “NF” is painted on the starboard wing, along with “200”.  

The aircraft number is not (always) based around the next important number to know—in this case, 150323.  This is the "bureau number" or "BuNo".  If you need pronunciation,  it's "Bew-No". Essentially, the BuNo is the aircraft's serial number and, like all aircraft, the serial number is the one identifier of an aircraft that does not change, regardless of squadron, unit or owner.

Still with me?  Need a little wake up?

I’m with ya’ cuz I’m half asleep here, too.  But history is kinda like a hotel breakfast buffet—some folk show up for the waffles, some for the crappy little sausages and others, like me, just the coffee.  I gotta please the guests…


Lastly, look at the tailpipe.  This represents the reason the F-8 Crusader was the first American fighter to reach 1,000mph in level flight—18,000lbs of thrust (in afterburner).  But remember, this beast could weigh 33,000lbs when loaded up with fuel and ammo.  Quick math shows that there's an approximate .6:1 thrust:weight ratio.  Compared to the thrust:weight ratio of today's F-22 (1.15:1), the F-8 is rather anemic.  But back in the 50s-60s, it was completely competitive.

An F-8 with its wing pivoted up, landing gear splayed...definitely a fat Praying Mantis.
Official U.S.Navy photo taken by Michael Mihalevich
Personally, the F-8 is a fantastically sleek example of the engineer’s art—at least as I drew it, cleaned up for high-speed flight.  On a carrier deck however, I think it looks decidedly less sexy; more like a fat insect.  

That in mind, it's probably the best time to bring up the dark side to the F-8 Crusader—it was kind of a pain in the ass.

Let me explain.

True story:  of the 1,260-some F-8s that were accepted for service, over 1,100 experienced a major accident. That's 87%.  And, if you can believe it, the accident rate per 100,000 hours of flight for the F-8 was 46.7%.  Compare this to the F-4 Phantom's 20% and the F-14 Tomcat's 10%.  Also, of the 118 lost during the Vietnam War, “only” 57 were due to combat.  In other words, combat aside, the F-8 Crusader was a difficult airplane to fly and probably going to give the pilot trouble.

"Highway to the Danger Zone" would have been a better theme song for F-8 pilots than "...that movie that had Tom Cruise in it.” But, as the best boss I ever had said, “Liars figure and figures lie.”

This is why it’s important to go-to-the-source for information and not just what you read.

True story:  WWII ace Alden Rigby, who never said a bad word about anyone, called the movie Top Gun "Silly" and stated "I never was a part of any of that kind of behavior stuff."

*break break*

It’s always fascinating to get ‘the other guys’ view on a particular issue especially when it comes to history-defining moments.  To this effect, three of the ex-NVAF fighter pilots I've met have specifically mentioned the F-8 Crusader as an airplane they would rather avoid than engage.  

This is a screen-recording of me using my Apple® Pencil.   LtCDR Guy Kane of VF-53 actually bagged a MiG-17 but I wasn't thinking of that at the time I sketched the scene.

There are reasons for their reservations—the F-8 was powerfully armed, F-8 pilots trained in the art of dogfighting, F-8 missions were most-often dedicated for aerial interdiction (as opposed to carrying bombs) and the MiG opponents were often inexperienced. True story—I was having lunch west of Ho Chi Minh City with a few MiG pilots when of them asked, "Did you draw any F-8?"

Sadly, I had to say, "no."  And the pilot nodded in a way that left me wondering if he was disappointed.  Funny how fate works because a few months later,  I got a phone call and it went like this:

Guy:  Hi!  I read about you in (XYZ) and wanted to know if you’d ever written about or drawn an F-8 Crusader.

Me:  No.  But I’d like to!  Crusaders have an interesting reputation!

Guy:  They do!  And if I found you a good story, would you consider it?

Me:  Sure!  What’s your interest in Crusaders?

Guy:  Well, I flew them.  And I know some guys with great stories.

Me:  Don’t YOU have any stories?

Guy:  Naw.  I’m just a pilot but…

Me:  When did you fly them?

Guy:  1968.

Me:  Where’d you fly them?

Guy:  Uh…Vietnam.

And so, I’d like to introduce you to Lt. Steve Russ.**  He’s a Crusader pilot that, in his own words, "Did nothing other than fly with my squadron during the Vietnam War.”  

This is Steve circa 1968.  He calls this, "Younger Me."
It's funny but just about every time an old photo album gets cracked open, the owner says, "That's Younger Me."  I'm learning that there are definite differences between "Younger Me's" and "Older Me's".  Just saying.
Official U.S.Navy photo taken by Michael Mihalevich

The following is a rather pragmatic, forthright interview that has taken place over many months.  It's good to take one's time as it gives me a chance to learn the person's personality as well as backstory.  

This is a long interview, but it’s worth your time as one can’t have conversations like these without venturing off onto rabbit-trails that, in and of themselves, are fascinating glimpses into a greater reality.

Anyways, this is how it went.  Imagine talking to a man who enjoys laughing, speaks with smile and shows his appreciation by saying, "Cool!" A lot. 


Me:  So, tell me about your Crusader cred...

Steve:  (Opens logbook).  This tells me I started flying in my fleet squadron (VF-53) in December, 1967. We went out on cruise in February of 1968.  We flew the F-8E that first cruise then I flew the F-8J my second cruise. During my first cruise I flew a total of 152 flights which consisted of 46 non-combat and 106 combat missions. 

Me:  How many hours do you have in F-8s?

Steve:  I had amassed a total flight time of 289 hours prior to flying the F-8 for the first time.  The first time I flew the F-8, it was a solo! I left (VF-53) with a flight time total of 923.5 hours.  Therefore I flew the F-8 for 634.5 hours plus I was blessed with the opportunity to fly the F-8H in the US Navy reserves for another 75 hours.

Me:  So I read the F-8 was hard to fly and had a terrible maintenance record.  What’s up with that?

Steve:  My feeling was it was a good flying airplane.  It was very unforgiving at night, especially (flying slow) around the ship (day and night).  Every other airplane I have flown has the thrust vector perpendicular to the lift vector: as you increased the thrust, you would get an associated pitch change (in the proper direction).  Therefore, if you started to go a little low on the glideslope, an addition of thrust to get you up and on the glideslope would be accompanied by a slight increase in your nose attitude—that is a very nice thing!  

Note:  if you’re over the glideslope, you don’t land.  If you’re under the glideslope, you crash into the carrier.

Steve...nails it!  Gawd, I hope you're not just skimming for Michael's excellent photos because you
really need to read this post to learn how crazy the F-8 really was.
Official U.S.Navy photo taken by Michael Mihalevich

In the Crusader, since the wing would go up and down, the thrust vector is not perpendicular to the lift vector. Therefore, in flying the F-8, if you got a little low, an increase in thrust would make you go lower and faster!  OUCH!

The exact opposite was true on every other airplane: if you were going above the glide slope, a small decrease in thrust would be accompanied by a small decrease in your nose attitude where in the Crusader, a slight decease in thrust meant you got too slow.  Again, OUCH!

So, in the clean configuration, the F-8 Crusader was an absolute dream to fly.  In the dirty configuration (wing UP) it was a true nightmare!  

Me:  So, what was it about the F-8 that made it so challenging?

Steve:  It’s the wing.  The wing made it hard.  (referring to having the wing raise-up during landing and take-off).

Me:  I get it. The wing-problem makes total sense.  Still, I’m surprised Vought engineered that trick in the first place; didn’t the Air Force prove that counter-intuitive processes (i.e. “human factors”) were a no-no?

Steve:  You may well think it a No-No now.  However, back then it was more like "quit your bitchin"!  "Human Factors" was no factor back in the day.  In fact during my second cruise, we complained about the fact we had to fly the Approach with full nose-up trim.  And we were limited to (flying) at maximum of 85degrees OAT (Outside Air Temperature). The "experts" said that we were just a bunch of crybabies. 

No, that's not Steve.  It's from a Cruise Book and it shows what happens when an F-8 misses a wire
and needs the net-like "Barricade" to stop it.   Just showing what can happen...
Official U.S. Navy photo taken by Michael Mihalevich

Anyway, I flew a pre-dawn launch, launched when the OAT was well below the 85 degree mark.  However, during my approach the OAT was well above that mark; I remember going to full military power (100% thrust) and never reducing my thrust until I snagged a two wire!

Me:  So…what’s the particular problem with “night” landings?

Steve:  The horizon is invisible at night!  A night trap (i.e. landing on a carrier at night) can be as tough as nails.  If you recall, I mentioned the difficulty most pilots had with the F-8?  Well, we’d wonder, “how much did I just move my nose (pitch); one degree…or five?  At night it was a total mystery!

So, in the clean configuration, the F-8 Crusader was an absolute dream to fly.  In the dirty configuration (wing UP) it was a true nightmare! 

This is another one of my iPad drawings.  It shows the F-8 "Clean."  And fast. 

Me:  Well, the F-8 obviously flew well in its job…

Steve:  Once fast and fighting, it was great!  

Me:  Ok, I read that the F-8 could fly with its wings folded.  Any truth to that?

Steve:  Yup! Too much truth!  It happened twice in my squadron alone!  BTW, both of these events occurred at night.  One was totally airborne with a return to land.  And one was, I think, a year later where the pilot got that baby airborne, realized what he'd done and set it back on the runway and took the arresting wire set up prior to the end of the runway.  Whew!

One of the truly crazy things about the Crusader is that the wings were folded by hydraulic pressure - and, of course, the wings are airfoils and the lift created would force the wings to fold even more which resulted in the loss of Utility Hydraulic Pressure which made it virtually impossible to spread the wings in fight!

Me:  What’s your evaluation of the F-8 then?

Steve: It was the sweetest airplane I ever flew (in the clean configuration).  I especially loved the fact that it was a single-seat fighter and that every single thing that happened was because of me (the pilot).  Not only did the government let me fly this thing: it was the BEST airplane!!!

Me:  Ok.  Let’s get to using the F-8 in combat.  First, I gotta ask what it was like launching a Sidewinder when it was mounted so close to the cockpit….

Steve.  I recall a feeling of what it must have felt like having a freight train launch right by my window.   I did nail a target drone with a live AIM-9 in my fleet squadron on a flight from our ship.  As the missile left the shoulder station it was, as I could imagine, a train accelerating by the airplane.  It was, indeed, awesome.  I hollered "BULLA BULLA" as the drone was blown up by my missile!

Me:  Did you ever fire one in combat?

Steve:  No.  But I had (a MiG) on (radar) scope once.  

Me: Ok, so describe what a typical target was and a typical mission.

Steve:   Well,  combat missions can be defined a number of ways.  But, they really varied.  We could carry bombs as we did during TET of 1968, but that was rare.

The USN aircraft carrier Bon Homme Richard definitely lent a hand at Khe Sanh.   This photo is an A-4 "Skyhawk" of VA--212 circa 1968.  No idea who took the photo, but you can see the "NF" on the tail and know belonged to the same Air Wing that Steve Russ belonged.
Note to self:  I need to redo Dave Carey's A-4.

Me:  1968.  Did you fly any sorties to support the siege at Khe Sanh?  

Steve:  Yes!  We carried a 2,000 pounder on each wing and barely had enough airspeed on the cat shot (being catapulted off the carrier). However, we could make a really big hole in anything we were able to hit!  ALL our other missions were fighter based: BARCAP (Barrier Combat Air Patrol), MIGCAP, TARCAP (as in Target) and Photo Escort.

But, when it came to targets, that depended upon the strike mission.  We frequently escorted our light attack bombers (the A-4) on regular Cyclic operations and "regular" targets. 

Me:  Cyclic?

Steve:  A cycle was an hour and a half, 10 of these every 12 hours.  Our Carrier would launch roughly 1/2 the planes on the first launch, then the other 1/2 on the second launch then recover the first half to complete the "cycle".  Occasionally we would fly ALPHA Strikes, where they would launch all of our aircraft at once, and on really rare occasions we'd team up with the other aircraft carriers making it a massive attack.  These ALPHA strikes were done against heavily defended targets.  There was a lot of risk involved with these missions: like mid-air collisions! 

Me:  Did you ever see North Vietnamese?  Like as people?

Steve:  Nope. 'Never ever saw a single man: neither the people nor the airplanes.  But, speaking of Vietnamese airplanes, on my second flight I flew the CO's (Skipper) wing.  As luck would have it, I had a good radar contact and he—which seemed to be the norm—had none.

Me:  What do you mean by that?

Steve:  (doesn’t respond…crickets chirp for a few moments…then continues)  We were vectored in by Red Crown (the name given to the ship that contained the ultra-high powerful radar that ‘saw’ well into North Vietnam) against a MIG 21.  Not only did I paint him with my radar, I locked onto him.  My Skipper would not relinquish the lead.

Me:  Bummer.

Steve:  Well, it was only my second combat mission.  Anyway, the MIG turned away from us.  I had a merge plot (same radar position) on six other occasions, but never actually got to see a MiG.

(Note:  Steve's second combat mission was on February 23, 1968.  I'm looking into who the ex-North Vietnamese was.)

This is my drawing of a MiG-21 flown by ex-North Vietnamese ace, General Nguyen Duc Soat.
General Soat was awarded all of his six victories in 1972, four years past Steve's service.  Still, my drawing remains
a decent rendering of what Steve would have faced had the CO let him lead...

Me:  So, did you ever get to see how the F-8 would fly as a dogfighter?

Steve: Again, not in combat, however, within the squadron, we had dog fights all the time.  We hassled after combat missions (if fuel was available) and during (land-based) training missions.  It was what we did.  And it was…really fun!   For each move, there is a counter move.  It was like playing chess, but in three aerial dimensions!  My roommate and I talked about ACM (Air Combat Maneuvering) ALL the time: what we would do in any given situation. I know that these discussions made us better fighter pilots!

Me:  VF-53 is recorded as having a MiG kill though.  What do you know about that? 

Steve:  Here is the deal: my good friend and roommate was in a huge “ fur ball” dogfight and it was a 4 versus 4 (4 MIGS and our flight of 4 F8s) real life engagement.  Guy Kane was credited with (a MiG-17) and my roommate should have gotten one as well.  Listening to the audio tapes of the engagement, one can hear him calling out in glee “I got...” but he never finished the transmission. As luck would have it, he fired his missile inside minimum range.  It turns out that he had never shot an air-to-air missile!  Never.  Wow!

Me:  Whoa.  Inside minimum range?!  That's less than 1,500 feet!

Steve:  It's close!

Me:  But never shot an air-to-air missile at all?!  Was the Navy trying to be cheap?!

Steve: It doesn't make sense, does it...

Me:  The AIM-9 cost about $3,500, by the way...

Steve:  The North Vietnamese probably paid more for each MiG-17.

(Note:  if you're wondering why the (unnamed) pilot didn't use his F-8's cannon, if I ever get a chance to ask him, I will.  Secondly, this particular dogfight occurred on July 29th, 1968.  According to North Vietnamese records, the pilot flying the MiG-17 that Guy Kane hit was Le Sy Diep; Diep ejected but did not survive.)

MiG-17 as flown by Le Hai - a North Vietnamese fighter pilot who flew on July 29, 1968.  I have no idea whether he flew  #2055 that day but it's possible.  Le Hai became a General in the Vietnamese Air Force.  I got to meet him and we talked about the importance of generations studying History.  He said, "If all of your heroes die, you have no more heroes."
I think about that quote often and am still sorting it out...

Me:  What did you know of the North Vietnamese pilots?

Steve: Only what other pilots told me.  I surmised that some guys were really good, and others were really awful: it seemed that many of the Vietnamese would not get their nose high enough when in an attack situation, dropping their nose allowing the other pilot to gain the advantage.  Well, the poorly trained ones anyway.

But, I thought the really good pilots were not North Vietnamese!  I thought the real battles were fought by the better-trained Soviet and Chinese pilots.  There were a few good Vietnamese pilots that always made flying interesting.  To be perfectly honest with you, I really did not care who I came up against, all I ever wanted was to just see an enemy airplane…the rest would just fall into place and my training would take over!

I took this photo while having lunch with "the enemy."  Their food is fan-freaking-tastic and they picked up the tab.
I still don't understand the Vietnam War but I can tell you this, we can do a whole lot better teaching it in the classroom.
And the biggest advocates for this are American High School teachers!   Let's see what happens...

Steve:  But, you should know that we demonized the enemy.  We called them "Gooks" or “Slopes”…so I dropped my ordnance on them and hoped to get to meet them in the air without any qualms at all because they were less-than-human and I was much better than them.*** 

Me:  How do you feel about that now?

Steve:  It’s war.  You have to do that kind of thing.  Combat isn’t a place for worrying about hurt feelings.  

Me:  Did you ever get to Hanoi?

Steve:  Yes!  But nothing specific.  It’s not a moment that I remember like a vacation or anything like that! (laughs).

Me:  Ok.  Then can you remember what it was like to leave the ocean and be over enemy soil?

Steve:  Mostly I think that I was thinking, “I am in the same cockpit that I have trained in and, therefore, have a job to do.” I really had very few thoughts about crossing the beach.  I do remember that I was way more afraid of getting captured and spending a lot of time in the Hanoi Hilton (the slang name for the North Vietnamese prison system) than I was afraid of dying!

Me:  Do you think combat changed you?

Steve:  Looking back to those days have made me a better person.  However, I think it was a gradual change that didn’t take place immediately.  So the answer to your question is "not so much" initially.  I hate to admit this, but I am much more of a liberal, in that regard than I was initially.  I still HATE Jane Fonda.  However, I have read enough books about the war to think we got it horribly wrong!

Note to Jane: for all the media clout your celebrity-status afforded, weren't any of your handlers versed in History?!
I suspect you were young-stupid (and all that) but really, I'd like to know more.  Email me.

(insert sound of crickets chirping)

Me:  Ok.  So tell me about your Squadron.  

Steve:  Like what?

Me:  Hmmm.  Tell me about the leadership.  The training…

Steve:  Basically, I do not think they—the ubiquitous “they” (laughs)—did enough training.  I do not recall a directed effort on their part to give us Junior Officers (JOs) on-the-job training in what it took to be a Naval Officer.  In their defense, we were flying combat missions every day, so any talk like that fell on deaf ears.  Also, I went to the initial Fighter Weapons school between my two cruises.  I was, therefore, supposedly, the expert on flying and fighting in the Crusader.
Me:  So did you do a better job of leading the other JOs then?

Steve:  I allowed my young temper to get in the way.

Me:  What do you mean?

Steve:  Well, I butted heads with (the leader).  He interrupted me and rank is rank. 

Me:  So what did you do?

Steve:  I gave up trying.  I also felt that (key career officers) signed for life and were way too afraid of "rocking the boat”.

Me:  What do you mean?

Steve:  You know what I mean…looking out for your job rather than looking out for the greater mission.  

From the movie, "Anchorman."
I know some news anchor people in real life and some of them are way funnier than Will Ferrell
but I don't know if they're doing it on purpose.

(Note:  this kind of stuff happens all the time—on Navy carriers, corporate boardrooms, school districts…when I first started interviewing these old guys, I took special note in who was a capable or incapable leader.  Now, I recognize that solid leaders are rare, everywhere; it’s not my calling to name names as ‘that was xx years ago’ and people change.)

Me:  Why’d you want to get into the military anyway?

Steve:  Ahh man...(laughs).  I just flat did not feel comfortable going to college.   My dad asked me what I was going to take in school, I said, "Anthropology?!" My dad said, "What?!"  I did not succeed in school very well so my dad suggested I join the military.

Me:  So why'd you pick Aviation?

Steve: Aviation picked me!  I have to tell you, when I was in boot camp, everybody took a series of tests.  The military wanted to know what they had to deal with.  I did well enough in the testing that they—the ubiquitous 'they'—said that I was a candidate for NAVCAD (Naval Aviation Cadet program).  It was designed for guys with two years of college.

Me:  I thought you didn't go to college...

Steve: (Laughs).  True!  But they would accept guys already in the Navy who could do a college-level GED test.  As a result, I went through the 'gauntlet' of interviews, yada-yada and...here I am.  I found something I totally loved.  Flying, being a pilot and I made career out of it!

(Note:  Steve ended a long run with USAir flying the 757 and 767.)

Me:  So why did you pursue the Crusader (once you were in Naval aviation)?

Steve:  I was the "village idiot”!  (Laughs).  I selected West Coast Crusader as my first choice and that is what I got.  I will never forget being a Naval Aviation Cadet in Beeville, (Texas) when a "Salty Ol' Dog" flew into the break in an F-8.  He must have opened the oil cooler door because the aircraft sounded great; the airplane flew into the break at a nice clip, rotated nicely as he must have applied at least 9 G's in the break.  He looked really good and added power in the flair.  I loved it!

Looking back I wonder what he was thinking (while doing that maneuver).  By the way,  he sported a wonderful pair of Wellington boots and that is something I did from that day forward!

These are Wellington boots c.1960s.  These may look really cool in a cockpit but, growing up in the Dakotas, I suspect the wearer would get sick of being asked, "Why'd you cut off the top of your boots?"

btw - Steve says aviators never wear black boots.
Only brown boots.  Oh-kay...so, I'm fashionably challenged.

Me:  Sounds like a recruiter’s moment...

Steve:  Well, I’d already signed on the line way before but yeah, my choice was affirmed.

Me:  What do you mean by “...open the oil cooler door.”?

Steve:  The Duct Bypass door. We referred to this as the oil cooler door.  It was normally in an automatic position and would open at relatively high speed.  Actually, above Mach 1.5.   But, if the pilot felt like it and manually opened it, the plane would make a nice "shrieking" sound.

Me:  And you could hear that?

Steve:  Not in the cockpit.  We just knew people on the ground could.

Me:  Cool!

Steve:  Maybe…(laughs). 

Me:  Ok.  Let’s say we could back in time and you could meet your 1968 self.   What would you say?

Steve:   First off, I would say my collateral duty as a Line Officer was totally missed—I am sorry I missed that wonderful opportunity to connect with some of the younger enlisted men.  I wonder what I, our squadron leadership, could have done to make that more part of our life.  Then, also, I would tell my younger self to relax and "smell the roses".  I was WAY too hard on myself and others!  

Me:  Why did you want me to draw 150323?

Steve:  I flew it on my final F-8E mission from Naval Air Station Barbers Point in Hawaii to Naval Air Station Miramar, CA. 

Steve's logbook from September, 1968.  Notice the last date, September 21 and the BuNo 150323.
Now you know why "this" F-8 was so important to Steve.

Oh.  The green writing indicates "combat."  The black means "non-combat."
150323 survived the war and ended up as a target drone.
Me:  A memory then.

Steve:  A very great memory for me.

Me:  In the end, memories are all we have.

Steve:  (Takes breath)  Yeah.  Memories…are all we have.   And leave behind.

Steve Russ (right) and his dad Ken.
If you notice Steve's shirt, it shows an "Honor Flight" logo — Steve has volunteered for this most-excellent program
for many years and considers it one of his greatest, most satisfying activities.

Memories, indeed.

What a great photo, don't you think?
Thanks, Michael.  


POST NOTE:  So, what do you think of the F-8 photography?  That’d be the work of Michael Mihalevich.  He was an official Navy photographer who just happened to be on-board during Steve’s 67-68 Cruise.  Michael has been invaluable in providing particular insight into carrier ops of the day and remains yet another proof that talking to people who were ‘there’ is eminently better than ‘googling’ or watching documentaries on the web.  

Michael flew off the Bon Homme Richard in every aircraft that had more than one seat.  Today, Michael remains a professional photographer, staying current in a world that can be argued has changed more than aviation has.  I am grateful for his help in understanding carrier ops, the times and the technology. 

Michael Mihalevich today and then.  Notice the same habit of taking selfies?
Take THAT you Millennials! Dude was doing it back then...and now, he does it from his airplane!

*Pronounced "Bon Om Rish-ard" - a nickname the French gave to Benjamin Franklin.  It means "Good Man Richard".  What does "Richard" have to do with Benjamin Franklin?  It refers to Benjamin Franklin's popular published almanac, "Poor Richard's Almanac."  Now you know.  Go in peace.  No.  Wait.  There are THREE "Bon Homme Richard"s within the US Navy lore.  Two are spelled "Bon Homme Richard" and one is spelled "Bonhomme Richard."   Ok.  NOW you can go in peace.

**Steve later became a Commander in the Navy Reserves.

***Now now, PC crowd, restrain your fury—Steve is merely reflecting on the times.  Please remember the purpose of war has not changed one iota since the beginning of time—break things and kill people.  If that bothers you—and it should, btw—I suggest you google: “History of (human)kind and be prepared to learn exactly why Jesus said, “Father forgive them, they know not what they do.” 

Just got back from a press-check.  These are the proofs of Steve's prints.
The Xerox 800 is totally Sierra Hotel.