ANOTHER TOMCAT TALE
A special submission from Commander Jerry “KarateJoe” Watson USN (Ret), F-14 Association Member
First a little background. Anyone who has ever taken a look at the RIO’s cockpit in the Tomcat has to have been impressed with the rows and rows of circuit breakers - eight breaker panels totaling 371 circuit breakers to be exact - spread around the cockpit. (To compare - 12 in the pilot’s cockpit.) It was routine to man-up and discover several circuit breakers left pulled by Maintenance as a result of prior troubleshooting or maintenance actions. Number one item on the RIO’s prestart checklist was to ensure all 371 C/B’s had been reset.
During any system malfunction, front seat or back, the RIO’s first action was to take a quick look at the Breaker Panels to ensure no popped C/B’s were visible. It was also very irritating that, whenever there was a system malfunction, the pilot’s usual contribution to the troubleshooting procedure was to say, “Check your circuit breakers” which you had done three steps ago.
Now, on to my tale. It was 1977 and I was a VF-114 Fighting Aardvark. We had recently transitioned to the F-14A Tomcat and were currently embarked in the USS Kitty Hawk (CVA-63) on our way to WestPac. As normal routine, if there were not frequent flight operations during a TransPac, the Fighters were turned up periodically on the flight deck and all systems checked out to ensure an all up jet. On this particular day I was in the ready room as the on-deck RIO awaiting an aircraft. My pilot (Chauffer) was our Executive Officer (XO), Commander Dave Frost (Fighter Pilot extraordinaire and later Vice Admiral). Finally, the Maintenance Chief announced our aircraft was ready for man-up and I jokingly said, “Hey, XO which seat ya want today, front or back?” He looked thoughtful for a few seconds, then said, “You know, I’ve never been in the back seat before. I’ll take that.”
Oh, crap! I’ve let my alligator mouth do it again! I began furiously going over in my mind the pilot’s engine start and systems checkout procedures. Like any good RIO, I’d spent a lot of time in the front seat of the Tomcat simulator back at NAS Miramar, developing an understanding of what the pilot was experiencing during routine flight and during emergencies. But that was months ago.
We walked to the flight deck, performed our normal walk around prefight checks, then mounted the jet. XO got in the rear seat, I got in the front. And the looks on the Flight Deck Crew were priceless! I could see the Maintenance Chief, after picking his jaw up off the deck, talking to the Plane Captain, and I suspect telling him that under NO circumstances was he to break down the deck chains for taxiing.
First a few words on the Tomcat kabuki dance known as “Engine Start Procedures”:
Left Engine-Crank, Check Combined Hydraulic system pressure. Charge the Emergency Flight Hydraulics Module Reservoir.
Right Engine- Crank. Check Flight hydraulic system pressure.
Right Engine- OFF
Emergency Flight Hydraulics- Cycle Low, High, Auto. Check Flight Controls and Rudder for proper control input response , check proper lights.
Right Engine- Start
Left Engine – Start
And you’re off to the rodeo.
Back to the tale.
Now, it was the moment of truth. Everything set in the cockpit. The plane captain with a look of wonderment still visible behind his goggles, gives me the signal to crank the left engine then, OFF
Crank the Right, then OFF.
Emergency Flight Hydraulics – Cycle. NOTHING! No power! No flight control movements! No warning lights! Nada! Zippo! Flight Deck crew giving me the look (and hand gestures) of WT-O. What have I screwed up? The XO commences giving “suggestions” from the rear seat. “Check, this, check that. Have you got the positron switch in the neutral position? Yada, yada” My big moment and I’ve shamed the entire RIO Brotherhood. Then it dawned on me. My lips curled in a cruel smile. I felt a rush of joyous anticipation. I stabbed the intercom switch to the ON position and casually said those five words every RIO, at some time or another, has wanted to say to his pilot, “XO, Check Your Circuit Breakers!”
A slight pause in time.
And the rest, as they say, was a piece of cake.
Commander Jerry “KarateJoe” Watson USN (Ret)