Review by Ed Potkai
The title, of course, refers to the
recent retirement of the F-14 Tomcat by the US Navy.
The dust jacket describes this book as “Images and
Reminiscences from 35 years of active service”. To look
at this large 14 x 11 book, you would think it’s just
another coffee table book of pictures. And it is true
that this book contains dozens of spectacular pictures
of Tomcats. But it is the text that elevates this book
far beyond most others.
This book is not a history or walk-around
of the Navy’s most famous jet. You’d better already
know the basics or you’re going to miss a lot of what’s
happening here. The narratives in this book are simply
clippings from free-flowing conversations with the men
and women who flew the “turkey”. It reads somewhat like
a play in that it’s all spoken word. It could well have
been recorded over a bar at a Tailhook convention.
You should also bring an ability to
translate military shorthand because these guys don’t
stop to explain it to you. The dialogue assumes that
you speak the language. “We’re on a Key West det, and
were tasked to fight 4V4 with F-15’s out of Tyndall.”
That’s an easy one. You won’t understand every
reference but you’ll usually get the jist.
There’s a lot of locker room humor in
this book with bravado often trying to mask the danger
of flying combat planes. “If it says Pratt & Whitney on
the engines it damn well better say Martin-Baker on the
seats” says “Hoser”.
“Nine Lives” is a chapter about aircraft
lost or nearly lost. Many of the accounts are
terrifying. “Spike” describes an ejection after a cold
cat launch then says “Crazy what we can laugh about
now. Not funny at the time, believe me.” Spike admits
he “missed the fireworks”. The fireworks are retold by
“Hawk” who was waiting to launch on the other cat. “The
[now unmanned plane] gets to about 2000 feet, flops over
on its back, and next thing it’s headed straight at us.
We’re strapped in and waiting to die. I’m being
converted on by a kamikaze Tomcat and I haven’t even
gone flying yet.” Yes, funny now. But never
funny are the references to colleagues who didn’t live
out their tours.
The flyers pay tribute to a plane they
loved (“Stubby“: “It was fast, it was mean, it was the
blown ’57 Chevy of tactical aviation”) while the book
quietly pays tribute to the flyers. The final irony:
while the Navy has retired the Tomcat, it continues
“flying in the hands of one of America’s bitterest
Often it’s not what the flyers are saying
that’s fascinating so much as what’s beneath it. The
stories are great but the attitudes are better. Fighter
pilots are different than you and me. And the guys who
slam down on carriers are the most different of all.
This book is a wonderful glimpse into their minds.