Book 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 enemies”.

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.




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