The long-awaited sequel to 1986's Top Gun, Top Gun: Maverick, is set to premiere on May 27th, 2022. Its final release date has been the culmination of many delays due to COVID over a multi-year span. Many avid readers of The War Zone have been eagerly anticipating what the movie’s trailers preview — some awesome aerial fighter footage, albeit with a Hollywood spin. It’s been a long holdout, but one that will be hopefully worth it. Well, we’ve been holding on to something special for quite some time of our own — around 18 years. It is never seen before F-14 Tomcat demonstration cockpit footage from the jet's twilight and what better time to release it than now?
In fact, purists may even appreciate this footage more than the actual Top Gun: Maverick film because it is rare, raw, and uncut. This is a true look into (and outside) the Tomcat cockpit, with real aircrew and real communications. Something that is no longer available.
We will call this the tale of 'The Lost Tomcat Tapes.'
2004 was the last year of a full F-14 Tomcat airshow season. The Tomcat fighter wing let us have one final performance at NAS Oceana in 2005, but as far as taking the jet across the country to different locations, 2004 was it. We knew that capturing some of our flights on video from the cockpit would be a great idea.
Rocco Tangredi, F-14 Tomcat Demo pilot extraordinaire, procured what we called a “lipstick” or pencil camera and hooked up a video kit for in-cockpit taping. We shot several videos at different locations, some forward-looking, some aft looking and one even with a low cockpit view looking back up at the pilot.
These cockpit demo tapes were video gold. Something you should guard and “hermetically” seal to protect forever. Recall this was 2004, prior to the invention of the GoPro and video going directly to a hard drive. Instead, these were actual videotapes, mini JVC videotapes to be exact, that required the user to painstakingly transfer them from video back to a personal computer.
At the end of the season, Rocco took all of the tapes and loaned them to one of the other Tomcat Demo Team members so they could also make copies. The team member kept them for several months and then transitioned to another duty station. In the interim, Rocco tried to get the tapes back, but was told that the demo tapes had been thrown away by the team member's now ex-girlfriend.
Complete and utter disbelief! Who would throw away those tapes?!
Needless to say, it was really tough to hear the tapes had been lost forever. But hold that thought for a while as we discuss some of the recollections of that final year.
Some of our stops that final airshow season included Thunder Over Louisville, Ft. Lauderdale, Naval Air Station Atlanta Air Show, Chicago Air and Water Show, London Ontario Air Show, Muskegon Michigan Air Fair, NAS New Orleans, NAS Key West, NAS Jacksonville airshows and even an Air Force stop at Nellis Air Force Base in Las Vegas, Nevada.
One of the best F-14 airshow quotes of all time comes from that show and is found in the Tomcat book “Bye Bye Baby” compiled by Dave “Hey Joe” Parsons, George Hall, and Bob Lawson. In the book, Brian “Punchy” Shul, an SR-71 Blackbird pilot is quoted as saying:
“I was at the big Nellis air show and everybody was buzzing about the first public demo of the F-22. Lots of generals, in the bleachers, the whole deal. The F-22 demo was just plain lame. Hard deck of 1000 feet AGL (above ground level), weak turns, no high-speed passes. Like they’re afraid to break the thing, which they were. Who’s up next on the schedule? Why, the Tomcat of course. These guys just beat the place up. Flog this Air Force base mercilessly. The crowd goes bananas, and I’m yelling along with them. Tell me who those two lunatics were, and I’ll buy them a cocktail.”
I’m still waiting on my cocktail, but Vegas was a great time and a great show because of all those things that come with a trip to Vegas: flying over desert mountains, lots of lights, entertainment with the casinos, of course, cocktails, and large crowds. However, being able to perform after the F-22 and “flog that base mercilessly” made it even more special.
The Chicago Air and Water show was probably my favorite for several reasons. The jets were parked at Gary/Chicago International Airport (GYY), because it was easier to stage there than at the more well-known and extremely crowded Chicago O’Hare. However, that made your approach to the city even more memorable. On takeoff, you immediately see the skyline of Chicago to the North and West, a batch of tall skyscrapers that seem to reach up as high as the jet. Right next to the city is the flat and vast space of Lake Michigan to the North. If you have never looked out the window on an approach to Chicago, you should next time. It is amazing how big Lake Michigan truly expands across the landscape. It’s a lot of freshwater for sure.
While the scenery is fantastic in Chicago, some of the basic air show things are even more memorable. Before an aircraft goes into the airshow “box”, which is the FAA validated airspace designated for all maneuvers, the controllers normally put you into a holding area. For most shows, this is just a point in space, but at Chicago you hold over Soldier Field, home of the Chicago Bears football team. Turning circles while looking down over one of the most iconic stadiums is pretty cool. Soldier Field is just south of Navy pier and the airshow takes place at the end of the pier, with show center located further up Lakeshore Dr. at the Lighthouse on the Hook. Show center is where performers position themselves to balance out their maneuvers and it is normally a very visible location. The Lighthouse is no exception to this rule, but the boats on Lake Michigan make it even easier to spot.
The other really fantastic feature about the Chicago Air and Water Show is how many people are actually watching the show. On Lake Michigan, the airshow performance box perimeter is perfectly lined with hundreds — if not maybe thousands — of boats. The Coast Guard does an amazing job of lining everyone up and keeping them at a safe distance, but what you see from the air is a perfect rectangular shape formed by everything from small dinghies to large upscale powerboats. Then you have to add everyone watching from the beach area along Lakeshore Dr. which certainly numbers in the tens of thousands. And there is no idea how many people are looking out from balconies, street corners, and every nook and cranny or watching the airshow on local television. A summer in Chicago can be one of the best things you have ever experienced and the Chicago Air and Water Show can be a huge part of that experience.
Another great airshow that may not have had quite the same crowd but certainly a great experience was the Rhode Island National Guard (RING) Air Show at Quonset State Airport (KOQU). On Friday nights before the full airshow weekend begins, many of the airshows host a performers' party. This is an opportunity to thank the performers for coming in, provide a safety brief, and give the performers something to eat. Well, as luck would have it the RING Air Show goes all out and has a lobster feast. It is a completely different feeling to walk through the buffet line and have a lobster plopped down on your plate rather than a hot dog or hamburger.
Sometimes it was great to go to a smaller 'out of the way' airshow. Since the Tomcat was a huge attraction, many of the smaller air shows wanted to land an F-14 to make their show weekend. Recall, this was the last year of the Tomcat and many smaller shows knew that it was their last chance. London, Ontario was one show I remember that was a smaller show that we really enjoyed. The main performers were not the Blue Angles or Air Force Thunderbirds but rather the host country's Canadian Snow Birds along with the F-14 Tomcat. We were the stars of the show and evidently made a great impression. Sunday’s edition of the London Free Press showed a huge front-page photo of the Tomcat in full afterburner pulling away from the crowd.
I also have to give acknowledgment to our F-14 Demo maintainers. Those guys spent many nights on the weekend working hard to maintain what was a difficult jet to keep flying in its later years. Many times after we would bend the jet around, they would spend a Saturday evening working to have the jet ready to go for a Sunday show. Recall they were a small group of three to four individuals with limited tools and in sometimes random airfields far away from home. AM1 Tangredi (no relation to Rocco) was our lead mechanic and did a fantastic job leading that team. I feel those maintainers enjoyed watching the show more than pretty much anyone else in the crowd.
One of the fun things the aircrew were able to do during the performance was talking to the crowd if the airshow had speakers set up, which they normally did. At the end of the double Immelmann, there was an opportunity to catch your breath along with repositioning to set up for the high-speed pass. This was when we would 'talk to the crowd,' which normally meant the airshow boss would pipe your transmission over to the loudspeakers for everyone to hear. Normally guys would say hello to the crowd and, if they knew anyone, give a shout out to those people. I said hello to my girlfriend at the time and her friend during the performance in Chicago. Worked out well for me, as she thought it was so awesome that she decided to marry me a few years later. I also got free drinks in Wrigleyville that night. True story.
So how did those tapes resurface you ask? Well, the other team member’s ex-girlfriend didn’t actually throw them away, she just said she did. In fact, she actually started dating another Tomcat pilot a few years later and that’s how we found out they actually weren’t lost. Thankfully, that Tomcat pilot, who is a great friend to all of us (and I mean collectively ALL of us who love the Tomcat) rescued those tapes and brought them back to the F-14 Demo Team.
The viewer will have to remember that this was filmed in 2004, well before High Definition became the standard. Additionally, we have left the video mostly untouched. No added sound, only inter cockpit communications (ICS) between the Pilot and RIO (Radar Intercept Officer) along with the occasional over-frequency communication with the Air Boss. This footage is about as pure as one can expect and if the viewer remains vigilant, a few ICS nuggets between the pilot and RIO can be heard.
Enjoy. You’ve waited long enough for something like this.
Joe "Smokin" Ruzicka was a Radar Intercept Officer in the F-14 Tomcat and Weapon Systems Officer in the F/A-18 Hornet with over 2,000 flight hours in fast jets. Joe was also a part of the final F-14 demonstration aircrew, as well as being a Legislative Fellow to John McCain and worked in Washington DC on critical US Navy programs on behalf of the US Navy. His prior works are a must-read. You can find them here, here, and here. You can follow Joe on Twitter at @smokinjoe96.
Contact the editor: Tyler@thedrive.com