The dawn’s light is just beginning to angle through the mist to strike the cloud-colored F-14 fighter jet parked in a row in front of hangar three. The flight line at Miramar consists of 7 of the 14 jests belonging to the “Screaming Eagles” of VF-51, the oldest fighter squadron of continuous service in the Pacific. The jets loom in the half-light, with their canted, cloak like wings and their dual tail fins and their Cyclops canopies, dormant mechanical insects that have somehow molted out the Curtiss biplanes the squadron started with in 1927. A lone figure, the man on line watch who has been walking in circles around the planes since midnight moves slowly past the $35 million flying machines. All is quiet now, at 6:45 on a Tuesday morning. But not for long.
Inside the hangar, the 13 sailors on the day shift of VF-51’s line division are changing into their coveralls for another day of dirty work. The line division supervisor, Tony Gibbs, is checking on the posted plan of the day for the scheduled launch times of his airplanes. Gibbs, a 29-year-old first class petty officer, has charge of the biggest shop in the 250-man squadron: 26 sailors, most of them airmen, E-3s not long out of boot camp, about the lowest rank there is in the fleet. It’s also the youngest shop. Most of his charges are between 19 and 22. This where the plane captains work, the boys who have the most contact, on a daily basis, with the airplanes. It’s where the action and the danger is, especially on board ship, where their desk is the flight deck and their job is more perilous than a fighter pilot’s. “For young guys, the line is the place to be,” says Gibbs as his plane captains’ josh and grab ass and skylark. Here it is, 0-dark-30 in the morning, and the plane captains are behaving as if they’ve been up for hours.
A scowling chief petty officer pokes his puffy face around the corner and barks, “Why do I have to keep telling you guys to hold the /#@ noise down?” The line sailors look at each other, roll their eyes, and start whispering. Soon the grousing begins about the ‘/#@ old men” over there in the rest of the squadron. This division could not be called underconfident. “The whole squadron revolves around the line,” says one of Gibbs’s assistant supervisors. “If you’ve got a good line, you’ve got a good squadron.”
Gibbs has excused plane captain Billy Nawn from the morning’s “FOD walkdown” because his plane is due for an early launch. Every morning, about 40 members of every squadron at Miramar perform a ritual as old as the jet age. They start at the back of their hangar, facing the wall, and pick up every pebble, every scrap of string, wire, metal, cloth, plastic, anything lying between the wall of the hangar and the far end of the flight line, about 100 yards away from the tarmac. FOD (foreign object damage) is anything that can be sucked into a jet intake. Even the tiniest metal shavings are picked up by magnetic brooms pushed around the flight line by the airmen. The plan of the day says VF-51 has enjoyed 277 “FOD free days.” In other words, it’s been nine months since that wrench was sucked into one of their jet’s engines.
As the sailors on FOD walkdown inch out of the cavernous hangar, past F-14s in various stages of disassembly, and up one side of the planes and down the other, 20-year-old Billy Nawn ambles out to his sleeping bird. Nawn, who joined the Navy a week after graduating from high school in June of 1987, now owns F-14 Number 101, the plane he says is the best of the bunch. His friends back home in Mantua, New Jersey, can’t believe this is the same Billy they knew. “Before I joined up, I was one /#@ individual,” he says.
Plane captains get their names painted on their planes, just like the pilots and radar intercept officers (RIOs). The officers names are painted on the canopy frame, the plane captains’ on a panel that closes around the nose wheel. Nawn’s name and home town aren’t on 101 yet, he just claimed it as his plane about a month ago. It still carries the name and home town of Airman Jeff Lightner, Bethesda, Maryland, who happens to be the man on line watch now. As Nawn begins his preflight inspection, crouching under the nose of the jet and then standing up inside the nose wheel well to check the pressure on the brakes, the canopy, and the bottle of nitrogen used for blowing down the landing gear. Lightner walks up to watch.
“This has always been a good bird,” he says. “It was always ‘up.’” Lightner has been transferred out of the line division to another shop within the squadron. He watches longingly as Nawn moves with deliberate dispatch through the preflight inspection. “I miss some parts of being a PC, like launching the bird, especially on cruises, but I don’t miss washing it.” On shore, the planes are washed every 14 days; at sea, every 7 days. “But I wiped it down every day, before every launch, it had my name on it, it’s representing me.” Some plane captains go so far as to touch up the white-lettering in the “Goodyear” branded on the tires. They’ve been known to become especially proprietary about their jets when midshipmen from Annapolis puke all over the back seat during the cadets’ introduction to naval aviation. Most plane captains insist that the midshipmen clean up their own messes.
Nawn pulls the cockpit ladder out of a hidden panel, revealing the cartridge chain (unloaded) that carries the 675 rounds of 20mm bullets to the canon imbedded on the left side of the plane’s nose. The FOD walkdown has started back toward the hangar, behind the flight line, as Nawn is crawling into the portside air intake. In Navy lingo, he’s “duct-diving,” inspecting the inside of the engine gullets, a job for which he had to pass a written exam to qualify. Sailors boast that Air Force ground crewmen get hazardous pay for such a task, while they, the ballsy Navy men, do it for free.
Related: The F-14: A Bad Bird?