The Squirrel Cage

Fighter Pilots loved gunnery.  Practice, practice, practice and more practice was the name of the game during peacetime.   The only substitute for combat was the Squirrel Cage gunnery pattern.  Give a fighter pilot a Crusader in the gunnery pattern and he was in heaven.  From the perch to the reversal and down to shooting the banner, breaking off the run, bouncing across the jet wake of the tow plane and back up to the perch to be ready for the next turn at the rag.

Yes, a banner has to be towed across the sky for the trigger happy fighter pilots to shoot at and later scrutinize carefully for an accurate count of the hits with their color for that flight.  A seasoned fighter jock is necessary for the job of banner towing.  He must know the pattern and have flown it enough himself to recognize the mistakes of those in the squirrel cage.  Several tow planes have been shot down by shooters making dangerous mistakes in their eagerness to score hits on the banner.  The tow pilot's main concern after safety is to protect the banner from damage.  Flying too fast can destroy a banner or shred it to the point that colored hits are impossible to distinguish.  So the tow pilot must keep the speed at 200 knots or below throughout the flight but especially at the lower altitudes during climb out and descent.  As a shooter, I can remember the anger and disappointment after landing upon finding the banner shredded nearly half it's length due to careless towing.

The memory of the thrills that accompanied Banner takeoffs is still fresh like it was yesterday.  The Banner takeoff in an F-8 Crusader was pure rocketry.  Making the takeoff roll while dragging the banner down the rough runway doesn't sound like much fun but as soon as you yanked that beast off the runway a most ecstatic ride began.  The landing gear were raised immediately while the nose of the Crusader was pulled up to nearly the vertical position.  From that point on you were riding an absolute rocket!  The roaring, thundering, powerful thrust of the J-57 afterburner sent surging, jerking, stick-shaking vibrations throughout the airframe and into every nerve in your body.  The blast off was a continuous exhilarating and mind stimulating sensation akin to a carrier catapult launch.  And it lasted until level off at 20,000 feet.  I loved the rough, intense ferocity of that mighty Crusader rocket.  I shouted and screamed like it was a catapult launch.  "Yee Hah!  Go you bastard!  Go!"      

The very first tow plane banner takeoff taught a pilot to fly a rocket.  Imagine lying on your back, facing nearly straight up, climbing at 5000 feet per minute at 155 knots indicated with the wing up.  The fuselage longitudinal angle could be 20 to 30 degrees from vertical since the wing is closer to 90 degrees above the horizon line.  You are above the aircraft traffic pattern so the Control tower transmits, "Warlord Tractor turn right to 150 for the Warning Area."  Don't try to turn by moving the control stick to the right like you would in normal operations.  That would move the nose of your aircraft left instead of right.  Move the stick to the left to move the nose to the right.  To rotate around the vertical, the stick must be moved in the opposite direction from where you wish the nose (heading indicator) to turn.  A few banner tows and a pilot finally gets the nose to go where it should without booting the rudders and making 360 degree rotations while thundering upward.

The dangerous part of being the tow plane was the chance of being shot by the shooters.  Tow pilots did not read Playboy or the Wall Street Journal during the tedious job of dragging the banner back and forth across the firing range.  They tried to keep the pilots out of trouble by adjusting their patterns and insuring constant pattern safety.  Many times I have watched pilots turn too sharply off the perch, lose too much altitude before the reversal, start guns winking 4000 feet out and then end up sucked, low, nose high, 90 degrees of bank, high G's, disappearing in my mirror with their guns still flashing.  This after being told to break it off when the plane dropped below the horizon line.  The shooters had so much fun pulling high G's and pumping beans at the banner that they became oblivious to radio transmissions.

                                                 NAS Roosevelt Roads, Puerto Rico

One memory of Rosy Roads was going out for a Post Maintenance Test Hop and stopping on the active for the last pre takeoff check list item.  In performing the Manual Fuel Control check the test pilot was required to switch to Manual, Shove the power to the maximum stop position while punching the elapsed time clock on the instrument panel.  That time I pushed the go handle forward too rapidly and the J-57 engine complained by chugging rapidly and banging loudly.  I had to retract the throttle to idle, reset the clock, add the throttle smoothly back to full power position, and again punch the clock.  That time it worked properly and I switched back to Normal fuel control and launched on my test hop.  Upon returning, I found the Air Station CO was waiting for me in his office to explain why I had fired my 20MM cannon while on the runway.  Someone had heard the rapidly chugging engine and reported that I fired my cannons before taking off.  Colonel Nichols had to visit with the Air Station Roosevelt Roads Commander to explain the machine gun noises from my Crusader.

The test of a Squadron's fighter pilots abilities at air to air gunnery was a competitive exercise (ComPex) once a year.  In 1963 VMF(AW)-451 Practiced gunnery at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba and then transferred over to Roosevelt Roads for additional practice and the ComPex.  My practice scores were the highest in the squadron at about 35 percent.  On three hops I had shot the banner off of the tow line.  On ComPex day I was surprised to see my name as section leader on the Skipper's flight.  In practice I usually led a division of members of my flight.  While I was strapping the Crusader on, the Ordnance Officer, "Turk" Smart, climbed up the side of my cockpit.  I said, "What's up Turk?" 

Turk said, "I am not supposed to tell you this but the skipper told me to put two cans of red paint tipped 20MM rounds in with two cans of blue colored rounds for your guns.  You better fill the bag with beans today.  You only have 70 rounds of your color to qualify."  I was not happy.  But what options did I have?  The old 'slim and none' chances of doing anything about it came to mind.  Seems that a pilot got 35 rounds per gun for a total of 140 rounds for the ComPex.  We normally carried 110 rounds per gun for a total of 440 rounds of 20MM.   Well, I needed two perfect runs to qualify with only 70 rounds.  But, what the hell, nothing was too good for my Commanding Officer. 

The Skipper led us out to the Warning Area and set up the pattern.  We were not in a perfect perch position when he rolled in hot on the first run.  My first run was a bad one.  The second was a perfect pattern and as I closed on the banner, firing out the guns, I could see the banner bunching as it absorbed the 20MM hits.  We took the long way back to the Air Station.  I figured the Skipper wanted the banner there before we arrived.  We dumped fuel and entered the break for landing.

After parking and post flight of the birds, we went over to the ordnance area.  Upon arrival I saw Turk and Torch Chattin, each with a red painted dummy 20MM round probing the aft section of the banner looking for red holes.  After quickly counting the seven blue holes in the rag, it was apparent that I had not qualified.  Seems like eleven holes were needed to qualify.  The skipper probably got seven red holes from me and the counters found 10 more red holes which gave him the honor of high shooter for the squadron ComPex.  The rum goodies flowed that night but even the 151 proof Ron Rico Purple Label didn't help my morale.

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Donald Cathcart LtCol USMC Ret.