I’ve guessed that the movie Top Gun is loosely based on the seizure of the U.S.S. Pueblo by the North Koreans in 1968 and have written about that. I think that the dogfight is highly reminiscent, but obviously not based directly on, an incident that also happened in 1968 to an F-4 Phantom based on the ‘Hawk, the U.S.S. Kitty Hawk during one of my two cruises. Here’s how the story goes to my recollection.
The F-4 was over the North (N. Viet Nam) when the crew saw a surface-to-air missle (SAM) lift off, toward them. The typical maneuver was to dive right at the SAM and then jink one way or the other at the last moment. Obviously an important timing issue there! Then a dual-site lit up (two SAMs fired simultaneously) and more radical maneuvering, then another and another. I don’t now recall how many total SAMs were fired at this F-4 but it was a half-dozen or better, some in pairs, and the manuevering as was later described to me was radical, to say the least.
At some point they were jumped by Migs and while evading them (and in the process downing 3 of them) the F-4 was the target for more SAMs. At some point the dogfight and SAM-dodging took them down to the deck and they were at a very high rate of speed … “hauling ass” was the pilot’s description to me.
They wound up flying through a valley, almost on the deck, and successfully had evaded the last of the Migs. They took that action because they were out of missiles and canon ammo, and now were running low on fuel. It was time to head for the ship.
Suddenly the RIO screams at the pilot “don’t pull up, DIVE damn-it … we’re inverted.” They were inverted, flying through a valley at an extremely low altitude and the RIO realized that the pilot was disoriented and did not appreciate one very important reality: they were upside down and climbing for altitude would actually have put them into the ground, instantly.
Meanwhile, back on the ship, there was “joy in mudville” for the air battle had been followed over the radio broadcast and it was clear that a hero was on the way back. He called “feet wet” (meaning now over water) and would soon be in sight because we were only about 75 miles off the Vietnamese coast. And he was still “hauling ass.’
Then, just as did Maverick in Top Gun, the F-4 jockey requested a fly-by which was summarily denied. Not to be deterred, a supersonic fly-by did indeed occur to the delight and wild cheering of the flight deck crew and spectators gathered on the signal bridge. The Captain just grinned (he was just 6-8 feet from me … it was my watch) as he heard the air boss cuss the pilot.
The F-4 circled the ship and entered a left downwind (they’re ALL left downwinds for carrier patterns) for landing when he flamed out … out of fuel. There it was: $3.5 million worth of airplane (hey, it was 1968) and the heroic crew punching out less then 1/2 mile from the ship on a downwind approach to landing.
Splash one more ….