Tales From A Top Gun Pioneer

BY VERNON ROBISON

The Progress

Captain Kevin M. Smith (Ret., US Navy) is shown here standing beside an F-11 Tiger, the first supersonic production jet and the actual airplane he flew in 1965. The plane is featured in several chapters of his new book “The Sonic Warrior.”

Mesquite resident Kevin M. Smith has been a regular traveler on the proverbial ‘highway to the danger zone’ throughout a long and distinguished career in the US Navy. He has recently written all about his remarkable experiences in a new book called The Sonic Warrior: Chronicles of a Top Gun Pioneer.

In his book Smith writes about his time as a pioneer in the field of supersonic close-in aerial combat. The book offers a riveting inside look at the fighter-pilot community from the 1960’s through the 1980’s. It also highlights Smith’s remarkable career including his role in the launch of the aircraft carrier version of “Top Gun;” his experience flying supersonic-capable airplanes and his perspective on executing combat maneuvers at sonic speeds.

As a young Navy pilot during the mid-1960’s, Smith was among the vanguard of aviators who learned to operate the first-ever production supersonic military aircraft in combat situations. He initially began flying in the F-11 Tiger. Then later he flew the F-8 Crusader.

New book by Mesquite resident Kevin M. Smith.

In an interview with The Progress last week, Smith said that this was a crucial period of military history that, he feels, has been a bit neglected.
“It is hard to overstate just what was accomplished by human beings in that period of time,” Smith said. “I think that it is a good thing to consider what humans were faced with in flying those airplanes.”

“No one had ever operated in combat with the velocities that those machines were capable of,” Smith added. “We had to develop a whole new set of tactics and strategies to engage successfully in aerial combat. It hadn’t been done before by humans and there were a lot of people who said it couldn’t be done.”

To illustrate what a paradigm shift the supersonic element brought to aerial warfare, Smith used an analogy.
“It was a whole new ballgame!” he said. “You know, most of us know the game of football; how it looks and how it is played. But if you are throwing the football, and suddenly it goes supersonic, you have a whole new ballgame. It won’t look the same ever again. That was what we were about. It was a whole new arena of warfare.”

Smith talked about just one of the mind-bending challenges that had to be faced by he and his colleagues at that time. He explained that the F-8 Crusader was equipped with, not only missiles, but it also had four 20mm cannons firing ballistic projectiles.

“At a certain mission profile we could fire those guns and outrun the bullets from our own cannons,” Smith said. “So we had to pay attention because we could shoot ourselves down under the right conditions.”

Another challenge that Smith and his fellow pilots faced was the question of how to operate these powerful supersonic aircraft from an aircraft carrier in the middle of the ocean.

“How do you actually take these very high-speed airplanes and get them flying slow enough to land them on a carrier?” Smith said. “I was involved in figuring that out. It is hard to do. But we were able to do it because we decided we were going to do what some people considered would be impossible. Naval aviation was able to stay at the tip of the spear because we were able to work that problem out.”

Later on, in the 1970s, Smith was involved with developing the training and with teaching younger pilots on these procedures in the field. He worked with training pilots of the newer F-14 fighter aircraft.
“I was the commander of the first deployed Top Gun unit,” Smith said. “I was able to take the Top Gun training model and apply it to a deployed operation. We provided the F-14 community with mission-realistic, close in-air combat training for the duration of their deployment aboard the USS Constellation. That had never been done before.”

Smith emphasized that his new book is not meant to be about the airplanes and the equipment. Rather it is about the capabilities of people.
“The point of my book is not about the machine so much as it is about the human in the cockpit,” Smith said. “Sonic Warrior is really all about the power of the human spirit and the ability to do all of this that has never been done.”

Smith said that, even in those early years, there was a conflict between those in the military who were pushing pure technology over the human element.
“There was a serious flaw in our thinking in those years,” Smith said. “It was that the high technology was going to eliminate the need for close-in aerial combat, so that the humans were needed less in the equation. That turned out to be wrong.”

Smith was one of many in the fighter-pilot grassroots that resisted this idea and turned it around. He and his comrades felt this way because they realized that, in the early days of Vietnam, the systems that had been put in place for combat missions was completely broken.

“We were putting all of our eggs in the technology basket and we were forgetting about the human side of the equation,” Smith said. “The US Navy was sending F-4 Phantom crews into Vietnam who were not prepared for war.”

So, despite the prevailing top-down idea that they would not need to engage in close in-aerial combat, the pilots pushed back. They called for more training in that kind of scenario. From that effort came the now famous elite Top Gun school, as it is called.

“Top Gun was an initiative that grew out of a pressing need that arose because we were forgetting about the human side of the equation,” Smith said. “It turns out that the force multiplier was not technology at all. It was the trained warrior in the cockpit.”

Smith said that the man vs. machine conflict is still raging even in the modern military; with emphasis on unmanned aircraft and other technologies threatening to take humans out of the equation.
“We are never going to replace the human without losing the advantage,” Smith said. “The human cognitive system is the most amazing thing that exists on the planet. It can’t be replicated by a machine.”
Smith said that the key advantage of a human operator is his/her ability to predict a future situation from a set of current events.

“A human brain can actually do that quite well,” he said. “But other technical data systems are incapable of that. It is not an engineering problem it is a theoretical problem. There is no theory to support the notion that a machine can think like a human.”

The Sonic Warrior came out just before the highly anticipated release of Top Gun: Maverick, the sequel to the 1986 iconic box-office hit.

Smith spoke very highly of both of the Top Gun films. He said that the film’s portrayal of the Navy fighter pilot culture – its struggles, triumphs and even its vocabulary – is “right on the money.” In addition, the central message of the films is right on target, he said.

“The Top Gun movies are basically saying to the powers that be in the military industrial complex that, ‘You’ve got it all wrong!'” Smith said. “They had it wrong in the very beginning, they still have it wrong and they haven’t learned. That is what the movies are saying, and I loved it!”

The Sonic Warrior is available in hardcover, paperback and audiobook read by the author. It can be purchased at amazon.com or directly from the publisher at redemption-press.com/product/the-sonic-warrior/,

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