One of my first training command CO’s had last flown the RF-8P before taking command of the training squadron. The RF-8P was a photo-reconnaissance version of the venerable Crusader jet – last of the gunfighters. The F-8 cohort were hard men, and they threw themselves into the art and science of air combat knowing their lives depended upon it. They played hard ball in the air, even in training: Mishap rates for the single engine gunfighter were atrocious compared to the newer F-4 Phantoms just coming on line during the Vietnam war.
The Navy had placed a huge investment in advanced combat systems in the F-4 Phantom to increasingly take the aircrew out of the loop, meaning that dangerous air combat training could reduced or eliminated – smart missiles would make up for dumb pilots. The Navy tried to tie the hands of the Crusader crews during training as well, but that proved a much harder policy to enforce in the single seat fighter community. Their Spartan devotion to the art of air combat paid off: The F-8 had the highest kill ratio of any US aircraft in Vietnam.
The Navy Fighter Weapons School – TOPGUN – was instituted as much as anything else because we’d come to rely on the technology of the box more than the capability of the man flying it. It was a successful expenditure of resources: Navy kill ratios after the Weapons School’s debut went from 2.3:1 to 13:1. […]