Enjoy a behind the scenes view of the U.S. Navy Adversary Squadron VFC-111 “Sun Downers” at NAS Key West.
Friend and long time fan of The Aviationist, U.S. based journalist and producer Jeff Bolton, flew with the VFC-111 “Sun Downers” and became one of the few civilians in the world to fly the legendary F-5F “Franken Tiger”. We sat down with him to get the behind the scenes details.
TA: Hi Jeff, you pulled another military flying rabbit out of the hat with the “Franken Tiger” flights! Give us a little background.
Jeff: David, great to link up with you again after the pandemic. I flew the B-2 before the world shut down and the F-16 once during the madness, so like you I was ready to get back in the air! The Franken Tiger flights were a byproduct of wanting to look into a specific part of the U.S. Navy’s training process and see if, and how, they still train young Naval aviators aviators to dogfight. It seems like something of a lost art in the era of highly advanced BVR air-to-air missiles, but yes, they are definitely teaching dogfighting at a very, very high level.
TA: You were embedded with the Sun Downers squadron for a week at their base in Key West, Florida to observe and fly with them. That’s very rare for a civilian to see and do – what was that like?
Jeff: I have to tell you first David – it’s just as cool as you and The Aviationist readers might imagine. Amazing flying weather with the beauty of the islands and the Gulf of Mexico. Flight suits and raging through the sky teaching students and fighting during the day – swim trunks, flip-flops and cocktails in the evening with beautiful dinners and postcard sunsets. As fighter pilot life goes, it’s pretty much perfect.
Second, one of the most unusual and remarkable discoveries I had was that almost all of the Sun Downer adversary pilots are both TOPGUN graduates and Navy reservists. It turns out that the Navy-wide red air adversary mission is performed exclusively by Naval reservists and that’s incredible. There are many years, flight hours, and gray hair among the wiley bandit pilots and they use their powers to full effect in the third-gen Tiger fighter. The squadron’s skipper, Commander when we flew, now promoted to Captain, Derek “Baffle” Ashlock, is the oldest fighter pilot in the Navy and he’s a remarkable pilot with an incredible story. He’s a big fan of dogfighting – or what he and the other instructor pilots call “a knife fight in a phone booth.”
TA: With the global sensation of TOP GUN: MAVERICK still very much alive talk about what it’s like to fly with TOPGUN pilots.
Jeff: Good question David, and one that’s important to understand. As any TOPGUN graduate will tell you, it’s not amazing flying skills that make a pilot TOPGUN material – jedi skills with the jet just get you in the door. The secret sauce to TOPGUN pilots is that they are amazing instructors, teachers, and mentors; couple jedi flying skills with incredible teaching abilities, add on extraordinary knowledge about the performance of both their jets and the adversaries jets and you get some of the finest fighter pilots on the planet. Sitting in their briefings and debriefings is extraordinary – the absolute high end of the fighter pilot art. It was humbling to be a witness to the process.
TA: Let’s talk about the F-5 as an adversary jet for a minute and you flying the F-5F “Franken Tiger”.
Jeff: The F-5 makes a lot of sense for the Sun Downer adversary mission set. It’s inexpensive, fairly easy to maintain for its age, super fast, and an absolute killer in the dogfighting arena. The “Franken Tiger” (or “Family” model as they also call it) was just a ball to fly. Think of a super light early sixties sports car with blinding performance and you’ll get the feel for the jet. I did two hops with Baffle flying against an active duty Navy Super Hornet squadron doing their work-ups for deployment. It’s easy to see why pilots love the F-5 for what it does well. They don’t ask it to be a fourth or fifth gen aircraft – rather they fly with every advantage they have in both capabilities and piloting skills and give highly accurate threat presentations to their students. It behaves just a tiny bit differently in flight because of the longer nose that resulted from the cockpit graft, but otherwise it performs dead on to the single seat version. There’s actually quite a bit of room in the cockpit and the visibility is very good.
TA: There are a lot of changes happening in the red air arena for both the U.S. Navy and U.S. Air Force. How are these changing conditions affecting the Sun Downer mission?
Jeff: Like all government organizations they have to grapple with changing budgets and personnel fluctuations, but they’re very stable in their mission sets and again, the experience in the squadron is among the highest in the Navy so they draw on that well to meet the challenges in front of them. Their enlisted personnel are first rate and I’m grateful for their grace and professionalism in hosting me, kitting me out and taking great care of me. They all operate with good humor and I was humbled that they welcomed me into the brotherhood for a week – a once in a lifetime experience!
TA: What’s next for you?
Jeff: The thing we share of course! “I’m not happy unless I’m Mach 2 with my hair on fire”, to paraphrase Charlie in TOPGUN, so there’s a lot going on. We’re in the review and approval process at U.S. DOD to put a television series in production called “THE WATCH: Inside America’s Nuclear Mission”. I’ve been working on the series for many years so I’m really looking forward to telling the story of the young men and women doing the most important mission in the world, hopefully in the fall of 2023. I’m also writing a book about all of the crazy exploits I’ve had in military aviation as an average bear civilian and that’s been really fun. Finally, I’m looking forward to having dinner with you in Rome soon!
TA: Thanks as always for the visit!
Jeff: I always enjoy my time with you David and I truly am a big fan of yours and The Aviationist, so I’ve sent you and your readers some bonus materials including rare and unique Franken Tiger photos and some special videos. A few videos are from my Franken Tiger flights, one is a narrated walkaround of the Franken Tiger, and the really cool one is a sit down interview with CAPT Derek “Baffle” Ashlock that is pure fighter pilot gold. Enjoy!
About David Cenciotti
David Cenciotti is a journalist based in Rome, Italy. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviationist”, one of the world’s most famous and read military aviation blogs. Since 1996, he has written for major worldwide magazines, including Air Forces Monthly, Combat Aircraft, and many others, covering aviation, defense, war, industry, intelligence, crime and cyberwar. He has reported from the U.S., Europe, Australia and Syria, and flown several combat planes with different air forces. He is a former 2nd Lt. of the Italian Air Force, a private pilot and a graduate in Computer Engineering. He has written five books and contributed to many more ones.