FRONTLINE Interview with Commander Robert E. Stumpf FRONTLINE Interview with Commander Robert E. Stumpf

Q: When we watch Tom Cruise and "Top Gun", how does it compare. How different is the real world?

STUMPF: I think "Top Gun" was actually fairly accurate in some respects, as far as the flying goes. They probably took a little bit more frivolous approach to it, but you'd expect that in a Hollywood movie. They didn't take it as seriously as we do.

But on the other hand, they were having a blast, it was just fun for them, and so it is for us, too, in training. But see, Tom Cruise, he got into a little bit of skirmish, which was probably designed after something that we were doing off of Libya, it was a very similar situation. But not really the getting shot at kind of thing. They didn't really get into a war situation in "Top Gun", so it's hard to say.

Q: There's this idea of these leather-jacketed, swaggering hot shots....Is it a true or false image?

STUMPF: I think that you have all kinds, just like you do anywhere. Squadrons have different identities socially. Some squadrons are wild and crazy and all the guys in them. And a lot of times it's a function of how the skipper is.

Generally, there are two F-18 squadrons on a ship, so you have your squadron and a sister squadron. And ours were like night and day different.

Q: What is the hardest part about flying a jet?

STUMPF: I think just keeping up with the airplane. The airplane -- before you fly jets you fly something slower. And there are multitude of tasks to do when you fly: navigate, communicate, keep the airplane on a certain heading at a certain altitude at a certain air speed.

When you're going slowly you have a little more time to devote to doing all those things; in a jet you're going so fast, you have to do things much more quickly. So that maybe is the hardest thing to get used to.

Q: Is it a scary thing?

STUMPF: Actually a fighter jet in general is more simple to fly than, for instance, a propeller airplane, and it's designed that way because there are so many things happening so quickly. Initially, it's pretty scary. Because very quickly after you get into it, you're flying by yourself. And you've got to get it through the weather and put it down on the runway, land the thing.

Q: You talked about dropping the penny and getting the picture. What does that mean?

STUMPF: That's when it all becomes clear; it may have been a somewhat confusing situation before, and then all of a sudden you get the picture, and it's clear. The light bulb goes on -- maybe that's a better analogy.

Q: Right. What is that about? Does it happen sort of early on and you say, Hey, I'm going to be a jet pilot, or?

STUMPF: I think it happens at different stages throughout your life. In aviation training, every time you train on a new aircraft or every time you go on a new squadron or train for a different mission, initially it's difficult, and then at some point it all comes together and you get good at it.

Q: What did you aspire to be, at the moment that the light bulb went on and you knew you could fly, what were your aspirations then? Did you know you were going to become a war hero, did you know you were going to become highly decorated, did you believe that you've fly and lead the Blue Angels?

STUMPF: No, no, absolutely not. I think, when I had just gotten my wings, for instance, I just wanted to be a successful fleet pilot, I think that's as far ahead as I was looking at that point. I was twenty-three years or so, and I wanted to go to the fleet, learn how to fly, then the A-7 course air allied attack bomber, and be successful doing that, at sea, and be a respected Navy pilot -- that's about as far as it went.

Perhaps, jumping ahead a few years, then, as I learned the system, I, as all of us do, I think everybody at that point aspires to be a squadron commander, and that's kind of the ultimate goal.

Q: Why?

STUMPF: Well, that's when you command. They're your airplanes, they're your troopers, you tell people when they're going to fly and where they're going to fly, and you lead them. You're responsible for all those people and all that equipment, and it's the ultimate flying job, being a squadron commander.

Q: First time you landed on a carrier?

STUMPF: The first time I landed on a carrier was in an A-4, it was on the USS Lexington wooden flight deck in 1976, off of Pensacola, and it was rush. It was incredible.

I remember the first two passes, the first two approaches, you don't put the tailhook down, you leave it up, and so you force a balter, it's called a touch-and-go. And I remember very distinctly, like it was today, like it happened this morning, how fast the ship went by. You come across the ramp, touchdown, and it's gone. Instantaneously the ship's gone, I just remember that.

And then, of course, the third approach, you put the tailhook down and jolt yourself into a very quick rapid deceleration, and being thrown against the straps very violently. And I don't think I had anticipated the violence of the arrestment.

And then, taxiing up to the catapult to go do it again, and again, the violence of the catapult shot, being accelerated in a second and a half to a hundred and sixty knots or whatever it is. It's just a trip.

Q: Do you think most people understand what that's all about?

STUMPF: No. My wife and I were in a hotel at a meeting or something, and when "Top Gun" came out, the movie, back in '86, and there were some giggly girls in the elevator with us that were talking about those wonderful Air Force pilots in "Top Gun." We got a kick out of that.

Q: Why?

STUMPF: Well, Air Force pilots don't fly off of ships, that's why. They weren't Air Force pilots, they were Navy pilots.

Q: If somebody said to you, Commander, what's so hard about it? What would you say?

STUMPF: The carrier aviation, it's a lot of fun, and it's not particularly hard in the daytime, but it's real hard at night, and you have to fly at night to pay your dues so you get to fly in the daytime, that's the way I look at it.

And it's hard because at sea you really can't tell where the sky ends and the ocean begins, there's no horizon; so it's very difficult to keep your inner balance in your ear. You get what's called vertigo very easily, because there is no distinction, there's no horizon, it's all black, so it all looks the same.

And so bringing the aircraft aboard the ship at night, you have no visual perspective. You have a black abyss and a little tiny set of lights in the middle of this black abyss. And it's just a very, very challenging couple of minutes to bring the airplane.

So that approach and landing at night affects your psyche for the whole night evolution. So that from the time you get in the airplane, or maybe even prior to that, when you're getting're in the back of your mind thinking, I've got to bring this thing back, and that affects the whole deal.

The most challenging, terrifying flight that I had during Desert Storm was at night, and for all of its ferocity and excitement, it ended up the hardest thing was getting that thing aboard that night -- maybe because we were pretty rattled when we got back to the ship, but that was a very trying experience. I had some aircraft problems which contributed to it, but that was just as hard as anything else we did that day.

Q: Tell me about that day.

STUMPF: I was the strike leader for an airwing strike that was launching some sophisticated SMART weapons that required a lot of coordination, let me put it that way, with a lot of agencies outside our little group; and a lot of preparation and some weapons that weren't particularly proven at that point.

And when we launched off the ship in the Red Sea, which is some seven hundred miles from the target, I lost the guts of my navigational system and my altitude system in the airplane. The catapult shook something loose and I lost all my primary instrumentation, navigation.

But I had a good weapon on the airplane and I was the strike leader, so I just went back up and just went the whole way on the back of instruments.

Q: What do you mean, a good weapon?

STUMPF: The weapons that we were delivering had, at that point had sort of a high failure rate, so we launched a lot of spares, and mine happened to be one of the two ones in the whole strike -- which was two. But we definitely needed to get that one to the target.

So we did. But it involved a lot of improvisation and we had to make some stuff up along the way to get these two weapons where they were headed.

I ended up flying on my wingman's wing, because I didn't have any navigation. But his weapon had failed. So he had a good navigation system, I had a good weapon, so together we had a whole piece of the puzzle there. And that was difficult, flying on his wing at night the whole way. And then we got shot at pretty bad. It was just a very exciting night. We weren't sure we were coming back.

Then, when we got back to the ship, then we had to get this crippled aircraft on board, and that was another challenge. And the whole thing took about six hours, it was a very long mission.

Q: What's it like when you're done with something like that? I mean, how are you?

STUMPF: I was done. As a strike leader, I had to fill out all the reports and then go debrief the Admiral. And it was just a long night, and I was exhausted. This was halfway through the campaign and we were all getting a little bit tired anyway. So I was whipped after that.

Q: How many flights over Iraq did you make?

STUMPF: Twenty-two.

Q: I heard that was an Air Force war.

STUMPF: It was a good team effort. I don't remember the exact statistics, but I think the Navy flew about a third of all the missions over there.

We worked very closely with the Air Force. They provided most of the refuelings for us as we went across Saudi. So we were forced to get into their game, just because of the ranges we were working in. It worked very well. I think the Services are working splendidly together these days.

Q: Other details about that war?

STUMPF: The amount of anti-aircraft fire. The first night, I don't know the exact numbers, but I've heard somewhere in the neighborhood of 500 airplanes over Iraq during that first assault. And everybody's with their lights out. It's a pretty unnerving experience.

Q: In Desert Storm, do you, Commander, before you go or as you're going or as you're up do you think about dying?

STUMPF: You know, I didn't think about that until we were over Iraq and there was so much stuff in the air and these missiles were coming up and I couldn't tell if they were for me or not. And I started thinking about dying then. And that's when I felt real fear, real gut fear for the first time in my life. Up until that time, I guess I thought I was bullet-proof or something.

But when I saw those missiles coming up and realized that they were killing people and they could very easily be meant for me, then it became very real. And from that point on, forever, then the fear was real and it became part of the routine. I'm going to be scared, and you have to deal with it, put it away until you're finished, and have some water, because your mouth is so dry that you can't swallow.

But there's so much to do, especially for a strike leader, there's so much to do that you're just so busy that you don't have room for the fear. You need to just do your work and make sure everybody'll doing the right thing, make the decisions.

Q: When you were a kid, did you watch all those war movies? Did you watch John Wayne movies and all those things?

STUMPF: Oh, yeah.

Q: What did it --

STUMPF: It was very glamorous, it was very glamorous to a kid growing up in a military family, living on Army posts and wanting to be part of it. And having war heroes in the family -- my father was an Infantry Officer in World War Two, my uncle was a fighter pilot in World War Two, my grandfather was a Division Commander over there in the European theater. They brought tradition to our family that was what we thought was mirrored in the movies. And I had no concept of the fear and terror -- the ugliness of combat. And from a certain perspective I still don't. I've never been down on the ground duking it out with somebody, I've always been in an airplane. Which is fortunate, but it's still scary.

So, until you get into it, I guess it's pretty much of a cliché: war is hell once you've got into it, and if you haven't been there you don't really understand it. And that's very true, I think.


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