Tale of the Twin Engine Cats
In 1996, a pilot who could have been the hot shot Maverick in ‘Top Gun’ burst on the air show scene not only with the most dynamic demo in the iconic F-14 Tomcat but also transformed the industry with a unique dissimilar aerobatic formation flight: the Flight of the Twin Engine Cats.
(scroll down for photos and video)
Captain Dale “Snort” Snodgrass, Fighter Wing Atlantic Commodore, who famously said at his Change of Command, “whining is out, gun kills are in” capitalized on the popular Flight of the Grumman Cats which included the last piston engine Grumman cats in each era: F6F Hellcat, F4F Wildcat, F8F Bearcat, F7F Tigercat, andF-14Tomcat.
“The Navy allowed for a lot of autonomy at the Wing level,” explains Dirk “Gumbo” Hebert who was FITWING Chief of Staff at the time. “There was no formal authority from COMNAVAIRLANT.” Hebert, a RIO, has more than 2,000 hours in the Tomcat with Snodgrass and believes only Snort could have flown the aerobatic formation with the Tigercat because it was challenging even for him.
Originally, the Flight of the Twin Engine Cats was going to be for a single event at the Kalamazoo Air Show with John Ellis flying the F7F Tigercat.
However the dynamic duo went on to fly 13 more shows with the final show flown at NAS Pensacola.
In 1997, Laro "Hoss" Clark who was the F-15 single ship demo pilot called Hebert to learn how the Navy approved the dramatic dissimilar formation flight. “They [Air Combat Command] wanted the instruction for the dissimilar formation, but I said I can’t give you that. It’s a Pilot in Command decision but we spent three to four phone calls on the subject,” says Hebert.
Snort did write an instruction that he signed himself allowing the Flight of the Twin Cats which was also forwarded to COMNAVAIRLANT or Vice Admiral John Mazach, Commander Naval Air Forces Atlantic Fleet. Ultimately, this instruction was shared with Air Combat Command.
The Air Force may say differently, but that was the birth of the Heritage Flight although it didn’t truly become a program until civilian pilot Ed Shipley branded it and helped the Air Force see the tremendous public relations tool they now possessed by flying historic airplanes alongside the country’s frontline fighters.
A year later at the NAS Oceana air show, the F-14 flew with the F4U Corsair, which Hebert called the Navy Heritage Flight on a performer brief card. Shipley immediately said the Navy wasn’t allowed to use that phrase. Instead Hebert called it the Navy Legacy Flight since Legacy was central to the air show’s theme that year.
Over the years, AIRPAC formalized the program with the West coast taking ownership of the now popular Legacy Flight.
There is Navy and Air Force lore that may offer different versions of this story, but I was there without understanding I was a witness to history.
Video courtesy of EFP. Flight of the Twin Engine Cats courtesy Mike Lynaugh 2015 Heritage Flight courtesy Ken Middleton