Nick Hobbie  

When I was living in Phoenix in the early '70s I was a member of the Air National Guard.  My best friend at the time, Steve Hepburn, was too.  Steve was a full-time guardsman which meant that was his only job.  I was in the investment business but spent a great deal of time at the radar site controlling fighter aircraft from Luke AFB with Steve.

During this time, the Air Force got a new fighter called the F-15 Eagle.  It was an airplane designed for dog-fighting.  In order to determine the capabilities and limitations of the F-15 a small flying organization was established at Luke AFB to conduct Operational Test & Evaluation or OT&E.  Other AF fighter units from throughout the U.S. as well as Navy units, such as Top Gun from Miramar NAS near San Diego , and Marine Corps organizations came to Luke to test their men and machines against the Eagle.

Because the other organizations were flying different kinds of airplanes, these flying activities were called Dissimilar Air Combat Tactics or DACT.  This was a revolutionary step in training pilots because of the dangers of putting different performing machines in a small area to conduct simulated combat against each other.  Several years later, some of the energy, excitement and dangers of such activities would be captured in the movie, "Top Gun" as well as a made of TV movie called, "Red Flag."

For over a year, Steve Hepburn and I controlled virtually all the flying activities involving the F-15 OT&E organization.  We did this from a radar site on the east side of Phoenix where we sat in a darkened room behind a radar scope and talked by radio to the fighters which were flying down near the Arizona-Mexico border.  There would be as many as 6-8 fighters in the area at one time divided into two teams.  Steve would control one team on a particular radio frequency and I would control the other.  We were adversaries during the engagements.  When one aircraft or team claimed kills against the other, the learning objectives were considered met and someone called, "Disengage" over the radio and we would setup for the next engagement.  This was later changed to "Knock it Off" (A Top Gun idea) because "Disengage" was too easily confused with "Engage" on the radio during the heat of simulated battle. 

It was extremely competitive and made more so by the close working relationship we had with the highly competitive aviators with whom we participated.  We worked together and after work, and sometimes on the weekends, we partied together.  It was an exciting time.

About the same time, the Air Force established a flying organization near Las Vegas , NV (Nellis AFB) called the Aggressors.  This also was a major step in more realistic flying training in the Air Force.  This Squadron of about 20-30 pilots and airplanes' job was to emulate a Soviet flying organization.  They began flying with the T-38 supersonic trainer and evolved later to the F-5 (which is the fighter version of the T-38) and finally today they fly the F-16.   These airplanes were painted in various camouflage paint schemes to make them hard to see by the aviators they flew against.  A small contingent of 6-8 aircraft would temporarily fly to another air base in the U.S. and conduct DACT with the pilots at that air base.  It provided an opportunity for the pilots to see how their potential enemy might behave during a real air war.

There were a great deal of restrictions and regulations to follow when the Aggressors came to town.  One of those was that a radar controller had to be certified by the Aggressors before he could control their fighters.  When it was determined that they would eventually be coming to Luke to fly against the F-15 OT&E, Steve and I flipped a coin.  I won and went to Nellis AFB for a couple of weeks to become certified. 

The Aggressor program was really in its infancy at that time.  One of the biggest hardships was that the controllers had to get in their car and drive up to the top of Angel's peak to an FAA facility to control the fighters.  Of course some days, because of maintenance or scheduling problems, we didn't control and just hung around the break-room.  We would talk, read, or perhaps play a game of ping pong or darts.

When an outside individual comes into an organization they develop a sense of various degrees of warmth and camaraderie.  People are different, personalities are different, and while everyone might say welcome, most people find themselves working and playing more closely with some, than with others.  It's human nature.  One of the aviators who I soon considered a friend was named Nick Hobbie.  We'd play darts together, either against each other or on the same team or just sit around and talk.  Nick was married and I believe had one or two small children but I can't remember for sure.

One morning during my second week at Nellis a couple of other controllers and I had driven up to the radar site at Angel Peak .  Because the T-38 is a trainer it has two seats (one in front of the other).  Often a pilot that wasn't scheduled to fly would jump in the backseat and go along as a passenger.  That's what Nick was doing this particular day.  We were in the middle of an engagement when one of the aircraft had an emergency.  It was Nick's airplane and the aircraft all of a sudden nosed over and was headed toward the ground at a rapid rate of speed.  Nick quickly explained what had happened and started pulling on the stick with all his might to level the airplane before it hit the ground.  He had lost communication with the pilot in the front seat but once he got it leveled out he started to figure out what was wrong.  There is a strap in many fighters upon which the pilot sits called a, "Butt Slapper."  Its purpose, during an emergency, is to snap taunt after the pilot and seat have ejected from the aircraft and throw the pilot away from the seat before his parachute deploys.  This time instead of assisting in an emergency it had malfunctioned and snapped taunt while still in the airplane, causing the emergency. 

Several things had occurred when the Butt Slapper deployed.  It had made the instruments inoperative; it had released the front seat pilot from his ejection seat so he couldn't eject; it had shoved the front seat pilot hard forward against his stick making the aircraft start into a steep dive; and it had severed all communications with the front seat pilot from both Nick and any one else.

Once the problem had been determined, the controller vectored Nick over to a commonly known dry lake bed so another aircraft could join-up with him.  With no instruments Nick would follow the other aircraft back to the base and by being on his wing duplicate the approach/landing speed and rate of descent.  Nick got to the dry lake bed before the other aircraft so the controller had him circle around.  When the pilot in the front of Nick's airplane saw what was happening he became very upset.  The dry lake bed also happened to be the designated bailout area.  He thought Nick was going to eject from the aircraft leaving him in an aircraft from which he couldn't get out.  With his body pressed far forward in the cockpit, he was frantically holding up his loose straps trying to point out to Nick that he couldn't eject.  Nick understood.

The join-up was successful, as was the return to base.  Nick landed the aircraft with no problems other than a little difficulty pulling the stick rearward because it was planted firmly in the stomach of the pilot in the front.  After the aircraft rolled to a stop and the ground crew assisted the two pilots out of the airplane, Nick was reported to have said, "I did it.  I did it.  I saved the son-of-a-bitch."

Whereupon the pilot in the front said, "Uh Nick.  Are you referring to the airplane or me?"

It must have been especially enjoyable for Nick because his previous assignment had been in England where he had flown F-100 Super Sabres.  But he had bad luck there -- he had bailed out of three aircraft which had developed mechanical problems through no fault of his own.

The next week I returned to Phoenix and a detachment of Aggressors came down to Luke AFB.  Nick was one of the pilots.  They were not flying against the F-15s but rather some of the students that flew the F-4 Phantom.  I still wasn't considered certified so I sat next to the Aggressor controller and watched.  That's where I was a few days into the training during a typical mission that Nick was flying as one of the Aggressors.

The Phantom pilot was closing in for a kill on Nick's T-38 when someone called, "Disengage."  Nick heard the call and relaxed the aircraft controls in preparation for the next engagement.  The Phantom pilot did not hear the call and press on at a high rate of speed.  In the blink of an eye, the Phantom ran over the T-38 causing death and destruction for everyone and everything involved. 

A few days later a memorial service was held at the Luke AFB Chapel.  We all said goodbye to these brave warriors and extend our condolences to their families.  They talked about past accomplishments and futures that would never be fulfilled.  And whether anyone said it or not, we all knew that you, "pay your money, and take your chances".  That doesn't ease the pain of losing a friend or loved one and I, like many others, had lost a good friend.  

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