When The Force Was With Me

May the 4th is the “May the Fourth Be With You Day”, a celebration of all things Star Wars.  I have always loved the movies (at least, the first three) and like young Luke I wanted to be a Jedi, among other things.  Maybe you don’t believe in The Force or things like serendipity.  I am here to tell you that, whether you believe or not, I was touched by the Force and directly by Star Wars in a way I could not have anticipated in a million years.  This is the story of when and how that happened, a story of adventure, and friendship and serendipity, something that seemed to mark my F-14 career.  

In April of 1982, I was a F-14 Radar Intercept Officer in VF-51 (the Screaming Eagles, the oldest squadron in the Pacific fleet and the fleet squadron that had hosted Neil Armstrong, whom I idolized),  and the squadron’s Public Affairs Officer (PAO) when we sent a small cadre of aircraft to NAS El Centro, California to participate in a Pacific fleet air-to-air gunnery competition. For the days (not counting a day to transit in and one to transit back out and back to Miramar), we flew at least one hop a day and sometimes two, each flight lasting only an hour, to shoot the Tomcat’s 6000 rounds per minute 20mm Vulcan cannon at a rectangular canvas banner with a big red dot in its center as it was being towed by another aircraft.  RIO’s typically don’t get trained on such things, but I had personally flown the “squirrel cage” pattern from the front seat of a T-2 many times, so I knew it’s in and outs.  I was crewed for these gun hops with Stan O’Connor; and I always loved flying with Stan; he was not only extremely capable (as he proved during this competition) but he always appreciated what his RIO would bring to the table, and that included here.  I knew we were getting a lot of hits, but I couldn’t know we would win the whole thing (and I’m talking the whole Pacific fleet competition) until later.

A gun banner as it appears in the ai
A Vf-51 crew counts the hits on a banner. Buzz Johnson, the squadron commander, is walking across the end. Stan is the really tall guy standing on the right with his hair blowing in the wind.

During one of the days we were there, I got a telephone call from the station PAO who said that a Star Wars movie sound crew wanted to come out and take some recordings of our operations and aircraft and would somebody come escort them.  I wasn’t flying that day, and I was the PAO, so I dutifully grabbed my camera bag and ran out to the flight line to meet them.  Along with the station PAO were two guys named Gary Summers and Ben Burtt who were hauling all their recording gear on their backs.  

The station PAO couldn’t resist getting a photo of me explaining to Gary Summers what they were seeing and what we were going to be doing, especially considering the very personal “callsign” I was wearing.

Me and Gary Summers.

I escorted the two of them over to one of the aircraft we were loading up and took this picture of them recording it. Garry Summers is on the left, and that is Ben Burtt on the right.

Gary (left) and Ben (right) record the sounds of a VF-51 crew loading our guns.

They also recorded an aircraft starting up for a hop and went out to the runway with another escort and recorded an afterburner takeoff.  When they got back, they shared with me that the sound levels from the afterburners had saturated their equipment, and they didn’t think they’d get anything useful from it. 

While they had been out there, I purchased a couple of squadron patches (a VF-51 logo and an F-14 “triangle” patch we wore on our flight suits’ or jackets’ right shoulders) and gave a set to each of them.  I mentioned I had bought them for them and if they had any spare StarWars patches, I’d love to have one in return.  They didn’t have anything like that with them (but much later that Ben Burtt would actually follow up and send me something), but they mentioned they were filming a Star Wars movie just down the road (toward Yuma), inviting me out and telling me how to get there.

I didn’t have a car, but my good buddy Doug Blum did.  (He had driven out from Miramar.) So, a day or two later, with no idea of what they were doing or what we might see, Doug and I quietly got in his car and drove down the highway, turning off onto a non-descript dirt road that seemed to wind nowhere out into the desert.  We rounded a bend and this is what we saw as well as some “no entrance” signs.  We pulled over just outside them to try not to draw any attention, though I was ready to say we had been invited out and throw out celebrity names (Ben’s or Gary’s) if we got challenged. 

Our view of Jabba’s Desert Barge in the desert near Yuma, AZ.

At the time, we had no clue what we were looking at.  As you can see in that shot, there wasn’t any activity.  

We started seeing folks milling around in the next half hour.  

People start showing up.

They were gearing up for something.

Starting to look more like a film set…
Actors and film crew get visible…

I was shooting these pictures using an Olympus OM-10 SLR and a telephoto lens.  We were too far way to hear much, but it was obvious they were about to start shooting. 

Just before the shot…

The set got really quiet.  We saw a male and a female swing off the barge on a rope, heard a bell ring, and then heard the crew start clapping.

Luke swings off with Leah and just hangs there…

After we saw the movie, we would realize we had seen part of the climatic scene where Luke rescues Leah from Jabba the Hutt’s barge.  In this last shot, you can see Luke, Leah, Chewbacca, Lando, and (should be) Han.  

But back then, we couldn’t put it in context.  And we had spent a couple of hours out there and only saw them shoot one thing.  It was going to take a looonnnggg time for them to shoot an entire movie at that pace, and we went back to El Centro unimpressed.

What we had seen and how it all lined up I wouldn’t come to understand until over a year later.  We were deployed on the USS Carl Vinson when the movie was released as “Return of the Jedi”.  (The movie had been originally titled “Revenge of the Jedi” but rumor had it that someone decided that Jedi’s didn’t take revenge so the name didn’t fit.) Our voyage had started on the east coast of the United States, taken us into the Caribbean and then across the Atlantic and into the Mediterranean (where Doug died in night time aircraft accident; see my blog entitled “Night Flying”), back out into the Atlantic and around the horn of Africa to drill holes in the Indian Ocean while standing guard in the Persian Gulf with an eye on the shores of Iran (among other places).  At the end of a couple of months in the I.O., the ship was headed to Perth, Australia for shore leave when I got assigned to a detachment at NAS Cubi Point in the Philippines.  Each squadron on the ship had one or more spare airplanes stashed there and each squadron would rotate one pilot or aircrew to keep the airplanes exercised so they could fly out to the ship if needed.  So, I was sent out on a COD to Diego Garcia where I spent a couple of days before picking up a ride in a C-141 that took me to Clark Air Force Base.  After a tiring night getting through Philippine customs, I rode a bus through the jungles and hills to Cubi, set up on the outer edge of the city of Olongapo, unofficially known by most sailors as the “adult Disneyland of the free world”.  I’ll leave it up to the reader to figure out or find someone who can tell you why that was.

I spent a couple of months there flying in VF-111 and VF-51 F-14’s with Doug Law (VF-111) and then Corey Glab (whom I had crewed with in VF-51), getting to know the night life in the town, and talking on the phone and via mail to a contact at NASA’s Johnson Space Center where I was trying to get a job.  “Return of the Jedi” hit the islands as the ship grew closer and my time there was coming to an end.  There was a kiosk set up in Olangapo where the proprietor would sell copies of first run movies on Beta video tape for around twenty bucks, and I was asked to go see what I could do about getting a VHS copy of the movie.  I knew I would pull off quite a coup if I could get it done.  So, I went out into town and “talked” (by offering him cash above and beyond his regular price) the proprietor into seeing if he could get me a copy and put it on VHS instead of Beta.  A couple of weeks later, it was done, just in time for me to toss my prize into my duffle bag stuffed into spare space in the rear of the canopy.  As long as we didn’t blow the canopy or eject, it was certain the movie would get on board.

The night we sat down to see the movie….and we would be the first people aboard the ship to do so… we watched a grainy but discernible picture that had this strange habit of panning left and right occasionally to pick up things of import.  It was pretty obvious how they had gotten us the film; they had smuggled a video camera into the theater and simply shot the whole thing.  Since the resolution of a typical TV screen back then was a lot less than that of 35mm film, the camera couldn’t pick up the whole screen, and hence the panning to bring it all in was necessary.  But we didn’t care; we were watching the newest Star Wars movie and that was all that mattered.

Later in the movie, when there was a close-up of Luke on the screen, the black image of a fly crawled next to Luke’s face and he didn’t flinch.  I quickly realized the fly was not part of the movie but was actually crawling on the screen Luke was being projected on.  And suddenly I knew how they had gotten a copy in VHS and why the picture was sooooo grainy; they had shot a copy of the movie using a Beta format video camera, then played that on a TV, while re-recording it with a VHS format video camera.  Nothing if not ingenious… But, again, it didn’t matter.  We had a copy of “Return of Jedi” and no one else did.  You see, movies were circulated among the squadrons for entertaining the troops, and each week a different squadron rotated to the top of the stack and got first pick before rotating down to the bottom.  I never saw the copy of the movie I got after we saw it; my impression was that for weeks after that the squadron had traded it off to the other squadrons for the right of first pick.

I left the Navy some months after that and did get a job training astronauts at Johnson Space Center.  About a year later, I got a letter in the mail from Ben Burtt; he had tracked me down and sent me a letter and two patches labeled from “Revenge of the Jedi”.  Somehow and regrettably, that letter and the patches have gotten lost; but it said a lot about Ben Burtt, and to this day, I appreciate the trouble he went to just to be courteous.

Looking back on it now, I am so grateful for what happened and that I got to be a part of it.  It was all given even more import when Doug died during a late night flight in the Med (See my blog “Night Flying”.). Oh, and there is one other thing…when you watch “Return of the Jedi” and you see the scene when Han, Luke, and Leah are jumping to light-speed in the stolen Imperial shuttle, listen closely to the sound of the shuttle’s engine spinning up; I’m fairly certain it’s the sound of an AWG-9 radar getting ready to slew from stop to stop as it performs its Built-In Self-Test before a crew takes it out on a gun hop.