RADAR INTERCEPT OFFICER (RIO)
Commander George “Wham” Michaels, USN (Ret) is a second-generation Navy Fighter Guy. His father, CAPT Danny Michaels, USN (Ret) was a Vietnam era F-4 Phantom pilot and second-generation Greek-born in Charlotte, North Carolina. George’s mother, Evdoxia, was born in Serres and came to the U.S. when she was 19 after she and Danny became engaged. See CAPT Michaels listing in the Fighter Pilots section for more details. By the time George retired in 2014 with 26 years of Navy service, he had accumulated over 3000 flight hours, 625 carrier landings, attained Mission Commander Qualification and various instructor qualifications, completed four operational deployments on four different aircraft carriers: USS Forrestal (CV-59), USS Carl Vinson (CVNM-70), USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN-72), and USS John F. Kennedy (CV-67), an overseas tour in Stuttgart, Germany and a year-long Individual Augmentee deployment to Baghdad… a full and rewarding career. George was born in Springfield, Virginia while his father was on a staff duty tour in Washington, DC. After moves back and forth between Virginia Beach (NAS Oceana) and the Washington, DC area, the family returned to Virginia Beach when Danny took command of NAS Oceana. George finished high school there and attended James Madison University (JMU) in western Virginia, graduating with a business degree. During this time, he met his future wife, Pam. With no Navy Reserve Officer Training Program (ROTC) at JMU, George applied and was accepted to Aviation Officer Candidate School (AOCS) at NAS Pensacola, Florida as a Student Naval Aviator. After his first medical exam, he was informed that his eyesight wasn’t “pilot worthy”. After a failed waiver attempt, he was re-designated a Student Naval Flight Officer (NFO) and reported to AOCS in the fall if 1988. While at AOCS, Officer Candidates were allowed to attend church services. It was a welcome break from the rigor of daily training with Marine Drill Instructors. While most of them attended Catholic or Protestant services on the base, George was permitted to attend the local Greek church. He was even driven there every Sunday and picked up when requested by a Navy driver. Coincidentally, the priest at the Pensacola Annunciation church at the time was Father Ted Chelpon, the same priest who baptized George at St. Katherine’s in Falls Church, VA. He enjoyed the Sunday time away from AOCS and was able to attend socials and lunches at homes of local parishioners. Of course, the Drill Instructors weren’t familiar with Greek services, they just thought they were VERY long…
In February 1989, George completed AOCS and was commissioned an Ensign. He began NFO training 2 weeks later, also at NAS Pensacola. The first day of flight school is when he was “assigned” his callsign, Wham. George Michael and WHAM! was very popular at the time, so it was a natural fit, even more so that George Michael was also Greek! Fortunately, George’s desire to fly fighters was realized when he was selected for Radar Intercept Officer (RIO) advanced training to eventually fly the F-14 Tomcat. The NFO flight school syllabus started with time in the T-34C, T-2C Buckeye jet, then the TA-4 Skyhawk. Most of the time, aside from hours and hours in a simulator running air-to-air intercepts, was spent in the back of a T-47A, a modified version of the Cessna Citation II corporate jet. One aspect that made flights more fun for George was that several of the T-47 pilots, all retired Navy tactical pilots, knew or served with Danny, so they looked out for him and lent their experience to the training. After receiving his NFO wings of gold, he proceeded to VF-101 at NAS Oceana (home!) in March of 1990 for training in the F-14 Tomcat. The RIO syllabus was shorter than for pilots because they didn’t have to carrier qualify. If time allowed, the new RIOs would qualify with a senior pilot returning for a refresher course… assuming the pilot wanted a new guy in his back seat. In November of that year, George completed F-14 RIO training and joined the Red Rippers of VF-11, flying the F-14A… and still an Ensign!
Greek American George Michaels in an official portrait photo and behind the P&W TF-30 engine nozzles while serving with the Red Rippers. George was a Naval Flight Officer commonly known in the USN F-14 Tomcat and F-4 Phantom community an RIO (Radar Intercept Officer). According to the well known USN aviator and Top Gun instructor Dave Baranek, also an RIO: The primary flight responsibilities are spelled out in the F-14 operating manual. Those are navigation, communication and operating the weapons system. When the F-14 was designed, because of parts of its mission and state of automation, they still needed one guy to make the radar be most effective. In addition, the RIO shared responsibility for the safety of the airplane. And if we were in a dogfight, I shared responsibility. He’d keep track of the people he could, and he’d hand people off to me. In terms of piloting the plane, that’s easy. One, the Navy did not train RIOs to fly. And two, the F-14 had no flight controls in the back seat. That was not an option. (Photos by George Michaels, further info via David Baranek interview in https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smithsonian-institution/meet-topgun-radar-intercept-officer-david-bio-baranek)
Above: The F-14B Bu.No.161426, AG103, was the personal plane of George 'WHAM' Michaels while serving in VF-143, during 2002 over Afghanistan, while operating from USS John Kennedy. Originally an F-14A Bu.No.161426 served with VF-143, VF-32, VF-143 and finally VF-101. After its service, it was put in an exhibit at DeLand Naval Air Station Site in central Florida since June 2005 (Copyright David F. Brown)
Left: At sea aboard USS John F. Kennedy. The F-14B Tomcat, Bu.No.161426, AG103, of the Fighter Squadron One Four Three (VF-143) "Pukin' Dogs" launches from USS John F. Kennedy (CV 67) for a combat mission in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. (U.S. Navy photo by Photographers Mate 1st Class Jim Hampshire. File# 020713-N-6492H-506)
Below: F-14B Bu.No.161426, AG103, George 'WHAM' Michaels Operation Enduring Freedom. According to George: In VF-143, we typically carried one LGB and one JDAM, both 1000 pounders, and one or two AIM-9s, no sparrows or Phoenix. The gap between the retirement of the A-6 Intruder in 1997 and the fielding of the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet in the 2000s let the Tomcat step up to the plate as a ground attacker. Anticipating the shortfall in capability, a Navy paper in December 1994 urged the acquisition of targeting pods so that Tomcat could fulfill this role. Lockheed Martin’s LANTIRN pod was selected for this purpose, as it already was a mature system used by the Air Force. Integration was completed by 1996, mating F-14B airframes with the pod to make the “Bombcat.” The system saw its first operational use over Kosovo in 1999. The Bombcats proved to be rather potent in usage. While some advanced functionality of the pod (e.g., navigation) was not integrated into the F-14, the images sent from the pod were more clearly seen. This was because pod sent its data to the radar intercept officer's Programmable Tactical Information Display System (PTIDS). (Profile by Tom Cooper, further info by https://nationalinterest.org)
The squadron was scheduled for an at-sea training period, so for the next three weeks, every day and sometimes twice a day, he flew from USS Forrestal, logging 50 hours and 30 landings in three weeks. Almost all those flights were with the same pilot. Desert Storm was in full swing as Forrestal and Carrier Air Wing (CVW) 6 prepared to deploy. The last of the Desert Storm fleet to deploy in May 1991, Forrestal missed the action and remained in the Mediterranean Sea with its F-14s, F-18s, and A-6s flying into northern Iraq in support of Operations NORTHERN WATCH and PROVIDE COMFORT. The crew would enjoy many port visits during its final operational deployment, and George, as a Greek speaker, was tasked to escort various Greek senior military officers during their tours of the ship. Port visits included two stops in Rhodes, during one of which he flew to Athens, Thessaloniki, and Serres to visit family. Of course, this was after he made all the arrangements for the squadron’s aircrew, including hotel rooms and dinner reservations. If the hotel room maid had her way, George would have stayed at her house to meet her daughter! He also traveled to Larissa to serve as Air Wing Range Safety Officer during bombing exercises at the Greek training range at Avgo-Nisi. Prior to deployment, VF-11 and sister squadron VF-31 were informed that, upon returning, they would transfer their F-14As, execute a homeport change from NAS Oceana to NAS Miramar in San Diego, California and transition to the newest version of the Tomcat, the F-14D. In February 1992, the squadron made the move to California, got settled into their new hangar at Miramar and began training in the F-14D. They were assigned to CVW-14 aboard USS Carl Vinson, which was homeported in Alameda. The squadron also participated in several test projects for the F-14D, to include software updates and the integration of Night Vision Devices (NVDs). During this time, crews from VF-11 became the first NVD qualified fleet F-14 aircrew, a qualification that would later lead to an NVD Instructor qualification for George and many night hours training other F-14 crews. By 1994, the Rippers were on the Navy’s first F-14D deployment to the Western Pacific on CVN-70, USS Carl Vinson. The Air Wing’s primary mission was Operation SOUTHERN WATCH in Iraq while stationed in the Persian Gulf. By the time his extended 4-year tour was over, he had served as a maintenance branch and division officer, Schedules Officer and Weapons Training Officer. Shortly after returning to San Diego, George transferred to the VF-101 Grim Reapers back home at NAS Oceana for F-14 Instructor duty. At VF-101, in addition to his instructor duties, he was Schedules Officer and Assistant Operations Officer. During his tour, NAS Miramar was transferred back to the Marine Corps and all the F-14s were moved to NAS Oceana. This made it possible for George to instruct in all three models of Tomcat, A, B and D. He was also fortunate enough to join the F-14 Tomcat Demonstration Team, staffed by instructors, and flew the Tomcat Demonstration at air shows all over the U.S. for two and a half years. The big Tomcat made for a great jet demo aircraft… large, loud and fast. The 200’ minimum altitude along with maneuvers like the Dirty Double Immelmann wowed crowds and Tomcat fans all over the country. The Tomcat was the highlight of many shows. He also resumed flying with NVDs and became an NVD instructor, flying with fleet squadron pilots as their Tomcats were fitted with NVD compatible cockpit lighting.
Right: Photos of George 'WHAM' Michaels during Operation Enduring Freedom After the September 11, 2001 attacks, no fewer than eight F-14 squadrons participated in Operation Enduring Freedom, flying long-range missions from the Indian Ocean to strike targets around Afghanistan and conducting reconnaissance and ground support missions. From the start of Operation Enduring Freedom to the end of Operation Anaconda, F-14s from VF-14, VF-41, VF-102, VF-211, and VF-213 dropped more than 1,334,000 pounds (605,000 kg) of ordnance on targets.VF-11 and VF-143, alongside CVW-7, dropped 64,000 pounds (29,000 kg) of ordnance, both the "Red Rippers" and the "Pukin' Dogs" making history as they dropped JDAM bombs from the F-14 for the first time during combat. VF-103 arrived in Afghanistan in June 2002 when combat was scarce, and the "Jolly Rogers" did not get the opportunity to drop any bombs during the operation. During the war, VF-213 logged over 500 combat sorties, 2,600 combat hours, and dropped 435,000 pounds (197,000 kg) of ordnance (452 bombs) during their 10 weeks over Afghanistan; the "Black Lions" also had the distinct honor of dropping the first bombs of Operation Enduring Freedom. VF-102 dropped more bombs—680 of them, totaling 420,000 pounds (190,000 kg)—and logged more combat hours (more than 5,000) than any other F-14 unit that took part in the operation, and the unit dropped an additional 50,000 pounds (23,000 kg) of ordnance. VF-211 flew 1,250 combat sorties, logging 4,200 combat hours and dropping 100,000 pounds (45,000 kg) of ordnance. VF-14 led more strikes than any other squadron in CVW-8 and dropped 174 laser-guided bombs, totaling 179,324 pounds (81,340 kg) and buddy-lased 28 AGM-65 Maverick missiles and 23 laser-guided bombs, and like their sister squadron VF-41, they flew the oldest jets in the fleet. VF-41 dropped more than 200,000 pounds (91,000 kg) of bombs (202 laser-guided bombs) with an 82 percent hit rate, which was a level of accuracy that had never previously been achieved in the U.S. Navy. (Copyright George Michaels, further info via https://en.wikipedia.org)
After three years, George headed back to the Fleet and to the VF-31 Tomcatters and the F-14D. Returning to CVW-14, the squadron completed a Western Pacific/Operation SOUTHERN WATCH deployment onboard USS Lincoln. Since all Tomcat squadrons were now based at NAS Oceana, those assigned to west-coast air wings had to fly across the country each time they joined the ship. They used NAS Point Mugu as their temporary base until all aircraft were aboard the ship since they had F-14s stationed there as part of the Test and Evaluation squadrons. At VF-31, he served as Quality Assurance Officer and Assistant Operations Officer. A short two years later, then a senior LT, George transferred to the Fighter Wing staff for another shore tour. At “The Wing”, he was Assistant Readiness Officer and Air Show/Fly By coordinator. One of his duties was to coordinate F-14 Fly-bys for funerals at Arlington National Cemetery. For each funeral, he and two other aviators drove to Arlington with a communications suite and the requisite uniforms. One attended the ceremony and coordinated with the Funeral Director, one was stationed on top of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, both with radios, and the third traveled to the tower at Washington National Airport and coordinated with approach control. They were quite a difficult events to complete successfully, particularly the timing of the fly-by, but it was a very rewarding experience. In addition to these duties, he flew as a guest instructor at VF-101 and with fleet F-14 pilots as an NVD Instructor. Promoted to LCDR while at Fighter Wing, George returned to the Fleet in 2000 for his Department Head tour with the Pukin’ Dogs of VF-143, flying the F-14B (Upgrade). The squadron was part of CVW-7 onboard USS John F. Kennedy and completed their 2002 deployment in support of Operation ENDURING FREEDOM. Combat missions into Afghanistan were on-call Combat Air Support of ground troops and reconnaissance using the (now-digital) TARPS pod. After deployment, the squadron received the coveted Battle Efficiency award as the best east coast fighter squadron. A joint or staff tour is recommended for Navy officers desiring to progress through the ranks. One way to accomplish this is to go to the Pentagon, but George chose the U.S. European Command in Stuttgart, Germany. He was assigned to the Joint Exercise Division of the Operations Directorate and was responsible for coordinating, scheduling and managing the U.S./Israeli exercise program. Although he and Pam traveled extensively for pleasure, George’s primary work travel location was Tel Aviv. He did, however, travel to Greece to assist in the planning of a security exercise in preparation for the 2004 Athens Olympics. Upon returning from Germany, George was assigned to the Operations Plans Branch of the Naval Network Warfare Command in Norfolk, VA. He was only there for a year when he received orders for a one-year individual deployment to Baghdad as Deputy Director of the Joint Personnel Recovery Center, Multi-National Force – Iraq. He and his team of intelligence analysists were tasked with locating and facilitating the recovery of missing U.S. and Coalition service members and U.S. citizens in Iraq.
George poses in the cockpit of an F-14D while serving with the VF-31 Tomcatters. The tactical prowess of the Tomcatters is well documented as the squadron has served in every major conflict since its inception. The squadron was aboard USS Enterprise during the bombing of Pearl Harbor as well as the Battles of Wake Island, Marcus Island, Coral Sea, Midway, Guadalcanal, and the Eastern Solomons. The squadron has seen aerial combat over the Philippines, Formosa, Okinawa, and China. In 1972, flying the F-4J Phantom, CDR Sam "Speed" Flynn, the Tomcatter XO, shot down a MIG-21 over North Vietnam. This accomplishment once again set the squadron above its peers by distinguishing VF-31 as the only Navy fighter squadron to achieve aerial victories in three wars - WWII, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War. Overall, the Tomcatters’ total combat experience includes fierce battles in virtually every theater of operation as well as regional conflicts all over the world. (George Michael and further info by USN)
After he returned from Baghdad in February of 2008, he transferred to the Center for Personal and Professional Development at Dam Neck in Virginia Beach as the Director of Training. His last assignment, from which he retired in September 2014, was at the Navy’s Maritime Civil Affairs and Security Training Command, also at Dam Neck, where he served as Director of Training and Executive Officer. George retired as a Commander with 26 years of service. His retirement ceremony was appropriately held, at the NAS Oceana Officers Club, a place where he grew up as a Naval Officer and Tomcat RIO and he and Pam held their wedding reception. His name can be found on the VF-143 table in the bar and his father’s on the historic “Round Table” as a former Oceana Skipper.
Aviation Officer Candidate School, Pensacola, FL
VT-10 Wildcats, Pensacola, FL (T-34C, T-2C, T-47A)
VT-86 Sabrehawks, Pensacola, FL (T-47A, TA-4J)
VF-101 Grim Reapers, NAS Oceana, VA (F-14A/B)
VF-11 Red Rippers, NAS Oceana, VA (F-14A) and NAS Miramar, CA (F-14D) (USS Forrestal, USS Carl Vinson)
VF-101 Grim Reapers, NAS Oceana, VA (F-14 A/B/D)
VF-31 Tomcatters, NAS Oceana, VA (F-14D) (USS Abraham Lincoln)
Fighter Wing Atlantic, NAS Oceana, VA
VF-143 Pukin’ Dogs, NAS Oceana, VA (F-14B Upgrade) (USS John F. Kennedy)
U.S. European Command, Stuttgart, Germany
Naval Network Warfare Command, NAB Little Creek, VA
Joint Personnel Recovery Center, Multi-National Force Iraq, Baghdad, Iraq
Center for Personal and Professional Development, NAS Oceana Dam Neck Annex, VA
Maritime Civil Affairs and Security Training Command, NAS Oceana Dam Neck Annex, VA
Total career flight time: 3100
F-14 Flight time: 2850
Carrier landings: 625
USS Forrestal (CV-59)
USS Carl Vinson (CVN-70)
USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN-72)
USS John F. Kennedy (CV-67)
Arrested landings also on:
USS Enterprise (CVN-65)
USS America (CV-66)
USS Dwight D. Eisenhower (CVN-69)
USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN-71)
Above & Middle Right: The VF-31 F-14 which was flown frequently by George Michaels and carried his name was the NK105, Bu.No.159610 which was originally manufactured as an F-14A and was delivered to the Navy on 8/19/75. As an F-14A the aircraft served with VF-11 and VF-32. While serving with VF-32 as Gypsy 207, this Tomcat was credited with a MiG kill. On 1/4/89, near the Libyan coast, two VF-32 F-14As flying from the USS John F. Kennedy (CV-67) engaged a pair of Libyan MiG-23 Floggers. During a lengthy six- to eight-minute air battle, the MiGs continued to threaten the Tomcats and finally, after several attempts to evade the MiG radar threat, the incoming pair of MiG-23s were declared hostile and the F-14 crews were cleared to engage. The crew of the lead F-14A, Gypsy 202 fired an AIM-7 Sparrow missile which did not strike its target, while the second F-14A's, (BuNo.159610) AIM-7 found its target destroying one of the MiG-23s. The lead F-14 re-engaged the remaining MiG-23 firing an AIM-9 Sidewinder heat-seeking missile which detonated in the tailpipe of the Flogger. The aircraft was re-manufactured to an F-14D and returned to the Navy on 11/29/91 were it served primarily with the Tomcatters of VF-31. While with VF-31, the aircraft participated in the longest Tomcat cruise. The aircraft now resides at the National Air and Space Museum’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center near Dulles airport. Below: George WHAM Michaels last flight took place in an F-14B, AG200 which was the CAG's jet. This Tomcat differed from the others by having blue squadron markings instead of the grey ones of the rest of the squadron. (George Michael)
Greek American USN NFO's., Dimitries Grimes and George Michels enjoy a typical Greek Easter lunch onboard USS John Kennedy during the Operation Enduring Freedom, back in 2002. You can read more about Dimitries Grimes in the following link: https://www.greeks-in-foreign-cockpits.com/pilots-crews/nfos-wsos-mission-co/demetries-grimes/ (Demetries Grimes)
With his wife Pam, while participating in F-14 Demo flights while serving with VF-101. (George Michaels)
In Baghdad on the balcony of the Joint Personnel Recovery Center, Multi-National Force in Iraq. (George Michaels).
George 'WHAM' Michael during his retirement ceremony. (George Michaels).
Hitting the tanker in unknown skies. (George Michaels)
A flight of VF-31s Tomcats refuel from a USAF KC-135 tanker. (George Michaels)
Flying above Baghdad with a helicopter during his service in the Joint Personnel Recovery Center, Multi-National Force in Iraq. (George Michaels)
WHAM....Memorabilia!. (George Michaels)
GEORGE MICHAEL VIDEO AT THE WING OF EAGLES 1997 AIRSHOW
FLYING AND EXPLAINING F-14 TOMCAT FEATURES
1. Dimitrios Vassilopoulos personal correspondence with George Michaels.