WJXT Sports Director Sam Kouvaris has been a fixture in the Jacksonville sports scene for over 35 years. With Tom and Deb, and George with the weather, Sam and the Channel 4 anchor team were familiar and friendly faces at 6 and 11pm. Pre-ESPN sports junkie viewers like myself enjoyed Sam’s commentary on the sports news of the day. More than just reading scores, he gave insight and even meaning to the “human drama of athletic competition.” With nearby Daytona, Sawgrass, and Gainesville and Tallahassee in their football heydays, Sam was conversant in everything sports and well connected.
In late 1992 naval aviation in general and carrier aviation in particular was reeling. The Tailhook scandal raged, and senior aviators played rope-a-dope, waiting for the media, political, and even intra-service pummeling to pass. It was also during this time that the resurgent Dallas Cowboys were marching to the Super Bowl, and the “America’s Team” hype was back. We at Cecil Field were America’s Team, but how to convey that? Movies like TOPGUN and shows like Supercarrier didn’t help matters, and my neighbors in Jacksonville would see a Hornet high overhead but have no idea how they were flown or why. So I opened the yellow pages and got the address for WJXT, then wrote a letter, in longhand, to Sam Kouvaris and invited him to go on a training hop with us. Then I mailed it, with a postage stamp. Two weeks later he called.
We chatted about doing a story on my squadron, the VFA-131 Wildcats, and how we trained. Sam was a bagger from way back; flying with the Blue Angels is something media personalities around the country do on a weekly basis, but bagging a carrier landing off the coast with my friend Brillo at the controls of a two-seat Hornet is more than most reporters get. Sam said sure, if you can swing it, I’m game. He played it cool…inside he must have been thinking are you kidding me! Hell yeah I want to go on a training hop!
So, prepared to ask forgiveness as I did throughout my career, I pitched it to my CO, Hawk. My vision was an air wing practice strike; Hornets and Vikings from Cecil, Tomcats, E-2’s and A-6’s from Norfolk, Marine EA-6B jammers from Cherry Point, all refueled by Air Force KC-10’s from North Carolina. We’d have the 125th Fighter Wing from Jacksonville, flying F-16s at the time, oppose us as we would fight our way into Pinecastle, bomb it, and then fight our way back out. And, ah, oh yeah, Skipper…I invited Sam Kouvaris to ride along. Yes, sir, the reporter.
Hawk was all for it, and I got to work coordinating it, again with good old fashioned phone calls, paper and pen. Time on target; 30 April 1993.
Sam got his medical and seat check updated, and in the months running up to it I mailed letters explaining what we were doing – deep background – and described a typical training hop that we flew daily to the local practice targets or over the ocean as pre-game warm up drills. The practice strike was likened to a college spring game football scrimmage, and training and learning never ended. Sam and his cameraman Kevin, who has been with him for three decades, came out to Cecil and we showed them around the squadron and put them in the simulator. They spoke to the sailors – the pit crew – and many of them were on the broadcast, with Senior Chief Murchison and Chief Langham featured. They asked questions about flying. I think it was Kevin who asked me if it was possible to fly under the Main Street Bridge or some such thing. I replied that you can do anything once. Sam tells me that quote lives on in the TV-4 newsroom.
Beaner took the reins of the Wildcats and together we brought this project to the Wing Commodore, Spock. Now early 1993, Navy was dealing with the increased budget pressures of a new administration to the already Draconian “peace dividend,” plus the distraction of the “gays in the military” issue which became Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. The Tailhook fallout continued. In this high-threat battle space everyone was gun-shy, and my project had a low positive benefit and a very high negative if it went south.
Spock liked it, but was concerned about a civilian in the middle of a practice strike formation, regardless of the risk-management measures we applied to it. I would lead a two-plane “section” to the Pinecastle target complex with Sam flying with a VFA-106 instructor. After I bombed and strafed, we’d go out to the area and meet up with a Topcat S-3 for tanking practice. So it is written, so it shall be done.
On 29 April Burner and I, with Sam in Burner’s trunk and armed with an 8mm camera, took off for Pinecastle. I’m not sure if formation dive deliveries are done anymore, (guess I could find out!) but in the video Burner is flying formation on me as we overbank and pull down to the target. Sam is not used to this, and must hold the camera on me; once my bomb comes off you can sense him fighting the sudden g force as Burner follows me on the pull off. The strafing clip is excellent, with Burner stabilized right there. That’s the sound of my 20mm cannon on the video, unedited, coming through the Plexiglas canopy from 300 feet away – cool!
Everyone loves their jargon, and Sam stopped me once after I referred to “filming.” We don’t film, we tape, get it right! So we flew over Daytona and over the Atlantic where I demo-ed in-flight refueling as Sam taped with Burner flying form. After some intercepts we flew over the city and into the break at Cecil. That afternoon, Air Wing Seven squadrons arrived from Norfolk, as did the Marine Prowlers.
April 30, 1993 was a severe clear day in Jacksonville – one less variable! – and we briefed this gorilla. It had 8 of us Wildcats and 8 Gunstars from our sister squadron. Two divisions of Dakota and Dog F-14’s and four Blue Blaster A-6’s, plus E-2s from the Bluetails, and the Marine EA-6Bs. Roles were assigned and fuel was allocated, as were take off and target times. The guys that helped me plan it flew it; you’ll see my roommate Bullet (who remains on active duty, and yes, we called him Bullet then) who was alternate lead, with Comet, who later became the Commodore, Box, Tails, Gucci, Possum, Smack and Bags. There’s Biff, of whom Rick Reilly told his Sports Illustrated readers to run from, and Durt who survived a night in the gulf and took it all in stride. Smurf, and Leo – what a great guy Leo was. Air Wing Seven’s call sign was Freedom, as it is today.
Walking to the jet I was pumped, and Bullet slapped me on the back; “Freedom freakin’ Lead!” The size of the strike didn’t really hit me until on the taxiway and seeing all the Toms and Intruders – uncommon to Cecil – taxi into position. Game time.
We joined on the KC-10’s off Savannah, got our gas, and then pushed south. Every mile and minute is structured, but you must be ready for what-if pop-ups. You, listen, monitor, decide, and talk only when required. The Vipers intercepted us and the sweep Tomcats and Hornets dealt with them. About 16 of us pressed down to Pinecastle, going feet-dry over Ormond Beach and rolled in from a high dive, a tactic passed down from our ancestors.
We flew back out the way we came, then knocked it off. Sam and Kevin met me at the flight line and I didn’t spike the ball, acting as if we’d been in the end-zone before. You know, the image-is-everything routine. He prompted me to show some emotion, c’mon, man! Guess I needed Crash Davis to coach me up on post-game media interviews.
They then got to work editing, and decided to call it Patriot Games, after a recent title of another best-selling techno-thriller from a remarkable new novelist.
Two weeks later Channel 4 aired the story over two nights, in reverse order of how the events occurred. Lites, then the Gunstar Commanding Officer and no stranger to squadron press coverage, laughed as he bowed down to me in mock supplication; you win, you win!
Bullet soon departed for Pentagon shore duty, and months later told me he had seen the clip in a Public Affairs briefing of what Navy needed more of.
Sam, with Kevin alongside, serves ably at Channel 4, delivering a first class broadcast night after night in a town he loves and where he raised his fine family. The local P-3 and Seahawk guys got with the program, and Sam has flown with them too. He is a loyal advocate of naval aviation, and cites his experiences with us as the highlight of his career. Check out his unforgettable Rampager Change of Command speech sometime.
He said people would often ask him if he was a pilot, and he was tired of saying no. He did something about it, and today is an instrument and multi-engine rated general aviation pilot. Me, I just write about flying.
Hope you all enjoy watching Patriot Games, which was taped 25 years ago this week.