Captain Dale “Snort” Snodgrass (U.S. Navy, ret.), former Top Gun instructor, legendary F-14 Tomcat pilot and current air show superstar, is politely considering a question he’s likely been asked many times before: What’s the “right stuff” all about?
“You’re in a place that you know you were designed to be in,” Snodgrass says. “You get in an airplane—I just know that’s where I’m supposed to be. There’s nothing else I’d be more at home in. And everything clicks in for me, particularly the tactical stuff—the dogfighting stuff. I see things happening six moves ahead. All this while you’re at 8 G’s and 500 knots, and you’re flying against multiple airplanes. It’s the ability to sort of ‘get in the zone’ and execute that.”
We’re sitting in the Fly By Café overlooking the runways at St. Augustine Airport (SGJ) in Florida, Snodgrass’ home base.
“It’s just very natural. Even the very first time I tried it, it just worked out,” Snodgrass continues. “I don’t know how that works. Some people are lucky enough to get in such a position.”
Whether getting his pipper stabilized on a MiG 25 over the Gulf of Sidra or managing to get into the cockpit of an assortment of jet fighters and big piston warbirds on the air show circuit, Snodgrass has demonstrated an ability to maneuver into the advantageous position. But listening to the soft-spoken überpilot, one has to conclude that luck has less to do with it than, well, having the right stuff: the ability to think a few steps ahead—whether in the air or on the ground.
|Listening to the soft-spoken überpilot, one has to conclude that luck has less to do with it than, well, having the right stuff...|
The son of a Grumman test pilot, Snodgrass grew up on Long Island, N.Y. He earned his wings and commission through the Naval ROTC program at the University of Minnesota, which he attended on a swimming scholarship. Suffice it to say he distinguished himself as an exemplary pilot in training, was the first student selected to fly the new F-14 and became the Navy’s top Tomcat pilot. He could push the envelope hard because, somehow, he always knew where the edges were. He led his squadron into combat in Desert Storm, was given charge of all F-14 demo operations and ultimately rose to be in command of every F-14 in the nation’s active inventory.
Unlike most former fighter pilots, however, Snodgrass hasn’t had to leave the hot planes behind. In one of his hangars at St. Augustine, a P-51 Mustang and an F4U-5NL Corsair are chocked side by side. A little later today, he’ll be taking the Corsair up for a photo mission. The F-86 Sabre he uses in air shows is in Texas having its engine overhauled. And this season, having added a supersonic Northrop F-5 Tiger II fighter to his arsenal, Snodgrass will present “the first ever civilian F-5 air show.”
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