This is a story with purpose, so I’ll come out with it at the start: I am working to ensure that the life of John ‘Yogi’ Graham, the F-14 RIO,who went through the RAG with my dad, Glen ‘Wheels’ Wheless almost four decades ago, is forever immortalized. Yogi perished in an accident that was unavoidable and unforeseeable, but which also saved the lives of those who continued to fly the F-14 after Yogi’s passing. One of those men was my dad.
Yogi’s story played a central role in “The Fighter Pilots’ Guide to Living,” a story I published on Medium back in October 2016. But that story was about more than just Yogi. I wrote about my dad and his friends, and the bravado that naval aviators have in spades. I also focused on the unparalleled storytelling (and other) traditions in the naval aviation community. There’s just something about the way that aviators tell their stories, as I explained in TFPGTL:
“For me, listening to an aviator talk about flying has always been a life-affirming and immersive experience. The way fighter pilots tell their stories — in the perpetual present, with a healthy seasoning of salty language and vivid detail — makes you feel as if you are in the jet with them: the explosive burst of the CAT launch catches in your chest; the aroma of jet fuel fills your nose; a great big world becomes minuscule, toy-sized as you peer out through the bubble canopy. If you’re lucky enough to be present for an aviator’s storytelling, then for a few beautiful seconds, you can also be a fearless, ego-swamped fighter pilot; you can conquer anything.”
When I published “The Fighter Pilots’ Guide to Living,” my dad and his aviator friends helped spread it around the flying community. I’m indebted to those men and women who helped me share a story about lessons I learned from a man I never met, but whose actions have, without a doubt, impacted the way I think and go through life.
In the years since the story was published, I’ve heard amazing stories from aviators who flew the Tomcat and were touched by the piece, from men who worked with some of the “characters” the story mentioned, and from aviators who fly the F-14’s replacement, the F-18, who still found that the story resonated with them.
Along with a huge “thank you,” to all those readers, I also have another request.
My dad is one of several aviators working to create a monument to the F-14 Tomcat at the Virginia Beach Oceanfront. The monument honors not just those who flew the jet, but those who maintained it, and those like myself who just loved to watch the F-14 cut through the sky with its wings folded back as it emitted the familiar roar that I consider the precise sound of freedom.
The obelisk monument, whose four sides are pictured below, will be inscribed with dedications. Members of the public who donate funds above a certain denomination can have their names permanently inscribed upon the obelisk. Also included in their own special section will be the names of every aviator who died while flying the F-14.
Yogi’s name will be permanently etched on the monument, but only if the monument is fully funded. That’s why I’m here, doing something that neither normal nor comfortable.
I’m asking that, if you read about Yogi — his Key West antics, his note-taking, and his love of “Walking on the Moon” by The Police — and if you were moved, as I was, by hearing the story of his passing, please consider making a small donation to the monument. Help ensure that, in the future, people who come to reminisce about, or learn about the marvelous F-14 will read Yogi’s name and know that his sacrifice made a difference.
As I explained before, Yogi’s death prevented the deaths of an untold number of other aviators. Again, one of them was my dad.
Without ‘Wheels,’ I don’t know what kind of person I’d have been. He is the force, alongside my mom, propelling me forward in the face of life’s inevitable stumbling blocks. He taught me, most importantly, to give back to my country, which has given me everything.
If you’re able, please help me thank my dad, and ‘Yogi’, and everyone who flew or worked on the Tomcat, by creating this permanent memorial to that beloved fighter jet.
F-14 Tomcat Monument Association
PO Box 3112
Virginia Beach VA 23451 USA
Many thanks to everyone who gives this a read, and my eternal gratitude to everyone who donates funds for this important monument. Feel free to leave your own memories about the Tomcat in the comments!