Interview: Nicholas Pascarella
Photography: As Credited
I came across Justin Grofik on Instagram recently. His feed is peppered with huskies, beaches and brews, but occasionally there's an over-the-shoulder look of the Rockies or Yosemite with the sawtooth wing of the Rhino in the foreground. His "office" skirts along some of the most gorgeous views on earth, but his "office" also has 40,000lbs of thrust, comes complete with a 20mm cannon, and drops bombs.
As you all may have seen, James and I got back from Rainbow Canyon earlier this year; our first trip to those hallowed grounds. I've been looking for a pilot who's flown the canyon since then. We got to experience the rush 20 seconds at a time with each jet that graced us with a pass; as a Naval Aviator, he gets the rush from start to finish. Full Disc Aviation caught up with Justin recently and he was kind enough to answer some of our questions, so without further ado, it is my pleasure to introduce Lt. Justin Grofik. -np
FDA: Who were your big aviation influences when you were young? What drove you to fly?
Lt. Justin Grofik: As cliche as this sounds, I’d probably have to say Top Gun was the reason I got into aviation. As long as I can remember, military flying was the only thing I’ve ever wanted to do. I grew up in Central Florida, just south of Patrick AFB, so we would see the Thunderbirds a lot at the air shows, but my grandfather was in the Navy in WWII, so that’s what drove me that route.
How did you feel on your first solo? What aircraft was it?
It was a C172 out of Mobile Downtown Airport in October of 2009. I had no prior civilian time before my commission, so it was a pretty steep learning curve for a history major! I think it was more of a relief once it was over, but the solo cross country (to Gulfport, maybe 45 mins away) was wild since there were 3 or 4 of us trying to beat some pretty gnarly weather on the way back.
Do you have any fun stories you could share with us from your flight training?
Most of the fun comes from the places you get to go to train, like Key West, San Diego, and the PNW. There’s really nothing like taking off as the sun comes up in a place people pay tons of money to vacation and realizing you’re getting paid to do this. Some of the coolest experiences I’ve had have been flying with some of the vintage warbirds that are still flying, like the Corsair, probably still my favorite piston fighter.
How did it feel to push the throttles forward the first time in the Hornet?
Crazy. I remember in the T-45 you’d hold the brakes as you come to full power and give the controls a wipe out and the brakes would hold the jet. I tried that in the sim in the Rhino for the first time and though I had a brake failure since I started sliding down the runway. The sim instructor asked what the hell I [was doing] and laughed when I gave the standard, brand-new-to-the-F/A-18 response of “well, that’s what we did in the T-45.” Turns out ten times the thrust makes a difference! When I got to do it for real the first time, it really throws your head back when you light off the afterburners!
What is your favorite part of the Sidewinder low-fly route?
I know a lot of people love Star Wars Canyon, but mine is actually point Bravo where the fire tower used to be. I’ve passed that a few times close enough to see whites in people’s eyes as they get a full planform of a Rhino going by crossing the ridgeline. It’s great.
I imagine you being locked-in, the jet being just an extension of yourself on your flights, but with that in mind, what are your thoughts/feelings when dropping into the Jedi Transition?
As a pilot, you’re always trying to find the balance between max performance of the aircraft and being overly conservative. If you never push the envelope you’ll never hone the skills needed to be a successful tactical aviator. And the occasional spectacular shots from the constant photog presence that drop into my inbox don’t hurt, either!
What is your style when flying the canyon? For instance, do you like to drop in low before the corner with the burners lit, or does it just depend on how you feel and your ordinance load that day?
It really depends on how much I’ve been able to fly and how proficient I’m feeling on that particular run. If it’s been a while I’ll usually take it easy until I get back into the groove. Also have to take into consideration what’s on the jet. If there’s an ARS pod it’s easy to exceed the speed limits, and if the jet is slick it’s easy to break the number lighting the burners.
What is life like on board the boat?
It gets into a routine after a week or so, and it ends up being pretty mundane. Eat, sleep, fly, work out, paperwork, repeat. One of the plusses with being an LSO is getting up on the flight deck and getting fresh air pretty often, so that breaks it up a little bit.
How much free time do you have and what do you do with it?
During workups things are pretty busy with the training that needs to happen to get certified to deploy, but once you’re on deployment and in that groove, you have a lot more free time than you think. I read tons of books, watched probably 3 or 4 entire series of shows like Boardwalk Empire and The Wire, tons of movies, and played more than my fair share of video games during my down time. It all comes down to time management and making sure you have enough time to decompress when you don’t have to be working.
How does it feel to get thrown off the carrier with the catapult? What is that like?
Best roller coaster ride in the world. Zero to 150+ in two seconds! The closest comparison I can make is the Top Thrill Dragster coaster at Cedar Point. Night is especially nuts since once you get launched off the bow the world kind of ends and you’re thrown into nothingness. It can be pretty trippy the first times it happens.
On the other end of the boat, what's it like to trap a wire? How does that feel?
Pretty much just the opposite of the cat shot. Stopping from 150 knots to zero in a few hundred feet of what’s essentially a controlled crash. If you’re doing it right the traps should come as a surprise since you’re looking at the “meatball” and flying it all the way to touchdown.
What is it like trying to hit a pitching deck in rough weather or at night?
I’ve been really lucky (knock on wood) with the weather during my time so far. Haven’t had a ton of pitching deck, but in the sim it can get kind of wild. Luckily there’s a bunch of crazy dudes on the back of the boat that are there to keep you safe-- the LSOs (Landing Signals Officers). They can usually see something happening before the pilots can and can either give a power call if necessary to get the jet back on glideslope or wave them off to try it again if they don’t like what they see. Sometimes it isn't necessarily the pilots fault, they can just get out of sync with the deck and the safe call is to have them go away and try again. Night traps, after almost 100, still suck. They never really get any easier, and the minute you get complacent mom (the boat) will teach you a lesson in humility.
What is your call sign and how did you get it?
My callsign is Scraps, but those stories are usually reserved for times when beers are in hand. Nothing too crazy though.
What is next for you?
I recently left instructor duty with VFA-122 and a stint on the West Coast F-18 Demo and returned to the operational fleet as one of the two Carrier Air Wing 17 LSOs. These orders will take me to somewhere around October 2020, so I’ll be there to get the air wing through workups and see them off on their next deployment next year. Still deciding what I want to do when I grow up beyond that.
Full Disc Aviation would like to sincerely thank Lt. Justin Grofik for his service and his time. Check out @scraps_fighter on Instagram for more of Lt. Grofik.