At the end of his 2011 Vice Adm. Donald D. Engen Flight Jacket Night presentation at the Museum, retired Navy Captain and warbird pilot Dale “Snort” Snodgrass exclaimed: “Livin’ the dream! I can’t believe I’m still doing it. Thirty-six years flying fighters!” And he didn’t stop there as he went on to help found and become chief pilot for Draken International, one of the largest adversarial training contractors for the United States military. Retiring from Draken, he began assembling his own Snort Air Force. Sadly, his dream came to an end on July 24, 2021, and one of the most highly regarded military pilots departed this airspace.

Livin’ the dream! I can’t believe I’m still doing it. Thirty-six years flying fighters!

Dale “Snort” Snodgrass fit the bill as the high-time Grumman F-14 pilot that he was, with more than 4,800 hours in the Tomcat, and as “the Real Top Gun” as dubbed by Air & Space magazine. He earned those accolades during his highly decorated 27-year naval career, including 34 combat missions in Operation Desert Storm, a career this immensely talented aviator accomplished with vision, hard work, and hard play.

Dale Snodgrass was one of the best F-14 pilots in the Navy. The Museum’s Grumman F-14D(R) Tomcat at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center. (Smithsonian Institution)

The son of a World War II Marine aviator and Grumman test pilot, Snodgrass was literally immersed in aviation from the beginning—he carefully listened to all the test pilots’ tales. He made things happen and tried mightily to not miss opportunities. Snodgrass ignored or made plenty of his own rules and to some, may have been the epitome of the arrogant fighter pilot. Except he wasn’t. He was supremely confident and was never afraid to constructively, or not, criticize a pilot or a rule. His faith in himself was aggressively earned and the reasons are evident in the endless seat-of-the-pants stories he told at the podium or more likely at the bar. They include:

  • Finally landing at night on approach number 13 to the USS Nimitz in the North Atlantic Ocean with the carrier rolling so radically from side to side that its engine screws were alternately visible above the water.
  • Managing an F-14 engine stall and subsequent descent into triple-A gun fire at night over Iraq with only one operating engine. To survive he needed to go even lower to restart the stalled engine or fire up the one remaining afterburner. However, a one-afterburner aircraft would be mistaken as an Iraqi MiG and make him a target. He chose to sink lower into gun fire and successfully restarted his stalled engine, then hightailed it out of there on two full afterburners.
  • Flying an F-14 Tomcat at stall speed in formation flight with three piston-powered Grumman cats—a Tigercat, Bearcat, and a Hellcat.

One of Snodgrass’ most dramatic exploits was well-planned and pre-approved. It occurred during a 1988 Dependents’ Cruise (when family and friends of the crew are invited aboard) on USS America (CV 66) while he was executive officer of VF-33 “Starfighters.” On full afterburner and with wings fully extended, he turned the plane on its side for a high-speed, low-level pass with the wingtip below the level of the flight deck. A famous photo of this was taken by crew member Petty Officer Sean Dunn during the practice for the airshow that the aviators would put on for the dependents the next day. Snodgrass would fly the so-called “banana pass” in many other airshows in many other aircraft.

Dale Snodgrass practicing his “banana pass” off the deck of USS America in 1988. (Photo by ABE3 Sean Dunn, courtesy of Dale Snodgrass)

Snodgrass ended his Navy career as a captain commanding all east coast fighter squadrons, consisting of all remaining Tomcat squadrons in the Navy at that time. Retiring from the Navy, he hoped to fly retired F-14s at air shows, but the U.S. government dashed that plan when it ordered all remaining F-14s dismantled so aftermarket parts could not be acquired for Iran’s Tomcats.

Dale Snodgrass flying his F-14 Tomcat in formation with a World War II F6F Hellcat fighter at EAA Airventure in 1996. (Dorothy Cochrane/Smithsonian Institution)

Instead, he flew legendary routines in North American P-51s, F-86s, Vought F4U Corsairs, and other warbirds, including the moving U.S. Air Force Heritage and Navy Heritage flights, a mix of military and retired pilots and aircraft flying in formation. Eventually, Snodgrass found kindred spirits to create an even more stunning scenario, and the Draken International adversarial civilian air force was born. He and the other founding members first flew their international mix of retired military aircraft as the highly regarded Black Diamond Jet Team until training contracts at Nellis Air Force Base and other military bases really took off. It was the capstone to an amazing career of perseverance and service. At his untimely death, he had more than 11,000 hours of flight time, almost all of it in fighters, and roughly 1,200 carrier landings.

Three generations of fighter pilots at Airventure: [left to right] late Museum Deputy Director Don Lopez, Dale Snodgrass, and former Museum Director Jack Dailey. (Dorothy Cochrane/Smithsonian Institution)

We were pleased to host him many times at the Museum. At a National Air and Space Museum Trophy dinner, he noted that a Navy mannequin in the Sea-Air Operations gallery was missing appropriate survival equipment, so he promptly donated his own gear. For many years, his Flight Jacket Night talk was the Museum’s most watched archived lecture. And he enjoyed treating our retired director Jack Dailey and the late deputy director Don Lopez to memorable warbird flights, “dogfighting” included, at EAA’s Airventure.

Captain Dale “Snort” Snodgrass. (Dorothy Cochrane/Smithsonian Institution)

Provided by the many voices at the Museum that crossed paths with Dale Snodgrass throughout his life.

Related Topics Aviation Military aviation People
Twitter Comments? Contact Us
You may also like
AirSpace Season 9, Episode 2: Tiny Jumper
Gene Nora Jessen: Much More than the Woman in Space Program
Celebrating Jerrie Mock, the First Solo World Flight by a Woman, and All Women Earth Rounders
An Advocate for Art: James “Jim” Daniel Dean