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From Fighter to Farmer: Captain Mike Nocton

On July 20, 1969, 600 million people watched as Neil Armstrong became the first man to walk on the moon. One of those viewers was 20-year-old Mike Nocton.

Like the rest of the nation, the moon landing captivated Nocton. He watched intently as CBS News anchor Walter Cronkite interviewed the 38-year-old astronaut.

When asked if landing on the moon was the most exciting thing he’d ever done, Armstrong surprised Cronkite and most viewers by saying no, it wasn’t. Landing on an aircraft carrier at night was the most exciting.

“It gives me chills just thinking about that again,” says Nocton, who grew up building model airplanes. “I knew I could do that. It really inspired me.”

With that inspiration, the Indiana farm boy joined the Navy, where he would land on a carrier nearly 600 times. Almost half of those landings were at night.

Mike a6
His career in the Navy would take him to the South China Sea, where he would do a test flight with a nuclear weapon; Syria, where he got “shot at like you wouldn’t believe;” and Libya, where weather would keep him from participating in the strikes he planned.

While the daredevil in him embraced this thrilling lifestyle, part of Nocton’s heart was always in Richmond, Indiana, on his family farm. For more than 15 years, he managed the farm while flying with the Navy.

“I just loved what I was doing,” he says. “I loved the exhilaration of flying and the serenity of farming.”

Eyes toward the sky

Mike topgun
On September 4, 1973, Nocton earned his wings of gold. He was officially a naval aviator.

Nocton’s journey in becoming a pilot started with his first airplane ride to Pensacola, Florida. There the recent Purdue University graduate, with a wife and young baby in tow, would begin Aviation Officer Candidate School (AOCS).

For four months, Nocton underwent rigorous training and extensive classwork. “It was just like the movie An Officer and a Gentleman,” he says. “They kicked your butt day and night. The only time they didn’t was when you were in class.”

Each future aviator was required to understand aerodynamics and know everything there was about props and jets, how they worked, and how to fix them, says Nocton.

Being a farm kid came in handy. “When I got into a jet, it was easy for me,” says Nocton, who started driving tractors at age 6. “I was also mechanically inclined and could hear things happening. I saved the jet a few times because of my good ear.”

Growing up on a dairy farm also prepared Nocton for the long hours and physical work. From the time he was 10, he milked the cows every night until he graduated from high school. “This was a big motivation for attending college,” he laughs.

Just as he did in high school and college, Nocton finished AOCS at the top of his class, giving him the option to select his next stop. He chose jet training.

In Kingsville, Texas, Nocton had his first chance to fly and his first chance to land on an aircraft carrier. At that time, students typically landed on a carrier with a straight wing T-2 and then advanced to a swept-wing A-4, which is more unstable at slower air speeds. But when Nocton was learning to fly, the T-2 ship wasn’t available, so that part of the training was bypassed.

The first time Nocton saw an aircraft carrier was when he was flying the more aerodynamically unstable A-4 aircraft. And he was supposed to perform his first landing.

“That was an experience and a half,” he says.

His competitive nature got him through it. “A week before, another guy I knew I could outfly went to the carrier and landed. I thought, ‘If he can make it out alive, I’ll do it no problem,’” says Nocton.

Mike landing on a carrier
The landing was the first of hundreds of successful landings, one of which is shown at the right. “I was blessed with the ability to fly, but someone was also watching over me,” he says. “I made some mistakes. Somehow God protected me, and I got through those situations.”

While luck, natural ability, and even God did play a part, Nocton also spent hours mastering the craft.

“I would go to the simulators and spend an extra two to three hours every night until I knew every maneuver,” he says. “I spent so much extra time, that I was at the top of the class.”

With those coveted gold wings secured to his white dress uniform, Nocton left for the Naval Air Station at Whidbey Island in Washington.

Landing Aboard an Aircraft Carrier: Nocton describes what it was like to land an A-6 Intruder Jet on an aircraft carrier. Nocton is retired from the Navy and now farms in Richmond, Indiana.

Once-in-a-lifetime experience

Mike plane
In 1977, Nocton was aboard his first carrier with the VA-95 in the North Pacific Ocean, skirting along the coast of Cambodia and Vietnam up to Japan and Korea. Nocton had joined the VA-95 for the 11-month cruise after mastering the A-6 Intruder All-Weather Attack jets at Whidbey.

One evening that July, he was one of two pilots selected for a mock exercise. To see how two airplanes with live nuclear weapons would takeoff, fly to a mock target, and land at a base was helpful because Nocton was going to do just that.

“I was selected because I was a nuclear loading officer and could do the wire check,” says Nocton. “I wasn’t selected because I was especially good, but because I was specially qualified.”

For the drill, Nocton had about 20 minutes to load the nuclear weapon, although it usually took an hour or more.

“Before I took off, I remember the admiral coming up to me and saying, ‘Nocton, I don’t care what happens. You will not jettison that bomb. The airplane better go down with it,’” recalls Nocton.

The flight itself was no different than a regular flight, says Nocton, besides the 2,000-pound shiny bomb below him.

“It was amazing the thought that I was carrying an actual nuclear weapon that could wipe out a large city. I’ll never forget that,” he says.

To put it into perspective, the bomb Nocton was carrying could be dialed up to 1 megaton, which is 1 million tons of TNT. The “Little Boy” dropped above Hiroshima had a blast equal to 12,000 to 15,000 tons of TNT.

When he landed safely in the Philippines after an uneventful flight, six military jeeps with armed guards escorted him to a special compound. The nuclear weapon was offloaded and Nocton was on his way back to the cruiser.

Back to the farm

Mike and kids
Mike in 1985 with his two kids, Mike and Heather.
In 1980, after nine years of service, Nocton made the difficult decision to leave a promising career in the Navy.

After his time with the VA-95, Nocton became a flight instructor with the VT-26 in Beeville, Texas. Excelling at this role, he was promoted to model manager for all of the Naval Air Landing Signal Instruction.

Despite his success in the Navy, not all was well at home. Nocton’s wife at the time didn’t want him to be in the Navy anymore. So the two eventually made the decision to return to Nocton’s hometown and start a farm.

With money saved up, Nocton bought equipment, rented 600 acres, and started his farm in the same county where his dad and grandpa, who were also veterans, were still farming.

In less than six months, the Navy was calling again. A flight instructor was needed back in Beeville. If Nocton would come back and fly in the Reserves, the job was his.

Nocton said yes and returned to the Navy as a bachelor farmer.

“I farmed continuously from that year until now,” he says. “Some years it was really a challenge, especially when I was going overseas in June or July. But I’d come back for harvest and then fly back out again in December.”

The adventure continues

On April 14, 1986, 14 A-6 jets and 18 F-111 bombers led air strikes against Libya. Nocton was supposed to be one of the A-6 pilots.

After spending three years as an instructor in Beeville, now as a lieutenant commander, Nocton was asked to take over an A-6 Intruder Squadron at the Naval Air Station Oceana in Virginia Beach, Virginia. He was the first commanding officer of Attack Squadron 0686.

He made another first in the subsequent years: He was the first Reserve pilot to join a fleet squadron on a cruise. In fact, he joined five cruises as a Reserve pilot.

While his mission on that first cruise wasn’t as significant as the nighttime flight with a silver bullet, the nickname for the shiny nukes, it was actually more dangerous.

On June 14, 1985, Flight 847, on a Boeing 727, was hijacked on the way from Athens to Rome. The plane was diverted to the Beirut International Airport in Lebanon, which was in the middle of a civil war.

Nocton was off the coast of Israel at the time and was instructed to fly over Beirut to take pictures. Instead of following instructions and staying 12 miles off the coast of Lebanon, Nocton and his navigator decided to go on a sight seeing flight – to Syria.

“We went on into Syria, over the Beqaa Valley and took pictures of all of Syria. This also gave us a better view of the 727,” he says. “We just decided to take the chance. We were shot at, but their radar wasn’t on, so they didn’t know exactly where we were.”

To his surprise, the bold pair didn’t get in trouble. “We had the best photos of anybody from that cruise. The admiral was really happy, but the commanding officer left the deck as soon as he saw we were coming from the wrong direction,” adds Nocton.

Despite that bit of insubordination, Nocton was made a strike leader on his following cruise on Oceana in 1986.

After terrorist attacks were linked to Libya, U.S. President Ronald Reagan ordered sanctions against the Middle Eastern country. He also had the U.S. Navy and Air Force put together potential strikes against key targets. Two of those included the Benghazi airport and a parts warehouse, which Nocton was responsible for planning.

“I spent a lot of time in the vault planning those missions,” he says. “It looked like we weren’t ever going to carry out the strikes, so I went back home in late March to plant my crop.”

In mid-April, Nocton had finished planting and was on the carrier USS Nimitz, where he was planning to fly to Oceana. Unfortunately, a dense layer of fog made the journey impossible and he instead went to the Marine Corps Air Station at Cherry Point, North Carolina. When he landed, a mechanic climbed up the ladder to his airplane and told him that the U.S. had just hit Libya.

No Fear: Like most aviators, Nocton did not fear death. He feared not carrying out his missions properly.

Back to the farm, for good

In 1996, Nocton officially retired after 25 years in the Navy.

He had spent the last three years at the Pentagon and discovered that pushing paper wasn’t for him, even if it meant he wouldn’t make admiral.

“Those were the worst three years of my life,” says Nocton, who retired as a captain. “A lot of valuable work is done at the Pentagon because that’s where we plan everything we do in the military. But I didn’t enjoy it. I was in an isolated, top-clearance room with a combination lock on the door and wires on the windows.”

Instead, Nocton chose a tractor cab and the rolling fields his family had farmed since the 1930s. “It was time to farm full-time and devote more attention to that,” he says.

With a new focus on farming, Nocton incorporated advanced technology, experimented with vertical tillage in addition to no till, and added new tiling where necessary. Today, the farm includes 1,000 acres of corn, soybeans, and wheat as well as a small herd of beef cattle.

Mike and Sandy
Mike and Sandy on the farm in Richmond.
Nocton and his wife, Sandy, live on the farm across from the original farmstead.

The couple met at an Indiana county fair in June of 1987. Sandy, a former queen, went to the queen contest each year with her mother and that year Nocton’s daughter, Heather, was in the running. After crossing paths that evening, Nocton asked Sandy out – the following October. He had been busy flying and farming.

Despite the four-month delay, Sandy said yes. “I was drawn to his tenacity and his honesty,” she says. “Also that he was serving our country and the fact that he was a proud farmer.

“The rest is history,” she adds. “We’ve been together almost 30 years.”

The two make frequent trips to visit their two children, Heather and Mike, and six grandchildren in Knoxville, Tennessee.

Although the trip to Knoxville would be much easier if Nocton flew the couple down, as Sandy points out, this doesn’t interest the former pilot. In fact, after his father died in 2005, he sold the small airplane he’d had at the Richmond Municipal Airport.

“It gave me no thrill to take off, look around, and land,” he says. “Flying like that just isn’t flying to me, if you aren’t going fast, you aren’t dropping bombs, you aren’t landing aboard an aircraft carrier, or you aren’t shooting missiles.”  

New thrills

In 2015, Captain Nocton took on a new challenge – one that wasn’t related to flying. He entered – and won – the Beck’s Hybrids Journey to 300 yield contest.

“When you get 330 bushels per acre, it is pure luck I think,” he says about the outstanding corn crop. “Mother Nature blessed us with the right rain at the right time throughout the growing season.”

The average on the entire farm last year was 250 bushels per acre.

This year, he’s attempting to grow 100-bushel-per-acre soybeans. “I don’t think it’s possible personally, but the beans do look phenomenal this year. We got really good rain in July after a dry June,” he says.

Stay tuned to see if he can achieve this year’s goal. If history is any indication, Mike Nocton won’t have any problem achieving the so-called impossible.

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