The Real Air Force

Way back in 1968, I was a very green second lieutenant with no real job assigned to a base in Washington, D.C.

One day a crusty old chief warrant officer. who had served in WWII, said to me: “This is not the real air force.”

Five years later, I found myself in the backseat of Phantom — the hottest fighter in the Air Force flying combat missions in Southeast Asia. If the air force’s motto was “To Fly and Fight,” then at least for the moment, this came closest to the Real Air Force. But was I?

I have thought about the Real Air Force for many years now.

When I was graduating from Nav School, some comments began to filter down that in the Real Air Force, navigators were not valued as much as pilots.

Now, I had been in a job in D.C. where the flying aspect of the air force mission was invisible, and it was clear that flying any day was better than sitting behind a desk for eight hours.

If some folks felt that as navs, they were second-class citizens, I had not experienced that yet. I worked extremely hard to earn my wings, overcome my poor mathematical skills, and learn to be careful, precise, systematic, and well organized. For me being a so-called second-class citizen was not an option.

From Mather, I went to Luke to upgrade into the backseat of the F-4 Phantom II. I spent nearly nine months there.

But were Mather or Luke the real air force? They were training bases with classes always coming and filling the SEA air war needs.

So I went to SEA in search of the Real Air Force. If the air force’s motto was “To Fly and Fight,” then Udorn in Thailand, at least for the moment, came closest to the “real air force.” And perhaps I then would finally be part of that ideal, but it had been a long path to get to this point.

At Udorn, I went into combat with the men of the 13 TFS — men who were the Real Air Force to me. My F-4 combat unit will always be special to me.

That said, it doesn’t matter though if one does not fly, all the men and women who serve make up the real Air Force. You worked hard to do your jobs. You learned your specialties. You served at remote locations, as I did. You were there in war and peace.

So I thank you all who have done your duty over the years, whether you were a supply clerk, crew chief, operations specialist, security police team member, doctor, nurse, or truck driver or worked in a chow hall. We who did the flying couldn’t have done it alone.

You folks are truly the Real Air Force.

For more thoughts on my 23 years of service, see my new book Fighter Gator. Available now on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and from the publisher.

Posted in 13 TFS, Air Force, American History, F-4 Phantom II, Fighter Aircraft, Luke AFB, Mather AFB, Thailand, Veterans, Vietnam War | Tagged | 2 Comments

Thoughts from the Pit Part Deux

More Thoughts from the Pit

Flight Surgeons: The Docs were great, never met one that didn’t look out for the best interest of the jocks. Two things to remember though: you never told a Doc that you passed out. That was an immediate grounding. My son-in-law’s brother told one that he had passed out when undergoing a pilot flight physical in college – BOOM, out of the program. Second never volunteer information (this also applied to an IG visit). Not necessarily lie to the Doc but don’t tell him things he didn’t need to know.

Wing Weenies and Crew Dogs: Half the time I flew the backseat of the Phantom I was a Crew Dog, in the trenches with the rest of the guys, flying combat missions or sitting alert. Half way through my time in Alaska, I became what we called a “Wing Weenie.” I moved up to a position on the DO’s staff and became attached to the F-4 squadron. That meant I flew with the squadron, no longer pulled alert, and often flew on weekends to get my requirements.

Bold Face tests: The most critical emergency procedures were designated “boldface” because bold type highlighted them in our checklists. These we learned by heart. Instructors tested our knowledge of them weekly, and we had to write them verbatim from memory. Verbatim meant as they appeared in the checklist; even a misplaced comma counted as a failure.

Fighter pilots; They could not talk without using their hands. Invariably, the right hand became the F-4 and deftly demonstrated how to intercept the left. Almost every debriefing witnessed this phenomenon. This phenomenon became especially evident when pilots talked about BFM (basic flight maneuvers) and ACM (aerial combat maneuvers). They couldn’t describe a maneuver without using their hands. We GIBS got a big kick out of it.

Pecker or Peter Pocket: The survival knife pocket, a.k.a. the “Pecker Pocket,” on our flight suits’ leg. There was no need for it as our G-suits contained a survival knife. A pocket-less flight suit was a sure indicator that one was a fighter jock. Tearing off that pocket was a rite of passage.

Flight Pay and Combat: During the war, as a captain on flight pay, I had my base pay and made an additional $400 flight pay a month. Still, I was not rich; the combined income for my wife and me totaled about $11,000 after tax withholding. We each got about $460 a month, which she supplemented with pay as a substitute teacher. Her share did not include that princely extra $65.00 combat pay, which was not taxable, that went to me. Flight pay was called aviation incentive pay and not paid for flying. It was paid to ensure that all aviators were available and ready for flight duty no matter what staff position they might occupy. Thus a more senior officer would continue to receive this pay as long as he had flown a requisite number of years during his career. I continued to receive this pay as a lt. colonel in Washington even though I was not flying as I had fulfilled the number of years to meet my goals. Today the pay is about $1000 per month. This meant that my $400 in 1973 was about $2,300 in today’s dollars.

Blood Chits and Survival Vests: When we flew, we always wore a survival vest; these included survival radios and extra batteries, flares, a jungle tree lowering device (we had learned to use this at Clark), some extra food, and of course the blood chit. The chit was a small cloth with the American flag on it and the U.S. government’s promise, written in several languages, to pay anyone who assisted the downed airman in evading the enemy. Some jocks also planned to trade their gold or silver bracelets for their lives. And I must admit that thought was not far from my mind if need be. Yes, the idea was always there.

More stories about the Phantom and combat are in my new book Fighter Gator available on Amazon and Barnes and Noble or go to

Posted in 13 TFS, Air Force, Air Force lingo, Alaska, Alaskan Air Command, American History, Anchorage, Anchorage Alaska, Arizona, Combat, F-4 Phantom II, Fighter Aircraft, Fighter pilot lingo, Fighter pilot slang, Navigator, Navigator Training, Thailand, U Dorn RTAFB, Udorn RTAFB, Veterans, Vietnam War | Tagged , | Leave a comment

What the…

[The following blog post is rated M for mature audiences, it contains some language that may offend, but then again What the …]

As June 1973 began, I attended my first fighter jock party in a combat zone.

I wrote home a very censored letter of the events:

6 June 1973: Today is finally a day off–since I’ve been here, I flew five times in one week, so I needed a rest. I am still awaiting amended orders assigning me here. I can’t get my pay until I get them. We have been bombing Cambodia on most of our rides.

Last night the sq. had a going away party. A lot of people got thrown in the pool at the hotel downtown where it was held. I have been flying early mostly, up at 3:30 a.m. and down by noon or so if I am lucky. I still haven’t gotten my hold baggage, but they think it might be here this week.

That was my first Sawadee party for the 13TFS at Udorn RTAFB. Sawadee in Thai meant both hello and goodbye. So we said farewell to those leaving and hello to us new guys. I wore the new party suit I had gotten from the Maharajah. These parties were consummate fighter jock events. Many at this party were old heads who had flown combat in Linebacker II, over North Vietnam, during one of the worst years of the war.

The last jock dinner I attended was the formal dining-out at Luke. This dinner was raw and far from traditional.

In the minds of the old heads, all we newcomers were F’ing New Guys (FNGs), and they welcomed us as such. An old head got up and said, “Let’s welcome the F…ing New Guys.” And the crowd roared, “Hello A..holes.”

Then he said, “Let’s welcome the A..holes;” they responded, “Hello FNGs.” Then to complete the welcome, a volley of dinner rolls hit our table.

Fighter crews used the F word with great frequency. They had a mastery of it that utterly amazed me; they used it in every conceivable combination: noun, verb, adjective, adverb, and just for fun.

One of my favorites was: “He didn’t know the square root of F’all,” which, when applied to another jock, meant he didn’t know a lot.

In addition to expanding my swearing skills, I quickly picked up a whole series of new phrases, primarily funny, that few outside the fighter fraternity would understand:

First to the runway is lead
F-4, the greatest distributor of MiG parts!
First in — Last Out
Brief on Guard
Go cold mike
Martin Baker backbreaker
Balls to the wall
All I want to hear from you “2” is bingo (fuel expended need to return to base)
No alcohol within 12 feet of aircraft. Hmmm…maybe that was 12 hours of flying.
Whiskey Tango Foxtrot (What the F?)
Gear Up, Flaps Up, Lunch Up!
One pass haul ass
In thrust, we trust
FFF- F’ it, Fly it, Fix it later
Do we count that as one landing or two?
— and many, many more.

We began to talk the talk, but it would be a long time before we walked the walk. We new guys had come to SEA proficient but not adept at what we were doing. They crewed us with more experienced men. We had to learn from them and grow in flying skills and abilities. They did not give trust easily – just because you joined a group, you were not an insider. You needed to work to earn your place in a combat unit. In combat, trust is essential to do your job. We soon learned we had a long way to go.


For more stories, see my new book, Click the link below for more details:

Book Cover Image
Posted in 13 TFS, Air Force lingo, American History, Combat, F-4 Phantom II, F4 emergency, F4 Phantom II, F4 PhantomII, Fighter Aircraft, Fighter pilot lingo, Fighter pilot slang, Thailand, U Dorn RTAFB, Udorn RTAFB, Vietnam War | Tagged | 1 Comment

Hail to the Chiefs — Crew that is

Some thoughts on a most important member of the Phantom II Team: The ground crews.

When I was a non-rated officer, that is non-flying, I knew nothing about crew chiefs.  Even when I was in navigator training, they did not enter my world.  When I began to fly in the Phantom, I fully became aware of the ground crews’ critical role in my success and safety.

In the Seat:

The ejection seat was critical.  The Martin-Baker MK7 seat was very complicated–almost like a Rube Goldberg invention.  Lots of things had to work correctly. The ejection sequence demonstrated the complex nature: the pilot or GIB pulled the firing handle, the canopy jettisoned.  An ejection gun fired, and the seat moved up guide rails.  Emergency oxygen began, the leg restraints pulled the legs close to the seat as it rose, and then a static line initiated a time delay, which in turn fired a drogue gun.  As the seat rose, the static line caused the drogue chute’s deployment to stabilize and the slow seat descent. Any small thing could cause the seat to malfunction.    Later, flying the F-4 in Alaska, we purchased our home from the widow of a pilot whose seat did not work correctly. During emergency egress, he was blown through a canopy and later died.  Ejection was significant, but in many minds, to be used as a last resort.   While I, too, did not want to eject, I inspected the seat thoroughly.  I strapped in and watched the crew chief pull the upper pin and show it to me.  Then I knew the seat was hot and ready to fire.  He gave me the assurance that I was safe in the bird.

If you got sick: As our training continued, we moved into a lot of turning and violent maneuvering in the air. It was at this point that several of my contemporaries experienced extended bouts of air sickness.  One friend told me that he had been sick on nearly every initial flight.  We carried barf-bags, like those found on airlines, in our checklist bags if we were ill.  But, some found it hard to get their masks off quickly enough in the throes of turning and maneuvering.  Filling a mask was not a pleasant experience, nor was it acceptable to blow one’s cookies in the rear cockpit.  The crew chiefs especially disliked this and made the GIB clean it up.

Under the bird: There was a tendency to hit my head on something hanging down. We called this a Phantom bite. The crew chiefs always warned us about things that would take a chunk out of our scalps. We had to watch for something that had leaked on the ramp, hydraulic fuel, or other lubricants so that we didn’t step in them. While looking down, it was easy to walk into an antenna.  In addition to this, I became very wary of walking under the tail hook.  I had heard stories of how it had dropped unexpectedly and injured a crewman. Now, this may have been a Phantom myth, but I was not about to take any chances.  I am not sure how much it weighed—estimates among GIBs and others ranged from about 600-1,000 pounds.  All I knew was that if it could stop a Phantom, it could also take me out.

Before a combat mission: As my combat days grew, I got to know the ground crews.  They were on the line in the heat and high humidity; they loved their birds and took good care of us.  Of note was the salute that they rendered as we taxied out on a combat mission.  For us, this gesture tied us to the F-4 crews who had flown so many times in the past.  I later asked a former crew chief about this, and he said it was: “Pride in what we did, but more importantly, a signal of our connection, our bond, our respect to you.” He remembered it as an act, a gesture like no other.  Indeed it was.  We respected their hard work, and the chiefs returned it in kind.

A Big Thanks: I can honestly say that flying the Phantom was an exercise in trust, and it was more than trusting my AC; it was trusting that the men and women who maintained her did their jobs to the fullest in a highly professional manner.   Without them, I would not have been able to do my job, and I would not have felt secure and safe.   I thank them now for doing their duty so well, so long ago.

For more stories about my time in the F-4, see my new book FIGHTER ‘GATOR available on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and other online sites. Or order directly from the publisher at

Posted in Air Force, Air Force lingo, American History, F-4 Phantom II, F4 emergency, F4 Phantom II, F4 PhantomII, Fighter Aircraft, Fighter pilot slang, Luke AFB, Navigator, Navigator Training, Thailand, U Dorn RTAFB, Udorn RTAFB | Leave a comment

Fighter ‘Gator Book Now Available

This year marks 50 years since I arrived at Mather Air Force Base for undergraduate navigator training. To be honest, I had no idea what a navigator did. The dictionary definition wasn’t much help:

Navigator — Definition — a person who directs the route or course of a ship, aircraft, or other forms of transportation, especially by using instruments and maps or charts.

I often think back to my first flight in the T-29; military flying was a mystery. The nav trainers at Mather had not prepared me for all the sensory experiences of flight: turbulence, the aircraft’s motion through the air, the closeness of the cabin, and most of all, the stress that all of this produced. But, by the time I graduated, I was a seasoned navigator and better prepared.

Next year will mark 50 years since I arrived at Luke Air Force Base to upgrade to the back seat of the F-4.

Fighter ‘Gator, i.e., the navigator in a fighter aircraft or the Guy in Back (GIB) the Weapons Systems Officer.

Over my nearly nine months at Luke, I would find that I had to think and act more like a fighter pilot. As such, I did all a navigator did and but also flew the Phantom. In SEA my flying skills would improve even more. Some ACs offered to teach me to refuel, and even if an emergency warranted it, land as some GIBs at my base had done.

Many folks have urged me to collect all my stories. So here we are in my new book Fighter ‘Gator.

In the the introduction to Fighter ‘Gator, Col C. Richard Anderegg (USAF Ret.) a former F-4 and F-15 pilot, and former Director of Air Force History and Museums, writes:

Norvell’s story of combat, comrades in arms, air force tomfoolery and the stress of a year-long separation from his new bride and other family is told with a clarity and self-deprecating humor that provides a meaningful and wonderful read. He has the knack for describing the contradictions of life in combat—the professionalism and dedication of the aircrews juxtaposed with their rampant glorification of alcohol consumption and silly bar games. Although he describes himself as a straight arrow, it is clear that he has found a group of men with shared values: patriotism, dedication, valor, and an unquenchable thirst for excellence. It is a brotherhood forged in fire, and it changes his life.

If I am a Fighter ‘Gator then David Garbe is truly a Fighter Builder.

The Appendix:  F-4 Phantom Restored by David Garbe

David first published this work in 2016 and graciously allowed me to include it in this book. Then, it was essentially a picture book, with many of David’s photographs showing how he restored the shell of F-4D 0720 and brought her back to life.   David loved the Phantom,  worked to find a bird, get the parts, and rebuild the front cockpit area.  His story is a fascinating look at this process and the long hours and dedication that he showed in his quest to renew this bird. And renew he did. She is the most beautiful F-4 I have ever seen. Everything is perfect in the cockpits. She gleams and sparkles and makes me wish I was 28 again in the skies above Cambodia with the long runway of life ahead of me.

The book is now available for pre-release November 11 ordering on Amazon, Barnes and Nobel, Walmart, Powell’s Books, and Books A Million online sites.

For a sneak preview go also to the publishers site at

Posted in American History | Leave a comment

Bridge and the Art of War

June 1973 turned to July. Most days, everything went as planned: TO-Take Off, rendezvous with the tank, take on gas—we loved the big gas station in the sky—get the target information. Contact the FAC; drop some surprises on the commies, back to the tank, and then home. Mission accomplished. In the first month at Udorn, I had flown 18 combat missions.

F4 sunrise over Cambodia 1973

By early July 1973, we had formed a bridge group. It is hard to imagine combat-hardened fighter jocks playing bridge, but many nights we often sat in the covered deck area and played. We invented the concept of B&B–Bombing and Bridge (and of course: Beer). It was an excellent way to unwind after combat. Indeed, we thought at the time healthier than spending each night at the club. Once again, thought is the operative word.

Many nights as we sat there, the base fogger trucks would come around spraying to control the mosquitos. We would be playing, see the truck approaching and spraying its white fog in the area and then duck back into our rooms until it passed. I later heard that these were the same trucks that sprayed herbicide, possibly Agent Orange along the perimeter.

Herbicide was used throughout SEA to defoliate areas. Around the base perimeter, there was a road that we often walked. At the time, we knew nothing of Agent Orange usage or the danger of exposure to it. You could see the bare dirt with nothing growing on it.

Near the perimeter were Thai homes, and we often saw their children swimming in the klong by the barren, dead defoliated zone. Sometimes we would see families taking buckets of water from the klong after the water drained from the dead area during the monsoon.

Although I didn’t know it, riding my bicycle each day to the squadron exposed me to it. The road from the hootch area passed along the base’s perimeter, and as I rode to the squadron, I breathed in the fumes of the spray. This exposure proved to be a time bomb.

Wing Headquarters

In the late 1970s, after I had returned to the US, I began to experience odd symptoms: my skin burning for no reason, and I had twitching in my arms. In the early 1980s, I became seriously ill. The symptoms included soreness, rashes, burning, and increased sensitivity to all kinds of chemicals. These issues continue to this day, but they have lessened their severity over time without medical help.

The air force flight surgeons could never determine the cause of my problems. Like many others exposed to defoliants or herbicides, these reactions only began to be experienced years later. Sadly, for those of us in Thailand, there has to date been no satisfactory resolution of claims for herbicide exposure at Udorn.

So each night, blissfully unaware of the dangers of breathing the fogger spray from the trucks, we sat outside, drinking beer, and played bridge.

And each day, it was business as usual bombing the commies.

Posted in 13 TFS, American History, Combat, F-4 Phantom II, Thailand, U Dorn RTAFB, Udorn RTAFB, Veterans | Tagged , | 2 Comments

Some thoughts on combat

From the end of May to 15 August 1973, I  flew combat missions over Cambodia. That was the focus of every day – combat: brief, refuel, bomb, and RTB. Now it was over. The air war had ended by direction of Congress.

Almost immediately after 15 August, we had a stand-down of the wing for mandatory training not conducted during the war. Moreover, the schedulers now began a program to accomplish all our night, refueling, air intercept, and even practice bombing mission requirements. These are things that we had done automatically during the war on a combat mission. F’ing New Guys continued to arrive, and we, the old, grizzled war vets, welcomed them as much as we were welcomed earlier. Now I flew with a green lieutenant or captain who had just upgraded to the F-4. Now I was the expert on how we did things. Yes – the expert, but even that was changing for me due to the uncertainties of what lay ahead. Training became the name of the game. I thought how odd it is to be in combat one day and then training as if it had never happened.

In the Great Santini, Pat Conroy writes about Marine Lt. Colonel Bull Meacham, a fighter jock who needed a war but had none to fight. In the absence of a war to fight, he engaged in self-destructive behavior—fighting a battle with his family and the Marine Corps. Combat was the centerpiece of his life and defined him. It was not easy to be a warrior. While I was not Santini, my behavior after the war mirrored his. I was a warrior who now found that I missed the war. When we were in combat every day, it seemed as if we had accomplished something. We had a mission, and we did it well. Now every day was filled with mundane and, for the most part, tedious tasks.

For nearly 50 years, “Going North,” flying over North Vietnam, has been a siren song in my mind. The men who went north were called upon to do their jobs under the most demanding conditions. If we had gotten the order to go north so long ago, my friends and I would have gone. We would have flown and fought to the best of our abilities. We were experienced combat F-4 crews and ready to go into battle immediately. There would never be a training mission that replicated what we had shared and experienced in the skies over Cambodia. The end of the war, in many ways, was a hard adjustment. Not just for me, but others as well. We were warriors and the close bonds that we had forged in combat as Phantom crews were fraying as old heads now left, and new men arrived.

It makes no sense. I flew combat for nearly four months, yet I longed for more. I wonder if the men who came back from World War II missed the experience. Combat puts one on edge; one performs at a high peak. It is hard to come down from that peak. It can be exhilarating. To suddenly go from this high to nothing is hard. There is nothing that can ever replace it. As a teacher and student of military history, this was an issue I have pondered both professionally and personally. It is something that only those of us who have served in combat can fully appreciate and understand.

The men of the 13 TFS – Panther Pack – loved to fly the F-4, but there was more to it than that. Each time they strapped on an F-4, no matter where they would go, they would be back in combat in the skies above SEA. It was something that only that my generation of fighter pilots and GIBS would experience. Those moments in action defined us. We shared a special bond.

I would never find that bond again in the air force.

Posted in 13 TFS, Air Force, American History, Combat, F-4 Phantom II, F4 Phantom II, F4 PhantomII, Fighter Aircraft, SEA, Thailand, U Dorn RTAFB, Udorn RTAFB, Vietnam War | 6 Comments

The Brotherhood of Warriors

For the past months, I have been going through all the letters I wrote to my wife from SEA.

16 June 1973:  just when I was getting somewhat settled into my combat routine – we lost one.  An F-4 took a direct hit while dive-bombing a Triple-A position (AAA – Anti-aircraft artillery weapons).  The aircraft went in, no chutes, no survivors. This was a real wake-up.  When you fly there is a trap that many fall into complacency.  We had been warned about this repeatedly at RTU.  Although Cambodia was not as dangerous as flying north, it still was dangerous.  

Years later, I learned more of the details about this loss. In 2009, I read Colonel Phil “Hands” Handley’s excellent account of his flying career: Nickel on the Grass.   Handley told about his long friendship with GIB Captain Jack Smallwood and how he was stunned to learn of his death in Thailand in June 1973.  Smallwood and his front seater had perished at the time – although then I did not know the crew’s names. 

When I finished reading Handley’s book, I wrote to him personally and shared how I had heard of this event so long ago and how sad I was to learn of his loss then.  He graciously replied to me, a stranger, and yet not so much a stranger, but a brother in arms. Although we had never met, we shared this deep bond across the years.  The story of Jack Smallwood’s death so long ago had touched us both. 

This was recently brought home to me in another way.  I was admitted to the local hospital for a severe infection.  The first night there I was alone.  The next day an older gentleman joined me.  After a time we talked.  He was 99 and had served in WW II.  As he told me his story, I could see him as a young man –  he trained, as I did on a T-29, and became  a bombardier on a B-17 .

In my mind’s eye I could see him in his flying gear boarding a B-17 as part of the Eighth Air Force attacks on Germany.  That in itself was amazing to hear him tell me all this.  He was a link to the great air armadas of the past, the massive formations of bombers in the skies over Europe to defeat Hitler.  I have always admired the men who flew those missions in such deadly skies. 

Then, he continued, on the twentieth mission he was shot down.  He parachuted over the mountains of Austria and had a bad landing, breaking both legs.  For the next eight months, he was a POW of the Germans.  As he spoke, my hand raised in a full salute to him. My small way of thanking him for his service so long ago. A bonding moment between brothers of the air. 

Keith Ferris Mural National Air and Space Museum

We were brothers.  This is something those who have never served will not understand.

Posted in 13 TFS, Air Force, American History, Mather AFB, Military history, U Dorn RTAFB, Udorn RTAFB, Vietnam War | Tagged , , , | 5 Comments

My special love – The F-4 Phantom II

By 2016 I had not thought about flying fighters for a long time. My good friend from Alaska, the former Capt Jim (now Lt Col retired) suggested we meet in Dayton and go through the Air Force Museum. 

Capt Jim in Alaska

Jim was very knowledgeable and he and his wife had been our good friends for many years. So we said yes. I had taken a group of cadets there in the late 1970s when I taught at the Air Force Academy and really wanted to see their collection which included some legendary aircraft. It was amazing to see all those aircraft — every version of Air Force One from President Franklin Roosevelt’s plane to the 707 aircraft that took the body of JFK from Dallas back to Washington; a B1 Bomber, the XB70 Bomber, various versions of every type of fighter, pursuit, interceptor and Bomber ever made. As we walked through the vast hangars, Jim and I had a great time discussing all of them and I was glad I had come.

Yet it was an unexpected moment that really resonated with me. I was eager to get to the F4 and was not disappointed. In the SEA Vietnam War zone, Colonel Robin Olds’ F4 appeared in an area that suggested Udorn Royal Thai Air Force Base, where I had been stationed. I turned the corner to find an F4 crew cockpit on display with a ladder so that you could go up and climb in and sit in the crew positions. 

Me before a combat mission at Udorn

Now I have not flown in an F4 since 1978, when I left to teach at the Air Force Academy, but I was compelled to sit in the cockpit. Compelled it exactly the right word. I had to do this. I can’t explain it; it was an emotionally charged moment that drew me into a place that I had spent probably more than 1000 hours of my life in war and peace.

So hard to explain, but it meant so much to me to be there. It gave me a new appreciation for the men of WWII who flew the big bombers and how they must have felt when they entered a B-17 or B-29 years later after the war. Yes it was a very special moment. I suspect that many folks have the same moment. There is a time or place in their lives that is special in a way that they cannot begin to share with others. When they think about or revisit the place, they are taken back. Back to a time when their lives were touched in a way no one can ever know. Being in that cockpit again was such a moment.

Almost immediately after the trip to the Air Force Museum, I wondered what had happened to some of the men I knew so long ago. The Deacon, my WSO roomate in the 13 TFS, had died in 2004 as had my pilot at Luke, Capt Don who passed away in 1997. Not good news both died too young. So I did some more digging.

I reconnected with another old friend, Lt Ev, the WSO who had encouraged me to go to Elmendorf after Thailand. He had left the Air Force and then come back on active duty and retired also as a Lt Col. And to my surprise was now a Methodist pastor in Texas. I emailed his church and we immediately connected. We talked shortly before Christmas 2016 and he asked me if I had a facebook account, which I did not. So at his encouragement, I got my own account.

I went from no contact with the F-4 world for nearly 40 years to an abundance of sites. Many focused on photos of the bird, and I shared some of mine. As I dug into it more, I found a intriguing one: F-4 Cockpit Photos. And that is how I met David Garbe and my life changed again. 

David introduced me to his wonderfully restored F-4D 0720 cockpit.    David had worked on this restoration for several years and when I first saw her. She really impressed me. This bird was manufactured by McDonnell Douglas in 1966, the 1771 Phantom II off the production line and had her first flight 17 September 1966 and was delivered to the Air Force on 21 October 1966. She had several assignments from 1966-1969, then she went to Udorn RTAFB in 1970 where she would fly during some of the heaviest battles of the air war. She left there in 1972.  

In David Garbe’s Bird

I sat in her and I too was back at Udorn where I had flown combat missions from May – August 1973. In her the memories of all those days flooded back.  I once again remembered how it was to be 28 and in the great adventure of my life.  I can honestly say that I loved those days.  Its hard to put into words.  But I know I will never forget them.  And I thank Lt Col Jim, Lt Ev and most of all David Garbe for allowing me to re-live them again.  It was a great gift.

Posted in 13 TFS, 43 TFS, Air Force, Alaska, Alaskan Air Command, American History, Arizona, F-4 Phantom II, F4 Phantom II, F4 PhantomII, Fighter Aircraft, Navigator, Vietnam War | Tagged , , | 5 Comments

Homestead or Don’t Drown

In August 1972, immediately after basic survival my wife Bonnie and I were married.  We then went on our honeymoon.    She went to Arizona – my assignment and been changed to Luke AFB, outside Phoenix, and I…

Well I went to Florida for Water Survival training. Compared to Fairchild, this training was a vacation.

The course was conducted at Homestead Air Force Base in south Florida and took 5 days. 

The curriculum was designed to provide me with the skills necessary to survive a crash landing in the water:

Escape from underneath a parachute in the water– AKA don’t drown

Drag through the water on a harness–AKA don’t drown

Parachute into the ocean–AKA don’t drown

Climb into a bobbing raft on the sea–AKA don’t drown

Wait in a raft to be rescued for several hours–AKA don’t get too sunburned (or drown).

At this point, it may be clear that I went into this with some apprehension. I was never a strong swimmer, the crawl was not my best stroke. I mainly did the dog paddle combined with floating on my back. Not really a combination for a long swim at sea.   To say I could swim really was stretching it.  Floating on my back was my major skill.  

I didn’t go into the Navy– being at sea on a ship was not my dream job.  Yes sir, no taking off on runways that went up and down.  No landings that sometimes allowed you to use the skills you learned in water survival.   That’s why I was in the Air Force, which brings me back to learning those skills. 

The first phase included classes discussing signaling, life support gear, and how exposure at sea could affect an aircrew member. The concept was to make this information so familiar that if we ejected we were prepared. It was the same training philosophy used to train the NASA astronauts and it is still used today. The motto of the school was “Forewarned is Forearmed.”

The second phase was the actual practice sessions.

Escaping from beneath the parachute was done in a pool. Once in the water, the chute dropped over us as if we had landed there. It was a challenge to find the lines and use them to move to the edge of the chute and emerge. I had heard stories of men panicking under the chute, but it seemed to go well.

One down–many to go (and not drown).

Next we moved to the “Drag” phase of training. At this point the apprehension level rose a bit. Picture this: being on a large boat, standing on a “plank” for lack of a better word, in full parachute harness, and then being dropped 25 feet into the Bay of Biscayne.

Water Survival photo from NASA
Homestead AFB in the 1970s

I stood there and the NCO looked at me. He was really enjoying dunk the captain. He said something to me which I couldn’t hear and I said “ what?”

Bang, down I went.

The trick was to keep my head up, not swallow most of the bay water, find, and finally release the harness while being dragged along behind a boat.

Now doesn’t that sound like fun?

That done we got to be airborne on a parachute and land in the bay. And this was fun. Hooked to the chute, we got a running start, and sailed up to about 200 feet above the bay.

My good friend Al, an F-4 back seater from Thailand, later shared his experiences with me:

“We had our F-4 seat package strapped on, which included the one-man raft. We were expected to hit the water, release the chute, and escape from underneath it. Then deploy the raft, climb into it, and await the pickup from the instructors in the boat while bobbing in Biscayne Bay. All went well, and in no time I was enjoying the sun from my little yellow raft. Suddenly from the north came a speedboat with the driver and passengers enjoying the surf. They spotted me and turned with a big splash a few feet away and slowed down, long enough to say, “Here, have one of these!” and heaved a cold can of beer in a tight spiral which I caught with my left hand! My joy at my luck was quickly tempered by my guilt, thinking that a court-martial or worse would happen if I was seen glugging down a beer during an official training exercise. So I remorsefully put the can into my flight suit leg pocket to be used at a later time.” Al had all the luck; I had no boats handing out beers.

For me it was floating, floating, and floating–like Gilligan waiting to be rescued. All I could think of was “a three hour tour, a three hour tour, a three hour tour…”   

And  my bride waiting in Arizona.  

What we did for Uncle Sam.

Posted in Air Force, American History, F-4 Phantom II, F4 emergency, F4 PhantomII, Family History, Fighter Aircraft, Survival training | Tagged , , , | 3 Comments