A Picture worth many words


I have been looking at this picture a lot this week. I posted it to several F4 facebook groups.   It shows me standing in front of an F4C parked on the ramp at Luke Air Force Base in Arizona 45 years ago — spring 1973.

I had just completed nearly two years of flight training, which began in the fall of 1971 at the Navigator Training School at Mather Air Force Base.  When I graduated from Nav school I asked for the F4 and I got it.  By May 1973 when this was taken I had been through additional training to qualify in the Phantom.  This training changed me from a navigator to a Weapons Systems Officer who ran the radar, INS,  navigated, flew the aircraft from the back seat,  conducted complex intercepts of approaching aircraft, and that was only the beginning.

I had come to the F4 late in life, I had been a non rated officer or groundpounder as we called them for 4 years.   While most of the men I was in training with were 22 – I was an old guy at 28,    When I picked the F4 I really knew little about it or the demands it would place on me.   In my six years in the Phantom, I came to realize it was more than just being a Guy in Back — GIB.

It was being admitted to a very special fraternity – the world of the fighter pilot.

The fighter pilot was a direct descendant of the famed aviators of World War I who took on the likes of Red Baron over the battlefields of France.   Fighter Pilots  — they lived life to the fullest, the flew hard, high, and fast.  They were almost to the man, some of the best people I have ever known.  They partied when the job was done and then went back into the air the next day to do it again.

This is not to imply that they were not professional.

I never met an F4 front seater that was anything less than professional in the air.   I came to respect their skills and see that they alone in the Air Force occupied a unique place shared only by their brothers in arms — the F4 recce pilots and the Wild Weasels who lured the enemy into shooting at them–  so that others could attack their position.  As a GIB,  I was right there with them.  If my AC flew high, hard, and fast I was two feet behind him, his partner as we took on all that the enemy had to throw at us.  And there was more to it than this, we understood each other, we knew what each one was going to do almost before he did it.  It was a unique time as a Nav to be so valued as a partner.  I would never feel that again when I left the fighter world.

As I look at that photo, I see someone who is proud and confident.  Yet,  I was  unaware what a year in combat, and four more years in the Phantom would bring.   Of the changes it would bring to me, how my skills would grow, and how I would never be able to forget those days.

How I would never be able to forget those days.

It was the great adventure of my life.   

Posted in 13 TFS, 43 TFS, Air Force, Alaska, American History, Arizona, F-4 Phantom II, F4 Phantom II | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Hardest Thing I Ever Did

September 11, 2018 brings back the memories of that day so long ago and how I had to lead the prayers for those who died that day. It is something I will never forget.

An American Family


Lord, guard and guide all those who fly
Through the great spaces in the sky.
Be with them always in the air,
In darkening storms or sunlight fair;
Oh, hear us when we lift our prayer,
For those in peril in the air!

The Air Force Version of Eternal Father Strong to Save

It was an absolutely glorious day today as I walked by Canandaigua Lake. The sky was a clear azure blue, with just a touch of coolness.

A perfect fall day, and it reminded me so much of September 11, 2001, another seemingly at first perfect – yet not– fall day, we will never forget.

I had just arrived at work when the news spread that an airplane had struck one of the World Trade Center towers. We moved to our common area and turned on the television and I was stunned to see the second plane hit…

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Little Orphan Annie and the end of the Air War in SEA August 1973

Lest we forget:  F-4 Phantom II—445 total lost in the SEA Air War,  382 in  combat more than any other fixed wing aircraft

First combat loss F-4C 64-0685 (45th TFS, 15th TFW) shot down Ta Chan, NW NVN on 20 June 1965.  Final loss: F-4D 66-8747 (432d TRW) on 29 June 1973.

Forty-five years ago this month – August 15, 1973– I flew in the backseat of an F4 Phantom II jet on a bombing mission over Cambodia as a member of the 13th TFS out of Udorn RTAFB.

By Congressional order noon  that day the  air war in South East Asia ended; a war that had gone on continuously since 1965.  As I was on alert that morning, my F4 flight was the unofficial last combat mission launched from Udorn for the Vietnam War (although reconnaissance F4 flights would continue).

Right at noon as the war ended, we heard a radio message on Guard:  Little Orphan Annie has crossed the Blue Ridge Bridge. I repeat Little Orphan Annie has crossed the Blue Ridge Bridge, then the sound of a toilet flushing.   This is all that I  remember about that day.  I don’t remember the target or any other details of that last mission.

In his book On War and Writing, Samuel Hynes, a former professor at Princeton and US Marine World War II veteran, writes that there are two major sources for personal war information: remembering and reporting. Remembering takes place in the anecdote I just shared and is often affected by time. Reporting draws on the letters contemporaneous with the events.

During the Civil War, a letter of Union Major Sullivan Ballou, written in July 1861, touches the reader with the strength of his words: “I have no misgivings about, or lack of confidence in the cause in which I am engaged, and my courage does not halt or falter…. And I am willing — perfectly willing — to lay down all my joys in this life, to help maintain this Government, and to pay that debt …”  However, the letters home covering the very brutal battles of Anzio and Monte Casino in World War II,  by Army infrantryman Babe Carlo contain no lofty rhetoric.  He wrote letters designed to spare his family the horrors of war so that they would not know what he was experiencing.

Sadly, both Ballou and Carlo would never return home.  Only the two men knew what they went through.

45 years ago, beginning in May 1973 as a member of the 13 TFS, I flew combat missions almost every day until the war ended.     

My letters are somewhat like Carlo’s, but they do share some of the challenges I was facing. I mention flying in combat, but also talk about my pay records being lost. I complain that my room mate drinks up all my instant coffee and then add almost in passing “We flew to Cambodia where we blew up an enemy gun emplacement.” I talk of an emergency: “22 July 1973: We took off fully loaded with 18 Mark-82 (500 lb) bombs and started to get erroneous flight inputs. The plane lurched toward the ground and I thought that we were going to have to eject…,”then write about a squadron party and that I have less than 300 days until I get “Back to the World.”

500 pound Mark 82 bomb load on F4

And then there is 15 August 1973, I wrote to my wife: “I find it hard to believe that the war is over. Strange to be in combat one day, training the next as if nothing had happened.”  It’s almost as if I didn’t want combat to end.

Reading them now, I understand what the letters sought to convey: I did some amazing things but I am OK –don’t worry.

But in those letters there is always part of them that only speaks to me.  No matter how far I am removed from those events of 45 years ago, they will never go away.   As the years pass, I think most about the men I served with in the 13 TFS in combat. They were some of the best men I will ever know. We shared an amazing adventure. We were tested in combat and we did well. We were changed. And I think I would never have missed this experience for a moment.

Yes, being overseas in combat was bittersweet time.


(To hear the Orphan Annie radio transmission in a dropbox link click here  )

For a another look at this mission on August 15, 1973  see this piece I wrote for the 40th anniversary of the end of the air war click –  https://jenorv66.wordpress.com/2013/06/11/the-last-flight-of-the-vietnam-war/   


A shorter version of this story appeared in the Geneva NY Finger Lakes Times on August 12, 2018

Posted in 13 TFS, Air Force, American History, Cambodia bombing 1973, Combat, F-4 Phantom II, F4 emergency, F4 Phantom II, F4 PhantomII, Family History, Fighter Aircraft, Military history, Norvell Family History, SEA, U Dorn RTAFB, Udorn RTAFB, Veterans, Vietnam War | Tagged , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Chicks in Tow

As July 1973 ended, I had been flying combat missions with the 13th TFS nearly every day for two months against the Khymer Rouge in the area around Phnom Penh and also to interdict supplies being moved down Uncle Ho’s trail to staging areas near South Vietnam.   Every flight required a minimum of two aerial refuelings on the Tank.

Which brings me to the story of a Capt who I will call “Ted.” Flying close formation off the tanker was a skill he could not seem to master. To say it was unsettling to his GIB is an understatement.

Refueling requires intense concentration in a demanding situation. You are tucked in tight below the tanker, which is a huge flying gasoline bomb carrying about 83,000 pounds of JP4 when fully loaded.  Sometimes the weather was dicey, and often as the tank began its turn on the racetrack the F4 would still be plugged in.  Any mistake would mean disaster to the crews of both aircraft. In addition to the close proximity of the two aircraft, there is significant turbulence coming off the tanker to contend with.

View from the back seat of tanker

The F4, like most modern fighters, required frequent refueling during combat missions. A fully loaded Phantom II could weigh in at more than 50, 000 pounds, with about 18,000 pounds of fuel in internal and external tanks. If the afterburner were engaged, it slurped fuel at about 1,000 pounds a minute, which meant that the gas ran out pretty quickly. Essentially there was a 15 minute “loiter” time to engage the enemy or drop bombs. Then it was time to return to the Tanker before you reached “BINGO” fuel and returned to the base, if you made it, on fumes only.

To those who did not fly combat in SEA, perhaps a short explanation of call signs is in order. Missions going over the fence north had call signs of cars, i.e. Buick, Olds, Ford, Dodge, etc. Cambodia missions got men’s names, Rick, Burt, Greg, etc. Tanker orbits carried call signs of the name of trees, Peach, Pear, Hickory, Oak etc. OV-10s were Nail FACs. Search and rescues were Sandy’s. And, Airborne Combat Control was Hillsboro (daytime) and Moonbeam (nighttime.)   If you listened to a recording of a mission you would hear many of these call signs and to the uninitiated it might be quite confusing. ( I thank a former F4 Jock Bill B  for  refreshing my memory on this information).

In a typical 4+  hour mission, the Phantom might refuel three to four times. If it were a close air support mission, it might mean formation flying off the tanker for an hour or more cycling in and out taking on gas as needed, until the Forward Air Controller, FAC, called the flight in on target. For an air to air mission which involved a “dog fight,” after the engagement, the F4 would almost immediately head for a tank to get gas. Depending when you were in South East Asia, the refueling tracks changed.    

So what about Capt Ted?  His background was not in fighters, as were many of the men who flew the F4. He had previously been a C-130 pilot. During the early 1970s, as more and more men were lost in SEA, the Air Force moved pilots from one aircraft to another. It was unusual for someone to move from a C-130 transport to a fighter but not unheard of, as evidenced by Ted. When he got to SEA Ted’s difficulty with refueling became very apparent; then he seemed to disappear from the squadron.

I don’t know what happened to him in the end, but it was clear that there was no place in combat for someone who could not refuel.

Not all men were cut out to fly the F4.


To see the view from the backseat  click this link which will take you a dropbox file of refueling clips I took




Posted in 13 TFS, Air Force, Air Force lingo, American History, F-4 Phantom II, F4 emergency, F4 Phantom II, F4 PhantomII, U Dorn RTAFB, Udorn RTAFB, Vietnam War | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

The Day Time Stopped – We drop the Hook

During my years flying the F4 there was only one time we had to use the tailhook to stop on the runway.   It happened while I was stationed in the 13 TFS at Udorn RTAFB,  Thailand.  We blew a tire on the right main gear and as we ricocheted down the runway dropping the hook was the only option.

Dropping the hook was a routine part of landing in the Navy and, while it happened on occasion, not the normal practice for the Air Force.  The fact that there was a hook on an F4 was linked to its dual nature as both a Navy and Air Force fighter. It was necessary to use the hook on aircraft carriers to stop the Phantom on landing.

The other major differences of course were that the runway did not go up and down as it did on a carrier. Also one did not have to hunt for a runway in what seemed like a million miles of ocean.  To my mind those were major reasons that I flew in the Air Force and not the Navy. In fact I could go into a lot more, yes many more reasons, but I digress – I think you get the picture.

As early as the 1950s, the Air Force began to experiment with arresting cables to stop aircraft on the runway in an emergency. By the time I flew the Phantom in the early 1970s, the cables or barriers were a common feature of most bases.

The F4 hook was made of high strength steel and designed to stop an aircraft weighing about 44,000 pounds on landing at a speed of about 180-150 knots. Using the hook was not a guarantee that you would stop. There are many factors that come into play on landing: speed, runway conditions, cross and head winds, and the general nature of the emergency. The time we used the hook we blew a tire on landing and were erratically moving at a high speed down the runway, much like a bobsled out of control. And there was always the chance that the hook could skip the cable as it moved along the ground and you would continue to ricochet down the runway to the over run where there was a final webbed barrier to stop the aircraft.

F4 tailhook under rear of aircraft

Now try to imagine what dropping the hook is like.

As they say in Ghost Busters, it was a if you were “stopping instantaneously and every molecule in your body exploding at the speed of light.” It was as if time stopped. I think that about sums it up. One minute you are moving at about 150 knots and then bingo you aren’t.

Now I have done amazing things in the air, so much so that going on a roller coaster really holds no fascination for me. I have flown at 50,000+ feet, gone faster than Mach 2, done maneuvers that pulled more than 7 Gs, and stopped instantaneously when dropping the hook, and I can tell you that it was the latter that is the hardest to describe and the hardest to forget.

For an Air Force guy it really made my day!

And that is no understatement, and it confirmed in my mind why I didn’t go into the Navy.

Posted in 13 TFS, American History, Combat, F-4 Phantom II, F4 emergency, F4 Phantom II, Fighter Aircraft, SEA, Tailhook, Thailand, U Dorn RTAFB, Udorn RTAFB | Tagged , | 4 Comments

Three Independence Days

45 years ago, in 1973, I found myself on July 4 flying combat missions over Cambodia. I wrote the following comment to my wife:   “4 July 1973: To celebrate today I am again off to Cambodia to drop some firecrackers and sparklers. I will be glad when the war ends, but it appears that they will be stepping things up now that we have to be out of Cambodia in August.”  That seems to have been the highlight of the day.   No other memories remain.  No ball games, no picnics, no time with family.

Holidays in wartime are often no different than any other day.  Something most Americans will never experience or really understand.   One day is much like another.  You  catch the crew bus,  have your crew brief, go to the intel brief, suit up and pack on your .38, pre-flight the bird, and are ready for what comes.

For the men who flew North there were no holidays – no 4th of July, no Christmas, and certainly no breaks.   For the men who flew north, there was never an assurance of how any day would end and I often thought about that as we took the crew bus to the revetments.    These were men, whose footsteps we walked in  were admired greatly.  I thought about their legacy of honor and selflessness which I  was honored to share.  That legacy is reflected in this patch,  100 missions North Vietnam.    These were men who  as a former member of the 13 TFS put it:  “… all of whom accepted and completed the mission their country asked of them at the time they served.”

Patch on the jacket of a former member of the 13 TFS — well done to him.

Yet we were not along, across the years since the founding of our nation Americans have done their duty.   If I found myself in combat on Independence Day, I was not the first one in my family to do so.

On July 3-4, 1863, my great-grandfather Colonel Freeman Norvell (1827-1881) found himself on Culp’s Hill at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, in the midst of that most terrible battle.

Freeman was for a time a professional soldier, he had been appointed a Second Lieutenant in the Marine Corps by President James K. Polk in 1847.  Thus, he was one of the Marines at the Halls of Montezuma. For a time he remained in the Corps, but the stress of having been in that battle took its toll and he was dismissed from the Corps for being drunk on duty in 1858.  When the Civil War began, he was eager to serve his county again.  Because of his prior military experience, Freeman became commander of the 5th Michigan Cavalry in December 1862.  But the stress became so much for him that he could not cope that he turned to alcohol and resigned his command in February 1863.    Yet, there was more to Freeman than this and he again joined the US Volunteers as a captain, and this is where he found himself on July 3, 1863 as part of Slocum’s Corps defending Culp’s Hill. The post-traumatic stress haunted him the rest of his life, and when he died The Cincinnati Commercial Tribune reported: “Colonel Freeman W. Norvell, a well-known Michigan officer in the War of Rebellion and the Mexican War, died this afternoon. He had been in poor health for nervous disorders for some time.” In the end, Freeman was a deeply flawed man who put his life on the line three times for his county, and did his duty as he saw it despite the personal costs.

Captain Freeman Norvell in the uniform of the First Michigan Cavalry.

Freeman carried on a military tradition that began in our family with his grandfather Lt. Lipscomb Norvell –my great great great grandfather

Lipscomb was born in Hanover County, Virginia September 1756 and died in Nashville, Tennessee March 2, 1843. He entered the Continental Army on August 7, 1777 as a cadet in Captain William Mosby’s company of the 5th Virginia Regiment of Foot commanded by Colonel Josiah Parker . Lipscomb Norvell was taken prisoner at Charleston on May 12, 1780 and remained there until the end of the War, spending Independence day there in 1780, and for the next three years as a POW. His obituary in the Nashville press noted:

“Lipscomb participated in the battles of Brandywine, Trenton, and Monmouth –he was transferred to the Southern service, and as a Lieutenant of the Infantry, was taken prisoner at Charleston, where he remained till the close of the war. He subsequently (in 1787,) removed to Kentucky, and as an early pioneer to the West, encountered the dangers and endured the hardships of the then Indian frontier….”

Three independence days spent in so many different yet similar ways – in service to our country.   At Lexington and Concord,  on Culp’s Hill,  at the Bulge,  on the ground and over Vietnam, and in Afghanistan and Iraq,  different men and women  have acted in the best tradition of the American citizen solider:  They answered the call of their county, they did their duty, and they returned home to be valued members of their community.

And that is the real legacy of the 4th of July.

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Party suits, Patches, and Jewelry — the well dressed Fighter Jock

As soon as I arrived in the 13 TFS I was taken off the base to meet the Maharajah and order my work suits and a party suit. To go to the Maharajahs to be fitted was a rite of passage for all  FNGs (F’ing new guys) in the F4 squadrons at Udorn.  The Maharajah ran a tailor shop right outside the Udorn main gate.   He was not really a maharajah – his name was Amarjit Singh Vasir and his rise to fame began in 1966, when the Udorn wing commander provided him with the basic design for a fighter pilot’s party suit. Fighter pilots loved three things:  To Fly, Fight, and Party.

Amarjit never looked back and by the time I arrived at Udorn, he had provided party suits for every rank of Air Force personnel up to and including generals. It was said that he had nearly 100 seamstresses working during the peak years of the war due to the constant turnover of personnel in the F4 squadrons at Udorn. When I arrived in 1973, there were four F4 fighter (4 TFS, 13 TFS, 421TFS, 555 TFS) squadrons and one RF4 (14 TRS) reconnaissance unit. Udorn at its peak was the largest F4 wing in the world. In the squadron he was known more familiarly as “The Thief.”

Party Suit 13 TFS courtesy of
Capt Al.

I  suspect because he seemed to have a monopoly in providing these items for all the units. There was also a feeling in the squadron that somehow he passed along all the information about new arrivals to local insurgents who supported the Vietcong in Vietnam. This rumor was never proved but it fueled a sort of love hate relationship with Amarjit. The work suits were for everyday at the squadron when we were not flying, and basically were a short-sleeved light weight jumpsuit, with name, wings, rank, and squadron patches on them–think a well tailored flight suit which actually fit, not like the bags we wore flying.   The party suits were for official squadron social events and were much more elaborate with large F4 silhouettes on the back and many, many patches.

Patches were the other speciality of Brother Amarjit. If you had an idea for a patch he could make it. I designed a backseater or Guy in Back – GIB – Power Patch for my party suit which became quite popular. If you designed one for yourself, Amarjit would make extras which he added to his collection. The GIB patch showed the backseater holding a banana on a stick for the pilot to follow. The GIBs often referred to the frontseaters as FUFs, or F’ers up Front, and that was on the patch also. Other popular patches included Yankee Air Pirate, Red River Valley, SEA Olympic War Games, and the Phantom II McDonnell Douglas patch. All of them would end up on the party suit, along with many, many more. If one had flown North there would be a 100 or 200 missions North Vietnam Patch. Since we were flying over Cambodia many had a Khymer Rouge Hunting Club patch on their suits. And then of course there was the universal patch on every fighter jocks’ suit – F’ Jane Fonda. Jane was not too popular for her 1972 trip to Hanoi; even to this day a large segment of the men who served in the war consider her to have aided and abetted the enemy.

So with a new party suit covered with patches, there was only one more thing for the well dressed Fighter Jock and that was a flashy bracelet and or gold chain to wear.

Jewelry was available at several shops right outside the main gate. Many guys had solid gold three strand bracelets with their names and wings on them; mine was a more conservative sterling silver and gold. Most of the gold bracelets it was said came from Vientiane, Laos, which was only about 30 miles north of Udorn. I also had a silver pinky ring resembling my wings. One other bracelet that almost every officer and enlisted sported was a POW bracelet with the name and date of a man lost or missing in action. Many of us wore them until the end of the war in 1975 and I had mine for many years in a box on my dresser. Today I still wear my ID bracelet as a reminder of those days.

Thus outfitted we were ready to party, but that is a story for another day.

And party we did.

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