The POWs come Home and we welcome one

Fifty years ago, on January 27, 1973, the United States and North Vietnam agreed to a ceasefire to withdraw American military forces from South Vietnam. The agreement also released American prisoners of war (POWs) held by North Vietnam.

Operation Homecoming had three phases: the initial reception of prisoners, the airlift of prisoners to Clark Air Base in the Philippines, and finally, relocation to military hospitals. POWs were released based on the length of time in prison; the first group had spent six to eight years as prisoners of war. The last POWs were turned over to allied hands on March 29, 1973, raising the total number of Americans returned to 591. Of the POWs repatriated to the United States, a total of 325 served in the United States Air Force.  

In 1973, at the time of the release, I was a captain navigator at Luke Air Force Base outside Phoenix, Arizona, going through upgrade training to fly in the backseat of the F-4 Phantom II. I knew that many of the POWs were Air Force fliers who had been shot down and captured. The F-4 fighters were the highest number of fixed-wing aircraft shot down in the Vietnam Air War. Then, I wore a POW bracelet. Then, many aircrew members wore  POW bracelets and Missing in Action (MIA) bracelets. This kept the POWs in our hearts and minds, even if we did not know them personally. I wore this bracelet with the understanding that I would keep it on until the person returned from the war. My bracelet had the name of an Air Force captain lost in 1968 over North Vietnam. I received this bracelet right after I had completed the mock POW camp training part of the basic survival school at Fairchild Air Force Base in Spokane, Washington.  

This training, called SERE (Survival,  Evasion, Resistance, and Escape), taught the basic survival skills of dealing with bailing out over a wilderness area: land navigation, camouflage, communication techniques, and how to improvise needed tools and equipment. But since the U.S. was in the middle of a major air war in Vietnam, it also included a mock POW camp to prepare aircrew members for the possibility of capture. Many of the POWs who returned wrote memoirs about the techniques they used to communicate and survive the long, dark days in the Hanoi Hilton. They learned them in this training.

As the POWS returned home, we learned that one of them would arrive at Sky Harbor airport in Phoenix one evening in April 1973.  We decided to go to the airport and welcome him home. This period was a time when most Americans did not think highly of those of us who were serving.  It was common to hear people ask men in uniform, “Have you killed any babies this week.”   Given the hostile attitude to those who served, we felt it was essential to be there and give that man a proper welcome home. 

We drove to the airport and joined a small crowd at the gate.  Today it would be huge, but those were different times. Some folks had flags and signs, and we weren’t exactly sure who the POW was. His family greeted him once he left the arrival area, and a cheer rose from the crowd.  Many folks had tears in their eyes.   We who were at Sky Harbor that night will never forget this event.

Later in 1974, when I, too, had flown combat missions over Cambodia and returned home, I met several of these men, some of whom I flew with in the F-4 and later taught with while at the Air Force Academy in the history department. Many called these men heroes. But were these men perfect? Many were flawed, but they kept the faith. They went to war in Vietnam with little concern for themselves and their eyes wide open. They knew what they were getting into. They did their duty when so many did not. It was a very selfless thing to do.

I can think of no better definition of heroes.

Posted in Air Force, American History, Arizona, F4 Phantom II, Luke AFB, POW training, Veterans, Vietnam War | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Greeting the Future in Times Square

In 1969 two of my friends and I went to welcome in the future in Times Square. This is something that everybody has seen on TV year after year, but few have experienced. In those more innocent times there were no metal detectors, no bomb sniffing dogs, and for the most part no restrictions on anything. It was a WILD AND CRAZY TIME. It was the 1960s, but more on that.

I actually had no idea to what to expect. I had grown up in the 1950s and the most exciting thing I remember about New Years Eve was watching Guy Lombardo and the Royal Canadians and then seeing the ball drop. For those of us, of a certain age, that really was all there was to New Years Eve. If you lived in a small rural town, as I did, there was nothing to do except stay home and watch the festivities on a black and white TV. For me as a kid, the future was 1970 and to find myself in Times Square to welcome the new decade was a great thing.  

I had a good friend from college who was teaching high school math on Long Island, so I took the train to New York from Washington DC to be there for New Years. I had often driven up to New York, but the train took the same amount of time and had the advantage of leaving you in downtown Manhattan, without having to drive in traffic there. So there I was in Penn Station meeting my friends on December 31, 1969 to welcome the future. 

It was an extremely cold New Year’s Eve, about 10 degrees and clear. We decided since we had some time to kill to stop at the bar in the old Americana Hotel for a drink and then it was on to Times Square. We got there about 10 p.m.; the crowd was large but not huge. Once we got there, however, there was no leaving. I guess I had better bladder control in those days as more and more people began to arrive and we literally were trapped there.

Now a funny thing happened: while it was about 10 degrees outside the area, the temperature quickly rose it seemed to about 90 in the Square. We had our heavy winter coats on and we ditched them; some folks stripped down to bare skin. I never thought I would be standing in Times Square at 11:45 at night with half-naked people. It was now a mob, people yelled and screamed and the mob grew and grew. Bottles were passed around, yes it was more innocent time. With no crowd control, people continued to press into the area until you could not move even if you wanted to.

Another funny thing, I don’t remember seeing the ball drop. I think there were so many people it was hard to see the top of the Times building. The crowd roared and then it was over.

Almost as quickly as people pressed in to fill the square — they left.

The temperature dropped.

It was 1970.

The future was here.

Posted in American History | 3 Comments

Up in the Air So Blue

14 October 1972

Luke AFB Arizona

Our bird, F-4C 662, taxied out of its parking space and slowly moved into position. While Hollywood has accustomed Americans to think that there is considerable banter between aircrew members, there is usually strict radio discipline. In the back seat, I finished my checklists as the AC got permission to take off. 

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. By the time I graduated, I was a seasoned navigator and better prepared. That is not to say that I knew how it would be flying in the Phantom.

In many ways, the first flight in a jet fighter is like your first sex. You can see it on the movie screen. You can observe it, but you cannot know what it is like until you do it. If this sounds clichéd, it is not. I was not nervous—I just did my job. That said, nothing prepared me for the emotional experience that lay ahead.

Now on the runway, the AC Instructor Pilot (IP) pushed the throttles to “military power,” past the detente into afterburner, and released the brakes. The Phantom jumped off the runway. In the back, it felt like being strapped to a shell and shot out of a cannon.
I called off 70 knots (KTS) at that speed, the rudder became effective, and the AC came off the nose gear steering. Then we rapidly lifted off. All by the book, at least in my mind. While the T-29 had cruised at about 180 KTS, the F-4 broke ground about that speed and routinely cruised between 350-450 KTS. Things happened so fast that I was playing catch-up right from the start. It was not as bad as my first nav trainers, but I could see I had a lot to master.

Then our wingman joined on us. And I thought that is a big aircraft coming fast and close to me. The rejoin to a formation, where our wingman’s wingtip was just three feet from ours, was an eye-opener for sure. Nothing like that ever happened in the T-29.
Now I had to be aware of the immediate air environment. I became the extra pair of eyes in the backseat. I had to scan the wingman and make sure nothing was out of the ordinary, which was a bit hard to tell for the first time. Over the many missions to come, this would become old hat. However, like so many things on that first flight, it showed me that I had entered a new world.

The best was still to come. As we approached our training area, things finally began to settle down. Once there, we did some maneuvering. The IP demonstrated turns and climbs, the wingman staying in close formation. I was impressed that he was able to match his lead so well. My only exposure to this type of flying had been in movies of WWII dogfights. And, in them, there was never a wingman tucked in tight.

The G-suit filled and grabbed my legs, another new thing. I was wearing the F-4. Strapped tight to the seat, she moved to port, and I went with her. She climbed and dove, and there I was. Wheeling and turning over the Arizona desert, as we moved through the air, the thought came to me that this was the best roller coaster I had ever ridden. Here was the true freedom of flight. I knew now why I had worked so hard to get to flight training. Here was the dancing on the silver wings of “High Flight” that our ROTC instructor Major Ted Shorack had read to us. The promise that Shorack had made to us.

This flight was a far cry from the last nine months in nav school. The T-29 had been necessary drudgery as we learned traditional nav procedures, working for four hours without a break. Now do not get me wrong. Any day flying at Mather was a million percent better than sitting behind a desk in Washington, D.C., where I had been a staff officer. I never regretted the decision to fly. But flying in a Mather T-29 trainer was not even close to the Phantom.

The best thing was that the backseat of the Phantom had no drone work. And there was the bonus of being able to see outside. The absolute joy of flight in a fighter now came to me. I could understand, for the first time, the enthusiasm of our instructor pilots. They loved the bird and all she could do.

As I think back, the child’s poem comes to mind: “How does it feel to go up in the air, up in the air so blue?”

It felt great. It was fun. Flying was fun.

My eyes opened to a whole new world above the earth. Now I learned how the radar operated on real targets. All the time and work in the simulator clicked into place. I was beginning to feel good; my confidence level rose. I could see myself doing this and doing it well. OK, I was a bit cocky and perhaps euphoric. I admit it. I was having a good time. It was good, really good to be a GIB. It was really, really, really good to be in a Phantom above the Arizona desert.

Then we went to an extended formation, and the instructor told me, “You’ve got the stick.”

And I shook the stick, saying, “I’ve got the stick.”

I tried to sound confident—but to be honest, it had never dawned on me that I would be flying the bird on the first ride.

Here I was, a kid from a rural upstate New York with my hands on the stick of a top-level fighter. It’s hard to put into words my feelings at that moment, now many years later. It was a mixture of pride, awe, excitement, and an extreme adrenaline rush that lasted well into the night (as my wife can still attest). In the years to come, I had the stick on almost every mission in the Phantom. I needed to fly the Phantom from the backseat in case there was an emergency where the AC was incapacitated. And I took the opportunity to fly whenever I got the chance.

Posted in Air Force, Air Force lingo, American History, Arizona, F-4 Phantom II, F4 Phantom II, F4 PhantomII, Fighter Aircraft, Luke AFB | 1 Comment

60th Reunion

Saturday, July 30, 2022 – I sit with a small group of aging friends at our 60th high school reunion. Let that sink in for a moment – I graduated from high school sixty years ago. 

On a nearby table is a photo of the class lined up in graduation robes, a very formal pose. It’s a far cry from the group I see around me. A woman across from me says, “John, it’s good to see you.” I strain to read her nametag across the ten feet that separate us. Finally, I say sheepishly, “I am sorry; who are you?” She gives me her name; it’s hard to reconcile it with the small, dark-haired girl I remember from long ago. So it is for the rest of the day as I look at these folks now gathered to celebrate the past.

So who were we, this class of 1962? 

We were not the Greatest Generation (GG) or the  Baby Boomers  (Bbers).   Most were born in 1942-44; the majority in 1944 (we picked up some who were held or moved back to our class – yes, that happened when I was in school).   It is interesting to think about that. We were the small group that was never labeled. We, in many ways, had the attitudes of the GG, comfortably moving in the world of our parents and yet able to identify with the BBers who embraced the on-rushing future. We grew up listening to the radio. Our mothers read to us and were homemakers;  TV was not our babysitter. Yet, we were in the group that invited Howdy Doody into our homes.   We were fans of Elvis, Buddy Holly, and the Everly Brothers. And it was our class in 1962, and others, JFK challenged  to “ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.” 

I wish I could say that I had observed the transformation of these folks over the years. I joined the Air Force right after college, so I missed reunions 5-35, joining our high school class for the first time on the 40th. By then, this group of older folks I see in front of me had appeared. I know that each of those earlier reunions had a different flavor. After I retired from the Air Force, I was the alumni director at Hobart,  where I saw that for the first reunions, cliques were still strong, and many were out to impress their classmates. When I rejoined these folks at our 40th, there was still some semblance of cliques, but primarily folks sat with others and talked and shared with their classmates this moment apart from the pressures of the modern world.

By the 60th  reunion, much discussion centered on health issues:  operations, aches, pains, and medications.   Children and grandchildren were a secondary subject, and I witnessed no political discussions.   All in our lives was not positive. We military folks compared our experiences with agent orange.   There were several “new” younger wives but no younger husbands. Several of us had decided long ago to move on from our community to the broader world. For a short time, some served in the military as Vietnam encroached on them, one chose a career in government, and several left to live in larger cities.  

Stay or move on. This was the decision we all faced. About 90 percent of the class seemed to stay in our small town and the local area. There they put down roots and became the folks I see in front of me at the 60th reunion. The ten percent that left seemed to live more glamorous lives as they traveled the country and the world, but here they were back at this reunion—linked to the others by invisible ties that drew them to this moment.

Not all were there. Our class had about 70 folks at graduation– if one counts, those that joined us from previous classes. Over the years,  fifteen had passed on; others had simply disappeared and dropped off the alumni grid. Even today, with all the internet resources, they were invisible to us. Perhaps the bonds for them were not that strong. Or perhaps high school was not a positive experience as it was for those in front of me.    

Americans tend to compare and contrast a lot. I did this, so my life must have been better. I lived in a large city rather than the small town of my youth. I traveled the world and was not stuck in the boring town where I grew up.

Well, who is to say they had a boring life?

The folks I see in front of me at this 60th reunion may not have seen Bangkok as I did, but they served on their local school boards and worked to improve their communities.   They lived lives of consequence and were good citizens who improved our country. Thus, they fulfilled that challenge that JFK made to us so long ago.   

What better thing can one say across the years?

Posted in American History, New York, New York State History | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

Silver Wings

Mather Air Force Base—UNT graduation 25 July 1972

It’s hard to believe that it has been 50– 50 years; I repeat this almost in unbelief.

Why? Because I only became a navigator through an odd series of circumstances.

I received my commission in 1966. At the time, the Vietnam war was mainly background noise, so I went to graduate school instead of heading directly to flight training. By 1968, things were scorching in Vietnam, when I was due to go on active duty. I took a flight physical and failed the vision tests. Whether it was two parents with glasses or all the reading I had done in grad school, the Air Force sent me to Washington DC in a non-rated job.   There I became the base training officer at Bolling AFB, usually a job done by an NCO. Stuck in a non-job which entailed a lot of paper pushing and running the monthly base parade (that was a real pain as no one except the Wing Commander liked marching). By 1970, the Air Force was burning through aircrews in Vietnam. I pushed and pushed, and in 1971 finally got into navigator training.

Barely but I passed.   

In November 1971, I arrived at Mather and was assigned to casual status (CS). I probably would have languished there, but I mentioned to the captain IN that I would turn 27 ½ in two weeks – that was the cutoff to enter nav training. So some other stud was moved back to CS, and I took his place.   I was an old captain in a new world about to do things I had never dreamed of. I want to say it all went well, but it didn’t. I failed my first checkride and had to work hard to complete the program. But as it went on, it all clicked, and in July 1972, I found myself graduating as a navigator.

T- 29 Flight line Mather AFB 1971

That long-ago afternoon at Mather, the officers’ club ballroom filled with family and friends gathered to celebrate our graduation. The wives waited in their finest, ready to pin new wings on their husbands. These women had spent long hours alone as their husbands flew for the past nine months. Today they were Mrs. Lieutenant, but they might be Mrs. Colonel in the future. The promise was there; the men had done well. The future lay ahead, but on that afternoon, the wives eagerly waited for the pinning to begin. My fiancée could not be present to pin on my wings, and she was in New York. The first time she would see those new wings on my blues was a month in the future at our wedding on 20 August 1972. My sister Linda had flown to California from New York to do the honors.  

We filed in by rank. The chaplain offered an invocation, our 3538th squadron commander and the wing commander spoke, and then the big moment was at hand. We, captains, graduated first and received our certificates of aeronautical rating as navigators. From that point to the end of our service, we would be rated officers apart from the others who were non-rated or “ground pounders.” 

You see, even before Star Wars coined the term, we now were “skywalkers,” and we knew it.  

In the words of John Magee’s immortal poem High Flight: “we had slipped the surly bonds of earth.” 

We had flown.

We had fixed our positions by capturing starlight. 

We had done “a hundred things you have not dreamed of….”  

The pride in our eyes could have lit the room. 

I walked up, saluted, and received my certificate and a brand-new set of navigator wings. My sister Linda walked up to me and pinned them on.  

My nav wings are pinned on the first time.

Pinned on my wings. The sound of that phrase echoes to me across the years. 

Pinned on my wings. I repeat this 50 years later, it is almost as if it were unreal.   But there I was:

Me an old man of 28.

Me a history major in college who could not do anything more complicated than simple math. 

Me who failed my first check ride but excelled in some of the most complicated navigation taught.

Me who gained confidence in my abilities to do an essential job in the air force.

Me with silver wings on my chest. 

A door had opened for me. Now I was on my way to upgrade to the back seat of an F-4.  I retired in 1989, a Lt Colonel, after flying for six years in the backseat of the F-4 in war and peace, teaching at the Air Force Academy, and serving as a staff weenie in various positions, including an IN on the T-43 at Mather. 

Yet, if I had not gone to Mather in 1971, my life would have been very different.

I was meant to have those silver wings. 


For more stories check out my book, Fighter ‘Gator on Amazon

Posted in 1960s Turmoil, Air Force, Air Force Academy, Air Force lingo, American History, Cambodia bombing 1973, F-4 Phantom II, Mather AFB, Navigator, Navigator Training, NY History, Udorn RTAFB, USAFA, Washington DC | 1 Comment


As flyers one thing we always had to deal with was a checkride. My first checks were in Nav School on the T-29. If all went well, it was straightforward. That was the operative phrase—all went well.   Sadly, for me and others, all did not always go well.   Imagine a clown car filled with 12 clowns, all attempting to leave the car simultaneously. Imagine 12 navigator students trying to use the drift meter, take their fixes, plot them, and keep ahead of the aircraft. The lead instructor would later say it was “all asses and elbows” as we attempted to do what we had learned on the ground in the air. Doing a mission was far different in the air as the plane encountered turbulence and was buffeted from side to side. 

T- 29 Flight line Mather AFB 1971

Asses and Elbows, that about summed it up, and it was often the instructor’s apt description of how we performed. The name of the game was keeping ahead. Anything could sabotage that effort. A math error in computing the speed, a math error in applying drift, getting to the drift meter too late, finding the town or lake you were looking for had moved behind the aircraft, or a combination of these things. It was almost impossible to catch up if you got behind or misidentified a city or other geographical feature.These first missions were a constant game of catch-up for me and others. I was always slightly behind, finding and correcting errors in my computations. There was a lot to do, to do quickly, and to do accurately.  

Having learned the basics of DR navigation, we moved on to the next training phase: using a radar target to establish a fixed position. The target might be a town, lake, mountain, or other geographic feature. With the drift meter, we could see the feature. On the radar, we saw only the ghostly outline of it coming down the radar scope. Radar took some getting used to, but we became proficient at using it after about eight flights. At least, I thought I was.   My first check ride came in what was to be the most straightforward training phase, and I failed it. I cannot remember why; it may have been due to any of the issues I mentioned, or it may have been an instructor navigator who was a harsh grader. From 50 years out, it is hard to recall, but I suspect it was the latter rather than the former, as several people he graded failed. It was my last check ride failure; I was determined to do better in the future. I did; I passed my retake and moved on. I was lucky as some students at this point washed back to another class ending up in the limbo of casual status. How we would do in the air was hard to determine. The pressure was always on, and things were getting more challenging and complicated. Some students went through these early flights and decided to call it quits—they were SIE—self-initiated eliminations. 

That was my first checkride; over the next six months, I improved and did much better.

So much so that by the time I was due for my final checkride at nav school,  I was confident in my abilities as a navigator and ready for the test ahead.   This test of a combined nav check used all that I had learned:  dead reckoning, radar, and celestial on a cross-country mission. I would be the only navigator in charge of all that would happen. There would be an instructor navigator who would observe my performance and grade me. So on the last week of June 1972, I had my final checkride in the T-29. It involved an all-day flight from Mather along a prescribed route to Hamilton AFB near San Francisco, a stopover, and a return to Mather.   In effect, there would be two three-hour legs. I would demonstrate my skills as a navigator and be graded on my abilities.   

Interior T-29

I arrived at mission planning and met my IN.   He looked familiar, but I couldn’t quite place him. I did all the planning, briefed the crew, went to the plane, and flew the mission. All went perfectly, I was at the top of my game.   Only on the way back to Mather I realized who the IN was. I had gone to college with him. When I was a freshman in ROTC, he was one of the seniors leading the detachment.   After we debriefed and he critiqued me, I told him we had gone to college together.   It was a nice moment to share this news of our common time at Hobart, a small men’s college in upstate NY.    

Ahead lay survival school and my first aircraft assignment.  I had filled out my dream sheet putting the F-4 Phantom as my first choice.   My chances of getting it seemed small; then, I began to hear that many of the men at the top of the class had put down SAC assignments to avoid going to South East Asia.  When the rankings were released, I got my Phantom.  I would be going to George AFB in August 1972 to become a back seater – A GIB – Guy in the Back. Having demonstrated my skills on the final check ride, I would never do most of them again.

One thing for sure, I would always have check rides; but seldom would they be given by someone I knew in College. Indeed it was a special moment ending my time at Mather.


For more stories, see my newly published memoir of flying Fighter “Gator

Available on Amazon or directly from the publisher at

Posted in Air Force, Air Force lingo, American History, F-4 Phantom II, Mather AFB, Navigator, Navigator Training | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

On Being a Fighter Jock

In his excellent biography, Robin Olds ponders what it means to have the Right Stuff. He looks back at his time in World War II and the men he flew with. Olds understands that flying a fighter is more than just piloting it. Likewise, Colonel Steve Ladd (USAF, ret.) in his book — From F-4 Phantom to A-10 Warthog: Memoirs of a Cold War Fighter Pilot –– also notes that there are fighter pilots and only men who fly fighters. This was a lesson I, too, learned in my six years in the backseat of the F-4.  You can fly in a fighter, but it takes a lot more to be a Fighter Jock, whether Fighter Pilot or Fighter ‘Gator.

When we entered F-4 upgrade training, we quickly adopted the stance of a fighter jock and began to use many of the phrases that most would recognize:

A hostile aircraft–a “bandit.”
Bought the farm–plowing any aircraft into the ground, a.k.a. augured in.
Tango Uniform–Tits Up when something on the bird had died.
Sierra Hotel–shit hot.
Whiskey Tango Foxtrot (What the F)
Gear Up, Flaps Up, Lunch Up!
One pass haul ass— and many, many more.

That was in training; it was a very different world when we went to combat. We were still men who flew the F-4. We were not yet Fighter Jocks. We new guys had come were proficient but not yet adept at what we were doing. We crewed 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 needed to work to earn your place in a combat unit. In combat, trust is essential to do your job right. To do it right requires that one fully understand the commitment in three words: Duty, Honor, and Country. These words, not the phrases above, define the true fighter jock and separates him from simply someone who flies a fighter.

Before I entered flying, I had no idea of what duty meant. To me, it seemed duty meant showing up for work daily. I learned that duty meant something more subtle: dedication. Going through F-4 training was one of the hardest things I ever did. I quickly learned that I had to work hard. I had to commit to it in a way that I had not previously experienced in the air force or college. Now my whole life revolved around becoming a WSO in an F-4. I had to do it. I had to make it. To succeed required taking the hard path. Duty then meant not only dedication but work. Work: duty equaled hard work. There is no coasting in combat. No taking the easy way. No giving up. Every time I went up in the F-4 over Cambodia, there was the chance I would not come back. In the short time, I flew combat, my life changed. It defined who I was. I was indeed a fighter navigator—fighter ‘gator. Combat made me a better person; I was doing the job I chose to do. No one forced me to go to the F-4, and I went there with my eyes open. This commitment is something I share with all the men, like Robin Olds, who went off in WWII to serve our nation.

Second comes honor. I have always thought of honor in terms of trust. You must be able to trust the men you serve with, and they must be able to trust you. It is as simple as that. I would not fly in an F-4 with a pilot I did not trust. That is the great gift of honor, the understanding that it is not me; we are in this together. We are a team built on trust.

Country may appear to be last, but it is equally essential in the trinity of values. I define country more broadly than a geographic area. For me, country means loyalty—loyalty to something bigger than oneself. Loyalty is the basis for all the actions that you do. Military members cannot pick and choose what they will do.

The three words: Duty/Dedication, Honor/Trust, and Country/Loyalty ground one. To be a true Fighter Jock, one must adhere to these values, and they guide one for a career and life.

In recent years I have begun to understand the tremendous trust my nation placed on me by allowing me to fly in the back seat of the F-4. It was more than being a good GIB and doing my job, and this trust demanded that I do it without reservation if I had to place my life in danger.

When folks ask me what it was like to fly in the back seat, I tell them: It was the highest honor a man could ever receive.   And that, in the end, was what being a Fighter Jock was all about.


For more stories of my time in the Phantom, see my new book

Fighter’ Gator – Available on Amazon in ebook or print, or from the publisher

Posted in American History | 3 Comments

Fighters and Targets

In the fall of 1972, I arrived at Luke AFB outside Phoenix, Arizona. I joined several others from my nav class, assigned to the 310th Tactical Fighter Training Squadron, to transition to the back seat of the F-4. The F-4 Phantom II was the primary fighter of the Vietnam War. It had entered the inventory in 1964, so in 1972 it was still relatively new. It was a two-seat fighter, the pilot was the Aircraft Commander (AC) and the navigator—the GIB or guy-in-back, although our official title was Weapons Systems Officer (WSO).

We had experienced squadron instructors—F-4 fighter pilots and GIBS. Some of these men had flown more than 200 missions over North Vietnam. I would later learn that our squadron flight commander, Lt. Colonel Bob Pardo, had accomplished one of the most impressive feats of airmanship during the Vietnam War— Pardo’s Push. On March 10, 1967, Captain John R. “Bob” Pardo pushed his wingman’s damaged F-4 aircraft with his own damaged Phantom until they were out of North Vietnam airspace. The crews of both damaged F-4s ejected and were picked up by rescue helicopters. First, reprimanded for losing his bird, Pardo much later received the Silver Star for this extraordinary feat of airmanship. It was an honor to meet him.

Fighter pilots viewed themselves as the elite of the air force. Fighter pilots continually strove to do better. They trained to make their skills sharper. They were highly confident; they were always in control. They were competitive. I could go on, but I think you get the picture. One last thing, to a fighter pilot, any other aircraft was one thing: a target. They viewed combat as mano a mano. There was a mystique about flying a fighter aircraft going back to World War I. The blood of Eddie Rickenbacker, the WWI flying ace, flowed in their veins. If these men were the knights of old, we, as backseaters, were now their squires, and we had a great deal to learn.

We newly graduated navigators had always approached our work from the proposition that we had made an error that we needed to find and correct. Some folks called navs airborne bookkeepers as we were always engrossed in recording numbers into our logs to reconstruct the missions later, if required. We were, in many ways, the anti-fighter pilots: more introspective and detail-oriented; always ahead of the aircraft preparing for what was to come. Arriving at Luke and being trained this way, I found that I had to be more like a pilot. I needed to be confident and in control of what I did. I also had to be detail-oriented and aware of our environment, and knowledgeable in every aspect of the F-4; know how it flew and operated and how we would use the Phantom in combat.

And there were many new terms to learn:
Non-flyers were “ground pounders.”
A hostile aircraft–a “bandit.”
Speed brakes–“boards.”
Bought the farm–plowing any aircraft into the ground, a.k.a. augured in.
Bus driver–a pilot of any non-fighter–a tanker or bomber or cargo.
Bag–a flight suit.
RTU–Replacement Training Unit—Luke was an RTU Base training new GIBs/ACs.
Tango Uniform–Tits Up when something on the bird had died.
Sierra Hotel–shit hot.
Speed jeans–G-suit.
and many, many more

In the F-4, we–the AC/GIB team–worked in tandem the entire flight from takeoff to landing. In those pre-high-tech days, we needed a combination of skill sets. The fighter pilot brought one set, the GIB the other. Together, we worked in concert: a perfect melding of geometric, spatial, and analytical skills

Over the months ahead I would come to hone these new skills, skills that I would soon use in combat in Southeast Asia.

For more stories, my book Fighter “Gator is now available in an e book version as well as a paperback on Amazon and Barnes and Noble and other online sites Or order directly from the publisher at

Posted in 13 TFS, 43 TFS, Air Force, Air Force lingo, American History, Arizona, Cambodia bombing 1973, F-4 Phantom II, F4 emergency, Fighter Aircraft, Fighter pilot lingo, Fighter pilot slang, Navigator, Veterans, Vietnam War | Leave a comment

Two types of flyers…

There was an old saying in the F-4 world: “There are two types of flyers, those who have been sick and those who will be.”

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.

It did not help that GIBs had to crane their heads at impossible angles in many cases. If you had to check six—that is, look toward the Phantom’s rear—your head’s position affected your middle ear. If you had your head down in the radar, strange things were going on inside the ear canals, which affected your equilibrium.

If the Phantom pulled Gs, that could affect you. Since you often maneuvered at high speed, turning, or banking rapidly, sometimes pulling negative Gs, all these things could make you sick. The IPs had many theories on avoiding sickness. Some said it was a physical thing, and in time, those GIBs would get over it. Others told backseaters to ignore it. This advice did not seem to help those who got sick. Most of the time, the solution to being sick was to fly the aircraft. Once you had your hand on the stick, you quickly forgot about being nauseous.

We had a GIB who got sick all the time. He had not made too many friends as he exhibited a superior attitude. He had screwed up several times, but the worst thing was that he never took responsibility for his mistakes. It seemed he pissed off folks one time too many, and someone took a knife and cut through the bottom of all his airsickness bags. This sabotage was easy to do as all the aircrew gear hung on pegs in the life support area. The slasher had easy access to the publications bag that held his checklists and barf-bags. That day, the obnoxious GIB almost made it through the flight without getting sick.

The air was warm and heavy in the backseat, and the AC IP decided that he needed to practice touch and go landings. Around the sky, the F-4 drilled holes for about 20 minutes. Around and around, it went: going through the pattern, approaching the runway, putting down the gear, touching down, then hitting the burners, raising the gear, and taking off again.

The air in the back seat grew thicker and thicker, and the GIB knew that he would not make it. Aircrew etiquette dictated that if you were going to barf, you went cold mike. You turned off your oxygen mask mike so that the other crewmember would not hear it.

The frontseater immediately knew what was up when he stopped hearing the whoosh of oxygen in the back. He didn’t realize that the GIB was vainly in the process of trying to use the bottomless barf-bag. As he lifted the bag to his mouth, he released the contents of his stomach. Out it went all over his lap. It decorated the ejection seat. It coated the rear cockpit floor.

If the GIB made a mess, the GIB cleaned it up. The crew chief quickly reminded the young lieutenant of this when the F-4 taxied back into the parking area. Lesson learned the hard way. You are responsible for your actions in the backseat, good or bad. I was lucky as I did not get airsick, but there was of course the warning you will be. Not a cheery thought.

For more stories of my time in the Phantom, see my new book

Fighter’ Gator – Available on Amazon in ebook or paperback or from the publisher

Posted in 13 TFS, 43 TFS, Air Force, Air Force lingo, American History, F-4 Phantom II, F4 emergency, F4 Phantom II, F4 PhantomII, Luke AFB, Thailand, U Dorn RTAFB, Udorn RTAFB, Veterans, Vietnam War | Tagged , | 1 Comment

More Random thoughts from The Pit – Phantom II

Some sayings from the past:

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?

JP4 jet fuel—to paraphrase the movie Apocalypse Now— there was nothing in the morning like the thick, oily smell of JP4 when we taxied out to the runway. It didn’t matter if one went 100 percent oxygen (O2); one could still smell it through the mask. Seldom hungover when I flew, I cannot imagine how it must have affected anyone who was hung and breathed in those heavy, nauseating odors. Even 50 years later, whenever I smell diesel fuel, I am immediately taken back to the F-4 and those long-ago taxi-outs.

Hero Photos —several men I knew had lots of hero photos taken of themselves to send home. For some reason, I never did, only a couple of shots. I mostly took pictures of other birds refueling and the Phantom with striking cloud formations. However, I did carry a Kodak Super-8 mm movie camera on some flights and filmed snippets of each mission to document what I did. Later I spliced these together into a 30-minute film to show what a combat mission was like. .

Combat: I have thought about combat now for nearly 50 years. I have worked through my mind my time in combat and read extensively about the experiences of others. It is hard to compare combat experiences. There are many commonalities, but every man has a different story to tell. There is an old saying about combat: “If you’ve been there, you understand; if you haven’t, I can never tell you about it.” One can look at the history of a battle but never really know what the combatants felt. One can attempt to bring logic to something that is, of itself, not logical. To the men in combat, the events are unclear, and what is happening defines them for the rest of their lives.

World War I British poet Siegfried Sassoon described combat in his poem The Dreamers this way:

Soldiers are citizens of death’s grey land,
Drawing no dividend from time’s to-morrows

To me, the first stanza always meant that in combat, there was only the moment to focus on—the past, the future held no sway.

In death’s grey land, there is a threshold that one passes over; sometimes, the return from that place is hard. Sometimes events and thoughts linger for years.

Nobody in his right mind longs for battle or sudden death.
But once you’ve trod the wild ways, you can never
get them out of your system.

George MacDonald Fraser
Quartered Safe out Here:
A Harrowing Tale of World War II


My book Fighter “Gator is now available in an e book version as well as a paperback on Amazon and Barnes and Noble and other online sites

Or order directly from the publishe

Posted in 13 TFS, Air Force, Air Force lingo, Alaska, Alaskan Air Command, American History, Cambodia bombing 1973, F4 Phantom II, Fighter Aircraft, Fighter pilot lingo, Fighter pilot slang, Mather AFB, U Dorn RTAFB, Udorn RTAFB, Veterans, Vietnam War | 3 Comments