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 become 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.
First, we look at how I got to nav school, my challenges there, and what it meant to get my silver wings.
Then I focus on F-4 upgrading and my experiences in combat. The AC—fighter pilot—usually tells most combat stories about the F-4. However, we who flew the Phantom were a team. I tell this story from my perspective in the back.
Leaving SEA, I went to Alaska, where Mother Nature was out to kill me, not the Khmer Rouge.
When I left Alaska, I left the F-4; when I retired from the Air Force, I did not think about flying in her for the next 30 years.
Then I met David Garbe, who reawakened my memories. These memories became the stories that, in the end, shaped my life and what it all meant in the context of Duty, Honor, and Country. I focus a lot on Duty, Honor, and Country. To me duty is dedication and hard work. That is why I was drawn to David Garbe and wanted to include his story in this book. He personifies hard work and dedication.
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.
In 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 sums my story up this way:
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.
Postscript: Folks as we said in the military Murphy’s Law applies: My friend Jim told me that the first thing we did in the F-4 training was get our manuals and then post page and pen and ink changes. That said, if you find a typo, I am a better flyer than proofreader, please just take a pen and correct it. Thanks John