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.
In a typical 4 – 6 hour mission, the Phantom might refuel three to four times. If it was a close air support mission, it might mean that it hung on the taker 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.
This brings me to the story of Capt Don, I won’t use his last name. We went through training at Luke Air Force Base to learn to fly the F4. We were crewed together, which was the common practice. One always flew with the same pilot, that way you both learned each others’ strengths, and also weaknesses. This was crucial for combat missions. Capt Don did well in training showing enough proficiency that he graduated, but once in SEA he was unable to refuel on the tanker.
Flying close formation off the tanker was a skill he could not seem to master, it was hard to say why. To say it is is very unsettling to some, is an understatement. It 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. 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.
Don’s 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 Don.
When we got to SEA, he and I were first assigned to the 13th Tactical Fighter Squadron, but as Don’s difficulty with refueling became apparent he seemed to disappear. 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. Most likely he was sent back to the States and returned to C-130s.
Not all men were cut out to fly the F4.