Not all the Targets were In North Vietnam- A tale of the Panther Pack

As the war in SEA wound down, plans were put into place for an aggressive training schedule. Now schedulers were faced with actually having to plan training, not just assume it would happen in the course of daily events. It was an odd thing to be flying combat one day and the next acting as if it had never happened.

With the end of the war there were few opportunities to see if the entire wing could go through a surge exercise. That is actually generating a combat scenario where all the F4s would be loaded and taxi as if they were being launched for a combat mission. While this had been common during the war in such large scale events as Linebacker II, it hardly happened in the new peacetime environment.

So it came to pass that one evening the entire wing was scheduled to do a surge, or as we called it the “Elephant Walk.”

Members of the 13TFS about the time of the Elephant walk (Photo courtesy of Sidney Thurston)

It got its name from the long line of F4s that were loaded with live ammunition and missiles, taxied down to the arming areas at the end of the runway, and then instead of taking off, taxied down the runway and back to the revetments. It looked like a long line of elephants on the move, large lumbering beasts.

I am not sure why this was held at night. Perhaps to make it more stressful to the crews and the loaders, but any time things occurred at night, Murphy was bound to be there. Yes, if anything could possibly go wrong, it did.

The arming areas were located at the end of the active runways. On the other end there was a location called “Mobil” where an officer was assigned to observe the takeoffs and landings and relay any problems he saw to the tower and ground control. Mobil was essentially a trailer with a generator for power and was manned all the time that flight operations were being conducted.

The night of the Elephant Walk, one of the lieutenants from our squadron was assigned to Mobil. It was his job to basically sit there and simulate the role he would have played in an actual launch. It was a pretty boring thing to do, given that the aircraft were not taking off only lumbering down the length of the runway, turning off and then going back to the revetments where the crews would put them to bed.

After about an hour of this, things took a turn in a very different direction. As the crews pulled the safety pins on the missiles on an F4, a stray voltage surge launched one of the heat seeking “Sidewinder” missiles. The missile flew off the F4 and as the Mobil officer watched it through his binoculars, made a beeline for the generator at Mobil.

Now picture this, you are sitting in Mobil, bored out of your mind, watching one after another F4 lumber down the runway, then one of the Phantoms launches a missile at you.

Needless to say the lieutenant dove out the door of Mobil — expecting the worse. Fortunately for him, the missile didn’t arm. It needed to go a longer distance. but it did guide on the generator, where it hit Mobil.

As I said earlier, not all the targets were in North Vietnam.

Posted in Air Force, American History, F-4 Phantom II, F4 emergency, F4 Phantom II, Fighter Aircraft, SEA, Thailand, Vietnam War | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Top Cover for America

Recently had the opportunity to meet with a fellow F4 GIB who had flown with the 43rd in Alaska, so I am sharing my story again of how it was to guard America’s northern air spaces.

An American Family


From 1974-1978 I flew intercepts of Soviet bombers off the coast of Alaska in the McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II fighter. The F-4 was the mainstay of the Vietnam War and I had arrived in Alaska fresh from a combat tour in Thailand, where I flew missions over Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia.  Flying in Alaska was very different, but more on that later .

The importance of Alaska to the defense of America, dated back to when the U.S. Army Air Corps sent Billy Mitchell there in 1901 to supervise the construction of the Washington- Alaska telegraph system. From this Mitchell came to appreciate strategic importance of the territory. Over the 73 years since Mitchell, there had been a major buildup of military forces in the state.   The Cold War engaged America and the U.S.S.R. around the world.  They met also at the top of America.   F-4 Phantom Landing in Alaska

When I…

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Saftety Supplements

Yes there was an Air Force safety supplement to everything, here is the one to  


Air Force Supplement 1

(Surly bond slipping will be performed only by two ship IP-led flights)

(Dancing the skies will be performed on the wing only)

(Aircraft cleared sunward will climb within the horizontal boundaries of their assigned air space)

(when joining the tumbling mirth apply techniques outlined in 55-4, “Rejoins.”)


(Aircraft may disregard use of position lights when entering clouds believed to be sun-split.)


(When wheeling and swinging are combined in one maneuver, 4.1 symmetrical G’s will be kept on the aircraft)

(High in sunlit silence is defined as that airspace above Fight Level (FL) 290 from 1 hour before official sunrise to 1 hour after official sunset.)

(Chasing the shouting wind along is restricted to weather ships with specific DO approval.)

AND FLUNG (Aircraft will be flung subsonic only.)

(Should either crewmember experience delirium while in the burning blue, proceed with emergency oxygen procedures.)

(If windswept heights cannot be topped prior to reaching the area gate advise center.)

(When larks and eagles are flying the SOF will coordinate with RAPCON to insure adequate separation and that bird strike plan is implemented.)

(Nothing prevents VFR civil or military aircraft from transiting the high untresspassed sanctity of space under visual flight rules.)

(Crewmembers will not sacrifice aircraft control or exceed canopy operating limitations attempting to touch God’s face.)

–author unknown, I got the copy of this about 1974 while assigned to the 43rd Tactical Fighter Squadron at Elmendorf AFB Alaska.

Posted in 43 TFS, American History, F-4 Phantom II, F4 emergency, F4 Phantom II, F4 PhantomII, Fighter Aircraft, Fighter pilot lingo, Fighter pilot slang | Tagged , | Leave a comment

A Whole New World

2018  is a memorable year for me.   

In 1968, after a stint in graduate school, I began my full time Air Force career. My initial duty assignment was to be in Washington, D.C. I had orders to report there on February 15, 1968.

My entry into the Air Force was not without some bumps. I had received permission to go to Syracuse University for graduate school, but during my time there, my vision had deteriorated and I could no longer qualify for any type of flight training. So when I went on active duty, the Air Force assigned me to a Security Police Squadron in Washington DC. This to my surprise turned out to be the Air Force Honor Guard. The Guard serves at the White House, Arlington, the Pentagon, and at all major US ceremonial events. I was assigned to the Air Force Honor Guard for about 15 minutes . Why you may ask, – well – members of the honor guard are very, very – TALL. And I am not.  And oh yes, one more small thing — I wore glasses, AF Honor Guard folks did not.  Other than that I was perfect for the job (made me wonder if the people at the Air Force Military Personnel Center ever looked at the requirements for the job.  Actually it was a good introduction to the wonderful world of AFMPC, whose actions and policies often didn’t make much sense).

In recent years I have tried to imagine how that Captain in charge of the Honor Guard reacted when I walked in the door.  I remember his mouth literally dropped open.  It must have been like the Head of the Emperors Imperial Guard in Star Wars expecting a new storm trooper and in rolled R2D2.    In addition I looked very young.  Although I was 24 most folks thought I was about 16.  They called me the 16-year old lieutenant.  So here I was short (5 foot 5 inches), young, and not the imposing Imperial Trooper that he expected. 1

2nd Lt John E. Norvell

So I became an operations planner and worked in the base command post. It was another surprise in a year filled with many such events.

It was from the command post in DC, where we were charged with coordinating the Air Force responses to events in the city, that I would witness a year of one mind-numbing event after another. These would include the assassinations of both Dr. Martin Luther King Jr in April and Senator Robert Kennedy in June. The turmoil of the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in the fall and increasingly more and more violent anti-war marches in the streets of Washington.  The election of Richard M. Nixon as the president of the United States and December 1968 trip of Apollo 8 from the earth to the moon and back.

And I had a front row seat to the events that shook the nation’s capital.


1 My height would later be perfect when I went to flying training in 1971 and trained to be a Weapons Systems Officer in the back seat of an F4, I fit it perfectly.


Posted in Air Force, American History, Vietnam Protests, Vietnam War, Washington DC | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

Punxsutaney Phil and me

With Ground Hog day coming soon, I am reminded of when we saw Phil, and his wife Phyllis.

An American Family

Penns 019Did you ever wonder where Phil lives?

You have seen him on TV, I am sure, “living” in a fake tree stump, but you know that’s not where he really lives.

Phil is probably the most famous ground hog in America thanks to Bill Murray.  The movie Ground Hog Day, which hit the theaters in 1993, lifted the small town in Pennsylvania from relative  obscurity and made Phil the Superstar of ground dwelling rodents.

When our daughter moved to Pittsburgh in 2009, we decided to drive to Punxsutawney and see Phil.  Now getting from Pittsburgh to Punxsy is not easy, it took about 2 hours of driving along small backcountry roads, but we finally made it there about noon.

While the real town resembles its movie clone  — there is a large town park surrounded by stores and other commercial enterprises — that is where the resemblance ends.  Gobbler’s Knob…

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Murder in the Family

A distant cousin of mine, William Walker Norvell,  was a member of a prominent Beaumont, Texas family. By the 1920s he was married to a woman named Aurelia H. Adams ( 1866-1928). She would meet a violent end at his hands in 1928 and shock the people of Beaumont and his family.

The story follows taken from local newspapers at the time.

June 13, 1928.—Mrs. W . W. Norvell, 61, was fatally stabbed with a pocket knife at her home here today. Her husband was taken into custody and in being held on the formal charge of murder. The stubbing occurred after two young women roomers In the house witnessed a quarrel between Norvell and his wife, according to their statement to Robert Sullivan, assistant county attorney. Galveston Daily News June 14, 1928

Norvell No Trouble
BEAUMONT, Feb. 22, 1929 —An old man, white hair straying in ringlets over his forehead, drawing sprightly strains of Turkey in the Straw from a fiddle. A kindly old man, friendly to all he sees and content with the bars of the cell that is his home- such is W. W. Norvell, member of one of Beaumont’s best known and most distinguished families, who in not many weeks will complete his first year of confinement in the Jefferson county jail, where he is held on an indictment that he stabbed his aged wife to death last spring.


W. W. Norvell to Be Placed in Asylum

BEAUMONT. Nov. 20. —William W. Norvell, 71. a member of a pioneer Beaumont family, was found Insane by A Jury In criminal district court today when arraigned for the murder of his wife, Aurella Norvell, 58, at their home, June 13, 1928. An array of witnesses took the stand to Norvell, whose late brother, Rush Norvell was president of the American National bank here for many years, was of unsound mind when he slashed his wife to death with a knife and that the old man is now a lunatic.

Slaying Wife Must Stand Trial for Murder

W. W. Norvell, aged Beaumont slayer must stand trial for murder. Norvell. who hacked his wife to death with a knife at heir home here three years ago, pleaded Insanity when arraigned before a criminal court jury on the murder charge last fall. The jury found him to be insane. Norvell was removed to the state asylum at Wichita Falls, to await recovery of his mind. Norvell is now sane. Port Arthur News Mar 22 1931


Second Lunacy Trial For Wife-Slayer Begins

BEAUMONT. June 22. —For the second time In four years, a court this afternoon will be asked to declare Will W. Norvell, aged Beaumont man and wife-slayer, of unsound mind. A hearing on a complaint in lunacy against Norvell. who killed his wife, Mrs. Aurella Norvell at their home. He Is entitled to oil royalties on production on certain acreage owned by him, It was said. Port Arthur News, June 22 1932

NORVELL FREED FROM CUSTODY –Murder Charge Dismissed He May Be Rich Now

BEAUMONT, Feb. 5.—After nearly seven years In custody for the murder of his wife with a knife W. W. Norvell, walked out of the county jail annex today, a free man. “I appreciate what every body has done for me,” said the old man, who during his long imprisonment, saw half a dozen Jailers come and go. An order dismissing the murder charge against Norvell was signed at Port Arthur by Judge H. Murray, on motion of County Atorrney E. W. Easterling. Port Arthur News Feb 5,1935

He later died in June 7 1942 of natural causes after several trials and being placed in the asylum.

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The Chamber of Horrors

OK I lied, it was not that bad– or was it– read and you decide.

Periodically as aircrew members we were required to undergo training in the altitude chamber. It was not something that any crewmember relished. The goal was to ensure that we fully recognized the symptoms of oxygen deprivation or hypoxia. This could only be done in a hypobaric chamber which could simulate conditions that a crewmember could experience at high altitude. The chamber from the outside looked innocent enough. It was enclosed in a small room with a viewing window, equipped with powerful pumps to remove the oxygen and simulate low air pressure.   

Once in the chamber, we learned what our symptoms would be. These symptoms were different for each individual and it was essential that we were able to recognize them to avoid in-flight oxygen emergencies. When I graduated from Navigator Training in 1972 this training was required every 3 years, and during the course of my flying career I endured it 5 times. It was not high on my list of things to do and even though I had done it several times, I always approached it with some apprehension.

Perhaps part of this was due to the training profile, but much was due to the uncertainty of what could happen. As part of the pre-chamber sessions possible bad outcomes were thoroughly briefed and were always in the back of my mind.

The profile was designed to take us up to 35, 000 feet to experience the feeling of low pressure on the body and the use of the oxygen mask – later this was changed to 43,000 feet as training aircraft flew higher.

Then descend to about 25,000 feet where the mask was removed and we attempted to do several tasks which included simple math problems, writing a sentence, signing our names.  As the effects of low oxygen took their toll, I began to feel light headed, unfocused, and my vision began to dim. These were my symptoms – I later heard of others who became belligerent, and incapacitated. Once the oxygen mask was back on the room brightened and the colors became vibrant and my head cleared.  In the chamber there were always physiological training folks to ensure that we survived this experience.

One un-intended side effect of the low pressure was the tendency of the body to expelled the gasses trapped in the intestinal tract — in other words, every trip in the chamber was like a scene out of “Blazing Saddles,”  and boy did it smell.    When the initial training was done we were taken back up to experience rapid decompression — an interesting experience as the chamber lost pressure and filled with fog almost simultaneously,  then it was a slow descent back to ambient air pressure and  conditions so that the body could stabilize itself.

That was the basics of what we did; the aftermath was often very scary.  Some folks  had ear blocks — we had learned how to do the Valsalva maneuver which was performed by closing one’s mouth, pinching one’s nose shut while pressing out as if blowing up a balloon.   I was able to prove it worked once in combat when during a bomb drop my left ear closed up and I experienced excruciating pain.  The Valsalva maneuver caused my ears to pop and relieved the pressure.   In the worst cases  some experienced the bends, and we were warned not to do scuba diving after chamber training.

After one session, I experienced chest pains the next day and had to undergo an EKG.  It showed no heart problems, but the flight surgeon never really explained what happened. Needless to say this was never, never one of my favorite things to do.  But in the end as with most Air Force survival training, it was very valuable and prepared me well for what the future could hold in a very unforgiving environment.

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