Night Flight

There is a belief among some aviators that there is “no lift” at night, therefore night flight is not possible. Clearly this is not true, but it does reflect an unease among many about flying in the dark.

From takeoff to landing night flight is a very different world.

Even the takeoff was dramatically different as the afterburners kicked in and there were concentric rings of light along the cone of fire from the rear of the aircraft.

Afterburner on F4

Once airborne there is also a seeming “cloak of invisibility” around the fighter.  The darkness hides you and somehow gives you a sense of security that is not there in the light. Now granted, this really is a false sense of security as you are clearly visible on radar and anti-aircraft SAM systems.  Still it feels more calm.  There is a stealthiness to this not felt in the day.  Perhaps there is a feeling of invincibility not present in the bright light of day.  (This feeling also manifested itself when we turned off the SAM warning indicators as they had become very annoying with their constant beeping – out of sight out of mind perhaps.) Such was the feeling at night, if you couldn’t see it how could it hurt you.

The F4 is barely visible in the photo below;  only a white light to mark its passage.




If the night is clear, above you is an amazing show of stars seldom seen on the ground anymore.   Instruments become even more important as the horizon vanishes and you are forced to leave behind the normal visual clues that flyers rely on.   This really can be dangerous as many an inexperienced flyer has wrongly thought he was flying straight and level, but in actuality was descending into a mountain range ahead.   The artificial horizon is your most important aid in night flying and not to be ignored at your own peril.

During the Vietnam War, there were squadrons that only flew at night because of the very different conditions.  It was hard to transition back and forth, and much safer to fly either at night or in the day.

One of the best accounts of flying at night was written by Richard Bach, himself a pilot, and author of “Stranger to the Ground.”   He is better remembered for his 1970s novel “Jonathan Livingston Seagull,”  but his account of flying alone off the coast of Europe at night in the 1950s is a classic.  Outside there is only a dark landscape below, punctuated with the occasional bright lights of a city, and little else.  The night flyer is a ghostly presence, gliding over the darkened world below.

Night flight is more introspective.   The mind and skills are shrunk to the cockpit only, the red glow of the instruments dominate the world of the night flyer.  Gone are the distractions of clouds, landscape, and all the highlights of the day.

If the eagle is the swooping and soaring king of the day, the bat represents  the flyer of the night.

While it is indeed great fun to be the eagle, personally I loved to be the bat.  Silent but deadly, swooping in for the kill, and then gone into the darkness.


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An Officer’s Lady on the Frontier

Elizabeth Proal Norvell

Elizabeth Proal Norvell (1848-1931) was the wife of Colonel Stevens Thompson Norvell, an officer of the 10th Cavalry, one of the famed Buffalo Soldier regiments on the great plains.    Life for these women who accompanied their husbands to the prairie and south west forts was often difficult.

Even something  meant to lift their spirits such as an outing could be come a trial for them as evidenced in this story written by Alice Kirk Grierson, about her experiences on the frontier (From The Colonel’s Lady On the Western Frontier: The Correspondence of Alice Kirk Grierson, University of Nebraska Press, 1989)

Fort Sill I.T. Nov. 5th 1871.

The Ladies Raid.—Five Ladies and Six children all went to a camp down on Cache Creek on a gloomy morning.

So of course one of them was Mrs. Norval [Captain Norvell’s wife]. It was ten miles. Before they got down there it began to rain and blow a regular Norther very cold. When they got down there all the Officers had to give their tents to the ladies.

The next day Major Schofield rigged a government wagon up with blankets and buffalo robes for them. Lieutenant Orlaman (Orlemanj was drunk and he went to put Mrs. Myers into the wagon and he turned her heels up and her head down. Mrs. Myers said I’m afraid you can’t put me in. He said oh yes I put you in…

They got in here in the evening and it was so muddy that Dr. Kilburn had to carry Mrs. Norval in his arms from the wagon to our porch. Mrs. Norval said she enjoyed the trip very much.  — Alice

Even this semi-disastrous break in the bleak life of the frontier, seemed welcomed.

Like many military wives of the time she endured great hardships, often left alone with her small family at one of the many forts that dotted the mostly empty American south-west.   Her husband was often gone on long patrols to keep the frontier quiet.   Sometimes these patrols encountered very real dangers and there was often the possibility that they would find themselves widows with no further means of support.

Sarah had four children all born on the frontier. One, Walker Norvell, died three days after his birth in November 1873 and is buried in the Ft. Sill Cemetery.

Walker Norvell Grave

The others all survived and found their lives entwined with the military.  Guy Stevens Norvell (1875-1958) was an Army Colonel like his father;  Sarah Hodgkiss Norvell (1872-1961) married two military men, the first one died from yellow fever contracted during the Spanish American War, the second one she divorced;  the last Alice Walker Norvell (1879-1971) also married an Army officer.



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A Special 4th of July


Forty years ago we celebrated our nation’s birthday in Alaska.  It was the Bicentennial, our 200th birthday.  From the start we were heavily involved with the celebration as I was a member of both the Anchorage Bicentennial commission and the Elmendorf base celebration.

We began the special year by flying the Bicentennial and American flags from our house Bic10every day.   The picture at the right shows our house on January 1, 1976 at about 2 p.m. with the two flags flying our front.


By summer we had added a red. white, and blue parachute hanging from the eves of the house.  I had picked this up in Thailand, and we had it all our time in Alaska, but it disappeared when we moved to Colorado.

Alaska in the early 1970s was more like the America of the 1950s.  There was not the hostility to the military that was evidenced in so many places during the Vietnam War.  Elmendorf and Ft Richardson were two major bases in Anchorage and provided a great deal of employment and support for the local economy.  The oil pipeline boom had only started when we arrived in 1974 and by 1976 was just beginning to be felt in many parts of the state.   Thus the US government, through its bases in Anchorage and Fairbanks, was one of the largest sources of revenue for the state and its citizens.

That said, the Bicentennial parade had a very old fashioned American feel, almost as if is were from about 1940.  There were kids on bicycles, the band from the the base, several floats on flat beds, and folks dressed in colonial outfits — somewhat of an anomaly since Alaska was part of Russia two hundred years earlier.  Bic14

Even our dog got into the act.   She was the Bicentennial Samoyed.Bic5



The year ended with a special performance by the Thunderbirds.  Since I  flew the F4, it was great to witness some really close formation flying.  This was something we did in the F4 at about two or three wingspans away from each other, not about 2 feet.

We always had amazing gardens in Alaska.  The sun was up nearly 21 hours in the summer and plants thrived.  That year I decided to do an all red, white, and blue display.  Our neighbors called us the “Disneyland of the North,” for our elaborate flower beds.


Of course, it being Alaska there was always a special twist to it.   For example, the fireworks could not be set off until about 12:30 at night as it simply was not dark enough until then to see them.  In the summer, the sun routinely rose about 3:30 and set about 11 p.m.

The Bicentennial really was a respite for all of us who had been through so much during the long nightmare of the Vietnam War, it provided that moment of pride to Americans all over and allowed them to finally celebrate all that was good in our national life.

All in all, it was a special time of promise in a decade that was marked with many difficulties.    This picture of our friend’s son captured the feeling of the day best:



“Happy Birthday America!”



Posted in 43 TFS, 4th of July Celebrations, American History, Anchorage, Anchorage Alaska, Norvell Family History | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Who’s your Daddy?


During the last week, I had the opportunity to think about fathers and their impact upon others  in an entirely different way.  We had several men from my college ROTC unit and their wives to dinner, it was our 50th anniversary of our graduation from college last weekend.

We also had some very special guests:  the son and daughter of our ROTC instructor, a Major who died in Vietnam, June 9, 1966. During the course of the evening,  the son discussed how his father’s death affected him growing up.  He said he was often asked “who’s your daddy.”  A hard question to answer in a single family home, but he said he wasn’t in a single parent home, his dad was with him as much as his mom.

Then several of my friends spoke about the Major and how he had impacted their lives.  One man spoke movingly about learning to fly from our lost instructor. He said, “he took me on my first flight.  When I was comfortable, he said you’ve got the stick.  And I took the stick and flew — if only briefly — he had given me the confidence and moved me into a new place.”  As we went around the others added how the man had been a mentor to them, giving them advice and encouragement when they needed it.  Others noted his skills as a leader and role model; still others as a teacher and friend.   I reflected on this.  Here was a man who fulfilled the function of fathers everywhere:  to introduce their children to a sometimes scary world, make it seem less uncomfortable, and build their confidence to deal with it on their own.

I came from a family that had a dad, but he spent most of his life when we were younger  working long hours either at the night shift or early in the morning.  In either case, I didn’t see much of him.  When he left the service after the Korean war he had to take a factory job in order for us to survive.   My mom worked also full time, so I became the adult at home early in life taking care of my younger sister.   I only saw my dad at meals. We did not do the father and son things that most young men do.   He came home from work, watched some TV and then it was time for bed.  Yet he taught me the lesson of duty. Sometimes you have to do what you don’t want to do, but you do it anyway.  People depend upon you, so you take your responsibilities seriously.  It is a lesson I have taken with me my whole life.

Every family is different, it’s a truism.  Every father presents a different face to his family. Some are able to play with their children and taking them on trips, interacting in a classic manner.  But for many a father is not present in those obvious ways.   And that is what I learned last week.

But dads are never gone.   As we went around the room sharing our thoughts, it came to me that this man who had been our instructor and friend really lived in every man in the room.

Just as my dad is present in me today.

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I have been to Arlington many, many times and it never fails to move me.

The first time I visited this hallowed place was as a senior in high school.  It is amazing to me all these years later the effect it had on our group.  We left our bus, a typical group of high school students, chattering and pretty much doing what “cool” kids did in 1962, and then the place hit us.   Hit is a good word as the group immediately quieted down as the vista of row upon row of stark white markers lay before us.

My next visit was not until  June 1968 after  I had moved to Washington as a 2nd Lieutenant in the Air Force.   On June 6 1968 Senator Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated in Los Angeles.   As the story unfolded, it was announced that RFK’s body would be flown back to New York for his funeral on June 8, and plans were made to bring him to Washington by train for burial in Arlington near his brother’s grave.

On Sunday June 9, 1968, I decided to go to Arlington to visit the Kennedy grave sites.  It was a warm, sunny morning and despite all the recent events of the previous days, the area around the graves was deserted.  I climbed the hill to the graves to spend a quiet moment and pay my respect.

As I turned to leave there, to my surprise, were Jacqueline Kennedy, John Jr., and Caroline coming up the hill.  The Kennedy children had come at this quiet moment to visit their father’s grave and pay respects to Uncle Bobby.

Now this is the amazing thing. When I arrived at JFK’s grave there was no one there; two seconds after Jackie arrived a huge crowd appeared literally out of nowhere.  I will never know where this group materialized from.

Jackie Kennedy at JFK's grave 1968

Jackie Kennedy at JFK’s grave 1968

Jackie and the children walked to John’s grave knelt down, prayed, and then moved slowly to Robert’s freshly dug resting place.  Jackie carried a single rose which she placed on the grave, and turned and left, passing by not more than a foot from where I stood.

Kennedys at RF Kennedy grave 1968

Kennedys at RF Kennedy grave 1968









In 1985, we returned to the Washington DC area when I was  assigned there  again,   By then, we had two teen age daughters and  one of the first places we took them was Arlington to the Tomb of the Unknowns and the Kennedy grave sites.  Spots that we often took others to as well — all were overwhelmed by the power of this place.

But it is that long ago visit in 1968 continues to stay with me.

It was a special moment in one of the truly special places in America that I will never forget.


Posted in Air Force, American History, American holidays, Holidays, Norvell Family History, The Kennedy Assassination | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

When we were in the Service

Refueling over SEA

I’ve noticed in recent years, I often refer to the time that I was in the Air Force as when “we were in the Air Force.”

This is not surprising as being an officer, 50 years ago,  meant that your wife was for all practical purposes in the service as well.  To be promoted 50 years ago, one had to be married and have an active spouse who participated in the various activities that officers’ wives were expected to do.   That meant being a member of the wives club and being active in community services on the base such as helping with the child care and chapel. This really was the old military when a wife was expected to devote herself to her husband’s career, it was  a partnership and while many today will not understand this, it was the accepted norm for military service almost from the founding of the nation.

That is not to say this was a good thing.  Many women wore their husband’s rank:  they were Mrs. Colonel Smith and one did not forget this fact.  Nor did they let you.  They had devoted so much of their life to the military, they expected to be treated well.  They sacrificed a great deal in their lives to achieve the status of Mrs. Colonel.

To be blunt, the pay of most  junior officers was very low, and the housing provided was only the most basic, cinder block quarters.  Many of these women had to put up with their husbands being gone for long times, when they were left alone to deal with children, homes,  and any problems.   During our “career”  we moved seven times in 21 years.  That meant picking up, moving children in schools, and setting up a new household.  This was something that most civilian wives never had to deal with.

Lastly, if a military wife was married to an aircrew member there was always the chance that when her husband went to work — he would not return.  I have written about our time in Alaska when a captain assigned to my unit flew a training mission, had fuel problems, and had to dead stick the F4 in.   He survived the landing, but in the process, the ejection seat blew and he was fired up through the canopy of the aircraft and died from a concussion.   This was a peacetime mission, not combat.   How many civilian women saw their husbands off at the station  in the morning at the “Kiss and Ride”  and didn’t pick them up that evening.  When one flew, one was never certain what the day would bring. And if the person died, a wife was expected to not show emotion, but soldier on.

So there were in effect an unwritten set of expectations  that were entered into by the military and the men and their wives.   If Mrs. Colonel Smith wore her husband’s rank; she felt that she had earned it.   And  the military in turn provided a group of like minded friends who understood the situation as no outsider could.   In the old military that still existed until the 1980s, it truly was a case of “we” being in the service…





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Death and Family History

Sleepy 005Over the years researching family history I have read stories of terrible deaths.   There are murders, accidental deaths, and of course medical issues that run in families.

Murders are the most sensational.  In my own family, there was William Walker Norvell who came home one afternoon and stabbed his wife to death in Beaumont, Texas in 1928.  This became the O.J. Simpson trial of that part of the country as  Norvell was tried and then declared insane, retried, sent back to the insane ward, released again to be tried and finally let go.   Other Norvell family lines have poisonings, members who are gunned down, and stabbed as above.

Accidental deaths take many forms.   There is death in battle,  which touches almost every family I have researched.   There are the sad deaths of children.  Sometimes these are very poignant.  In one case, a newspaper story reported the accidental death of a young girl who had suffocated when she hid in an old refrigerator playing hide and seek.  Her family found her lifeless body– she was unable to get the door open — entombed in the yard.   Sometimes they involve  children and adults.  The train wreck of 1906 which killed the husband and two sons of Emily Norvell Belt near Washington DC is one example.    Fire was also one of the most common ways to die.  My cousin’s aunt died a small girl when she played with matches and set her dress on fire.  Other stories tell of whole families who perished when a chimney fire ensued.  Then there were accidental drownings which seem to take children frequently in the 19th century. Carriage accidents also were a common form of death in this period as well as steamboat explosions.   I have come across several Norvells who died as a result of a carriage mishap and at least one who died when a steamboat boiler exploded.  Interestingly, I have read of no Norvells at this point who died in an airplane crash, but many have died in automobile accidents.

Finally there are medically related deaths.   In the 18th and 19th century it was rare for a family not to have members who died of cholera, diphtheria, or small pox.  Early in the 20th century, the great Spanish flu epidemic of 1918-1919 took my great-grandmother Mary Dean Redfield Norvell.  If a person died during this period, there is a good chance that flu was the cause.  My wife had an uncle Arthur who died of the flu.  A young man, he seemed to recover, but took a turn for the worse and then was gone.  One of his brothers died of diphtheria, about the same time.   There were many, many ways to die in the 19th century.

Some medical issues run in families.   Long before genetics, family histories tell of person after person in one family who died of cancer.   My maternal aunt’s husband died at the age of 54 of cancer, his mother had died of cancer, and all of his siblings died of cancer. Heart issues seem to run in other families.  Sometimes something as innocuous as psoriasis, which I have and my grandmother had, can lead to a worse situation.  My sister also suffered from this condition.  It is an auto-immune disease which can lead to more significant problems as arthritis and in her case a complete immune system failure leading to her death.   I suspect that there are immune system issues going back a long way in our maternal lines.

If this story seems morbid, it is not.  Death of course is part of the story of a person.  You cannot tell  the beginning of the a person’s life with the end of the story as well.

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