Off we go…

Capt John E. Norvell, 1972

I was thinking back to the first time I ever took off in an F4 fighter.

The F4 Phantom II was the primary Air Force fighter of the Vietnam War.  It had entered the inventory in 1960, so by the time I flew it in 1972 it was a relatively new aircraft with the latest technology.  It was not a small fighter, it had two big GE J 79 engines that could blast it off the deck and could weigh in at nearly 60,000 lbs when fully loaded with fuel at take-off.  And when the afterburners were cooking, it could slurp down gas at about 1,000 pounds a minute.  That thrust was its biggest advantage, it could push you out there away from an enemy or help you engage him in combat.

I had always wanted to fly jets when I was a kid.  When I was selected to fly the F-4 it was a dream come true.  Training to fly the fighter came after I had already gotten my wings.  Every aircraft type is different and requires a period of training on its controls, handling, and the basics of flight.  The training is usually done at a different base than basic flight training and takes about 9 months.  In my case it was at Luke Air Force Base near Phoenix, Arizona.

Training began with ground school where you learned the aircraft systems, practiced emergency procedures, and spent about a month and a half in training before you even got to fly the “Big Beast.”

There were 10 basic emergency procedures that you had to learn by heart and it was by heart.  You were tested on them at least once a month and had to write them from memory verbatim, even a misplaced comma was considered a mistake.  They were to become second nature to you.  Even now I find myself, nearly 45 years later, thinking :  Stall –  “Throttles idle, chute deploy, hook down ”  I think those will be my last words. (Actually they would make a great epitaph- as they also describe how a fighter jock will end up.)

Yes the Phantom had a hook, it was originally designed as a Navy fighter to land on carriers.  The F4 was officially the Phantom II, as there had been an F4 in the Second World War flown by the Navy.

So we called it the Phantom and its symbol was a small guy “The Spook” with a II on his chest.    We also called it “Big Ugly,” as it wasn’t a sleak aircraft, but really big and hulking.


There were several models, I learned to fly on the F4C which had no gun and finally transitioned to the F4E which had an internal 20 MM Vulcan gatling gun in the nose.  Each model had a price tag of about 1.5 to 2 million dollars in  1960 dollars, so we had to be careful with the taxpayers money.  Which brings me finally back to taking off.

You don’t fly an F4 or any other fighter aircraft — You Wear Them.   The cockpit is very small and you are strapped into the ejection seat so tight you can hardly move.  You also have on a G Suit to handle increased G forces, an oxygen mask, and are stapped to a rocket ejection seat.   This is not an aircraft one jumps out of in an emergency.

I remember that afternoon in November 1972 as if it were yesterday,  we taxied out on the runway, went through the checklist, got our clearance, and then pushed the throttles which had been idling in what was called “Military Power,” past the detent into afterburner, while releasing the brakes.

The Phantom jumped off the runway, there is no other way to describe it.  It was like being shot out of a cannon being strapped to the shell.  It was a tremendous adrenaline rush, and later in the evening my wife would find me still wound up about it….

Some day soon I will tell you about dropping the hook during an emergency landing, when all time stood still.

F-4 Phantom Landing in Alaska


About jenorv

John E. Norvell is a retired Air Force Lt Colonel, decorated air combat veteran of the Vietnam War, and former Assistant Professor of American and Military History at the U.S. Air Force Academy. He has written freelance for the Washington Post, the Middle Tennessee Journal of Genealogy and History, and for several newspapers around the country.
This entry was posted in Air Force, Alaska, American History, Arizona, F-4 Phantom II, Family History, Fighter Aircraft, Luke AFB, Norvell Family History and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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