Up in the Air so Blue


When you fly in the military there is a path that you follow.  All do it.   You start as a student flier, earn your wings, become qualified in a certain aircraft, move on as a squadron member, and then if you are proficient, and do well, become an instructor for others.

From there you might become a member of the unit’s Stan Eval shop –or Standards Evaluation – which is the group that annually checks that fliers to make sure they are qualified and certifies their abilities in the air.

It  also should be noted that flying in the military is not just strapping on a fighter and taking off.  There are countless jobs that are done in addition to the primary duty of flying: Administration officer, schedulers, flight commanders, operations officers, supply officer, and the list goes on and on.

And if you are really crazy enough  you become part of a Functional Check Flight crew.

FCF is a very specialized type of flying which involves the most experience fliers.   And you get to experience the type of flying that is the closest to being an astronaut and is the most fun.

“How does it feel to go up in the air
Up in the air so blue
Oh I do think its the most pleasantest thing
That ever a child can do.”

Flyers take a child like joy in flight and are really big kids at heart, and FCF flying is the ultimate experience.

Late in my time in the F4 I came to FCF flying.


The FCF crew takes planes that have been grounded for mechanical problems and after they are “fixed” takes them up and tries to break them again.

Yes I said we were crazy, but boy was it fun.

We pulled G forces in excess to try to rip off the wings, we flew at the height of the envelope on the edge of space at more than 50,000 feet and were as free as anyone can ever be.  We swooped and turned on a dime, as the adrenaline and speed built.  We pushed the bird to more than Mach 2.

Flying the F-4 at Mach 2 didn’t have the same drama as Hollywood portrayed. Much of the flying of a high performance jet was by the book. Checklists governed every thing the crew did. That included flying Mach 2. Both crew members were very busy performing the tasks assigned, checking to make sure that the plane performs as it was supposed to. There was a shock wave, as you pass Mach 1, but the crew didn’t feel it as they were going faster than the speed of sound and ahead of the movement through the air mass. The real indication of the speed to me was watching the horizon and the Mach meter, while feeling the power of the two F-4 J79 engines, the inertial reel locking, and being pinned to my seat.   Flying above 50,000 feet, the oxygen mask ballooned against my face, I saw the curvature of the earth, and was the closest I ever came to being in space.

When people invariably asked me: “What was it like to fly more than Mach 2?” I answered: “Its fast.”   It takes a poet to do justice to the experience.

“I have slipped the surly bonds of earth,
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings…” High Flight – John Magee

That is what it was like.   Then we landed.  “OK, she’s fit to fly,”we told the crew chief, and signed off the forms.

And then… we went back to your other jobs as a squadron planner or ops officer, which was never as much fun.   And we all know how that feels when we are bound to a desk for 8 hours a day.

I would choose slipping the surly bonds any day.


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, Air Force lingo, American History, F-4 Phantom II, Norvell Family History and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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