Mach 2

Found this little pin in a box recently. Not much to look at from a distance. Small F4 on it, but its the caption that catches the eye: Mach 2 Club, Phantom II.  The first reaction might be: “Is this a joke?”  No its not a joke.

Back in the 1970s, as a backseater, I did fly Mach 2+ in the F4 when I was a member of an FCF crew.   FCF – Functional Check Flight – crews took recently repaired F4s up and put them through extreme flying challenges to ensure that they were repaired before the next crew flew them.  One part of the FCF profile was to fly at speeds exceeding Mach 2.  Mach 2 is approximately 1534 miles an hour (the speed varies under different conditions, see comment below).

Now if you have seen the movie, The Right Stuff, you remember Chuck Yeager’s attempt to break the so-called “Sound Barrier.”   Breaking the “barrier”  was exceeding the speed of sound, about 761 miles an hour.  In the movie, Yeager is buffeted and banged about.  Its very dramatic, the small Bell X-1 is tossed around the sky and looks like it is entering a vortex of some sort.  Ominous.   On October 14, 1947, the Bell X1 – nicknamed Glamorous Glennis  after Yeager’s wife– became the first airplane to fly faster than the speed of sound.  In the movie it looks very dramatic.

So when people invariably ask: “What was it like to fly more than Mach 2?”   I answer:  “Its fast.”  But also very routine.   Flying the F4 at Mach 1 or Mach 2 didn’t have the same drama as Hollywood portrayed.  Much of the flying of a high performance jet is by the book.  Checklists govern every thing the crew does.  That includes flying Mach 2.  Both crew members are very busy performing the tasks assigned, checking to make sure that the plane performs as it is supposed to.    There is a shock wave but the crew doesn’t feel it as they are going faster than the speed of sound and ahead of the movement through the air mass.  The real indication of the speed is watching the horizon and the Mach meter and feeling the power of the two F4 J79 engines, the  inertial reel locking and being pinned to the seat.  FCF flights also include very high altitude flying, pulling Gs, and other stresses on the air frame.   I remember flying above 50,000 feet, the oxygen mask ballooning against my face, seeing the curvature of the earth.  Its the closest I ever came to being in space.  Then when it was over the AC asking on the ground, “how did it feel to go Mach 2.”If this sounds dry and prosaic, it’s the typical aircrew member take on what it was like.

It takes a poet to do justice to the experience.

Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of earth,
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
Of sun-split clouds, –and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of –Wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hov’ring there
I’ve chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air…
Up, up the long, delirious, burning blue
I’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace
Where never lark or even eagle flew —
And, while with silent lifting mind I’ve trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.

— High Flight by John Magee

That is what it’s like.


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 13 TFS, 43 TFS, Air Force, Air Force lingo, Alaska, Alaskan Air Command, American History, F-4 Phantom II, F4 emergency, F4 Phantom II, F4 PhantomII, Fighter Aircraft, Mach 2 and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Mach 2

  1. Mary Sova says:

    What a beautiful poem! Thank you for sharing it. I can’t imagine what that must have been like to fly that fast.

  2. J. Casad says:

    As a member of the F4 Phantom “Mach 2 club” I do have a pin and a “Mach 2 Club” jacket patch. Fond memories of a special time.

  3. Bill Borland says:

    Actually, Mach 1 is 760mph only at sea level: at altitude, Mach 2 is 1,320 mph, as sound travels more slowly in thinner air.
    You would know that, of course…!

  4. Lynn Batterman says:

    Been there done that. Have the pin but some VF96 “team mate” stole my jacket with my cool Mach 2 club patch and other unique patches.

  5. jim white says:

    I remember FCFs at Udorn, pointing at Hanoi for the mach run, hoping it would worry them. Same same at Misawa, pointing at the Russian islands north of Hokaido. The only physical indication wasn’t of speed but how dark the sky gets at angels 50 and up. Another good one John.

  6. John Perkins says:

    I flew the Phantom in the 70’s and into SEA. I also did mach II several times after BFM training…just goofing around with a senior flt lead who ranked me. Us mortals were restricted from such antics!! I got my M2 patch but never got a pin. If ya find a spare, I’ll “step up to the bar” for it!!

  7. Dennis says:

    I did FCF’s with C-130s. Whole different experience. Thanks for sharing.

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