The First Time I flew the F4

In the fall of 1972, I arrived at Luke AFB to upgrade to the backseat of the F4. I had come to this point late in life, 28 and a captain, having been a ground pounder (non-rated or non-flying officer)  for first 4 years of my career,  then going to Navigator training. I had always wanted to fly jets when I was a kid so when I was selected to fly the F-4, after nav school, it was a dream come true.

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

Training began at Luke with ground school. There I learned the aircraft systems, practiced emergency procedures, and spent about a month in training before I even got to fly “Big Ugly,” as we affectionately called the bird. As a WSO (Weapons Systems Officer) you don’t fly in an F4 — You Wear it. The cockpit was very small and so tight I could hardly move. I had on a G Suit to handle increased G forces, an oxygen mask, and was tightly strapped to a rocket ejection seat.

Which brings me finally back my first flight.

Our bird, F-4C 662, requested permission to taxi out of its parking space and slowly moved into position.  While Hollywood has accustomed Americans to think that there is a lot of banter between aircrew members, in actuality there is usually strict radio discipline. In the back seat I finished my checklists as the AC got permission to take off. I wasn’t excited or even nervous – actually I really didn’t know what to expect – just did what I was trained to do.

Now on the runway, the AC/IP pushed the throttles which had been idling in what was called “Military Power,” past the detente into afterburner, and released 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 strapped to the shell. In the back, I called off 100 kts as we passed that speed and began to rapidly lift off.

All by the book.

Once in the training area, the AC put the big bird through its paces, I practiced with the radar, and we accomplished our training objectives. Then, the AC told me “You’ve got The Stick.” And I shook the stick, “Saying I’ve got The Stick.”

Here I was a kid from a rural small town with my hands on the stick of a top-level Air Force fighter.  Its hard to put into words my feelings of that moment, now 45 years later. It was mixture of pride, awe, excitement, and an extreme adrenaline rush that lasted well into the night (as my wife can still attest).

Over my years in the Phantom I would have The Stick on almost every mission. I would fly combat missions in South East Asia, see sights of amazing beauty in the air, and do things in the air that most folks can not dream of. And I would be changed in many ways.

Yet that first time that will be always the most special.


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, Alaska, Alaskan Air Command, American History, F-4 Phantom II, F4 Phantom II, F4 PhantomII, Luke AFB, SEA and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to The First Time I flew the F4

  1. Richard Knipscher says:

    Thank you for sharing your peak experience, John – wonderful!’

  2. JL Mutolo says:


    Thanks for another interesting post! Where did you do your Nav (now called CSO) training? What did you fly there? From Luke I guess it was off to SEA…

    Dave is still enjoying his tour in Europe—technically the UK, but currently in Germany with NATO exercises, and frequently in Aviano. We managed to collar him for a few days in between TDYs last month. He’s signed on for “another six months or a year” there.



  3. Pete says:

    Thank you for sharing a well written posting about your “first time” in a F-4!

  4. Mike Benevento says:

    Having been a F-4 WSO myself, I remember my first flight in the Phantom II. When I grew up, I played with my model aircraft, tanks, ships, etc. I was always flying the Phantom. In the long run, it was a childhood dream come true. I consider myself–like many other Phantom aircrew–to be very lucky.

  5. Kevin D says:

    I had the privilege of flying a lot of backseat rides in the F-4 at Edwards. What a hoot for an old boom operator.

  6. Garry M. Beckham says:

    Never saw the comment I wrote about my first time in the F-4 as WSO at Luke. What’s up with that?

  7. Garry M. Beckham says:

    This is a second time to Post. Thanks. READ: My first flight in the F-4, a C model at Luke AFB, AZ in the spring of 1974 was similar. We were on an Intercept Sortie with one F-4 as the target. We were flying south a Luke at about 25,000 feet. Both planes were about 35 miles apart. Again, this is my first flight, with a real radar system, not the simulator one with big targets. The two planes were rapidly closing together, the target plane was about 1,000 feet above us. Finally, at about 5 miles I get a contact. I told the pilot, “Contact, 30 left, 5 miles.” He immediately rolled the aircraft to start the turn. Just after rolling it all went wrong. The jet snapped to a positive 9 Gs. I found my head in my lap. Of course the pilot was making stick controls to combat this 9 Gs. The jet then unloaded to minus 3 Gs, snapping me around like a bob on a rubber band. Finally after several gyrations of positive and negative Gs, the pilot got the jet under control. We checked all the systems, circuit breaker, and looked over the jet. Our wing man joined us, and looked us over. We declared an emergency and flew back to Luke. We didn’t have to use the hook, and made a normal landing. After taxiing back to the parking ramp, we shut it down and climbed out. We had fuel, oil and other liquids dripping out of the bottom. After going thru maintenance debrief, we got word that all the engine mounts were broken, along with a lot of the other tubes that carried hydraulic fluid and JP-4. That day my neck, shoulder and back began to ache. For the next two weeks my chin was attached to my left shoulder. But I didn’t go DNIF (duty not including flying). Should have gone. Still have spine, shoulder and neck damage and pain, but VA said since I went back to flying, no disability. I have about 2000 hours in the F-4C/D/E/G and was in the 5550th TFTS, 80th TFs, 306th TFTS, 309th TFTS, 90th TFS as a WSO and an Instructor WSO. I also flew cruise missile chase out of Edwards on a TDY basis while a member of the GLCM FOT&E. Also worked at 6200 TFTS “Cope Thunder”, First Air Force, TAC, ACC, and CENTCOM augmentee (Riyadh, SA 1990). Through the years I was able to fly multiple hops in the F-100, F-16, F-15, F-18, O-2 and some other planes. As aforementioned in the F-4C incident above, I don’t ever think that I ever thought, “I don’t think I will do this anymore!” Either dumb, or big balls!” Enjoyed all the fighter aviation events. I participated in and the folks that made fighter aviation the best career ever.

  8. Denny Murra says:

    While I never flew the F-4 I did spend a lot of time in the cockpit running checks on the engines, A small town Iowa boy who had only run John Deere tractors before really enjoyed my time at the trim pad as a jet engine mech at Udorn RTAFB Thailand..

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