45 years ago in April 1973, I left Luke AFB in Arizona en route to South East Asia. As I graduated from F4 upgrade training, I was a very different person than when I began it.
Actually, I can say that about flying training in general. When I went to Nav School I had been a non-rated or non-flying officer for 4 years. That made me much older than the other men in my class. I was 27 when I began the school, right at the cut off. If you were older than 27 1/2 the Air Force said you were too old to go to flight training in those days.
As a non-flying officer the most exciting thing I had ever done was push paper. Now in flight training my whole world changed. I was now learning to do things that I never would have believed I was able to accomplish.
Whether it was learning to parachute, mastering the complexities of night celestial navigation, completing a very demanding survival school and POW experience, or graduating from upgrading to the F4, I gained new confidence and great insights into what I could do and my abilities to do it.
So in April 1973, my class completed its training at Luke. Our class photo in the 310th TFTS showed a confident group. It had been another demanding year of training, simulators, and more training. And now we were ready.
Sadly some of the men in the group photo are gone now. I was on the left end in the back row, in front of me was my pilot Capt Don Verdery (second from left kneeling) who went to Thailand with me and passed away several years ago. Others went on to be far removed from flying fighters: today a good friend is a Methodist pastor, something I would never have imagined in those long ago days.
Leaving Luke in 1973, many would go to South East Asia to Ubon, Korat, or Udorn Royal Thai Air Force Bases, which were the primary F4 units in Thailand. I was first assigned to Ubon, but during jungle survival in the Philippines, my orders were changed to Udorn, where I joined the members of the 13 TFS, Panther Pack.
To say I was a bit apprehensive is an understatement, but when I picked the F4 I knew that I was going to combat. It was a fact of life then.
Still if you look at what I call my “graduation” photo taken in April 1973, you probably would not guess that I was apprehensive. I was proud of what I had done. Proud to be serving our country. Proud to join a long line of American flyers.
There are only two services that have a romantic tradition of service: the Marines and the Air Force. The Marines trace this to a mythic battle in the Halls of Montezuma. Air Force fliers, especially fighter jocks hearken back to the mythic dog fights over the battlefields of WWI. To fly a fighter is to walk in the steps of Eddie Rickenbacker and countless others who proved their mettle one on one in the air. It is a very romanticized idea of warfare going back to the middle ages when knights fought battles in hand-to-hand combat. All fighter jocks are the proud sons of those knights.
But for me those days were still to come. So home to see the family, on to the Philippines for Jungle Survival School, and what the future would hold.
And what a future it would be.