There are few books that have really captured the world of the F4 backseater or GIB (Guy in Back) in combat.
For Dr. John Pendergrass flying in the F-4 Phantom II in combat during the Vietnam War changed his life forever. Pendergrass’ time in the backseat, or “Pit” as we called it, occurred in 1971. Then as an Air Force Flight Surgeon he flew 54 combat missions out of Da Nang in the Pit over Vietnam. This was not something he had to do, as he states in his well written account of that time, Racing Back to Vietnam: A Journey in War and Peace.
He simply could have added his name to a C-130 crew manifest and had a much safer way to fulfill flying time requirements. He did it in the Phantom out of a sense of duty and a personal and professional need to experience some of the most high adrenaline, demanding type of flight of the Vietnam War.
The Phantom II had entered the inventory in 1960, so in 1971, when Pendergrass flew, it was relatively new. It was not a small fighter and the bird could weigh in at nearly 60,000 lbs when fully loaded with fuel at take-off. With its two big GE J79 engines, when the afterburners were cooking, the thrust could push it out there away from an enemy or engage him in combat. Every flight challenged the men who flew her, but Pendergrass was a different kind of back seater.
Most GIBs went to Nav School and had gone through an eight-month upgrade to the Phantom’s back seat; Pendergrass gained his skills flying on the job. He learned that the back seat of the F-4 was a place of G-suits, Martin Baker ejection seats, INS, radar, RHAW gear, memorized emergency procedures, and many, many circuit breakers. It was a place where one needed to be a contortionist, while tightly strapped to a rocket hoping it would never fire. It was a place where the man in the rear cockpit was valued and every flight in combat was never routine.
Long before the movie “Top Gun,” glamorized the world of the fighter pilot, brave men were engaging others over the skies of Vietnam. The legacy of the Red Baron, Eddie Rickenbacker, and others of the First World War motivated the F4 crews. Pendergrass noted that this influenced him and this became the great adventure of his life. If flying fighters in combat were a very exciting life, the everyday world of the Air Force, Da Nang, and Vietnam increasingly intruded. Pendergrass talks about how he waited for the daily mail, dealt with the bureaucracy of the medical corps, and learned to function in a very different world. There were two sides to his life – one exciting, the other routine and mundane. And all the time, he counted the days until he would be back in the “real world,” and home with his family.
Yet, the experience of combat and Vietnam stayed with him. 45 years later, he returned in 2016 to visit a much changed nation. There he participated in a demanding “Iron Man Triathlon” while revisiting old haunts In Vietnam and exploring new ones. Such is the engaging story of Pendergrass – it is a 45 year journey that is still on going for him, as it is for many of the men who flew combat.
And John Pendergrass’s journey is one to share.