During my years flying the F4 there was only one time, while flying combat, we had to use the tailhook to stop on the runway. It happened while I was stationed in the 13 TFS at Udorn RTAFB, Thailand. We blew a tire on the right main gear and as we ricocheted down the runway dropping the hook was the only option.
Dropping the hook was a routine part of landing in the Navy and, while it happened on occasion, not the normal practice for the Air Force. The fact that there was a hook on an F4 was linked to its dual nature as both a Navy and Air Force fighter. It was necessary to use the hook on aircraft carriers to stop the Phantom on landing.
The other major differences of course were that the runway did not go up and down as it did on a carrier. Also one did not have to hunt for a runway in what seemed like a million miles of ocean. To my mind those were major reasons that I flew in the Air Force and not the Navy. In fact I could go into a lot more, yes many more reasons, but I digress – I think you get the picture.
As early as the 1950s, the Air Force began to experiment with arresting cables to stop aircraft on the runway in an emergency. By the time I flew the Phantom in the early 1970s, the cables or barriers were a common feature of most bases.
The F4 hook was made of high strength steel and designed to stop an aircraft weighing about 44,000 pounds on landing at a speed of about 180-150 knots. Using the hook was not a guarantee that you would stop. There are many factors that come into play on landing: speed, runway conditions, cross and head winds, and the general nature of the emergency. The time we used the hook we blew a tire on landing and were erratically moving at a high speed down the runway, much like a bobsled out of control. And there was always the chance that the hook could skip the cable as it moved along the ground and you would continue to ricochet down the runway to the over run where there was a final webbed barrier to stop the aircraft.
Now try to imagine what dropping the hook is like.
As they say in Ghost Busters, it was a if you were “stopping instantaneously and every molecule in your body exploding at the speed of light.” It was as if time stopped. I think that about sums it up. One minute you are moving at about 150 knots and then bingo you aren’t.
Now I have done amazing things in the air, so much so that going on a roller coaster really holds no fascination for me. I have flown at 50,000+ feet, gone faster than Mach 2, done maneuvers that pulled more than 7 Gs, and stopped instantaneously when dropping the hook, and I can tell you that it was the latter that is the hardest to describe and the hardest to forget.
For an Air Force guy it really made my day!
And that is no understatement, and it confirmed in my mind why I didn’t go into the Navy. And as I have often said “not that there’s anything wrong with that.”
I would go on to to flying in Alaska, where dropping the hook was more common, but it is the first time that is always most special.
And never forgotten.