The Day Time Stopped – We drop the Hook

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.

F4 tailhook under rear of 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.

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, American History, Combat, F-4 Phantom II, F4 emergency, F4 Phantom II, Fighter Aircraft, SEA, Tailhook, Thailand, U Dorn RTAFB, Udorn RTAFB and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to The Day Time Stopped – We drop the Hook

  1. Stuart Maas says:

    Very nice … thanks.
    Stu Maas
    13th TFS 1972.

  2. Stuart Maas says:

    John – greetings,

    I cannot find your “First F-4 sortie” vignette now, so I’ll discuss with you here. I came out of UNT in June 1969, and went to F-4 RTU at Tucson. My first sortie was in early September 1969. It is still quite vivid in my mind’s eye. It was an afternoon sortie and we flew F-4Cs – the earliest Air Force jets. Well besides sweating alot into the cotton K2B gray coverall, I got deathly air sick! Big time. In fact for the first 7 sorties, I got really air sick and puked … but I never spilled a drop nor did I use a barf bag. I would go “cold mike”, rip the mask off, cover my mouth and vomit. My cheeks would bulge and I’d try not to breath, then I’d swallow the whole warm, liquid and chunky mass. After that 7th sortie, I NEVER got air sick again – ever. There was one IP, Major Rusty Stauber, that tried very hard to make me puke and he was never able to prove it! My student AC was a former pilot backseater, Billy Hudson. We still talk to this day. He was very good and sympathetic. So I got through it. and went on to fly nearly 2500 hours in the jet – in both seats. I logged 850 hours of GIB time and was indeed a Panther Pack member in 1972.

    A couple other items — I took the barrier 17 times. It got to be second nature. Once at Seymour in the mid-70s, I got a utility failure as I lowered the gear on downwind and the master caution came on as I called “base, gear checked, lights” … whoops … I instinctively ran the checks, alerted my GIB, and declared an emergency to tower and about 30 seconds later, we were hooked in the cable.

    And finally and perhaps the most important part of being a GIB was TRUST. Trust in the capabilities and decisions of your AC. Sure, if there was time, perhaps there might be a quick discussion between you and the AC, but often, you just had to “hang on” and TRUST that he knew what he was doing. He had your life in his hands … . Only once – on a 45 dive pass up in northeast Laos, did I ever take the stick from the AC – because he pressed way too far – and he was angry to say the least, but at least we did not get fragged by our own MK-82s. TRUST was implicit, but we also knew who the weak ACs were and we always hoped for avoiding having to fly with them. The 13th had several weak sticks in 1972, when we were going into Pack 6 daily … and there are stories about them!

    Take care,
    Stuart Maas

  3. flighterdoc says:

    Heh. The reason I went AF (I started in F4’s, Wild Weasels) was because aiming at the blunt end of a boat while carrying a nuclear weapon struck me as …. risky…

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