How I came to fly the Pit of the F4 – a story of genes, rejection, and being where I was meant be,

In 1962, I went to college and joined the AF ROTC program with the hopes that I would be a pilot when I graduated in 1966. 

Well, my entry into the Air Force was not without some bumps. After graduation from college, I had received permission to go to Syracuse University for my graduate work,  but then my vision deteriorated and I could no longer qualify for any type of flight training.

So when I went on active duty, the Air Force assigned me as a 2nd Lt to a Security Police Squadron in Washington DC.  This to my surprise turned out to be the Air Force Honor Guard.  The Guard serves at the White House, Arlington, the Pentagon, and at all major US ceremonial events. So I was assigned to the Air Force Honor Guard for about …..15 minutes .

Why you may ask, – well – members of the honor guard are very, very – TALL And as a small man (about 5 foot 5 inches) the Honor Guard didn’t want me. That was my first lesson in how the Air Force Personnel Center worked, it didn’t seem to look at the requirements for a job to place someone. I then became an operations planner and worked in the command post on the base. After after three years writing operations plans, it was time to move on.

By 1971, the Vietnam War was needing more and more aircrews and I found that I could again qualify to fly.  For me that meant going to Air Force Navigator Flight School, earning my wings and being selected to fly the F4. After Nav School in the fall of 1972, I arrived at Luke AFB outside Phoenix to upgrade to the backseat of the F4.

I have to tell you, I fit the F4 perfectly, it was where I was meant to be.

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. As a Weapons Systems Officer – a WSO in the backseat, I didn’t fly in an F4 — I Wore it. 

Which brings me to my first flight.

Training began 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 the bird. On September 22, 1972 the weeks of preparation and classes came together in that first flight.

I remember it as if it were yesterday. We went through the preflight, started the engines,  I completed my checklist in the back and the Aircraft Commander (AC), who was an instructor pilot, made his call : “F4D- 010, requesting permission to taxi.” Our F4 taxied out of its parking space and slowly moved into position.

I wasn’t excited or even nervous – actually I really didn’t know what to expect – I just did what I was trained to do. Now on the runway, the pilot pushed the throttles into afterburner, and released the brakes. With a ROAR of those two big engines, the Phantom accelerated rapidly off the runway. To me, in the back, it was like being shot out of a cannon strapped to the shell.

Once in the training area we did maneuvering and I learned how the radar operated on real targets. Then, the IP told me “You’ve got The Stick.” And I shook the stick, “Saying I’ve got The Stick.” I tried to sound confident – but, to be honest it had never dawned on me that I would be flying the bird on any mission let alone the first one.  I would have the stick on almost every mission in war and peace, but the first time was very special.

Here I was a kid from a rural upstate New York 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 more than 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).

And to this day I thank the Air Force Honor Guard for giving me the opportunity to fly.   I had a lot more fun in the back of the F4 than I would have had any day marching with the Guard at ceremonial events.

As I said I fit the Pit of the F4 perfectly.

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, American History, F-4 Phantom II, F4 Phantom II, F4 PhantomII, Fighter Aircraft, Fighter pilot lingo, Fighter pilot slang, Thailand, U Dorn RTAFB, Udorn RTAFB, Vietnam War and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to How I came to fly the Pit of the F4 – a story of genes, rejection, and being where I was meant be,

  1. JLM says:

    I can only imagine….Dave reported a similar experience in the Strike Eagle. BTW he’s now moved on from sims to (T6-A) birds down in Columbus–his continuing dream in process…

  2. Jim J says:

    Yep! Military careers rarely seem to be in a predictable straight line. My first fighter flight was in the F 111 D at Cannon AFB. Very similar emotions to yours. Stand out memory was the cockpit was very noisy with multiple cooling fans whirring for the then high tech computers and instrumentation that each needed its own cooling fan. Very different than the simulator in that aspect. The F 111 was the perfect plane for me. Loved the speed – loved flying low – loved the camaraderie of Squadron life, for starters.

  3. Jeff Sena says:

    Ah, “The needs of the Air Force” ! As a former WSO, Vietnam combat veteran and retired officer, I can attest! Having finished in the top ten of my class in 1972 , I chose an F4 out of nav school. On to MacDill AFB for RTU. While at MacDill with a pending assignment to Luke we were told that our entire class just volunteered for SEA! On to Jungle survival at Clark then 497th TFS at Ubon Thailand. After flying 132 combat missions and and feeling really confident in my skill set I had my dream assignment, an F 4 to Elgin AFB on the sunny Florida Gulf Coast. A few weeks later someone at MPC decided that 30+ WSO’s were needed to man navigator positions in the KC-135. Seems a lot of B-52 Navs we’re getting out after LinebackerII and Vietnam. I begged and pleaded with MPC, volunteered for back to back SEA tours, an F4 to Europe or an F111 assignment to no avail! On to Castle AFB and KC-135 training. A captain and decorated combat vet struggling to relearn grid navigation! Needs of the Air Force had struck again!

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