Flying the F4 in the North – Alaska

From 1974-1978 I flew intercepts of Soviet bombers off the coast of Alaska in the McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II fighter.  I had arrived in Alaska fresh from a combat tour in Thailand, where I flew missions over Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. Flying in Alaska was very different, but more on that later .

The importance of Alaska to the defense of America, dated back to when the U.S. Army Air Corps sent Billy Mitchell there in 1901 to supervise the construction of the Washington- Alaska telegraph system. From this Mitchell came to appreciate strategic importance of the territory. Over the 73 years since Mitchell, there had been a major buildup of military forces in the state. The Cold War engaged America and the U.S.S.R. around the world. They met also at the top of America.

When I arrived in 1974, the Air Force had Elmendorf Air Force Base in Anchorage, and Eielson in Fairbanks. Several remote air stations also served as forward operating bases including King Salmon on the Alaska Peninsula and Galena on the Yukon River, which surrounded the base and flooded sometimes causing evacuations. 

Aircrews sat air defense alert at the three bases (Eielson, King Salmon, and Galena) Our home base was Elmendorf with crews rotating to the three facilities on a weekly basis where they sat alert twenty-four hours a day.

Flying in Alaska was a different challenge where cold was a deadly killer. To prepare for our missions there, we attended Arctic Survival outside Fairbanks in the interior. There the days were even shorter and survival training entailed three days living in the bush. My training took place in December when the average temperature was about 35-50 below zero. I quickly learned what it was like to be on the planet Mercury with one side of me facing a fire – warm and the other side away freezing. We built snow shelters, which basically entailed covering boughs of fir trees with snow, and cocooning oneself inside a snow coffin. In the interior – not for the claustrophobic – the temperature rose to about 25-30 F from your body heat.

About twice a month the average crew member could expect to “sit” alert at one of the three remote sites for a week at a time. There were always 6 aircraft on alert — two at each site. Alert could be very boring as the air crews could not leave the facility and were expected to launch within 5 minutes of receiving a scramble order. To wile away the time, crews watched movies, many, many movies. There was also some old TV on the AFRN network, Kung Fu, M*A*S*H*, Sanford and Son, and other gems from the 1970s, and for the new guys – a proper initiation.

The new guys were always called FNGs – the F is self explanatory (every Air Force flying unit used this term to refer to new members). They were subjected to the type of military hazing that has gone on since time immemorial. In our case, it was not uncommon to hide the boots of a sleeping FNG and then blow the scramble Klaxon.  All this was done to test not only his to test mettle but to see how he fit into the squadron pecking order. Make no mistake every flying unit had and has a pecking order — Tom Wolfe talked about it in “The Right Stuff.”

In  Anchorage, the summer days went from about 3:30 a.m. until 11 p.m. when dusk would begin to fall. Summer flying was the best. Our training missions were often conducted near Denali National Park. One summer we were flying a four-ship formation near Mt. McKinley, when we flew over the summit there was a climbing party on the peak. They were very excited to see us and waved, probably thinking the Air Force had scrambled our flights to honor their arrival on the summit. It was a nice thought but we were running air intercept training to prepare for the Russians who tested our defenses off the Alaskan coasts.

In 1976, ten soviet aircraft were intercepted alone. An average flying year in Alaska could total as many as 5,000 sorties. It was challenging and probably the best flying I ever engaged in.

My departure in 1978 would end my time in the Phantom as I headed off to teach at the Air Force Academy, but that is a story for another time.

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.
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13 Responses to Flying the F4 in the North – Alaska

  1. Hal Donahue says:

    Loved the F-4. Never got to Alaska in it but did see the North a bit from Norway and Canada. This WSO says thanks for the story

  2. Hank Dahlquist says:

    Brought back a lot of memories Fighten 43rd 1974-1979

  3. Jeff English says:

    Great story…thanks for your service!! As a civilian in the late 80’s I hit the jack pot and got 3 three back seat rides …one in a 116th Sq Ga ANG F4-D and another in a Marine F4-S —VMFA 333….culminating with a F-16B ride..(after a air space argument between our small city and and our airport expansion project…and the USAF and the Marines and Navy and Southern Region FFA…we won) Once you have tasted low level at speed in those birds nothing else mechanically speaking can even come close…..

  4. Bill says:

    I was stationed at Elmendorf from 1977-79 as well as an aircraft environmental control systems tech. Once during a Jack Frost exercise I was sent TDY to Galena where I spent a year there one week. As I recall we reported for duty at 0700 one morning. At 0705 the klaxon sounded and we ran out to launch a two ship to intercept a Russian bomber. When the jets came home we had no more than turned them when the klaxon sounded again. Again we scrambled two F-4’s. This crap went on all day. The Russians knew exactly how long it took to turn the jets. They didn’t even stop for lunch. Near the end of the day when we were all run ragged the klaxon went off yet again. One of the pilots came down the fire pole with a wool Schlitz beer cap on, helmet in hand and yelled “Let’s go get those commie bastards!” and one more time we ran out yelling like a bunch of lunatics.

  5. Linda Nelson says:

    Hi John, congrats on a blog well done! And thank you, for your and Bonnie’s sacrifices and service during Vietnam. I’m so sorry, and sad, that Vietnam veterans were not given the hero’s welcome they deserved.

    To be honest, I don’t know how I got here, but I’m glad I did. First, I was looking for a picture of an F-4 flying over Alaska, and then I’m reading your stories! Your narrative skill carried me back to that time, when the F-4’s ruled the skies. In the fall of 1976, I arrived at Elmendorf for my initial assignment, along with four other nurses. We’d had no idea what to expect, but it all seemed so romantic: living in the last frontier, with the F-4’s, Russia, Six Mile Lake, moose, and the welcoming Christmas star shining above the hospital. Even though I guess I was technically lower than a ‘Pounder (joking), I loved experiencing the rumble and roar of the F-4 and have identified them with being in the Air Force ever since. I knew there were always guys on alert and, when I saw all the jets overhead, I felt safe. And I totally agreed with the slogan about jet noise – the sound of freedom!

    I knew several of the 43rd’s White Knights, even married one. But, as you would say, that’s a story for another time!

  6. jenorv says:

    Linda your kind words are most appreciated. It was a special place.

  7. Terry Harrison says:

    I was one of the original ones that moved to Alska from Florida with a squadron of F-4’s. I was there from 1970 to 1972. I loved every minute that I was there!

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