In the Pit

Having spent a little more than 1,000 hours as a WSO, I first had no clue what to expect when I left Nav School to upgrade to the backseat of the F4.

I actually no clue of what to expect when I went to Nav School. I only knew that if I wanted an Air Force career I had to fly, but more on that later.

It took me a long time to get to the Pit. I was born during the Second World War and grew up in the 1950s. This was an era when the newly-independent Air Force was coming into its own.

Coming out of the Second World War, the Cold War era moved the Air Force into a prominent role in the nation’s defense. While, Hollywood had featured Marine and Army action during the second World War, in the 1950s there began to be a shift to stories about the new Air Force. Some of the early movies I remember were Strategic Air Command (1955) with Jimmy Stewart, himself a pilot in WWII, and Bombers 52 (1957) with Natalie Wood and Karl Malden.   Combined with this, in 1957 the U.S.S.R launched Sputnik and the Space Race was on. The Mercury Seven Astronauts captured the county and my imagination. To be an astronaut you had to be a pilot, not that I ever aspired to be one, but I did want to fly. I was drawn to the adventure and excitement of flying and when the time came for me to go to college, I chose one with an Air Force ROTC program. 

I did well in ROTC, completed the summer cadet training and passed the flight physical and was on track to enter pilot training when I graduated. But first I decided to take a detour: I applied for permission to attend graduate school, which delayed my entry onto active duty to at least 1968. As that time approached, I had to take another physical, Whether it was graduate school, or the normal genetic outcome of two parents with glasses, this time I did not pass the vision tests. In fact my vision kept me from entering even the navigator training program. Flying it seemed was not an option.

In 1968, I was a newly minted Air Force second lieutenant stationed in Washington DC. My initial duty was at Bolling Air Force Base in the South east part of the city on the Potomac. There I reported on February 15, 1968 to the 1100th Security Police Squadron to be one of its officers.

I did not know before I arrived that this was in actuality the Air Force Honor Guard Squadron which performed ceremonies at Arlington, the White House and the Pentagon. I walked in the door and the captain in charge took one look at me and I could tell I was not what he expected. To be perfectly clear on this: Air Force Honor Guard officers have to be a minimum of 6 feet tall, well built, and not wear glasses. I however, was 5 foot 5 inches, built like a fireplug ( 40 inch chest on 29 inch legs) and wore glasses.   Clearly somewhere in the bowels of Air Force personnel there was someone was a strange sense of humor to assign me there. By noon I was reassigned to the base’s plans office. There I learned a valuable lesson, if I relied upon Air Force personnel to manage my career it would be very short, much like me.

Yet the idea of flying never went away. I didn’t give up. I had to get into flying training. Almost on a weekly basis I went to the Personnel Office and checked about getting into Nav School. My vision was still too bad to pass the pilot physical, but almost, almost close enough for navigator.

By 1970 as the Vietnam war heated up, the Air Force was burning through aircrews at a dramatic rate. Then an amazing thing happened: they changed the vision requirements for nav training, and I passed. Interestingly my vision was never worse than about 20/40, not the 20/20 needed to enter pilot training, but it got me in the door as a nav and who knew where that could lead.

So in the fall of 1971 at the ripe old age of 27 and 1/2 (the cutoff for flight training) I entered Navigator Training as a Captain — one of the  “Old Men” of my nav class.  There were 10 captains in my class, 5 First Lieutenants, and 77 second Lieutenants.

The next 10 months were a blur of training. It was a time of proving to myself, and others, that I could do many things I never had even dreamed of: learn to do a parachute landing fall (PLF as opposed to what the crusty old NCO in charge called my PFL– Poor F’ing Landing), move from my initial flight experience on the T-29 trainer: chaos in the air – which my Instructor Nav (IN) characterized as being “all A..holes and elbows,” failing my first checkride, but persevering and working hard to overcome this setback and go on to master some difficult material, to a point where I was a confident student navigator.

In June 1972 I got my wings: not at the top of my class, and most certainly not in the bottom. When the assignments were handed down, many navs went to SAC and tankers.  I was lucky to get an F4  WSO slot. If I could not be a pilot, I would be as close as a Nav could ever get to be one. 

In the fall of 1972, I arrived at Luke AFB, near Phoenix,  to upgrade to the backseat of the F4.  Training began with ground school where I  spent about a month in training before I even got to fly “Big Ugly,” as we affectionately called the bird.

On September 22, 1972 I had my first flight in the Pit.

Our bird, F4D 010, requested permission to taxi out of its parking space and slowly moved into position.  Now on the runway, the AC Instructor Pilot pushed the throttles which had been idling in what was called “Military Power,” past the detente into afterburner, and released the brakes.  The Phantom jumped off the runway. I called off 100 kts as we passed that speed and began to rapidly lift off. And we did our training, all by the book, at least in my mind. 

When we got back the IP started off by telling me that I was the best prepared new WSO running the pre-flight checklists he had ever seen. That was the last nice thing he said to me.

Clearly there was a long way to go to get to that 1000 hours in the future.

When you fly in the military there is a path that you follow. All do it. You start as a student flier, earn your wings, become qualified in a certain aircraft, move on as a squadron member, and then if you are proficient, and do well, become an instructor for others.

This Old Man had moved up that ladder to the third rung.

And the future, with possible combat time, lay ahead in that long ago year of 1972.

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 Air Force, American History, Bolling AFB, Combat, F-4 Phantom II, F4 emergency, F4 Phantom II, F4 PhantomII, Fighter Aircraft, Hobart College, Thailand and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to In the Pit

  1. Super cool, and I would love to hear more! I was in Nam 68/69, as a crew chief on a slick, with the 192nd Assault Helicopter Company. Was based at Firebase Betty, about a click away from Phan Thiet in ll Corps…. flew my ship just once! Pulled too much torque when I lifted off, and spent the entire night pulling the super shaft out, cleaning it spotless with q-tips, then getting it xrayed for micro fractures. Lol.. last time they let me try that..

    Have a brand new Podcast starting next week called ThePoddieBreak, and would love to have a phone interview with you! Going to have a retired AF Spy on, a pilot that flew my ship in Nam, and a Navy combat corpsman on..

    You can reach me at: take a gander at my blog too,



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.