July 22, 1973 started off like any other bombing mission. We did our preflight, routine, strapped in and taxied to the arming area. For this mission we had 18 Mark 82 – 500 pound bombs loaded, a more or less standard drop. That was 9000 pounds of bombs hanging from the F4 (almost twice the amount that one B-17 bomber carried in World War II). The munitions folks checked the bombs and pulled the pins. Then we were cleared onto the runway.
We were the lead for the mission that day, which meant I was flying with an Old Head. Our bird, F4E 237, got clearance and we began our takeoff roll, I called out 60 kts to the AC, and then confirmed that the gear was up. We climbed up, passed over the Klong and turned. Still pretty routine, passing 1,000 feet and climbing. Now we were over the Thai countryside, off in the distance I saw a Monsoon dumping its afternoon load across the landscape.
Then, there was a violent lurch to the right. We were about 6,000 feet and dropped losing at least 1,000 instantly. Our wingman on the rejoin, held back to wait and see what was happening. A routine take off and rejoin seemed to have morphed into a bold face emergency.
The AC was struggling to control the bird. The stick moved but the bird seemed to have a mind of its own. Almost simultaneously, we both got out our checklists and began to run them. I checked all the circuit breakers, many of which were along my right side in panels going up and behind my head and shoulder. It was hard to turn to see them as I was strapped in tight. The AC continued his efforts to regain control, now the rate of descent had stopped, but the bird was not happy.
We were flying in a squirrelly bird with 9,000 pounds of bombs, and thousands of pounds of JP4 still in the tanks.
Not a winning combination. We got on the radio and contacted the SOF in the tower. He said we had two options: One, get the bird out over an uninhabited area and eject. Two, if the bird settled down, a big IF, we could fly it around the area for about 45 minutes to burn off the fuel in the tanks and then jettison the bombs. There was an area off the end of one of the active runways where we could jettison the bombs.
At this point we had only been airborne about 20 minutes, although it seemed a lot longer. We talked out our options. Neither of us relished ejection. It all boiled down to the basic dislike of any fighter crew to leave the airplane while it could be flown. So we elected for the present to work the problem.
So now 25 minutes had passed and the bird was flying better, but she still was not happy. The AC talked to the SOF and told him we would be staying with the bird for the present. We were able to climb back to about 7,000 feet to give us more altitude and headed away from the populated areas to wait it out. The remaining hour was one of my longest in the air. Nothing more serious happened, and we dumped and burned off fuel, jettisoned the bombs, and landed safely.
That was the first time I came close to buying the farm in a non combat situation, although it was always possible on any flight – any time.
I would like to say I know what caused the flight control issues but never heard. Like many things, once a mission was over it was done, the only thing was important was the current mission.
The past was past.