My special love – The F-4 Phantom II

By 2016 I had not thought about flying fighters for a long time. My good friend from Alaska, the former Capt Jim (now Lt Col retired) suggested we meet in Dayton and go through the Air Force Museum. 

Capt Jim in Alaska

Jim was very knowledgeable and he and his wife had been our good friends for many years. So we said yes. I had taken a group of cadets there in the late 1970s when I taught at the Air Force Academy and really wanted to see their collection which included some legendary aircraft. It was amazing to see all those aircraft — every version of Air Force One from President Franklin Roosevelt’s plane to the 707 aircraft that took the body of JFK from Dallas back to Washington; a B1 Bomber, the XB70 Bomber, various versions of every type of fighter, pursuit, interceptor and Bomber ever made. As we walked through the vast hangars, Jim and I had a great time discussing all of them and I was glad I had come.

Yet it was an unexpected moment that really resonated with me. I was eager to get to the F4 and was not disappointed. In the SEA Vietnam War zone, Colonel Robin Olds’ F4 appeared in an area that suggested Udorn Royal Thai Air Force Base, where I had been stationed. I turned the corner to find an F4 crew cockpit on display with a ladder so that you could go up and climb in and sit in the crew positions. 

Me before a combat mission at Udorn


Now I have not flown in an F4 since 1978, when I left to teach at the Air Force Academy, but I was compelled to sit in the cockpit. Compelled it exactly the right word. I had to do this. I can’t explain it; it was an emotionally charged moment that drew me into a place that I had spent probably more than 1000 hours of my life in war and peace.

So hard to explain, but it meant so much to me to be there. It gave me a new appreciation for the men of WWII who flew the big bombers and how they must have felt when they entered a B-17 or B-29 years later after the war. Yes it was a very special moment. I suspect that many folks have the same moment. There is a time or place in their lives that is special in a way that they cannot begin to share with others. When they think about or revisit the place, they are taken back. Back to a time when their lives were touched in a way no one can ever know. Being in that cockpit again was such a moment.

Almost immediately after the trip to the Air Force Museum, I wondered what had happened to some of the men I knew so long ago. The Deacon, my WSO roomate in the 13 TFS, had died in 2004 as had my pilot at Luke, Capt Don who passed away in 1997. Not good news both died too young. So I did some more digging.

I reconnected with another old friend, Lt Ev, the WSO who had encouraged me to go to Elmendorf after Thailand. He had left the Air Force and then come back on active duty and retired also as a Lt Col. And to my surprise was now a Methodist pastor in Texas. I emailed his church and we immediately connected. We talked shortly before Christmas 2016 and he asked me if I had a facebook account, which I did not. So at his encouragement, I got my own account.

I went from no contact with the F-4 world for nearly 40 years to an abundance of sites. Many focused on photos of the bird, and I shared some of mine. As I dug into it more, I found a intriguing one: F-4 Cockpit Photos. And that is how I met David Garbe and my life changed again. 

David introduced me to his wonderfully restored F-4D 0720 cockpit.    David had worked on this restoration for several years and when I first saw her. She really impressed me. This bird was manufactured by McDonnell Douglas in 1966, the 1771 Phantom II off the production line and had her first flight 17 September 1966 and was delivered to the Air Force on 21 October 1966. She had several assignments from 1966-1969, then she went to Udorn RTAFB in 1970 where she would fly during some of the heaviest battles of the air war. She left there in 1972.  

In David Garbe’s Bird

I sat in her and I too was back at Udorn where I had flown combat missions from May – August 1973. In her the memories of all those days flooded back.  I once again remembered how it was to be 28 and in the great adventure of my life.  I can honestly say that I loved those days.  Its hard to put into words.  But I know I will never forget them.  And I thank Lt Col Jim, Lt Ev and most of all David Garbe for allowing me to re-live them again.  It was a great gift.

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, Air Force, Alaska, Alaskan Air Command, American History, Arizona, F-4 Phantom II, F4 Phantom II, F4 PhantomII, Fighter Aircraft, Navigator, Vietnam War and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to My special love – The F-4 Phantom II

  1. Christopher Ann Cowan says:

    I enjoyed this, thanks.

    I was not an F-4 pilot, nor any pilot, but my husband was. And my father, also a career AF aviator, flew B-17s out of RAF Bassingbourn in 1944, along with a great many other planes, until he ended his career as an O-6, Wing Chief of Maintenance, at Clark AB in 1970. That’s where I met my husband, who cycled through many aircraft, until he ended his AF career in A-10s, also an O-6.

    But, as an AF dependent practically my entire life, groundbound, and scanning the skies for a glimpse of someone I loved soaring high above me, that F-4 Phantom with its distinctive silhouette, remains my favorite.

  2. Steve says:

    Great story. There is still an F-4 as a gate guard at Elmendorf, or was the last time I drove by. Think it is a C but might be a D.

    Thanks for sharing, and as a kid who grew up near Dayton and went to the museum often, I can’t recommend going there enough.

  3. Brain Domain says:

    Thanks for a great article. Having flown the F-4 D, E & G as well as the RF-4C it’s often hard to describe the attachment that many of us feel for the Phantom. When I found that the Georgia ANG was getting rid of the F-4 and converting to Eagles I was devastated and it resulted in the Phantom tattoo on my right shoulder. I still consider my time in that great jet some of the best times of my life.

    • jenorv says:

      Brian thanks so much for your kind words, yes she was special. We have done things that 99 percent of the American people will never do, we were honored to fly the phantom.

  4. Jim Heverin says:

    Was not a pilot, but a maintenance specialist….Spent many hours working on the F4,,,

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