Hail to the Chiefs — Crew that is

Some thoughts on a most important member of the Phantom II Team: The ground crews.

When I was a non-rated officer, that is non-flying, I knew nothing about crew chiefs.  Even when I was in navigator training, they did not enter my world.  When I began to fly in the Phantom, I fully became aware of the ground crews’ critical role in my success and safety.

In the Seat:

The ejection seat was critical.  The Martin-Baker MK7 seat was very complicated–almost like a Rube Goldberg invention.  Lots of things had to work correctly. The ejection sequence demonstrated the complex nature: the pilot or GIB pulled the firing handle, the canopy jettisoned.  An ejection gun fired, and the seat moved up guide rails.  Emergency oxygen began, the leg restraints pulled the legs close to the seat as it rose, and then a static line initiated a time delay, which in turn fired a drogue gun.  As the seat rose, the static line caused the drogue chute’s deployment to stabilize and the slow seat descent. Any small thing could cause the seat to malfunction.    Later, flying the F-4 in Alaska, we purchased our home from the widow of a pilot whose seat did not work correctly. During emergency egress, he was blown through a canopy and later died.  Ejection was significant, but in many minds, to be used as a last resort.   While I, too, did not want to eject, I inspected the seat thoroughly.  I strapped in and watched the crew chief pull the upper pin and show it to me.  Then I knew the seat was hot and ready to fire.  He gave me the assurance that I was safe in the bird.

If you got sick: As our training continued, we moved into a lot of turning and violent maneuvering in the air. It was at this point that several of my contemporaries experienced extended bouts of air sickness.  One friend told me that he had been sick on nearly every initial flight.  We carried barf-bags, like those found on airlines, in our checklist bags if we were ill.  But, some found it hard to get their masks off quickly enough in the throes of turning and maneuvering.  Filling a mask was not a pleasant experience, nor was it acceptable to blow one’s cookies in the rear cockpit.  The crew chiefs especially disliked this and made the GIB clean it up.

Under the bird: There was a tendency to hit my head on something hanging down. We called this a Phantom bite. The crew chiefs always warned us about things that would take a chunk out of our scalps. We had to watch for something that had leaked on the ramp, hydraulic fuel, or other lubricants so that we didn’t step in them. While looking down, it was easy to walk into an antenna.  In addition to this, I became very wary of walking under the tail hook.  I had heard stories of how it had dropped unexpectedly and injured a crewman. Now, this may have been a Phantom myth, but I was not about to take any chances.  I am not sure how much it weighed—estimates among GIBs and others ranged from about 600-1,000 pounds.  All I knew was that if it could stop a Phantom, it could also take me out.

Before a combat mission: As my combat days grew, I got to know the ground crews.  They were on the line in the heat and high humidity; they loved their birds and took good care of us.  Of note was the salute that they rendered as we taxied out on a combat mission.  For us, this gesture tied us to the F-4 crews who had flown so many times in the past.  I later asked a former crew chief about this, and he said it was: “Pride in what we did, but more importantly, a signal of our connection, our bond, our respect to you.” He remembered it as an act, a gesture like no other.  Indeed it was.  We respected their hard work, and the chiefs returned it in kind.

A Big Thanks: I can honestly say that flying the Phantom was an exercise in trust, and it was more than trusting my AC; it was trusting that the men and women who maintained her did their jobs to the fullest in a highly professional manner.   Without them, I would not have been able to do my job, and I would not have felt secure and safe.   I thank them now for doing their duty so well, so long ago.

For more stories about my time in the F-4, see my new book FIGHTER ‘GATOR available on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and other online sites. Or order directly from the publisher at https://store.bookbaby.com/book/fighter-gator

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, Air Force lingo, American History, F-4 Phantom II, F4 emergency, F4 Phantom II, F4 PhantomII, Fighter Aircraft, Fighter pilot slang, Luke AFB, Navigator, Navigator Training, Thailand, U Dorn RTAFB, Udorn RTAFB. Bookmark the permalink.

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