The Real Air Force

Way back in 1968, I was a very green second lieutenant with no real job assigned to a base in Washington, D.C.

One day a crusty old chief warrant officer. who had served in WWII, said to me: “This is not the real air force.”

Five years later, I found myself in the backseat of Phantom — the hottest fighter in the Air Force flying combat missions in Southeast Asia. If the air force’s motto was “To Fly and Fight,” then at least for the moment, this came closest to the Real Air Force. But was I?

I have thought about the Real Air Force for many years now.

When I was graduating from Nav School, some comments began to filter down that in the Real Air Force, navigators were not valued as much as pilots.

Now, I had been in a job in D.C. where the flying aspect of the air force mission was invisible, and it was clear that flying any day was better than sitting behind a desk for eight hours.

If some folks felt that as navs, they were second-class citizens, I had not experienced that yet. I worked extremely hard to earn my wings, overcome my poor mathematical skills, and learn to be careful, precise, systematic, and well organized. For me being a so-called second-class citizen was not an option.

From Mather, I went to Luke to upgrade into the backseat of the F-4 Phantom II. I spent nearly nine months there.

But were Mather or Luke the real air force? They were training bases with classes always coming and filling the SEA air war needs.

So I went to SEA in search of the Real Air Force. If the air force’s motto was “To Fly and Fight,” then Udorn in Thailand, at least for the moment, came closest to the “real air force.” And perhaps I then would finally be part of that ideal, but it had been a long path to get to this point.

At Udorn, I went into combat with the men of the 13 TFS — men who were the Real Air Force to me. My F-4 combat unit will always be special to me.

That said, it doesn’t matter though if one does not fly, all the men and women who serve make up the real Air Force. You worked hard to do your jobs. You learned your specialties. You served at remote locations, as I did. You were there in war and peace.

So I thank you all who have done your duty over the years, whether you were a supply clerk, crew chief, operations specialist, security police team member, doctor, nurse, or truck driver or worked in a chow hall. We who did the flying couldn’t have done it alone.

You folks are truly the Real Air Force.


For more thoughts on my 23 years of service, see my new book Fighter Gator. Available now on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and from the publisher. 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 13 TFS, Air Force, American History, F-4 Phantom II, Fighter Aircraft, Luke AFB, Mather AFB, Thailand, Veterans, Vietnam War and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to The Real Air Force

  1. Hal Donahue says:

    Great column, John, this Air Force F-4 WSO thanks you for writing this.
    We were all the real Air Force. Not so long ago, a veteran needed somewhere to live because he needed care. Pennsylvania has great state veterans homes; when asked why he didn’t apply, the poor man said I didn’t think I was eligible or counted, “I was equipment maintenance at Seymour Johnson during the Vietnam War.” He was as much real Air Force as you and me.

  2. Lyle F. Padilla says:

    What are the four things you’re supposed to get when you retire from the USAF?
    1. You get to see the Real Air Force
    2. You get a copy of the Big Picture
    3. You find out who “They” are
    4. You get to meet the Regular Crew Chief
    Not that I’d know. I started out as a USAF F-4 WSO but defected to the Army and retired from there.

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