In the fall of 1972, I arrived at Luke AFB outside Phoenix, Arizona. I joined several others from my nav class, assigned to the 310th Tactical Fighter Training Squadron, to transition to the back seat of the F-4. The F-4 Phantom II was the primary fighter of the Vietnam War. It had entered the inventory in 1964, so in 1972 it was still relatively new. It was a two-seat fighter, the pilot was the Aircraft Commander (AC) and the navigator—the GIB or guy-in-back, although our official title was Weapons Systems Officer (WSO).
We had experienced squadron instructors—F-4 fighter pilots and GIBS. Some of these men had flown more than 200 missions over North Vietnam. I would later learn that our squadron flight commander, Lt. Colonel Bob Pardo, had accomplished one of the most impressive feats of airmanship during the Vietnam War— Pardo’s Push. On March 10, 1967, Captain John R. “Bob” Pardo pushed his wingman’s damaged F-4 aircraft with his own damaged Phantom until they were out of North Vietnam airspace. The crews of both damaged F-4s ejected and were picked up by rescue helicopters. First, reprimanded for losing his bird, Pardo much later received the Silver Star for this extraordinary feat of airmanship. It was an honor to meet him.
Fighter pilots viewed themselves as the elite of the air force. Fighter pilots continually strove to do better. They trained to make their skills sharper. They were highly confident; they were always in control. They were competitive. I could go on, but I think you get the picture. One last thing, to a fighter pilot, any other aircraft was one thing: a target. They viewed combat as mano a mano. There was a mystique about flying a fighter aircraft going back to World War I. The blood of Eddie Rickenbacker, the WWI flying ace, flowed in their veins. If these men were the knights of old, we, as backseaters, were now their squires, and we had a great deal to learn.
We newly graduated navigators had always approached our work from the proposition that we had made an error that we needed to find and correct. Some folks called navs airborne bookkeepers as we were always engrossed in recording numbers into our logs to reconstruct the missions later, if required. We were, in many ways, the anti-fighter pilots: more introspective and detail-oriented; always ahead of the aircraft preparing for what was to come. Arriving at Luke and being trained this way, I found that I had to be more like a pilot. I needed to be confident and in control of what I did. I also had to be detail-oriented and aware of our environment, and knowledgeable in every aspect of the F-4; know how it flew and operated and how we would use the Phantom in combat.
And there were many new terms to learn:
Non-flyers were “ground pounders.”
A hostile aircraft–a “bandit.”
Bought the farm–plowing any aircraft into the ground, a.k.a. augured in.
Bus driver–a pilot of any non-fighter–a tanker or bomber or cargo.
Bag–a flight suit.
RTU–Replacement Training Unit—Luke was an RTU Base training new GIBs/ACs.
Tango Uniform–Tits Up when something on the bird had died.
Sierra Hotel–shit hot.
and many, many more
In the F-4, we–the AC/GIB team–worked in tandem the entire flight from takeoff to landing. In those pre-high-tech days, we needed a combination of skill sets. The fighter pilot brought one set, the GIB the other. Together, we worked in concert: a perfect melding of geometric, spatial, and analytical skills
Over the months ahead I would come to hone these new skills, skills that I would soon use in combat in Southeast Asia.
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