In his excellent biography, Robin Olds ponders what it means to have the Right Stuff. He looks back at his time in World War II and the men he flew with. Olds understands that flying a fighter is more than just piloting it. Likewise, Colonel Steve Ladd (USAF, ret.) in his book — From F-4 Phantom to A-10 Warthog: Memoirs of a Cold War Fighter Pilot –– also notes that there are fighter pilots and only men who fly fighters. This was a lesson I, too, learned in my six years in the backseat of the F-4. You can fly in a fighter, but it takes a lot more to be a Fighter Jock, whether Fighter Pilot or Fighter ‘Gator.
When we entered F-4 upgrade training, we quickly adopted the stance of a fighter jock and began to use many of the phrases that most would recognize:
A hostile aircraft–a “bandit.”
Bought the farm–plowing any aircraft into the ground, a.k.a. augured in.
Tango Uniform–Tits Up when something on the bird had died.
Sierra Hotel–shit hot.
Whiskey Tango Foxtrot (What the F)
Gear Up, Flaps Up, Lunch Up!
One pass haul ass— and many, many more.
That was in training; it was a very different world when we went to combat. We were still men who flew the F-4. We were not yet Fighter Jocks. We new guys had come were proficient but not yet adept at what we were doing. We crewed with more experienced men. We had to learn from them and grow in flying skills and abilities. They did not give trust easily—just because you joined a group. You needed to work to earn your place in a combat unit. In combat, trust is essential to do your job right. To do it right requires that one fully understand the commitment in three words: Duty, Honor, and Country. These words, not the phrases above, define the true fighter jock and separates him from simply someone who flies a fighter.
Before I entered flying, I had no idea of what duty meant. To me, it seemed duty meant showing up for work daily. I learned that duty meant something more subtle: dedication. Going through F-4 training was one of the hardest things I ever did. I quickly learned that I had to work hard. I had to commit to it in a way that I had not previously experienced in the air force or college. Now my whole life revolved around becoming a WSO in an F-4. I had to do it. I had to make it. To succeed required taking the hard path. Duty then meant not only dedication but work. Work: duty equaled hard work. There is no coasting in combat. No taking the easy way. No giving up. Every time I went up in the F-4 over Cambodia, there was the chance I would not come back. In the short time, I flew combat, my life changed. It defined who I was. I was indeed a fighter navigator—fighter ‘gator. Combat made me a better person; I was doing the job I chose to do. No one forced me to go to the F-4, and I went there with my eyes open. This commitment is something I share with all the men, like Robin Olds, who went off in WWII to serve our nation.
Second comes honor. I have always thought of honor in terms of trust. You must be able to trust the men you serve with, and they must be able to trust you. It is as simple as that. I would not fly in an F-4 with a pilot I did not trust. That is the great gift of honor, the understanding that it is not me; we are in this together. We are a team built on trust.
Country may appear to be last, but it is equally essential in the trinity of values. I define country more broadly than a geographic area. For me, country means loyalty—loyalty to something bigger than oneself. Loyalty is the basis for all the actions that you do. Military members cannot pick and choose what they will do.
The three words: Duty/Dedication, Honor/Trust, and Country/Loyalty ground one. To be a true Fighter Jock, one must adhere to these values, and they guide one for a career and life.
In recent years I have begun to understand the tremendous trust my nation placed on me by allowing me to fly in the back seat of the F-4. It was more than being a good GIB and doing my job, and this trust demanded that I do it without reservation if I had to place my life in danger.
When folks ask me what it was like to fly in the back seat, I tell them: It was the highest honor a man could ever receive. And that, in the end, was what being a Fighter Jock was all about.
For more stories of my time in the Phantom, see my new book
Fighter’ Gator – Available on Amazon in ebook or print, or from the publisher