As flyers one thing we always had to deal with was a checkride. My first checks were in Nav School on the T-29. If all went well, it was straightforward. That was the operative phrase—all went well.   Sadly, for me and others, all did not always go well.   Imagine a clown car filled with 12 clowns, all attempting to leave the car simultaneously. Imagine 12 navigator students trying to use the drift meter, take their fixes, plot them, and keep ahead of the aircraft. The lead instructor would later say it was “all asses and elbows” as we attempted to do what we had learned on the ground in the air. Doing a mission was far different in the air as the plane encountered turbulence and was buffeted from side to side. 

T- 29 Flight line Mather AFB 1971

Asses and Elbows, that about summed it up, and it was often the instructor’s apt description of how we performed. The name of the game was keeping ahead. Anything could sabotage that effort. A math error in computing the speed, a math error in applying drift, getting to the drift meter too late, finding the town or lake you were looking for had moved behind the aircraft, or a combination of these things. It was almost impossible to catch up if you got behind or misidentified a city or other geographical feature.These first missions were a constant game of catch-up for me and others. I was always slightly behind, finding and correcting errors in my computations. There was a lot to do, to do quickly, and to do accurately.  

Having learned the basics of DR navigation, we moved on to the next training phase: using a radar target to establish a fixed position. The target might be a town, lake, mountain, or other geographic feature. With the drift meter, we could see the feature. On the radar, we saw only the ghostly outline of it coming down the radar scope. Radar took some getting used to, but we became proficient at using it after about eight flights. At least, I thought I was.   My first check ride came in what was to be the most straightforward training phase, and I failed it. I cannot remember why; it may have been due to any of the issues I mentioned, or it may have been an instructor navigator who was a harsh grader. From 50 years out, it is hard to recall, but I suspect it was the latter rather than the former, as several people he graded failed. It was my last check ride failure; I was determined to do better in the future. I did; I passed my retake and moved on. I was lucky as some students at this point washed back to another class ending up in the limbo of casual status. How we would do in the air was hard to determine. The pressure was always on, and things were getting more challenging and complicated. Some students went through these early flights and decided to call it quits—they were SIE—self-initiated eliminations. 

That was my first checkride; over the next six months, I improved and did much better.

So much so that by the time I was due for my final checkride at nav school,  I was confident in my abilities as a navigator and ready for the test ahead.   This test of a combined nav check used all that I had learned:  dead reckoning, radar, and celestial on a cross-country mission. I would be the only navigator in charge of all that would happen. There would be an instructor navigator who would observe my performance and grade me. So on the last week of June 1972, I had my final checkride in the T-29. It involved an all-day flight from Mather along a prescribed route to Hamilton AFB near San Francisco, a stopover, and a return to Mather.   In effect, there would be two three-hour legs. I would demonstrate my skills as a navigator and be graded on my abilities.   

Interior T-29

I arrived at mission planning and met my IN.   He looked familiar, but I couldn’t quite place him. I did all the planning, briefed the crew, went to the plane, and flew the mission. All went perfectly, I was at the top of my game.   Only on the way back to Mather I realized who the IN was. I had gone to college with him. When I was a freshman in ROTC, he was one of the seniors leading the detachment.   After we debriefed and he critiqued me, I told him we had gone to college together.   It was a nice moment to share this news of our common time at Hobart, a small men’s college in upstate NY.    

Ahead lay survival school and my first aircraft assignment.  I had filled out my dream sheet putting the F-4 Phantom as my first choice.   My chances of getting it seemed small; then, I began to hear that many of the men at the top of the class had put down SAC assignments to avoid going to South East Asia.  When the rankings were released, I got my Phantom.  I would be going to George AFB in August 1972 to become a back seater – A GIB – Guy in the Back. Having demonstrated my skills on the final check ride, I would never do most of them again.

One thing for sure, I would always have check rides; but seldom would they be given by someone I knew in College. Indeed it was a special moment ending my time at Mather.


For more stories, see my newly published memoir of flying Fighter “Gator

Available on Amazon or directly from the publisher at

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, Mather AFB, Navigator, Navigator Training and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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