Silver Wings

Mather Air Force Base—UNT graduation 25 July 1972

It’s hard to believe that it has been 50– 50 years; I repeat this almost in unbelief.

Why? Because I only became a navigator through an odd series of circumstances.

I received my commission in 1966. At the time, the Vietnam war was mainly background noise, so I went to graduate school instead of heading directly to flight training. By 1968, things were scorching in Vietnam, when I was due to go on active duty. I took a flight physical and failed the vision tests. Whether it was two parents with glasses or all the reading I had done in grad school, the Air Force sent me to Washington DC in a non-rated job.   There I became the base training officer at Bolling AFB, usually a job done by an NCO. Stuck in a non-job which entailed a lot of paper pushing and running the monthly base parade (that was a real pain as no one except the Wing Commander liked marching). By 1970, the Air Force was burning through aircrews in Vietnam. I pushed and pushed, and in 1971 finally got into navigator training.

Barely but I passed.   

In November 1971, I arrived at Mather and was assigned to casual status (CS). I probably would have languished there, but I mentioned to the captain IN that I would turn 27 ½ in two weeks – that was the cutoff to enter nav training. So some other stud was moved back to CS, and I took his place.   I was an old captain in a new world about to do things I had never dreamed of. I want to say it all went well, but it didn’t. I failed my first checkride and had to work hard to complete the program. But as it went on, it all clicked, and in July 1972, I found myself graduating as a navigator.

T- 29 Flight line Mather AFB 1971

That long-ago afternoon at Mather, the officers’ club ballroom filled with family and friends gathered to celebrate our graduation. The wives waited in their finest, ready to pin new wings on their husbands. These women had spent long hours alone as their husbands flew for the past nine months. Today they were Mrs. Lieutenant, but they might be Mrs. Colonel in the future. The promise was there; the men had done well. The future lay ahead, but on that afternoon, the wives eagerly waited for the pinning to begin. My fiancée could not be present to pin on my wings, and she was in New York. The first time she would see those new wings on my blues was a month in the future at our wedding on 20 August 1972. My sister Linda had flown to California from New York to do the honors.  

We filed in by rank. The chaplain offered an invocation, our 3538th squadron commander and the wing commander spoke, and then the big moment was at hand. We, captains, graduated first and received our certificates of aeronautical rating as navigators. From that point to the end of our service, we would be rated officers apart from the others who were non-rated or “ground pounders.” 

You see, even before Star Wars coined the term, we now were “skywalkers,” and we knew it.  

In the words of John Magee’s immortal poem High Flight: “we had slipped the surly bonds of earth.” 

We had flown.

We had fixed our positions by capturing starlight. 

We had done “a hundred things you have not dreamed of….”  

The pride in our eyes could have lit the room. 

I walked up, saluted, and received my certificate and a brand-new set of navigator wings. My sister Linda walked up to me and pinned them on.  

My nav wings are pinned on the first time.

Pinned on my wings. The sound of that phrase echoes to me across the years. 

Pinned on my wings. I repeat this 50 years later, it is almost as if it were unreal.   But there I was:

Me an old man of 28.

Me a history major in college who could not do anything more complicated than simple math. 

Me who failed my first check ride but excelled in some of the most complicated navigation taught.

Me who gained confidence in my abilities to do an essential job in the air force.

Me with silver wings on my chest. 

A door had opened for me. Now I was on my way to upgrade to the back seat of an F-4.  I retired in 1989, a Lt Colonel, after flying for six years in the backseat of the F-4 in war and peace, teaching at the Air Force Academy, and serving as a staff weenie in various positions, including an IN on the T-43 at Mather. 

Yet, if I had not gone to Mather in 1971, my life would have been very different.

I was meant to have those silver wings. 


For more stories check out my book, Fighter ‘Gator on Amazon

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 1960s Turmoil, Air Force, Air Force Academy, Air Force lingo, American History, Cambodia bombing 1973, F-4 Phantom II, Mather AFB, Navigator, Navigator Training, NY History, Udorn RTAFB, USAFA, Washington DC. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Silver Wings

  1. JL Mutolo says:


    Sometimes I think that it’s rather remarkable that so many years have passed, giving us the loves in our lives and lives we’ve lived! I can’t possibly be this old! It’s been an interesting year so far…

    I turned seventy this year, and as has been the case for many years, we took the family skiing in Colorado again in January. Unfortunately, I fell off the Mountain and sustained and interotrochanteric fracture of my femur. That was the first broken bone in my life!

    There probably is no better place to need orthopedic surgery than Vail, and six hours later I had two titanium rods in my leg and now facing major rehab. Indeed, I’ve worked hard these six months and expect to be back on The Mountain same time next year.

    Congratulations again!

    Best regards,


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