Up in the Air So Blue

14 October 1972

Luke AFB Arizona

Our bird, F-4C 662, taxied out of its parking space and slowly moved into position. While Hollywood has accustomed Americans to think that there is considerable banter between aircrew members, there is usually strict radio discipline. In the back seat, I finished my checklists as the AC got permission to take off. 

I often think back to my first flight in the T-29; military flying was a mystery. The nav trainers at Mather had not prepared me for all the sensory experiences of flight: turbulence, the aircraft’s motion through the air, the closeness of the cabin, and most of all, the stress that all of this produced. By the time I graduated, I was a seasoned navigator and better prepared. That is not to say that I knew how it would be flying in the Phantom.

In many ways, the first flight in a jet fighter is like your first sex. You can see it on the movie screen. You can observe it, but you cannot know what it is like until you do it. If this sounds clichéd, it is not. I was not nervous—I just did my job. That said, nothing prepared me for the emotional experience that lay ahead.

Now on the runway, the AC Instructor Pilot (IP) pushed the throttles to “military power,” past the detente into afterburner, and released the brakes. The Phantom jumped off the runway. In the back, it felt like being strapped to a shell and shot out of a cannon.
I called off 70 knots (KTS) at that speed, the rudder became effective, and the AC came off the nose gear steering. Then we rapidly lifted off. All by the book, at least in my mind. While the T-29 had cruised at about 180 KTS, the F-4 broke ground about that speed and routinely cruised between 350-450 KTS. Things happened so fast that I was playing catch-up right from the start. It was not as bad as my first nav trainers, but I could see I had a lot to master.

Then our wingman joined on us. And I thought that is a big aircraft coming fast and close to me. The rejoin to a formation, where our wingman’s wingtip was just three feet from ours, was an eye-opener for sure. Nothing like that ever happened in the T-29.
Now I had to be aware of the immediate air environment. I became the extra pair of eyes in the backseat. I had to scan the wingman and make sure nothing was out of the ordinary, which was a bit hard to tell for the first time. Over the many missions to come, this would become old hat. However, like so many things on that first flight, it showed me that I had entered a new world.

The best was still to come. As we approached our training area, things finally began to settle down. Once there, we did some maneuvering. The IP demonstrated turns and climbs, the wingman staying in close formation. I was impressed that he was able to match his lead so well. My only exposure to this type of flying had been in movies of WWII dogfights. And, in them, there was never a wingman tucked in tight.

The G-suit filled and grabbed my legs, another new thing. I was wearing the F-4. Strapped tight to the seat, she moved to port, and I went with her. She climbed and dove, and there I was. Wheeling and turning over the Arizona desert, as we moved through the air, the thought came to me that this was the best roller coaster I had ever ridden. Here was the true freedom of flight. I knew now why I had worked so hard to get to flight training. Here was the dancing on the silver wings of “High Flight” that our ROTC instructor Major Ted Shorack had read to us. The promise that Shorack had made to us.

This flight was a far cry from the last nine months in nav school. The T-29 had been necessary drudgery as we learned traditional nav procedures, working for four hours without a break. Now do not get me wrong. Any day flying at Mather was a million percent better than sitting behind a desk in Washington, D.C., where I had been a staff officer. I never regretted the decision to fly. But flying in a Mather T-29 trainer was not even close to the Phantom.

The best thing was that the backseat of the Phantom had no drone work. And there was the bonus of being able to see outside. The absolute joy of flight in a fighter now came to me. I could understand, for the first time, the enthusiasm of our instructor pilots. They loved the bird and all she could do.

As I think back, the child’s poem comes to mind: “How does it feel to go up in the air, up in the air so blue?”

It felt great. It was fun. Flying was fun.

My eyes opened to a whole new world above the earth. Now I learned how the radar operated on real targets. All the time and work in the simulator clicked into place. I was beginning to feel good; my confidence level rose. I could see myself doing this and doing it well. OK, I was a bit cocky and perhaps euphoric. I admit it. I was having a good time. It was good, really good to be a GIB. It was really, really, really good to be in a Phantom above the Arizona desert.

Then we went to an extended formation, and the instructor told me, “You’ve got the stick.”

And I shook the stick, saying, “I’ve got the stick.”

I tried to sound confident—but to be honest, it had never dawned on me that I would be flying the bird on the first ride.

Here I was, a kid from a rural upstate New York with my hands on the stick of a top-level fighter. It’s hard to put into words my feelings at that moment, now many years later. It was a mixture of pride, awe, excitement, and an extreme adrenaline rush that lasted well into the night (as my wife can still attest). In the years to come, I had the stick on almost every mission in the Phantom. I needed to fly the Phantom from the backseat in case there was an emergency where the AC was incapacitated. And I took the opportunity to fly whenever I got the chance.

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, Arizona, F-4 Phantom II, F4 Phantom II, F4 PhantomII, Fighter Aircraft, Luke AFB. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Up in the Air So Blue

  1. Max Corder says:

    That first flight in a jet when you can see the curvature of the earth for hundreds of miles from 25,000 ft is unforgettable. Thanks for taking me back 54 years.

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