Airplane stories…

The mil email chain has been full of airplane stories this week…

The first two are about the F-4

“Hey, Grandpa,” the young lad said to me; “Tell me a war story. What did you do in the war?” 

“I flew “Phantoms. Rhino. Big Ugly.” Fascination and concern shone in his eyes. “Phantoms?” “Absolutely,” I said, looking off into the wild blue yonder and the setting sun. “Tell me about the Phantoms, Grandpa.”
I thought for a moment about what to say. How much could he really understand? Not much, actually. But kids sure like airplanes, even big kids like Grandpa. I thought a little more about what to tell him:

Actually, they’re called F-4s. The term, “F-4,” is like a scientific definition for a giant wild animal that will level your 18-wheel truck if it feels like it. The Phantom was the biggest, loudest, meanest-looking, raw power fighting machine ever built. It was a Man’s jet.

Spectators’ innards rumbled when Phantoms took off! Wide-eyed kids instantaneously decided they were going to be a fighter pilot just like me. They didn’t understand about back-seaters and crew chiefs, but they did understand brute power and speed. You could point this airplane at the moon and for a while you thought you were going to get there. It went a mile per breath at high cruise. A mile per breath!

Phantom. The big leagues. Normal earth people never witness the splendor nor feel the terror of Big Ugly closing for guns. Over the years, my jet fought them all: Tomcats, Eagles, Falcons, Hornets, F-5s, F-106s, A-4s, A-7s, F-111s, Buffs, B-1s, U-2s, even the F-105. Yeah, my pilots lost some, but won plenty! Don’t try to run from a Thud. To win with “Big Ugly,” use power, altitude, vertical, surprise.

Don’t get slow; speed is life. Cut across the circle. Don’t bury the nose. Kill the bandit now. Take that slashing gunshot. Don’t say the pilot cheated; he got the shot. You can’t outrun the missile.
That magnificent airplane remained a major player in our nation’s defense for decades, despite sharing birthdays with early pocket calculators. Is anybody still driving a ’65 Chevy? It’s the people who bring this aircraft to life and provide the brainpower. A roomful of Phantom crews sets a unique social environment. Seemingly insignificant behaviors and unusual events create career-spanning nicknames and legends. “Two Dogs” shot the tanker. “Tripod” kissed the colonel’s dog. They remember forever! Don’t believe the dreaded words, “Your secret is safe with me.” Don’t point fingers, for if you live by the sword, you will die by it.

It’s a rare combination of he-man pilots whose egos, fangs, and foolishness are tempered by an inseparable conscience embodied in the blind, trusty WSO who almost equally share credit for the fabulous success of this durable-crew airplane. It’s a we airplane – not an I, not a me, but we airplane. “We shot the drone. We didn’t go out of our airspace – not us.” The new stuff extends off duty as well. We were at the movies when the windows shattered. You get the idea.

Riding in the “pit”, WSOs are among the bravest souls on earth, betting their lives and reputation on the driver up front who will take them who knows where at a moment’s notice. The backseater lives by his cunning, competing against advanced technology with systems as old as himself. His understanding of human thought processes makes great WSO’ing an art form. He must be ready for any eventuality and provide timely information in a logical, understandable sequence for the multitasked Phantom driver to digest in small pieces. The key is to make the driver, “Mr. Sometimes Macho,” think it was his idea in the first place. The WSO must sense when his inputs have gone unheeded, yet never waste a second with unnecessary or mistimed information. He must find the target and get the frontseater’s eye on it. Then it’s grunt time, fighting the Gs while the animal frontseater maneuvers for the kill. No whimpering gents; we’re riding a Rhino! Sometimes we become the Rhino!

A flight of F-4s paired against multiple bogies creates instant comm jamming when only half the crewmen are talking. Hit the merge and they’re all start yakking away, like a gaggle of geese sorting out the variables. Phantoms somehow excel in defeating large numbers of superior aircraft under severe comm conditions. The more targets, the better. Rhinos charge the fight, shoot bogies and accept a few losses. There’s no way to recall everything that happened in a multi-ship merge, but each crewman brings back various recollections to defend vigorously at the debrief. At the height of the discussion, several pilots talk at once while gesticulating hands “gun” each other. The WSOs nod approvingly. Somehow, most participants emerge from the debrief with the positive notion that “we did fairly well…considering the circumstances.”

Computers changed the flying professional, but an evolution of slippery Phantom tactics continued to confound the sometimes embarrassed good pilots in modern machines. There was a lot of challenge. You were always up against supposedly better aircraft. Phantom crews shriek with delight, like the wide-eyed kid, when describing unobserved stern missile launches or tracking gunshots against a magic dream machine. Yet, satisfaction is rarely displayed in the presence of your opponent. The adversary must think that Phantoms gunning Hornets is fairly common, which it is, if you don’t keep exact score.

Let’s see now, 14 years and 2,500 hours flying Phantoms. No wars, only one engine problem, only one hydraulic failure (on the ground). Hot brakes once (my fault). Never lost a generator, no gear problems, never diverted, two fire lights (both false), no high speed aborts, can’t remember my last air abort (it’s been years). Can’t remember my last ground abort, either.

Never had a compressor stall. Killed a horse once. Popped circuit breakers a few times (usually they reset). Took the cable once for antiskid (no big deal). What a great airplane! Dependable with a capital D. Weather? No problem. Ice? Wind? No problem. The F-4 has done the job as an all-weather, day/night fighter extraordinaire.

Big ugly. Been my friend. Never scared me, never hurt me. Knock on wood. I suppose we’ll launch missiles at her at Tyndall – from some new magic jet. They’ll miss; too bad. Or, Big ugly will drag them back home stuck in her sides like porcupine quills. And someday we’ll look back at our Rhino pictures and remember her as we do steam locomotives.

I never knew an engineer or assembler who built the Phantom, and probably never will. But thanks, folks! Helluva job! What a great airplane! It’s been my everlasting pleasure and privilege to fly her. You just can’t imagine.

“Hey, Grandpa,” the little voice urges. “I thought you were going to tell me a war story. I began to tell. “So there we were, trying to dig this F-111 out of the canyon. We spot him flying along the cliff, fast and too low for a missile shot…” I swallowed hard and lost my voice there for a second. Kitchen clatter broke the silence with the distant call, “Food’s ready!”

Okay, guy,” I said quietly. “It’s time to wash your hands. Your mom’s calling for supper.” “I didn’t hear her,” he claimed, with a twinkle in his eye and a knowing smile like my old buddies had. Food’s ready tiger; wash up. I’ll be along shortly.” A couple of minutes slid by. Then I heard the voice from a distance. Grandpa? Grandpa. You okay?” A tear plopped on the window sill. “Yeah, yeah, be there in a minute. Just checking the moon.”

By Major Tom Tolman.

And another one-

I was OOD at NAS PAXRIV while attached to ST Division of NATC (1964-67), and just happened to be along one of the runways, when one of NATC’s F-4s came in for a touch & go. There were two  older black workers repairing potholes  near a taxiway when the Phantom‘s pilot fired off the afterburners. One worker hit the deck, while the other crouched at the sound.

Said the one on the deck, looking up at his coworker, “Man, yo’ hear dat guy double-clutch dat motha?” 

I had to turn away so they wouldn’t see me roaring with laughter.

And lastly, a story about 707s and the early days of jet travel!

The Age of the 707 (Written by an older pilot )This is a nostalgic and humorous retrospective on the golden age of commercial jet travel, ushered in by the redoubtable and classic Boeing 707.

That smoke is from the 1,700 pounds of water injection the J-57s used for take-off.     

 Those were the good ole days. Pilots back then were men that didn’t want to be women or girly men. Pilots all knew who Jimmy Doolittle was. Pilots drank coffee, whiskey, smoked cigars and didn’t wear digital watches.

They carried their own suitcases and brain bags, like the real men they were. Pilots didn’t bend over into the crash position multiple times each day in front of the passengers at security so that some Gov’t agent could probe for tweezers or fingernail clippers or too much toothpaste.

 Pilots did not go through the terminal impersonating a caddy pulling a bunch of golf clubs, computers, guitars, and feed bags full of tofu and granola on a sissy-trailer with no hat and granny glasses hanging on a pink string around their
pencil neck while talking to their personal trainer on the cell phone!!!

Being an airline Captain was as good as being the King in a Mel Brooks movie. All the Stewardesses (aka. Flight Attendants) were young, attractive, single women that were proud to be combatants in the sexual revolution. They didn’t have to turn sideways, grease up and suck it in to get through the cockpit door. They would blush, and say thank you, when told that they looked good, instead of filing a sexual harassment claim.

Junior Stewardesses shared a room and talked about men…. with no thoughts of substitution.

 Passengers wore nice clothes and were polite; they could speak AND understand English. They didn’t speak gibberish or listen to loud gangsta rap on their IPods. They bathed and didn’t smell like a rotting pile of garbage in a jogging suit and flip-flops.

Children didn’t travel alone, commuting between trailer parks. 

There were no Biggest Losers asking for a seatbelt extension or a Scotch and grapefruit juice cocktail with a twist.

 If the Captain wanted to throw some offensive, ranting jerk off the airplane, it was done without any worries of a lawsuit or getting fired.

 Axial flow engines crackled with the sound of freedom and left an impressive black smoke trail like a locomotive burning soft coal. Jet fuel was cheap and once the throttles were pushed up they were left there. After all, it was the jet age and the idea was to go fast (run like a lizard on a hardwood floor).  “Economy cruise” was something in the performance book, but no one knew why or where it was. When the clacker went off, no one got all tight and scared because Boeing built it out of iron.  Nothing was going to fall off and that sound had the same effect on real pilots then, as Viagra does now for these new age guys.

There was very little plastic and no composites on the airplanes (or the Stewardesses’ pectoral regions). Airplanes and women had eye-pleasing symmetrical curves, not a bunch of ugly vortex generators, ventral fins, winglets, flow diverters, tattoos, rings in their nose, tongues and eyebrows.

Airlines were run by men like C.R. Smith and Juan Trippe, who had built their companies virtually from scratch, knew most of their employees by name, and were lifetime airline employees themselves.. ..not pseudo financiers and bean
counters who flit from one occupation to another for a few bucks, a better parachute or a fancier title, while fervently believing that they are a class of beings unto themselves.

And so it was back then….and never will be again!

h/t JP


Airplane stories… — 28 Comments

  1. Love those F-4’s. During the Cuban Missile Crisis I was crewing on The P2V-7 Neptune flying search and tracking missions from Bermuda to Cuba the Bahamas and south . At the end of each flight after being relieved by another aircraft and crew(there were dozens going on 24/7)we would head back to Jacksonville and when we were about to cross the ADIZ here would come a pair of F-4’s(they had to get a visual on any aircraft approaching US airspace even if they knew who it was). They couldn’t fly as slow as us so the “beautiful uglies” would blow by and take ten miles to slow down then come back around to get our side number. Sometimes they would ease up next to us and sit off our starboard wing. It was amusing to watch them trying to fly that slow. Then they would kick it in the ass and be gone and out of sight in seconds. Beautiful.

  2. The Phantom! Made me want to join the RAF… I didn’t, in the end, but still… great post!

  3. The F-4 was a wonderful dirt mover. It came in hot, dumped a lot of ordnance and the zips hated them…which is to say that they were effective.

    I’m quite concerned at our wholesale move to the vastly expensive “stealthy” F-35, not because I think that it’s a bad idea, but there is a value to RELIABILITY and overall numbers.

    Not long ago I became privy to the maintenance problems of the F-22 Raptor. When they fly, they are world class. But one must keep them in the air.

  4. “The World’s Largest Supplier of Used MiG Parts” or so Pop’s sign in the garage proclaims.

    I was a Phantom Phanactic from birth. “Colonel Gary” had flown RF-4Cs and F-4Gs in Vietnam and Gulf War I and was a good friend of Pop’s.

    Angus had posted a while back that the last QF-4 drone is to be expended sometime later this month. Sad day.

    Only jet to ever be flown by both the Blues and the Thunderbirds.

  5. I called them BUFF’S. Shall I explain further??

  6. “…for it is the Doom of Men that they forget.” – Merlin, “Excalibur”

  7. None of the changes since those days has been to our benefit, but solely to satisfy the whim of some desk jockey completing a checklist. That’s my version, anyway.

  8. Phantoms were the fighter workhorse aboard the carriers when I started my Navy career, and I was sad to see them replaced by Tomcats. Mind you, I certainly didn’t fancy sitting behind the JBD in our Whale while they launched, but there was always something almost romantic about the F-4.

  9. All- Thanks! BP, yes I knew that. MARINE Phantoms no less… 🙂

    Posted from my iPhone.

  10. One of the guys I worked with at Sea Launch had flown RF-4’s during Nam. He had some great stories. Some of them involved getting chewed out by his Crew Chief over the amount of tree stuff plastered on the bottom of the airplane.

    Sometimes it was caked on salt from flying a bit too “down and dirty” over the water.

    The 707 was/is my all time favorite airliner. Just like a Jaguar XK, it had “Pace, Space, and Grace”.

    When I was working north of O’Hare airport, I used to like to go out on Wednesdays at lunch time. Right about 1230, every single Wednesday, the whole airport quieted down a bit for about 15 minutes while three Illinois Air Guard KC-135’s took off to go who knows where.

    Yep, all four engines belching black smoke, NO wimpy-assed “noise abatement” equipment aboard. These were MILITARY jets, GodDamnIt, and these guys flew them like fighters.

    They’d come blasting down the runway, jump into the sky while pulling the gear up, and make steep, climbing turns off to wherever they were headed.

    Then O’Hare would slowly return to normal, the 727’s and DC-8’s coming in to land, while others took off.

    It was really quite a show….

    • Those early KC-135’s needed that water injection just to get airborne because they were usually overweight. Lots of smoke & lots of runway. When they were light on fuel they flew like fighters. I knew them in the 1960’s & they’re still working great !!

  11. Ya’ll can have your Phantoms. I spent enough hours in the back end of an RC-135 that a couple of times I thought I’d put down roots.

  12. When I was stationed at Shaw Air Force Base I used to enjoy sitting at the end of the runway at night with the top down and feel the Thunder of the Phantoms as they roared in to land.

  13. I remember a German pilot telling me there was nothing like blowing down the runway, pulling the stick back and going vertical at 600 mph.

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  15. At Osan AB, the road going up Hill 170 to Skivvy Nine was called Thunder Road, because it was right at the end of the flight line where the Phantoms did their run-ups prior to take-off. If you had two taking off together, the combined engine noise would make the coffee dance in your coffee cup! (And could completely overwhelm a crappy target signal, even in headphones!)

  16. Back about 1975, we were walking out of the Subic Bay Naval Base’s theater a little after dark, when a couple of Phantoms leaving Cubi Point made a slight left turn and went right over us at a low altitude, shaking everything and everyone.
    It was great.

  17. Some aircraft become icons. The Spad, the Corsair, the Warthog, the BUFF…

    So, too, the Lead Sled -proof positive that, if you put enough engine on it, even a brick will fly. A little jingle, heard from an CWO-3 Ordnance Officer, circa 1985:

    [Peewee Herman voice]
    The Harrier’s a Tinkertoy,
    made for little girls and boys,
    and when it flies it makes a funny “whirrr…”

    [Gunny Ermey voice]
    The Phantom is a rocket ship,
    that takes you on a helluva trip,
    and when it flies it makes a mighty ROAAARRRR!!!

  18. Uncle Mike- Oh so true! 🙂 If I remember correctly, it’s the ONLY military jet ever ‘bought’ with a negative glide ratio!

  19. Love the F-4! When living in Heilbronn, West Germany in the mid-70s (Army brat), I was on the playground when a lone RAF F-4 went over. I jumped up and down and waved my arms, and he came back around for a second pass! He went as low as he could, then lit the afterburners and waved his wings as he departed…

  20. Water injection is used to cool the inlet air which in turn increases it’s density thus increasing thrust.
    The JT3C (J-57) made an unworldly crackling sound when used.
    I’m guessing it was also used on the J-75 (JT4A) and the GE CJ805-3.

  21. Eric- LOL, figures… 🙂

    Skul- Hadn’t thought about that in years, but you’re right!

    Paul- Thank you!