On April 3, 2006
Well, with all these goings on about the imminent retirement of the aluminum overcast (not to mention the UK Sea Harrier) you’d think that the current generation of fighter pilots had invented this whole “farewell to all that” meme.
But it’s not just flog-em-into-the-21st century fighter jocks moaning in their beer, what with their beetled brows, low cunning, be-draggled knuckles, imperviously robust self-regard and criminally austere social skills: The S-3 guys are saying good-bye to their bird, as in the not-too-distant past, the flying drumstick and sewer pipe drivers did as well.
But back before the lot of ‘em, the phearless Phantom phlyers said pharewell to their phormer phighter. And they did it in right good style too.
“They’re coming one after the other now. Each day seems to bring another heartache. Articles in professional journals, invitations for the “last of” events, calls for yet another Old Guy Reunion, order forms for coffee table books. I’m beginning to realize that there’s no putting off the fact that one of the most revolutionary, capable, and elegant airplanes ever to dominate the skies has gone away.
I refer, of course, to the F-4 Phantom II. Over the last several years, the grand old gal has taken her leave. With the F-4 goes the notion of variable intakes, radar intercept officers, and 2.2 showing on the machmeter. And with the F-4 also goes a big part of what made my life noteworthy, dare I say the stuff of novels.
The Phantom had an amazing run: nearly forty years…. the Vietnam War, dozens of brushfires and contingencies. Few airplanes in the history of aviation have adapted as well to the tactical landscape over their years in the inventory. The F-4 was designed by McDonnell Aircraft Company as an interceptor aircraft around the radar missile system, a long-range air superiority fighter that pushed out the boundaries of fleet defense.
The early portion of my flying career was about launching on the Alert 5 and escorting Soviet bombers and transports. Those were the days of the 1+45 cycle, the days when the Phantom was the fuel-critical jet in the air wing. The thought of dropping bombs was anathema to us then. But the threat changed as the Vietnam War dragged on, and other mission requirements meant the steely-eyed fighter pilots had to load Mk-82s on the wings and prove they were capable of beating up the dirt almost as good as any fully trained attack puke. Suddenly, the Phantom, with its two-man crew and newly received upgraded radar, was the platform of choice for air superiority in high threat areas.
But now the F-4’s time is over. Emotions stir in the face of this reality.Thousands of hours of my adult life were spent strapped into the front seat of the Big Ugly Fighter. It was there that challenges were met, friendships were forged, and the nation’s will was carried out. From that lofty perch I looked up at the heavens and down on hostile lands. I didn’t always realize it then. Youth, of course, is lost on the young; but each sortie was a gift.
So, too, was the time spent in the company of greats. I think back on chain-laden plane captains who loved the airplanes as much as we did, those like Sam Summa, who kept the aviators going with their enthusiasm in the face of long days that promised nothing but more hard work. I remember the maintenance master chiefs who taught me not just how the Phantom works but how to be an officer and a man. And for their caring they asked for nothing in return. In their countenances I saw my responsibilities.
Anyone familiar with Naval Aviation has a de facto doctorate in pilot personality types. Any RIO with 1,000 hours or more in the airplane possesses a similar degree. And as I flip through the pages of my weathered logbooks and read the names Smith, Crenshaw, Southgate, Driscoll, Ensch, Roy, Bouck and hundreds more, I think of their skill, skill that boggles the mind even now, and the teamwork between cockpits that made flying the F-4 so rewarding. I know few things as surely as I know that U.S. Navy carrier-based pilots are the best in the world.
And what of the down times between sorties? In my mind’s eye I conjure up a gathering in the eight-man stateroom where problems are broached, dissected, and solved. This is where I learned about trust. This is where I realized I could survive the trial that was life at sea….hell, life period.
Now I close my eyes and hear the clack, clack, clack of the shuttle as it moves aft for the next launch. The exhaust from the powerful and reliable J79 engines fills my nostrils until we drop the canopies and bring our jet to life. Air roars through the ECS. Systems power up. Soon we’re parked behind the cat, waiting our turn. I roger the weight board …. 56,000 pounds, buddy, 56,000 pounds. Grasp that, if you can. The jet blast deflector comes down, and we taxi into place, deftly splitting the cat track with the twin nose tires. And then, even after decades of doing the same thing, the adrenaline starts to flow as we go through the deck dance unique to the Phantom: The nose strut extends, giving the fighter the look of a beast ready to leap into the air by itself; the director moves you into the holdback. Wings spread. Flaps lower. Our hands go up as the ordies arm the missiles and bombs.
There’s the signal from the catapult officer. I put the throttles to military power and wipe out the controls ….stick forward, aft, left, and right; rudder left and right.
“You ready, C-ball?”, I ask.
I run the fingers of my right hand across the top of the lower ejection handle (for orientation purposes) and hear from the back, “Ready, Queenie, I’m right behind you.”
I salute. We both put our heads back slightly. (forget once and you get your bell rung by the head rest). A couple of potatoes later we’re off. Airborne.
And for the next hours we stand ready to bring this machine, this manifestation of American know-how, to bear, however it might be required. Or maybe today isn’t our day to save the world, so we accommodate one of the small boys’ requests for a fly-by or break the sound barrier — just because we can (and we’re far enough above our fuel ladder to get away with it). We’re flying a Phantom. And we’re getting paid to do it.
>Alas, I speak of days gone by. What remains of what once gave my working life purpose is now only found in front of main gates, aviation museums, and VFW halls around the country. In the blink of an eye I have become the white haired guy with the ill-fitting ball cap and the weathered flight jacket who bores young ensigns (and anyone else who happens to make eye contact) with his tales of derring-do. VF, dang it! I rail. Those were real fighter squadrons. And they were. Fighting Falcons, Jolly Rogers, Swordsmen, Pukin’ Dogs, Grim Reapers, Diamondbacks, mascots of an adventure. At the center of it all was the airplane itself; and when an airplane has so much heart, personality, and character, it ceases to be inanimate to those who climb into it on a regular basis.
So it’s goodbye, dear friend. Forgive my depression. I’ve heard the promises of a brighter future, but my time in the arena was with you. I watch you launch into the sunset and wonder how it all could have passed so quickly. It doesn’t seem like that long ago when we were together, inextricably linked, one defining the other. Ours was a world of unlimited possibilities and missions accomplished. Ours was a world of victory.
So goodbye, Big Fighter, blessed protector of the American way and our hides. We who knew you well will miss your class, your swagger, your raw power. Even in the face of technological advances you bowed to no other.
Thanks for the memories. They are indeed the stuff of novels.”
(ed. – received through an old service friend, author unknown…)
“You love a lot of things if you live around them. But there isn’t any woman, and there isn’t any horse, not any before nor after, that is as lovely as a great airplane. And men who love them are faithful to them even though they leave them for others. Man has one virginity to lose in fighters, and if it is a lovely airplane he loses it to, there is where his heart will forever be.” — Earnest Hemingway