Rick Keyt has practiced law in Arizona since 1980. He flew the F-4 Phantom for five years in the United States Air Force, including combat missions over South Vietnam, North Vietnam and Laos in 1972. For more about Rick's bio including his F-4 bio see his resume on his law website. Connect with Richard at 480-664-7478 or send him an email at [email protected].
BMB Productions and Emmy Award winner producer Michael Lattin made a movie about the 50th anniversary reunion of the Red River Valley Fighter Pilots Association, aka River Rats held in Louisville, KY. Here’s the trailer.
Here’s the River Rats 25th anniversary reunion video:
Forty-nine years ago, Streetcar 304 was rescued just southwest of Tchapone. Pete Lappin here, Nail 69 that day. I am looking for any Phantom or Thud drivers who took part in that rescue. After a tour and a half in the F-4 I went to NKP for a tour as a FAC. June 2 1968, I had the privilege of being the FAC that saw the best our Air Force had to offer. Bad weather, rough terrain, and plenty of guns! You silenced the guns and the Sandys and Jolly Greens were able to get him out. I would like to organize a 50th anniversary reunion of that rescue next year and while he doesn’t know it yet the Navy pilot who was rescued that day, KENNY FIELDS, will be there. Please let me know if you are interested.
On December 16, 1972, for the first time in the nine year old Vietnam War the B-52 bombers entered Route Pack VI to drop bombs on North Vietnam. On the first night 129 Buffs launched to attack targets at Kép, Phúc Yên and Hòa Lạc and a warehouse complex at Yên Viên. The second and third waves of B-52s struck targets in Hanoi. Three B-52s were shot down and one crew was rescued.
On the second night 93 B-52s launched to attack targets at the Kinh No Railroad and storage area, the Thái Nguyên thermal power plant, and the Yên Viên complex. No Buffs were lost.
On December 20, 1972, the third night of B-52s flying the same headings at the same altitudes and making the same 140% post bomb release turn North Vietnam shot down 8 B-52s and only two of eight crews were rescued.
This 38 minute movie was made by the son of Brigadier General Glen Sullivan, the commander of the B-52 Unit at Guam. He called SAC headquarters and told his commanders that he would not order his men to fly any missions unless SAC eliminated its copy-cat tactics. The Buff crew members interviewed in the movie explain the stupid tactics ordered by SAC the first three nights of Linebacker II. People interviewed in the movie include Ed Rasimus, BC Connelly, Jeff Duford, Bud Day and Jeremiah Denton.
Air Force historian Earl Tilford wrote the following about the first three nights of Linebacker II,
“Years of dropping bombs on undefended jungle and the routines of planning for nuclear war had fostered a mind-set within the SAC command that nearly led to disaster. . . Poor tactics and a good dose of overconfidence combined to make the first few nights of Linebacker nightmarish for the B-52 crews.”
An original film about operation Linebacker II that brought an end to America's involvement in the Vietnam war. The filmmaker encourages comments from everyone and for sure those who have served our country.
In good faith, this film contains copyrighted and non-copyrighted material for non-commercial & nonprofit educational purposes. The producers have neither monetized this work nor sought any profit from its distribution.
Please view in HD and full screen by using buttons on bottom right of screen.
I love this documentary about heroic men who flew the single seat F-105 Thunderchief, aka the “Thud,” in the air war over North Vietnam in 1966. I first saw the film in the fall of 1970 when I was in Officer Training School (OTS) at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas. I was in awe then just as I am now watching these men talk about flying combat missions over the most heavily defended area in the history of aerial warfare.
The Thud drivers in the movie were flying in operation Rolling Thunder. “There is a Way” was filmed at Korat Royal Thai Air Base, Thailand, the same base my squadron, the 35th Tactical Fighter Squadron, flew from in 1972 during operation Linebacker I. The Thud pilots in “There is a Way” were in the 421st Tactical Fighter Squadron of the 388th Tactical Fighter Wing.
Legendary American hero 1st Lt. Karl W. Richter explains why he volunteered to fly an additional 100 missions over North Vietnam after flying his first 100 missions. It was standard operating procedure for Thud drivers to be returned to the United States after they completed 100 missions over North Vietnam because the 100 mission quota was so difficult to achieve. When Lt. Richter was flying combat missions 43 percent of F-105 pilots were either killed or declared missing in action before they completed 100 missions over North Vietnam. Lt. Richter was single and did not have any children and he loved flying the Thud so he asked to stay at Korat and fly a second 100 missions over North Vietnam.
Lt. Richter beat the odds and successfully completed his second 100 missions. Unfortunately on July 28, 1967, Karl Richter was killed in action when his airplane was shot down by flak. Richter was rescued by a helicopter, but died on the chopper before it could get him to a hospital. In another article I wrote about Richter I said:
“There is a statue of Karl Richter at Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama, on which is inscribed, the following words from the prophet Isaiah: “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us? Here am I. Send me.” Lt. Richter gave his life in the service of his country. Karl Richter’s spirit and sacrifice will live on in the annals of the United States Air Force and American history. The December 1992 issue of Air Force Magazine contains an article called “Here Am I. Send Me” about Karl Richter. Read Lt. Col. Hank Brandli’s article called “Karl Richter’s Last Mission” to learn more about this American hero.”
Associated Press: “The last of thousands of F-4 Phantom jets that have been a workhorse for the U.S. military over five decades are being put to pasture to serve as ground targets for strikes by newer aircraft, the Associated Press reports. The U.S. Air Force will hold a ‘final flight’ retirement ceremony today [December 21, 2016] at Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico, where the last F-4s are still flying for the U.S. military. . . . McDonnell Douglas – now part of Boeing Corp. – built more than 5,000 F-4s for the Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps. It first flew in the late 1950s, and production ended in 1985.”
VOANews: “The U.S. Air Force says a shortage of fighter pilots has become so dire that it is struggling to satisfy combat requirements abroad. ‘We have too few squadrons to meet the combatant commanders’ needs,’ Major General Scott Vander Hamm, the general in charge of fixing the fighter pilot crisis, said in an exclusive interview with VOA. The Air Force is currently authorized to have 3,500 fighter pilots, but it is 725 fighter pilots short. And with fewer pilots, the number of fighter pilot squadrons have also dropped, from 134 squadrons in 1986 to 55 in 2016.” See: “Air Force Has Too Few Fighter Squadrons to Meet Commanders’ Needs.”
The F-4 Phantom II’s final flight in US military service at Holloman AFB, New Mexico, is open to the public. The last flying U.S. F-4s are in the 82nd Aerial Targets Squadron (Det 1). The squadron announced the F-4 will fly for the last time on December 21, 2016. The public is invited to see this legendary fighter roar into the skies one last time.
Here’s the schedule:
8 am – La Luz Gate** opens to attendees (attendees will be directed to designated parking areas and then bused to the event)
8 am – Community expo opens to include static aircraft such as the QF-4 and QF-16
10 am – F-4 Phantom II takeoff and final flight (tentative)
11:30 am-12 pm – F-4 Phantom II retirement ceremony
1 pm – Event conclusion
**The La Luz gate is the only gate open for non-DOD cardholders and public access.
Airshow Stuff: “We met up with likely the last ever USAF F-4 pilot, Lieutenant Colonel Ron “Elvis” King of the 82nd Aerial Target Squadron, Detachment 1, while he was displaying one of the 21 remaining Phantoms at the Spirit of St. Louis Air Show & STEM Expo on May 14-15 2016. Lt. Col. King was kind enough to talk with AirshowStuff about the status of the target drone program, flying the F-4, and his job overseeing the final days of the famed Phantom.
Bob writes about the two days in November 1972 when he and Captain Alexander H. (Sandy) Murchison III flew missions to rescue the two crew members of a downed F-105 Wild Weasel.
“Right around briefing time, we were informed by the command post that a weasel crew had been downed by a SAM the previous evening somewhere north of Vinh and Blue Chip wanted us to head up there and see if they could raise them on the radio. Turned out the crew was nowhere near the position we got from 7th Air Force (7AF). In fact, we didn’t even have a map of the area where we eventually found them. Anyhow, we launched with our wingman and headed north through Laos and hit our first tanker of the day. The weather steadily worsened the further north we flew and we thought there was no way the survivors could be recovered if they hadn’t been captured already.”
On May 10, 1972, USAF Captain Roger Locher and his front seater Major Bob Lodge were shot down over North Vietnam in 1972 shortly after they downed their third MiG-21. Bob Lodge elected not to eject and went down with the F-4D. Roger Locher ejected and survived, but knew not to get on the radio because it would tip off the North Vietnamese that he was alive and where he was located.
During the intelligence briefing before the mission that day the aircrews were told that their mission over North Vietnam that day would to too far inside of North Vietnam so helicopter rescue would be impossible. Roger knew his only chance to avoid capture or death was to walk west until he arrived at a location where he could be rescued.
Roger spent a record 23 hair-raising days evading capture and walking west before he was rescued and returned to Udorn Air Base, Thailand. In this video from October of 2015 Roger Locher describes the mission that day, getting shot down, evading and being rescued.
Tribunist: “There were a lot of things we couldn’t do in an SR-71, but we were the fastest guys on the block and loved reminding our fellow aviators of this fact. People often asked us if, because of this fact, it was fun to fly the jet. Fun would not be the first word I would use to describe flying this plane. Intense, maybe. . . . ‘Los Angeles Center, Aspen 20, can you give us a ground speed check‘?”
I was very lucky to have been able to fly the F-4 Phantom for five years in the United States Air Force from 1971 – 1976, including three years teaching men to fly the F-4 while an instructor at George Air Force Base, California. I loved flying the Phantom. There is something very special about flying a supersonic jet fighter that is hard to put into words. No matter how eloquent the speaker may be, words just cannot describe the out of this world experience of flying a fighter.
Video, however, is more than a picture worth a 1,000 words. Below I am linking to two videos that give the non-fighter pilot viewer a true-life glimpse into what best described in the poem “High Flight.”
Oh, I have slipped the surly bonds of earth,
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I’ve climbed and joined the tumbling mirth of sun-split clouds –
and done a hundred things You have not dreamed of –
wheeled and soared and swung high in the sunlit silence.
Hovering there I’ve chased the shouting wind along
and flung my eager craft through footless halls of air.
Up, up the long delirious burning blue.
I’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace,
where never lark, or even eagle, flew;
and, while with silent, lifting mind I’ve trod
the high untrespassed sanctity of space,
put out my hand and touched the face of God.
The above sonnet was written by John Gillespie Magee, an American pilot with the Royal Canadian Air Force in the Second World War. He came to Britain, flew in a Spitfire squadron, and was killed at the age of nineteen on 11 December 1941 during a training flight from the airfield near Scopwick, England.
Flying the A-10 Warthog
Flying the F-16 Falcon
The second video shows F-16 Falcons from the 35th Fighter Squadron at Kunsan, Korea participating in Red Flag exercises in Alaska in 2014. This is my old squadron from Korat Air Base, Thailand (1972) and Kunsan Air Base, Korea (1973). We were the Panthers (see the picture on the squadron patch at the top of this page), but now the squadron’s nickname is Pantons. According to the Urban Dictionary “panton” means:
Noun or adjective – Some one who is full throttle, to push it up, or lights their hair on fire. Also a good dude; a current or former member of the technically, tactically, strategically, aesthetically, and especially socially superior fighter squadron.
Foxtrot Alpha: “U.S. Air Force serial number 61-0007, a B-52H known by its nose art as ‘Ghost Rider,’ was brought out of seven years of storage at the Defense Department’s boneyard in Arizona. Its new mission? To replace an active B-52H that was badly damaged by fire while on the ground at Barksdale Air Force Base and make the USAF arms treaty-dictated fleet of 76 B-52s whole once again.
Stars & Stripes: “In his 1988 book, ‘Going Downtown: The War Against Hanoi and Washington,’ Broughton labeled Johnson and McNamara as ‘Washington weenies’ and asserted that pilots and other aviators died because they were prohibited from hitting anti-aircraft emplacements and other “sanctuary” sites in North Vietnam. The U.S. ‘lost a bunch of good people and good machinery all over Southeast Asia with their outhouse mentality on war,’ Broughton wrote. . . . ‘Thud Ridge,’ which does not have the political tone of the other two, is often assigned reading for Air Force pilots in training.”
Sad news from Jeannie Beckers on September 24, 2014, about the passing of her husband Lyle C. Beckers. Col. Beckers was the commander of the 35th Tactical Fighter Squadron when it went TDY from Kunsan AB, Korea, to Da Nang AB, South Vietnam and Korat AB, Thailand in 1972. Lyle lead many 35th TFS strike escort missions into Route Pack VI and shot down two MiG-21s.
Jeannie sent a message to family and friends that said:
“It is with a very sad heart I am writing to let you know my precious Lyle passed away this morning at 5:AM EST. He died peacefully with Lisa, Laurie, Rob and I at his side. Patti will be here Saturday. A private Memorial Service will be held in our home Sunday morning. His final internment will be at a later date in Arlington Cemetery. He was a brave Warrior to the end. We shall miss him always.”
Joe Lee Burns sent an email message in which he said:
“Lyle was a hero to me, a role model. I wanted to be able to fly as good as he could, and he tried to teach me that. I love him and started missing him before now. Godspeed, Sir. Save me a seat.
I will share one Lyle Story: 81ST TFS out of Hahn AB, W Germany. We were at Wheelus AB, Libya for gunnery camp to escape bad weather in Germany in December (1968). Major Lyle Beckers was flight lead (I think I was Comet . . er . .I mean, #6 – flight lead of the last 4 jets) for the Saturday morning 9 ship departure (one jet was hard broke for parts) to Aviano AB, Italy and then back to Hahn in time for Christmas. Our Callsign was something like “Panther 21” flight.
Lyle briefed the takeoff sequence, rejoin ground track, and final flight check in before departing Wheelus airspace. Flight lead took off single ship from runway 29; flew about 2 miles, made a loose 180 degree turn for rejoin. The rest of the Phantoms took off as 2 ships and rejoined in trail. After another 180 degree turn the fight requested a flyby at 1,000 feet AGL, which was approved. Our formation was a single followed by 4 line-abreast 2 ships.
Abeam the tower, Lyle calls, “Santa Flight Check.” As briefed, he followed with “Rudolph,” the next two ship responded “Dasher,” then “Dancer,” followed by “Prancer” and “Vixen,” then “Comet” and “Cupid,” and then “Donner” and “Blitzen.” Tower clicked its microphone switch twice in response (probably because of the laughter in the tower). Before changing to Departure Control frequency, Lyle called, “Wheelus Tower, ‘Santa Flight’ departing your airspace, Merry Christmas, ‘Ho Ho Ho’”.!!!”
Jeannie replied: “Lyle said ‘HO HO HO!’ when he read it….said he was sorry he couldn’t add anything to your remembrance, but he knows you are right!!! Best love, Jeannie Beckers for Lyle.”
Here’s a 1972 group photo of the 35th Tactical Fighter Squadron taken at Da Nang with Col. Lyle Beckers, the commander of the 35th TFS, in the front seat. See the bigger version of this picture with names of the guys. Note: Joe Lee Burns photoshopped himself into the top row.
On May 24, 1973, President Richard Nixon hosted the largest dinner party ever given at the White House. The dinner honored the 590 men who were captured by North Vietnam during the Vietnam War, tortured and returned with honor after the U.S. signed the Paris Peace Accord in January of 1973. Over 1,200 people attended the dinner hosted by President Nixon and his wife.
Forty years later on May 24, 2013, the Richard Nixon Foundation hosted a second reunion of the former POWs. Over 200 former POWs attended the reunion.
The video below is President Nixon’s address to the dinner guests.
On May 25, 2014, the Richard Nixon Foundation hosted a panel of former Vietnam War POWs. The extraordinary panel consisted of Cmdr. Everett Alvarez (USN), 8-year POW; Lt. Col. Tom Hanton (USAF), President of NAM-POWs, 9-Month POW; Capt. Mike McGrath (USN), 6-year POW; Cmdr. Paul Galanti (USN), 6-year POW and Roger Shields, Nixon White House POW/MIA coordinator. Frank Luntz, President of Luntz Global, moderated.
Air & Space: “In December 1972, the B-52 bombers that North Vietnamese missile crews had been waiting for came to Hanoi. Night after night. Over virtually the same track. I had come to Hanoi to research my second book about the air war over North Vietnam: the story of the December 1972 B-52 bombing of Hanoi, known as Linebacker II. I had arrived with the standard U.S. understanding of the raids. In early December 1972, President Richard Nixon and his national security advisor, Henry Kissinger, faced a political defeat. The North Vietnamese had broken off negotiations in Paris. It was clear that they were waiting for an anti-war U.S. Congress to return in January, cut off funds for the war, and give them a victory. To force the North Vietnamese to sign the agreement, Nixon decided to bomb Hanoi. After initial heavy U.S. losses, B-52s were able to attack with relative impunity and, after 11 days of raids, the North Vietnamese returned to Paris to sign the agreement they had rejected in December.”
In December 1972, the B-52 bombers that North Vietnamese missile crews had been waiting for came to Hanoi. Night after night. Over virtually the same track
After F-4 RTU at George AFB, several of us had our orders changed at the last moment from DaNang to Misawa.AB Japan in Jan 70. I was assigned to the 391st along with a couple others including Jeff Feinstein who was a WSO ace in 72, 555th out of Udorn. The wing was the 475th and if I recall correctly, the other two squadrons were the 392nd and 67th. For a time we also had the 16th TRS and their RFs. We pulled alert and flying out of both Taegu and Kunsan, Kunsan was nuke as well as air defense, Taegu was air defense only. Seems like we spent close to 179 days in Korea in one and two week increments.
At the time the wing was in the process of picking up the D models out of SEA, prior to that the 475th was little more than a flying club. Had an ORI which we busted mainly due to bad comm between Kunsan and Misawa. The name of the game was that we kept one squadron at Kunsan and if the red balloon went up, maintenance generated planes and we flew them to Korea to for the main event. Early in 1971 it was announced that the planes would be leaving Japan for Korea. By April the planes had left, guys who had a SEA tour were sent to Kadena with the C models out of Yokota, Those of us who hadn’t were sent to Kunsan. Initially the wing was designated the 3rd TFW. The three Misawa squadrons were designated the 35th, 36th, and 80th, the 391st becoming the 80th and the 36th going to Osan. Shortly thereafter the wing picked up the 8th TFW designation.
I was one of the initial Juvats, the name coming from a part of the rocker for the 391st patch “Fortuna Estes Juvat” which seemed to refuse to come off when the patches were ripped off flight suits.
I believe that Misawa then Kunsan were the operational test and initial deployment sites for the Combat Tree birds.which then went to Kunsan. We flew a lot there and I suspect I flew all the Tree birds at one time or another.
Those of us who had lots of Misawa TDY time had our tours curtailed and I then went to Holloman AFB in Feb 72. Was there only for two months and was enroute to a Crested Cap orientation in late April when we got recalled and were informed the wing was going to SEA TDY, destination **classified** duration unknown! We ended up ferrying the whole wing, four squadrons, to Takhli three days after announcement, a squadron per day. I was assigned to the 8th TFS Blacksheep and was in the second wave. We got designated the night squadron and routinely flew three turn missions mainly out of DaNang but a few to Bien Hoa.
DaNang was sucky but Takhli was even worse save for the rockets – saw the fireworks several times nights and spent several days there with a sick bird. A lot of us lived in tents initially because the old barracks were unfit for human habitation. The night squadron got four to a room air conditioned hootches. We stopped off at Korat once for an oil pressure problem – it was more like an R&R rather than a RON. I tried to follow what was going on with the Kunsan guys and planes. Heard one of the Tree birds was shot down shortly after arrival in April but then had some success with them hunting MiGs.
I had just gone through a divorce and elected to stay in SEA when the wing redeployed in Oct back to Holloman. For a short time I was assigned to the DaNang unit, 421st, that was sent to Takhli as DaNang was phasing down. The 421st had lost so many planes and crews that the decision was made to redistribute the planes and crews elsewhere. Most ended up at Udorn;’ I went to Korat after a 30 day leave trip to CONUS. You guys had redeployed back to Kunsan by then but left one plane with maintenance issues behind. I offered my services to fly it back to the Kun but I guess you guys wanted to send a crew so they could collect their combat pay and tax exemption.
In going through your crew lists I saw quite a few I recognized and/or flew with. Will Mincey was in the 80th when I was there and a couple others. I knew many of the 35th guys as well. One of the 80th guys who left Kunsan, went to Seymour Johnson then TDY back to SEA in 73 and was flying the last plane to be shot down, in Cambodia, in summer 73 just before the final end of the conflict on Aug 15. His name is Jack Smallwood and so far as I know is still MIA but presumed to be KIA. For a long time I thought our flight had dropped the last bombs of the war at 1150, but an A-7 flight claimed the “honor” expending at 1157. Then it was all over at 1200. My final mission count was 279 with 119 of them in NVN, probably half in RP6. thanks to all the flying out of Takhli, I logged over a thousand hours of combat time. In 73, the Fast FAC program was started up.again at Korat so I flew a lot of five hour, road recce sorties as well as Spectre escort on the trails.
Went to RAF Lakenheath after Korat and sadly my flying career came to an end as I was diagnosed with a kidney disease. Eventually I ended up at Wright-Patt as a design development engineer. Worked on the new engines for the F-15, F-16, KC-135R, and B-1. Also worked on F-22 and was a part of the initial B-2 deployment team.
Presently retired from 34 years combined civilian and military time with the USAF in Central TX NW of Austin, TX
There are many things I remember about flying the F-4. I think that the single most enjoyable F-4 experience that I loved was four ship formation take offs. The mission started with the briefing that typically began two hours before the scheduled take off time. During the briefing the flight leader would describe the procedure for starting engines, radio check-in, time to remove the chocks and begin to taxi, how to line up the four airplanes to taxi to the arming area in formation and the procedures for the actual formation take off. Mission briefings lasted 45 – 60 minutes after which the aircrews would make a pit stop then slip on G suits and parachute harnesses and board the truck to be delivered to their designated F-4.
After arriving at the airplane we went through the checklists as we inspected the outside of the airplane and then the cockpit inspections and before engine start checklist. My recollection is that we usually started engines at 20 minutes before our scheduled take off time. After starting engines and doing the flight control checks the flight leader would make a radio call that started with the flight’s call sign. For example, if the call sign was “Lark” the flight leader would say “Lark check.” Then each member of the flight would check in and we would all hear “2, 3, 4” on our radios. The flight leader then asked ground control for permission to taxi to the runway. After getting approval from ground control to taxi each airplane would add power and head for the marshaling area, which was the area on the taxi way designated by the flight commander in the briefing where the four airplanes would join into taxi formation.
I always felt a great sense of pride as my powerful flying machine started to move because at that time the crew chief standing on the left side of the airplane would come to attention and salute. I returned the salute. I appreciated the hard work the crew chiefs performed to keep our F-4s in top flying condition.
Yes, we taxied in formation to the arming area at the end of the runway. The flight leader would have his left or right main gear on the taxi line as we taxied in formation to the end of the runway. Numbers 2, 3 and 4 would be in order behind the leader in staggered position. If the leader had his right main gear on the taxi line then 2 and 4 would have their left main gears on the taxi line and 3 would have his right main gear on the taxi line. Each pilot maintained the briefed distance behind the F-4 in front of his airplane so that the distance between each airplane would be the same.
We were professionals who took pride in the smallest thing. We taxied to the end of the runway like we were the Thunderbirds performing before a large crowd. I was very proud to be in formation with three other F-4s as we taxied to the end of the runway. We always stopped in the arming area at the approach end of the runway so that ground crews could button up all the doors, check the exterior of the airplane and arm any ordinance. All four airplanes would be parked in the arming area line abreast in order, i.e., 1, 2, 3 and 4. When ground personnel finished arming our ordinance and doing the before take off checks it was time for the four airplanes to take the runway.
The flight leader in #1 would look at #2 who would look at #3 who would look at #4. When #4 was ready to take the runway, the aircraft commander, i.e., the guy in the front seat, would nod his head, which caused #3 to nod his head, which caused #2 to nod his head. Three head nods meant that all three wingmen were ready to depart the arming area and move into position on the end of the active runway.
The flight lead’s backseater would then tap his helmet, which caused #2′s backseater then #3′s backseater to tap their helmets. #4 watched #3 who watched #2 who watched #1. Next the flight leader’s backseater would put his head back, which caused #2′s backseater and#3′s backseater to put their heads back. When #1′s backseater moved his helmet forward #2′s backseater did the same and number #3′s backseater followed #2′s head move. The helmet forward move was the signal to put the canopies down. The end result of all of this was that all the canopies of all four backseaters were closed at the same time.
Once the backseaters canopies were down, the frontseaters repeated the same procedure. The flight leader could have simply said on the radio “backseaters put your canopies down on the count of three then said 1, 2, 3, which would have caused all four backseat canopies to close in unison. However, we were professionals who took pride in little things like doing things at the same time without using the radio.
When all the canopies were closed and the tower gave us clearance to go onto the active runway the flight leader would add some power and taxi to the runway while the three wingmen followed in order. The flight leader would stop short on the end of the runway with his right main gear on the centerline. #2 would pull into close formation just to the left of #1. The element leader in #3 would pull into close formation on the right side of #1 with his left main gear on the centerline. #4 would pull into close formation with #3 on his right wing. Once stopped in take off position all four airplanes were in close “finger tip” formation.
Each crew then went over the before takeoff checklist and prepared to make a formation take off. When the flight leader was ready he would get a head nod from #2 and #3 after he got a head nod from #4. Four head nods was the signal that all four airplanes were ready to begin the formation take off.
The flight leader would then put his head back, which was the pre-release brakes signal. When the flight leader moved his helmet forward that was the signal to #2 to move the throttles forward and release brakes. #1 and #2 would then begin their take off roll side by side. #2′s job was to stay in fingertip formation while accelerating. Shortly after becoming airborne the flight leader would nod his head, which was the signal to bring the landing gear up. Shortly thereafter the flight leader would nod his head again, which was he signal to bring the flaps up. After crossing the end of the runway the first element would climb and start a left or right turn to allow the second element to join in a four ship fingertip formation.
My favorite position was #4 in the second element. I will never forget my excitement as I watched #1 and #2 begin their take off rolls. I had a great view of the exhaust end of the two Phantoms and the flames from four afterburners. I also enjoyed feeling the jet blast wash over my airplane. The jet blast caused the airplane to jiggle and shake.
I loved rolling down the runway with my wingtip ten feet from the wingtip of the other airplane. It is very exhilarating to go from a dead stop to 450 knots in a few seconds while maintaining close formation with the other airplane in my element. After getting airborne and putting the flaps and gear up I could see the first element higher above me in a climbing turn. My element leader would cut across the circle and join up with #1 and #2 and we would have four Phantoms in close finger-tip formation as we climbed and began our mission for that day.
I also loved formation landings, but that is a story for another day.
2 Ship Formation Take Off & Flying
The video below starts with two F-4s taking off in formation. The rest of the video shows #2 following #1 in very loose formation. It’s not finger-tip formation, but the video gives you a good feel for how fabulous it is to fly an F-4 in formation with another F-4.
This video is a tribute to Air Force and Navy pilots who flew north of the Red River in the northern most part of North Vietnam during the Vietnam war. People who flew north of the Red River were eligible to join an exclusive club called the Red River Valley Fighter Pilots Association and called River Rats. The north Vietnamese propaganda machine and Jane Fonda called them Yankee Air Pirates. See the River Rats Facebook page.
On May 10, 1972, the USAF and Navy shot down 11 North Vietnam MiGs in the skies over North Vietnam at a cost of two USAF and two Navy F-4s shot down. Jeffrey Ethell and Alfred Price wrote a great book about this day called “One Day in a Long War, May 10, 1972, Air War, North Vietnam” that describes in detail events of that day. I recommend this book. It’s in my collection of books written about the Vietnam air war. A lot of people I know are mentioned in the book or the appendix that contains the names of all USAF and Navy F-4 air crews who flew north that day. F-4 drivers of the Vietnam war era will probably recognize a lot of names.
“One Day in a Long War recounts firsthand accounts of almost one hundred eye witnesses, analyzes cockpit voice recordings and draws from official documents, many declassified for the first time, to tell its story. During May 10 an elite corps of American fighter pilots – many of them first-generation Top Gun graduates – flew more than 330 sorties against major transportation centers around Hanoi and Haiphong. But the Vietnamese fought back with 03 ground to air missiles and 40 MiG fighters.
What words are spoken in the cockpit of a Phantom as the crew prepares to engage MiGs closing in at nearly 1,000 miles per hour? What thoughts go through the mind of a pilot struggling to hold his crippled plane in the air for one minute longer, to get clear of enemy territory so he and his crewmen can parachute into the sea? How does it feel to be in a Phantom running in to attack the notorious Paul Doumer Bridge at Hanoi with laser guided bombs as missile after missile streaks through the formation? And what tactics would enable a force of 16 of these fighter bombers to carry out such an attack without the loss of a single plane?
One Day in a Long War is a definitive reconstruction of the most intensive air combat day of the Vietnam conflict.”
“Steadily we climb, turning a few degrees, easing stick forward some, trimming, climbing, climbing, then suddenly—on top! On top where the moonlight is so damn marvelously bright and the undercast appears a gently rolling snow-covered field. It’s just so clear and good up here, I could fly forever. This is part of what flying is all about. I surge and strain against my harness, taking a few seconds to stretch and enjoy this privileged sight.”
One of the things I loved about flying the Phantom was the incredible views from the air of the earth, sky, stars, the moon, clouds and storms.
The F-4 Phantom is a supersonic jet fighter loved by people like me who were lucky to have flown it. It was a great airplane to fly, but it was also a very dangerous machine. Whenever you throw an airplane at the ground at high dive angles and high descent rates, fly in formation with other fighters or jink back and forth in real or simulated aerial combat, bad things can happen. It was always a comfort to me knowing that when I flew the Phantom I was sitting on a wonderful life-saving device known as the Martin Baker MK-H7 ejection seat.
The F-4 ejection seat saved many lives. When activated a rocket motor fired and blasted the seat and its occupant out of the cockpit and away from the speeding F-4. The Martin Baker seat had a zero zero capability meaning that in theory if a person was sitting in the cockpit while the airplane was parked and stationary on the ground and fired the seat (zero altitude and zero airspeed) the person would be launched 300 feet in the air, the chute would open and the person would safely float back to earth.
The MK-H7 ejection seat system can provide the crew with a safe and efficient escape from the aircraft. The seat is propelled from the aircraft by an ejection gun on the back of the seat which is assisted by a rocket motor on the bottom of the seat. . . . If necessary, ejection can be accomplished at ground level between zero and 550 knots airspeed with wings level and no sink rate providing the crewmember does not exceed a maximum boarding weight of 247 pounds. . . .
During dual automatic ejection initiated from either cockpit, the rear seat fires . . . approximately 0.54 seconds after initiation. Front canopy jettison is initiated after approximately 0.75 seconds and the front sequence actuator will fire the front seat automatically approximately 1.39 seconds after initiation. This ensures adequate clearance between the two ejection seats and the aircraft canopies.
The last paragraph above says that the difference in time from when the back seat fires until the front seat fires is .85 seconds.
One Second – the Difference Between Life and Death
When I was in F-4 RTU (replacement training unit) in 1971 – 1972 at Luke AFB, Arizona, learning how to fly the Phantom there was a tragic F-4 accident on the Gila Bend bombing range. Two students were in an F-4 doing practice dive bombing (probably 30% dive angle, but it could have been 45%, both of which were common dive angles). The pilot rolled in to drop his practice bomb, but he was too steep. Both the flight leader and the range control officer warned the pilot on the radio that he was too steep.
The time between roll in and pull up is between 5 – 10 seconds depending on the dive angle, the roll in altitude and the release altitude of the particular bomb. There is little margin for error when the airplane is screaming toward the earth at 450 knots in a 30% dive bomb. At some point in the dive the altitude needed to recover the airplane without hitting the ground becomes more than the airplane’s altitude over the ground. When that happens the crew will either die or eject with the possibility of death or serious injury.
Either or both the flight leader or the range office recognized the students’ F-4 could not avoid hitting the ground and yelled over the radio for the crew to eject. It was obvious to those watching the diving airplane that it was going to crash. I don’t recall who initiated the ejection, but both ejection seats fired. The backseater lived and the frontseater died when he hit the ground before his parachute opened. Had the ejection sequence been intiated ONE SECOND EARLIER, the frontseater would have lived.
Flying Fighters Was/Is Dangerous
I knew many guys who flew the Phantom who ejected and lived. I knew some who died in the F-4. When I was in flying the F-4 it was not possible to get life insurance other than one $35,000 military life insurance policy. Commercial life insurance companies did not sell life insurance to fighter pilots because they had too high of a risk of dying.
I saw three fighters crash. The first crash I witnessed occurred the day I arrived in Korea at Osan Air Base in May or June of 1972 (can’t remember when I actually arrived there). I was waiting on the flight line for a passenger plane to take me to Kunsan AB, Korea, where my squadron was based. I noticed several fire engines racing out to the runway. This was a frequent event because whenever an airplane declared an emergency the fire engines were routinely deployed to the runway in case they were needed.
Since I was bored waiting I decided to watch and see what the emergency was all about. I could see an F-4 making a landing approach with a lot of black smoke trailing behind it. As I watched the airplane suddenly plunged to the ground and blew up. The crew ejected safely. I found out later that the airplane had an engine fire. The pilot shut down what he thought was the engine that was on fire, but he actually shut down the good engine. The accident report said that the maintenance people had mistakenly reversed the fire warning lights. The pilot’s instruments told him exactly the opposite as far as which engine was on fire.
The second airplane crash I witnessed was an F-4 from my squadron, the 35th Tactical Fighter Squadron, during the winter of 1973. I describe that accident in my story called “The Gibb LADD.” The third crash I saw was a T-38 trainer that had some problem with its landing gear that resulted in the aircrew ejecting and abandoning the airplane rather than trying to land it. I never did learn what happened in that crash.
The Martin Baker MK-H7 Ejection Seat
I loved my ejection seat, but it scared the daylights out of me. People died because of ejection seat accidents. If the seat fired when it was not supposed to somebody could die. There were maintenance men who died while working in the cockpit of the F-4 because they did something that inadvertently caused the seat to fire.
The first thing the F-4 pilot was supposed to do when he got to the F-4 before a flight was a Before Exterior Inspection (Front Cockpit) check. The first three items in the F-4 checklist relate to the ejection seat and are:
1. Face curtain and seat mounted initiator safety pins – INSTALLED
2. Canopy interlock cable & interdictor link safety pin assembly – INSTALLED CORRECTLY & ATTACHED TO CANOPY
3. Lower ejection handle guard – UP
The following is the beginning parts of the Front Cockpit Interior Check checklist that involved the ejection seat:
The ejection seat had 7 safety pins all of which had to be removed for the seat to fire. When the F-4 was not actually occupied by a crew before, during and after a flight, the ground crew always inserted all seven safety pins into their insertion points in the seat. All seven pins were tied together with a nylon line. The purpose of these pins was to prevent the accidental firing of the seat.
When a crew member arrived at the airplane for a flight, the crew chief normally would have already removed six of the seven safety pins and put the six pins and the nylon line that attached the pins into a pouch and laid pouch on the top of the seat. Before I sat in the ejection seat I always made sure that all six of the pins that were supposed to be removed were in fact removed. I did not remove the last safety pin (the face curtain pin) until I was completely strapped into the seat. To get strapped in I had to do the following:
1. Connected the two D rings on my parachute harness to the two snap connectors on the seat survival kit to connect the the kit to me. The survival kit had a radio, water, food and other survival items in case of ejection in the boonies.
2. Connected my lap belt to strap me into the seat.
3. Connected both of my leg restraints. Each leg had two garters – one that went around the calf just above the boot and the other that went around the thigh just above the knee. These four garters were connected to two nylon lines that went into the bottom of the ejection seat. During an ejection the seat pulled the nylon lines tight which caused both legs to be locked close to the seat to prevent the legs from flailing in the wind stream at high speeds, which could severely injure legs.
4. Connected both parachute risers (lines connected to the parachute) to my parachute harness. The F-4’s parachute was built into the top of the ejection seat, which required that pilots attach their parachute harness to the parachute risers. It was very nice not to have to lug a heavy parachute around like the F-105 drivers had to do.
After completing the four steps listed above I pulled the seventh pin out of the face curtain and inserted it in the pouch with the other six pins and counted to make sure all seven pins were in the pouch. I then stowed the pouch until I landed and replaced the seventh pen into the top of the seat.
The F-4 ejection seat system was designed to prevent the seat from firing if the canopy was attached to the air-frame. There was a steel cable that had one end permanently attached to the back of the canopy and the other end was attached to a safety pin that went into the banana links on the top of the seat. The seat would not fire unless that safety pin was removed. Normally when an ejection was initiated the first thing that happened was the canopy thrusters on the bulkhead just below the canopy pushed up and caused the canopy to begin to open. As soon at the front of the canopy opened enough to allow the air-stream to go underneath the front of the canopy the massive amount of air caused the canopy to rapidly open and depart the air-frame taking the steel cable and the safety pin with it.
Fortunately I never had to eject from a Phantom. Nor did I ever come close to ejecting. I did have one very bad emergency where on landing I was ready to eject if the slightest thing went wrong, but the landing was smooth even though it was 200+ knots without normal brakes and no nose gear steering. That’s a story for another day.
Watch Phil Describe His Martin Baker MK-H7 Ejection Seat
A Video about the Martin Baker Company & Its Ejection Seats