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The Summer of '69
MY WORLD CHANGED IN the summer of 1969.
No, it didn't change the way Bryan Adams's did in his 1980s hit song "The Summer of 69." That song was about a world where someone might have learned to play a guitar, fall in love, or any other normal thing. And it didn't change because of the riots and the protests so common in cities throughout our nation. And, no, it didn't change because of the political fallout from the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy the prior year.
The change in my life was not historic or distant; it was up close and personal.
After four long years of training and volunteering, I went to the Vietnam War.
* * *
One late-spring day of that year, an unduly cocky but quite naïve version of me piloted an F-4D Phantom II fighter high over northern Arizona. Being strapped onto the ejection seat in the front cockpit of that supersonic fighter meant my dream had become reality. True, the Air Force considered me as a trainee in the F-4, what was then the hottest fighter in the world. But I had other thoughts. I believed, no I KNEW, that I was a shit-hot fighter jock. Self-confidence was not something that I needed more of. I could do anything in that airplane. To paraphrase an old fighter song, "With my hand around its throttles, I'm in a separate class. I'm a fighter-bomber pilot, let the others kiss my ass." I believed that.
With my left thumb, I pushed down the radio transmit switch on the inboard side of the right throttle. "Albuquerque Center, Bags Two-Four, request."
I used my best professional fighter-pilot voice. It had taken a lot of practice in pilot training for a rural Pennsylvania boy to get the right combination of deep tone mixed with a slight back-in-the-hills of West Virginia twang. Some sage noted that all fighter pilots of that era sounded like Chuck Yeager, the super-sonic flight pioneer, air ace, and my former wing commander.
Cruising five miles above the earth meant visibility was spectacular, an almost limitless panorama especially over northern Arizona. Even in the eastern United States I would have been far above the ever-present haze. But in 1969 there was no haze in the west — except Los Angeles, of course. Just miles and miles of nothing but miles and miles. Distant mountains and deserts. No cities.
We had just passed Flagstaff and Mount Humphreys, the 12,000-foot peak north of the city. From my cockpit, the two-mile-high mountain appeared more like a bump in the vast earth, brown on top and dark-green below its tree line. The city appeared tiny, like a miniature setting from some model train display. To the north was the Grand Canyon, Monument Valley, and the expanse of Utah. The thin, cool air in the F-4's cockpit was a pleasant change from the heat in Tucson where I was based. It wasn't even summer yet and already the temperature had touched 100 degrees in southern Arizona.
Sitting in my fighter's cockpit with the world below me was heaven.
"Bags Two-Four, Albuquerque Center, go ahead," came a male voice in my headset.
"Albuquerque, Bags Two-Four would like to cancel IFR." IFR meant Instrument Flight Rules where the aircraft was subject to air traffic control authority. In the U.S., all aircraft above 18,000 feet must fly IFR. That rule irritated me when I flew Phantoms but was comforting when I rode on an airliner.
"Bags Two-Four, Albuquerque, descend to flight level one-eight-zero. Report reaching."
"Bags Two-Four is out of three-one-zero for one-eight-zero." Not using standard instrument flying procedures, I pulled the F-4's throttles back to the idle position and pushed the stick forward to descend. The Phantom rapidly dropped through the thin air. The vast, sparsely populated northern Arizona landscape, some desert-like, some forested, grew more distinct.
"Albuquerque, Bags Two-Four is leveling at flight level one-eight-zero," I radioed as I pulled back on the control stick to temporarily stop the descent.
"Bags Two Four, altimeter is three-zero-zero-three. IFR cancelled; maintain VFR. Squawk one-two-zero-zero. Cleared from Center frequency. Good day." Air Traffic Controllers were always professional and courteous.
"Roger, Albuquerque. Leaving your freq. So long." I switched the transponder code on my right console to twelve-hundred, the standard squawk for aircraft using visual flight rules. The Phantom continued its rapid descent. Even in the dry western air, I turned on the large defrosters that ringed the base of the front canopy. They made a noticeable roar of rushing air in the cramped cockpit.
"Herb, go squadron common frequency," I said into the intercom. "Have you ever seen the Grand Canyon?"
Herb was my navigator for the F-4 training program at David-Monthan Air Force Base outside Tucson, Arizona. We had been formally "crewed" for the six-month school, meaning we flew all our training missions together. We believed we would stay together as a crew since our end-assignments were to Udorn, Thailand, and the fighting in Vietnam. I had only known Herb since starting the school, but we had become good friends in the months since then. We were both bachelors, so we spent lots of time together when off duty. Herb lived in a rented house outside Tucson with several other bachelors, including my good friend Andy. They threw great parties each weekend. I became part of the group.
"Sure. I've been up there several times," he said.
"I don't mean while standing on the rim. Any tourist can do that."
We were well east of the Winslow TACAN, a navigation signal not far from the Canyon's most popular area on its south rim. I rolled the aircraft into a steep left bank so that we could look through the F-4's thick Plexiglas canopy. Below, like a huge crack in the flat earth, was the eastern part of the magnificent Canyon, a massive fissure that had been carved by the Colorado River over thousands of years. I found it hard to believe that the Canyon had once been flat like the land on its flanks.
"I mean have you ever flown through the Canyon, below the rim?"
There was a pause after I asked him that.
We were supposed to be flying an instrument training sortie, a single unsupervised airplane with no instructor. We were told to fly an instrument navigation route then make some approaches back at Davis-Monthan. But hell, I had lots of hours in the F-4 since I had been flying the bird for nearly three years. Admittedly, most of that time I had been in the back seat as a GIB, meaning "Guy in Back," a demeaning job for a pilot but a great one for a navigator. Between my back-seat time and my pilot training in the ancient T-33, I believed that I could fly instruments in my sleep. The last thing I needed to do was fly practice instrument approaches in Arizona on a clear day when I could see for a hundred miles or more.
"That's not legal, is it?" he said.
I guessed that Herb, still a second lieutenant, believed that rules were meant to be followed. Being a captain — with an attitude — I had other views.
"Who cares? I did it once so why don't we do it today?"
Herb didn't know it, but we were going to do it whether he wanted to or not. As the pilot, I was the aircraft commander. I had years of being pissed-off while I sat in the back seat when some guy in the front decided what to do with the airplane. Now it was my turn. I was a "fighter jock" and I damned well knew it.
I steepened our roll until the Phantom was in a 150-degree bank — almost inverted — and pulled the stick back to about three G's so that we did a "slice turn," descending and changing direction from our easterly heading to better align with the Canyon west of us. I turned the transponder to "Standby" so that most Air Traffic Control radars could not track us and put out the speed-brakes, the large flaps on the bottom of the wings designed to slow the airplane. They made a deep rumbling noise as they hit the fast-moving air flowing past the wings. The speed brakes did not slow us since we were in a steep descent, but they prevented the plane from accelerating. The F-4 rapidly dropped toward the earth just south of the Canyon. We rolled upright and leveled off just a few hundred feet over flat land. I pulled in the speed brakes when the plane had slowed to 350 knots (about 400 miles per hour), not especially fast for the super-sonic fighter but comfortable for sight-seeing. We zipped past sage-brush, dirt roads, barbed-wire fences, a few stray cows, and what appeared to be some small trees. In a few seconds, the land below us suddenly dropped as we crossed the south rim. I turned the Phantom the last 30 degrees to align with the Canyon and pushed the stick forward. We dropped below the rim. I turned off the noisy defroster.
I leveled the bird about half-way between the rim and the Canyon floor. I saw the winding Colorado River and followed it west through what was truly an awe-inspiring valley. The Canyon varied in width, sometimes narrow, sometimes vast, with occasional tall buttes like isolated towers rising in the wide portions. The horizontal lines of the various colored rock strata of the Canyon's walls provided a handy reference for maintaining level flight. Although we couldn't hear them, the roar of our engines must have echoed between those magnificent walls. Any tourists should have been properly impressed. Like most fighter pilots, I loved showing off for the lowly, land-bound people below. As the famous World War II Air Force General Carl Spaatz once said about fighter pilots, "We were a different breed of cat; we flew through the air while the others walked on the ground."
Few, if any writers could adequately describe the Canyon although I'm sure many have tried. But the beauty from my ejection seat, flying at 400 miles-per-hour below the rim was not the Canyon: It was that I could and was flying a jet fighter through one of the world's greatest wonders. And I loved what I was doing. I was in control of America's hottest fighter, cruising through perhaps nature's most resplendent wonder. It was as if I owned the place.
I was probably the envy of startled tourists, both the many who stood on the rim, and the braver few who hiked, rafted, or rode mules on the Canyon floor. My plane may have even starred in some vacation photographs.
Talk about a rush!
The Canyon's beauty was just one more of the vast spectra of vistas experienced by me or any fighter pilot on each trip into the sky. The world, from my seat in the cramped cockpit, constantly impressed me with its splendor and the panorama, especially in the western U.S. But I had flown many other places in the F-4, albeit mostly as a lowly GIB: Over the Atlantic and the Azores to Spain and Germany; above the vast Pacific via Hawaii, Guam, and Okinawa to Korea; across the sea to Japan and around snow-capped Mount Fuji; low over the swamps of the Carolinas; high over the Rockies; down wide rivers and up narrow valleys; across cities, towns, and villages; you name it. The world of a fighter pilot has no limit, or it seemed that way to me in 1969.
We stayed in the Canyon across most of northern Arizona, generally following the Colorado River until it widened as it formed Lake Mead. Ahead was the Hoover Dam in southern Nevada, close to Las Vegas. At the eastern edge of the lake, we turned south and climbed to a more appropriate — and legal — altitude. For the entire trip through the Canyon, Herb and I said little. Despite my other adventures in the F-4, some things were too majestic to discuss. It was better just to do them.
The flight back to Tucson was quiet, almost boring. Our training at the RTU — Air Force jargon for Replacement Training Unit — focused on preparing us to fly the mighty F-4D in combat. I entered the school with a bad attitude typical of pilot-GIBs who were stuck in the rear seat for several years. I attended another RTU in California two years earlier as a GIB, flown the Phantom over half of the globe, and had even upgraded to the front seat at my squadron in North Carolina. But the Air Force had its rules, and no amount of any one pilot's experience would override them: All F-4 front-seat pilots must attend a six-month RTU prior to going to "the war." So, my training in Tucson was redundant as far as I was concerned. But, hell, Tucson was a great place for it.
* * *
Near the end of the training, a request came down from one of the many headquarters asking for a crew to volunteer to ferry an F-4 to Thailand. During the war, planes of all description regularly crossed the Pacific to replace combat losses. This was especially true for the F-4 fleet that, after the massive F-105 losses earlier in the war, now carried the brunt of the fighting for the Air Force.
The mission was simple: Go to Ogden, Utah, to pick up a plane and fly it to a base near Sacramento, California, where we would join with several other planes. Together we would fly to Hawaii, spend one night, fly on to Guam the next day, spend a night, then on into Thailand where we would drop our planes. We could then get on a military-contracted airliner for the trip back to San Francisco, then fly commercial to Tucson. The whole process should take a week or so; ten days at the most.
At the time, I was a single, twenty-five-year-old Air Force captain. After four years in the military, I could still put everything I owned — everything — in the trunk of my red Mustang convertible. While it was true that I was "chomping at the bit" to get into the war, I figured that it would not end soon — so, what the hell? — why not take the trip?
All my previous ocean crossings had been in the back seat, watching someone else fly and begging for what little "stick time" the guy in the front would give me. Here was an opportunity for me to be in charge of the plane, to handle the controls, to be "The Man." Better still, an Aircraft Delivery Group handled all the arrangements en route, everything from flight plans, coordinating air refueling, parking and maintenance, lodging, meals, and return transportation. All I had to do was fly the plane. It simply "don't get any better than that," to borrow an old saying.
Herb and I talked it over. We had no commitments to anyone back home. Our Vietnam tours would wait a week or so since the long war was not likely to end soon, if ever. The trip would mean more flying. An adventure. Fun.
* * *
We moved out of our rental houses and dropped my car and our few belongings with some friends. Herb had a dog, a Dalmatian named "GIB" that he boarded with a friend. We packed just enough clothes for the trip in our soft-sided flight bags. There was little space for personal gear in the F-4. We were told our plane would have a "travel pod" — an empty napalm canister modified with a side door — that we could use to carry our gear. Still, there was only room for a couple flight-suits and two or three changes of civilian clothes each. But that should do it for a week-long trip.
It was late June.
We picked up the plane in Utah and flew to California. We joined with three other F-4s and launched for Hawaii. The F-4 had a range of about 1,200 miles with full internal fuel and three external tanks (called "drop tanks" because we could jettison them when necessary). The trip from the coast of California to Honolulu covers 2,000 miles over water, with no islands for any emergency landings. That distance discrepancy meant that we had to fly with KC-135 aerial tankers and refuel on the way. By this point in my flying career, I had refueled the plane many times, so there should not have been a problem.
Except there was. An axiom in fighter aviation that says that the farther from land the plane is, the more noises the pilot will hear, the more the gauges will fluctuate, and that more weird things will happen. Sure enough, about half-way across, just beyond the "point of no return," strange things started.
I noticed that occasionally the stick would kick, meaning that it would make a sudden up or down movement that changed the pitch of the plane. The kicks were random. I tried using the F-4's primitive auto-pilot but the kicks disengaged it. The longer we flew over water, the more distant the land was, the more bothersome the kicks. These kicks, these unpredictable "transient inputs" to the pitch of the plane, became more frequent.
When we flew loose formation on the tanker, the kicks were merely nuisances. When we were hooked to the tanker, flying formation just below its tail with the refueling boom connected to our plane, the kicks were terrifying.
After nearly seven nerve-wracking hours, we landed safely at Honolulu International Airport and taxied to the adjoining Hickam Air Force Base. That was the good news. The bad news was that the maintenance facility at the base was not staffed for any significant work on the then-modern F-4. Sure, they could refuel the planes, repack the drag-chutes, handle minor work such as changing a tire or adding oil. But working on the flight controls? Never.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Phantom Vietnam War"
Copyright © 2018 David Honodel.
Excerpted by permission of University of North Texas Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
1 The Summer of '69,
2 My Turn,
4 The War That Wasn't,
5 The Golden BB,
6 Hot Dog,
7 Bad Moon Rising,
8 Dry-Season's Greetings,
P hoto Gallery,
9 God Said No,
10 The Proudest Day,
11 R and R,
13 May 1970,
15 Bomb Damage Assessment,
Bibliography and Suggested Reading,