When Joy Over comes Common Sense
On my last tour in the Corps from 1972 to 1977, I flew the RF-4B recon Phantom. The mission and the plane were a flat-hatters’ dream. Ninety percent of our mission was single-plane, solo sorties, and we made our living “down in the dirt.” We were about the only people left in the military who did lowlevel VFR (visual-flight-rules) operations on almost a daily basis.
A normal mission for us was to leave Marine Corps Air Station El Toro, southeast of Los Angeles; fly the standard instrument departure; and upon crossing Saddleback Mountain, head for the Salton Sea. Then we’d call L.A. Center; request descent to FL (Flight Level) 180; and, upon arrival, cancel the instrument flight plan for the next 40 minutes and go VFR down into the desert. We’d fly preplanned routes and take pictures of all kinds of targets. This was usually from no higher than 500 feet and seldom at less than 500 knots. You have no idea what real speed feels like until you’ve been at Mach 1.1 at a height of less than 100 feet. What a rush!
On occasion, targets of opportunity would pop up in the desert and the hunt was on. The only worry we usually had was who was in the back seat. Most guys in the squadron knew within a month who the “players” were (as compared to the “passengers”), and if you had a good guy back there, well, you could have a lot of fun. Things were a little loose back then; most of us had been to Vietnam, and we were a pretty salty bunch. The kids flying in the military today couldn’t imagine the freedom we had—and the limits we could stretch it to.
My secondary job was a maintenance officer. I was also a post-maintenance check pilot, and used to fly most of my functional flight tests over the Salton Sea; if I ever had to shuck the bird (i.e., eject), I hated the idea of coming down in the cold waters in a warning area. The desert from the Salton Sea east to the Gila Bend range and south to the Mexican border and north to Hoover Dam was our playground. I got to know to know the area like the back of my hand.
About a month before the fateful day of our story, one of the guys from the electronics shop came up to me and said, “Boss, the next time you’re out in the desert, have the backseater crank this frequency into the HF [high-frequency] radio and see what happens.”
My family’s coat of arms bears a Latin inscription that roughly translates “Beware of those bearing gifts.” So heritage and experience made me alert— and suspicious.
I ABSOLUTELY LOVED THE ACCELERATION OF THE PHANTOM—IT WAS AWESOME. AFTER I ROTATED AND GOT AIRBORNE, I CAME OUT OF BURNER AT 350 KNOTS AND LET THE GOOD TIMES ROLL.
The electronics guy was coy and evasive at first but finally said, “I don’t know if it’ll work in the airplane, but in the shop with a dummy load on the antenna and on the lower sideband, we can talk to the truckers up and down the freeway out here.” He added that he thought it might be fun. I took the frequency, put it into my survival vest, and promptly forgot about it.
Fate Has a Funny Sense of Humor
About a month later, Denny Fitz and I set out with our backseaters to make a parts run over to Hill Air Force Base in Utah. Hill was the Air Force supply depot for F-4 parts, and I had cultivated a relationship with a master sergeant there who, with adequate priming (bottles of Jack D), could produce any hard-to-get part regardless of the paperwork.
It was a beautiful day: The stars and moon were in all the right places, the air was crisp, and I was about to leave the surly bonds of earth once again. I used to love those early-morning takeoffs. The lights were still bright, and the nine-to-fivers were just getting up. Looking down on them, you couldn’t help but feel superior because the worker drones were just getting up to service the queen bee and here I was, high above them, seeing what they could only dream about—and I was getting paid to do it. Life was good. I absolutely loved the acceleration of the Phantom—it was awesome. After I rotated and got airborne, I came out of burner at 350 knots and let the good times roll. A few seconds later, Denny radioed, “Two’s up,” and I looked down on him as he joined up and slid into position.
The Phantom was an airplane that could look so different from various angles. From the side, it could look sleek and fast, especially the RF with its long, slender nose. But if you looked down on the top, it looked fat and brutish like a down lineman in football—ugly and not something you’d want to fool with. From below, the way the wings melded with the fuselage, it once again looked rakish. The RF-4 looked like the thoroughbred of the species. Like a young stallion, it just wanted to run; there was not a fighter on the West Coast that could stay with us in basic engine or burner. We probably had the last true Mach 2.0 birds in the fleet, as time and weight had slowed all the other F-4s down. At the top end, only RA-5C Vigilantes could give us a run for our money.
We’re climbing through about 23,000 feet when my aircraft gave a noticeable thump, lurch, and the “master caution” light came on. I looked down at the panel and saw that the right generator had dropped off-line and the buss tie had stayed open. I called Denny on the radio and explained what was going on. We talked it over and decided the best course of action was for Denny to go on and I’d return to El Toro.
That settled, I kissed Denny off and turned back to the southwest. Hooters was my backseater that day. As soon as I set course, I tried to reset the generator again, and voilà!, it worked. I looked down, and we were approaching the town of Thermal, near the north end of the Salton Sea, and I still had almost a full bag of gas: 13,000 pounds internal and still had some in my drop tank. I decided it would be a shame to waste all that gas by dumping in order to land. So I called L.A. Center, asked for a descent to FL 180, canceled my IFR (instrument-flight-rules) flight plan, and told them I would give them a call back in 45 minutes. L.A. Center approved, and upon reaching FL 180, we canceled instruments.
Now, Marines can get pretty creative, especially living on the edge as we were in those days, and we generally flew on hot mike; that way, we didn’t have to press the button to talk to the guy in back.
I asked Hooters if there was any place he wanted to see. “Naw, let’s just cruise around.” After circling the Salton Sea, we were bored. Then I remembered the note in my survival vest.
“It Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time”
I said, “Hey, Hoots, crank up the HF radio.” A little explanation here: the RF-4 was, as far as I know, the only Phantom that had HF installed. It was so we could communicate while over “Indian Territory” (North Vietnam) and out of UHF (ultra-highfrequency) range. The frequency-control box for the radio was in the rear cockpit and only the backseater could set frequencies. Once the frequency was set, however, the pilot could take control of the radio by simply flipping a switch (a feature obviously designed by a pilot).
The radio itself was a boomer: 300 watts output, and the whole tail of the aircraft was the antenna. And, of course, whatever altitude you were at (in this case, about 17,000 feet), that was the height of the antenna. Plainly put, we were a 300-watt mobile radio transceiver with a 17,000-foot antenna. We had a lot of range!
Hoots then asked me if I wanted to make a phone patch through NORAD (North American Aerospace Defense Command). “Nope,” I replied. “I got a new frequency for you to try.” He dialed it in, and I took control of the radio. I blew into the mike, and almost instantly we started hearing, “Breaker, breaker, one-nine,” and all kinds of other gibberish.
Reading my mind (not hard in those days), Hoots says, “You’re not!”
I said, “Damn straight I am! This is too good to pass up!” For the next minute or so, we carried on the last rational and sane conversation that would emanate from the cockpit in the next half hour.
“Shadow, you know how many watts we put out?”
“Yeah, 300. Now shut up and let me find one close.”
“Do you know what the average CB radio puts out? It’s about 6 watts max.”
Backseaters! They were always so anal retentive—and tech oriented. “So what?”
“Well, I was just thinkin’,” Hooters mused, “if you do this, you may fry a few radios.”
“Naw. Ain’t gonna happen.”
No sooner had I said that, then we hear, loud and clear, “Breaker, one-nine, breaker, one-nine. Georgia Boy talkin’. Anyone got me?”
The thought then occurred to me that great moments in life can be preceded by the simplest of statements.
Before Hoots could throw water on this great opportunity, I keyed the mike and said, “Georgia Boy, this is Recon Zero-Five. Got you loud and clear. How me? Over.”
He immediately came back. “Oowee, man! What kind of radio is that? You just about blew me outta my cab! Hell, Bubba, I’m illegal and you pegged my needles! You a base station or something?”
“Nope,” I said. “I’m mobile.”
“Mobile, my ass. You must be on some mountaintop around here. You better shut that thing down, Bubba, afore the Feds are on you like stink on poo!”
“Georgia Boy, I assure you I’m mobile.”
At that moment, I had a stroke of pure genius, if I do say so myself. I turned back toward Thermal, keyed the radio, and said, “Georgia Boy, where are you? I’ll prove to you I’m mobile.”
“Where are you?” he replied.
“I’m near Thermal,” I said.
“Well, son, I’m eastbound and down. Just passed Desert Center, pedal to the metal, and I ain’t stopping until I gets to Phoenix, Arizona!”
“I’ll catch you before you get to Blythe,” I replied. “I’ll prove to you I’m mobile.”
“Oowee, man. You ain’t fooling me? You in Thermal? You got to be a base station on a mountaintop.”
“I assure you. I’m mobile!”
He then said something that was too good to be true. “Recon, Old Georgia Boy is hauling the chili eastbound and you ain’t catching me ’lessen you in a rocket ship!”
Hoots says, “Aw, man! Why’d he have to go and say that?”
Some Things You Just Can’t Pass Up
This was going to be one of those cherished little moments in life. By now, I knew he was on Interstate 10 between Desert Center and Blythe. We had to be just southwest of him, about 50 miles away. Now, if the genies of fate didn’t urinate on the best intentions of man, this was gonna be one for the ages.
I brought the power up and started downhill. One of the marvels of the desert is that on a clear day, from altitude, you could see forever—miles and miles and miles. My mind went tactical. I knew Georgia Boy believed I was really stationary, but I figured he would still be checking his rearview mir- rors. My plan was to come from the southwest—the desert. He wouldn’t be expecting me from there.
Hoots then chimed up. “You gonna boom him? You’re .98 and accelerating.” (Sometimes I think the only reason those guys are back there is to bring an extra conscience along in case your own went into Fail mode, which I was fast approaching.)
“No. Don’t think I wanna do that.” (But my mind was saying, “Great idea, though!”) With both consciences in order, I backed off about 3 percent.
Going supersonic was now off the table, so I had to think of something else. In a nanosecond it came to me. A few of us had discovered that if you get fast enough—and low enough—out in the desert, you can leave a dust trail about a quarter of a mile behind you from your shock wave and wing vortices. Before you say “That’s crazy,” I have plenty of others who can back me up on this. You also need to understand that low and fast was where we had to live in order to survive our mission. Some of us just liked to go a little lower...and a little faster than others.
In less than five minutes, I was down to about a thousand feet, holding Mach .98, and I could see the back of a white truck about 10 miles just northeast of me. I keyed the radio, “Georgia Boy, what color is the back of your truck?”
“It’s white, like my Georgia cracker butt!”
As he answered, I saw the truck ahead do a little wiggle in the road. He was obviously clearing his six!
YOU ALSO NEED TO UNDERSTAND THAT LOW AND FAST WAS WHERE WE HAD TO LIVE IN ORDER TO SURVIVE OUR MISSION. SOME OF US JUST LIKED TO GO A LITTLE LOWER...AND A LITTLE FASTER THAN OTHERS.
I saw no other traffic on the road in either direction for more than 10 miles (even the car gods were cooperating). I told Hoots over the ICS (Incident Command System), “Man, we’re gettin’ down in the dirt. It’s show time!
I dropped down as low as I dared and timed the merge to be in the center divider (it is very wide in that part of the desert) just as we would pass abeam Georgia Boy. About half a mile in trail, Hoots confirmed a dust trail behind us as I moved into the center divider, keyed the radio, and said, “Georgia Boy, look out your left window!”
At that point and at those speeds at low altitude, everything is usually a blur in your peripheral vision if you’re not looking sideways. All I remember seeing was the two biggest white eyes I ever saw. They looked like goose eggs! I didn’t see much else because I was sooo low and sooo fast.
As the cab passed my peripheral vision, I stroked both engines into burner and pulled up at about 5Gs. When the nose hit 60 degrees, I unloaded and did two full-deflection rolls.
I heard two voices simultaneously. “Holy...Sweet Peter...Mother...Joseph and Jesus...he swapped lanes!” Hoots exclaimed.
“Oh, my gawd! You were in a freaking rocket ship!” yelled Georgia Boy.
That, my friends, as they say in the commercial, was priceless. And worth whatever price there was to pay, short of losing one’s wings.
Then Hoots said, “Holy crap! You almost blew him off the road! Man, he swapped lanes two times!”
I continued out ahead for two to three miles and pulled up through the vertical, over the top, and started downhill for another merge. This time, head on. As I rolled upright, Georgia Boy could see me, and he read my mind.
“Oh, God, no...don’t do that! Puleease...don’t do that!” Passing through about 5,000 feet, I regained my senses and leveled off and made a wide sweeping turn around the truck.
Now relieved of another attack, Georgia Boy gets diarrhea of the mouth. “Hot damn! Nobody’s gonna believe this. Nobody will believe I got run off the road by a rocket ship! Recon, give me your phone number. I’m gonna win some money at the bar tonight. Oh, man. This is unbelievable!” Even Hoots was laughing now. I happened to look up into the side mirror and noticed the crow’s-feet around my eyes that the oxygen mask created from my smiling. This was a wonderful moment, one I’ll never forget.
I finally came back to reality and saw that I was below 7,500 pounds of fuel. I called Georgia Boy and said, “We’d love to stay around and play, but I’m running out of gas. We’re gonna have to break it off and head back to base.” If I’d had one ounce of gray matter still working instead of operating on pure adrenaline, I wouldn’t have said another word. But whoever said that Marines were smart?
Now I didn’t want some redneck calling my house in the middle of the night, drunk and trying to settle a bar bet. I wasn’t about to give him my home phone number. But my mouth started working before my brain engaged, and I said, “Hey, here’s the ready-room phone number. Call me there, and I’ll back you up.”
What an idiot I was.
Now for the Rest of the Story
The rest of the flight was uneventful. The generator stayed online, and I picked up my clearance and flew back to El Toro. As I signed the maintenance forms, Phil Seward, the maintenance chief, said, “Boss, don’t know what you did, but the CO, XO, and Ops O are waiting for you in the ready room.”
Euphoria was about to turn into HACQ (House Arrest, Confined to Quarters). I’ll spare you the details, but I got a butt chewing and thought I was toast until the XO smiled when he said that I had to answer all these damn phones calls from all over the West Coast (Oregon, Idaho, Nevada, Arizona, and California). Because 300 watts does, indeed, go a long way. One poor old lady, who heard my nextto-last radio transmission and was sure that I was running out of gas out in the desert, said someone needed to go “help that boy.”
The exec then asked, “What freq were you using?” I handed him the note from the ’tron shop, and he smiled and tore it up.
When word got around the squadron, I enjoyed new status with the troops. But I had to “check six” for a long time, especially around the “heavies.” But if you want to know the truth, I loved every freakin’ second of it!
The long, sleek nose of the RF-4, which housed the cameras, gave the recon Phantoms just a little more speed. (Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)
First flown in 1958, the Phantom left U.S. inventory only last year and is still active in many countries around the world. (Photo by Jamie Hunter)
The Phantom was pre-glass cockpit and relied on steam gauges and the pilot to do its job. There were no computers to help the pilot. (Photo by Ted Carlson)
More than most fighters, the F-4 Phantom, as seen in The Collings Foundation’s version, appears threatening and utilitarian from any angle. (Photo by Tyson Rininger/EAA)
You don't give a kid a toy and expect him not to play with it—especially if that kid is a young Marine fighter pilot.