Buzz Job

When Joy Over comes Com­mon Sense

Flight Journal - - CONTENTS - By Roy Stafford

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.


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.”

“Yeah, right.”

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!


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.

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