Christmas Break, DEC 1968

-Why I Love the Navy

Claude Newland, Rustic19


Christmas Break, DEC 1968 - Why I Love the Navy 


     Before departing Webb AFB for Christmas leave, I gave some thought as to what I might do while home. It occurred to me that as a 2nd- lieutenant pilot who had just soloed the T-37, I might just be somebody. A presumptive thought, no doubt!  Therefore, I took all my flying gear home with me. My audacious plan was to see if the Navy would take me flying in one of their F-4 fighter aircraft at San Diego’s Miramar Naval Air Station. This seemed like a long shot, but what the heck. I had a current altitude chamber card, flight suit, boots and gloves, an Air Force ID, a copy of my flight records, and a daring spirit. Nothing ventured, nothing gained!

     After arriving home, I called up one of the squadrons at Miramar. I believe it was a Friday. When the officer-of-the-day answered, I explained who I was and presented my request. He explained that the F-4 units at Miramar were all Replacement Training Units with a training mission, Therefore, they rarely had an open rear cockpit. The backseats were usually filled with naval radar intercept officers receiving training in the rear cockpit. The officer-of-the-day took my name and phone number and said they’d get back to me if something became available. Well, I figured, “Nice try. I’ll never hear from them!”

     Much to my surprise on the following Monday I got a phone call from Miramar asking if I’d like to go flying with them the next day. My immediate answer was, “When and where do I report?”

     The next day I reported early to the squadron and learned I would be flying in the back seat of the flight leader of a four-ship of F-4s. To this day, I’m embarrassed to say that I don’t recall the name of the pilot I flew with, but he was special. What was remarkable about him was that he was one of the few rated flight surgeon instructor pilots in the military. On this particular mission he was leading a four-ship of F-4s. They were to rendezvous with a navy A-4 tanker in one of the off-shore refueling tracks over the Pacific Ocean. This would be student pilots first refueling mission. It would prove to be most interesting.

     After an impressive, detailed, and fast-paced mission briefing, followed by a short briefing on the F-4 ejection seat, I found myself climbing up the ladder into the rear cockpit of an F-4 Phantom. The crew chief assisted me with the strap-in. What an amazing feeling. Dreams do come true. When the afterburner kicked in on takeoff, I was in awe. I never thought I’d be doing this. Little did I know I’d be flying my own F-4 years later.  

     The F-4s took off individually and then rejoined on the leader. This was my first experience flying a tactical mission and I was all eyes and ears. It was also the first time I had ever flown in a formation with other aircraft. It was impressive. 

    We rendezvoused with an A-4 tanker aircraft in the off-shore tanker track. The flight leader kicked the formation out into a loose route formation. This allowed the students space to comfortably observe each other’s progress. As briefed, the instructor took fuel first. He demonstrated how it was done. He slowly moved back into the pre-contact position. He stabilized, and then slowly moved forward to plug his refueling probe into the A-4’s refueling basket which trailed approximately 50 feet behind the A-4.. The instructor made it look easy. He quickly “stuck” the refueling basket and started taking gas. After a short while, he disconnected by backing away, stabilized, and then moved forward to once again connect with the basket. Spot on. 

     Unlike the Air Force F-4’s refueling receptacle which is located above and behind the rear cockpit and requires the tanker boom operator to “stick” the fighter’s receptacle, the Navy F-4’s refueling probe is located just to the right and a bit forward of the rear cockpit. It is like an arm that sticks out the window of a car. This gave me a close-up view of the action. The pilot has to guide the refueling probe into the tanker basket. If he hits the side of the basket, the basket usually goes into a flailing motion and becomes unstable, thus making a connection almost impossible. The solution is to back off, stabilize, and try again. 

     Now it was the students turn. One by one they cycled through the refueling position. That’s when the fun began. Since it was their first time, they were all over the sky trying to stick the probe. On their first attempt they usually missed the probe or hit it on its side sending it careening off laterally. Eventually, they all got their required hook-ups. 

     After everyone got their gas, I was in for another surprise. The flight leader cleared the three students off to return to base while we remained in the area for some air work. The instructor started doing aileron rolls, loops and barrel rolls. He gave me a “heads up” on each maneuver so I was properly prepared for them. This was cool! Next, I heard the pilot loudly call out a bogey…and the Navy’s Big Sky theory took over. Before I knew what was happening, we were in a dog fight with another aircraft. Someone had just entered our airspace looking for a rumble. 

     My pilot immediately went into a full air–to–air combat mode. Our aircraft started maneuvering violently as he alternately pulled four and five g’s, unloaded, turned, pulled g’s again and then jinked and turned to avoid the adversary. He was doing everything he could to gain the advantage over the other aircraft. The instructor would periodically call out the bogey’s position to me, but I had trouble locating him due to all the maneuvering. Initially, the attacker was behind us, so I had my head bent around and full back trying to acquire the bandit visually. My pilot started a long high g pull that kept me plastered in this position. Once he unloaded g’s, I was able to get my head forward again. As I swung my head down and around in an attempt to find the bandit, the pilot started another high g pull. My head was immediately slammed practically into my lap. I could not do anything about it until he eased off the g’s. Finally, he eased off the g’s and I got my eyes back outside of the cockpit. 

    Soon, the engagement was “knocked off” and we resumed level flight. My thoughts were mostly, “What the heck just happened? This was my first exposure to air-to-air tactical flying. It was totally unexpected, and I was pretty much useless in keeping up with what was happening around me. My situational awareness during the engagement was almost non-existent. Most of the time I was pinned in some awkward, uncomfortable position as a result of being behind the g onset. It made me realize how different it is riding in a fighter rather than actually flying it yourself. If you have the control stick in your hand your situational awareness is much improved. You know what you are going to do and can properly prepare for the g on-sets before they occur. 

     In due time, I was able to collect my thoughts and clear my head as we headed back to the base. Upon arrival at Miramar, the instructor demonstrated a carrier approach and landing. Every navy carrier pilot’s landing, even those on long landlocked runways, was to be a simulated carrier landing. The pilot held a steady angle-of-attack glide path on final approach. His goal was to hit the runway in a marked landing zone--within the same parameters as those required on a carrier. Painted marking on the runway highlighted the desired touchdown zone. Carrier landings invariably lead to a firm, if not a hard, landing, but that’s the way it’s done onboard ship. That’s the way it was to be done at Miramar. 

     After taxi-in and engine shutdown the mission was complete. What a great experience! Years later, I came to fully appreciate how special it was to have been invited to fly with Navy. “Orientation flights” are not given out freely and in subsequent years the Air Force regulations and red tape concerning such fights got pretty strict. The fact that someone at Miramar had taken my request serious and took the time to call me once an opening became available was pretty amazing. Ever since then I’ve had a soft spot in my heart for the Navy.