VMFA-531 at Yuma, Arizona for
During the Vietnam War many squadrons
spent half the year at places like Yuma getting trained. Put a
lot of stress on families.
November 1966: I'd asked by bosses at the
Windsock if I could go out to Yuma and do a story about the training
going on out there. They said yes.
I flew to Yuma on a C-130 that only had
a couple of passengers and one large crate. I found out later
that the crate included a canopy for the F4 I would be flying
in. The previous one had released and flown off. Never to be seen
The pilot had not realized that the RIO's
canopy had dissappeared until his wingman radioed him with the
news. The pilot told me later that he noticed the reduced speed
from the added drag but since his canopy stayed in place he just
went on flying.
The RIO in the back seat had a far different
experience. He was hit full force from the wind and couldn't get
his mask on. They normally don't keep the mask snapped on until
they start the actual exercise. No mask, no communications with
He also had this gaint fear that he would
be sucked out of the aircraft even though he was straped in. There
is an ejection handle above each crewman's head. He thought that
would be riped off from the wind and out he would go. Didn't happen.
After the experience with the flying cockpit
canopy the RIO refused to fly in that perticular plane again.
He was told he wouldn't fly again until he did get back into the
So I was flying out to Yuma with my plane's
RIO cockpit canopy.
I arrive in the afternoon of my first day.
Take several photos on the flight line. I'm told by the XO not
to eat in the moring as you will probably up-chuck it during the
flight. I didn't eat or drink anything at all, period, until after
my first flight in a jet fighter the next day. What an experience!
Didn't sleep well that night. Just thinking
about the flight in the morning kept me from sleeping.
Up early and at the squadron hanger I am
taken into the officer's flight ready room and introduced to all
the pilots. Instead of giving me a hard time about being my first
flight they instead welcomed me. I attend the day's training briefing.
I learn now just what I am going to experience up in the wild-blue
I was going on a bombing run. Several of
them. I will try to describe to you what you go through later
in the story. If the best at Disneyland is the 'E' ticket then
this is a 'V' ticket ride. One never forgotten. Believe me.
After the briefing the pilots try to give
me some hints on how to avoid pucking all over my plane. For officers
they were nice guys. This is when I found out about my plane's
canopy and the RIO refusing to go up in it. My flight would be
the first with the new canopy. Oh boy.
I get into flight gear and struggle into
a G suit. This is one nasty piece of equipment. It is designed
to keep your blood in the upper half of your body whenever you
start pulling Gs. The more Gs you have on your body the more pressure
the suit applies to your lower body. It wants to keep as much
blood near your heart and brain as possible. If you don't you
will pass-out. Night, night.
Time to fly
They get me into the back seat. I don't
fit. I'm to tall and the ejection handle that's above each crewman's
head is in the way. The plane captain has to take the handel and
strap out of its protective housing and let it flap on the ledge
behind my head, out of arms reach. If we do need to eject then
there is another ejection system down on the floor behind my feet.
I also have to get familar with the location
of the hot-mike switch and two or three breaker locations. There
is a panel on my right side starting at my knee and it has about
40 breaker switches on the panel. Not easy to reach.
The pilots gave me a small note-pad thing
that you strap to your upper leg. It makes it easy to take notes.
I record the breaker locations on this pad. They also give me
two or three radio frequencies to keep handy. And show me how
to change radio frequencies on the cockpit panel in front of me.
They also tell me not to touch a funkin'
thing. Sounds reasonable to me.
Straped in. Helmet on. Mask on and tested.
Communications with the pilot OK. We're off.
I can't completly describe the take-off.
It is beyond sex. What a feeling. You've seen those movies where
the jet takes off and they head almost vertical into the sky.
Well that was my first take-off in a jet. I think they did it
just for me. Thanks.
There is four of us on the exercise. Your're
paired up with each other. You're wingman watches your ass while
you make the bombing run and you watch his ass when he does his.
Just like the real thing.
I have to describe what you can see from
the back seat of a F4. Just about nothing. The bottom of the canopy
is just above the level of my eyes. And I'm tall. Average guy
back there can't see shit. Just up.
You can see forward by looking on either
side of the pilot. Not much to see there either. You can't see
the wings. Ever. Just forget about it. That's why you see photos
of the wingman's F4 from below. That's the only position where
I could photograph them. Us on bottom, them on top.
On the way out the pilot lets me turn on
the hot-mike. This lets me communicate with the outside world.
Primarilly our wing man. With it on I could hear and speak to
We joke about the canopy. It appears to
work OK. I remember my pilot doing some areobatics just to see
how it handles. This has gotta be the best dam job in the world.
I ask the pilot if he could get closer
and underneath his wingman so I could photograph all the weapons
and bombs they carry. Talk about 'reach out and touch someone.'
We got close, OK?
So now we start our bombing runs. The G
force, gut wrenching, blood craming, bombing runs. Several of
them. Some for practice and a couple for actual bomb runs. Painful,
lovely, wonderful, exciting, dry puking bombing runs.
Here's what they do
They approach the target at a 1000 feet.
At the proper distance from the target they make a radical climb
to 10,000 feet. Many Gs when they pull up for the climb. Just
before they reach the top of their climb they rotate the plane
180 degrees so they can keep a visual contact with the target.
Weeeee fun. We then arc over while still upside down and dive
for the target. They rotate the plane to right-side up while continuely
keeping a visual contact with the target. Drop the bombs and pull
out. More Gs. Lots of them. Painfull. The G suit is doing it's
job. Really, really well.
Near the end of our runs I'm dry puking
into the mask. I think I am really putting some nasty stuff into
the mask. They tell you if you do puke to take the mask off. You
could choke to death on your own puke if you don't. I remove the
mask. Lucky for me it's empty.
My pilot asks me how I'm doing.
"You puke yet?"
"Yea, but it was just dry heaves.
I haven't eaten since yesterday noon. Nothing in me to up-chuck."
"Be grateful. Remember what I said.
You puke it, you clean it. So you ready to go back?"
"What for? This is fun. Anyway, if
it's OK you and your wingman, I would like to take some more photos."
On the way back we learn that the other
pair of F4s has a bomb that wouldn't release. Since my pilot is
the boss man of the four planes he goes over to inspect the plane
with the hanging bomb. It appears to be firmly in place. The pilot
of that plane tried several tricks to get the bomb lose. Flapping
the wings was one.
The hanging bomb F4 lands last. It taxis
over to a special bomb removal area, which is surrounded on three
sides by a large, thick concrete wall. Everything was OK. They
put the safety pins back into the bomb and the plane goes back
to the squadron.
Once we've parked the plane and shut down
the engines I have about a half-dozen plane captains jump up to
greet me. They all look in the back seat cockpit. No mess. All
bets were payed. My plane captain knew I hadn't eaten for almost
24 hours and he won many bets because of this knowledge. No eat,
Plane captains are those unsung heros of
all air forces. They are responsible for the aircraft not the
pilots. Each aircraft has it's own captain. Only the plane captain
can certifity a plane OK to fly. There was constant pressure on
these fellows all during the Vietnam war. Even at Cherry Point.
Training, training, and more training. No plane, no training.
I thought there would be some bitterness
towards me because I got to fly, not them. Once I was on the ground
all the plane captains gave me a wetting down as a reward for
surviving my first F4 ride.
Every plane captain wants to get a ride
in his plane. They rarely do.