From the 1960s through the 1970s the McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II was the U.S. export fighter of choice. Besides being used by the US Air Force, US Navy, and Marines, it was used by 11 foreign air forces, including the Imperial Iranian Air Force. All but the Phantoms of the JASDAF were built in St. Louis, Missouri, on the north side of Lambert Field. You could find the “little Spook” mascots of the Phantom in appropriate native garb on patches worn by aircrew and support personnel around the globe.
Aside from those assembled in Japan, all others were delivered to the gaining countries by USAF aircrews, supported by SAC tankers and managed by the 2nd Air Delivery Group (2ADG) with detachments at various American airbases across the globe. Delivery crews for Phantoms going to overseas locations were drawn from USAF Phantom units, and I was one of those on several deliveries, including one to the German Air Force, one to our unit in Soesterburg, Netherlands, and one to the Imperial Iranian Air Force. It was the delivery to Iran that, as Ollie North says, is “a story that deserves to be told.”
While stationed at George Air Force Base northeast of Los Angeles, I got the opportunity to pick up Phantoms #11 and #12 and deliver them to the Shah’s Mehrabad Air Base on the outskirts of Tehran. This saga started by traveling commercial air to St. Louis, Missouri, to the McDonnell Douglas plant in the spring of 1974. We overnighted there and got up the next morning to preflight our two-spanking new, top-of-the-line F-4Es. They were as good as the Air Force was getting at the time – slatted wings, TISEO optical sensors on the left wing leading edge, and Maverick-capable. The only thing missing was the capability to mate with nuclear weapons – a good decision even in the 20th century.
One other thing – these aircraft with fewer than nine hours had two chrome Stanley Thermos bottles aboard mounted in specially-designed racks in both front and aft cockpits. Don’t ask why they were there – best I can tell, every Phantom was delivered with them. Somewhere back in the Navy’s acquisition corps they were in the contract. No one turned off the requirement – it was a $500 coffee pot no one ever noticed or complained about. You’ll hear about this later in the story.
After a very thorough preflight and system checks with the MCAIR experts on the interphone, we had two good jets and taxied for takeoff on our first hop to Seymour Johnson AFB in North Carolina. Seymour had three full squadrons of E-model Phantoms similar to the ones we were ferrying and was a good spot to stage for the next leg of the trip to Torrejon Air Base near Madrid, Spain. We landed after an uneventful flight, checked into billeting and met with the 2ADG rep to get the schedule for the next leg of our trip to get the Shah of Iran some of his Phantoms. That included getting the flight publications for the mission including in-flight charts, letdown plates and a weather forecast – all looked good.
We got settled in for the evening, turning in early to get in the cycle for a takeoff the next night after midnight. If you’ve ever been to that part of North Carolina, you’ll know there were few restaurants close by, but one was Wilbur’s, a pork barbeque spot of renown. We had our share pulled pig, slaw, fries and iced tea that night. We slept late, had a low residue breakfast and a the same for supper at the Officers Club. Short nap, then off to our host squadron to get the weather, NOTAMs, and tanker brief, plus a review of air refueling emergencies, and the standard permission briefing. Suited up, we headed for the step van to take us to our Phantoms (no need for poopy suits on the southern route) – I wore my G-suit not because I expected to need it for its design, but because my pockets are full of “stuff” I use on almost every flight, and because pumping it up every so often is good for circulation and relieves the boredom of setting in a less than luxurious Martin-Baker seat for ten or so hours.
Preflight complete, we got confirmation that the tanker was on schedule and would be there for our rendezvous.
We strapped in and started on visual signals since we were parked on the ramp next to each other. Good start on four J79s, all systems check good, taxi and takeoff to the east. We checked in with center and found our tanker was where we expected him. We did a check to see that the centerline and drop tanks were all feeding and climbed to our altitude for refueling. We leveled off about the time we coasted out into a black, but starry, night. Now the WSOs started working the radar for traffic and tanker contact. Soon we were headed out of the coastal traffic between the northeast and Atlanta and points south so there was not much to see in terms of possible conflicts, but because we were in the sweet spot for air refueling, the high 20s, we were alert.
We were flying in a loose route formation – level, line breast and about 500 ft. spread. Soon the guys in the back both had what they thought was the tanker on their scopes. IFF matched, so it looked like an easy overtake of the KC-135 from the four o’clock position. We got permission from ATC to go to the tanker frequency and bid them good night. It would be only a few minutes before we were out of their range, and the next controller we would talk with will be speaking with a Spanish accent.
Closure was good and we waited till inside three miles before we told the tanker to push it up to refueling speed – about 310 KCAS. We checked in with the boomer and got clearance for me to go directly to contact. He was a pro and he got us hooked up on his first try. Number two went to the wing observation position and waited while I took about a thousand pounds to make sure our systems were good. They were, so I slid to the opposite wing and he made a quick contact and took enough gas to top off, then I changed positions and did the same.
Smooth start for the ocean crossing. We flew loose formation on opposite sides of our tanker, far enough forward so we could see inside the cockpit of our gas station and exchange some waves – no pinups from the boomer on this trip. We settled into the routine of flying the tanker wing and every 30-45 minutes or so dropping down for top offs. We did this to keep our options for any divert than might occur for a variety of reasons, and also to beat the monotony of overwater flights in fighter aircraft.
A note or opinion about air-to-air refueling (AAR). It is a capability giving mobility and tactical advantage to any air force that can do it. It isn’t really hard – if you can fly the wing position in a jet aircraft, you can refuel. It does take some getting used to, riding under a very big aircraft and having someone plug into you while flying about 450 KTAS.
An opinion about flying over water outside of land at night: there are sounds and vibrations in the aircraft you never hear over land. The Phantom is a very solid aircraft. You don’t often get indications of things that are false – what it tells you is true. The gauges you watch (more intently at night over water) are usually stable: EGT, oil pressure, hydraulics, etc. are steady.
If something changes, then there is probably a problem on the way. Fuel flow changes when you move the throttles, and, of course, fuel gauges go down when you use gas and up after each refueling. But you still look at all of them. (An interesting comparison is with the oil pressure on the Pratt and Whitney F100 of the F-15. The gauges bounce +/- 20 to 30 psi because of the engine system. Not fun to watch at night, overwater – even if it is normal. I was always tempted to tape over the gauges and wait for an oil pressure warning light to bring the bad news.)
Well, this flight was as routine as it could be. AARs ops normal. Good cross checks between the tanker and wingie on navigation accuracy. In flight lunches down the hatch, water and Life Savers done. Just off the Portuguese coast, we got a center frequency from the tanker, thanked him for another great job, switched over to and pushed it up for Torrejon. Then it was a TACAN approach to a very wide, very long runway and touchdown, logging nearly nine hours with two Code One Phantoms for the Shah. Time for a quick change of clothes and a trip to the Plaza Mayor for tapas and a big steak at Casa Paco.
Next was the prep for the trip to Tehran. We expected some intelligence on what we might see as we transited the gap between the Soviet and the Syria/Iraq borders for the last leg after leaving the tanker. Remember, the Soviets had shot down some American aircraft in that area, and the 1973 conflict between Israel was not in the distant past. Some of us had extensive experience flying in West Germany and the special – very special – precautions taken to avoid flying in the Buffer Zone between West and East Germany. Even the slightest broach of this invisible wall, without explicit planning and permission, meant dire consequences for your aviation career. But our briefer from the 2ADG didn’t breathe a word. The plan was for join up and transit with a tanker to overhead Incirlik, Turkey, where he’d drop us off and we’d proceed on our own the rest of the way.
Ops were normal the next day – good weather – the tanker was on time and good jets for what was essentially a four plus-hour tour of the Mediterranean from about five miles high and at around 500 miles an hour. At the first refueling abeam Ibiza, we looked in vain for Diana Rigg (aka Emma Peel of The Avengers) who was rumored to sunbathe topless on the beach. We flew abeam Mount Etna which was cold, and not smoking. We saw Malta off our right as we went abeam the Italian boot, and thought of the three RAF Gladiators, Faith, Hope, and Charity, that fended off the Luftwaffe in the early days of WW II. We overflew some of the Greek Isles with no sight of Daedalus climbing into the sun. We flew in between the Turkish coast of Paul’s travels and Crete where Adolf won a battle but squandered some of the best paratroopers in the history of warfare. Then we turned north and overhead Incirlik, where some of us had sat Nuclear Alert in the same Quonset hut Gary Powers bunked in before his last U-2 flight and gave the tanker some salute and thanks for great service again.
Now it began to get interesting. Up on the assigned Turkish ATC frequency (UHF) there was no response. We switched to the back-up – still all quiet. Having flown in Turkey before, I really wasn’t surprised at the lack of response. They were somewhat like the Italians in the days before radar: if they weren’t interested, they didn’t bother to respond. So, at 500 TAS we plodded along on the airway we had on the flight plan prepared and vetted by 2ADG.
We were using primarily Inertial Nav since Turkish navaids were not always operating, especially the TACANs, and we weren’t able to tune to VOR or ADF. We also had maps and backed up our INS with visual on prominent landmarks like Mount Ararat (we looked… didn’t see the Ark) and also used headings that kept us equally clear of Soviet and Syrian/Iraqi air space. Dead reckoning was still a skill we depended on in the end. We got a few spurious hits on our radar warning receivers – exclusively Soviet-style ground control intercept types – but nothing of a hostile nature. We were now flying in a tactical spread, about 4000 ft. line abreast and on the radar and visual lookout for any sort of traffic. No joy.
When we were certain we were in Iranian airspace, we switched to Mehrabad TACAN and approach frequency and made initial contact calls, crosschecking carefully for any spoofer like the Soviets were prone to use. We had good correlation with our INS and DR, so we waited till we were sure we were in UHF range and asked/received clearance for a TACAN approach. We could see the city of Tehran – lots of sprawl and industrial haze, even 40-plus years ago. From there it was penetration and final approach to touchdown and follow-me to the military ramp. No sooner had chocks been in place, and with engines running, than Iranian Air Force personnel were on our Phantoms (which were now officially theirs) taking off USAF roundels and tail numbers and affixing the markings of the Imperial Iranian Air Force (IIAF).
We deplaned and were greeted by two IIAF majors and welcomed on behalf of the Shah. They’d both been through USAF pilot training and were conversant in English. We post-flighted the jets and signed off on two Code One birds. On inventory there was a note that one Stanley thermos was missing – must have happened in the Torrejon stop over.
We were taken to the embryonic Phantom squadron ops and found a set up familiar to us. Briefing charts, duty desk and crew lounge were USAF mil spec. The same two majors had cars, Japanese of some sort, and they loaded our gear for the trip to a pre-arranged hotel. I’ve been in lots of traffic – none as suicidal as downtown Tehran. The IIAF guys drove like Patton on his dash through Germany – the right of way was theirs! We were dropped off at a western-style hotel and told we’d be picked up later that afternoon for some sightseeing and dinner at a typical Iranian night spot. Time for a shower and a combat nap.
After the pickup, our hosts took us to a shop. It reminded me of one of the high-end museum shops, like the Met or Smithsonian. Lots of merchandise, mostly pretty good quality and examples of local style and culture. It was explained that Jackie Kennedy had shopped here (my Google shows no evidence of her visiting Tehran in this timeframe) but we still have a nice chafing dish like she preferred. After making a walk-through and some purchases, we were back in traffic headed for what was suggested was for a typical Iranian evening. When we pulled up in front of a neon-lit venue called the Miami Club, we wondered what typical was.
The “club” was like a Las Vegas theater. Tables stair-stepped from the stage to the back. We were seated at the very back. One of our hosts called the maitre d’ over and informed him we were guests of the Shah, having delivered two warplanes that morning, and suggested the Shah would be very disappointed with our seating arrangements. Shortly thereafter we were moved to stage center, displacing a very unhappy local family. The show started with an Iranian wedding, followed by several stage and song routines. We had food delivered tableside as well as Russian vodka and Scotch “scotch” (I suppose). It became clear we were tickets to a big show not representative of a night out for your average Iranian. Go figure.
We departed the next morning via Pan Am for the return to Los Angeles. I particularly remember one stop: Beirut, Lebanon. Remember, this was years ago, before the bombing of the Marine barracks. The airport was close to the Mediterranean, and that view of the sparkling water, as well as a very modern skyline, made an impression enforcing Beirut’s reputation as the “Paris of the East.” I intended to go back on a family trip, but never made it for reasons obvious for many years. The Pan Am ride was, even in tourist class, a good one. Food and drink on china and stemware. Sometime I’ll describe the episode where an Iranian lady was wearing a USAF flying helmet as a precaution for a rough takeoff – not now.
We landed in LA with mission completed. There are two after action worth mentioning:
The first, a few months later: I was on another aircraft delivery of a new Phantom to our unit in Holland. On a stopover in Torrejon, I met our 2ADG contact from the Iranian trip and mentioned the lack of any communication with Turkish air traffic control after our drop off overhead Incirlik. He casually mentioned he’d forgotten to file our diplomatic clearance for the leg of the mission after we’d departed the airspace reservation terminating after departing the tanker – in short, no one knew our flight of Phantoms was going to transit eastern Turkish airspace between Soviet and Syrian and Iraqi borders into Turkey. Hey, we were Phantoms! Lesson learned: never trust anyone with no skin in the game.
The second: the fact that I currently have a very pristine Stanley Thermos on top of my roll-top desk, with a stamping of the serial number of a Phantom that served in the IIAF until it was lost on an operational mission in the late 1980s.