It was a dark and stormy night…

Actually, it wasn’t stormy. It was a sparkling clear high desert night at George Air Force Base and the students and instructor pilots of the 35th Tactical Fighter Wing were in the night phase of their training. As everyone with experience in night flying knows, the “lifties” are going out of the air and all of the gremlins that are afraid of daylight are out and about at night. This was long before night vision devices became in routine use by aviators around the world.

Dark is dark, and in most cases, dark is not your friend. There is one exception: night combat. It is daunting at first blush, but soon night flyers liked seeing the guns with their tracers and SAMs with their fiery plumes on launch—avoiding the ground and blacked out aircraft still requires skill and luck—but seeing who is shooting, what they are shooting and where there shooting from is better than the alternative (at least in this guy’s viewpoint).

George AFB
George AFB was a bustling place in the 1970s.

But this wasn’t combat and all the Phantoms flying were in “Bright Flash” with their external lights and there were no gunners at the ends of the runway so landing lights were on and the VASI’s were up on the approach end. Elaboration is appropriate on the environment at a great location just outside the edge of the Los Angles air traffic control area.

In the mid-1970s, George AFB was a beehive of aviation: five squadrons of Phantoms and two squadrons of Wild Weasel F-105Gs were on the tarmac. Their activities included training guys right out of the ATC pilot training, former T-37 and T-38 instructors moving into the tactical arena, Germans transitioning to the F-4F from their F-104 Starfighters, POWs getting their sea legs after up to seven years as members of the Damn Jane Fonda club, and the sum total of the USAF’s defense suppression forces consisting of specially modified F-105s and a few F-4Cs . Great air-to-ground ranges and supersonic airspace—a great training environment that got gobbled up in the Peace Dividend.

On this night there was a lot of activity. I was an instructor pilot (IP) for a young guy just out of the Air Training Command. He was known as Boomer—that name came when he was solo in a T-38 flying out of a southeast training base. There was a weather recall, “return to base ASAP.” He did, crossing the base supersonic as he dived down to enter the pattern to land. Get it? Boomer. He was an energetic young man, so much that while doing his flashlight preflight on our Phantom, he ran smack into a drooping aileron. Blood dripping from his forehead, he reported, “Good to go, sir.” Not. Off to the Flight Surgeon for a few stitches, and off the schedule for the night, and a few more days.

Now later that night, there was some real-world drama. A Phantom C, known as a “Chuck,” took off and had a hard-over rudder. That is a really big emergency in a Phantom. It not only poses a controllability program across the flight regime, but also has some complications in terms of interface with the other flight controls and the nose gear steering. Implications include a very fast approach speed for controllability and the need to engage an arresting gear soon to preclude severe ground controllability problems that could result in a departure from the runway.

The crew, with a very inexperienced pilot in the front seat and the IP in the rear, spent time running the checklist and burning down fuel to get an approach speed as low as practical, and getting ready for what could be a really wild ride.

That night the Supervisor of Flying (SOF) was in the tower. His duties were to keep the big picture in mind and direct actions, including diversion of flights to alternate bases. This included Edwards close by (with its long, dry lake bed runways it was a great choice—except for night ops), down south were March AFB, El Toro Marine Corps Air Base, and Miramar Naval Air Station, and up north, Nellis AFB in Nevada. On this specific night the SOF was a Royal Air Force Squadron Leader (equivalent to an Air Force major). Along with the variety of aircraft and missions, George normally had not only an RAF exchange officer, but also US Navy and a German Air Force pilots on duty. They flew and performed other duties just like their USAF brothers.

F-4C
A rudder problem in an F-4C Phantom is a big problem.

Squadron Leader Barry was in the tower this night. He made the proforma decisions as expected and kept the airfield at ops normal while the hard-over rudder Chuck was getting down to a good fuel state and prepared for the approach. Then he injected his own knowledge and RAF procedures. He recommended using the emergency lowering of the flaps (e.g., blowing them down) using pneumatic pressure. This had about a 100% chance of rupturing the utility hydraulic system, causing the rudder to streamline to a neutral position. The good news was that this solved a big problem but also had adverse results on lowering the landing gear and braking. The real bad news was this was not an approved TCTO 1F-4C-1 Emergency Procedure. Not a good solution per the institution.

The good news was the crew followed Standard Operating Procedures (SOP) and made a safe arrested landing on the first third of runway 16/34. Good job—well done. Now in the morning, as the dust settled, the 35th TFW Director of Operations (a bird colonel) learned that his representative acting as SOF suggested a course of action not in the USAF playbook. Hot line to Squadron Leader Barry’s squadron: “get his pink butt up her now.”

Reporting as ordered, Barry posted in and held rigid attention while the DO read him the riot act about following the book and acting as the DO’s direct representative at a critical time. Squadron Leader Barry remained at attention that Boom Trenchard would have approved, then respectfully asked for a word. Granted that opportunity, he responded, “Sir about 200 years ago we had a book—it said, wear red coats, march smartly in a straight line and engage the rebels. As you know, following that book didn’t work out well for George, sir.”

The story goes, there was a brief pause, and then something like, “Out, Out, Out” muttered through the DO’s clenched teeth. The end—no diplomatic incident—but a great story for hot tub time at squadron gatherings for a long time.

6 Comments

  • I learned to fly just over the hill from Victorville and George AFB at Barstow-Daggett Airport. We used to hear the the Wild Weasel training flights talking to ATC using the callsign “Weary Weasels”. I took my first glider ride out at El Mirage, and as we were heading back to the airport I actually *heard* a flight of two Weasels coming up on our 3 O’clock! That was a really great area to learn to fly.

  • Thanks for the comment. Rereading the article I noticed 7/34 for the runway. It may have looked funky with the yaw on that approach, but it was and has been 17/3!. Boy do I miss Ms Lubeke’s sharp eye. I bitch slapped myself on her behalf. We sent some guys to El Mirage about our op. One glider pilot said, it’s ok we have parachutes. Phantom driver said, so do we! Fortunately our training took place mostly north of George, so little conflict. Good for everybody

  • In 1985 I was flying for the original CONAIR, Security Transport out of Visalia, CA, which was a prisoner extradition company that flew both Federal and California state prisoners throughout the USA. One day I was flying a Piper Najavo Chieftain with 8 prisoners in the back and was descending over a mountain range into Susanville, California when … right in front of us an F-4 Phantom was in a 30-45 degree left bank along the ridge line with a speed of about 300-350 knots and was no more than 300-500 feet from us passing from left to right. He was obvious to the fact that he just about ran us over. What was amazing was that even over the roar of the Chieftain’s engines, I could hear the F-4 fly by!

    I’d venture to say that the Baron occupants also heard the distinct sound of the two General Electric J79-GE-17’s just before impact! Blood and hair were found on the leading edge of the F-4’s left wing. What a real tragedy this was and it was totally avoidable by both parties involved.

    My point is how amazing the strength of the F-4’s airframe actually is to withstand such a violent impact and still be in tact. Interesting story Steve, thanks for sharing. – TP

    http://libraryonline.erau.edu/online-full-text/ntsb/aircraft-accident-reports/AAR84-07.pdf

  • The Phantom had several nicknames. Robo was a favorite. It was big, ugly and honest. At high AOA it had some interesting flight characteristics. But it gave lots of hints — if you dismissed them you could expect a wild outcome!

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