F-4
6 min read

It was well past midnight on a moonless night and I was shooting instrument approaches at EI Toro, a Marine Corps air base south of Los Angles. I disliked these “Skyhook missions,” but never turned one down. This was one of the last I flew but one that I remember the most.

The goal was to build up flying hours for a back-seater, or guy in the back (GIB), so that he could get the total hours he needed to graduate and go off to war. How crazy does it get when you have the privilege of flying the best aircraft in the USAF inventory, a new F-4E Phantom, and are told to just go out at night and bore holes in the sky?

We did many different instrument approaches at EI Toro, went back to the tanker for more fuel, did some night aerobatics over the ocean, and then back to instrument approaches. The only thing left would be to fly them inverted, lower the gear at the outer marker, and fly the glideslope inverted.

The repetition got boring and therefore dangerous, so I decided to knock it off and head back east across the mountains to George Air Force Base. We needed something to get us back on the ground at the edge of the legal fuel reserve, which if I remember correctly, was 2,000 pounds at shutdown.

F-4

That’s one way to burn fuel quickly…

I decided to use up the fuel in afterburner instead of doing more instrument approaches. Was it fatigue that made me do it? Was it the thrill of doing something different and special with my Phantom? My plan was hatched from nowhere, a simulated double engine flame out from above 40,000 feet, directly above the approach end of the runway at George. Who would question that as a good training outcome?

We let down, descended onto and crossed the Mojave Desert in afterburner, keeping below the Mach. The desert was still in the gray darkness of early morning. The mountains to the east, toward Las Vegas, blocked the dawn causing many shades of desert gray. I flew a course 20 miles straight in at about 3,000 feet above the terrain and told the tower that I would start a climb to high key to start a simulated double engine flameout. I did not tell them my altitude or speed, or how high I would climb—partly because I didnʼt know and would have to find out myself.

We shot across the dark grayness of the desert just under the sound barrier, careful not wake everyone with a sonic boom. The climb started at .98 Mach, which was my last look at the airspeed indicator as I pulled back and started up at about seven miles from the approach end of the runway. I had about 7,000 pounds of fuel remaining when I went into afterburner in level flight. Then I pulled hard back and shot straight up. The burners were eating up the fuel as I rotated. We slowly morphed into a rocket ship. The engine power, the thrust of the two J-79 engines in afterburner, was getting closer and closer to the weight of the empty aircraft and it was just before then that I pulled back on the stick and headed toward space.

I then enjoyed to spectacle of what it looked like to leave Earth as if we were a camera strapped to the moon rocket. The desert melted into a solid gray world below and for a brief moment we were on our way to the stars. It was a thrill ride, watching the earth disappear as we streaked vertically toward space like a rocket. We neared the edge of the atmosphere where a space suit would be needed.

I pulled back the throttles out of afterburner, slowly, ever so slowly, to the idle stops. My only concern was a single or double engine flameout as the altimeter kept spinning, trying to catch up with the aircraft. Up we went, and the air got thinner. I have never seen an altimeter spin the way it did: my last look was passing 50,000 feet as the aircraft slowed and stopped.

I awkwardly used both hands—below the top of the throttles—and pressed down on the red engine start igniter buttons to keep them hot. This kept the fuel ignited to prevent flameouts. I had to use the inside of both legs to hold the control stick neutral to let the aircraft fall out of the sky and float like a leaf back to earth. All I did was the keep the AOA steady to prevent a stall and spin. I let the Phantom have its way.

As luck would have it, the top of the Phantom was facing east just before the climb ended, with the airspeed stopping at zero knots. Moments before we started down, there was a shock, a blinding flash of light in the cockpit.

George AFB aerial

That’s a pretty big target to hit from 40,000 feet.

It was a total surprise and after the first moment of fright there was a smile and a sense of joy. The mountains to the east had slowed the sunrise upon desert for millions of years, but not for us—we chased the sunrise, we made it happen. What frightened me at first, the explosion of light, was another unforgettable moment in my flying career. It was totally unplanned. The sunlight entered the cockpit in a flash directly above the cockpit, everything turned bright and crystal clear, all colors of the earth, the browns, greens and sand colors of the aircraft camouflage, the colors of the instruments and the cockpit were all pure and bright.

The world around us was so beautiful in those short moments, like a blessing from God. I remember the descent from the brilliant light down into the solid gray soup below and felt the air density increasing, giving me more control as we descended. I released one engine ignition button, paused and then released the other. I could feel the pitch and roll control gaining as the air density built. At about 45,000 feet I took full control again and started to maneuver into a flight path for high key at 30,000 feet. At 15,000 feet I lowered the gear for the simulated double engine flameout approach and landing. The control tower was advised that we were on our way down for a simulated dead stick landing.

The dead stick descent was almost directly over the runway. I could see the runway in the haze of the morning. The rest was routine, keeping the speed up while in idle and using the pitch like a glider to control the airspeed I needed for a safe touchdown. I don’t know what my GIB thought after the flight. I never saw him again. I never told him not to talk about what we did, our out-of-this-world experience.
But it was good to know, even now after all these years, we were not like the rest of the world at that moment. We had the wonderful surprise of making the sun rise and not having to wait like everyone else on Earth.

Was the risk taken that morning worth the moment? Were the flash and the short emersion of light in that high altitude sunrise worth it? Would you have taken the risk if given the chance? I hope so.

Neil Cosentino
Latest posts by Neil Cosentino (see all)
29 replies
  1. Sheree Miller
    Sheree Miller says:

    What an awesome experience that must of been! You told it so beautifully. My Dad spent 30 yrs in the AF. I just wish he was here to read this!

    Reply
  2. Guy
    Guy says:

    We had a momentary “flash of light” during a pre_deployment evolution with a carrier air group in Fallon,NV. I was an Avionics maintainer in the U.S. Navy’s last dedicated photographic recon squadron flying the RF-8Gs. Crusader drivers were upset that they couldn’t punch holes in the sky with the F-14 guys (airframes too old), so they found little ways to sneak in some fun. One of our more senior pilots would sneak in a snap roll going into a stray cloud; however, his next maneuver was a little too sporty. Preflight was in the mid- morning on a perfect VMC day. Before closing the canopy, he tells us to “watch this…”. He makes the long taxi to the active runway and awaits instructions as the pattern was pretty full. He finally gets clearance, engages the afterburner, and starts his roll. About 3/4 of his roll distance, we see a momentary bright flash come from beneath the aircraft. The detail was hard to discern as we were a good mile or more from the ramp to the runway. As he climbed out, it seemed the gear was up and cleaned up for a fast departure. We speculated that he blew a main gear and the magnesium wheel exploded, but he didn’t abort the sortie. He returned about an hour later and landed and taxied to the ramp. Puzzled, we walked out to greet the pilot and share our observations. As the plane captain directed him to his parking spot, the source of the flash became evident. The entire bottom of the Crusader was stripped clean down to bare metal! The forward camera was gone, only the cables remained dangling from the station. All antenna were stripped off alone with the anti collision light.
    As our intrepid Crusader driver climbed down from the cockpit, he paused, raised his sun visor that was down covering most of his face, and uttered “I [email protected]&ed up.”
    He shared what led to his brush with death. It seems that he was setting up to perform a “hot dog” takeoff by just barely clearing the ground and retracting the gear. The wind remained down which delayed his rotation but made for a fast, clean ground level departure. The quick retraction of the gear was facilitated by placing the retract handle in the “up” position before starting his roll. As soon as the pressure sensors detected no weight on the gear, they retract. It was the perfect maneuverer for an aged airframe. Was wasn’t known is that there is a slight dip in the mid-point of the 15000 foot runway. Most fighter types probably rotate hot before that point. So our Crusader driver, having set up for a spectacular takeoff, starts his long roll and just as he’s about to rotate, encounters the runway dip. The plane comes out of the dip not quite ready to take flight, but the momentary light feeling on the gear was enough to enable gear retraction. He then careens onto the hard deck on the belly but manages, using the brute force of the afterburner, to pull the bird into the ground effect and eventually full rotation. The pilot was grounded for a short time, then resumed flight duties and went on deployment. He departed the squadron detachment about mid-cruise to transfer to medical school. Seems he decided he would rather practice medicine than fly old supersonic jets. We never saw or heard from him again.

    Reply
  3. Victor Dominato
    Victor Dominato says:

    Great story! It reminded me when I flew our Citation X. I would do a high speed climb and get to see the sunset twice.

    Reply
  4. Stoney Truett
    Stoney Truett says:

    Though I have never been in the military I have had “those moments” that I recall with great fondness. I remember one trip returning from Venezuala one night in our Sabre 65 in the upper flight levels. It was a beautiful clear night and there were isolated storms over the ocean and I saw a thunderstorm from above for the first time at night! It was a moment that I will never forget. It is a sight that those who have never flown most likely can not fully appreciate and those of us who have just smile and say, “I know what you mean.” You have a similar writing style as Ernie Gann, who wrote “Fate is the Hunter”. This is a consummate pilot’s series of stories about his flying experiences. If you have not read it you need to and, if you have then you know what I mean…

    Reply
  5. Bill Palmer
    Bill Palmer says:

    This beautiful story inspires me to recall the last three lines of “High Flight:”

    “And while with silent lifting mind I’ve trod / the high untrespassed sanctity of space / put out my hand and touched the face of God.”

    Mr. Cosentino, thank you so much for recounting your high-altitude sunrise encounter. As you can see from the responses, your tale touches how aviation inspires us. For myself, I’m grateful to you for taking us all with you up to 50,000 feet to witness that flash of early morning sun through your eyes. Thank you!

    Reply
  6. Art Bridge
    Art Bridge says:

    Good morning, Everyone. A sublime moment. Thank you for sharing it with us. Incidentally, could you share what a stall and spin are like in the F-4, and how (and whether) one can recover from them? What would than have been like at 50,000 feet? Best to everyone.

    Reply
  7. Chris Barker
    Chris Barker says:

    It was an exciting story, that’s for sure, but . . .

    I’m not sure that I would have told this story with anything approaching pride. I would have told it in the spirit of “I learned from this”. I can’t help but think that you set the chap in the back a very poor example, particularly since you didn’t bother to debrief him; he would have learned very little from the experience, I should guess. I wouldn’t pretend to have been perfect in these situations, but I’d not be proud of my mistakes or indiscipline.

    However, I’m glad that you survived to tell the tale.

    Reply
      • Chris Barker
        Chris Barker says:

        Sorry, Jerry, but you made an unwise assumption: I’ve flown fast jets in the RAF (Jaguar, Tornado) and in the USAF (F16 IP).

        I didn’t write that I was perfect, but that I was not ready to boast in public about mistakes I had made. The author admitted to doing unwise things out of boredom, flew an expensive aircraft with an inexperienced rear-seater and didn’t discuss the wrong bits with him afterwards. Poor show.

        Reply
  8. Romain Nelsen
    Romain Nelsen says:

    Beautifully told. To consider the question, yes. But may I add a point-of-view from a young GIB from way back to the F-94C and F-89, models D, H, and J, none with the speed nor glamour of the F-4. In my humble and short RIO career, I occasionally was surprised by a ride through untold “footless halls of air,” all the while innocently ignorant of what the “masterful” guy up-front was about to do. And so, notwithstanding my lowly station, eventually I was recycled forward by a notch, going through the very first UPT, Class 62-F, then on to the Deuce School. By virtue of my GIB experience, I thought to pause before the maneuver so the GIB who isn’t there will supposedly know what I will do and why. Mostly. Thank you for the great read.

    Reply
  9. Roland Schultz
    Roland Schultz says:

    Sorry if I’m missing something that I should have obviously caught, but this story very much “Falls Apart,” at the end! Are we to assume that you preformed a landing from plus 40,000′ in an F-4 with the throttles at IDLE, with no adjustment until; Taxing Clear of the Runway??

    Reply
  10. Captain Jack
    Captain Jack says:

    A great story, beautifully told. I, too, flew the F4E as a WSO and had a great respect for it. Nothing like being full of gas, loaded up with 4xAim7 ‘s, 4xAim9’s and a snoot full of 20MM , moving along at 450 knots and feeling like Battleship Gallactica!

    Reply
  11. RMM
    RMM says:

    Cornelius “Neil” Cosentino wrote: I have never seen an altimeter spin the way it did: my last look was passing 50,000 feet as the aircraft slowed and stopped.
    ===
    Great story. Well written. REQUEST: So from that height, could you verify the massive “ice wall” surrounding you below in a huge circle that all the Flat Earthers talk about? Please confirm or deny. The truth is out there, right? LOL.

    Reply
  12. Peter Brickey
    Peter Brickey says:

    Thank you for your distinguished service and thank you for sharing your story. The F-4 was a childhood favorite. Good stuff.

    Reply
  13. Gregory VITAS MD
    Gregory VITAS MD says:

    Great story, and a fighter pilot romantic no less!
    Question: Why the inverted approaches? Low and slow inverted seems to be looking for trouble …

    Reply
  14. Joe Crecca
    Joe Crecca says:

    Wonderfully written but circumspect article. I have some questions.

    1. How did you bust through all those altitudes and flight levels with no squawks (violations) from ATC (FAA) ?

    2. When the airplane is sliding backwards how does pressing the ignition buttons keep the engines running?
    (I.e., reverse airflow would cause flameouts)

    3. Why wasn’t the GIB screaming at you for being such a hotdog? His name?

    4. Why did you endanger other aircraft with a potential midair by such childish antics?

    5. Since when can any tower clear you to bust out of the airport control zone?

    Does not pass the sniff test.

    P.S. The rule was 2,000 pounds on initial

    Reply

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