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.
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.
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.