The 'RAG' *

VF-121 Patch F-4 silhouette
The thirst for adventure is the vent which Destiny offers; a war, a crusade, a gold mine, a new country, speak to the imagination and offer swing and play to the confined powers.

(Ralph Waldo Emerson)

Graduate Training In The F-4 Phantom II

phantom patch

The Journey

As a newly minted Naval Aviator, I attended a few weeks of Maintenance Management School in Memphis. Completing that short course, I then spent a few weeks on leave at home with my family in Iowa, before finally embarking on my journey to NAS Miramar in San Diego, and my post graduate F-4 training.

VF-121 F-4J

It was a very long drive (1900 miles) from my Anamosa Iowa farm home to San Diego, California. I made it an even longer drive (2600 miles) by driving by way of Houston (while visiting a friend there, my car was burgled, and I lost all my personal belongings) and through San Antonio (to reclaim some property loaned to another friend) before finally setting course for San Diego. Orders to San Diego

The highlight of this 2,600+ mile drive was topping a long grade through a rock-cut along Interstate-8 in Arizona, and having two F-4 Phantoms blow by suddenly - no more than a hundred feet above me – and at amazing, blazing speed in the opposite direction! They might have been Navy or Air Force F-4s . . . it made little difference. I knew I was getting ever closer to being one of "them" with each passing mile.

As I finally descended from the last mountain range into the glowing lights of San Diego, I began to realize how incredibly fortunate I was, and how unlikely my life's journey to date had been.

Another Tragedy

1969 F-8 Crash, NKX

Once again, as had happened in each of my four previous duty stations, there was another tragic incident the week of my check-in to VF-121, the F-4 training squadron known as the 'RAG'. An F-8 had lost its engine on approach to NAS Miramar. Although the pilot ejected safely, the stricken craft slammed into a hangar, killing and injuring quite a number of navy maintenance personnel who had been working in the hangar.

The Delay

VF-126 Patch

Once established at my new duty station, I learned there was a large backlog of students going through F-4 training. Training that normally would take six months, now stretched out to over a year. SERE Patch So after a week of difficult and unpleasant SERE training at the Warner Springs simulated POW Camp , SERE Handoobkand a few weeks of refresher instrument training with VF-126 in the TA-4J, I ended up in a 6-month pool, awaiting F-4 training. Although I was eager to commence F-4 training, I can think of no better place to be than San Diego in the spring, and living once again in an oceanfront beach house, to thoroughly enjoy my sabbatical.

Into the Storm

Eventually, my F-4 training would begin in earnest. Those were heady times at VF-121. Naval Air was then in a major process of totally revamping F-4 fighter tactics, after some earlier, disappointing experiences in Vietnam.

The Ault Report had suddenly and thankfully changed everything. As a result the superb veteran fighter pilots/RO's who were then establishing the Navy Fighter Weapons School (Top Gun) from scratch were my instructors.

The VF-121’s training syllabus was divided into three Units. Unit III was the advanced tactical and air combat maneuvering unit. The early Navy Fighter Weapons School, Topgun was a spinoff of this Unit III so that some of the instructors flew both with Top Gun and with VF-121 during this period before Topgun became a separate command. Thus many of my peers and I as VF-121 students had the luxury of often flying with and learning from Topgun instructors, the best instructors there were at the time.

Veteran Israeli and British fighter pilots joined us at VF-121in sharing their expertise, and in learning the new and developing tactics. For a fighter pilot, these were indeed exciting and dynamic times.

Of my year at VF-121, two more things stand out: EW training, and Night Carrier qualification flights.

EW (Electronic Warfare) Training

Throughout my training, the thought of actual combat was always remote - well "beyond the horizon." Yes, we did practice air-to-air, and air-to-ground 'combat' tactics, daily. But we did so for the enjoyment, the learning, and for the grade given for that training flight. It was never a life-threatening, exigent situation. Moreover, our simulated combat training was mostly "offensive" and rarely "defensive" training. It was all, great fun. But our attitudes all changed, late in our training, when the EW (Electronic Warfare) Officer came into class to give his "secret" lecture.

Our colorful EW Officer walked into class with his infamous, "suitcase" EW trainer. Threat Radar WarningIt was a large, unfolding box that held all the classified electronic instruments that were too secret to be in our "training" F-4's. We had never seen them.

These instruments could tell a pilot if the enemy had him on radar, had him locked-up, were going to fire at him and with what weapon and from which direction, and if they did indeed fire....

The EW's Officer's suitcase trainer showed us the many simulated, yet scary red warning lights and directional strobes of people shooting at us. It also included the loud aural warning tones of enemy missiles racing toward you. It received everyone's attention. Our perspectives all suddenly changed. We knew, from that time forward of the immensely serious business and challenges that lie ahead. Phantom Phlyer patch

F-4 Night CQ (Carrier Qualification)

I have often thought that, knowing what I know today, I might never have night-qualified in the F-4 aboard an aircraft carrier. I did, of course, and am eternally thankful for that! But had I truly known what I was doing at the time - the enormous difficulty and the great risks involved - I might not have.

Call the Ball

Though always challenging, landing an F-4 - or any Navy aircraft for that matter - during the day and in good weather, can and should be fun.

However, landing an F-4 at night on a darkened carrier - especially in those earlier days of very few ship's lights, no HUD (Head's Up Display), no precision guidance "needles", and little guidance other than a spastic RMI needle, an LSO, and the visual "ball" - can sometimes (often? always?) be terrifying, be it your first or even your 300th night trap. >

The Tailhook Association has two excellent movies of carrier landings - one day, and one night....
⇐   Comparing these two videos is very enlightening!  ⇒
Day Trap Night Trap
Watch day and night
carrier approaches combined here

The prospect of this CQ (carrier qualification) would become extremely challenging for me for several reasons. First, it would not be conveniently close-by off the coast of my California home. Rather it would be off the distant East Coast, in the Atlantic and aboard the USS Forrestal.

But what was especially difficult was that my "field-carrier-landing-practice" (FCLP) training had to be unexpectedly cut short. During our FCLP detachment at Yuma MCAS, the Officer in Charge (great guy and later a VF-96 Commanding Officer of some note and more...) called me aside from the officer's swimming pool. He privately but kindly informed me of my father's death in Iowa. Thus instead of finishing FCLP Training, I immediately flew home to Iowa for my father's funeral.

Subsequently, I had to attend to a number of family matters in Iowa. But following only a few days, and although very short on CQ training, and without ever returning home to San Diego and NAS Miramar following Dad's funeral, by my own choice (and as my father would have wanted it), I went straight to NAS Oceana, VA for the challenging initial F-4 CQ on the USS Forrestal (CV59) Short Final, Armed F-4B

Despite the difficult circumstances and to my surprise, I did quite well. Nevertheless my friend just beat me out for the top overall carrier landing grades. But once again, I was fortunate. His top landing grade sent him immediately to the Gulf of Tonkin where he joined at sea, a returning squadron, VF-154. My grade sent me to a great squadron getting ready to deploy - VF-151.

In surfing terms, that meant I was in the perfect spot to catch the perfect wave - to join a squadron early in their cyclic wave of shore duty, work-ups, and deployment to Southeast Asia, at the most opportune time. And indeed, it would become quite a long and thrilling ride!

George Will quote "Right now, somewhere around the world, young men are landing high-performance jet aircraft on the pitching decks of aircraft carriers -- at night! You can't pay people to do that; they do it out of love of country, of adventure, of the challenge...."

(Partial quote by George Will on ABC news special coverage of the space shuttle Challenger disaster.)
F-4 Spook

* RAG = Replacement Air Group; an outdated but affectionately retained term for a Fleet Replacement Squadron (FRS). These are aircraft-specific squadrons providing both newly minted aviators, experienced transitioning aviators, and other enlisted and officer personnel advanced, mission specific training prior to joining their ultimate fleet squadron.

Midway Museum

Social Life

All work and no play makes for a dull fighter pilot.

While in replacement F-4 training with VF-121, I concurrently enjoyed a fabulous social life in Southern California as a young bachelor. Like many of my colleagues of the time, we roughly followed a weekly schedule that went like this:

Monday was recovery day from the week and the weekend before.

Tuesday might find some of us in La Jolla at the Coach Room, as I believe it was called.

Wednesday was famous and later infamous for the junior officers’ club called the WOXOF Room. Hordes of young ladies would easily go through security at the NAS Miramar main gate to be there. There also would be some ‘lively’ entertainment there also but not dancing among the patrons. [The Top Gun scene of Tom Cruise and Kelly McGillis first meeting takes place in the WOXOF room.] Later some went to Tugs in Pacific beach for Mexican food or cheap spaghetti dinner night at the Pennant in South Mission Beach..

Thursday one absolutely had to go to Bully’s in La Jolla to see and be seen. They had the best prime rib in town, no reservations, a wait to get in, and elbow-to-elbow standing room only while waiting for a table. But no one cared; it was "social hour". This was thee place to meet young women and for them to meet young fighter pilots. Often one’s date for Saturday night would be lined up here at Bully’s.

Friday was the night everyone went to ‘M-Crud’ as we called it, otherwise known as the Marine Corps Recruit Depot (MCRD) Officer’s Club. (This was after a quick, late afternoon fly-by at the WOXOF room at Miramar to see what was happening, before getting cleaned up and on to M-Crud.) On Thursdays and Fridays they had live bands and a large dance floor. They also had a large barroom off the dance floor. There might always be a couple hundred people there. It was great fun! But back then a guy had to wear a coat and tie to be allowed in since we were 'officers and gentlemen'.

Saturday was date night. A favorite was going down by the airport to Boom Trenchards. Upstairs was a restaurant and bar overlooking San Diego's Lindbergh Field. Tower communications were piped in to headsets on the tables. This was the inspiration for a scene toward the end in the Top Gun movie. However most all of us with our dates went downstairs. Every week they would have a singer-songwriter performing some great tunes.

Of course over the weekend there might be two or three private parties of most of the same crowd where one would attend instead of going out to the public places mentioned. When four of us rented a mansion in La Jolla, we sometimes threw parties for a couple of hundred people. We advertised by handing out flyers to girls we met earlier and liked on the beach.

On Sunday many went to the Junior Officer’s Club – the Downwinds - by the beach on NAS North Island. The fun started sometime in the afternoon with a live band playing and people enjoying themselves inside and outdoors. When the Downwinds’ band stopped playing, many of us then went to the Mexican Village restaurant in Coronado. We called it, ‘MexPac’ like our carrier cruises were to ‘WestPac’ (Western Pacific). There we ate some tacos or enchiladas and danced again to a live band. We did not stay too late as tomorrow was a Monday and we would have training flights scheduled.

And then on Monday night we stayed home and studied or rested.

[Most but not all of the places I mention have shut down long ago... but I have yet to shut down, thankfully!]

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