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Bend the Sky: Riding Shotgun in One of the Most Potent Fighter Planes Ever Built

This is the best way to lose your lunch.

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There is some trouble at the gate, but Scott Campbell comes barreling out of the hangar, verbally slashes the red tape, and whisks us across the compound, through the door beneath the "Fighter Country" sign and into the privileged sanctum of U.S. Navy pilots. Cagney couldn't have done it better.

Scott Campbell isn't constituted to put up with the malarkey of the feather-merchant syndrome, yet no strong hint of his decisiveness is held in his young face, smooth cheeks, and mild eyes. But at second glance, are the eyes something other than mild? The real hints are in the lieutenant's bars, the razorlike trouser creases, the spit-shined shoes, the gold-trimmed white saucer cap, and the olive-drab flight jacket with a half-dozen colorful unit patches arranged to best advantage. And around Campbell's trim waist is a belt clasping a buckle that says, "Scott Campbell, Fighter Pilot."

Instinct no longer says this youthful package must surely contain a youth. I am supposed to take a ride in this young man's airplane. I think I am in for a helluva ride.

The marquee at the Norfolk, Virginia, Ramada Inn has set the tone for my visit. Norfolk is a big navy town, headquarters for the Atlantic Fleet. Not long after Muammar Kaddafi's Libyan flyboys have gotten uppity and been permanently de-blipped from Middle Eastern radar screens by a couple of our flying swabbies, the marquee on the Ramada Inn reads, "Navy 2, Libya 0."

There is not much question that fighter planes and fighter pilots are much like race cars and race drivers. A foregone conclusion, perhaps.

Norfolk understands the mentality of the navy's jet jockeys, so it would probably understand racers, too. The clean-cut, mild-mannered young Scott Campbell is a flight instructor in VF-171 (for which he says the main requirement is that, "well, you can't be a dirt bag"). "VF," in the navy's infinite wisdom, stands for "Fighter Squadron," and "171" designates one unit assigned to Oceana Naval Air Station, in this case the squadron consisting of three dozen officers and 50 enlisted men training 40 or so officers and 150 enlistees for duty as replacements with the Atlantic Fleet.

The navy PR office in Washington says that by the time a pilot is fully qualified in something like an F-4, about $1 million will have been spent on his training. Now, that's not a bad investment in light of the planes' cost, but when you consider that all fighter pilots should be regarded by all the rest of us (except maybe race drivers) as solidly entrenched in mental-defective status, the investment seems a little less sound. The job of the fighter pilots, after all, and their source of greatest joy, is simply to go out and light the wick on the McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom. It is one of the most potent airplanes ever built, and this qualifies its pilots for instant admission to the Navy Home for the Brave and Giddy.

McDonnell Douglas's description of its creation is innocuous: "The two-seat, twin-jet, all-weather, supersonic F-4 Phantom is a versatile multiple-mission air-superiority fighter, fighter bomber, advanced interceptor, ground support, tactical strike, and reconnaissance aircraft." Sounds okay, we need some of those. Your all-purpose airborne plague. Any yo-yos get cross-eyed and we send over an F-4 to rearrange their furniture. The F-4 can deliver 16,000 pounds of destruction, after which it can turn around and beat a path back home at almost 1600 mph. Well . . . That boom-boom and straight-line stuff is okay, but the F-4 really is good at everything. The Encyclopedia of World Air Power describes the Phantom II as "the first aircraft which could detect, intercept, and destroy any target which came within radar range. Other types in the same era still needed assistance from surface-based radar units."

Design work on the F-4 began way back in 1953, and a drastic revision to the navy's original concept required the plane to have broad capabilities. The F-4 came out so well that McDonnell Douglas built 5057 of them for sale in the United States and licensed still more construction overseas. A peak production of 72 per month was reached in 1967, and F-4s have been used by eleven countries, the final U.S. delivery having taken place in October 1979.

Scott Campbell, now 30, was one year old when his F-4 was designed. His boss at VF-171 is Commander C. Flack Logan (yes, that's his real middle name), a California hot rodder and racer in his youth. Logan describes the Phantom as being "like a dragster. We didn't think in my day that anybody needed to have a wing on the back of a race car. We didn't know about aerodynamics. Look at the F-4 and it's got an itty-bitty tail, and look where the weight distribution is. It's a very heavy airplane; it lands solid. We call normal carrier landings 'controlled crashes.'

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"That's the design. Since then we've gotten smarter, and we do things now that have some pretty jazzy lift capabilities. The maneuvering flaps and slats, the sweeping [movable] wings, these are things that parallel aerodynamic developments in race cars.

"Low and fast," continues Logan, "is the F-4's territory. If they're shootin' missiles at you, you're down in the weeds. Some of the MiG kills in Vietnam were 50 to 100 feet off the ground. You're just trying to get where the F-4 does things that other people can't. If the other guy's trying to get rid of you, he's going to try to dust you off, but the MiGs had a problem above 580 knots or so when they were very low: their sticks got squirrelly, so you'd just stay with 'em until they started to lose it and then shoot 'em down. Or just let 'em lose it themselves.

"In a war-type ACM [air combat maneuver—dogfight, to us], after a minute either you've shot somebody down or somebody's shot you down. We're a missile shooter, don't have any guns. We shoot AIM 7s, Raytheon radar missiles with a range of about 27 miles at high altitude, but in our game we really have to see the guy before we can shoot at him."

Interjects Scott Campbell, "You can spot a medium airplane like the F-4 at fifteen miles if you've got a radar lock and your RIO [radar-intercept officer] in the back seat is tellin' you where it is. If you're just gonna spot somebody, he'd probably be no more than about five miles away. And if he's little, he could be only two or three miles away."

"All the things that you learned the bullies did in grammar school," Logan picks up again, "are the same things you want to learn as a fighter pilot. Take unfair advantage every chance you get, so you get to fly back home and they don't. While we don't have to have great brains to do our business, it takes good hand-eye coordination and reactions. And we don't get too excited about the fact that you're gonna use a lot of gas by kicking in the afterburners."

Ah, the afterburners. At a normal cruise speed of 450 knots (518 mph), the F-4 burns about 100 pounds of its kerosene-based fuel per minute. Kicking in the afterburners is like giving a big twist to the boost screw in an already overpowered race car, and with the wick fully lit, the F-4 gobbles its 17,000 pounds of fuel at 1500 pounds per minute!

The pilots live for the moment when they can put it right to the wall and go vaulting off our little sphere at any angle they deem appropriate, including straight up. At one time, the F-4 Phantom held every zero-to-altitude record in the world; it's been beaten since, but only by fractions. The Phantom's low-altitude speed record of 903 mph was unbroken for sixteen years, its absolute speed record stood at 1606 mph, it held the sustained-altitude record of 66,444 feet, and it was once the highest-flying airplane in the world, zooming to an edge-of-heaven 98,557 feet, later actually leaping over 100,000. To understand this kind of performance, consider another of the Phantom's figures, keeping in mind that, fully loaded, this is a 50,000-pound airplane: the F-4 Phantom's maximum rate of climb is 49,800 feet per minute! So tweak it up and you get 830 feet per second, 6.36 seconds per mile, nine and a half miles per minute, straight up.

You know the pilots in the Ready Room have got to be loony. One 427 Corvette owner, a beady-eyed specimen of 37 years by the name of Sidner, admits to being a little boy inside, but says he's 171's oldest regular pilot and claims to need a cane and a Seeing-Eye dog to find the planes.

At the far end of the Ready Room, above the coffee cups and the door to the lockers, is the squadron's motto, spelled out in wooden letters: "Fight to fly, fly to fight, fight to kill ." The word "kill" is lettered in red.

The F-4 pilots have a running feud with the jocks who fly the newer, more sophisticated Grumman F-14 Tomcats. In some modes the F-14s perform better, but their complication means they require much larger crews (the F-4s themselves require 18 to 24 men to delve into their 199 external access doors, their 3000-psi hydraulic control systems, and their six fuselage fuel cells and two "wet wing" cells in the wings' torque boxes). The F-14s are also less cost efficient than F-4s, partly because of their astronomical prices but also because of their tendency to electronic bugs and downtime.

"It's hard to believe," remarks Flack Logan, "but the F-4 is the throwaway model now. They were $6 million a copy in the Sixties. The newer F-14, F-15, and F-18, well, they've got a lot of bells and whistles and they're almost $30 million. But the F-4 will still give you a great ride."

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With these words, I am ushered into the locker room to climb into the Nomex and accouterments of navy flight gear, each piece having been selected to fit me. When I emerge, the pilots present me with some nifty patches, my own personalized navy wings to be Velcroed to the front of my flight suit and kept as a souvenir, and a cigarette lighter. I don't smoke, but I will keep this lighter. On one side it says, "Phantoms Phorever," and on the other side it says, "Better a sister in a whorehouse than a brother in F-14s."

We laugh a lot, but it occurs to me that maybe they are giving me these mementos now because they figure I may not be able to enjoy them later.

I've had a day of training up at Norfolk in safety procedures, the high-altitude chamber, parachute techniques, and the ejection-seat simulator, but I am not overjoyed at the thought of turning a knob beside my left knee in case I have to eject both myself and Scott Campbell. He offhandedly explains that this may be necessary while flying at high speed at low level if we suffer a bird strike. A bird strike in the canopy would, at the least, critically injure the pilot, but he would instinctively try to pull back on the stick and send us straight up, converting airspeed into altitude, giving me time to rotate the ejection selector so that he would be blown out, too.

Sweet mother.

Still, walking out to the plane in that peculiar crotch-harness swagger, I feel like Steve Canyon, and the same calm that I always feel once I settle into a race car comes over me. Hey, the Wright brothers, Eddie Rickenbacker, Jimmy Doolittle, Chuck Yeager, Smilin' Jack, me. The Right Stuff! Sheeit, this's easy.

I have clambered up on top of these two engines because that's all a Phantom is, is two engines, General Electric J79-GE-10 afterburning turbojets, weighing 3630 pounds apiece and shrieking out 35,700 afterburning pounds of thrust. The ground crew is strapping me to the Martin Baker ejection seat as I scan the bunged-up instrument panel. I hope the rest of this airplane is in better shape. The panel separates me from good old Scotty, up there in the driver's seat with about 100 doodads to keep him occupied. And me back here without even so much as a stick to grab hold of if we have a flat or the hood blows open or whatever it is that goes wrong in an F-4. Just me and my camera and all sorts of things marked in hornet-stripe, touch-under-penalty-of-death yellow and black paint. The cockpit, while smaller than that of the average car, is livable if not cushy. My surprise that the seat offers no lateral support will soon fade, since all the loading in a jet fighter is straight down your spine. The blood tries to run out of your head at warp speed, so the trick to avoid passing out is to strain your muscles in a kind of sustained Primal Grunt, building blood pressure and thus maintaining at least a trickle of blood flow to the brain and eyes. The light pressure suits we have on today will only help offset about one g of loading. As he fires the whistling, oh-so-smooth engines, old Scotty still hasn't broadcast exactly how many gs he's planning to put my steak-and-eggs high-protein breakfast through. Then we're moving toward the broad taxiway.

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The built-in earmuffs in the helmets will prove to keep the roar of the airflow around the canopy to about the sound level you'd hear in a 727. I am just settling back for the rigors ahead when Scott Campbell's voice comes into my helmet with the news that his radios are not working right, so I'm elected by default to do all the switching of channels that will keep us in touch with the ground.

I have already exercised the hydraulic pushrod that closes our dual canopies and we are rolling smoothly past a big sign that reads, "Tomcat Alley." I think of NBC's Tom Brokaw, who went up for a ride in an air force F-16 and found it so astounding he peed his pants. Upon landing, he climbed down, fanned out his trousers for the cameras to see, and said, "I couldn't help it."

Lined up along the runway, the navy F-14s look mantislike, slim and long, distinctly bent near the bulging eyes of the canopy. Our F-4 is more muscular, overripe with malevolence, a great, strapping tube of vile defiance of the laws of physics and man, an overblown blackjack of an airplane.

My mind flashes back to the quick one-day orientation aboard the carrier U.S.S. America : first the arresting-hook landing, then the tour of the huge ship, and finally being allowed the special privilege of seeing flight-deck operations right there where the wing tips are slicing past your earmuffs five steps away at 130 mph, just as if you've been allowed to stroll out onto the runway at La Guardia. And there was the view down the spidery catwalks directly into the gray maw of the cold Atlantic, rising with a rumble from its watery thicket to meet the ship. Then in departing there'd been the fierce, almost orgasmic exhilaration of being flung airplane and all off the catapult in one stunning shot, zero to 150 mph in two seconds, knowing by heart the sound that was clanging through the ship as the giant steam-operated piston activated the catapult. I know it because I'd tried to sleep a few feet under the sound all through Night Ops, lying wide-eyed six feet under the afterburner blasts building up for destiny's leaps into the darkness, the pilots tied electronically to the dim control room and to the Air Boss in the ship's tower. The radar and computers there light up the panorama of screens with crisp, brilliantly colored displays that enable the controllers to blow electronic marvels like F-14s off the catapults and out to dogfights several hundred miles away, shooting down other planes in the process, and to return them to landings on the ship without ever having a pilot aboard.

I snap back to the present. My headset is talking again: "Two-One-Five, clear to take off on the right."

Campbell: "Okay, here we go. . . . That's military power, now we put in the afterburners. . . . "

Oh Jee eezzussss!!!

I hope I didn't say that out loud. I've been for rides as insanely fast as David Hobbs' McLaren BMW back in the days when it was a match for any Porsche 935 and fast enough to give me a whole new window of reference, but it simply has no bearing on what's happening in the F-4. There are none of the familiar points of reference you have in the car, corners and hills and guardrails and trees and bridges, stuff you can assimilate even at hyperspeed because it's familiar territory. The Phantom takes all that away and throws it down the supersonic laundry chute. Here we are sitting on the ground. zzZZSSHAP! Here we are at 5000 feet. This is not the Friendly Skies. The debauched cackle of a zealot copes over the headset. This is going to be the longest hour of my life.

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"Here we are at 15,000 feet," Campbell chortles. "Airspeed up here is no big deal."

"Okay. What do you reckon the highest is we'll go?" say I with the best syntax my lagging brain can muster.

"Oh, I dunno," says good old Scotty. "How high do you wanna go?"

"Whatever we've got time for," I croak bravely.

I pray that the takeoff has used three-quarters of the fuel. We cruise south and put in a brief appearance over Kitty Hawk in North Carolina (and what would the Wright brothers think of us now?).

Campbell has us at about 15,000 feet and his zealot's brain is setting us up for a low-level run, one of those treetop jobs where you should apply for work with Weyerhaeuser. I realize from Campbell's patter that we are over a place called Dare County. No comment.

He rolls the airplane over and we go blasting down to meet the ocean. He is delicately easing the stick through fractions of its approximate inch of travel, his arm braced in his lap against the g-forces. He is saying, "Okay, we'll go down here, uh, we're at 400 feet, 200 feet, now about 150, there's a little fisherman over here on the left. . . . "

All I see is streaking blue water, then a flash of some poor jerk's face. By my reckoning, he should have been blown out of the boat. Campbell is unconcerned, so I make conversation as the forest ripples toward us: "I see what you meant about the stability."

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"Oh, yeah, it's very stable . . . Fighters have to be inherently unstable so that they can be very responsive to your touch, but the F-4 is not so unstable that you can't fly it under control. Okay, here's the target-run-in line, we'll run on down. There'll be a little turbulence."

What? Wait a minute, we're already at 150 feet, and these trees are not short!

"There's about 600 knots," his living-room voice says.

There is a ditch cut deep between the trees and we are going down into it. It is exactly like Cinerama—call it Theater in the Rut—and instead of narrowing down to a tunnel, my vision collects the periphery and the flickering trees, and when I swivel my head to look across into the forest 30 feet away on each side, I am surprised to see the details, the texture of the pattern, the floss of the undergrowth, the light and shadow on the bark . . . visible at 690 mph, 50 feet off the ground. We are down below tree level, surrounded by timber everywhere except directly in front and directly behind, and the turbulence is doing a pitty-pat, linebacker head-slapping routine on the beak and wings of the Phantom.

Then, with the gentleness that always accompanies his first move of the controls, Scott Campbell lifts the gray malevolence, call-number Two-One-Five, up out of the funnel, rolls it over, and aims the canopy back down into the ditch where the 600-gallon belly tank was a moment ago. We are hanging upside down at almost 700 mph, close enough to comb our hair with underbrush, and Campbell is reciting, ". . . and there's the target, aaanndd we're outta here. . . ."

As suddenly as death could come, Campbell has bent the airplane against the sky, and I grunt and strain as violently as I ever have when retching with the flu, only now I am straining to hold everything in and to keep the blood in my head as the airplane tries to press it all into my toes, squeezing my legs as if I'm crushed in the arms of a hydraulic giant. I am aware that my noise is awful, desperate. My God, how can surface area forced against thin air produce this kind of violence? Lord help us. But I just say, "That's amazing. What kind of g-loading do you suppose we've pulled so far?"

"About three and a half."

What? Izzatall? That makes me mad and suddenly I want to tell him to deliver the whole works, but he does it without prodding. We make a run on a half-sunk target ship, skimming 20 or 30 feet off the water and slingshotting around the listing bridge as if possessed by an aberration of physics, and hurtle up into the sky flash! and rendezvous with another F-4 to fly tandem for a while at about 500 mph with our wing tips overlapped. Then the other plane becomes the bad guy, we split off to about three miles, arrow straight at each other at a 1200-mph closing speed, close the last mile in three seconds, miss a head-on ( zZHEW!! ) by maybe 100 feet, and then we chase him all over the sky. Now, oh yes, now I know what g-loading is. The airplane swivels and rolls and barrels after its prey, my eyes blinking sweat, trying to coordinate the whirling horizon with Down and the other F-4 with Where We're Going , praying they're not the same place.

I am groaning, grunting uncontrollably now, my body crushing the sound out under the pressure like a bellows as we plunge through a full-afterburner turn, a full circle and then another, the Phantom howling, the world as I know it ceasing to exist, and there can never again be a sky like the one I grew up with that only produces rain and snow and sunshine and smog, a sky having nothing to do with torture and fading vision and the very breath squeezing out of you, and there can never again be anything in me that will claim even the whisper of understanding of things I really know nothing about. My face is pulling away from my skull and pellets of sweat are escaping the skullcap under the Star Wars helmet and pelting my flaming cheeks above the oxygen mask like flecks of icy sleet, shards of dry ice. EeeEEUUNNGGHHH! Yes, but yes, we are winning! Kill the sonofabitch you Scott Campbell navy lieutenant or I'll never forgive you!!

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Then we are behind the guy's wing line and we have won. I breathe in gasps and fight the rush of queasiness. This dogfight was not artificially staged; there were no planned moves. Campbell says we have pulled a sustained six and a half gs several times.

My voice sounds like a winding-down Victrola, cracking and dragging. But we are not done. There are Immelmanns and loops and barrel rolls, and dives that make the ears pop like machine-gun fire, and racing down across the water to beat a bread truck out to Cape Hatteras, and then the old "How high?" question comes up again, so he stands the Phantom on its tail and bangs in the afterburners, and we fire up to 45,000 feet so fast I can't even read the single-digit numbers on the altimeter roller that indicate hundreds of feet. He cuts everything off. We settle to zero airspeed as he neutralizes the controls, and we fall over with a pop!pop! as the dead engines indulge in compressor stalls and then get themselves fired again with the growing rush of air through their turbine blades. And, oh yeah, I forgot to mention that somewhere out over the water a while back we went supersonic, Mach 1.2, available in the flash of an eye even with extraneous weapons-carrying claptrap hanging under the wings and the big belly tank mooning down like Junior Johnson's belly with a little wind-tunnel work.

I've confirmed what I believed going in, that fighter planes and fighter pilots are like race cars and race drivers, tooth for nail, right down the line, fast and calm and desperate all at the same time, sweating bullets and living somewhere out front because they don't dare get behind. And fighter planes have rear-view mirrors just like cars, so you can make sure that there's nothing gaining on you.

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The F-4 Phantom is rated for a maximum descent rate on landing of 25 feet per second (think about that one for a second), and Campbell dumps us back with a ka-bang! onto Oceana NAS in best carrier-landing fashion. But when he kicks in the afterburners in a classic touch-and-go and flings us back into the sky when I thought we were going to stay down, my stomach says enough!

For this, I award Lieutenant Scott Campbell and VF-171 my first-ever You-Guys-Make-Me-Sick Legion of Merit with Upchuck Clusters and Special Technicolor Yawn El Grande Award. But I also give Scott Campbell, VF-171, and the Department of the Navy special thanks for one of the greatest experiences of my life. I would kill to be able to fly one of these F-4 Phantoms and to have it waiting on my back-yard airstrip, fueled and armed and ready to outrage the neighbors, the ones with the noisy motorboats and snowmobiles.

But the best part has been finding out that it was the admiral's oxygen mask that I emptied my steak and eggs into. Maybe if we just don't mention it . . .

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f4 phantom fuel consumption


McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II

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McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II Specifications

f4 phantom fuel consumption

During the Vietnam War, the McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II would prove to be a better interceptor than the Convair F-106, a better ground-attack plane than the Republic F-105 (although loyal "Thud" drivers will protest this), a superb Wild Weasel defense-suppression aircraft, and a dogfighter able to use its power and energy to defeat more maneuverable opponents. The Phantom undertook reconnaissance and flew as a Fast FAC; its nighttime sorties in Laos were hair-raising in their danger.

The McDonnell Douglas (after the 1967 merger of the two corporations) Phantom became the principal fighter for the United States in Vietnam, serving the Air Force, Marines, and Navy. The North Vietnamese were equipped with capable MiG-21, MiG-19, and MiG-17 Soviet fighters, all of which proved to be difficult opponents under the rules of engagement of the Vietnamese War. However, the lightweight, maneuverable MiGs could be tamed by F-4s when using energy-maneuverability tactics, in which they traded speed and energy for altitude, enabling them to fight in the vertical plane.

The Phantoms' missiles (Sidewinders and Sparrows for the most part) had been designed for antibomber operations, and were difficult to use in a swift-turning dogfight. The problem was alleviated with minigun packs attached as pods, and was solved altogether when the McDonnell Douglas F-4E arrived on the scene with an internal gun.

The McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II had its faults, including smoky engines and a hazardous, often fatal, stall-spin characteristic. Maintenance man-hours were high, and cockpit ergonomics were poor. In spite of all this, the F-4 was the best fighter in the West until the arrival of its successor, the McDonnell Douglas (now Boeing) F-15.

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Wingspan: 38 ft. 4-7/8 in.

Length: 63 ft.

Height: 16 ft. 6 in.

Empty Weight: 29,535 lbs

Gross Weight: 61,651 lbs

Top Speed: 1,485 mph

Service Ceiling: 62,650 ft.

Range: 1,885 miles

Engine/Thrust: Two General Electric J79s/17,900 lbs each

Armament: One M61A1 20-mm cannon; various combinations of AIM-7 Sparrow and AIM-9 Sidewinder missiles

Ordnance: Up to 12,980 lbs of ordnance on four wing pylons

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