Solo Flight

YF 4J 151473

Sliding the throttles outboard, I eased them further forward into the afterburner range. I heard the boom as they lit and began to stage, a quick glance at the burner can gauge showed the exhaust nozzles opening all the way, releasing the full 35,000 pounds of thrust generated by the J-79-8 turbojet engines. The gear folded beneath me as I reached over and raised the flaps; aerodynamically clean, the F-4 Phantom II flashed across the beach of Naval Weapons Test Center Point Mugu. Deselecting burner, I lowered the nose to 20 degrees above the horizon and settled in at 300 knots for the climb to 20,000 feet. Once level I turned south and unhooked my oxygen mask letting it dangle from my helmet.

Now level, I had time to relax. To my right the Pacific ran to the horizon, on my left the southern coast of California. A fresh sun hung over the mountains inland. Scanning from left to right as I cruised toward my target, a thought entered my consciousness.

They are not going to let me do this much longer.

Solo Flight: it is uniquely limited to one class of human, one sub group and closed to all others. Pilots; and only pilots, know the unbridled joy of flying alone. My first solo in the mighty T-28B Trojan is a blur in my memory. I remember many soloists launching into a bright, and clear Saturday morning. We paraded around south Texas and then returned in a long line to do touch and goes at NAS Corpus Christi. Only fleeting memories remain, snippets of what should have been a momentous flight.

T-28

More memorable was my first aerobatic solo flight in the T-28B. Much more sure of myself, with a whopping additional 5 hours, I charged into the morning cocksure with no fear. I remember it well. The T-28 had a very old coffee crank type ADF radio that was supposed to be for navigation, we used it for Rock and Roll. I have very clear memories of doing aerobatics over the beach as the Rolling Stones blasted Satisfaction into my head-phones, supplied by an AM radio Station in Corpus.

T-2C_lands_on_USS_Eisenhower_(CVN-69)_in_1987.JPEG

More solo flight came in the T-2C Buckeye; I never understood the name for the T-2, the designer must have been an Ohio State Alum. First jet solo, first carrier landings were also solo. Certainly I remember rolling out behind the USS Lexington for the first time. My initial thought was:

Wow it is small!

But my most memorable T-2 solo was when life long friend and Marine extraordinaire, Sean’ MacDonald and I launched together, alone. This potential aerial disaster, came about because the Blue Angels were about to practice and the Duty Officer wanted us out and back, by the time they were scheduled to go. No other flights had enough time to complete, thus there would be no airborne adult supervision. He looked at us and yelled launch ’em, and added as we ran out:

Don’t be stupid!

Try as we might not to; we complied with that last order, because it was so hazy we could not find each other for our personal grudge match. Now, I often think about how many times we must have near missed each other, rolling and tumbling around the same patch of Pensacola sky.

VT 21 division

Much of the TA-4J Skyhawk syllabus was flown alone. Solo flight became routine. As young Student Naval Aviators we didn’t appreciate it. Most of us were headed to multi-crewed aircraft where we’d train and fly with Naval Flight Officers. I always enjoyed flying with other guys; in the EA-6B Prowler we always had a built in card game or instant party with a crew of 4. And yet I often longed to climb into the stars at night by myself, alone with the majesty of nature.

I started this article on solo flight in the F-4 Phantom, a two seat aircraft, how does that equate to solo flight? In VX-30 our venerable Phantoms often had test gear in the back cockpit, so we configured all of them for solo flight by moving a few circuit breakers and the IFF up front. Thus we were able to do what most Phantom pilots never were; fly the F-4 solo.

On that particular day I was 39, closing out my Naval Aviation career and heading to a new one in the airlines. I knew my solo days were almost over….but I was going to enjoy it in the here and now, at least for a little while longer.

On 13 August, 1998: in aircraft 152970 an F-4N Phantom II, after my wife Laura cleared me for take off, I flew my last flight in the Navy. It was a solo.

leland

Read more on Naval Aviation and air combat exploits in the Aviators Series:

#3 ENDGAME #2 Vengeance #1 Project Seven Alpha

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13 comments on “Solo Flight
  1. Andrew says:

    Chip:

    I’ve always relished the idea of standing a plane on its tail and heading straight up – notwithstanding the time I scared the crap out of myself attempting power-on stalls solo in a C-152. I guess I mean in a plane meant to handle it appropriately.

    ~Andrew

  2. Andrew;

    It really was fun; I only miss it when I breath! I used to give Test Pilot candidates whats called a Qual-EVAL. Basically you give them a one hour cockpit brief and off you go! Most Navy Phantoms had no controls in the back, so some of the flights got…interesting.

    The TPS guys at Edwards “felt our pain” and let us come over and fly anything they had (front seat). I flew the F-15: on take off-550 indicated by the numbers and then pulled it straight up. At 17,000 I pulled it onto its back and leveled out, still doing 350 indicated. That was a ride!

  3. Ron Rapp says:

    You lucky dog! I really love the Phantom. It’s kind of like the A-10, so ugly it becomes beautiful. From the black smoke to the piercingly loud sound of the engines, it announces its presence in a big way. And it’s sort of the culmination of the raw flying era, before electronics and stability control computers became a required middle-man between the pilot and the control surfaces.

    Great post!

    • Ron;
      I was lucky; right place right time to fly a lot of classic aircraft. Once you came to terms with the fact that the Phantom was always trying to kill you, you were on your way to a new plateau of aviating. You could actually use its quirks in a fight. chip

      PS: the shriek actually came from by-pass doors under each engine compartment.

  4. Mark L Berry says:

    Cool story Chip. You are Top Gun in my book.

  5. Eric Auxier says:

    Echoing what Ron said: so ugly it’s beautiful! Jealous, jealous jealous!

    And a great idea for a wonderful addition to our Blogging in Formation series: not your FIRST solo, but your LAST…and most memorable. Thanks for sharing the adventure!

  6. Karlene says:

    Chip, What an amazing solo career. Something that most of us would and could only dream about. Thank you so much for sharing your amazing experience. I’m sure you miss it. But you’ll always have the memories.

  7. Brent says:

    Great read Chip! You really make it feel what it must have been like to sample that kind of equipment.
    Brent

  8. Rob says:

    Chip, it’s crazy how fighter pilots think alike! I just read your post and saw that we both started out talking about an AB takeoff. That’s something an even smaller subset of humanity will experience. I’m just glad I don’t have to land on a carrier…solo or otherwise!

    • Rob;
      You’d love landing on the boat…day time anyway, night time not so much. The first trap-cat-trap ruins you for roller coasters for life tho. At night the key is to look out side as little as possible, haha.