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