Class Of 1964 USAF Academy

My Libya F-4 Ejection

by Joe Rodwell

One of the most “eventful” experiences in my life was the day I ejected from a F-4 Phantom while firing rockets on a bombing and gunnery base in the Libyan desert in Feb. of 1968 (age 25).

The F-4 Phantom was a supersonic fighter that was (fortunately) designed by the U.S. Navy in the late 50s. Its top speed was Mach 2.5 ) at altitude (generally above 40,000 feet), which equates to something around 1,900 miles per hour, and although the airplane went that fast, I probably only experienced that speed on 5 occasions, all of them “test flights.” It was a well-designed airplane, and was very capable in a variety of missions from nuclear to conventional (firing rockets, dropping non-nuclear bombs, firing 20mm cannon guns) to air defense (we could “paint” airplanes on our radar up to 200 miles away), including the capability of firing Sparrow missiles while chasing or meeting enemy aircraft head-on.

In England, I flew out of the 78th squadron at RAF Woodbridge. On that base, we had a sister squadron of F-100s whose HQ were at RAF Wethersfield (40 miles N. of London). Our HQ was as RAF Bentwaters, 2 air miles and 7 driving miles (remember, this is England!) from Woodbridge. Our primary mission was being prepared to drop nuclear weapons in the Soviet-bloc Eastern European countries, mostly airfields. I have previously explained the nuclear format.

Most of the targets I “sat” when I was on nuclear alert (every 4th day for 3 ½ years) were in northern Poland, and our flight profile was to fly at high altitude to generally the Denmark area (to save fuel), then to descend to the lowest altitude possible over the Baltic Sea, and to fly “rooster tail low” over the water for several miles before we approached the land, which led to our targets, generally Soviet-occupied airfields in N. Poland. It’s much easier flying low over land because there are better references than over water. Occasionally we would fly the rooster tail profile over the sand dunes in Libya in the same one aircraft low, one aircraft high, profile, but the land references were still easier than the water ones. Once we got near our targets, we would accelerate to “drop speed,” which was 600 mph and either 200’ for a straight on drop, or at 275’ for what was called a LADD (I think it meant low altitude deployment something) maneuver. That maneuver called for hitting an initial point, whereupon we would begin a 45 degree nose up pull, hit the “pickle button,” on the flight stick, hold it until the weapon automatically deployed, then we would turn inverted, descend to low altitude again, light the afterburner, and get the hell out of the area. The weapon from this maneuver would descend to the airfield by using 3 or 4 parachutes, the 1st 2 would likely rip off at that speed, and would automatically explode above the runway, rendering the airfield null and void for many years (depending on the half life of the nuclear materials – real Dr. Strangelove scenarios). That’s the reason for getting the hell out of there. Most of our profiles were of the LADD type, which were more accurate that flying straight and dropping the weapon. That straight profile was dependent upon the weapon deploying a spike, which would stick in the runway. However, that profile was problematic, because at those speeds, we risked the weapon “bouncing,” which could endanger either bouncing up and hitting our plane, or a premature explosion, which would have rendered us “null and void” as well as the runway.

By the way, if war broke out and if we took off with nukes on board, we expected we would be flying on a one way mission because we did not have enough fuel to return to England, so our “recovery bases” were in Denmark and S. Norway (Sweden was neutral so we weren’t supposed to land there). The reality is that the Soviets would likely have bombed those bases anyway, so we figured, realistically, we had no place to land. For that reason, I wanted to make sure I had a successful mission, so that’s why I trained to fly so low. By flying low, surface to air missiles (SAMs) had no chance to get us, nor did AAA (Automatic Artillary batteries from Wd. War II movies) because by the time they identified us, we would be past their capability. We used to practice our nuclear deliveries primarily in 2 places – 1. Not far from our base in an area called “The Wash,” which was a body of water not too far from one of Queen Elizabeth’s castles, and 2. A base, RAF Jurby, which was off the coast of the Isle of Man. Probably more than ½ of the missions I flew in England were of the “low level” variety. In southern England, which was quite populated, we were restricted to 250 feet above the ground, which is pretty high, and also pretty easy to navigate. However, in N. England, and particularly Scotland, neither of which were populated, we were able to fly pretty much “on the deck,” which might have been 10 – 25 feet above treetop level, although there are few trees in Scotland, mostly bushes.

We did not have an air defense mission, so we did not practice intercepting enemy aircraft.

We had to be “conventionally qualified” to be able to provide what was called Close Air Support to the Army in W. Germany in the event of a non-nuclear war breaking out in Europe. For this mission, we would be required to drop conventional bombs (including napalm) or fire rockets or fire guns. However, the gun-firing, even though we practiced it, was not particularly feasible, because the F-4C airplane, which I flew, did not have an internal gun capability. We could only fire a gun from an external pod underneath the center of the airplane, and the airplane was not particularly maneuverable with this pod attached. The F-4E models had internal guns with much better capability. So, we had to practice our conventional delivery techniques, and mostly that took place at Wheelus AB, Libya, about 10 miles E. of Tripoli, right on the Mediterranean Sea. Libya is basically in the Sahara Desert, so the weather was nearly always sunny and clear forever. We spent 2 weeks in Libya every 3 months, and it was really fun flying, because we dropped practice bombs, fired “practice” rockets, and fired the Guns from a pod. We normally flew 2 times a day while there, and the flights lasted about an hour or so, so it was fun flying. Here’s the profile for dropping the practice bombs (this will make sense later when I explain what happened causing me to eject, even though it was a rocket pattern). About 75 miles SW of Tripoli was the actual bombing & gunnery range. It consisted of 2 ranges, which each were shaped like the Target Store logo, on called the right range, the other the left range, and both were open simultaneously. We flew in 4 ship formation (4 airplanes) to and from the range, and on the range we flew a rectangular pattern, with 1 airplane in each quadrant of the rectangle. The lead in line to the targets were in a southerly direction, and the winds were almost entirely out of the west, greater at altitude generally than at ground level (this, too, will come into play later).

The dive bomb pattern began at 10,000 feet above the ground. We would roll in either right (right range) or left at a 45 degree nose low dive angle, starting at 350 knots (just under 400 mph), with speed increasing dramatically as a result of the nose low dive angle. We were supposed to drop the practice bombs (they probably weighed 50 #) somewhere between 3,000 feet and 2,500 feet above ground and then immediately recover the airplane and take it in a 45 degree nose high climb. Each range had a Range Officer, an Air Force officer who would give us our “scores” (distance from the target), for example, “50’, 1 o’clock,” and we had to go no lower than 1,000 feet above the ground, or we would be “violated,” and our score would be null and void. When I flew in the back seat (which I did on the day I ejected), I never liked the dive bomb pattern because it was so violent (from 45 degrees nose low to 45 degrees nose high). I also never trusted anyone I ever flew with in my life, so I was always ready to recover the airplane, which I probably had to do on 5 occasions, twice because the pilot in the front seat blacked out because his G-suit over inflated and the idiot plugged it in a 2nd time (another story for another day)!

The rocket pattern began at 7,500 feet above the ground. We would roll in at a 30 degree nose low angle, starting again at 400 mph and were supposed to fire at 2,000 feet above the ground, and again recover by 1,000 feet. The rocket pattern was comfortable because it was much less violent than the dive bombing, and you had to fly the airplane more smoothly if you wanted a good rocket score. When we fired guns, we started out closer to the ground and faster (I don’t remember specifics) and it was fun because the gun fired 6,000 rounds per minute, although we never carried that many rounds. Each burst was probably 5-7 seconds and we probably made 3 gun passes each time out. Again, however, since we had to carry a gun pod, we didn’t do this very much.

A fighter airplane is flown by a flight stick that controls the ailerons (located on the wings) and the elevators (the “wings” on the tail of the airplane) – the ailerons control left or right turns and the elevators (as the name implies) up and down movement. The rudder controls are located on the airplane’s floor, similar to the brakes and accelerator pedals in a car. The rudder controls a motion called yaw, which will be important later.

Now, a brief background on the fellow I flew with on my “fateful” day. Bob McConnell was a West Point graduate, Class of 1962. Out of pilot training he got B-52s (we called them “many motors”). Upon graduation from pilot training, we chose airplanes based on our class ranking from Pilot Training. The people at the top of the class generally got the fighters, the people in the middle got trainers or transport aircraft, then came the tankers, then came the bombers, for the people at the bottom of the class. So, I was fearful of flying with Bob from the beginning, and it got worse, starting with our first flight. I liked Bob very much personally, but I did not respect him as a pilot, which was healthy on my part, as will become evident.

Our squadron’s philosophy was to pair the bad “front-seaters” with the good back-seaters and vice-versa. So, when I got assigned to Bob, knowing he had flown B-52s (in Vietnam, by the way, although they actually took off and landed in the Phillipines), well, you can do the Math. My right hand was always around the stick (not touching it), my left hand above the throttles, and my feet very close to the rudder pedals. I don’t remember what our first mission was, but I do remember we had a severe crosswind when we landed. Not knowing at all Bob’s capability, I instructed him how to land in a crosswind, which is to pull the stick all the way back and to put top aileron into the wind (that’s technical, but forget it). The worst thing a pilot can do on touchdown is to allow the stick to go all the way forward and leave it centered, which, you guessed it, is exactly what Bob did, forgetting my pre-landing instruction. Upon touchdown, the crosswind veered us to the edge of the runway, and I was forced to take control of the airplane to keep us from going off the runway, which I yelled that I was doing. We maintained our position at the edge of the runway until we slowed down. That being the first flight, I was skeptical of Bob’s flying ability from that point on.

The second incident occurred about a month later. This will be a little more difficult to explain unless you happen to be a pilot. The mission that day as Aerial Combat Tactics (ACT), what they called “dog fighting” in WW II. The purpose of ACT is to learn how to fly the airplane at maximum performance (turning and climbing/descending) and to get in a position behind the other airplane so you can shoot him down or fire a missile for a “kill.” Again, we flew this mission with 4 airplanes, broken into 2 “elements,” a lead airplane and a wingman comprising each element. We would start out at probably 450 knots (500+ mph) with 1,000 elevation difference and each element would fly head on at the other until we passed over or under the other element. Then we would maneuver the airplanes so one element would be able to be behind the other one in a position to “shoot it down” (or as Harm Rabb would say, “in your 6” for 6 o’clock position on a clock). Our airplane was #4, so we were flying off the #3 airplane who was the element leader. When an airplane is being flown in a maximum performance turn, the wingman, in this case, us, must always stay to the inside of the turn; otherwise you will “fall out of position” and not be able to protect your element leader, #3. However, flying to the inside of a turn is a very uncomfortable position because you are looking down the nose of the airplane at #3. “Weaker” pilots fly in a close trail position, which is below the lead, seemingly very comfortable, even though they are getting “out of position.” The danger in the close trail position is that, if the leader reverses the turn, you better be nifty or there will be a mid-air collision, which will mean 4 deaths or 4 ejections or a combination of the 4. So, that day, as much as I urged Bob to stay to the inside of the turn, he refused to do so, and in our 1st encounter, he reverted to the close train position, and #3 reversed and Bob froze on the stick. Since I always “near the stick” when flying with him, I took control of the airplane and yanked the stick to the full aft position, which avoided #3, but caused a high speed stall, which could have been a problem and could have led to a spin. So I yelled at him to stay off the stick and I forced the stick full forward to break the high speed stall. As soon as the stall was “broken,” I leveled the airplane and told him to take control of the airplane and “Take me home.” Bob said, “Hey, we have lots of fuel to keep flying.” I insisted he “take me home,” because, by then I was shaking uncontrollably, more so than at any other point in my life. I’m sure I said nothing more to him for the remainder of the flight, and when we got to the squadron, I requested and received an immediate meeting with the Flying Safety Officer. During that meeting, after explaining what had occurred, I told Bob Guin that not only should Bob McC not be flying fighters, but I didn’t think he should be flying airplanes at all. Bob Guin finished the meeting by saying, “If it ever happens again, let me know.” I asked him, “What happens if I’m not here to tell you?” He had no response.

This leads me to the third and final incident with Bob, thankfully. This might be a month later again – I don’t remember for sure. What I do remember is it was Feb. of 1968 and we were at Wheelus AB, Libya. We were flying a 4 ship formation on the right range, a rocket pattern. Our call sign was “Austin 4,” and we were flying downwind on the base leg (the leg before final lead in), which was in a westerly direction. Remember earlier, I said there were prevailing westerly winds. This day, at altitude, 7,500 feet, I believe they were about 35 knots (40 mph). We had to execute a 90 degree turn to the southerly direction of the lead-in line on the range and lower the nose to 30 degrees nose low. Most “normal” pilots would have started their turn to final significantly before the lead-in line because the westerly winds were at our rear. Not Bob, however! He waited until we flew over the lead-in line and then began his turn. Because he “overshot” the lead-in line, he had to put a lot of stick pressure in the turn. Also, Bob was a pilot who never flew with rudders. Had a “normal” pilot been in the position Bob was in, that pilot would have stepped on top rudder and the aircraft would have responded by flattening our toward the target, although from a clock position of 7 o’clock to 1 o’clock rather than the normal 6 o’clock to 12 o’clock position. However, Bob did not use his rudder and used only ailerons (the stick) which caused a situation called adverse yaw. I took 3 Aeronautical Engineering courses at the AF Academy, so I may not be able to explain adverse yaw in lay-man’s language. However, what it means is that a swept wing airplane’s controls work backwards under adverse yaw, which means, if you try to turn left, the airplane will turn right. So Bob, having overshot the lead in line began his severe right turn and, instead of using top rudder to straighten the nose, he used only left aileron, which caused the airplane to severely snap roll to the right. As soon as I saw the snap roll, I immediately ejected from the airplane. As an aside, I read intelligence reports from the Vietnam war regularly and found out that pilots who ejected using the Martin-Baker seat, which the F-4 had, ended up with compression fractures of their backs because their backs were not straight during ejections. Thus, every time I got into the F-4, I went through a simulated ejection, whereupon I would force my legs against the rudder pedals to straighten my back out. There were 2 ways to eject from the F-4 – one was from overhead handles which required reaching over your head – the other was a handle between your legs, which was near the stick and much more accessible that the overhead ones. So, I always practiced the lower handle when I went through the simulated ejection before each flight. Because of my regular practice, I estimate I went through the ejection sequence in less than 1 second after recognizing the snap roll. When I left the airplane the stick was full left, the nose was 45 degrees nose low, the plane was snap rolling right, and I estimate my speed was 450 mph. I estimate I left the airplane at about 4,000 feet above ground, and because I was descending at 45 degrees I estimate my parachute blossomed at 1,000 above the ground. When my parachute opened, I started to check the risers and realized I was on the left range, and a F-100 airplane was headed right at me. I said to myself, “Oh shit, I successfully ejected, and now I’m going to get run over by a F-100.” So I began “slipping” the parachute as violently as I could, which meant I turned into the wind to get out of the way of the F-100. After slipping like hell, I looked up and saw the F-100 pull off final as he was certainly called off by the Range Officer. However, because of the F-100 “incident,” I forgot to deploy my survival kit which was attached to my seat. Normally, that would have resulted in a broken leg, but because I was slipping into the wind, it did not occur. I was fortunate in that and other respects.

The flight down the parachute was quite peaceful after the F-100 pulled off, and I landed in the desert, I say, “unscoreable at 7 on the right range.” However, then I looked for the expected “fireball” of the airplane crashing in the desert. Finding none, I felt like an idiot and threw my helmet into the sand in disgust with such a violent force that I cracked it down the back, and it was never useable again. The Range Officer drove his Jeep and picked me up within 10-15 minutes – he told me Bob had recovered the airplane at about 25 feet above the ground heading toward Tunisia. I waited about another hour for a helicopter from Wheelus to pick me up. I was concerned about the ejection and no crash, but by the time I got to Wheelus, I said, “What the hell, I’m alive, and if I get in trouble for ejecting, I’m still alive.” I also remembered reading the Aircraft Manual and it stating, “If below 10,000 feet and uncontrollable, eject.” I figured that was my fallback position if I needed one, but I didn’t. However, guess who was the person to “greet” me when I landed? Bob Guin, the Flight Safety Officer. He wanted a report on the incident, and I said to him, “I told you so, and not right now.” I was taken to the Base Hospital, and they took about 25 X-rays on my back and found no problems (thanks to my regular “practice,” I suspect). I had minor ear damage as a result of going into the windstream at 450 mph, but I got over that within a week. They kept me in the Base Hospital overnight, and the next day a T-39 (corporate lear jet type) came to pick up both Bob and me. We had to face a Flying Evaluation Board to explain what happened, which was done separately. The results of the board were that I had to have 1 flight with a flight instructor and I was back on full flying status. Bob didn’t (and shouldn’t) have fared as well. That was his last flight as a military pilot, and within 2 weeks he was assigned to a non-flying position with the Army in Germany.

Reflections on the incident:

1. I’m really thankful to be alive – another GIB ejected under a similar situation about 9 months after me, and he didn’t make it. 2. I believe the reason I made it was my daily practice at the ejection sequence, because, if I had taken another second to get out, I would have been “200 pounds of goo.” 3. If you have a crappy pilot/salesman/manager/worker in your organization, get rid of him/her – it will eventually bite you in the butt, especially if there have been previous “incidents.” 4. It was a miracle that Bob recovered the airplane. There was some speculation that, because of my ejection sequence and hitting the rudder pedals, I helped him recover the plane – I have none of it – it was God’s intervention that allowed both of us to live.
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